There is a secret world that floats beneath the surface of the one we mostly collectively recognize. I call it the imaginal realm, but it has had different names in different cultures, dream time, magical realm, collective unconscious, faerie realm, mythic or archetypal realm. Each name has a different nuance, but they are all pointing to a similar idea, that there is a place that our soul can access that glides silently behind the ordinary world. I name this the imaginal realm because it is so interwoven with imagination. It is this place that our prayers, intentions, imaginations access to find inspiration and to move blockages impeding our path. It is this place that the shaman accesses to find strength and helpers as well as perform healing for themselves, another person, or the collective.
There was a time when those who were able to access this realm were initiated by an elder and shown ways to navigate this world. But in the modern world those guides are few and far between and so most are relegated to finding their own way, mostly disastrously, through already troubled ground.
The imaginal realm has always been fraught with fierce archetypal entities, the things that lie in the subconscious of our collective minds, the impulses that cause us to act out the most instinctual parts of being human, desire, love, rage, jealousy, revenge, grief. So it has always been a pretty gnarly place to navigate and every shamanic tradition has some sort of guidance for navigating this space safely. But those in the modern western culture who have shamanic tendencies not only usually step into this world by accident without any sort of guidance, but also are required to deal with a modern version of this realm where knots tied by our culture’s impact on the unconscious become extra slippery. The path for healing and the role of the healer in this context begs for a level of clever awareness most of the uninitiated are not able to rise to.
I was one of the uninitiated plunged head first into the imaginal realm during my first trip to India. There I met people who are working with that realm to serve their own nefarious purposes, praying on the unaware. If there is something to abuse, humans have found a way to do it. I was ripe for initiation, my soul had been in deep grief for the loss of a friend and mentor for a couple of years and then the physical separation from my love partner during an incredibly creative period of my life sent me riding waves of sublime highs and crashing lows, sometimes in the same moment. My soul had expanded to encompass more of the human experience and it was this expansion that allowed for the alchemizing drop of initiation to take hold. The drop came in the form of a deluge, really. India was that deluge. The roller coaster of internal emotions I had been experiencing for months prior to my trip were exploded out around me. Life and death danced in a chaotic fury in the streets. My soul had found a new home. And so India brought me deeper into herself. A press of the center of my palm while exchanging money at the produce seller jolted something awake in my energetic body. And I began to dance. Life shifted into a dream and I walked through synchronicities and experiences that made only half sense to my mind but felt importantly potent to my soul. I could no longer keep to a clock, but I lived to the heartbeat of a different time, much older.
This dream state slowly turned to nightmare. I got sick and my body weakened. My neighbors’ care for me felt manipulative and one night one of them asked bluntly if I had anxiety. I had never felt that in my life but as soon as he said it my heart started racing and panic filled me. I knew I must leave. I initially went on a chaotic flight around town trying to find a place that felt safe, almost hopping on a train for Mumbai, a city I would later live in for four years.
But finally I knew I needed to get help. A coworker helped me obtain a ticket home and I left the next day. I knew I was in a vulnerable spiritual state and so I performed my first act of magic. I asked that no one who could harm me see me. It was strange to be in an airport full of people and to see people blindly walking past me. But the imaginal realm needs no eyes to find you. My anxiety found me through blind manipulations of what I can best describe as “sentries” for the many layers of the bardo. I exposed myself by answering their blind inquiries. One tried to find me by inquiring to a woman sitting next to me about my flight. Another made broad statements about religion to the crowd knowing that his words were like invisible arrows initiating a rise in fear in me. Finally the anxiety became too much and I tipped my hand. I acted on an urge to leave my belongings behind and was arrested by airport security ending up first in a terrorist detention center and then in a mental hospital.
This was my initiation and it ended with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and a sentence to taking meds for the rest of my life.
I often wonder if my entrée into the world of what is labeled “madness” would have been different if it had been sacredly held by someone. If I had been guided. But this was my fate and a well that I have learned to drink deeply from.
I’ve been to the mental hospital three times and each time I sense the sanity of the people there. They are simply reacting in a very raw and real way to the insanity of our culture. Most people don’t realize how complicit they are with the insanity, but I have met people who are channels for the collective unconscious without any awareness of what they are doing. I’ve also met people who are channels for other beings without their awareness. We are breath-close to the unseen world, interwoven with it. And the detritus that we feed our minds is the detritus that becomes a living throbbing being in the imaginal. Like the space junk that now orbits the earth, we now have a collective consciousness that is filled with junk. But it is not inert junk. It lives and breathes and weaves, collecting power and ability. The ancient ones knew this. They told the myths of these archetypal beings and created temples and shrines in their honor. What they may not have understood was that they were co-creating these beings as they worshipped them. They were complicit in giving those energies form in the collective mind.
And so along comes the monotheistic religions and all the sudden the conscious relationship to archetypes gets monocropped, and as no one entity can do a good job of capturing the complexity of what happens in the imaginal, we start to repress parts of our collective psyche, demonizing them or shaming them. Then secularism declares that the archetypal realm never existed in the first place and so most of what happens there is now unconsciously made. We only see it when it emerges in some select few as madness. Then we suppress it with chemicals, sweeping it back under the rug.
My extended family implied that I was possessed after my first manic episode. In a way they were right. I had been opened to the consciousness of the other world. But it was our own collective mind that I was experiencing, not some outside hellish demon. I was experiencing our family’s own struggling soul, so possessed with a puritanical need for perfection that all else becomes demonized. And this is a micro level example of what is happening on a macro level in society.
Teilhard de Chardin wrote about the noosphere, a collective “mind” that surrounds the earth like our atmosphere. This exists and those who have experienced madness have peered into what is held there. It isn’t pretty. But if we are anything, we are a creative creature and there are those who tend this realm. Be it the monk that meditates or the nun that prays or the psychonaut who journeys or the dancer who authentically moves or the artist who passionately creates, we can open our minds and bodies to tend this space of collective consciousness.
We also have the gift of the earth in all of this tending. One misperception is that the imaginal realm is only the construct of human minds. But any good shaman will tell you that the greatest gift are the non-human beings that inhabit the space with their consciousness. A tree, a mountain, a lake, a little weed, an owl, a coyote, all these are part of this realm and can act as guides and wisdom keepers. We have allies, even though we are killing them off. The natural diversity of a place is one of the greatest boons our consciousness has been given. And our connection to it is infinitely precious. You do not have to be a shaman to experience the benefits of being in nature, immersing oneself in the consciousness of the natural world. It is not just the benefit of fresh air and the disconnection from electronics, there is something more happening to our minds when we step outdoors.
And when we look at who has access to nature through an equity lens we also see how the people without access are also the people who are already facing the challenges of historical trauma compounded by modern day prejudice (from systemic racism to daily microaggressions). These community members are forced to hold a very big piece of the disturbed collective mind. But as one who has struggled with madness, I know too that there is a resilience that comes from these struggles. Those that face challenges are asked to make a more perilous journey, and some do not make it, they may get caught up in the whirlpools of substance abuse and insanity, but those that do make it come out with a strength, clarity and wisdom that others will never have. This is the poisoned apple that does not kill, but rather initiates one into a deeper hold on the full dynamics of what it means to be human. As others navigate life half awake, the gift and burden of awake-ness offers an opportunity to tend this poisoned world in more profound ways.