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What is Imaginal Literacy?
To put it plainly, you're living in someone else's imagination right now
It’s not a common word, imaginal. It’s the kind of word that feels almost familiar, but different enough to make you question what you really know about it. Like an old crush, breezing back into town after years abroad.
To get a bit more familiar, let’s consider these two sentences:
“Tom imagines what San Francisco would look like if cars were banned downtown.”
“Tom imagines the world to be a reasonable place, bound by rules of what is and isn’t allowed to happen to him.”
“Imagine” doesn’t mean the same thing in those two sentences, does it? The first is an explicit, conscious activity: generating imagery and impressions of San Francisco for Tom to examine and muse on. The second is an implicit, unconscious process: a process that informs, drives, and limits Tom’s conscious thoughts, words, and actions – without Tom being truly aware of it.
In that second meaning, we start to get a sense of the imaginal; and if you’re thinking ahead, you might already sense the importance of imaginal literacy: if Tom isn’t literate in the grammar and vocabulary of his unconscious processes, there’s no end to the trouble he can get into, even with the best of intentions.
But before we get to that, we have to understand that first, nearly-familiar word: imaginal. It has two distinct meanings, and both of them matter deeply. Only by layering them together can we understand how significant the mission of imaginal literacy is.
1. Sensing with Imagination
The key difference between the imagined and the imaginal is in how we look at them.
Imagination is usually seen as generated fantasy, something you create with internal effort because it’s pleasant for you. You close your eyes and create a scene, imagining that you’re on vacation, sitting on a beach somewhere. If work and family responsibilities start to creep into the fantasy, you buckle down a little harder to block them out. Imagination is something you do, a mode of psychological creation.
The imaginal, on the other hand, is more like a sensed reality. Just like you use your eyes to see around you, your ears to hear around you, your hands to feel around you — in the same way, you use the inner eye1 to sense the imaginal. You aren’t trying to create an inner scene: you simply look inside and see what’s already there; you let yourself notice the ways that you’re already imagining yourself to be a particular type of person, the world to be a particular type of place. You drop into a dream-space, and allow the imagery there to unfold, so you can see the dynamics your psyche naturally plays out.
You close your eyes and let your attention drift. After a few moments, you notice an impression of stone – of your body being made of stone. Suddenly, you realize how tightly you’re holding yourself, how a defensive rigidity often creeps not just into your body, but your social posture as well. You take a deep breath, let those wordless defensive narratives in your body dissolve, and feel your body relax into the Earth’s comforting gravity.
The imaginal is much more subtle and vast than this short explanation, but that’s the core of it: imaginal practice is the art of perceiving inner reality, and patiently attending to its dynamics.
But remember, that’s only the first of two interwoven definitions.
2. Of the Imago
During an insect’s life cycle, they pass through multiple stages that barely resemble one another. Dragonflies, for example, spend most of their life underwater. They only become dragonflies and live in the air for the last few months, when they reach their fully matured, adult form — a form called the imago.
It’s not just dragonflies — the final, adult stage of any insect is called its imago; or, to use the adjective: it’s imaginal form.
That’s our second meaning of imaginal — the fully adult, matured, evolved potential of the person. And not only at an individual level, but collectively, stretching far beyond our own lives. What is the fully evolved adult potential of the human being? Of life on Earth? Of consciousness in the cosmos?
Imaginal practice is the art of navigating that maturation, unfolding that evolutionary potential, and dissolving the obstacles that get in our way.
And just like it’s not always obvious how a caterpillar zipping itself up in a cocoon and dissolving into goo is a step towards its imago — it’s not always obvious how a given imaginal practice session is a step towards our own imaginal potential. But somehow, it always seems to work out that way.
Our Imaginal World
From the definitions above, a definition of imaginal practice starts to emerge (the art of navigating evolutionary potential, primarily by perceiving and attending to inner realities), but that still leaves the question of imaginal literacy.
To put it plainly, you’re living in someone else’s imagination right now. We all are. In direct and literal ways, as well as more subtle and dynamic ways, we’re all living in each other’s imaginations — and most of the time, we’re stuck there, rather than navigating by our own discerning power.
On the more literal side of the spectrum, a handful of people imagined it would be useful to crisscross the countryside with rail lines for quick travel, and now we’re all living in the realization of that imagination. Same goes for sidewalks, skyscrapers, and those handfuls of American, Russian, and Chinese flags on the moon.
On the other side of the spectrum, you’d have to practice for at least a few months to make the really subtle stuff more obvious, but you can probably already see how you have strangely specific ideas about people you’ve never met. What do you think about Taylor Swift? Where did you pick up the stories you tell yourself about who she is and what she’s doing?
Or how about your attitude towards money? Do you feel that it’s a little bit evil, though maybe necessary? Do you think people with more money have more of a right to good lives than those without it? That seeking more of it is admirable? Or gauche? Or silly? Examine the stories you tell yourself about even this one small topic, and you might find that their effects ripple further than you thought. You might see that they decide how you feel during tax season, how you relate to your career, even how your gait changes when you go clothes shopping.
All of these — and all the other ten thousand stories that move you through the world — can be sensed directly, like a feeling in your body, like a scent, like a breeze on your skin. They aren’t intellectual puzzles to think about and piece together. They’re presences you can feel.
If you’re unable to directly feel imaginal content, it’s kind of like living in a huge city without being able to read any of the maps or street signs, without being able to understand what announcements or passersby are saying. Best case scenario, you wander aimlessly, caught up in the movements of crowds and the unconscious implications of city planning. Worst case scenario, you get trampled underfoot, run out into traffic, or fall through a sewer grate.
Imaginal literacy is what happens when you bring both definitions of imaginal into this problem: you learn to sense the dynamic currents and underlying infrastructure of imagination within you and around you — and you take responsibility for navigating them, for not getting stuck while growing towards the imago.
Where to Start?
If all of that sounds good and fine as far as metaphors go, but you still don’t have a feel for what exactly it is we do in imaginal practice, I can give a few examples. But keep in mind that these are only introductory examples — imaginal practice is, from the start, so personalized and so individual, there is no one size fits all approach. At a certain point, you have to accept that no one else’s path will fully serve you.
What I write below are simply starting points – entryways to the forest, not necessarily maps of the branching and intersecting trails.2
The first step I always recommend is learning somatic resonance, that is: befriending the intuitive felt sense of your body. From there, you can explore how different aspects of your life feel in your direct experience. When you think about your job, is there a subtle bloom of excitement, or a slight drop in your gut? When you watch the sunset, do you notice a slight expansion in your chest? A slump in your shoulders? What’s behind that, can you sense the inner narrative, the dynamics that lead there? You can learn a bit more about somatic resonance here.
Maybe the simplest intro is Imaginal Freestyle — an exercise where you use a seed phrase to explore your inner impressions. In this case, the exercise starts with feeling through your impressions of three similar terms — Deeper Self, Higher Self, True Self — and ends with a meditation that blends into an imaginal journey to explore your impression-space.
Try out Shared Imaginal Practice; the full description is on Rosa’s website, but very generally, it’s a multi-player version of Imaginal Freestyle: you drop a word or phrase into the space between you and someone else, and then explore your inner impressions of that phrase together.
Go back to a dream you had, and re-explore it in meditation. See what you sense there that you didn’t the first time, invite the dream to unfold a little further, talk to dream-figures and see what they have to say. In general — take Jung’s suggestion in his instructions on Active Imagination, and “effect the unity of conscious and unconscious.”
The unity of conscious and unconscious; such a clear phrasing of one of the goals of imaginal practice. It’s a metabolic process, a developmental process. Bit by bit, as your awareness of the imaginal gets deeper and more acute, new layers open up; you unblock what stands between you and the next stage of your life’s unfolding, and suddenly new layers (and new blocks and challenges) become available.
The point isn’t any specific practice. The point is learning to surf the dynamic, to take agency and responsibility for the questions in your soul that demand to be lived. When you can do that, you’ve taken the leap from imaginal literacy to imaginal authorship.
I’m actually not a fan of this “inner eye” language but it’s the one that made it past the focus group. The language of the imaginal tends to lean towards visual metaphors, but that’s not always helpful. The true imaginal (or true imagination, for that matter) is less about inner visuals than it is about the gestalt of all the senses. For example, think of your dreams: the visuals are quite strong, but often other elements are even more important: the emotional tone of the scene, the implicit knowing in the atmosphere, the feel of a room, the deep existential sense of being in a world where certain things are and aren’t possible…
All these and more are the true inner sense-landscape of the imaginal — not just some visualizations drifting around you.
If you’re interested in some of those other trails, other possible stops along the path to imaginal literacy include: shamanic journeying, Tibetan deity yoga, parts work, specific modes of artistic creation, Jungian active imagination, somatic imagery practices, overlaying symbolic and literal sight in day to day life, study of history and culture in a contemplative mode — and a host of other possible practices.
At a certain point, you start noticing practices/activities that want to come through you, and you intuitively make your own as you go.