Imaginal Whiffs

The art of restraint


Where the moods of one's own heart are concerned, one should never ignore the possibility of inhibition, for this is the basis of human freedom.

– From the I Ching or Book of Changes, by Richard Wilhelm

What does it mean to be truly free? We encounter so many paradoxes when we dwell deeply on this question. Entering the many-mirrored realms of paradox is a sign that we’re making progress. Which in itself is a paradox. But a paradox at the heart of the difference between a psychology that aims to cultivate imagination, and one aiming at productivity, health or even self-realisation. For if we can relax amidst the tensions of paradox, the phantoms, figures and ideas of imagination come alive. Whereas a psychology intent on ‘progress’ views paradox as an obstruction.


If we really look deeply at the implications of this previous paragraph, we may come to see the meaning of the above quotation from the I Ching. We often feel restraint to be repression and dismiss the need for it outright on that basis. But such dismissal only reveals how mechanically-minded we’ve become. It is important to acknowledge how deep our resistance is against the very idea of ‘inhibiting our hearts’. And how rooted we are in the belief that doing so is somehow unacceptable.

Restraint shapes. The word ‘yoke’ is derived from the same Sanskrit root as the word ‘yoga,’ which points to two core meanings of both words: ‘to subjugate, discipline, control’, and yet at the same time, ‘to unite, to join, to connect’. By restraining something, we open into unity with something else ‘beyond us’. Similarly, the word religion derives from the Latin religare, ‘to tie, to fasten, to bind’.

So indeed, what does it mean to be truly free? The answer touches on another core idea from Imaginal Psychology: the imagination that ‘comes alive in us’, is not us. True imagination is not self-generated. True freedom is freedom from ‘self.’ Our ‘self-image’ no longer obscures our openness to experience existence to the full. Only when we’re empty of self, are we open to be filled to the brim with, and animated by, the many powerful forces inherent to existence, beyond self.

So, restraint is a key to opening into this freedom. It leads to a build-up of energy, which touches onto that fundamental theme in alchemy: learning how to contain these energies in such a manner that they transform us into opening more deeply into beauty and power. We restrain our usual compulsions through artful pause, which opens us into a moment of receiving, so creating an opening through which a whole new way of life might slip in. And so we learn too, that core discipline of our path, the discipline of openness.