The Imaginal Realm
The first time I heard the phrase Imaginal Realm was in 2002 when reading The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, as translated by J. Y. Leloup. It is a vastly important Gnostic gospel unearthed along with 12 other Gnostic Christian gospels in Nag Hammadi during an excavation in 1945. Leloup describes the imaginal realm as an “intermediate realm between the purely sensory and purely spiritual” (pg.14). As he continues:
Between these two lies a vast intermediate realm of image and representation that is just as ontologically real as the worlds of sense and intellect. But this world requires a faculty of perception that is peculiar to it alone. This faculty has a cognitive function and a noetic value that are just as real and true as those pertaining to the worlds of sense perception and intellectual intuition. It is none other than the power of the creative imagination […](Leloup, pg. 14-15).
It is this with this faculty of noetic vision and active imagination where we can encounter the Divine through image and feeling. The mundi imaginalis is a term coined by 20th century French philosopher and theologian Henry Corbin. As he writes in, Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi:
[…] between the universe that can be apprehended by pure intellectual Perception (the universe of the Cherubic Intelligences) and the universe perceptible to the senses, there is an intermediate world, the world of Idea-Images, of archetypal figures, of subtile substances, of immaterial matter. This world is as real and objective, as consistent and subsistent as the intelligible and sensible worlds; it is an intermediate universe "where the spiritual takes body and the body becomes spiritual," a world consisting of real matter and real extension, though by comparison to sensible, corruptible matter these are subtile and immaterial. The organ of this universe is the active Imagination; it is the place of theophanic visions, the scene on which visionary events and symbolic histories appear in their true reality. Here we shall have a good deal to say of this universe, but the word imaginary will never be used, because with its present ambiguity this word, by prejudging the reality attained or to be attained, betrays an inability to deal with this at once intermediate and intermediary world.
This imaginal realm is every bit as real as the waking world, though certainly more ethereal. It is in this place betwixt and between the purely sensory and purely spiritual that Mary has her vision of the resurrected Christ and can speak with him. The Imaginal Realm is where clear-sighted spiritual vision and feeling its resonant truth within the heart is possible. It is also the place where we can have and harvest our own visions for healing and treat them with the reverence, respect, and care that they deserve. This is the reality of the “mysterious and the numinous”(McConeghey, pg. 56) and is also the place where our dreams take flight.
The practice of Shamanism is the intentional traveling into this numinous world that lies hidden from common sight for most people, but yet is intimately woven into the fabric of matter and all of existence. We need to use our uncommon sight, our psychic sight coupled with the feeling sense of intuition, to navigate these visionary realms of the unseen where spirit dwells. We do this with the help of power animals and higher beings who protect and guide us on the journey to access deep healing for ourselves and others. We bring back from these journeies images and messages for the highest benefit of all concerned. Connecting with one’s power animals and spiritual helper beings during a shamanic journey allows one to open up to the healing power of the Divine in Nature and Cosmos via image and feeling. The healing power of images is not just a metaphor for me. I recognize authentic soul images as being imbued with divine, numinous energy that have the power to shift even the most stubborn of diseased circumstances.
I took an Art Education class called Image and Imagination at the University of New Mexico in 2015 taught by Linney Wix, author of Through a Narrow Window. It included the teachings of Henry Corbin, James Hillman, and other visionaries. We started off the class with a poem to ponder and create an image in relation to it. It is called Lost, by David Wagoner:
Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
This poem speaks to me about the intimate communication we can have with the consciousness of Nature and the healing it provides. We can use the active imagination to navigate the in-between space of the imaginal realm and allow spirit to infuse our souls with its healing presence.
Caring for our souls is as vital as caring for our bodies. So often both get pushed to the side as we tend to others’ needs that may seem more important than our own. Or we may get sucked down the rabbit hole of technology and look for answers to our problems in our phones rather than in our hearts. It is not selfish to care for yourself. It is an absolute necessity to make your health a priority so you can continue to be of benefit to those you love. Taking time out to rest in the Wild Soul and allowing the healing images received from the imaginal realm to seep into your being will fortify you on every level.
The imaginal realm is as real as our physical, waking realm and we can receive valuable information on the state of our health, communicate with other beings that inhabit that multi- dimensional universe, and receive instruction for our soul’s highest path and healing. We can access the imaginal realm through meditation, conscious dreaming, shamanic journeying, and artmaking, to name a few. We can use this faculty of visioning to tap into this spiritual realm and allow its pure healing waters to cool our fevered minds and cleanse our deepest wounds.
Howard McConoghey states in Art and Soul, “Connecting with the spontaneous images of the psyche is essential for the ailing world as well as for the individual. We often fail to realize that such individual work is critical for everyone” (pg. 11). In a very real way, working in the imaginal realm has helped me heal my addictions and other issues connected with childhood sexual abuse. This is why I have a desire to teach and share with others that may have similar issues, the ways that I have learned to access unique, particular, numinous, and authentic healing images. There is a quote from Clarrisa Pinkola Estes which I love. She states:
The doors to the world of the wild Self are few but precious. If you have a deep scar, that is a door, if you have an old, old story, that is a door. If you love the sky and the water so much you almost cannot bear it, that is a door. If you yearn for a deeper life, a full life, a sane life, that is a door.
The door to the wild Self and soul healing is also the door to the Imaginal Realm. They are one and the same.
Estes, C.P. Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Ballantine Books. 1995
Leloup, J.Y. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions. 2002
McConeghey, H. (2003). Art and Soul. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications.