Imaginal practice meditation can create more connection and freedom of expression in our experience.
This post describes it as a practice and talks about some of the common themes that may arise. If you want to read how to develop it as a meditation practice you can do that here.
About Imaginal Practice
Imaginal practice is a way of holding space for what is in our inner world to express itself through us while we are meditating. We connect with our emotions, sensations, energy bodies, intuitive feelings, perceptions, desires and intentions and allow our creative minds to turn these into expressions that we can observe or feel.
All meditation practice has an aspect of the imaginal to it. We are letting go of our rational, conceptual way of looking at the world and embracing a softer-focus way of making sense of the world through our imaginations and felt senses.
We are connecting with the ineffability of all experience and making this our primary lens and way of experiencing the world.
Shamanic journeying is also connecting with this part of experience, but it is slightly different in that we are connecting with the outer world’s creative expression and channelling it through us.
There is a lot of crossover and no clear boundary between the two but imaginal practice is more about connecting inwards and shamanic journeying is more a sense of connecting outwards to the Universe.
Connection & Wholeness
There are lots of parts of ourselves that we aren’t aware of or that we don’t access in our normal way of being in the world.
They could be parts that we have actively learned to disassociate from or reject. Or they could be parts of our subconscious being that have always been under the surface.
The imaginal realm gives us a unique way of getting in touch with these parts of ourselves. When we practice we can create an environment where we are physically safe – we can set our bodies and rational minds aside because we know our needs are taken care of – and connect deeply with our energy bodies, our creativity, our inner world and the emotional parts of ourselves.
This can create a huge amount of freedom for these parts to express themselves.
If there is a new part ourself that we connect with through this practice, it can become integrated back into our understanding of ourself and our way of being. We become a more connected and whole expression of our beings.
Oppression of the Imaginal
Lots of people struggle with imaginal practice or oppress it when it does arise during meditation.
One of the reasons is because we live in a world that focuses on the logical side of our brains and way of understanding things. Our schooling system crushes our creativity and we are told that fantasy, imagination and magic are all childish and silly.
Another reason is because serious meditation practice has become synonymous with disconnecting from personal content. It’s important to recognise that there is no real separation between the deeply personal and the Universal – we are an expression of the Universe in action and our experience is co-created with our environment.
Engaging with this practice requires us to connect with the content in our experience. Rather than seeing thoughts as distractions, we can notice that they are flags – highlighting something that is important in our inner world. We can carefully peel back the layers to notice the emotions, sensations and depths of meaning underneath thoughts that resonate through our beings, and we can connect whole-heartedly with that, even if what we find is challenging in some way.
Another reason the imaginal gets oppressed is because some of the things that arise can be disturbing to us. Often when we slow down and enter a meditative state, it is the difficult emotions and ideas that we have been oppressing in our daily lives that arise and so this is what the imaginal practice expresses to us.
It’s important to remember that you can’t get it wrong and that there is no such thing as a bad expression during imaginal practice. We are making space for the energies and emotions that are swirling around inside of us to show themselves to us. It doesn’t say anything about you that they are there.
One of the things that helped me open up to receiving imaginal practice was listening to Rob Burbea’s talks about it. I remember him sharing a story about how he had experienced a vision of fighting on a stage with a Goddess with several arms. He was ripping her arms off and eating them. He has lots of other helpful and interesting stories of his practice. This helped me relax around some of the violent and strange stuff that I was being shown in practice.
I share some of my stories below.
Another tool for opening to imaginal practice is meditating with music. The sense of flow and resonance that it brings into practice can allow us to access the imaginal space more easily.
A lot of imaginal practice involves a sense of eros. Eros arises when we are creating a connection with something.
Creativity comes from two things merging or reacting with each other – life wants us to be creative so eros feels good to us. It is our life force.
Eros can be erotic and sexual in nature, but it can also be a kind of child-like wonder, where we want to connect with the world around us. In both cases it manifests as a feeling of aliveness and free expression.
In most adults, their eros is deeply intertwined with their sex drive. It is worth investing some time in untangling the two in your experience to help you enjoy and understand them both more. You can do this by feeling into sensations in the body and energy body that feel alive and pleasant and noticing that sometimes it feels sexual and sometimes it can just be enjoyed for what it is.
This dynamic between sex and eros can be further confused because power is also tied up in sex. Lots of our concepts about power and how that plays out in our experience has a strong sexual undercurrent. It is worth being mindful of this. Power, sex and eros are all common themes in imaginal practice.
When we are first starting with imaginal practice, the things that are presented can be quite soft and fuzzy. It can be faded colours or shapes, or a sense of a place or person evoked in us. All of these are lovely and interesting and worth exploring. If we enjoy making space for them, it is my experience that we will become more sensitive and the messages, images and feelings will become clearer. But the purpose of the practice is not to achieve this. The purpose is to enjoy whatever you find and by doing this we can each deepen our unique relationship with imaginal practice.
Please bear this in mind when I am sharing my experiences. The purpose is to share openly in the hope that it may allow you to open to feeling some more of your experience, not to create fixed ideas of what imaginal practice should look like.
Reclaiming Parts of Ourselves
This is a deeply embodied practice, it is about coming into our beings in their fullness. Rather than turning away from the difficult and juicy parts of experience we are embracing them and using the practice to reintegrate them in order to create a more whole way of existing in the world. It’s a unique opportunity to connect with parts that have been oppressed or separated.
This practice is sometimes called soul retrieval. We are going on an adventure into our experience and liberating aspects that we normally repress or resist, freeing up the energy and wisdom that is buried in this.
We are introducing more playfulness, joy, creativity and soulfulness into practice while balancing this with a deep sense of respect towards showing up for our challenges, facing our suffering and coming out the other side stronger and more compassionate for it, for the benefit of ourselves and all beings.
Through this practice we are both drawing on and cultivating the depths of compassion and joy within us. We are creating a more unshakeable sense of heartfulness that can be present even through challenges.
With the practice we want to develop a trust that allowing things to surface and be witnessed in a space where they will be welcomed and accepted is enough. We aren’t here to fix things – the process in and of itself is transformative.
The main important factor is to maintain an open attitude. We do this by using these three qualities:
Curiosity: Stay open to exploring what is arising, remember that it doesn’t say anything about you. Follow the thread and be interested in looking for more details or what wants to happen next. Engage with things that feel important or interesting to you.
Compassion: It’s ok to feel all the feels during imaginal practice. Crying and all expressions of emotion are very welcome and a sign that you are connecting with new parts of yourself.
Joy: See if you can access a sense of dark joy, or joy in the face of challenge. This will help you meet all the different aspects of ourselves, welcome them and connect to them.
Goosebumps and shimmering in the energy body is very common after we have reclaimed a part of our souls through this process.
The body tells stories and creates film-like or dream-like experiences that allow us to go on a journey through our inner worlds.
Everyone will have a unique way of doing this and their own creative experience of it. It is not supposed to be reflective or descriptive of reality and the more we can let go of the idea that we need to understand it, the more freely it will flow.
The content that the practice brings up can be very detached, like watching a film play out, but it can also be really emotionally and energetically involved.
There are two main ways through which the imaginal expresses itself – connecting with energies and connecting with archetypal or mythic content.
They will overlap but the main difference is that the energies feel more abstract while archetypal content feels more like imagined figures, worlds and realms. The energies are more bodily while the archetypal content is more mental.
An example of energetic content might be feeling things like ‘a blue cloud of diffuse energy in the chest’ or connecting in with ‘a dark pool of calm stillness that infuses everything’.
An example of archetypal content might be imagining ‘a wide grassy plain with a warrior stood in the centre of it’ or ‘a vast sky of stars and planets that you can journey through’.