The Heart:
Greek and Sufi Sources for the Archetypal View.
Is It a Spiritual Organ of Perception?

by Cliff Bostock
Pacifica Graduate Institute

The flames which I have in my heart would make one mouthful of both worlds.

-- Rumi

Eros makes his home in men's hearts, but not in every heart, for where there is hardness he departs. His greatest glory is that he cannot do wrong nor allow it; force never comes near him. For all men serve him of their own free will. And he whom Love touches not walks in darkness.

-- Plato

During the last two years, I have twice visited Mother Meera, an Indian avatar, who lives in a rural town in Germany. Mother Meera is the self-proclaimed incarnation of the Divine Mother who was Rumi scholar Andrew Harvey's (1994) teacher until two years ago. Both visits occasioned interesting phenomena associated with the heart.

A few days after my first visit, I awakened in a Paris hotel room feeling as if I had been kicked in the chest. It was a "heartache" I associated with the painful longing of love. This literal physical sensation of vulnerability and yearning lasted for more than a week. That Mother Meera was both the object and cause of this experience I had no doubt.

During my second visit about a year later, I had an even more disconcerting experience. Soon after I walked into Mother Meera's darshan room, I sensed that the air was crackling with energy. Then, as she walked into the room, I experienced a spontaneous experience of my chest opening and my heart flying into the air and bursting into flames. My heart spun before my open eyes, becoming a flattened disc with lotus-like petals of fire -- a variation on the ancient Hindu symbol of the heart chakra. During subsequent encounters with Mother, I experienced profound energetic responses throughout my body.

I had two responses to these experiences. First, they were familiar. The experience of my heart "opening" in a sensation of painful longing wasn't unusual to me. In fact, I have lived much of my life in that state of longing and I was aware the longing was intensified by my resistance to surrender to Mother Meera. The experience of my heart bursting from my chest was also familiar -- not as a content but as a process of the imagination. As someone who spent most of his childhood writing and making art and has made his imagination his adult career, I am used to "seeing" with the faculty of the imagination.

But my second response opened an issue for me with which I have wrestled and undertake resolving again in this paper from a cultural and historical perspective. When I told friends who were in Germany with me of my second experience, they referred to it as a "vision." This surprised me. It had always been my assumption that a vision had the solidity of objective reality. They, all involved in energetic healing, explained that the visionary was experienced quite differently from physical reality.

As I continued to consider this, I realized that I not only resisted calling my experience visionary but that, since I saw it as an act of the imagination, I regarded it as less "meaningful" than my earlier experience of feeling deep longing as a physical sensation in my chest. This was the conclusion of my intellect. My heart itself, in bursting from my chest, told me something quite else. If the original "heart opening" was a longing to be joined with Mother Meera, it makes sense, at least metaphorically, that it would burst from my chest to achieve that intimacy. One might even argue that, if the heart has its own volition, it would do that in defiance of my mind's resistance.

A first question forms out of this experience: Can an organ of the body not normally identified with the senses, the heart, have both a biological and a perceptual function?

For James Hillman the answer, of course, is "yes." His book The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World is an argument for the restoration in psychology of a classic aesthetic sensibility, aisthesis, which he argues is a process of the heart responding imaginatively to the anima mundi, the soul of the world. Hillman's work draws heavily on his reading of the Greeks and, perhaps even moreso, on Henry Corbin's exegesis of esoteric Islam, particularly as it was taught by the Sufi scholar Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), a contemporary of the ecstatic poet Rumi's.

There is, however, a deep prejudice in Hillman's work that demands that his own sources be examined. I refer to his distrust of the spiritual, particularly its transcendent aspect. "Soul is imagination...a confusion and a richness both," he writes, "whereas spirit chooses the better part and seeks to make all one. Look up, says spirit, gain distance, there is something beyond and above and what is above is always superior." (Hillman, 1989, p. 122). It wasn't surprising that during a recent visit to Pacifica Graduate Institute, Hillman referred to Mother Meera as likely being in a state of inflation .

So, a second question for examination arises: Can the heart, if it is an organ of perception, meet both a soulful and a spiritual role? (In using the two terms "soul" and "spirit," I follow Hillman's own distinction. The soul is intimately connected to lived experience in the world; the spirit is concerned with the transcendental.)

Hillman also distrusts the "feeling heart:"

By heart I do not mean the sentimental subjectivism that came as a Romantic consequent of the loss of aisthesis. I am not talking of body-feelings in a simplistic psychology -- whatever I feel is good; deep down inside my heart, I'm okay; what comes from the heart is good per se. Let us keep to one side these more familiar meanings of heart: the pump-and-muscle idea, the Augustinian- confession idea, the religious-conversion idea, the Valentine-love idea....Let us stay with the aesthetic heart. (1981, p. 108)

So, in looking to Hillman's own sources, I raised a third question: Does the imaging heart, a psychology of poesis itself, remove itself from the field of emotions?

I went to the Greeks and to Corbin for their own answers.


The Greeks did indeed view the heart as an organ of perception. Even Aristotle, that most serious of biologists, regarded it as an organ that responded to images in the world. Plato, in the Symposium, likewise viewed the heart as that organ in which beauty was apprehended.

It is important to realize that even by the time of Plato and Aristotle, Greek mythology was widely regarded among scholars as a psychological literature as much as a religion (Campbell, 1991, p. 237). The gods, in their polytheistic representation of human moral dilemmas, were subject to enthymesis, the Greek word cited by Henry Corbin (1969) to signify "the act of meditating, conceiving, imagining, projecting, ardently desiring -- in other words, of having something present...[in the] vital force, soul, heart, intention, thought, desire" (p. 222). Heart, vital force and desire were the attributes of Eros, so it is only natural that the Greeks would chose that "god" for the object of enthymesis.

Thus it was that Socrates was able to stand at the Symposium and declare in fact that Eros was not a god at all, but a striving for what is lacking in the individual. Writes Walter Wili (1955):

[Eros for Plato] is the great intermediary -- between god and man , between beautiful and ugly, between knowledge and ignorance. Hence [Eros'] most peculiar characteristics are desire and vision. Precisely vision is the good for which Eros by nature strives. For through vision he seeks the possessor of the beautiful and becomes his lover, guiding the beloved in vision and knowledge. The road in common, leading and being led, the duality of the erotic existence, is an essential characteristic of the Platonic Eros. (p. 90)

Plato's attitude obviously has religious implications, which I'll come back to later. For the present, though, it's adequate to say that the Platonic exegesis of Eros, who penetrates the heart with his arrows, is to stimulate desire of the beautiful. In the Greek mind, "beautiful" pertains to "order" and "balance." It has nothing to do with the "pretty." This is, of course, an idea of love quite different from the Romantic one that arose centuries later (in Hillman's view, above, as the debased result of banishing the heart's visionary character).

I have included in Appendix A a photograph of a late Hellenistic statue of Aphrodite, Pan and Eros. It is, I believe, a very concrete example of Eros' role to mediate the dualities of life, to see deeply through to the inherent order of the "beautiful" (Aphrodite) and the "ugly" (Pan). Another famous image in this vein was cited by Pausanius: Eros shoots his arrow, puts down the bow and takes up the lyre. (Apollo carried the same two images.) (Vysheslawzeff, p. 28)

Clearly, then, the Greeks viewed Eros, the heart, as a vessel of the visionary, a perceptual organ capable of seeing through to the deeper meanings of the kosmos' order.

This was also true for Ibn Arabi and the Sufism of the 12th Century. As Corbin says (and Hillman quotes him), the Sufi's heart-practice of himma is the same as the Greek process of enthymesis. Indeed, the very act of personifying the gods or other imaginal beings is a work of himma, and these beings, like the beings encountered in Active Imagination, have their own autonomy, like the gods (Corbin, 1969, p. 222-223).

But in what topography are these beings, these images, called into being? (I might similarly ask where, exactly, did I see my heart when it left my chest?) The images are awakened by the heart's visionary character but they are beheld "somewhere else." Here, the second question arises.


Plato did address the question of where Eros perceived the "beauty," the ultimate order of things, in the Symposium. For him, the love of beauty triggered an immanent desire for the purest forms of beauty, to set out on the road to knowledge and truth. In the contemplation of the god, then, another process is initiated: anamnesis, his process by which one "remembers" pure thought, what is known in the pure state of the soul. In other words, one enters the field of the archetypes of "transcendent beauty" and this is located in the soul (Wili, p. 91).

Thus heart and soul are intimately connected in the Platonic view. We cannot say precisely, though, that the personification of a god, which may be an exegesis of a pure idea, is in itself spiritual. Nor can we say the world of pure ideas itself, the archetypal field, is spiritual. But in its transcendent qualities of perfect order in the Platonic view, it certainly smacks of the spiritual. Let us remember, too, that in the Phaedo he writes that those sufficiently purified by philosophy will live forever disembodied in an abode of indescribable beauty (Wili, p. 88).

The notion that heart and soul are intimately connected was also elaborated in the Romans' tale of Eros (Cupid) and Psyche, penned by Aupeleius in the second century A.D. Indeed, this is one of the world's great love stories and is often retold in the literature of Archetypal Psychology. In the story, Cupid falls in love with Psyche, soul, whose beauty causes the envy of Venus, Cupid's mother, who has actually assigned him the task of causing her to fall in love with someone ugly. The pair achieve a coniunctio of sorts after Psyche wounds Cupid. She loses him for a period and is subjected to trials, including a visit to the Underworld. The reward is eternal life among the Gods and in that, too, we could say a transcendental function is achieved when Psyche and Eros achieve the coniunctio.

It is in Corbin's translations and interpretations of Ibn Arabi's Sufism that we find the most elaborated descriptions of the heart's visionary topography. He called it the mundus imaginalis -- an "intermediate" topography that is accessed by the imagination but is not "imaginary" in the sense that is unreal. It describes a "place" in Sufism whose actual name in Arabic is Na-koja-Abad, "the land of no-where" or "the eighth climate." It is not utopian, although many of its original mystics are described as "Persian Platonists." It is the place where everything has its symbolic or corresponding analogue, expressed in light. Corbin often uses the metaphor of a mirror to describe the appearance of images there, suspended in light. (Corbin, 1995)

It would be completely wrong, though, to assume that what is perceived in mundus imaginalis is somehow less "real" than the objects perceived in the world of ordinary physicality. Indeed, like the encounter with an archetype in a dream or fantasy, the encounter with anything in mundus imaginalis will likely have "realer-than-real" intensity. Writes Corbin: "That world is the world of 'subtle bodies,' the idea of which proves indispensable if one wishes to describe a link between the pure spirit and the material body" (1995, p. 11). (The "subtle body" in Arabic jism mithali which literally translates as "imaginal body" but, Corbin (1995) warns again, not as "imaginary body." )

Clearly, for Corbin -- despite Hillman's particular reading of him -- himma, the heart's imagining process by which one reaches the mundus imaginalis, is "a pure spiritual faculty." In fact, he says that the faculty outlives the body and is transcendent. (1995, p. 15).

Corbin (1969) writes at length about Ibn Arabi's regard of the heart as a "subtle organ" that "produces true knowledge, comprhensive intuition, the gnosis of God and the divine mysteries." Importantly, he clarifies that the "heart" of the imagining faculty is itself a subtle heart body, connected somehow but in "an unknown way" to the literal physical organ (p. 221).

The only intention of the practitioner of himma, "utilizing the imaginative faculty," he writes, "is to perceive the intermediate world [mundus imaginalis], and by there raising sensory data to a higher level, to transmute the outward envelope into its truth, so permitting things and beings to fulfill their theophanic function." (1969, p. 239)

In other words, the function of the creative imagination is the revelation of divine order, much as it was for Plato.

Clearly, the separation of soul and spirit, are not neatly separated in either the Sufi or the Greek view.

My perception of my heart afire was, in this view, then in that intermediate field of the imagination Corbin calls mundus imaginalis. But it is not only appropriate in this view that it had a theophanic quality, it is inevitable. Finally, although, I did not bring specific conscious intention to the process, it is in character with the Greek view of the archetypal and transcendent god's seizure of the imaginative faculty, the heart pierced by Eros' arrow, or, in this case, by an avatar's penetrating gaze while in meditation.


What of my painful but blissful "longing," so in common with Rumi's visions of the heart burning with love for Shams, his Beloved. Arabi in fact wrote pages and pages of what Corbin (1969) calls a "metaphysics of ecstasy" and his favorite image was of shared hearts. Like Plato, Ibn Arabi divided love into types, according to Corbin (1969): "The divine Lover is spirit without body; the purely physical lover is body without spirit; the spiritual lover (that is the mystic lover) possesses spirit and body." The "quality and fidelity" of the latter, he wrote, "are contingent on his 'imaginative power.'" The mystic lover beholds "unreal beauty." (page 157).

It is important to notice, then, that as Hillman suggests, those sufferings of the heart we associate with Eros are disguises endured along the path to seeing through to the world of images. Whether in the Platonic field of pure thought or the Sufi eighth climate of light-reflected images that elevate the world with theophanic meaning, the ultimate object of the heart's desire is a field without emotion, the transcendent field beyond bliss and pain.

This is somewhat borne out, too, by the tale of Cupid and Psyche. The pains endured in the dialectic of love and the soul belong mainly to the soul, not the representative of the heart. Eros, superficially wounded, drives and sustains the quest, but it is Psyche who must journey to the Underworld and rescue beauty from darkness. Ultimately, the two are joined in the heaven of Olympus. (In Ibn Arabi's cosmology, too, the pain of love tends to be more associated with the soul's spiritual aspect.)

Of course, it is only mystics and philosophers who achieve purity of vision in the respective Sufi and Platonic views. Even Olympus is "peopled" with petty and overwhelming feelings that invade perfection. But it is precisely this eruption of feeling, in the transcendent field itself, that precipitates the quest. Eros would not have met Psyche had Aphrodite not been inflamed by jealousy.

It is in the heart, the soul's center, that the divine falls into the field of the material. Hillman is right to insist on appreciation of the soul's travails and joys but wrong to reflexively regard the spirit's initiation of that process as an ego-based inflation, a symptom. It can be that, and it often is in the spiritualized repression of both organized religion and New Age gobbledegook. One must look to the images that arise in the process and where they lead to discern their "fidelity and quality," to use Corbin's words. One must, in short, look to their mystical resonance as a dialog between soul and spirit.


Campbell, Joseph (1964). Occidental Mythology. New York: Penguin Books.

Corbin, Henry (1969). Trans. Ralph Manheim. Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Corbin, Henry (1977). Trans. Nancy Pearson. Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Corbin, Henry (1995). Trans. Leonard Fox. Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam. West Chester, PA.: Swedenborg Foundation.

Harvey, Andrew (1994) The Way of Passion: A Celebration of Rumi. Berkely: Frog Ltd., North Atlantic Books.

Hillman, James (1982). The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World. Dallas: Spring Publications, Inc.

Hillman, James (1991). A Blue Fire, Thomas Moore, ed. New York: HarperCollins.

Plato, Trans. R. Hackworth and Paul Shorey, Plato: The Collected Dialogues, Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds., Bollingen Series. New York: Pantheon, 1963.

Rumi (1990). Like This :Translations by Coleman Barks. Athens, GA.: Maypop. Walter, Wili (1955). The Orphic Mysteries and the Greek Spirit. The Mysteries: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, Joseph Campbell, ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Vysheslawzeff, Boris (1982). Two Ways of Redemption. The Mystic Vision: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, Joseph Campbell, ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Recommended but Not Cited

Hillman, James (1985). Anima: Anatomy of a Personified Notion. Dallas: Spring Publications. (Pages 17-50 on eros and feeling.)

Kenrenyi, C. (1960). Man and Mask. Spiritual Disciplines:Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, Joseph Campbell, ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sansonese, J. Nigro (1994). The Body of Myth: Mythology, Shamanic Trance and the Sacred Geometry of the Soul. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International. (Nigro's amplifications of the Eleusian Mystery cults as energies arising in the bodily organs are pertinent.)

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