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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
Some of the common themes that may arise during imaginal practice include:
For me, this is probably the type of content that I am most likely to oppress or think is bad. I have the most trouble letting this flow freely through me.
This content is about reclaiming power in yourself. Rage and anger and violence are all expressing ways in which we have been oppressed or our boundaries have been violated.
The scene can present as us being the victim or the perpetrator of the violence. This can include violent sexual content.
If we can allow space for this built-up energy to express itself in a way where no-one’s going to get hurt, then that oppressed energy gets released and we reclaim that part of ourself.
Just to be clear, this is not about revisiting traumatic experiences we have been through. The oppressed energy may come from a small build-up of daily things, we may have been born with it or it may be something we completely forgot ever happened.
The point is not to understand where it came from or to bring awareness to the emotion, it is to trust in your body’s natural capacity to heal and express itself.
Some examples of this in my practice are imagining that I am a giant dinosaur that is trampling the entire world and all the population to death, imagining that I am being swallowed by a giant snake who is also one of my relatives, rape visualisations, ripping people’s heads off and feeling like my physical body has become a wolf and clawing at something.
This can be really enjoyable, but it can be slightly worrying when it comes up on retreat or in formal practice. Like we’re not allowed to be doing it.
One of the important distinctions to make between imaginal practice and normal sexual fantasy is that we’re not purposefully imagining something in order to get somewhere – i.e. we’re not thinking about something sexy in order to have an orgasm.
We are allowing space for what is inside of us to express itself and connecting with how that makes us feel emotionally and in our bodies in this present moment.
We can enjoy what is being shown to us in this moment, and let go of any hope or expectation that it will develop anywhere or culminate in anything.
This practice can be really liberating for developing a healthy, beautiful relationship with sex, our bodies and our inner most desires. It helps us to develop presence in our bodies by making them feel like a beautiful and pleasant place to be.
There is a lot of shame around sex in our culture and this impacts how we feel about bodies in our day to day lives too. Creating more freedom around this allows us to be a more alive expression of our beings in normal life.
If people we know come up in these practices, it can be a sign that we are attracted to them in some sense, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we want to actually have sex with them.
I’m not going to share my experiences of this one. I’ll leave you to explore your own practice.
This is a really nice one that I enjoy, but I think it can be quite confusing for a lot of people because we aren’t clear on the separation between eros and sex.
This is essentially anything where we feel turned on or lit up in some sense, but it doesn’t feel particularly sexual.
It can still be very intimate; there is a lot of beauty and tenderness and excitement that can arise with it.
This content is about the ways in which we connect with the world and other people in a creative way that isn’t sexual. It is the ways in which our minds are engaged and curious and creative in the world.
Allowing this type of content is really great practice for letting our minds be creative. It also tends to show us the things that we are attracted to and curious about in this way.
Examples of this in my practice are seeing lots of different animals that are really beautiful, feeling like I am standing under a lovely waterfall with someone close and we are washing and having a nice time under it, merging my body with other people’s bodies and feeling like I am radiating energy and light.
I hope you can learn to enjoy this type of practice.
This is a bit of a catch-all for all the other type of content that can arise through imaginal practice. It’s essentially like having dreams in your meditation practice and can help us process and make sense of experience.
Just like dreams it can be very playful or interesting and can arise with nice pleasant emotions or it can be processing more challenging experiences and emotions. It can also be super weird and strange.
These experiences can help us be more relaxed with our current states. It is a way of opening into our emotional and intuitive experience of the world and giving it some space to express it itself.
If we oppress or ignore this all the time it will start to get agitated in us or just shut down entirely, so it’s nice to give it some room and to listen to what it has to say.
For me, this can present as a huge range of stuff, like walking through the woods holding hands with someone, seeing people’s faces flashing up in front of me, seeing fractals or lots of animals or religious symbolism.
I can channel shared imaginal practice through me. It’s actually not something that I have any choice in, there is no off switch. It happens most of the time when I meditate with people.
It can be quite intense, so I’ve taken some time to develop a technique for channelling this in a way that reliably presents as fun, wholesome and useful for people.
In this definition, shamanic journeying is a way in which two or more people’s experiences are connecting on a subconscious and energetic level and they are going on a shared journey through the content.
When we connect with people in this way, we lend each other the capacity to process difficult emotions and bring light to our shadows. By lending people my capacity I am able to allow people to go deeper into their subconscious and energetic sensations than they normally would and for this to present in a much more light-hearted way than it would if they went there on their own.
I can do this with groups or individuals. We can do the journeying as an interpersonal practice where we drop into a meditative state and go on the journey together through conversation. Or with music, where we have a deep conversation first and then meditate to music together afterwards, allowing the imaginal aspect to show itself.
There are two ways to heal darkness and shadow within ourselves. One is to go it alone, to find it in ourselves and offer it compassionate love, this can be excruciating as we burn through the layers of self-hatred and judgement that were stopping us from loving this part of ourselves in the first place.
The second is for another person to see and love this part of us. This is different to a codependent relationship, where we rely on that person to placate us or present something to us in a certain way. The healing person needs to be able to see us as we really are and be able to love us in that state.
In order for the healing to work, both people need to be able to look at the situation honestly and see the real emotions that are present in the situation.
It is my experience that this process is essentially what is happening in all forms of energy healing. It is just happening on different levels of experience and being expressed in lots of different and beautiful ways.
We can learn to make space for our inner worlds to express themselves freely during our meditation. This can have some positive, healing benefits and it can also be something that we just do for the sake of enjoying it.
It can be a safe space to explore and express things that might not be acceptable out in the world. It can deepen our relationship with ourselves and our experience and deepen our capacity for joy in life.
Content will shift and move through the different categories and themes, they aren’t really separate from each other so don’t get too hung up on that.
We also don’t need to be strict about what counts as imaginal practice. I can remember that I used to get lots of interesting visualisations when I was lying down, getting a massage or having a bath, before I ever started meditating or had heard of imaginal practice.
Remember that all practice will have some aspect of the imaginal incorporated into it.
It can be fun to play with the space between waking and sleeping to see what arises here, too.
Ultimately, the purpose of the practice is to hold some space for ourselves in whatever way feels comfortable and allow whatever is there to be expressed. Music and a safe space are the best ways I have found for helping people relax into it.
The more we connect with the part of ourselves and make space for the deeply personal content to express itself through us, the more we get in touch with the ineffability of life itself.
I hope you enjoy your practice. You can read more about how to develop an imaginal practice here.
A 20-minute introductory talk to imaginal practice.