A three-part blog series by Cynthia Bourgeault
As 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.