Is there a difference between the imaginal world and the world of fantasy? If so, then how do you know when you’re interacting in the imaginal world and when you’re in the fantasy world?
This might seem fairly unimportant, but it’s not: it speaks directly to the question of whether these characters are real or “figments of our imagination.”
[Note: this entry will make more sense if you've looked at Part I and Part II first.]
Let’s first talk about fantasy. The definition that I use is this: We are in a fantasy when the ego is driving. In a fantasy, we make up the story, we direct the actors, we decide the plot’s twists and turns. My sense of this is that fantasy is more a state of mind than a “location” distinct from imaginal space. In fantasy, our ego lives out its deepest desires and meets its own needs. This is the important thing, the thing that drives the fantasy and makes it compelling: the ego is getting its needs met. We are captured by fantasy characters to the extent that they resonate with our lives and our desires, often allowing us to live out our own dreams through their stories. But one of the identifying marks of fantasy is that the ego is in the driver’s seat.
The imaginal world and its inhabitants seem to be malleable, quite willing to go along with our imagination if we choose. Because of this, I personally try hard not to interfere with their actions. In imaginal interactions, as I understand them, the ego participates in the action but does not direct it. The characters in the imaginal world are autonomous and what takes place in an imaginal interaction is akin to waking life in the sense that what happens there happens regardless of the ego’s desires. When I’m in imaginal space and not in a fantasy, the only one I can control is me, the same as in my daily life.
That is not to say that events and beings in the imaginal world are equivalent to beings in the waking world. A bear or monster may be chasing me in the imaginal world. I can stop running and turn to face it, at which point it may well stop and do something totally unexpected. It probably won’t kill me, in the real-world sense (though there is that possibility, I have no doubt, in cases of severe psychosis). It may tear apart my imaginal body and cause me great anguish, bring about a transformation of some kind, or just sit down and start eating Cheerios; there is no predicting it and no controlling it, and that is the important point.
Fantasies and imaginal interactions are not identical, but one can move from one to the other quite readily. How can you tell if you’re in fantasy or in the imaginal world? I’m not sure that you can ever be certain, but there are hallmarks of both types of reality that we can use to guide us. The differences are subtle and you have to be constantly alert.
In my experience, there are a few guidelines that stand out. First, in the imaginal world there is always an element of surprise. Because the ego isn’t driving, you don’t really know what’s going to happen. You walk down the imaginal road and see Merlin/Gandalf sitting under a tree. You walk closer and are startled to discover that he’s chewing gum. This seems so “out of character” to you that you protest to yourself. Merlin looks at you with a twinkle in his eye and says, “What? Am I not allowed to partake of modern pleasures?” And you have to laugh. It’s this element of surprise that marks an imaginal interaction.
Another and related hint that one is in imaginal space, not in a fantasy, is the way “things happen” without thought or effort on the part of the ego. Phrases or sentences appear fully formed in one’s mind. There’s no time lag, no thought of, “Now Brian would say ….” It’s not that you hear something with your physical ears, but the effect is the same. The sentence is there, reverberating, fully formed, and the sense is that it has come from “somewhere else” or “someone else.”
A third feature of imaginal interactions is an emotional state that seems to come from somewhere external to the ego. You might be sitting on the deck and suddenly you find yourself crying, “missing Ellen,” when you never even knew Ellen. The emotion feels real but appears to have no ego-centered correlate. (Note that all of these might be hard to tell from psychosis! There is a fine line, I suspect.)
Another kind of “felt sense” can be a physical sensation. You can be talking with someone in the imaginal world and you can feel their hand in yours, or feel the weight of an imaginal 5-year-old as you carry her, or feel your imaginal friend’s arm around your shoulders. It’s a brief sensation, very real in a way that has nothing to do with actual, waking-world nerve endings. It’s clearly not imaginary.
There is probably never going to be a hard-and-fast rule whereby one can distinguish a fantasy experience from a “real” imaginal one. Part of the trick maybe intention, and keeping a very close eye on one’s desires. I remain suspicious of anything that feels like something I’d really love to have happen. Not that such an experience couldn’t be imaginal and not fantasy; it just pays to be skeptical.
It’s especially difficult to distinguish between something I’ve made up (as in fantasy) versus the “real thing” when I’m dealing with a being whom I know well. My mother, who died in 1999, is a good example: I know, from a lifetime of knowing my mother, what she’d be likely to say or do in a given circumstance. How do I know that when I hear her say, “oh, not that again!” that it’s “really her” and not just my memory creating a fantasy?
This post represents my experiences, and my sense of what’s going on. I remain quite confused on many levels, and again, would very much appreciate input. What are your interactions with the imaginal world like? How do you think it all works?
So Brian is real. Now what? (Part IV)