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Introducing the Imaginal

A three-part blog series by Cynthia Bourgeault

 

PencilAs many of you know, I have been breaking ground on a new book on the Imaginal Realm. While “breaking ground” may be a bit of an overstatement, I at least have a few rough sketches on the drawing board, which in the spirit of the season (thanksgiving and anticipation), I thought I’d throw out to you as trailers. These preliminary sketches have been shaped into three blogs; what final shape they will assume remains to be seen, but you can at least get a glimpse of what’s capturing my creative imagination these days. Enjoy!

 

What Is the Imaginal Realm?

It’s all too easy when exploring topics as inherently elusive as the imaginal realm to stray into abstraction. Many of the world’s sacred traditions (though not all) acknowledge something roughly analogous to what I am here calling imaginal reality; the temptation is to launch into a scholarly or technical comparison of these various systems. Is the imaginal “the same” as the Platonic “intelligible universe?” The Hindu “subtle” level of consciousness? The bardo realms of Buddhism? Maybe yes, maybe no. That work of scholarly refinement I leave to others. What I want to do here is simply to share what I’ve come to know about the imaginal realm from the perspective of “local knowledge”—i.e., from the personal experience of one who has, like Ruth in the Old Testament story, suddenly found herself catapulted by love into whole new country, whose people are now her people and whose God is now her God. I am not about to tangle with the question of whether the imaginal is true or not; it is like asking whether a hurricane is “true” when the storm is already lashing the shores of one’s heart. Rather, I am writing for those fellow travelers who have also personally tasted the validity of this realm and wish to know more about its mysterious ways and its painful but fruitful exigencies. Consider it a kind of “Musical Offering,” in the spirit of J. S. Bach, as he drew together the musical bits and pieces of a lifetime in one last—i.e., ultimate—offering of the heart.

The term “imaginal realm” has its immediate provenance in Islamic mysticism, but the idea itself—if truth be told, an archetype more than an idea—is common to all the great sacred traditions. It is traditionally understood to be a boundary realm between two worlds, each structured according to its own governing conventions and unfolding according to its own causality. In traditional metaphysical language, it is the realm separating the denser corporeality of our earth plane from the progressively finer causalities which lie “above” us in the noetic and logoic realms. Put more simply, it separates the visible world from realms invisible but still perceivable through the eye of the heart. In fact, this is what the word “imagination” specifically implies to in its original Islamic context: direct perception through this inner eye, not mental reflection or fantasy.

I say “boundary,” but the imaginal world is actually more of a confluence, for the word “boundary” suggests a separation while what is really at stake in this realm is an active flowing together. “Where the two seas meet” is a beautiful Sufi metaphor to convey the essence of what actually happens here. The imaginal realm is a meeting ground, a place of active exchange between two bandwidths of reality. That is how its cosmic purpose is fulfilled and—I will attempt to demonstrate shortly—the way in which it can be most fruitfully understood

The imaginal penetrates this denser world in much the same way as the fragrance of perfume penetrates an entire room, subtly enlivening and harmonizing. My favorite image to begin to access this admittedly mind-bending notion still comes by way of a striking vignette in Isaak Dineson’s Out of Africa, in which she recounts coming upon a beautiful snake moving through the grass, its skin glistening with subtle, variegated colors. So taken with that snake was she that her servant killed it, skinned it, and made it up into a belt for her. But to her dismay, the once glistening skin is now merely dull and grey, because all along the beauty had lain not in the physical skin, but in the quality of the aliveness. The imaginal is that quality of aliveness moving through this realm, interpenetrating, cohering, filling things with the fragrance of implicit meaning whose lines do not converge in this world alone, but at a point beyond. As the Gospel of Thomas describes it:

I am the light shining upon all things,

I am the sum of everything, for from me

Everything has come, and toward me

Everything returns. Pick up a stone and there I am,

Split a piece of wood and you will find me there.

 

Experientially, received within one’s own quiet subjectivity, it appears as an allusive aliveness, a meaning presenting itself in “glimpses and visions,” a foretaste or reminder of a higher order of being to which the human heart actually belongs and to and from which it responds, with infinite tug. The imaginal nudges us, beacons us, corrects us as we stray from our authentic unfolding, rewards us with dazzling glimpses and reassurances of that “other intensity” to which we truly belong, and in whose light the meaning of our earthly journey will ultimately be revealed, like the treasure buried in the field.

Stay tuned for part two…

Comments (20)

    1. Very powerful Cynthia …. I resonate deeply with your thoughts and words …. and experience …. I feel the imaginal at certain times as you have expressed here …. can’t wait to hear more of what you have to say and express …. thank you so much for your this !

  1. This resonates powerfully for me and I’m eager to hear more. I love “what’s really at stake in this realm is an active flowing together” – yes, yes – and “that ‘other intensity’ to which we truly belong.” I hope that “in whose light the meaning of our earthly journey will ultimately be revealed,” but I’m not sure about that. May it be so. Please keep sending dispatches from the field! Joan

  2. I imagine the imaginal realm to be what is also called quantum reality. They are two names for the zone between nonlocal infinite reality and local time bound reality, or between spiritual/God and material/human. The imaginal realm is the middle realm of particle-wave blend which is between the realm of vibrations and potentiality and the realm of particles and actuality. All three realms are always present — it’s our awareness of them that may or may not be. We are human beings, and human beings are imaginal/quantum beings, that is, we are a union of nonlocal and local, infinite and time bound, spiritual and material. Our challenge is to be aware of both realms, be aware that we simultaneously abide in both the material world and in the spiritual world, and to live accordingly. Our challenge is to be what we are.

  3. “Put more simply, it separates the visible world from realms invisible but still perceivable through the eye of the heart. In fact, this is what the word “imagination” specifically implies to in its original Islamic context: direct perception through this inner eye, not mental reflection or fantasy.”

    So happy you are describing inner ways of “knowing”.

    Gary Zukav’s Seat of the Soul——which my soul just asked me to go get from the bookshelf and reread after 15 years—-really opened up the conversation that humans have many more ways of sensing and experiencing life than we were operating. He described us as “Multisensory”—-beyond just the 5 senses—“extra” sensory perceptions that help us to navigate life in a more authentic and loving way.

    It feels like the imaginal realm you are describing is important for humans to be able to “sense”. Very grateful for all the senses you have helped awaken in our world.

  4. I feel as though I have just had a moment in some angelic school of wisdom in the estheric realm by some ancient guardian master.
    That, or my DNA energy center must’ve shifted.

    Thanks
    Will be listening intently.

  5. Cynthia, you write with the lyrical ear of a poet. You play with words as if they were musical notes that dance and swirl with the grace of ink injected into a pitcher of water. They flow around me, enveloping my heart and mind in a gauzy mist that both reveals and conceals your meaning. I let go of attempting to understand with my mind and allow them wash over me in a gentle wave, not unlike smoke from an extinguished candle that is moved by a graceful hand.

  6. Ah yes,
    Dreams are fueled by the power of the Imaginal.
    Both Abbot Joseph Boyle and Abbot
    Thomas Keating are Masters of the
    Imaginal Realm. May their mystical
    majesty continue to amaze and melt our hearts.
    Karen D’Attilo Snowmass

  7. Ah Yes….
    The passing of Abbots Joseph Boyle
    and Thomas Keating, true Masters
    of the Mystical, Magical Realm of
    the Imaginal, beckons us to follow
    them into the Christic Circle of
    infinite intimate love.
    Karen D’Attilo Snowmass

  8. I am very excited you’re writing about the ‘imaginal realm’. I first described it as another dimension permeating the four we already measure (as in Astrophysics Brane Theory there must be seven more than we can measure because of the way the universe behaves). Can’t wait to read more!

  9. “Confluence.” Most important, I would imagine. Confluence is both where connection is possible and where connection is happening. In the deepest connections among others and myself in my everyday, ordinary realm, the imaginal realm is the confluence that helps energize, enliven, and enlighten these connections. A cloud of witnesses provides a tone, a soundtrack for connecting.

  10. A grateful heart this morning just before dawn as I moved into the flow of your words. What you are describing resonates with my experience – the flow of your words (I believe) are “poetic” because, at least for me, what I have experienced in these dimensionless “locations” any words seem to limit and too narrowly contain the experience – poetic visionary language and the images you use were for me the best “doorways” into my experiential memories – like a tuning fork for the heart sound waves. Oh how I look forward to your continuing to offer more on this.

  11. What you write here connects with what I am coming to see in the early chapters of Bonaventure’s The Mind’s Road in into God and Richard Rohr’s video commentaries in the Living School materials — how the physical creation participates in and becomes sacramental revealer of the divine presence.

  12. As your teachings in the Living School often did, this generates thoughts and questions that touch both my head and my heart, prompting me to take time to listen more deeply … Thank you for sharing your work with us; I look forward to reading more.

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