The Door to the Imaginal Realm

by Mary Pat Mann

“Once upon a time” begins the tale, but soon we find ourselves in places not connected to any time we know, where golden apples grow on flowering branches and strange creatures hide in the deep woods. For Clarissa Pinkola Estés, the opening words, “‘Once there was and once there was not’ … alert the soul of the listener that this story takes place in the world between the worlds where nothing is as it seems.” (1)

What is this “world between the worlds”? For much of the postmodern West, it is nothing but fantasy and daydreams, a relic of an older, more gullible past. This is the realm of fiction. The logical, materialist worldview is based on a rigid distinction between fantasy and fact. The most fundamental facts are those material things we can perceive with our physical senses and control with our hands.

But we no longer live in that old Newtonian universe. Since Einstein, the solidity of matter has increasingly dissolved into space-time continua, probabilities, and fields of influence whose extent is unknown and perhaps unknowable. Physicists are familiar, if not always comfortable, with this new universe. It is David Bohm’s realm of unbroken wholeness and Werner Heisenberg’s world of tendencies.

Studying these ideas, we can begin to see our universe in strange new ways. As we learn that physical reality is not exactly what it seemed, the doors of perception may open. We can perhaps entertain the idea that other orders of reality may also exist. Fred Alan Wolf explored some of the esoteric implications of the new physics in his book, The Dreaming Universe. He says if we look deeply into “hard reality,” we find that “levels begin to dissolve and atoms appear to be not things; they seem like ghosts, and we enter into an imaginal realm.” (2)

Wolf uses the word “imaginal” deliberately to link quantum physics to Sufi mysticism. Robert Bly and Marion Woodman link this same realm to poetry and myth: “Avicenna said there was a world Aristotle didn’t know of, in which Spiritual Presences live. One world is mud and stone; one world is divine; and there is a third world, an in-between world. The name given to it so far is the Imaginal World. Saint Francis and Saint Teresa can meet a human being there.” (3)

Henry Corbin introduced the West to Avicenna’s in-between world, naming it (in English) the Imaginal Realm to highlight the difference between the inventive daydreaming we dismiss as “imagination” and something absolutely real, given and not constructed. Corbin describes this realm as “a world as ontologically real as the world of the senses and the world of the intellect.” (4)

Ontology is the branch of philosophy that tries to sort out the real from the not real, a much trickier business than you might imagine. What does it mean for something to be “ontologically real”? What kind of reality are we talking about?

A thing — or a place like the Imaginal Realm — is ontologically real if it persists in some kind of space-time location and can be perceived by independent observers at different times. It might not be physically present to our ordinary senses, but is accessible in a consistent way to those with the skill to get there. This is the sense in which some kinds of mystical or psychic events are real.

One person sees a vision and it is dismissed as a hallucination. Many people see a vision and it is called participation mystique. But if many people consistently see the same vision, not all of those people are true believers, and the vision persists, eventually the powers that be will admit a real event that cannot be explained in material terms is occurring. The vision is ontologically real.

Indigenous peoples know about this kind of reality: this is the world of shamans, of magical sight, the world of dreaming. This is the place where spirit allies appear to us, angels touch our shoulders, and fairies lead us in enchanting reels across the dewy fields. Jung knew this world, which he named the collective unconscious, home of the archetypes. Things which cannot be dissected under a microscope or reproduced in a laboratory can nevertheless be real and available to our experience.

What if there were an objectively, ontologically real Imaginal Realm? What would it look like? It would be a place outside ordinary time and geography, a place of kairos rather than chronos. Like dreams. Like ritual space. Like Faerie.

This would be a place where you had experiences, met people, did things in which you could participate but which you could not control. These places would feel real, and the experiences would affect you in real ways, even though you might maintain awareness that the reality was of a different order than eating a slice of cheese pizza. Like deep meditation. Like archetypal psychology. Like shamanic journeying.

If this were real, people would know about it. They would tell about it in stories, write about it in books, enact it in dramas, and sing about it in songs. Have you read any good myths lately? How about legends of magical places and beings? How about tales of the occult, of strange happenings not explained by science?

Consider the possibility that myths, legends, ancient stories and poems might be more than mere fiction. They might be travel reports posted from the Imaginal Realm. Such reports may not convince you of its reality but, at the least, you must admit that throughout time and space, across the Earth, all peoples have heard of such a place.

If the Imaginal Realm is a real place, how do we get there? Good question. We get there by using our imaginative faculty. Corbin described the imaginative faculty as “a faculty of perception that is a cognitive function, a noetic value, as fully real as the faculties of sensory perception or intellectual intuition. This faculty is the imaginative power, the one we must avoid confusing with the imagination that modern man identifies with ‘fantasy’ and that, according to him, produces only the ‘imaginary.'” (5)

Corbin is saying that if you know how to use your imaginative faculty, you can reliably reach the Imaginal Realm. He called this faculty “active imagination,” the same term Jung used to describe his method of accessing the psychoid realm of the archetypes. Unfortunately, our culture is largely clueless about how an imaginative faculty works. Like other unused things, our active imaginations have atrophied. When it comes to imaginative muscle, we’re couch potatoes.

This is why we find it so difficult to meditate. Our minds are so poorly disciplined that we struggle to turn off what mediation instructors call “monkey mind,” that stream of chatter and criticism most of us live with constantly, telling us we’re not moving fast enough, need to lose weight, just said something really dumb, want to win the lottery … Monkey mind cannot access the Imaginal Realm.

Once we learn to achieve a calm state of relaxed awareness, many things become possible. Among them is a state of perception different from the intensely focused logical approach our culture favors: the open and receptive posture sought by Taoists. Linda Kohanov, horsewoman, therapist, and author, talks about “the flashlight in the human brain” that we can open into a wider, less intense, beam. “You can illuminate progressively larger sections of landscapes teeming with endless varieties of life, but without your laser, you have no means to immobilize specimens, and you certainly can’t dice them into pieces small enough to fit into little packets of logic. As a result, you have no souvenirs to send home, no jerky to give others a taste of where you’ve been. But that doesn’t mean these regions don’t exist or that they aren’t worth visiting.” (6)

This is the state she uses to connect people with horses, helping people access and express true feelings and deep knowing. This is also the state she uses to connect to other orders of reality in which she gains deep insights into the worlds of horses and people, and the intersections between the two. This is the state of mind developed in meditation retreats, in shamanic workshops, and in some kinds of guided visualization. It is another prerequisite for reaching the Imaginal Realm.

The only way to understand this is to do it. The states of mind can be described, but take practice to actually attain, and especially to experience at will. Many traditions offer training that will help. Each tradition will also offer maps, or at least clues, for how to reach the place itself. Here is one:

The Imaginal Realm is an in-between world and you get there by going in between. “The trick to magic is that it lies in between. In between what? It almost doesn’t matter. It just has to be in between. Not blue or yellow, but green. Not sun or moon, but the light of dusk. Not river or land, but the bridge that spans the water. … A place between, you see. You can find them anywhere.” (7)

In-between places, called liminal places, thresholds, or edges are key for several reasons. From the standpoint of consciousness, being in between frees the mind from conventional expectations and opens it to new experiences. This is why trance or meditative states are important. From an ecological standpoint, edges are the richest environments, where creatures from different habitats meet and mix. From the standpoint of chaos science, edges are some of the most interesting places in the universe, where even our basic concepts of how many dimensions there are become fluid. (8)

If, until today, you have been a committed, hard-bitten realist who thinks other people trance out just to escape the stress of modern life, consider this alternative: Those spaced-out meditators, pathworkers, visualizers and journeyers are doing more than temporarily checking out of “the real world.” They’re going someplace else, and that place is also real.


Notes (Click back button to return to text.)

1. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Ballantine Books, 1997.

2. Fred Alan Wolf, The Dreaming Universe. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994, p344.

3. Robert Bly and Marion Woodman, The Maiden King. New York: Henry Holt, 1998, p10.

4. Henry Corbin, Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam, translated by Leonard Fox. West Chester, Pa.: Swedenborg Foundation, 1995. Mundus Imaginalis is also available online at

5. Ibid

6. Linda Kohanov, The Tao of Equus. Novato, California: New World Library, 2001.

7. Charles de Lint, “Granny Weather,” Tapping the Dream Tree. New York: Tor, 2002.

8. Mary Pat Mann, “Doorways to Other Worlds,” Parabola, v28, n3, 2003, pp7-11.

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