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Entering the Imaginal Realm

April 2014

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We are all conditioned to believe that dreams are “just our imagination.” But a growing number of psychotherapists and dream work pioneers – among them James Hillman, Steven Aisenstat, Robert Ross, and Robert Boznak – are beginning to suggest that the imagination is not to be so cavalierly dismissed. In his book, Tracks in the Wilderness of Dreaming, Robert Boznak recounts a conversation he once had with Henry Corbin, a Sufi scholar, about a dream he had of a Middle Eastern city with white stucco cupolas. After hearing the dream, Corbin told Boznak, “You were there. You were in that City. That’s why it felt so real. You were there because the City exists.”

"The place where the City exists had been described by him (Corbin) in many of his books, most notably in Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn-Arabi. He had called this location the “mundus imaginalis,” the imaginal world. This imaginal world was a state of reality, a realm with an architecture of space and time as real as the world of spirit, metaphysics, pure thought. There were considered to be three worlds: the world of matter below, the world of spirit above, and the world of image in between – each realm entirely real. In the twelfth century, according to Corbin, the middle realm dropped out of Western consciousness, leaving us with the dichotomy of matter and spirit, and eventually just with the science of matter. But when vision was still strong in Europe there had existed an upper world of spirit/mind, a lower world of matter, and an intermediate world of image. While fully awake, visionaries had free access to this latter realm . . . Today I see the prototype of this intermediate realm in the world of dreaming."

Similarly, in his book Conscious Dreaming, Robert Moss reminds us that this knowledge of the imaginal realm is endemic to many cultures around the world – from ancient Persia to Greece to shamanic societies of South America (pp. 128-129):

"Among the indigenous peoples, apprentice shamans are required to make ecstatic journeys through a metageography created and mapped by previous voyagers. They are given limited directions, but are expected to report back in elaborate detail. Their courage and competence will be judged by how closely their reports correspond to their mentor’s knowledge of these territories in nonordinary reality . . ."

For the aboriginal peoples of Australia, the dreamscape was intimately connected to the landscape, and to the stories of the ancestors, who dreamed the world – including the natural features of the landscape – into being through their actions. According to Robert Moss, the was also true for the ancient Phaecians, on whose shoreline the Greek hero Odysseus washed up after his long voyage through the mythopoetic dreamscape of Homer’s myth. The Phaecians considered their wild and rocky coast to be a sort of liminal space between dreaming and waking – “a way station and meeting point for adventurers in consciousness.”

To consider these cultural references in any depth begs the question: Is there a place where the world as we know it and the dreamscape intersect? For anyone who has ever had a dream about someone they knew or a place with which they are familiar, it seems intuitively obvious that there is a great deal of intersection. The two are obviously not the same, but there is enough similarity to suggest that we cross this boundary nightly, and probably as well during the day, when we daydream or fantasize, or simply go elsewhere than here in our minds to other times and places. The dreaming body itself is traveling through dream space while apparently lying inert in the world of waking state reality.

Perhaps if this is true, and Sufi philosophers, Greek heroes, and indigenous shamans have all catalogued the objective reality of dream space, then everything that exists in this world of the senses also simultaneously exists in the dreamscape, albeit in a slightly altered form – a form that is in some sense unencumbered by weight, solid form, gravity, or linear notions of time.

The next post in this series is The Dual Reality of Dream Characters.

To read more blog posts, go here.

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