Sunday, December 2, 2007

Tarot reader

Is this a scary thing, or what? I normally photograph the day’s tarot reading, but today Miss Ellie refused to let me take the shot without her in it. And what a reading!!!

Did I mention that transformation is hell? More soon….

Friday, November 2, 2007


Friends have asked about Keikimanu, the costume I wore at Halloween this year. Keikimanu, whose name means “little bird” or “baby bird” in Hawaiian, is an imaginal figure who appeared to me back 2000, toward the end of my first quarter at Pacifica. Part of the final exam for Robert Romanyshyn’s “Intro-duction to Depth Psychological Research” was to give a presentation that expressed in some way our understanding of the material we had covered.

My topic was clear. My mother had died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease in December of 1999. I wanted to talk about our culture’s ways of dealing with illness, dementia, and death, and I wanted to do so from an imaginal perspective. Pacifica had opened up the imaginal world to me once more, and given me a framework and tools to explore psychological issues through artwork, dreamwork, and other non-rational modes of experiencing which my 20-year career in the “hard” sciences had not allowed me to express.

As I began to think about what I wanted to say, it was clear that the topic was still very “hot” for me—my emotions were close to the surface and threatened to turn any presentation into a flood of tears. Yet the experience of watching my mother marginalized, institutionalized, and medicated into oblivion demanded to be spoken and explored.

One day as I sat pondering this dilemma, I heard the word “keikimanu.” Not knowing what it meant, but recognizing that it as Hawaiian, I looked it up and discovered the meaning. Over the next few days images began to appear in connection with this word, which I now recognized as a name, and finally I went down to my studio to see what would emerge when I began to try to give form to this being who seemed to be visiting. Keikimanu’s mask was the result.

Masks are wonderful things—they allow us to become something or someone different from our ordinary selves. When I put it on, it terrified Wendy the dog, who would not stop barking and snarling; she had to be shut up in another room. I felt different—more powerful, less vulnerable. But more than that, as soon as the mask was completed, the presentation fell into place: a three-act “play” in which I told the story of my mother’s illness and death from the perspectives of my mother, her doctor, and myself. In between acts, Keikimanu provided narrative and interpretation of the larger psychological and archetypal perspective. Keikimanu also introduced and closed the play with a Hawaiian chant honoring the ancestors. Anyone who knows me today will recognize how out of character that would be even now, and seven years ago I was far more shy and introverted. But Keikimanu gave me courage and the ability to watch and witness rather than simply experiencing the emotions.

Keikimanu also took part in my final presentation at Pacifica in 2003—it seemed fitting that he/she help me express what those three years of intense learning had meant to me. Again, he/she chanted in honor of the grandmothers and grandfathers, offering thanks to those who had been present with my classmates and me during that time. And since then, the mask has been hanging in the foyer here at home, reminding me of the imaginal friends and guides who accompany me on my journey.

So this year, when I started thinking about Halloween, Keikimanu volunteered to be my “costume.” It was great fun putting the rest of him/her into physical form. Now, if I could only fly!

Thursday, October 25, 2007


A conversation with a friend and counselor this morning helped start me on the road back to center after three or four of the most difficult weeks of my life. Events recently on all levels and in all areas of my life have provoked a crisis of faith for me. I had begun to question the reality of what I call “guidance” in my life—my contact with the Divine and the reality of the imaginal world—and without the certainty of guidance, my life would be a series of random, meaningless events. In response to the conversation, and in gratitude and love for all my fellow-travelers, I offer this prayer:

Thank you, God, for this miracle that is my life. Bless all of us who walk this path together. Be with us in this difficult time. Thou knowest my inmost heart, oh Lord—I pray for the highest good for us all. Grant us strength, love, and insight in all we do. Mitakuye oyas’in….

Help us find the courage to walk forward with open eyes and bright faces. Grant us wisdom and compassion for ourselves and for each other. Guide our way, oh Lord, hold us and show us the next step on our soul path. Mitakuye oyas’in….

May we be a light for each other; may we be a blessing for each other; may we be angels for each other as we walk through dark times. Bless us, Great Spirit, and guide our path. Mitakuye oyas’in….

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Falling apart

In his new book The Wounded Researcher (2007, Spring Publications), Robert Romanyshyn (my dissertation advisor at Pacifica) presents a way of doing psychological research that keeps soul in mind. The book landed in my mailbox on Monday, at a crucial moment when my life and my research both seem to be falling apart. Romanyshyn’s words remind me that this falling-apart is part of the work of soul, the work of life itself.

Romanyshyn’s approach to psychological research is an imaginal one, in which the researcher is understood to be chosen or claimed by the research topic rather than choosing the topic herself. Rather than being the author of the work, the researcher becomes the agent, the one who listens and gives voice to what the work itself wishes to say. As Romanyshyn points out, in the process the researcher is worked on, or worked over, by the soul of the work. Transformation is inevitable—and almost never pleasant. This is the approach I’ve used in my dissertation. Next time I suggest an imaginal research topic, someone please just shoot me.

When we undertake a research project from an imaginal perspective, we have to give up our ego’s ideas for the work because we’re not the one in charge. As with anything else when you’re truly in the imaginal, the ego isn’t driving, and that is difficult to comprehend, much less to accept. When the work falls apart and simply will not go where we want it to, it’s a reminder that we’re not listening to the voice of the work itself. I’ve experienced this again and again in my dissertation process. Every time I’ve thought I “had it” and understood what the dissertation was about and how to say it, whatever “it” was has dissolved and vanished, leaving me confused, grieving, and emotionally worked over. Only now (four years into it) have I finally given in to the necessity of letting go of my own desire for this work to be something that serves my own ego.

On page 45 of this new book, Romanyshyn says, “An approach to research that keeps soul in mind has to make a place for the soul of the work to speak beyond the calculus of a researcher’s subjective prejudices.” I’m beginning to realize that my dissertation, the work itself, has been speaking to me all along but I’ve failed to listen adequately. I wanted something different, something “bigger,” something that fulfilled my ego’s needs but obviously not the needs of whoever or whatever it is that wants to speak through me.

This experience has been profoundly painful, but I find myself finally moving beyond denial and into acceptance—-and into the mourning that the loss requires. Romanyshyn describes a similar experience in the process of writing his own book. “Certainly for me the many false starts, each of which began with enthusiasm and clarity and ended in ashes, were a slow process of letting go, a slow and difficult process of mourning” (p. 62).

The process of mourning, Romanyshyn suggests, is both essential and transformative to the process of research:

The researcher whose work has collapsed and resists all efforts to restore it falls into . . . an abyss. It is the dark night of the work. It is the moment when loss becomes a descent into the as-yet undreamed possibilities in the work, a descent from the researcher’s hold on the work to the soul of the work. It is a descent into the complexities of the claim that the work has made upon the researcher and a descent into that place where this complex claim might be dissolved and transformed into the unfinished business in the soul. . . . (p. 68)

When he speaks of research, I believe that what he says is just as valid for all deep experiences in our lives, certainly all deep losses. Mourning any profound loss or change in our life—-death, loss of a job, failure of a relationship, our heart’s desire seemingly crushed—-is an opportunity to descend into the abyss and there, perhaps, find as-yet undreamed possibilities. The experience of loss gives us the chance to see that something of soul is guiding this life of ours, and we can’t force it into a known form.

One thing that Romanyshyn repeats again and again: “What we love we lose, and in that moment we begin to see the love that claims us . . . through different eyes.” And again, on the next page: “What we love we lose, and mourning is thus an inevitable aspect of love. . . . Mourning is a tricky business—-a business in which the desire to restore what once was and has been lost outweighs the hard task of re-membering the loss” (pp. 64-66).

To be true to our soul, though, we need to be willing to release our ego’s attempt to hold on to what we love and what we most fear to lose. We must somehow be willing to experience the pain, mourn the loss, and be transformed in some way.

For we can’t escape the loss we fear so much: loss and change and falling apart are inevitable. Death, after all, is only life’s other face. Somehow we have to continue the life our soul has placed in our path and let it lead: we have to let this drama, this journey, this encounter, have its own way with us. Marianne Williamson says, “There is a principle in A Course in Miracles stating that it is not up to us what we learn, but only whether we learn through joy or through pain.” If we don’t learn whatever it is that’s being offered this time, with this experience, we’ll be given yet another opportunity; will it be a joyous one? Each experience of deep loss or great change presents us with an opportunity, whether we like it or not, and very little choice but to learn another way of being. Transformation: this is the profound and painful gift that falling apart offers.

Have I mentioned that transformation sucks rotten eggs?

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Assassin assassinated!

Hope no one here is squeamish about spiders and bugs….

This lovely lady, probably the common Hentz’s orbweaver (Neoscona crucifera), lives right outside my dining room window. Legs and all, she's probably a little larger than a dime. The other night she had herself quite a feast! The victim was an assassin bug. This I determined only after locating the remains the next morning on the ground below the second-story window. I felt like a CSI digging around in the dirt with my forceps and magnifying glass looking for body parts! Once I knew what it was, I was able to identify its face through the silken shroud.

For those as ghoulish as myself, here’s the shot. (The bug is nearly upside down; locate one of the eyes to the right and just below the center of the picture to orient yourself. If you’re really curious and want to know what it looked like before its demise, google “Reduviidae Zelus” and look at some of the images there.)

Death is, after all, only life’s other face.

Ethics and Electronics

I was watching one of my favorite shows on TV last night—“John Edward Cross Country.” John Edward is a psychic and medium, and I love watching him work because the way he receives information is so close to the way I receive it myself. Of course, he’s way better at it than I am, but it’s still fun and encouraging to me.

Last night he was talking about how folks who have passed on like to use electronic items like computers, telephones, tape recorders, and the like because the energy of these devices is relatively easy for them to manipulate. That’s certainly been true for me! And those of us with a sensitivity to the Other World have to be careful around electronic devices because we tend to fry them somehow…. I once went through four tape recorders in a week, and anyone who heard me call my first and (so far) only public contra dance may remember how the microphone started acting up as soon as I touched it.

Anyway, it reminded me of the following event. The Ladies are the group of imaginal women who are helping me with my dissertation, and the rest of this entry is cut directly from the dissertation draft, so the tone is a little different, but I don’t have time to revise it for the blog. It’s pretty readable:

Ethical Considerations

Although the Ladies are not living, flesh-and-blood women, there are still ethical issues to be considered in doing this work. Jung believed that we have an ethical obligation to the figures of psyche. I concur. The wishes of the Ladies have been respected to the greatest possible extent when including material from my interactions with them. Here is an example of how this has worked.

Early in the process of this dissertation, while I was still examining the box of artifacts and trying to decide how to use them, I came across a number of letters to my grandmother from a young woman who had been engaged to my father at the time he left for combat; let’s call her Bernice. I had not yet had time to read Bernice’s letters, but decided to scan them into electronic form first, along with a batch of other letters that I had been working on. The other letters scanned fine. When I put the first of Bernice’s letters on the scanner bed and pressed “start,” nothing happened. I checked the connections, repositioned everything, and pressed “start” again. Again, nothing happened. I tried everything one more time, and this time, when I pressed “start,” the entire computer shut down—completely shut down.

After a moment’s panic, I began to think about what had just happened. My father and Bernice had broken off their engagement some time while he was overseas; nothing in his letters or my grandmother’s even hinted at what happened between them. How difficult this event must have been for everyone concerned, perhaps especially for Bernice herself. Could it be, I wondered, that after all these years she preferred that her letters not be read? Would she prefer to maintain her privacy? I put the letters back into the box without reading them; they are still there, unopened by me. When I re-booted my computer, the rest of the letters in the box scanned perfectly, and I have had no trouble since.

My response to this incident seems strange when viewed from a rational, scientific viewpoint, but it is an ethical approach that honors the reality and the autonomy of the imaginal figures. I believe that we need to keep such concerns in mind as we work toward learning more about the imaginal world.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

No Tommy Hilfiger

A friend asked me last night why I refuse to buy Tommy Hilfiger products (with the exception of my black bomber jacket). The explanation: I have no idea, other than the fact that my major other-worldly shopping buddy has it in for that designer for reasons unknown to me but having something to do with some Central American country. If anyone can figure that out, please let me know.

This imaginal friend of mine is a society lady, well known in fashionable circles and whose name you all might recognize, who died some years back; let’s call her Sarah. For some reason she started visiting me a year or so after she died, to my total astonishment.

My theory about why certain imaginal figures are drawn to us, or the other way around, is the same as my explanation of why relationships form in the real world: some resonance is present between the two souls, in terms of life experiences or passionate interests. It’s just the way the Universe works. Nevertheless, it does create some odd pairings, like this one: a high-society fashionista and me, who (although I clean up fairly well and actually taught dress-for-success for several years) has little interest in fashion per se.

Anyway, among the other topics Sarah and I discussed, my sartorial habits came up. At the time, I was running nearly every day, and although she regularly kept me company, Sarah thoroughly disapproved of my running gear: usually jeans and whatever t-shirt happened to be clean. Hey—-I’m running through the subdivision, for pete’s sake—what do I care what the neighbors think? As for her, well, poor thing! I mean, how perfectly dreadful to be not seen with someone inappropriately dressed! But after a couple of months I got tired of hearing the grumbling and agreed to go shop for suitable running attire.

So I get to the Galleria, and as soon as I arrive the grousing begins—-evidently the stores in this mall are not nearly upscale enough to suit my friend. I argue that my budget is not the same as hers was, and that I’m not about to shop at Saks for clothing to sweat in, thank you very much.

On the way down the crowded escalator one of those weird moments occurs where there’s sudden silence all around—-for some reason all the chatter of the people around you ceases at once. After several seconds, I hear a woman coming up the escalator say, loudly, “…and you must NEVER buy anything by Tommy Hilfiger!” Another heartbeat and the chatter resumes. OK. Message received.

Sarah and I compromise on Lord and Taylor. I grab a sweatshirt and a pair of jogging shorts that I can already tell she doesn’t care for and head for the dressing room. Picking a door at random, I open it and see that the last person in there apparently left all the clothes she tried on—-except that nothing looks like it’s been tried on. Everything is neatly on hangers, arranged just so. All are my size. All are jogging clothes. And not a Tommy Hilfiger in the bunch.

So I got my jogging outfits and Sarah was relieved. Ever since then we’ve shopped together off and on, and she finds the most incredible clothes. She no longer stocks the dressing rooms for me; it’s mostly a matter of nudging me toward the right rack in some obscure corner of the store. And she’s learned about sales, thank goodness! Designer stuff on sale works for me. Most of my favorite things are the result of these kinds of trips.

Sarah and my bad-boy alter ego Brian Kinney (whose favorite thing other than sex, booze, and drugs is expensive clothing) have recently teamed up. Last winter I was having a hard time finding a leather bomber jacket that I had wanted desperately for years and finally decided to buy. I didn’t want a girly-girl jacket but one with a harder edge to it and also some serious warmth. I can’t remember the circumstances, but I found one online, finally, at a good price. I hesitated to purchase it because the designer was—-you guessed it—-Tommy Hilfiger. But Sarah didn’t say a word and Brian just kept insisting that it was the right one. When it arrived I realized why they made an exception for this particular jacket: the sleeves are lined with red satin and there’s red trim and stitching inside. Those of you who’ve read Red will understand the significance!

Those two outdid themselves for my birthday this year, though—-a light-weight leather blazer with incredible sleeves and (it had to be) red accents inside, originally $500 and on sale for $99. Love it, love it, love it!

No more Tommy Hilfiger, though.

The Tommy Hilfiger jacket

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Gnosis and synchronicity

Early in childhood, in order to survive, we learn to suppress certain ways of knowing and ways of perceiving the world that don’t fit the commonly accepted framework of society. I learned not to “hear voices,” or converse with dead people and other imaginal beings; I learned not to sense people’s energies or see their energy fields. I suppressed these abilities so thoroughly that it is only in the last few years that I’ve been able to re-develop them to some extent. Had I not done so, it’s quite likely that I would have been medicated, given shock treatments, or institutionalized. Along the way I suppressed my intuitive nature almost completely, and learned to value only things that “made sense” in a linear and rational way. As a result, part of my soul withered into years of depression.

What happened in my life is a microcosm of what has happened in western culture for the past couple of millennia: my own gnosis, my intuitive and certain knowledge, and my own body’s knowledge and wisdom have been denied their reality and subjugated to the logos of reason and intellect. I often encounter events in my outer life whose relationship and meaning are nearly undeniable, but they are not related in terms of logos; rather, they are apparently random events that happened to coincide in time: synchronicity.

Here is an example: I woke early one morning several years ago from a dream about being painfully misunderstood but unable to speak up for myself. This was a situation that I had encountered very often as the child of an authoritarian father. An hour or so later, my father unexpectedly dropped by the house. As I opened the door and let my dog Wendy out to greet him, I noticed that the neighbor’s dog, who hated mine, was loose. Before anyone could react, the neighbor dog attacked Wendy, who outweighed him by about 70 pounds. Wendy, of course, wound up on top, growling as though she would tear the smaller dog limb from limb. From my perspective on the porch, I was the only one who could see that Wendy was all bluff; her teeth were not even near the other dog. My father raced over to the two dogs, dragged Wendy off by her collar, and began hitting her on the face, telling her what a bad and vicious dog she was. For some reason I was completely calm. I raised my voice to get his attention, and said, “Don’t you punish my dog; you let me do that.” He stopped immediately.

Seen rationally, there is no logical connection between the dream and the event, and no meaning to be derived from their coincidence. But my intuitive knowing says that they are intimately, though not causally, connected, and that there is meaning in the synchronicity: on this morning, in the “real” world, I was able to speak up for my dog in a way that I had never been able to do for myself as a child, and because of the dream, I understood that. This kind of knowing is my essential way of being-in-the-world, and yet it was not only dismissed by my family, but actively discouraged. In the same way, our Western culture has suppressed all such forms of wisdom. It has been going on since before Plotinus; Descartes just happened to phrase it in a way that caught on: Cogito, ergo sum.

Friday, September 7, 2007


Here’s a story that will make you think. If I hadn’t already been convinced that there are no coincidences in life, this series of events would have done the job!

Back in 2004, I was working part-time at the local medical school. It wasn’t a great job, not even an interesting job, but it did give me health insurance and enough money to make ends meet. Most of my free time was spent with my father, who was dying of pancreatic cancer. Our relationship had always been difficult; his influence over my life was enormous and in many ways kept me from living my life as I would have liked, out of fear of his judgment.

Dad died in early March. His death freed me in many ways, especially financially: he and my mother had left me a trust fund that would give me a small but significant income each month. A the same time, Dad’s death forced me to examine how much of the constraint I had felt in my life was due not to the man himself but to the internalized father, to the parts of my own psyche that seemed to speak with his voice. This was a difficult realization, and much of the work of transformation was internal, unconscious, and frequently reflected in dreams.

During that spring I had many odd experiences, but none stranger than my encounter with red. It began with a dream:
We are settling my Dad’s estate. There is some kind of object involved that we have to keep around, or keep a record of, because it will change things—it’s a transformational object of some sort. I don’t remember what it was or looked like in the dream, but the symbol that seems to have replaced it in my mind is something red and disk-shaped, 3-dimensional.

About a month later, a seemingly unimportant event brought the dream of the red transitional object back to my awareness. One of the cats had caught a dove and was torturing it, as cats do. I went outside to put the bird out of its misery. After stalling for quite some time, not wanting to use my bare hands to dispatch the poor thing, I picked up its body and literally ripped its head off.

It was a real surprise to discover how little force it takes to actually pull a bird’s head clean off its body—far less than opening a bottle of beer, for instance. And I wasn’t prepared for either the blood that poured out of its neck or for the flapping and flopping of its body afterwards. I held my hand over it to keep it still. Its head moved, too—its beak opened and shut, and so did its eyes. It was very strange. Afterwards I went upstairs and washed the blood off my hands; I could smell the iron…. It was such a little thing, the killing of it. One could get used to it quickly. How interesting, I thought.

By the next day, the color red was on my mind constantly. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Being a good depth psychologist, I decided to surround myself with red things, even wearing my father’s red flannel shirt and drinking redbush tea. What would happen? What would red feel like, sound like? Red was not a large part of my life—I’ve always avoided the color. Why?

Red kept appearing in disquieting ways. I found just the fact of being surrounded by red very uncomfortable and unsettling, but kept at it for several days. I noticed red everywhere—not just flowers and clothing, but stop lights, “Do Not Enter” signs. I saw a documentary about a man who was genetically female but always felt male. They showed parts of the operation he underwent to remove the female organs and create a kind of penis. It seemed too horrible to take in—the bloody destruction of all that was female in that person’s body. It was shocking, sickening, riveting.

I began to form an idea of the meaning of red in its many aspects. Red: blood, danger, anger, passion, survival. Red: sexuality, power, intensity, strength. Red draws attention, commands attention, revels in attention.

At this same time I began a series of art pieces involving the color red. The first piece, “Meditation: Red No. 1” was a kind of spiral or vortex created with torn pieces of the red parts of magazine photos and wrapping paper. “Meditation: Red No. 2,” which I began a few days after the first piece was completed, was a blood-red linen shawl, unadorned except by long fringes on the ends. Sitting and working on the piece was magical. This was springtime, and I felt myself slowing down into an almost trance-like state as I worked, sitting in a small rocker outside the back door.

My internal transformation continued through dreams, and I came to realize other aspects of red: Red is confidence, authority, courage. Red is returning to my own sense of agency, my own appropriate sense of power. Personal power and integrity—red.

On Sunday, May 9, I wrote in my journal:
I want to enjoy this new freedom I have, and also work very hard on discovering what my soul wants. I feel I’ve been given a huge gift of trust and support. Mom and Dad, in an odd way, are supporting me while I do what I know I need to do. Love and “trust,” in a way they couldn’t have done while they were alive. Now I want to live up to that trust. The Universe is supporting me, and I appreciate the opportunity and the responsibility, in the sense that I want at the end of my life to know that I lived as consciously as possible, and as courageously and joyfully as possible.

The next morning before I went to work, my journal records this statement: “I’m feeling very weird today. Nervous—like something bad is going to happen.” I got dressed, and decided to wear a white blouse and my new red shawl. I rarely wore red at all, and certainly never to work, but I decided to make brave and see what would happen.

An hour or so after I got to work, without warning, my supervisor informed me that my job had been eliminated. I had one month’s severance pay, and she wanted me to clean out my desk and leave immediately.

I’ve often wondered what the scene was like from her perspective, with me dressed like the sacrificial lamb in white and blood red. In my shock, all I could think was, this is what happens when you wear red.

In retrospect, as so often happens in life, the “disaster” of the moment was a great blessing. What I “lost” with the job was more than made up for in other ways. The income from the trust replaced the lost salary; my partner was able to cover me on her company’s health insurance plan due to a sudden change in policy. Most importantly, the “loss” of the job has enabled me to do the work on my dissertation that I would otherwise never have been able to do; and I would never consciously have relinquished the security of a “real job.”

I had let it be known that I was ready and willing to live consciously, courageously, and joyfully, trusting the Universe to support me, and immediately, the opportunity to do just that was presented to me. As they always say, be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Turtle love

I came across this fine fellow—a male three-toed box turtle—the other day as he was enjoying an ear of corn on my compost pile. Seeing him reminded me of a fascinating afternoon I spent back in May watching a pair of turtles doing the nasty out on the hillside. Turtle love is v--e--r--y s--l--o--w i--n--d--e--e--d . . . . I have no idea what this has to do with the imaginal world, but it’s too good not to share.

I came upon the two of them unexpectedly. Rather than pulling their heads into their shells, like they normally would, they both just looked at me. The male, with his angry eyes, swiveled his head in my direction as though he were daring me to interfere. I apologized profusely, backed away, and watched the rest of the event through binoculars from the deck. As soon as I left, the female seemed to urge the male to get back to what he was doing, and it didn’t take long for him to recover his interest.

Far from just tolerating the experience, she seemed to enjoy it as much as he did. Her head arched back toward his as he reached for her, though their armor prevented a kiss. His humping was rhythmic, about every three seconds, and he extended his head, neck, and foreparts farther and farther out of his shell. Half an hour into the event, he was vertical, and I could see that he had a death grip on her bottom shell with his back feet while his head and front legs opened and stretched to the sun as if in worship. By the end, some 45 minutes after I first found them, he was still attached but literally on his back, pulsing, his head first lolling out, then rolling back into his neck like a deflating penis disappearing into its foreskin. All the while his body convulsed every three or four seconds, pulling him nearly vertical and then releasing him to sag back to the ground. Guys, you can only pray for an orgasm like that one!

By this point she was looking more than a little bored. Eventually she shifted position and tried to walk away or throw him off. She couldn’t drag him far, though, on his back as he was, and still gripping her shell, so she stopped and waited. After another ten minutes he let go one leg, then (five minutes later) the other, and lay on his back for a while longer, apparently utterly spent.

Suddenly, he snapped out of his trance. In a flash (in turtle time, that is) he righted himself with a thrust of his head and one foreleg. He blinked his red eyes twice, his head came up, and he looked at his sweetie as though seeing her for the very first time. Hello, you beauty! He turned toward her eagerly, amorously. She, who had been watching him vaguely, was having no more, thanks, and closed herself up. He, not wanting to take no for an answer, circled her twice, sniffing her and butting her front and rear, lifting her hind end completely off the ground with his shoulder. Still she refused. Enough already! After the second circuit, he took off at a clip—amazingly fast for a turtle—in search of his next conquest, one supposes. When last I looked, she was still sitting there, head out of her shell but not moving, deep in whatever post-coital thoughts female turtles have….

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Believing that it’s real

Perhaps the most difficult part of doing imaginal work is believing that it’s real. In a culture that provides us with no framework for these kinds of experiences, it’s so easy to tell yourself that it’s all in your head, that you’re making it all up. And the more important the imaginal world is to you, the easier it is, in some perverse way, to talk yourself right out of it.

I was lucky. More than ten years ago, my first experience of imaginal beings since childhood came in a way that made it nearly impossible for me to doubt their reality. I can’t discuss it in a public forum, but the experience was profound and life-changing. Even so, at the time I still wondered if somehow I was imagining it all. These kinds of things just couldn’t possibly real, could they? In the face of hard evidence (in my case, actual evidence in the waking world), I still managed to doubt. So I can readily understand if you’re telling yourself that this is all nuts.

It would be great if there were some way of verifying our experiences. Wouldn’t it be great to have a “trail buddy” to go along with us, someone we could turn to and say, “Hey! Did you see that?” and get confirmation from. We need someone to compare notes with—especially those of us who are more concrete and practical-minded. It all just sounds so crazy, eh?

I (being a Gemini) have always been of two minds about the imaginal (yes, folks, even I still wonder at times if I’m nuts!). Part of me has always known, in an instinctual, intuitive way, that psychic experiences are real, and that you can actually enter a different space and converse with beings whom others can’t see. But my parents were always telling me to get my head out of the clouds and stop daydreaming, and eventually I absorbed what they taught me. I basically quit believing in anything but the practical realities of everyday life, until the imaginal world forced its way back into my life.

My mother did tell me a few times, with much nervous laughter, about her own mother, who “had the sight.” Granny had some pretty hair-raising experiences, it seems. The incident I remember best took place while she was in the nursing home, slowly fading from cancer but completely sane and alert. One evening while my mother was visiting, Granny looked out the second-story window and calmly reported that she saw her son-in-law Jack’s face there. Mom thought she had gone round the bend until a phone call came late that night that my uncle Jack had died suddenly. Now, my mother didn’t believe in “the sight,” she said, but that experience shook her up a bit.

So anyway. All this to say that we just need to trust our intuitions here. Experiences of the imaginal world go against everything we’ve been taught about how the world works. There isn’t going to be a lot of support in the culture, and even for those of us who have long experience with it, there are always moments of doubt. Try “pretending” it’s real, maybe. If you ever find a trail buddy, take advantage of it! And as you gain experience, it will get easier, I promise.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Dancing in imaginal space

Some additional analogies occurred to me last night that might help some of my readers understand how you “get to” the imaginal world, or how you know you’re in imaginal space. It’s like dancing, in a way. For instance, any of you who contra dance know the concept of “giving weight” when you do a move like an allemande. Each dancer pulls back slightly against the other, so that there’s a sense of connection, a sense of “someone there” as you move around each other. Without that slight tension in the arms, the rotation is much more difficult and much less powerful.

An encounter with someone in imaginal space is like that: suddenly there’s “somebody there,” a kind of energetic connection that wasn’t there a second ago. It's an energetic push-pull kind of thing that gives a sense of aliveness. Sensations are heightened until they approach what you might feel if the person were with you in the waking world. Hard to describe, I know; but it's one of things that, when it happens, you'll know it.

Here’s another thing to look for; again, it’s a dance image. Imagine waltzing with a partner you know well. You know how that energy flows between you, so that leading and following become almost effortless? You’re tuned in to each other. The same thing can happen in an imaginal encounter, and once again it’s that energetic connection that lets you know it’s “real.”

Something else that often works for me is to watch for the imaginal being to make eye contact with you. This can be especially powerful. You know how you can tell when someone really looks at you? You know they’re focused on you and what you’re saying or doing. Same thing here—there’s a certain intensity present, and you can sense the living presence. It’s like the difference between a real person and a photograph. In fantasy, or in a photograph, you can see their eyes; in the imaginal, they’re looking at you. When you’re looking your fantasy image or person in the eye and they suddenly look back at you, you know you’ve made the imaginal connection.

So you might try this: start with a fantasy image, and do “your part” of whatever your fantasy activity is. Watch their eyes. Have a one-sided conversation, or offer to dance with them, or imagine yourself dancing by yourself and invite them to join you (that’s one I like!). Try letting the imaginal being respond—eventually he or she or it will. Then follow the energy—you already know how to do that—and you’ll find imaginal space. And just trust—you’re doing fine. You’re already there—you just haven’t realized it yet!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

So Brian is real--now what?

OK. Those are the three pieces in the “Brian Is Real” series. They will give us a common language on this journey. From here on, I’ll share other musings, experiences I’ve had with imaginal beings, and things I’ve learned along the way.

If you’ve followed me this far, you might feel like exploring a bit yourself. Entering the imaginal world consciously is not to be taken lightly. This is not a tour around Universal Studios or the San Diego Zoo. At its tamest, it’s more like hiking through the African rainforest without a guide. Beautiful, wondrous, and exciting it may be, but it can also be deadly. Enter the imaginal world and you’re in direct contact with the Unconscious. This is the realm of myth and fairytale, home of the gods and heroes, land of demons and dragons. It’s also the place where the visions and voices of the schizophrenic dwell.

The best way to stay safe? No guarantees, my friend. Carl Jung advised against this kind of exploration, and he ought to know. Stay grounded, stay humble, and ask for guidance from your Guardians or angels (they’re there, whether you’ve encountered them or not). They’re comfortable here, and have your best interests at heart. And it's a good idea to check in with a trained psychologist if you start working with the imaginal world in a big way.

So if you’re sure you want to try this, sit back, close your eyes, and visualize yourself someplace lovely, quiet, and safe. See it, feel it, hear it, smell it: use all your imaginal senses to place yourself there. Then just wait expectantly and see who or what shows up. Be patient—it might take a while—but keep trying.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Brian! Is It Really You? Or Am I Making It All Up? (Part III)

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)

Brian Is Real! Part II, or, Talking With Dead People

I know some of you have had dreams where a historical figure or your long-dead grandmother has spoken to you, right? Or maybe you were just walking along minding your own business when all of a sudden you were sure that Great-Aunt Tillie was right there beside you—you could smell her lavender-verbena bath powder! How did you react? Did you just settle down for a nice chat, or did it freak you out?

[Note: this entry will make more sense if you've looked at Part I first.]

I think this phenomenon is probably pretty common. That may be why movies like “The Sixth Sense” and television shows like "Medium" and "Ghost Whisperer" are so popular. We just don’t talk about our experiences because there’s not much of a cultural framework to put them into. People who talk to people who "aren’t there" are nuts, right? Well, some of them are, but most of them, in my experience, are quite sane. If you’ve had such experiences and have never spoken about them, try telling one of your good friends. Chances are at least fifty-fifty that their response will be something like, "Wow! That happened to me one time, too!"

The Sufi mystics believed that the imaginal world, that separate but very real realm “in between” our waking world and the world of spirit and thought, was the location inhabited by the souls of those who have passed on. The Sufis, who were able to move easily between their embodied state and the imaginal realm, were able to speak at will with their spiritual guides and masters who had been dead for several centuries. Remember that in perfect agreement with the laws of quantum physics, time and space are not limiting factors in the imaginal world, so everything exists there at the same “time.” If this worldview is accurate, then it makes sense that we can interact with our dead ancestors as readily as we can with Brian Kinney or any other imaginal figure.

In my own conversations with the inhabitants of the imaginal world, I don’t hear their voices with my actual ears, nor do I actually see them. For the most part, I get a sense of the other person’s (or being’s) emotional state, or maybe a whiff of their cologne, and sometimes phrases or sentences appear in my mind, fully formed and seeming to come from somewhere other than my conscious mind.

At various times in my life I’ve had imaginal interactions with Brian Kinney, Merlin/Gandalf, a number of historical figures, and various departed relatives, among others. It always seemed to me that all these beings inhabited the same “space,” and I wasn’t able to detect any particular difference between them, although some were the souls of deceased relatives while others were fictional characters.

One of my friends from the imaginal world, Ellen E. Janney (1822-1887), was a Quaker from Pennsylvania and Ohio, a long-time friend of my great-great grandmother. I have one of her letters, and used the text in an art piece I did as part of my dissertation (see the artwork here).

The difference between “types” of imaginal persons became clear one day when Ellen got quite angry with me. I had been aware of her presence nearby but then forgot about her and drifted off into thinking about Brian. Ellen, miffed, said, “I am not real to thee!” She was right—at the time, Brian seemed more substantial, probably because I have a much clearer image of him because of the television program. Ellen continued, “Thee confines me to the realm of fantasy—yet thee has my letter! Do not equate us!” Clearly, Ellen wanted me to understand that there is a difference between Brian, whom she refers to as “fantasy,” and herself, the spirit of a woman who once lived.

Here’s what I think the situation is:

Ellen and Brian do indeed inhabit the same space (although they would prefer not to: Brian sneers and Ellen says Brian is “loathsome,” though there may be the tiniest hint of a smile). They exist in the same imaginal “reality,” but they appear to be entirely different classes or types of being.

The key may lie in their different origin: Brian is a being born and reared in the imaginal world as a fictional character; his existence isn’t in question, but he has no sticks-and-stones experience and no concrete ties to this waking world. Ellen, on the other hand, was born, lived, and died in the waking world. She and I share the experience of concrete reality; she was here, she breathed this air, she walked this earth, and I have the letter that proves it.

Now, operationally, one might wonder what difference this makes, and this part is harder to put into words. With Brian, as with other fictional characters, there seems to be a core of “Brian-ness” that takes on slightly different shadings depending on the lighting, so to speak. There is no “Brian” in a concrete sense, but rather as many different forms of Brian as there are people experiencing him. All are equally “true.”

Perhaps he is in essence like one of Plato’s Forms, and we each perceive his shadow differently because of where we’re sitting as we look at the wall of the cave. This explains why every fan of the show can have his or her own version; that’s why we can have Brian-the-slut, Brian-the-romantic-hero, Brian-the-pod-person, Brian-the-vampire, Brian-the-murderer (all of which exist in the fan-fiction domain). “My” Brian is slightly different from each of them, yet somehow is still Brian himself. He is indeed autonomous; he has his own life, but he is a shape-shifter, a diamond whose facets reflect many-colored lights.

Ellen Janney, on the other hand, is the personality of the living, breathing woman translated into the imaginal realm. Her personality is her own, and though she is as capable of psychological growth and change as she was when she was alive, as capable as any of us are, her essential self is as constant as my own. I could, if I wished, spin fantasies around her and about her, but she herself would not change as a result of them. She remains plainspoken, forthright, vibrant, and utterly her own person. No wonder she was incensed that I would somehow equate the two of them!

All of this is only my best guess, and I'd love to hear from others about your experiences or theories. What happens, for instance, when we fictionalize a historical character? What do you all think? What is your experience?

Brian! Is It Really You? Or Am I Making It All Up? (Part III)

Sunday, August 5, 2007

The mundus imaginalis and imaginal encounters

The what? you ask. And anyway, why would anybody need or want to learn about what seems like such an esoteric concept? Isn’t that stuff just for mystics and Jungians and other strange folks? What importance could it possibly have for the rest of us?

My answer is, maybe nothing; but you might be surprised to learn that you’ve already been there and just didn’t know it. For me, the imaginal world provides a framework for understanding experiences that just can’t be explained by the version of reality that I was taught as a child. Dreams that seem way too vivid; encounters with ghosts or spirits; moments of intuition so profound that they change your life; psychic events like remote viewing or what’s commonly called ESP: all of these make sense if the imaginal world exists.

The first few posts in this journal were written for my other blog a year or so ago to try to explain, in simple but not simplistic terms, what the imaginal world is all about. In these and later posts I’ll share some of my experiences with imaginal figures—from Brian Kinney (my bad-boy alter ego) to Merlin the Magus to the group of imaginal women who are helping me write my dissertation.

Stay tuned. Comments are welcome.

Brian Is Real! Part One, or, Why I Read the Sufi Mystics

OK, so here’s the deal. As many of his fans have noted, Brian Kinney (the super-hot super-stud on Showtime's late-lamented series "Queer As Folk") has a kind of reality about him that approaches the degree of “real-ness” that we usually attribute to our waking-life, sticks-and-stones-world friends. Well, I’m here to tell all you rabid Brian fans that you’re not imagining things. Brian is real, he does exist as an entity independent of his “creators” at Showtime and, for that matter, his fans. Let me explain.

For those of my readers not familiar with Brian Kinney, I suggest you think instead of Sherlock Holmes, a character with a similarly intense and charismatic “presence.” I hesitate to discuss the two of them in the same entry, because I cannot help but sense the utter disdain they would have for each other if they were ever in the same room. Sorry, gentlemen; I didn’t say you had to be friends. Just bear with me.

Let’s take the briefest of detours into ancient Iran, land of the Sufi mystics. Their teachings described travels in a world between matter and spirit where they met with angels, devils, and mystical guides. This in-between world, said the Sufis, exists just as certainly as our waking world, but we can’t perceive it with our five senses. Also, time and space don’t mean the same thing as they do in everyday life. Things in this other world can appear and disappear, and people or objects can travel enormous distances in the blink of an eye. One might converse with a learned master from one’s own time, and also with an Imam who lived hundreds of years ago, all at the same apparent moment. Sounds like science fiction, eh? Actually, it sounds a lot like quantum physics.

Henry Corbin, the great scholar and student of Sufism, calls this place the mundus imaginalis, or “Imaginal World.” This is the only vocabulary word you need to learn, I promise: Imaginal. Corbin uses this word in contrast with “imaginary,” which in our culture has the meaning of “false” or “made-up.” You know, like children’s imaginary friends? There’s a faintly pejorative sense to it—those foolish children, believing in all that imaginary stuff. The Sufis, on the other hand, knew better. The children were right all along.

The Imaginal World is a world just as real as this one we live in day-to-day, but it’s imperceptible to the senses we normally use. How do we perceive it, then? According to the Sufis, we perceive it through the faculty called Active Imagination. This isn’t imagination in the sense of making things up, but rather, of perceiving things that actually exist and have reality, just not in our waking world.

Here’s an example. We’ve all experienced dreams. The images that appear in our dreams seem to us quite real while we’re dreaming—sometimes frighteningly so. We don’t control them, and we don’t consciously make them up. They just show up and do their own thing. For all we know in the dream, we’re characters in their dream, not the reverse! And in fact, the Sufis would say, that is true. In dreaming, because we “let go” of our conscious ego, we enter the Imaginal world, where the dream images dwell. We’re on their turf.

(Note: there are lots of theories of dreams and dreaming, and I’m presenting only one. It just happens to be the one I find most resonant with my own experience.)

For the Sufis, the Imaginal World and the Active Imagination were all about their religion. Later scholars, notably Carl Jung, understood the significance of the Imaginal World and broadened our knowledge of its qualities and its inhabitants. Since the (so-called) Enlightenment, we in the Western world have forgotten or denied the existence of the Imaginal, and this is tragic, because without the knowledge of this in-between place, our experiences become polarized into body versus mind/spirit, rational/literal/“real” versus imaginary, black versus white. If you can’t explain something rationally, it must be your “imagination.” We’ve gotten to the point where you can scarcely admit in public that you “just know” something you have no evidence for. We have to learn to doubt our own inner guidance system, and instead, everything we know and do and experience must be justified by means of outside rules of logic.

So. Back to Brian and Sherlock. Jung and other depth psychologists who have extended our understanding of the Imaginal World have described their experiences of Imaginal figures who most definitely have lives of their own, quite as independent as everyday friends and family. These figures come and go of their own volition, and certainly don’t take orders from the one who perceives them. It is my belief that literary characters dwell in the Imaginal World as well (this idea didn’t originate with me, by the way—I’m just passing it on). It’s the best way to explain how some of these folks sometimes get into your head and just won’t leave.

Some people are better at perceiving the Imaginal world than others. Artists and writers are often very sensitive. There are many accounts by authors who describe a character showing up with a story to be told, insisting that the author sit down and, in effect, take dictation. Brian does that kind of thing all the time. Brian in particular is an almost frighteningly charismatic fellow who sows obsession everywhere he passes.

Holmes, the great detective, has driven more than one person mad in his time—fans (there was a great NPR piece on a Holmes fan-gone-mad a year or so ago) and actors alike. The late, great Jeremy Brett had a nervous breakdown while filming the Sherlock Holmes series and was heard to shout, as he was carried off by the men in white coats, “Damn you, Holmes!”

Those of you to whom Brian or Holmes has spoken will know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s definitely not the same as spinning a fantasy about someone. Rather, there’s a sense of someone other, someone else speaking, and there’s an element of unpredictability about what he says or does. Hard to describe it, other than to say that you know he’s there and you know you’re not making it up.

OK. So there it is, the first part of my little exploration of the Imaginal World. I’d love to hear other people’s experiences….

(Oh, and BTW, if anyone actually wants the references for this stuff, I can provide them….)

Brian Is Real! Part II, or, Talking With Dead People