I often hear a recurring question from people who know that I investigate the imaginal realm and her figures, "Why would you spend years of your life writing about imaginal figures, exploring them, and engaging them?"
The short answer comes easily, "To live life imaginatively is a great gift, a source of inner healing and beauty." As you may have guessed there's a bit more to both the question and the answer.
While my questioner can't quite get her, or his, head around my interest in such figures, there's frequently an embedded additional question, "What is an imaginal figure?" To find a most helpful response, I always go to experience, my questioner’s as well as my own, to answer both questions.
By way of an explanation, I'll give a brief though admittedly incomplete
example of my own early encounter with an imaginal figure. I trust too, that sharing this experience will clarify what I mean by at least one particular kind of imaginal figure. I'll call this figure a visionary presence, who by her very appearance AND persistence would not allow me to deny, as many of us often do, my experience of an imaginal "other."
In the story to follow, my reader might well say, "This is a sad story. Where's the gift you speak of, or the enchantment?" The gift is that when my figure came into my life, she profoundly broke through the world's limited model of reality, causing me to wonder about her, and eventually to tell her story. I was always able to know that my experience of her was real.
And so the story...
Many years ago, I encountered a woman who I thought of as a ghost or an angel. She first manifested when I was a 15 year-old girl, shortly after I lost my mother to a tragic death in childbirth. I know now, that the grief and longing I felt for a very long time did indeed create a particular state of consciousness, which became an invitation for an imaginal encounter.
This figure seemed kind and often returned to me in the following 22 years of my life, though she also terrified me, simply because she was an apparition. I was not so young in the 22 years that followed as she continued to visit; nonetheless, we had sadly gotten off to an unfortunate start. In my fear of her, I had developed ways to prevent her from fully manifesting, though in the way of heart, I knew she was there. For instance, when I felt her presence, I would turn all the lights on in my bedroom or snuggle close to my husband, his warm material body helping me move closer to the world of matter and away from that more in-between realm in which our encounters occurred. I had learned to bring my own level of consciousness to a place where she could not fully manifest. She possessed her own autonomy, and so did I.
At the tender age of our first encounter, I couldn’t understand her presence in my life, and I also knew that if I spoke of her I would risk being considered out of touch with reality. The important question I ask now is, "Whose reality?" And so, for the most part, I kept my own counsel.
Much later I would investigate the reality of this figure and write extensively of my experience of her, sharing what I have learned in Imaginal Figures in Everyday Life: Stories from the World between Matter and Mind. I explore why she came, what she wanted of me, and whether our troubled relationship was for me, in the end, a source of wonder, lost opportunity, or something else entirely.
There are less unusual imaginal figures, which enter our consciousness, including personifications of aspects of our own psychology, which appear in dreams. Others capture our imagination as they appear in fairy tales; still, others are gods and goddesses from mythology. They all represent very real dimensions of human experience. They are therefore what we know of as archetypes.
My training, in analytical psychology, many years after my first visionary encounter, provided me with a lens through which to understand experiences in the world between conscious and unconscious ways of knowing. I was so pleased too, that in exploring the work of C.G. Jung, James Hillman and Henry Corbin, as well as reading the writings of early mystics, I wasn’t alone in this kind of experience. I felt called to write Imaginal Figures in Everyday Life, to bring more people to an understanding and acceptance of imaginal figures in their own lives.
I know now, that those who dwell in, or at least visit from time to time, the imaginal realm, can find wisdom and wonder with which to their lives.
Sadly, the 15-year-old girl that I was, at the time of my first encounter with my figure, could not enjoy meaningful exchanges with her. My ego was not yet strong enough to accept that there are other models of reality with which to encounter mystery. The model of reality that existed when I was 15 could not support me in my experience. That is not to say that other children of that age could not have much different relationships with such figures. Until I began my own doctoral studies of imagination I had no wise guides to walk with me in my exploration. With both a theoretical framework and helpful others (professors and classmates) at my side, I was able to begin the explorations that my soul had long called me to do.