What is Imaginal Ecology?

Ask not what imaginal ecology is, but ask…

What can Imaginal Ecology become for you?

Poetry prevents language going dead – because through familiarity the sparkle and lustre in words can deaden. “Imaginal ecology” attempts to vivify both words and link them to a range of ecological thought, creative practice and ideas. We can understand it as a poetic phrase that inspires, rather than a missionary activity that aims to convert or create a new school.

Imaginal ecology inspires us to to keep discovering how our creative process has deep roots.

Imaginal ecology is not a new kind of activity. It draws from arts practice, archetypal psychology and ecopsychotherapy. Imaginal Ecology is not a strictly defined school of thought, practice or registered programme. Even so, it’s useful to approach a definition of it. What, then is imaginal ecology?

Nonetheless, I want to offer some definitions, to try and make sense of how the imaginal and the ecological might be considered together as one What it might it be to do, think or practice an imaginal ecology?

A note on definitions

Firstly, a pedantic note that unlocks a secret treasure chest The writer Robert Anton Wilson argued caution against use of the word “is” He said that each time we write the word “is” it tricks us into thinking we understand something we don’t. He argued for the use of “English Prime” or “e-prime” – English with the “is” of identity removed.

Using E-prime challenges us to move away from abstraction and false certainty. It beckons us towards what the poet ee cummings called “the precision that creates movement”. Notice what the “is” does when I write something I might want to say as a definition such as: “imaginal ecology is the art of the perception of nature. ”

My problem with “is” here relates to how it tricks me into a closed meaning and closes down inquiry. The word “is” suggests that imaginal ecology as a person, or a thing that equals “the art of the perception of nature”

Imaginal Ecology actually could be imagined as a person. To do so requires a creative act. However, unless this become explicit, it bypasses the human person that “doing imaginality”. The human person who wonders about imaginal ecology or wanders into an imaginal ecology. You, or me.

Therefore rather than write about what Imaginal Ecology “is” I would rather write what it can be to you, dear reader. And so, I want to suggest to you that an imaginal ecology can be:

A practice
A perspective
A place

If it sounds a little confusing, that imaginal ecology could be three things at once let’s have a quick look at what these things relate and what they mean. So :

1.Imaginal ecology can be a practice.
2.Imaginal ecology can be a way of looking at the world
3.Imaginal ecology can be a place, a reality.

These different definitions, when you open them up begin to connect, and relate to each other in fruitful ways.

1) Imaginal Ecology can become a practice.

Imaginal ecology can become the practice of connecting the imaginal with it’s ecological roots. At it’s heart lies an understanding that the ecological and the imaginal lies within and around us, no matter what.

The practice of walking

The practice of walking into nature, woods, fields, pathways, hills, brings us to a state of reverie. Walking brings us into our bodies, and inspires movement. It constellates the world around us as fluid, and not static. It allows the unexpected to break into our closed thoughts – the sudden flight of a bird, the stillness at dusk, the sense of life in the soil even in deep winter. All these offer the psyche its native language. Walking allows us to appreciate being still, as when we walk into a place we love, we find when we become still having walked there that the world continues to move around us – or rather that bird moves, that branch falls, that beetle plods on.

The Practice of art making

The practice of art – the process of writing, singing, painting, theatre making – allow us to experience personally the same kind of potential for multiple connections that we see in developed ecosystems. Creativity can appear to be a talent that only the gifted possess. Yet they would better be considered as practices – things to practice


Practice lies not so much in the acquisition of skill, but in the practice of continually re-entering into our creative process and following it through. In this way, skills emerge, not so much as the hard fought struggle to form a person into an artist, but rather the skill of allowing ourselves to keeping re-entering that process. This way, the body finds an increasing familiarity with what it’s being asked to do.

Writing allows threads of thought to gather and reveal themselves though the hand. Stepping towards a microphone with a band behind you and starting to sing without knowing what you will say allows thoughts, feeling and images that you did not know you had to emerge from your tongue. Painting a thoughtless mark on a paper, then another, then another, leads to a universe of colour and psyche.

Following it through makes the difference, gives the confidence to keep going, to keep following the flow of the breathe, the brush, the pen. “Con- fidence” from con – “with” and fidere = “to have faith or trust.” Confidence means – with faith. To trust in images.

I’m not saying don’t edit (do edit! ). Each time we edit in this same way, we can hone something closer to what we wanted to express in the first place. The practice of making art lies in discovery through the process of making. It does not lie in knowing everything beforehand and then delivering it.

“Practice” can seem like a delay of the real thing. “Practicing” for what? Well the practice of making art ties a little golden thread around our waist as we wander through this labryinth of world. “Making art” might in the end not be such a different activity from everything else we do. In the same way that the practice of meditation aims to cultivate a state of tranquility when not meditating, the practice of art can lead us to find our creative process anywhere. It can lead us recognise it’s origins in the ecological, which understands dynamic relationships – the “golden threads” as the key to understanding that the great contemporary writer of imaginal ecology in writing, herbalism and plant conciousness, Stephen Harrod Buhner describes.

An analogy here with practicing a language – we practice a language when we speak it. The goal of learning a language cannot be to translate it back into our mother tongue, but rather to think with that language in it’s own terms. To be immersed in it. Divination, which shares many properties with art making, as a form of discovery of emergent meaning arising from chance, was once called the language of birds.” You could think of imaginal ecology practice as practicing the language of birds.

“once it’s heard
the language of birds
stains my ears

taints my tongue
glasslike, still
a language of trills
numbs the grass
trumps the words”

(from “the language of birds” by Toby Chown)

This language involves the practice of taking our attention to the peripheries of our consciousness in a wide relaxed field, not focusing blindly on a spot in front of us.

The Practice of Ritual

The practice of ritual allows symbolic objects to flow from our imaginations into our lives.

My background has been as a dramatherapist trained in ritual theatre. What is ritual theatre? (or rather what might ritual theatre be for you….). Ritual theatre can be a way to rediscover the power of ritual within your creative process. Theatre has ancient origins in ritual, just as story has origins in myth. The theatre tells stories, themselves patterns of comedy, tragedy or heroism that illustrate patterns in the psyche.

Ritual theatre pulls out the psychological hotspot from what draws us to the mythic. It sets up a threshold to cross, and an image to enter into. Characters and roles can be inhabited, can dialogue and then become and de-roled from by the simple use of the body and gesture. The key to it lies in ritual’s ability to draw close together the symbolic reality of the imaginal and the reality of the individual life, in a space set aside for this purpose.

That place has psychological depth as well as a physical location. Ecopsychological depth; some of it comes from within you and some from the place your are standing in. That’s why bands spend a lot of time finding the best place to record; why Mark Hollis from TalkTalk spent a year recording their masterpiece “Spirit of Eden” in a studio in a former church and why Neil Young speaks with such reverence of the studios where he recorded songs like “On the beach”. It’s not just acoustics, it’s the place. It’s more than acoustics, in the same way as the psyche is not just you but more than you.

Ritual establishes this place as a place outside the everyday. Recording studios, therapy rooms, theatres, all create secular threshold to be crossed to enter a creative space. That space becomes charged with the imaginal psyche. The common factor: the intention to set up a place outside the everyday and cross over it, do some work and then return.

A note on imaginal ecology and the human

The symbolic dimensions of psyche appreciate a practice in order to become activated. By emphasising a practice, we emphasise a process – a creative process. We don’t need to restrict this practice to a set of rules or dogmas, such as “painting in the woods is imaginal ecology”.

Rather, I want to emphasise how any creative process could become an imaginal ecology – not necessarily when it references nature, but when it honour the roots of the symbolic in the ecological. I think this is an important point, because in our destruction of the living planet, we face unprecedented levels of misanthropy. The dangers to our mental health of separating human consciousness from nature by only revering nature and not human relationship seem very real.

Many creative processes have as a driver an urgent need to understand human relationships – falling in love or the end of a relationship, the loss of a loved one, dealing with parental complexes or the complexity of becoming a parent. Our life can certainly be a creative process – it holds the overarching story of our existence.

So much of the passion of life lies in our relationships with each other and our need to understand, express, symbolise them. Mythic figures bring the ecological into our lives in surprising ways that suggest an imaginal ecology is already there. Dionysos, the surge of ecstasy that we feel when a song brings us to life, or our sexual desire to another, is also the life force that runs through the vine, or the brain of a hare.

Our nervous systems are threaded through with the fine tunings of millennia, still ruled by the flutterings and pipes of Great God Pan. Rather than simply depicting nature, an imaginal ecology would find the fantasies hidden in our everyday life that have an ecological dimension and give these shape.

Lidido, the felt sense and the imaginal

Libido thrives on the creative act. Even the darkest expression can be life giving. Libido lives in the act of poeisis. It underpins the continual making of marks on a page until a painting becomes formed. Think also of how continual making of sounds allows a song to become, how the continual playing with words allows a story to form, or a poem becomes finished. A surge of life continues to weave thread after thread, drawing unseen connections together, the way water meanders of cuts channels through soft rock, or the way water plants grow on the edges, the way mycelial fungi attaches to roots. An ecosystem can be thought of as a web of unseen connections whose fruition seem to be a continually shifting balance of life and death, held in beauty.

On practice and effort

The experience within practice of the need to continue in the face of the inner critic, underlines that there is some effort, commitment or decision that may have to be made to cross into an imaginal ecology, or to make sense of it. Or it might need less effort, given that strain, tension, trying too hard and stress often act as brakes on the imaginal. Here we find something of the practice of practice. Some writers have written well on a kind of relaxed dreamlike attention that attracts the imaginal, like zen monk Shunryu Suzuki, who wrote of zen mind that “concentration is freedom” or Keith Johnstone who wrote of the spontaneous in improvisation, who wrote

“An artist who is inspired is being obvious. They are not making any decisions or weighing one idea against the other on how to be original. They accept their first thoughts. Striving for originality takes you far away from your true self, and makes your work mediocre.”

Keith Johnstone: Impro

or the anonymous author of the “meditations on the Tarot” who writes of the magician in the tarot deck as the symbol of “concentration without effort”:

“One may say that the entire being becomes like the surface of calm water, reflecting the immense presence of the starry sky and its indescribable harmony. And the waters are deep, they are so deep! And the silence grows, ever increasing. . what silence! Its growth takes place through regular waves which pass, one after the other, through your being: one wave of silence followed by another wave of more profound silence, then again a wave of still more profound silence. . . Have you ever drunk silence? If in the affirmative, you know what concentration without effort is.”

Anonymous, Meditations on the Tarot.

Here we have a window into a practice that through effort leads into concentration without effort. That leads us to our second principle:

2) Imaginal ecology can be a way of looking at the world

An imaginal ecology draws on James Hillman’s insights into soul as a “perspective rather than a thing, a view point towards things, rather than a thing itself. ”

Your perspective draws on your experience, the raw dream of your perceptions shaped into a sense of how things are. A perspective might seem insubstantial, yet as we pass through a day, perspectives continually shape our experience.

James Hillman wrote that perspective might not be simply a passive way of seeing something, but that it contains a twist of the soul within it. After all, what happens in a good psychotherapy session, at the end of a ritual or from the experience of nature than a shift in perspective? Remember, that for Jung your personality “is” your soul. Yet your personality, like a Janus face, looks both outward to others (the persona or mask) and inward to your moods, sensations, thoughts and feelings (the anima/animus). It is this “inner personality” that can be a lot harder to grasp and that we tend to confuse with those thoughts feelings and sensations.

Hillman writes that a soul perspective “mediates events and makes differences between ourselves and everything that happens”. The anima relates to the imaginal as a way of seeing that that mediates experience. It reveals ecological roots. The ecological also mediates experience, as the intermediary of relationship.

“The ecological” means the connections between things rather than things themselves. An ecological perspective reveals a network of interconnection, the finely honed sense of the structural similarities between your lungs and a the pattern of trees branches, as well as the linkages between the exchange of oxygen from leaf stomata and carbon dioxide from the branches of the villi .

“Between doer and the deed there is a reflective moment” writes Hillman, and places our soul’s yearning for the images right there in our reflections. In that reflective moment we also find the ecological; the dandelion in the crack of the pavement, the snake shaped branch, the spider’s web, these images that reveal and extend our personality, our soul.

3) Imaginal ecology can be a place.

Corbin refers to “the imaginal” as a “realm”, – “mundis imaginalis.” The suffix “al” turns a noun into an adjective, highlights the sense that whatever that noun may be has been suffused with a particular quality. Here a “realm” has been suffused with “image-ness”. Images, from “imago” – “a reflection, or mirroring.” The imaginal realm becomes a place composed of images.

Grasping the imaginal as a realm may be less straightforward than grasping it as either practice or perspective. The imaginal will not be a realm we can visit like, Tibet,Blackpool or our local woods. Yet an imaginal ecology will always be connected to each place. Think of a place that you know that has a rich ecology. You enter into that place and walk within it for a while. Perhaps you find a place to stop and listen for a while. Things appear to your perceptions that you hadn’t noticed.

The skull of a badger, a beetle goes about it’s business, clambers patiently over a stone. A bird of prey hangs in the air. Lords and ladies raise their phallic flag on the forest floor.

We take into the woods our stories, our thoughts, our feelings and our perceptions. We take our imagination. Something that crosses our path can take on significance, to help illustrate or make sense of our own story. Metaphors, those foundations of our sense of reality, have their origins in the wild.

All metaphors run the risk of becoming turned to stone, calcified by the mind’s desire to fix and systemitise them. The ecology of the woods has it’s own life, it doesn’t exist merely to illustrate the human psyche. The author of “ecology without nature” Timothy Morton has spoken to the way that nature becomes a genre rather than an experience, a pastoral fantasy. At best this fixation of nature becomes whimsical, at it’s worst it becomes a kind of nationalism that wants possession of nature – an England possessed by the English, rather than an open dreaming England that different peoples live within. Once again, we can see the tendency to want to fix down experiences into concepts.

The Imaginal Realm asThe Land of Nowhere

Corbin investigated the imaginal realm of the sufi’s who called it “na koja abad” – the “Land of nowhere”. He elaborates on this as he distinguishes the “Land of Nowhere” as a place that has no place, but that allows there to be place. Here, we find some correspondence with Jung’s idea of “the collective unconscious” as the place where your psyche finds itself “in something”.

This sense of being in something, rather than it being in you, of experiencing rather than possessing, also relates to nature, to this sense of being part of what Chris Packham calls “the Greater Beauty.” Corbin refers to the imaginal realm as the place that overlays and connects the mundane to the spiritual, both within and between. And we participate with it through imagination, through the place where imagination becomes active in us. This might be as simple as a daydream, a state of mind familiar to us, yet often discounted or thrown away:

“The active Imagination is the preeminent mirror, the epiphanic place of the Images of the archetypal world; that is why the theory of the mundus imaginalis is bound up with a theory of imaginative knowledge and imaginative function—a function truly central and mediatory, because of the median and mediatory position of the mundus imaginalis.”

Henri Corbin, Esoteric Islam and Swedenborg

“The imaginal realm” lies both between and within – both median and mediatory – much as ecology lies within us and between us. The greatest mirrors we can find are those that are the richest ecologically; places where invisible connections between living being, between fungi, tree roots, squirrels, insects and the seasons combine.

If this mirror sounds like a perspective rather than a place, and if the practice of imaginal ecology sounds like the entering into a place that might lead to art, ideas, stories, healing or a deeper sense of our personality, then perhaps we can start to see how it can be that imaginal ecology can become a practice, a perspective and a place, all at the same time.

If this mirror sounds like a perspective rather than a place, and if the practice of imaginal ecology sounds like the entering into a place that lead to art, ideas, stories, healing or a deeper sense of our personality, then perhaps we can start to see how it can be that imaginal ecology can become a practice, a perspective and a place, all at the same time.