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Imaginal Contemplation

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The Sufi Path of Creative Imagination

Among the wisdom traditions perhaps none has emphasized imagination as much as Sufism has. The poetry, stories, jokes and other creative means, central to the transmission of Sufi teachings, not only address imagination—they activate this core human ability.  Take the joke about Mullah Nasrudin looking for his lost keys under a street lamp rather than where he actually dropped them, because he can see better by its light. This opens the portal of humor through which insight flows, activating a deeper level of comprehension. This is quite a different experience than if one were given this instruction in a more literal way: “Be sure your underlying assumptions are correct, not just convenient”. 

Imagination broadens the scope of comprehension, awakening levels of understanding beyond the intellect. Our ability to generate internal images enables us to more fully “get”—derive emotional pleasure and detect layers of meaning in—Sufi teaching materials. It’s important to note that this is inherently a creative activity, bringing thought and feeling together at a deeper level, generating insight and new action potentials. It is the cultivation of this creative imagination that enlivens the Sufi’s path, enabling inspiration to become realization in and through the fabric of everyday life.

This is such an important capacity that we would do well to name it carefully. “Imagination” in common usage is a somewhat inadequate term. Associated with “flights of fancy” and the escapism of, for example, Disney, this word lacks the dynamic, alchemical and spiritual connotations it has in Sufi practice. Ibn Arabi—the great 13th century Andalusian Sufi—used the term “Imaginal” to identify this dimension of consciousness. While we may not fully fathom the deeper, more mystic levels Ibn Arabi intended, this term is useful in our exploration of this vital human faculty. 

We may begin by thinking of the Imaginal as an inner world, a mind space where images conjure meaning and meaning is clothed in imagery. We can think of it as the internal capacity to recognize and connect symbols to personal reality not just intellectually, but in a deeply experiential way. The Imaginal is the realm of vision, in the sense of insight, foresight, and the formation of ideals. We could also say it’s a “screen” on which the internal narrative of our lives plays. The potential of this metaphor becomes more evident when we realize that we can (and do) dramatically affect this “movie”, and as we learn to shape this stream of meaning more consciously. 

The importance of the Imaginal to human development is clearly appreciated even if its true nature is still poorly understood. For example, the “positive thinking” industry exists today largely because it provides techniques for working in the Imaginal. Many of these techniques involve guided visualizations or devices for generating internal connections through the use of images on “vision boards”. These techniques are about creating what we might call ‘imagical” connections between an image and its manifestation. There is also an interesting conversation to be had about the widespread consumption of movies, and their importance in the creation of social memes. Cinema is perhaps the most directly Imaginal form of art and entertainment. 

But the Imaginal is not just a personal inner world housing individual memories and dreams, and assembling individual experiences into a story. It is also a collective space inhabited by mythologies, lore and a vast storehouse of creative expressions shared across time and cultures. This means that we can avail ourselves of resources well beyond the limits of our everyday circumstances: For example, I may not only draw a lesson from the story of David and Goliath, I may actually be able to access a transpersonal reservoir of strength, patience, and courage in the face of significant opposition. Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, can be more than a moving depiction of a choice, it can provide a fresh emotional space within which to contemplate an important decision. 

Through a deepening exploration of the Imaginal, we may also discover that our narratives are rich with personal symbols, clues, and talismans through which profound transformations might be actualized. Entering onto these transformative pathways, our understanding of the Imaginal evolves. Ultimately the Imaginal may become more than the inner world in which the personal journey toward material fulfillment and spiritual realization is envisioned. It may evolve into the multidimensional “territory” through which it is actually navigated, traveled.


Then the Imaginal will no longer be situated solely “inside my head”. Through dedicated practice within a Sufi, or other transrational context, it can become a meta-sphere of experience which encompasses—and more importantly, merges—both our inner and outer “realities” into a singularity. Perhaps this is another way of describing the mystical experience—the transcendent integration of all and everything into a unified field of being. Perhaps this is what Ibn Arabi was suggesting by this term—the Imaginal: a human capacity for perception and meaning making that is self-animating, ever-shifting, and inherently creative—far more complex and powerful than the intellect.

~Puran Lucas Perez

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"...the imaginal realm is entered only through the heart. How you get there is where you'll arrive."

Cynthia Bourgeault -- The Eye of the Heart

Cynthia Bourgeault...

... is a modern day mystic, Episcopal priest, writer, and internationally known retreat leader. She divides her time between solitude in her seaside hermitage in Maine and a demanding schedule traveling globally to spread the recovery of the Christian contemplative and Wisdom paths. Her roots are firmly planted in the Benedictine monastic tradition, her wings soar in the Christian mystical lineage, and her wisdom is tempered by daily mindfulness and embodiment practice learned through more than thirty years of participation in the Gurdjieff Work. An emeritus faculty member at The Center for Action and Contemplation, she was honored as one of the 100 most spiritually influential living people in 2021.


Visualizations in the Imaginal

Creative (or Active) Imagination here refers to the remarkable work of Ibn Arabi. A 12 century  Sufi mystic, poet, and philosopher, Ibn Arabi continues to be regarded by Sufis everywhere as "the greatest master". This adulation is both for his gifts as a brilliant interpreter of the Koran and as an evolutionary mystic, providing access to fields of perception and being hitherto largely unavailable in Sufi orders. 

In his seminal teachings, he proposes the existence of the Imaginal Realm, a transformative dimension of consciousness, based in "imagination" not filled with fantasy or wild imaginings but with symbolic imagery. The quotation marks around the word, imagination emphasize that active imagination is far more than the “make-believe” we normally associate with that word.  

The Imaginal exists in the interspace between objective reality and the consciousness in which it arises. It is the barzakh between inner and outer experience. Ibn Arabi suggests it is here that spiritual illumination leads to realization as our ideals are embodied—made living flesh and blood—through the generative capacities of Active Imagination. 

Understanding how this works is tricky since this is a twilight realm—an inter-world having both external and internal properties. Partaking of both, the Imaginal is not strictly subject to either cause and effect explanations nor to the incoherence of random streams of consciousness. Yet it incorporates those potentialities in a creative space where that which is formed becomes both a physical and metaphysical manifestation.  

We could think about the Imaginal Realm as a darkroom in which images are developed and printed. But this would be an oversimplification because a darkroom, for all it’s magic, is inanimate, while the Active Imagination is a living phenomenon. That said, we can use the metaphor of film being developed and a print being struck for the process whereby our personal and spiritual potentials are embodied, i.e., are made real in the physical dimension. In the darkroom it is the action of chemical solutions which generates the changes in the physical properties of film and paper. In the Imaginal Realm it is dynamic contemplation that enables transformation.

From HUZUR by Puran Lucas Perez

Living Sufism is a program of the Sufi Way


Click on the boxes below to explore these three modalities of Imaginal contemplation.

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