Guide to developing presence
Imaginal Practice is a vital part of all meditative and spiritual practice, so I wanted to create a guide specifically around it. It is one of the best tools for creating 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.
At its simplest, imaginal practice is connecting with our energy bodies and emotions and allowing them to express themselves to us through images, stories, archetypes, colours, shapes and other imagery that we can see, feel or experience.
It is a bit like dreaming while we are awake. This is a natural capacity that we all have within us, we just need to learn to reconnect to it.
The practice offers a unique opportunity to simultaneously individuate, or become whole and mature expressions of ourselves as individuals, and feel into our interconnected nature.
The experience can be very gentle and soft, with vague senses of things being evoked, or it can be incredibly vivid and realistic, like journeying through different realms. The intensity can depend on how deep our capacity to concentrate is, how in touch with our energy bodies we are, how deeply we are connected to our emotions and inners worlds and how wild our imaginations are.
This practice draws from Rob Burbea’s work on imaginal practice, but also has influences from shamanism, energy healing, tantra and Jungian psychotherapy.
More About Imaginal Practice & Shamanic Journeying
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.
In imaginal practice, 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 connecting with the collective conscious rather than our own personal inner worlds. There is a lot of crossover and no clear boundary between the two.
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 know that we are physically safe – we can set the needs of our bodies and rational minds aside because we know they 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 of 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 is important to have some space and freedom around the content, so that we are not completely caught up in what it says about us or totally lost in a train of reactive thought.
This space can be cultivated through things like non-dual realisations, vipassana meditation practice, talking therapies and relational practices.
Once we have this space, it is through connecting with our most deeply personal emotions and experiences that we open the door to getting intimately in touch with the nature of experience itself.
Engaging with imaginal practice and the depths that it can take us to requires us to connect with the vulnerable parts of 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.
Much like the content of our dream worlds, the messages, emotions and symbolism can be deeply personal and revealing, while it also doesn’t say anything about you as a person 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.
We are connecting to the parts of our experience that we find beautiful and compelling and allowing that desire to fuel our 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.
There are certain skills and techniques that will allow us to sink more deeply into the imaginal realm.
Jhana practice, or being able to get into an absorbed connection with pleasant body sensations, allows you to be present and hold space for the content. Vipassana or mindfulness practice will create more space and awareness for content to arise in.
It also works the other way around, that these skills can develop as a result of doing imaginal practice. Imaginal practice is often the doorway into deeply, pleasant states. Also, all awakening moments and experiences have strong aspects of the imaginal in them and the more you are in tune with this, the more sensitively you can connect to them.
We compiled guidance for the key skills that are required to engage with the imaginal as part of our ‘Becoming an Imaginal Practitioner’ Retreat, which you can listen to here.
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. These could be reintegrating challenging or dark aspects of us, or it could be remembering and reconnecting with our joy and this child-like relationship to each other and the world around us.
We are introducing more playfulness, joy, creativity and soulfulness into practice while also 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. All for the benefit of ourselves and all beings.
It’s an important aspect of the practice that we aren’t here to fix things – the process in and of itself is transformative. We want to develop a trust that allowing things to surface and be witnessed or felt in a space where they will be welcomed and accepted is enough.
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, joy, erotic sensations 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.
Experiencing a wide range of energy body sensations is very common during imaginal practice, for example heart-opening feelings, unitive experiences, a sense of merging inner and outer and goosebumps and shimmering in the energy body.
More About The Imaginal 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 and the collective conscious.
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 ‘seeing a wide grassy plain with a warrior stood in the centre of it’ or ‘feeling like you are in a vast sky of stars and planets that you can journey through’.
Some of the common themes that may arise during imaginal practice include:
- Child-like wonder
- Erotic content
- Violent content
- Random content
This is incredibly enjoyable. This is essentially anything where we feel lit up in some sense or connected to something that feels very alive and beautiful to us.
It can 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. It is the ways in which our minds are engaged and curious and creative in the world. It tends to have a strong heart-opening feel to it.
Allowing this type of content is really great practice for letting ourselves be creative. It also tends to show us the things that we are most attracted to and curious about.
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 and washing under it, merging my body with other beings and the world around and feeling like I am radiating energy and light.
This can be really enjoyable, but it can be slightly worrying when it comes up in our practice. Like we’re not allowed to be doing it.
Erotic content in imaginal practice tends to be linked with awakening the connection between eros, or life-force, and the energy body.
You can do this by feeling into sensations in the body and energy body that feel alive and pleasant. If it feels sexual, those sensations and any related imagery or associations can just be enjoyed for what it is in the moment.
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.
It also creates more freedom around desire because we can connect with it in a way where we allow ourselves to be attracted to things without worrying about whether we are going to get them. It releases the grip of craving and attachment.
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.
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.
Working with violent content is very tantric and is about connecting our eros with the physical manifestations of our bodies.
The scene or feelings 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. It becomes a part of us that we can access in a clean and healthy way.
Just to be clear, this is not usually about revisiting traumatic experiences we have been through, although this can be a part of it.
The oppressed energy may come from a small build-up of daily things or it may be karmic or collective energy. For example, I have spent a lot of time processing the ways in which the Universal feminine energy is oppressed, which we all carry within us.
The point with violent content is not to understand where the feelings or images 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 just feeling rage coursing through my body, imagining that I am a giant dinosaur that is trampling the entire world and all the population to death, rape visualisations, ripping people’s heads off and feeling like my physical body has become a wolf and clawing at something.
It is through embracing this aspect of imaginal practice and reintegrating these parts of myself that I have been able to cultivate the capacity to hold space and the ability to stand in my truth and power.
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 ultimately 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 and experiencing religious symbolism.
Shared Practice and Shamanic Journeying
I’m a shaman and I can channel shared imaginal practice, or shamanic content 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 developed a technique for channelling this in a way that reliably presents as fun, wholesome and useful for people.
In this definition, shared imaginal practice is people taking it in turns to go on a shared journey through the content of their inner world.
This is a really connecting and beautiful experience. It opens up a safer way to share experience together, in a way that is simultaneously deeper and requires less vulnerability than connecting in the usual world.
When we connect with people in this way, we also lend each other the capacity to process difficult emotions and bring light to our shadows. We are sitting in the challenge together, as if sharing our experiences sat around a campfire, so it can be incredibly powerful for reintegrating aspects of us or processing trauma.
Whether it is deep and emotional or light-hearted and fun, it tends to have a profound and lasting impact on people and their ability to connect with experience.
The simplest way to journey together is to drop into a meditative state together and for one person to ask another person questions about their experience – with a focus on what is happening in the body, energy body and imagination.
Here are the instructions for journeying together in this way, including a recorded example.
Shamanic journeying is opening to a more mystical aspect of this. It is surrendering to a more inexplicable or cosmic connection between people and content.
In shamanic journeying two or more people’s experiences are connecting (or an individual is connecting with a cosmic or mystical being) and they are being taken on a shared journey through the content, which could be symbolic or prophetic, for example.
This can also include the use of psychedelics.
Imaginal practice and shamanic journeying aren’t really separate from each other and you will get elements of each in both.
How to Practice
The invitation is to practice in whatever way feels meaningful and alive for you.
It is much easier to begin imaginal practice once you have some access to the jhanas or are able to feel a sense of resonance in the body. It isn’t necessarily a pre-requisite, as imaginal practice may help open the door to some of these things but the more you have access to these the more embodied the practice is and it allows you to get absorbed in the content.
Rather than getting lost in thought, the aim is to imagine with the whole body or the whole of experience as much as possible.
Here is a list of different ways you could structure an imaginal practice meditation session. Like with any meditation, you will want to find a comfortable posture and may want to set yourself a timer. Feel free to riff on the ideas and bring in your own creative structures.
- Choose a concept that you would like to explore during your practice time, like a theme for your journey. You can find a list of suggested concepts on the Shared Imaginal Practice directions. There are also a list of questions you could use to start exploring the concept.
- Create a playlist of 3 – 5 songs, on a theme or genre. Allow these to take you on a journey. Notice how the music makes your body feel as well as the images it brings up for you.
- Start by setting a scene; create a landscape that is inspiring or interesting for you. It can be somewhere in real life that is important to you, somewhere you’d like to travel to or somewhere completely made up. Imagine that a magical being has come here to tell you something, give you something you need, heal you or offer you some powerful transformation. Who arrives and what do they bring? Where do you feel the healing in your body?
- Imagine opening a portal that allows you to visit any aspect of experience; from becoming the tiniest atom to being the entire Universe. It can be as abstract or concrete as you like. For example, you could learn what it’s like to be the essence of sadness or imagine how it is to be someone you know at this moment.
- Stay with your body for your entire practice time. Connect with all the different energies and sensations you can find, the separate parts and the ways they interact.
- Start with a sense of eros – What is attractive to you? What are you magnetised towards? Give yourself the entire time to imagine the most pleasant experiences possible, staying in touch with the sensations in the body; it can be quite wild or quite mundane. Can you allow it to express without filtering it?
- Stay with your breathe for the entire practice time. Let it become imaginal in as many different ways as it wants.
- Allow images to play out, but pay more attention to where they are arising. Where do they come from? What’s the stage or backdrop on which they play out?
- Build the skills you need to deepen your practice by listening to the recorded guidance from our Becoming an Imaginal Practitioner Retreat.
We can learn to make space for our inner worlds to express themselves freely during our meditation. This can have some positive, healing benefits; it can lead to deep and profound awakenings; and it can also be something that we just do for fun and 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 connection in life. It can also point deeply towards the nature of the cosmos and where experience arises from.
During practice 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.
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. It can also be fun to play with the space between waking and sleeping to see what arises here.
Remember that all meditation practice will have some aspect of the imaginal incorporated into it and the more we can connect with the imaginal realm, the more deeply we can get in touch with this ineffable aspect of experience.