Taking for real the imaginal

Photo: Snow Pack Against a Cabin Window.

In my current research, I am exploring the role of the imaginal (i.e., dreams, fantasies, the imagination) for the evolution of the human psyche. I am also looking at how the imaginal supports transforming traumatic events into a return to growth, which often involves creative acts of self-expression. I have found the early works of Mary Watkins helpful and refreshing. In her book Waking Dreams, she observed:

“We live out the imagination in everything and yet we are against the very notion of it. In our confusion we lose something. Our actions are ‘nothing but.’ Life can be found boring, interminable and most unkind in all the harshness of its ‘reality.’ And yet it is the crushing of a dream that makes us cry; the refusing of a wish that makes us feel hopeless. Our fears send us flying into bed for far longer than our physical selves demand, or we turn to endless fidgeting with details that will never make any difference except to the time they consume and discard for us.”

Watkins argued the modern Western preference for ego dominance (and cognition) misconstrues the imaginal as ‘just fantasy,’ thus contributing to the failure to actively engage with the imagination. She wrote:

“The confusion between daydreams and waking dreams has served to discredit the latter. One condemns the imagination for its tendency to flee from difficulties, to involve one in wishfulfilling fantasies…. These are qualities, however, that do not arise from the imagination, but rather from our way of relating to it. In these instances one uses the imagination not in a disciplined search for the values of the imaginal, but as a relaxation from awareness. The degradation that daydreams bring to the imagination should be transferred to the ‘ego’ and its manner of relating to images.”

The fear of the imaginal in part results from how psychiatry distinguishes sanity from insanity — a line typically drawn between “reality” and “psychosis.” Yet our imaginal worlds are not the slippery slope to psychosis. Rather, it is the inability to reflectively engage with the imaginal that distinguishes the state of psychosis. Watkins remarked:

“Waking dreams and hallucinations, however, rely on two distinctly different psychic functions: imagination and perception. Hallucinations purport to deal with external material and perceptual reality, whereas waking dreams and dreams pertain to imaginative reality…. In an hallucination the individual is unable to recognize image as image and external perception as perception. The two are superimposed in a way that does not permit an imaginal awareness to exist.”

To benefit from the imaginal — whether expressed in night dreams or day dreams — we have to witness what is occurring, and take time for reverie. Play is important in this process. The imagination delights in play. By writing down dreams, painting them, putting them to music, performing them, or just becoming curious about the traits of the people who inhabit fantasies, we become reflectively aware of the role the imaginal is playing in our psyches. We all potentially live in two worlds, the real and the imaginal, and we are at our best when we reflectively inhabit both.

Book Reference

Watkins, Mary. 1976. Waking Dreams. Dallas, TX: Spring Publications, Inc.

© 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).