I just finished reading Henry Corbin’s 1969 book, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi. It had been sitting on my shelf for over two years. I’m glad it waited for me, because what I learned is something that I’ve always wanted to know–the imagination is REAL. It’s not make-believe. We’re not “just imagining” something, we’re not making it up. Imaginary things actually exist. The Sufi’s call the imagination the “middle world:
“For them the world is ‘objectively’ and actually threefold: between the universe that can be apprehended by pure intellectual perception and the universe perceptible to the senses, there is an intermediate world, the world of Idea-Images, of archetypal figures, of subtile substances, of ‘immaterial matter.’ This world is as real and objective, as consistent and subsistent as the intelligible and sensible worlds…The organ of this universe is the active Imagination…”
It’s clear how we Westerners view the imagination, simply by listening to our talk: “It’s only your imagination,” we’ll tell someone. How sad. But other cultures are much more wise than we are. Here is what South American shaman Ohky Simine Forest wrote in her book, Dreaming the Council Ways:
“Imagination is a powerful faculty that has been misunderstood by the Western mind. When you experience an extraordinary perception—let’s say you heard a bird talking to you—if you tell this to a scientist, he would probably tell you, ‘This is all in your imagination,’ as if it were nothing. But if you say this to a native medicine person, our answer would be, ‘Oh, good! So what did it tell you?’ “
Carl Jung actually considered the imagination to be the fourth domain of knowledge (the other domains are feeling, thinking, and sensing). Most references to his work use the term “intuition” as the fourth capacity, but scholars are now making the case that he really meant the imagination rather than intuition. This makes more sense to me as well. (See Eligio Stephen Gallegos’ book Animals of the Four Windows: Integrating Feeling, Sensing, Thinking, and Imagery for the complete argument.)
In any case, if the imagination is actually a real world that exists, and imagining is our fourth way of knowing, then that means that we are not “making something up.” It also means that to be full, balanced, whole adults, we actually need to use and develop our imaginative capacities. It’s time to start giving the imagination its due. The imagination deserves as much honor in our classrooms, bookshelves, and work life, as our ability to think (or feel, or sense.) In my opinion, the new world that wants to be born, is asking us to honor our imagination. It’s real.