Amazing Imaginal Figures: Guides to the Depths

March 14, 2015


Imagination, as I use it, is a term from analytical psychology. The idea is that there is a domain between matter (nature) and mind (reason) known as the imaginal world. Much unconscious content lives in this domain and is accessed through symbolic images (imaginal figures). For example a dream image (a person, animal, shape, even a feeling) would be one such figure.  I've been asked, "What  are the benefits and challenges associated with working with imaginal figures?" 

Perhaps an illustration with a 12 year old population would help.  I once worked with students who were frequently in trouble with their peers and authority figures. They had very little insight, were impulsive, and had difficulty regulating emotions.  These young people often felt alienated, and were confused by conflicts within. 

Their teacher shared with me that she and they had just finished reading S.E. Hinton’s (1971) coming of age novel titled, “That Was Then, This Is Now.”  I asked these youngsters to choose one of the crimes in the novel, and depict it through drawing and watercolor wash, a technique they knew.


Then I asked them to draw an image of a being who would justify such a crime (the image that emerged through the art was an imaginal figure, an inner destructive voice. One such imaginal figure, according to its artist might say, “You deserve to be shoot.”  (We know that we need to acknowledge destructive forces to successfully contain them.)


I then asked these students to draw an image of a figure that would help the crime's perpetrator think differently about committing the crime (another, more positive, imaginal figure emerged through the art). One student said that his figure was saying, “If you kill someone, he is dead FOREVER. You better think!” Another student’s figure reminded him that the person who was shot had a mother who would grieve for him.  

Of course the figures were personifications of aspects of the artists' psychic life, interior parts of self (attitudes, beliefs, feeling states, etc.) that were often inaccessible to the students without the art, both because they were largely unconscious, and also because the students didn’t have emotional language with which to express such ideas on their own.  The figures were imaginal (real) and not imaginary--meaning disconnected from the inner life of the artist.

The art was done over a three-day period, giving symbolic life to forces within, allowing students to talk with each other about “their art” but really about inner aspects, often unconscious, within themselves. They also shared their work with parents and teachers in the school community enabling others to see more empathically, the complexity of these youngsters’ inner worlds.  

The benefit, for therapists, in inviting clients to enter an imaginal experience is thus:  though the figures in the imaginal realm may not be concrete, they are real nonetheless, bringing  healing, insight and growth. There are limitations though. For instance, if I am working with someone who tends to move into psychotic states I might hesitate using imagination as a technique, as this might risk flooding of the ego with unconscious content. Also some individuals do not have an imaginative capacity, so for them to generate, or take seriously, the imaginal figures would be difficult. 

Thanks to my Linkedin friend, Steve for the good questions that prompted this post. Steve, I am aware that I didn't say how I came to write about imagination and imaginal figures; I'll save that for another time. I do talk about it in Part One of My forthcoming book titled, Imaginal Figures in Everyday Life: Stories from the World Between Matter and Mind (Chiron Publications). 


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