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