In my last post I talked about the difference between non-reaction and expression. There is another facet of this that I wanted to bring to life.
An expression doesn’t have to be something that we physically do to the world. By using our creative minds, we can express ourselves while we are in meditation through imaginal practice. (Just as a warning, this post has even more explicit content than usual.)
Imaginal practice, which I also sometimes call shamanic journeying, 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.
Just to be clear, this is not about bringing awareness to those things, but about letting them do their thing. If we overthink it or try to understand it too much, this will stop it being able to express itself freely.
When we open to new parts of ourselves, even if they feel dark or bad at the time, we liberate the energy and emotions that are tangled up in those parts of ourselves. They stopping coming out in subconscious ways that we spend a lot of time and energy trying to resist.
This energy can then become a part of the expression of our whole selves.
Through some pretty thorough investigation I have discovered that I do not create the visualisations I get through imaginal practice, I open to them and they are channeled through me or shown to me.
Lots of people struggle with this or oppress it when it does arise during meditation. This is largely because we live in a world that focuses on the logical, science side of our brains and way of perceiving things. Our schooling system crushes our creativity and we are told that fairy tales, imagination and magic are all childish and silly.
It is also 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.
There are two important things to remember with this. Firstly, no-one can get hurt by the content of imaginal practice. If we don’t have experience of it, it can feel like if we open to these parts of ourselves, they are more likely to manifest in the real world, but actually it’s the opposite that is true. More on that later. Imaginal practice can bring up big emotions though, so it’s important to make sure you have safe space and capacity to express these.
Secondly, we are not really the creators of the content. When it first started happening to me, I thought I had some control over what I was being shown and I thought that I could on some level manipulate it. Through very thorough investigation, I have discovered that any perception of control is a post-rationalisation. We are actively holding the space for these things to show up in, which can impact on what shows and how it plays out, but once it is in flow what plays out has nothing to do with my mind.
One of the things that helped me open up to receiving imaginal practice was listening to Rob Burbea’s talks about it. I very clearly 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 get shown to me.
A lot of imaginal practice involves a sense of eros. Eros is erotic energy; it arises when we are creating a connection with something. New things arise when two things merge or react 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.
It is worth investing some time in untangling the two in your experience and purposefully cultivating some eros separate to sex drive, to help you enjoy and understand them both more.
This 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.
With all of this in mind, it is my experience that imaginal practice falls loosely into four categories:
- Reclaiming Power (Violent Content)
- Reclaiming Soul (Erotic Content)
- Opening the Heart (Child-Like Eros)
- Processing Experience (Random Content)
- Shared Journeying
One of the things that is worth distinguishing is that expressing what is already inside of us is very different to consuming content and perceptions that are outside of us. For example, violent imaginal practice is a way of expressing strong feelings that are trapped inside of us without harming anyone. Whereas, watching lots of violent television or reading terrible news all the time, will shape our perception and world-view. It normalises it in our experience and we feel as though we live in a violent world that we are either potential victims or attackers in. It is really important to be mindful of what we are consuming – we distinguish between real life and media much less than we realise.
Having said this, media can be a way of allowing us to access some of our internal world more easily. Music is a great example of this, it can evoke sadness and other emotions that we don’t normally allow ourselves to access in daily life. When I am doing shamanic journeying with people I use music, partially to help people open to their experience more fully.
Porn is another example of media that can help us access pleasant states inside of us. It can help us get in touch with our sexual and erotic sensations and have a nice time. The problem arises when we use porn not as a way to connect with our inner worlds, but as a way to run away from our experience.
Our inner worlds are rich and varied and multi-layered. We have lots of different things going on at the same time. Watching porn can be a way of helping us focus on the pleasant bits of our inner world for a time. However, if we feel like shit because we’ve had a busy day at the office and our boss was mean to us and we just don’t want to feel bad anymore, so we watch some porn to take us away from the experience we are actually having, this is not a very helpful response. We are burying our difficult emotions and chasing a high that exists outside of us. This is an addictive response and it will end in us needing a more and more shocking or high-dose of whatever our chosen activity or substance is in order to keep running away from the emotions or feelings that we aren’t facing up to. This is the craving and aversion that Buddhism talks about.
Imaginal practice and connecting with our inner worlds is about opening to the emotions and sensations that are there, not trying to create positive feelings that aren’t there. An important distinction.
Reclaiming Power (Violent Content)
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. When there are emotions connected to this type of imaginal practice, they tend to be feelings of intense rage and hatred. Energetically, this is a super intense category of experience. Sometimes it can be helpful to take the energy out on something, like punching or screaming into a pillow.
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. Especially when the visualisations involve people I know in real life.
This content is about reclaiming power in yourself. Rage and anger and violence are all expressing ways in which we have been oppressed that are now exploding out of us. This can include violent sexual content.
The scene can present as us being the perpetrator or the victim of the violence. If we can allow this built-up energy explosion to happen in a space where no-one’s going to get hurt, then that oppressed energy gets released.
There can be a fear that if you open to this type of content it is going to go on forever, but if you allow it, it will eventually pass. You have to be willing to take it all the way to its conclusion, without holding back due to fear or shame. If you can do this it frees up that part of ourselves that was contracted and it can be used in a much more calm and free expression of who we are.
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 our bodies natural capacity to heal and express itself.
The body tells stories and creates films or dream-like experiences that allow us to go on a journey through our inner worlds – 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.
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. There is plenty more I could share. If you are having this come up in your practice and are finding it disturbing, it can be really helpful to be able to talk about it with someone. This can help lift the shame around it. I am happy to talk about this with you if this is the case.
Reclaiming the Soul (Erotic Content)
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 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 or to check out of our experience. We are allowing space for what is inside us to express itself. 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. We feel like we need to hide ourselves or only present certain aspects of ourselves. If we can allow our bodies to express themselves in this way in our imaginal practice, then we can get more freedom around sex and being in our bodies in general in our day to day lives too.
If people we know come up in these practices, it can be a sign that we are physically 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.
Opening the Heart (Child-like Eros)
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 actually physical or 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. We can learn to let the eros flow freely through us.
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.
Processing Experience (Random Content)
This can just be so beautiful and fun. It’s often very playful or interesting and can come with nice pleasant emotions or it can be processing more challenging experiences and be accompanied with some sadness. It can also be super weird and strange. It’s essentially like having dreams in your meditation practice.
Sometimes it has been showing me things from the future or reframing experiences from my past. It can be giving me more information about how I feel in the current moment, like showing me animal symbolism or taking me on a journey through my different emotional states.
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 quite normal stuff, like holding hands with someone, lying around with some cute animals, smelling some flowers or seeing people’s faces flashing up in front of me.
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.
Essentially, shared 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. If we feel like a pathetic mess, a codependent relationship would require someone to reassure us that we aren’t one, a healing relationship would be if the other person sees or feels the sadness and can accept it.
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.
When I have done shamanic journeying with other people, I have found that the content doesn’t present in a distressing way. We could be accessing parts of ourselves that are normally unacceptable or unbearable, but because they are being brought up in a loving space, they are being transformed into something that we can be with.
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.
In this post, I just wanted to bring awareness to the fact that expressing something doesn’t mean that we have to be doing something productive or creating something out in the world.
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.
The reality is that the content will shift and move through the different categories, they aren’t strictly 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. The purpose 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 this practice.
I hope you enjoy your practice.
If you would like to know more I have recorded an introductory talk to imaginal practice and a guided meditation, which you can find here.