manifestly urgent

I gave myself one lunar month to write a manifesto for somatic-imaginal practice, and this site is what came out.I didn't write this as a manual or a how-to guide (though there are elements of that), but to share what's become most important to me about this type of work.I hope it opens up some new possibility for each of you.If you get something out of my work, I'd love if you considered supporting it with either the Patreon or Stripe link in the footer 🍃

post-script, but earlier

A lot of false starts preceded this document, but I eventually settled, as an organizing theme, on "what things are manifestly obvious to me about somatic-imaginal practice?"In the process of recording the obvious stuff, a few things happened that are good to keep in mind while reading:

  1. I realized time and again that as I was writing, I hadn't mentioned the imaginal for a page or two. The scope of the things I've learned through approaching the imaginal are often just as well-suited to approaching meditation, therapy, creative writing, making friends, and generally living life.

  2. After realizing #1, it became clear to me that while I do think imaginal practice is uniquely well-suited to developing the approaches and habits I find so enlivening, it's also true that a) you could develop these approaches without ever focusing on the imaginal (though you'll definitely cross paths with it on the way), and b) you could work with the imaginal your whole life without developing these approaches.

  3. Given the above, I've obviously been undergoing a lot of re-formulation in how I talk about what I do, where I'm trying to put focus and emphasis when talking to others, and how I'm playing around with my own practice/clients. This document was pretty much outdated as it was written, sentence by sentence. But it serves as a good mile marker, showing where I've been, as well as pointing the way forward. So if you read it, read in that spirit--the spirit of examining one stage in a process.

idiot hymn

Imaginal practice is a vast complexity of a subject, a fractal lightning strike, rebalancing the energy between above and below; a meta-mycelium of endlessly branching tendrils; an ocean of mysterious agencies in your soul; an ecosystem of ecosystems of meaning. Only an idiot would try to simplify the idea down to a page.

I'll give it a shot.

Imaginal practice is what happens when you take seriously the idea that the Underworld is constantly pinging you for attention, and you start to pay attention and ping back.Imaginal practice is what happens when you take seriously the idea that the Unconscious has both personal and beyond-the-personal elements--and you act like it.Imaginal practice is what happens when you notice the images, emotions, impressions, somatic sensations, and intuitions that pop up throughout your day; and, further, when you notice them as poignant disguises worn by by Some Deeper World that knows you, adores you, and desires wholeness for you.

Now that we've established my credentials as an idiot, sit down, have some tea. Let's figure out Some Deeper World.

your feet are the path

The word aporia stuck with me for years. The translation I first saw was "pathlessness."Aporia held me in its grip long before I could put a word to it. My entire early life, I read compulsively: great literature, clever sci-fi, foundational philosophy, cutting-edge fiction, mystics, diaries, letters, manuals--it barely mattered what. If I just shook enough books, rattled enough pages, rifled enough library stacks, surely something would fall out and change my life. Something would show me a Right Way to be; a path I could walk, step by step, and know I was going the Right Direction.

Years went by looking for a path that might accept me. I did LSD in the rain in Michigan, read the Dhammapada over and over, watched Beckett plays on repeat. I spent a year studying Vedic yoga in Korea. I did pranayama in my apartment and read pages of Crowley I'd printed off at work. In Thailand, I meditated and drank mushroom shakes and drummed with circus hipsters and had Very Spiritual Sex that we were pretty sure counted as Tantra. I learned trance and self-hypnosis and used the chaos of Hanoi traffic to break my nervous system into a hard reset. I read classical Ch'an poetry and hiked through Nepal. I fasted for days and read academic philosophy from secondhand book shops. I watched bodies burn on the ghats in Varanasi while shit and plastic floated past in the Ganges.

Over and over again, year after year, I hoped and asked "is this it? Will this one be my path?"The sky never opened to reveal an angel choir. I never uncovered an ancient scroll that told me my destined path.But I had a dream.


For all my bobbing and weaving through conceptual frameworks, I had actually settled into a consistent baseline of practice. Certain techniques were too effective and too well-suited to me to ignore--they were the gold that settled into the bottom of my pan as I sifted through silt. Specifically, Somatic Descent and dream work were the practices I couldn't ignore or move past.So when it came time to work with this dream, I approached it both imaginally and somatically.

There's no need to take the 4 or 5 pages I'd need to recount the entire dream; it was full of spirit animals and a desert plaza and worlds ending and beginning.
The relevant bit is that there was a forest next to a desert, a lake in the forest, an island in the lake, a bison on the island; and this bison was a gravity well for cosmic law and meaning. In the presence of a creature like that, the big questions come out. I was drawn to ask a core question: "What is my path? Can you show me the way I need to go?"
The bison looked at me, looked clearly and directly in a way that no other imaginal being has before or since. He didn't only look at the imaginal me that was journeying back into the dream--I could feel his gaze on my physical body, where it lay on a carpet in an empty apartment, listening to a shamanic drumming track. His gaze carried a ringingly clear message:

"You are lying on the ground;
you are in a meditative trance;
you are placing awareness in your soma;
you are re-visiting a powerful dream;
you are moving through the dream on intuition.
Does this not seem like a path to you?"

I felt a little silly and frustrated; I'd been hoping for something like "go find a kundalini yoga guru" or "move to Japan and study zen." Something a touch less obvious than "your feet are the path."But I thanked the bison, and sat with him for some time to watch the pattern tracing through the sky overhead.Over the next weeks this whole issue of paths, a problem that had been with me all my life, softened almost to the point of disappearing. No more background radiation of anxiety and anticipation; no more feeling that the longer I went without a path, the further behind I was.

These feelings were replaced by a more gripping interest in what I was already doing. Somatic meditation held my interest on its own. I increasingly approached the imaginal for its own sake. There'd always been subconscious pressure in my practice, a feeling that everything I did needed to lead me to my path, to fit into a path I had yet to find. This pressure strangled and limited everything I did without me realizing.And now, all that weight and pressure was just... gone. Everything was fine. I was a guy doing somatic meditation and imaginal work, finding ways for those to deepen and become expressions of my own life and choices and views.

Pressure also released from teachers and sources. There had been a subtle tendency before--I'm having a hard time expressing it even now, but it had something to do with authority, and the Right Way to do things. I'd been conflating "the way some person/tradition does this, due to contingent views, personal history, sociology of the tradition,,," with "the way practice x is done, full stop."Now, post-bison, it was effortless to separate the two. "Oh, that bit doesn't apply to me. I can let this practice fit itself to my own being."I don't know if these shifts sound as big as they were, but to me, they were world-shaking. They changed everything for me, and have persisted ever since--not because I buckled down and concocted a detailed plan for dealing with these issues; not because I sat patiently through a few hundred hours of meditation retreats; not because I talked to a therapist or read an IFS book or anything like that. Simply because I re-visited a dream and talked to a bison.That's the kind of power available here--nearly effortless dissolution of problems that have followed you all your life.And if that sounds too good to be true, if you're sure there must be a catch--good instincts. Let's talk about caveats in Appendix 1.

image return

Before we go further, let's look at the most basic technique. If we think of the word “imaginal” as being about as broad as the word “sports,” then “image return” is ~roughly analogous to “cardio.” Cardio isn’t the entirety of sport by a long shot, but if you want to get involved in sports, one way or another you’re going to have to practice cardio.Before working with images, let’s talk about the word itself. The word image has a different meaning in this document than it does in daily life. When I use the word image, I don't (necessarily) mean something visual. An image is, most simply, something that appears in one's phenomenological field. This might be primarily visual (they often are), but it might also be an emotional sensation, a vague intuition, a hard-to-define somatic texture. An image is whatever presents itself in your phenomenological field--and half the work is becoming sensitive to that field so you can sense what is presenting there.The quick version of the most basic image technique is "notice images; let them unfold; follow them."If you want a little more than that, let's expand.


notice images

For most people, the best place to start noticing images is dreams. Images, sensations, and events during waking life are more subtle and harder to catch when you're starting. Dreams speak louder.Later on, you may notice images while washing dishes, meditating, running, coding, fighting with your partner--during any given moment of life. But starting out, it's best to go with the most obvious. So pick something from a dream that has stuck with you, something that still feels like it has some oomph in it. The more recent the better, but don't be afraid to work with a powerful dream from long ago, if that's what calls you.


let them unfold

In a calm, quiet place, enter some deeper state than normal consciousness--meditation, trance, self-hypnosis, whatever does it for you. When you've settled in, call up the image you chose; attend to it and hold it in your mind's eye as stably as possible, for as long as possible.In the beginning, difficulties come up. The image feels slippery or glitchy, it disappears and reappears, you get distracted. These are all fine--keep returning to the image. In time, the image will come alive.What do I mean by come alive? In this case, it's when the image does something you didn't make it do. For some people, this will happen very quickly and dramatically, the image will take on a life of its own and start changing within minutes. For others, it may take days of returning to the image to get subtle aliveness. In either case, the first thing once it comes alive is to do nothing.Letting the image unfold is an act of patience and trust. Don't step into the image, don't interact with it, not yet. Think of this as a conversation--the image is saying something, and you don't want to interrupt until you're invited to speak. For now, you listen. You notice. You attune yourself to the subtlest hints radiating from the image and its unfolding.Often, this is enough. Patient noticing does the work that needs to be done, and aliveness withdraws from the image. The conversation is over; take a few deep breaths and return to your day.


follow them

If more is needed, if the image still tugs at you, you can step into relationship with it and follow it. This is hard to describe not because it's difficult, but because the ways this can happen are diverse and call for intuition.In my bison dream, no one told me to go to the island where the bison was sitting. There wasn't a sign saying that I should ask him a question, or what type of thing to say to him (or even that I should speak to him, rather than fight or play chess or smoke cigars). I held the beginning image of the dream in my mind's eye (me, standing on a hilltop overlooking a large area) and waited for it to come alive. When it did, I sensed interest in the island to my left. I followed that pull. When I got there, when I found the bison, I felt questions bubbling to the surface. I followed them.There's skill involved in learning how to follow an image rather than clumsily forcing your will on it. Luckily, that skill builds by learning to notice more and more subtly, which means you'll get better at it every time you let an image unfold. Every step of this process--from choosing an image to work with, to letting it unfold, to following it--comes down to learning to listen more and more sensitively to the image.To repeat that in different language: somatic-imaginal work emerges naturally from sensitivity to the urgings of your phenomenological experience.

live urgently,
seek resonance

When stepping into the imaginal there are no paths; your feet are the path. Which is fine to say, but where do you go from there? What makes walking east any better from sprinting north, or shuffling north-north-west?Our navigational credo here is live urgently, seek resonance.


live urgently

Even if reincarnation factors in, this is the only life I have. Parts of me may move on to a new incarnation, but that will be a new person, a new ego, a new set of circumstances and drives and obstacles. This is the only life that River Kenna gets to accomplish what River Kenna is here to do.That's what drives the urgency part of this--a healthy awareness that whatever path I take, whatever destinies and destinations I'm heading towards, time is a factor.
More important, however, is the root of urgently. To live urgently is to live by what urges us.
What does this mean? It doesn't mean we indulge every passing want that presents itself; it doesn't mean eating pizza and milkshakes, playing video games all day, punching anyone who pisses us off, or generally lowering ourselves to our stickiest patterns.The first part of living urgently is paying attention our urges, noticing their qualities. The next part is clarification--learning the difference between urges that come from interference (cultural, biological, relational...), and ones that come from intuition and instinct.You want to find the deepest urgings within you, the ones with staying power. The ones that drive your life even when they go unnoticed. You want to pay attention to their qualities, their textures, their vibes. You want to become hypersensitive to their subtlest scent, and to follow it whenever you catch a whiff.What does this look like in practice? At first, it looks like false start after false start. There's too much interference, too many passing urges, so you just follow a few at random and see how they go. Don't feel bad about this, it's part of the process.A few things I've done, as exercises in following strange urges and being open to being surprised by them:

  • stopped in my tracks, got on my knees, and gave verbal thanks to my door for protecting my apartment.

  • eaten undercooked potato

  • let my spine move more "snakelike" while walking down the street

  • spent a whole meditation session talking out loud to my big toe, coaxing out its experience

  • ordered a meal that sounded bad but had an evocative name on the menu

As you can see, these don't need to be life-shattering Profound Urges™. Especially starting out, I don't recommend quitting your job, leaving your wife, moving to a cave in Nepal, putting all your money into bitcoin, or getting a face tattoo.You can begin quite simply: spend the next week or so alert and open to any urges that come up, any wants or desires. Don't block, suppress, or dismiss any of them, no matter how absurd, how normal, how incredible, how nondescript, how anything they are. Just notice. Keep noticing. Write them down, if you can.

note

it's tempting to view this process as digging deeper and deeper, clearing away gunk, until you find The One True Urge, which you can then hold onto for the rest of your life. I'd recommend you keep some distance from views like this.
It's much more helpful to view this process as a new type of sense you're developing--the same way you never find The One True Sound or The One True Smell, you're not going to find The Urge that you can stay with forever. What you're doing is building a capacity to notice what urges are present, on deeper and deeper levels, and to include that information in the way you move through life.


seek resonance

live urgently, seek resonanceDiscernment is the key skill of human development. If you want to put off judging and discerning for yourself, you could follow all your urges indiscriminately; you could try to find some teacher to tell you which ones to follow and not; or you could turn it over to divination tools like tarot or rolling dice. These are all options, sure. But at a certain point, you have to have the ability to seek resonance. You have to develop discernment.

There's very little to say here except that if you've heard me talking bout the somatic element of the imaginal before, this is one of the main nodes where somatic practice will help you. Learning to check in with the body while living urgently, learning the subtle pangs and pings that tell you "yes," "no," "not quite," or "not yet"--this is something no other person can teach you, you have to learn the language of your own soma.

That said, what other people can teach you is the process of getting in touch with the soma. That will only take you so far, but it's a start.You could try seeking resonance without touching in with your body, but that tends not to go well. The main instrument most people use is the intellect, and there's a whole lot of interference that can creep in there. Maybe you convince yourself that something resonates with you because you want to be the type of person it resonates with. Or you ignore resonance because your upbringing convinced you that only the bad sort of people resonate with that thing. Or maybe you're just in a bad mood today and mistaking grumpiness for a lack of resonance.Assiduous practice, touching in with the body, noticing how urges and actions affect your life, your relationships, your sense of power and autonomy--this is a critical sense to build up. Think of the beginning of this process as similar to your eyes re-adjusting to a new environment after being in darkness for so long. This sense is your birthright, it's natural, it's available--but you need to put in patient effort to let it return, and to allow yourself to make sense of what you're seeing.

Take a few moments to breathe. Pay attention to how your body feels. Step back from an intellectual idea of your body--bones, organs, all contained inside of skin--and let yourself notice the experience of the body; the way it doesn't necessarily conform to those clean lines; that your sense of the body stretches a bit further than the skin; that the interior feels maybe dark, maybe rich, maybe numb, maybe painful. Don't try to map these feelings onto anything right now.Staying in this space, with your attention placed gently in the entire sense-space of your soma, go back and re-read this section. Notice how pieces of it make you feel, how certain ideas land. Notice if anything in your attention reacts to word choice, or if there's any sense of constriction/expansion around the formatting choices on the page. Just notice. Keep noticing. This is resonaut training.

intellect
x
intuition

In day-to-day life, intellect guides us and intuition--if we pay attention to it at all--serves a secondary, advisory role.By intellect, I mean a pretty wide usage of the word: the conscious mind, attentive ideation, the way that we think and plan and move through waking life.By intuition, I'm pointing at something preverbal, a sensing apparatus that shows up to us as gut feelings, stray thoughts, or a vague sense that some thing should be some way.Intellect is what carries most of us through the day. We prioritize tasks, plan dinner, gauge whether we have time for the gym, pay bills.Intuition plays a support role, with its support cross-checked by the intellect. I get a feeling I should call my brother--then decide not to, since I have a meeting in 5 minutes. I get a sense of unease, like I should go somewhere dark and lie down--and because it's the weekend and I'm alone at home, I do so. I get a brief flash of an image where I'm hit by a car crossing the street--so I'm extra careful at crosswalks on the way home.Whatever quibbles we may have here and there, this balance works pretty well for our waking lives. It's gotten us this far.In imaginal work, the balance needs to be exactly reversed.


When we drop into an image, intuition is the primary guide. If something feels off about going left, don't go left. If it strikes you as pleasant to pet the deer, pet the deer. If there's an inchoate sense that something is waiting for you in the cave, head into the cave.Things tend to be fruitful when we go intuition-first in imaginal work, and they tend to go awry when intellect comes to the fore in imaginal work. I'll give an example:A couple months ago, I had a dream that was sticky to work with for this exact reason. The dream involved some symbolism that I've learned about from intellectual and academic perspectives, so that part of my mind kept waking up and interfering. Specifically, the dream involved the holy grail; repetitions of the numbers 3, 7, and 12; and energy centers in the body.When I tried to work through the dream intuitively, my intellect kept engaging, over and over again:

3! That's the trinity, the hidden fourth, where's the hidden forth? 7, completion, 7 classical planets, 7 bowls of wrath, 7 factors of awakening!" "Energy centers? How many, was it a chakra system or the dan tiens? Where was the focus, gut? Solar plexus? That might mean..." On and on and on.

This dream took several sessions over several days to get much out of, specifically because the intellect kept thinking it had the answers. It kept treating the dream like a sudoku puzzle to be solved, and there's not a dream in existence that can be solved that way, no matter what some WikiHow list or Dream Symbol Dictionary might tell you.
So how to find the right balance in imaginal work, where intuition is primary and intellect takes up a background advisory role? Let's look at one more example:
Working with the same dream as above, I managed to get into a good intuitive trance, and follow some of the images. While I was following the image of a blue-purple vortex in my upper chest, a wisp of intellect rose up along the lines of "throat chakra is blue, right?" Rather than latching onto that thought, or shooing it away, I lightly placed my intuition on it, and felt yeah, that's helpful; feels connected and folded that information into my approached with the image.Notice how this pretty precisely mirrors the relationship between intellect and intuition in waking life (or at least it does if you have a similar approach to me): an intuition might come up during the day; you don't shoo it away, don't latch onto it and let it rule your day--you examine it briefly with your intellect, and if it seems prescient, you include it in what you're doing. If it doesn't, you shelf it.This is the best balance for imaginal work: let your intuition guide you--which includes letting it guide you towards any helpful bits and pieces that bubble up from the intellect.

view

Everything we do is directed by our idea of what we are doing.

  • if you view art as an escape, you'll watch whatever's playing at the local theater on the weekend; if you view art as something meant to challenge and provoke, you'll end up at that sensory exhibit in the refurbished warehouse downtown.

  • if you view food as fuel, you'll be happy to slonk down a nutrient sludge after a workout; if you view food as a community bond, you'll host dinner parties.

  • if you view love as a divine bond between souls that have a destiny to teach and support one another, you'll treat your partner one way; if you view love as an inevitable consequence of brain chemistry and proximity, you'll treat them another way.

Notice that none of these views necessarily exclude the others. A single person could hold every single view listed above, each view getting activated in different situations.The task at hand isn't to winnow down and find the One Right View to install in your brain; the task is to notice what views you already hold about imaginal work, to record them, to question them, and to note how they change over time.In my imaginal workshops, we spend a full 90-minute session on "Views," and it still never felt like enough. There's an ongoing discussion to be had here, but writing is a one-sided medium: I'll sketch out some broad strokes, and trust that you'll flesh them out on your own, or message me if you want to discuss more.


There are many, many ways to view imaginal work, and each one will affect the way that you approach images and contemplation in general.
Some of the more familiar views are things like:

  • a medical view: the view that something is amiss and we need to fix it. IFS and soul retrieval generally fit here.

  • a control panel view: the view that this type of work allows us to control our thoughts, feelings, somatic responses, and so on. Most popular visualization methods fit in here, things like "picture an ocean view to calm down" or "remember something sad to make yourself cry." The image work here tends to carry a more literal definition of "image," and tends to aspire to more quick and visible results.

  • a "viewless" view: a classic in meditation circles, this idea that you can go beyond views and see pure reality. That others may have subjective views of things, but that you See Clearly.

  • a neuro-skeptic view: in this view, dreams and images are just brain static, the mind is just chemically reconsolidating memories and learning, and you are mistaking these processes for meaningful input.

  • a sacred view: many of these images are emissaries from a deeper reality than ours, and they carry messages for us. There is overlap between what we might call images, and what others might have called gods, angels, djinn, spirits, etc.

I could go on, but you get the idea. There are many ways to view this type of work, and in each view, certain possibilities open, while others close.
There's no need to feel any guilt or inferiority about holding one view and not another. There's no need to aspire to some other view that you think looks more appealing, more meaningful, more reasonable, more whatever. The only thing you need to do is notice your views, inquire into them, and notice how they change over time. (And yes, notice if there is some subtle shame or aspiration or annoyance around them, and why that might be.)
If you notice that you hold both a neuro-skeptic view and a sacred view, sit with both of them. Notice where they go together, and where they clash. Feel into their histories, see if each of them has its origins in different periods of your life. What are their emotional textures? Does it feel like you don't like the fact that you hold one of the views? Why is that? Write your thoughts on this, and check in with yourself every couple months. Are new views emerging? Do other ones seem limp now?
Our work is determined by how we see it, so we want to make sure we are attentive to the way we see it. Are you opening more possibilities than you close? Are you opening the right possibilities for your soul? Or are you chasing the possibilities you feel like you should? Attentive journaling is the best way to keep a finger on this pulse.

the image shows us
how to show up

This is a phrase I use a lot, the images show us how to show up. In fact, if I have to nominate a single phrase as the one thing to pass on about imaginal practice, I'd pick this one.
The images show us how to show up. Everything else can be reconstructed from there. Plant that, let it grow, work with it for years in increasingly deep and involved ways, and you'll end up with a rich practice and a profoundly transformed life.

The image shows us how to show up.

Mmm, yeah. That's the stuff.
In case the phrase is not self-apparent to you, let's dig in a bit.


The number one problem people have when working with images--dreams being by far the most common example--is that they treat the image as a puzzle, or an encryption.There's a pervasive idea about dream-images: that you can look up the meaning of different symbols, trace back common dream patterns, research the figures and archetypes in the dream, and when you get it all polished and properly places, the puzzle is solved! The message is decrypted! (see examples for a version of this)This attitude immediately runs afoul of my one central tenet of image work: the image shows us how to show up.I have never yet met an image that wanted to be treated as an intellectual adventure in decryption.

If I dream of a stark white city where I wander invisible, unseen by the denizens--I approach the image the way I would approach that city. I wander, I pay attention, I watch people. I allow situations to develop in front of me.

If I'm meditating, and I notice an image of a wolf with wings attacking me in a pine forest--I approach the image the way I would approach a wolf with wings attacking me: I run. But oops, then I realize the wolf is not itself the image; the full image includes the wolf, the forest, and the dream-me. So now I zoom out to hold all that as the image, and start to sense what that image wants. To my surprise, the tendency of the image is towards dream-me being brutally mauled by the wingèd wolf, who then lays wolf-eggs in my carcass. Time speeds up, I watch the seasons change, and in winter, the eggs hatch atop my strewn bones. I feel oddly protective of these pups: they gestated inside my ribcage. I want the best for them in this strange forest. They wander off, to seek survival, and my heart burns for them. Here, the image breaks off. It's spent.Rule of threes demands another example, but let's make it a short one: If I'm working with an image that shows up as the voice of another person, particularly someone I know, then I respond as I would to that person (including an awareness of how proud I am of this response, if better responses feel available, &c).


The image shows us how to show up.

This is a call to develop, clarify, and use intuition. There's no spreadsheet I can send you with Column A labeled "Type of Image" and Column B labeled "How to Approach."The image is the one showing you how to show up, not any other person, teacher, document, or sacred scroll. You can stay open to suggestions, but the final arbiter will always be you. You have to become sensitive enough to the images to know how best to approach them. You might befriend, attack, explore, destroy, amplify, drop, or climb any given image--you're the only one who can know the way.

examples

Right now, I've only put out a couple examples of what this work looks like when I do it. These aren't meant as how-to guides, but as ways to help people envision what this looks and feels like for one person--and to extend that to how it might look for you.
I hope to add more examples as time goes on. For now:

This article I wrote, giving a narrative example with footnotes
This Twitter thread explaining a particular bit of dream-work I did


decryption-mode example

in "the image shows us how to show up" I said that dreams & images are often treated as adventures in decryption. Here's one example of how that looks:

"So I dreamed that I was in a graveyard, visiting Daenerys Targaryen's grave, when an owl flew overhead. As I was leaving the graveyard, I noticed I was leaving a trail of teeth behind me.
"Let's pull out the dream dictionary: graveyards are a symbol of death and endings, that's obvious. This website says that Daenerys in a dream expresses a fierce aspect of the Mother archetype. Owls are symbols of wisdom and death. And teeth falling out is... ah, powerlessness.
"Let's line up the pieces--Death, Fierce Mother, Wisdom, Powerlessness... I need to let go of my fear of my mother to attain wisdom, but I feel powerless to do it. That feels right! Cool!"

Yes. Very cool. And almost certainly wrong. As James Hillman put it, "you've interpreted the dream and nothing, absolutely nothing has happened."Even if the interpretation you come up with from an intellectual sudoku approach matches up with what would come out of an intuitive unfolding approach, it's still wrong--because the point isn't the idea of what it means, the point is the experience of that meaning instantiating itself within you.If someone tries to attain buddhist enlightenment by reading wikipedia articles about stages of meditation, we'd laugh at the silly little puck; but the same thing happens with dreams, and we accept it as common practice.

appendix 1: caveats

I said in the first section:That's the kind of power available here--nearly effortless dissolution of problems that have followed you all your life.I stand by that, but I'd also be remiss if I didn't burst some potential bubbles.The simplest way to put this is something like this: there appears to be a near-inverse relationship between how consciously-directed imaginal work is, and how powerful it can be.This has a lot of implications, often frustrating ones. I'll try to quickly sketch out the area we're talking about, and a couple examples.


If you decide in advance "I must achieve x, and it must be achieved by method y," that's a whole lot of conscious direction. That's not to say it won't work, but it is to say that you'd be best off picking quite modest goals for that kind of work. The full force of the Unconscious doesn't like being pushed through the qualms and preferences of your conscious mind, any more than the full might of the ocean likes being directed through the eye of a needle. You'll likely get a trickle, but that's it.So for example, sitting down and saying "I will attain enlightenment, this year, via imaginally dissolving and untangling my mental formations," good luck. That's a whole lot of laying down the law by the conscious ego--so by the inverse law, there's very little power available for the goal (and it's a big damn goal).


You might be thinking "okay, so I'll just go where the power is and let go of conscious direction." Examine that a little further, and notice that you've been doing something close to this your whole life, most likely. If you're new to imaginal or contemplative practice, it's likely that your Unconscious has been doing its thing for a long time without you consciously giving much direct input. How has that worked for you?Most of us, looking back over our lives, see that we often have one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake. A huge amount of power is present, but it's going in so many directions, not much actually happens but confusion and strain.In an imaginal context, the Heavy-on-Power, Light-on-Direction stuff looks more like this: You approach the imaginal with intention and trust; you communicate with your whole being the directions that you hope to move, grow, and develop--but surrender to the Mystery as to what that will look like, how it will happen.If you smell a monkey's paw here, you're not completely wrong.Your core intention may be, for example, to live a life of greater love and compassion for all beings. And maybe the way you get that compassion is by losing your house, getting divorced, going through a protracted illness, and falling deep in debt to survive.Intent matters a lot. Bravery and trust matter a lot. I'm not trying to warn you off of this approach, I'm just trying to strip away some of the romance. Opening your life entirely to trust in the universe towards service to others is not necessarily going to be all roses and orgies.
Granted, from what I've seen, things don't tend to get that extreme. Mostly, what this looks like is a lot of uncertainty. You work with certain intentions, engage with the unconscious in good faith, and your life changes. Some changes look good to you, others look difficult, and others are unexpected and weird. There's very little you can point to, on a month-to-month basis, and go "ah, there it is--that is my imaginal work bearing fruit in the world." The power is undirected, moving mysteriously, and difficult to pin down.
And yet--you do notice things changing. Sometimes this is apparent only over the course of years. Sometimes you come out of a single trance session and your psyche is permanently altered. There's a huge amount of power there, but it's not something you can predict or plan around. You have to trust, notice, and allow.


(Ngl, all of this also feels difficult to me from a spread-the-word perspective.It's easy to hand someone a map of meditation stages and approximate numbers of hours involved per stage;it's more difficult to hook folks with "surrender to the underworld, and you'll see utterly undreamt-of life transformations in anywhere from 2 days to like a decade or so. These transformations may or may not include your entire life falling apart so that you can learn a vital lesson. Who's in??")


With all of the above in mind, most people tend towards the middle of the direction/power relationship; keeping one hand firmly on the rudder, the other hand dipped in the water, feeling for currents to surrender to for a stretch. This is a flexible and elastic relationship, your approach will change and shift over time. Mine certainly has.

appendix 2: suspicions

There are a few things I'd like to include here, mostly to get other people to play around with them. If any catch your eye, pick them up and get back to me on what you find. I'll likely add to these over time.


falling asleep is fine

A lot of people have come to me with a problem that I'm not actually sure is a problem: falling asleep during imaginal work.I think I know why this registers as a problem: we conscious egos like to be in control of things, and what better way to control something than to contain it? If the conscious mind is there to begin the imaginal work, and to end it, it has contained the work and everything feels good.If the work goes forward, but segues into unconscious sleep--there's a sense of failure, a sense of doing it wrong. Containment has been breached and something precious has slipped away.Personally, I think it makes sense that a journey from the conscious to the unconscious would end in the unconscious sometimes. My suspicion is that for certain types of work, this is actually preferable. It may be more efficacious to give the unconscious all night (or at least all nap-time) to work things over in its own way.This is currently at the level of suspicion, but I'm keeping an eye on it.


excluding methods is often an unnecessary limitation

You'll find imaginal or imaginal-adjacent systems that are allergic to things like aggression, violence, immersion in the image, and so on.

You must treat the image with
unconditional positive regard, you
cannot commit violence or harm
to it, as this is a way of suppressing
and denying it.

Stuff like that.My first complaint against this is that it's incorrect. My second complaint is that it's based on weird assumptions.Taking the first one first: go back through any account of shamanic journeying, medieval magic, tantric practices, anything along those lines--you're going to find a whole lot of killing, disemboweling, dismembering, screaming, burning, metabolizing, and everything else. So historically, excluding this stuff is a no-go.More importantly, it's experientially incorrect. People do these things with imaginal figures all the time and get results. So that's oh-for-two.Taking the second point, weird assumptions, the assumption seems to be something like: When you imaginally kill or maim a figure, you are harming it, you are suppressing it, you are denying it.Which... also doesn't pass the smell test.If we could actually harm or kill parts of ourselves, don't you think every person with a habit they'd like to skip would simply call up that part, kill it, and be done with the thing? The fact that this doesn't work, even with repetition, calls into question this idea that we're even capable of doing harm to parts or figures in that way. The figures we encounter are not usually The Thing Itself (whatever that thing may be), but some message or mask or perception of that Thing's qualities. Punching our perception of a thing does not bruise the thing itself. You can't wound the sun by punching a sunbeam.As for the accusation that people who treat images this way are denying or suppressing some part of themselves: it's not impossible that this could happen in some cases. But it seems like an odd accusation given the audience, which mostly consists of people who:

  • learn how to do this work, with the express goal of learning more about themselves and becoming more whole

  • spend significant time sitting quietly, alone, interacting with internal figures in ways that are often difficult and sob-inducing

  • are, by definition, anti-suppressing a lot of this stuff, actively trying to stir it up and interact with it.

Given the above, I have a hard time with dogmas like these.
Maybe these instructions are fruitful advice for particular goals; that seems like an entirely reasonable assertion to me.
The trouble comes when they are treated as Laws of How This Works on a functional level.


immersion in the image plays a vital role

Sometimes the imaginal is treated like a snow globe, or like bugs fighting in jars: the practitioner holds themself separate from the image, and from the figures in it. They keep their sense of "me" above and separate from the figures and scenes that play out.The fact that it is often easier for people to put themselves into scenes when the figures are hugging, showing compassion, crying together, or watching a sunset makes me suspicious. The fact that people tend to treat scenes of violence, difficulty, and anger as something to be watched from above, kept safely at a distance, makes me double-suspicious.Culturally and sub-culturally, most of us find it easier and more admirable to engage with love, compassion, grief, sadness, despair, and and even fear (to some extent) than with anger, aggression, power, and hatred. There are definite pitfalls to engaging with these aspects, especially if we're not experienced with them. But it seems like a mistake to let this allergy guide our imaginal work.As I've said above, the image shows us how to show up, and I don't meet many images that want to be held at arm's length. For the most part, they are hungry for engagement. They want us to hold them, love them, wrestle them, grieve with them, run away from them, digest them. Holding some part of yourself separate from them, above them, denies the feral intimacy that provides the necessary friction for transformation. Friction, after all, is just traction by another name.


archaic imagery works better

When working with the images that come up on their own, ignore this point. Work with whatever comes up and let it unfold.But when choosing and guiding your own imagery, opt for the most ancient available images whenever possible. They seem to work better, for whatever reason. I could theorize about how archaic images are of the deep collective unconscious, or that they have stronger effects on our inherited nervous systems, or that the Ancestors recognize them more readily–it doesn’t really matter. All I know is that it seems to be the case.Example: If you work with fear of death, and use threatening imagery as a way to provoke and engage with that fear, it’s probably better to start with an image of being mauled by a bear, rather than hit by a bus. Better to provoke yourself with a spear through the heart than a bullet.Example: If you work with your sense of the future, releasing constriction and opening a greater sense of possibility, you might do this with some version of the classic image of “the path ahead of you.” The work will likely hit deeper notes if you traverse that path by foot rather than in a car.Again, I’m operating at the level of informed suspicion here, and there are all sorts of caveats. Some work doesn’t open itself up to substitution as readily. If your fear of death is tangled up with the fear of being connected to beeping machines in a sterile white hospital room, that image must be the starting point. But as a general rule: when possible, opt for the more archaic images, just to check.