-an extract from my book ‘Waking Dreams’, p52
To walk down any street is an effortless immersion within a fully imagined world. The surrounding image environment appears without any conscious effort to “stand back” and “see what is really there”. Spindly dark lines in the middle distance, a pale blue expanse overhead, and a nearby translucence are instantaneously narrated into a street story with trees, blue skies, and shop windows.
It does not matter that the trees are seen in profile in the middle distance. We do not perceive two-dimensional trees and say to ourselves in wonder, How odd! Imagination goes beyond what is immediately given and presents us with three-dimensional imagined trees. Similarly, it does not matter that the sky is partially obscured by these trees. We do not philosophize as to whether an unseen sky exists or not; imagination fills in this sensory gap, and we imagine a seamless continuation of sky beyond the trees. Nor does it matter that the coffee shop window is dimly lit; we do not leave this darkness as an existential emptiness—imagination pictures an interiority of tables and chairs, staff and customers, music and chatter.
In this way the sights and sounds of the everyday world are stitched together with feeling, thinking, and sensation into an immersive story world. Despite the concerns of the inner-imagination view, we do indeed walk around in a dreamy fashion all the time, as Shakespeare acknowledged when he declared: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”1 Everyday reality is an imagined one. Immersive imagining is not something that can be turned on and off. It is the story-fabric construction of the world, as the Jungian therapist Robert Romanyshyn writes:
Between subject and object a story appears, which is expressed in a way of seeing and of speaking about the world. The story which appears is the appearance of psychological life.2
This definition of a psychological life, which appears “between subject and object” as “a way of seeing” and “story”, is a close match to the definition, presented in chapter 1, of imagination as “the perception of images arising in between self and world”. It is a meeting of the psychological and the imaginal first recognized in modern times by Carl Jung, who wrote that “Image is psyche” and “Every psychic process is an image and imagining,”3 an equivalence of imaginal and psychological that the post-Jungian James Hillman developed into a foundational assumption of image-centric psychology:
. . . a psychology that starts neither in the physiology of the brain, the structure of language, the organisation of society, nor the analysis of behaviour, but in the processes of imagination.4
We are always imagining. Whether in memories of the past, present-moment perceptions of the world, or fantasies about the future, there is no getting away from the primacy of images in all actions, feelings, and thoughts. All of human social, economic, scientific, or religious life is an immersive imagining derived from psychic images. It is the raw datum of psychological life and, therefore, the beginning, middle, and end point of any image-centric therapy. This perspective opens a large conceptual space for the cultivation of imaginative life, one that requires taking a step back to consider something of the historical context of this image-as-psyche idea.
Ideas have a history and the psychological has, over time, come to mean something other than what it originally meant. The concern of modern psychology with mental states, perhaps located in the brain, certainly in an individual person, and a focus upon inner feelings, thoughts, and images is a relatively recent invention. The original meaning of the Greek word psyche was not “mind” or “mental”, which derive from another Greek word, menos, but was originally understood in relation to three root meanings, each of which points to a connection with imagination: breath, butterfly, and soul.5
First, psyche as “breath” suggests a sensual process of mutual exchange circulating between self and world, similar to the embodied imagination described in chapter 1. Second, psyche as “butterfly” connotes a delicate, fragile, and fleeting nature, not easily captured or pinned down, similar to the emphasis we have been placing upon imagination as a continual process, a dynamic quality of perception rather than a fixed or static imaginal content. Third, psyche as “soul” requires a little more unpacking, but will most clearly demonstrate the link to imagination.
The Jungian conception of soul, used interchangeably with psyche, is again not a modern one. The perhaps conventional notion of soul as a personal spiritual essence, an invisible homunculus somehow living inside the mind, is once again a relatively recent invention. In pre-modern times soul was not an inner entity but understood as an in-between zone of porous exchange that connected the interior self to the external world.6 Here soul named a subtlety of experience that was neither entirely inner or outer, subjective or objective, but instead belonged to a third category that conjoined self and world, as indeed can still be recognised in contemporary usage when we talk of a “soulful” moment, meal, conversation or walk in the country, where the soulfulness is not just inside us but arises by way of interaction with people, places and things.
The image-centric psychology developed by James Hillman focuses upon differentiating this middle ground of soul arising in between self and world as the realm of images and imagining. It constitutes an imaginal experience that is difficult to describe due to modern languages having lost the necessary vocabulary for something that is neither a subject nor an object. This is why psychological literature generally avoids defining soul and imagination, either assuming them to be part of an inner world or alluding to a mystery too sacred to define.
James Hillman avoids both these pitfalls in sketching out the characteristics of this in-between soul as:
- a middle-ground between us and events, doer and deed
- a viewpoint towards things rather than a thing itself
- a perspective rather than a substance
- a deepening of events into experiences
- that unknown component that makes meaning possible
- the imaginative possibility in our natures—that mode that recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical.7
From the standpoint of soul, the everyday world is truly an imagined one. Soul is a psychological in-breath and out-breath that moves in the middle-ground between us and events; it is neither a thing nor a substance, yet is inseparable from all feeling, thinking and sensation. Soul is the imaginative possibility in our natures that combines sense experience with memory to create a narrative understanding, noted in our working definition of imagination as “the perception of images arising in between self and world”. The complete eradication of this imagining by “standing back” and “seeing what is really there” is the impossible fantasy of a literal world entirely separated from subjective influence. It would be to walk down a street like a scientist holding up a test tube to the light, a self-conscious and questioning stance towards the most basic sensory experiences.
This is not to suggest that all imaginings are equally valid; the concern with self-absorbed fantasy is a genuine one, even if the solution of eradicating all imagining is not. Imagination can and often does go wrong. In all manner of ways, misperceptions of self and world are a source of psychological suffering: anxious fantasies that never materialize, self-doubts that hold us back, and relationships that endlessly recycle the same old arguments. How we imagine the world clearly matters.
1. William Shakespeare, The Tempest, act 4, scene 1, line 148.
2. Robert Romanyshyn, Psychological Life: From Science to Metaphor (Milton Keynes: The Open University Press, 1982), 16.
3. Benjamin Sells, ed. Working With Images: The Theoretical Base of Archetypal Psychology (Thompson, CT: Spring Publications, 2000), 5.
5. Guy Dargert, The Snake in the Clinic: Psychotherapy’s Role in Medicine and Healing (London: Karnac, 2016), 2.
6. Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View (New York: Plume/Penguin Group, 2007), 16.