Is The Imaginal Realm Real?

Part 3 of a three-part blog series by Cynthia Bourgeault. See below for links to the full series.


I cannot emphasize strongly enough that the word imaginal does not mean “imaginary.” That unfortunate but all too understandable confusion was created by Henry Corbin, the noted Islamic scholar, when he introduced the term Mundus Imaginalis to name that intermediate, invisible realm of causality that figures so prominently in mystical Islamic cosmology. But Corbin was drawing here on a highly technical and quintessentially Islamic notion of Imagination as itself one of those higher and more subtle energies, possessing being, will, objectivity, and creative function. To our modern Western ears, the word “imaginal” may indeed seem to suggest some private, interior, or subjective inner landscape, “make-believe” or fanciful by nature. But while it is typically associated with the world of dreams, visions, and prophecy—i.e., more subtle form—the imaginal is always understood within traditional metaphysics to be objectively real and in fact comprising “an ontological reality entirely superior to that of mere possibility.” (Gospel of Mary Magdalene, p. 153.) It designates a sphere that is not less real but more real than our so-called “objective reality” and whose generative energy can (and does) change the course of events in this world. Small though it may appear to be, it is mighty, as those who try to swim against it will readily attest.

Walter Wink, one of the few Western theologians as yet to deal appreciatively with the imaginal realm, describes how this “generative” causality played out in the events following the resurrection. His comments below offer a clear window into both of these key points: that imaginal reality is “objective” and that it carries real force:

It is a prejudice of modern thought that events happen only in the outer world. What Christians regard as the most significant event in human history happened, according to the gospels, in the psychic realm, and it altered external history irrevocably. Ascension was an “objective” event, if you will, but it took place in the imaginal realm, at the substratum of human existence where the most fundamental changes in consciousness take place. The ascension was a “fact” on the imaginal plane, not just an assertion of faith. It irreversibly altered the nature of the disciples’ consciousness. (quoted from The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, 166-7)

One need only to read the Book of Acts to sense the breadth and power of this change in the disciples’ consciousness and to grasp the implications of what Wink is saying here. Not all constructions are illusions, for sure! However and wherever these disciples came to it, they emerged from the post-resurrection events infused with a clear and high sense of purpose, resolve, empowerment, and above all, the unshakable confidence that their Lord was still present with them—which at the imaginal level is indisputedly true. With their oars planted firmly in that kingdom, they moved forward to change the world. This is exactly what Corbin was trying convey by the word “imagination,” understood in the traditional sense. Imaginal reality is a valid construction which, by changing consciousness in its inner ground, changes the nature of reality in the outer world. For this world as we know it is simply the outer form—Isaak Dinesen’s snake skin— within which runs that fiery, innermost aliveness. At least when things are working well, that is.

Because of this demonstrated capacity to affect outcome in this world, the imaginal realm has long been associated with the world of dreams, prophecy, and oracles. To attuned hearts, it does indeed seem to send “messages.” That is why it often is equated with the “subtle” level of consciousness in Asian-influenced typologies such as those promulgated by contemporary philosopher Ken Wilber. There is truth here, to be sure, but remember that these “levels of consciousness” maps are all essentially “upper left quadrant” metaphysics, to use Wilberspeak—or in other words, geared to the individual interior journey and individual transformation. Properly understood through its own Western filter, the imaginal realm is collective and evolutionary; its ultimate purpose is to guide, shape, nourish, and where necessary offer course-corrections to our entire planetary and interplanetary unfolding. As an objectively verifiable realm, interpenetrating our earth plane and operating at a twice-higher frequency of spiritual intensity and coherence (more on that to follow shortly), it is a life within a life, and its laws, interpenetrating our own, provide the inner template by which the outer unfolding can proceed rightly.

Therefore, it is also and primarily supremely the realm of cosmic assistance. It is the “place” from which saints, teachers, masters, and all manner of abler souls reach out across the apparent divide between the worlds to support or where necessary modify earthly outcomes in tandem with willing and attuned hearts here below.

Imaginal Realm Blog Series

Three-part blog series by Cynthia Bourgeault, introducing her reflections on the Imaginal Realm.

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20 thoughts on “Is The Imaginal Realm Real?

  1. Beautiful piece. Thank you!
    Confused about our role.
    In a spiritually evolving world, are we in these lower energy bodies to be energetic bridges, anchoring sources that willingly surrender and attune to the flow of the divine creative force to increase its presence here, or are we active participants in the dream? I’m thinking, hoping it begins with the first, which after much refining work flows into the second .. Or is this glamour or illusion?
    Somehow our purpose must extend beyond this difficult work of active surrender and energy refinement into creative participation in the evolving divine dance … ?
    I have much to learn.

    1. That will be the subject of my forthcoming book, EYE OF THE HEART, due out from Shambhala in early September. Basically, it’s both. In a forthcoming commentary on the Gurdjieff WEB exercise (specifically, in the concluding installment of my six posts on this exercise), I will fill in the pieces a bit further-0-not as much as in the book, but a trailer. Stay tuned! It should be up by sometime the week after next, I would guess. Blessings and thank you for your kind comments.

      1. I am Grateful, We are To Care for our Created beings and works of His Hands who formed and fashioned our Existence, Love and Thankful to Our Creator . We are practicing mindfulness and understanding. What you ask of me , I shall abide in Your Love. Jesus Christ my Redeemer in your name and in your praise I pray this prayer unto thee. Also to your faithful elect , those whom have believed and trusted and are with you as members to say Thank you for the work in Building my Father’s Kingdom. For your letters of encouragement. I’m delighted to know that God’s Will Be Done.To His appointed time and plan. Thank You for the opportunity to know of your Greatness. I Love You Always

  2. I, too, would like to have the option to print the pages without the images. Hoping this can be possible.

    Seek and you will find more than you can possibly imagine.

  3. Today, as I read the 3 blogs on the Imaginal Realm, I feel that my experience of surrendering to Christ as a process of indwelling Spirit in me. Now, I am seeking awareness this so that I can live this moment from Christ.

  4. My husband and I have recently “discovered” you. We have gleaned so much from your teachings and appreciate your ability to somehow make sense out material and information that can tend to be confusing, to say the least. Thank you for so faithfully sharing the insights given you via The Imaginal Realm.

  5. wow ~ this is so very beautiful and profound, Cynthia! so, this is one of the reasons to continue my daily centering prayer practice…so I can align the coherence of my heart, mind and soul with the resonant power of the divine energy of Christ; and from that place, serve the world around me 😉 thank-you for the reminder. Virginia from Woodstock.

  6. Hi Northeast Wisdom Webmaster…
    Is there any way to have a button to click that would allow a “print” format? Thanks so much for considering.

      1. Holly – one other thought is that it would be great to have the option to print without the photos… Don’t know if that is possible, but I thought I’d ask! I know there are occasionally graphics that are desirable, like the nesting graphics in the last article, but often they are photos that are not essential to the article.

  7. Oh my Cynthia! Masterful. And it just so happens to be true. The garments rend, tears flow, the heart bursts upon reading. Glory!

  8. One of the most helpful presentations on the imaginal realm that I have experienced.
    Of course, being in the vessel with Cynthia is always quite an experience

    1. Hello Jeremy
      Appreciated your comment on Cynthia’s take (more appropriately
      give) on the Imaginal. Her current series is some of her best work to date. We ARE all in the Vessel with Cynthia….
      very accurate description…..I am a poet and I love words.
      Traveling with her writings is quite the ride and quite the journey.
      We became friends years ago at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. Share many similar monastic experiences.
      I am a hermit in the woods near by.
      Have you checked out her latest book “Love is the Answer”?
      A collection of comments and thoughts about various concepts,
      a good little read.
      Karen D’Attilo

      1. Thanks Karen

        Yes,’ Love is the Answer….’ is a superb read. I am in the middle, reading slowly and meaningfully each word. There is such a wonderful blend of music , poetry, innate and acquired wisdom, compassion, wordsmithing, dance and the play of light and openness in her presence and writings. How wonderous!

  9. Ah dear dear Cynthia
    Exactly what I needed to read on a cold snowy evening in Snowmass.
    I managed to break two ribs and pain
    interrupts floating in the Imaginal
    Realm. Your verification of what I know of the Imaginal is balm for my
    soul. As for messages between worlds. A button, made of abalone shell, managed to disconnect itself from a beloved’s sweater and wound up on my pillow.
    Someone is indeed home.
    Thank you.

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