Approaching the Imaginal World

by writer, psychologist, and mythologist Dr. Sharon Blackie from her newsletter This Mythic Life

image by Gina Litherland

The imaginal world, the Otherworld. The mundus imaginalis, or mundus archetypalis. There are so many words and phrases to describe it, that place where the others live. The archetypal energies and beings which, when clothed in the garments of a particular culture, we sometimes call gods and goddesses. The ones who guide us, who depth psychologist James Hillman called the ‘necessary angels’. The place where the stories live, and have an independent existence (no, we don’t make them up). The place where synchronicities are created – a world in which events are connected by meaning, rather than by physical cause.

However you conceive of it, that imaginal world is always in some sense the place beyond the veil. One of the many layers of reality which all the ancient spiritual traditions tell us are layered all around this world we perceive with our physical senses. You know – that same world which, our ‘enlightened’ Western culture insists, is the only one that is real. But not to know the imaginal world, those older and infinitely wiser traditions tell us, is to be cut off from the source. In the Celtic tradition, the Otherworld was the source of wisdom, inspiration, nourishment – of life itself.

So if you’re cut off from it, as our culture has caused most of us to become, you’re not really fully alive. You’re walking through the world as if you were wearing a veil. You’re out of touch with your own soul, and with the soul of the world – the anima mundi of ancient Western tradition. You have no anchors, no guides. You’re adrift and lost in a meaningless world.

Which makes it all the more important for us to find our way back to that imaginal world in which these archetypal patterns live – the patterns which Plato called Forms, or Ideas. Because they are, as Carl Jung said, the underlying structures of psyche. To fully engage with ourselves, with the anima of this beautiful planet, with the cosmos itself, we need to engage with these archetypal structures. Although we see them in all kinds of creative and artistic expressions, we find them most clearly expressed in the stories we call myths and fairy tales, and also in our dreams. But contemporary Western culture offers no accepted practices which teach us to actively seek out our archetypes, or to actively approach the imaginal world in any meaningful way.

Well, of course there are ways. We stumble across them from time to time, or we find them in the tattered remnants of ancient spiritual practices. Those of us who are engaged in the particular practice of depth psychology which is inspired by (late) Jung, Hillman and their ilk actively seek them out, because myth and archetype are the foundation-stones of all our work. To encounter the imaginal world, we might work with Jung’s active imagination techniques, or the process of dream-tending. In my own case, I work with and teach a unique practice of dreaming-while-awake which stemmed from my year-long training in clinical hypnosis, almost two decades ago now, while I was practicing as a psychologist.

That practice of learning to ‘dream’ while awake induces a state of profoundly relaxed, but profoundly focused clarity. It allows us to open to the imaginal world, and to engage with the archetypal images and patterns which emerge in our dreams, or in the myths and fairytales which call to us. It allows us to engage with the archetypal energies which inhabit our places, and dance with them for a while.

However we might go about it, that process of learning to open to the imaginal world – what I sometimes call ‘courting the world soul’ – is a fundamental prerequisite for understanding our individual mythopoetic identity, and for illuminating the particular unique gift we each bring to this world, at this time, in this place.


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