Doing Spiritual Work Together – Part 1

The interplay of three imaginations

For a while, I and a number of friends have been practicing a central part of our lives by having generative conversations online. I’ve found this exploration to be hugely exciting and satisfying, giving gifts that solitary work or spiritual practice literally never imagined. I know many others have too – probably you since you’re here.

Recently I had an “Aha!” moment I want to share with you. It’s changed my sense of what’s possible in a way that gave me a big sigh of inner relief. By worldwork together, I mean an intentional search for greater meaning and purpose when done with others.  This very much includes activist work, social change, group personal change, and creative projects of all kinds that are done for the good of ourselves and the whole.

If that’s you please read on. I’d absolutely love to hear how this lands with you.

The “Aha!” involves seeing the inner terrain we’re working in, the terrain of consciousness, as having three different “Imaginations” that in my experience, we habitually confuse. This fiction of three imaginations helps me understand much more clearly how we can map the terrain of what we’re doing and move from one place to another when we need to. This movement back and forth means that we can access a higher vision together and also put it to work when we re-enter the workaday transactional world.

The key is identifying the three and being able to make a shift – together.

1) Imagination 1

Most of the time our Imagination is firmly tied to our place in the social system. It looks out upon the world from there so that all our thoughts and aspirations happen with it as context. In that respect our Imagination is as parochial as a medieval peasant’s. Although today we have many more options than the peasant, we’re similar to her in that we’re tethered to the consensus reality. We don’t imagine, don’t begin to imagine what’s possible and available for us outside of it.

The mechanism by which we stay resolutely inside is ridiculously simple: We don’t notice we’re self-confined inside. Or put another way: We don’t imagine it.

To use a language that’s been used in the perennial philosophy for a long time and that everyone on the street recognizes too, we sleep.

The consciousness sleeps. We sleep. The Imagination sleeps. We’re searching ceaselessly for something we imagine we don’t have and that we’re looking for out there. Doing this is the price of, the function of, being tied to a particular locale or self-identity. Not the price of having a particular locale or identity but being tied to them, treating them as the bounds of us.

The distinction between having a locale and being tied to it is important because we will always have a local self. Our body is local as is the place we sleep, our families, our friends. But most of us think this is our extent. We will continue to have these and to live in them – and do inspired work in them – if we’ve traveled to the other Imaginations and returned.

You know how many of us sleep and how much pain there is there.

It’s as if we, or those we love, sit by the window and look out at the world wishing that the great destiny we dream of could come true for us.  We complain and moan to the people and are often dissatisfied. We’re experiencing the life of quiet desperation that Thoreau declared most of us live. We may be normal but we’re depressed. We’re well-adjusted with respect to consensus reality but not at peace with the greater reality, which we feel eludes us or is not even there.

2) Imagination 2

Imagination 2 comes into play the moment we initiate or respond to a call to get together with others in the hope that there could be something more. Sometimes we do so because we see the world is in a crisis and that what we’ve been doing is just making things worse.

Either way it involves a risk.

We want an Exit Visa from Imagination 1, which is scary since we’ve  been there for a long time. We also want a Passport to something better and that’s scary too.

Risking that and getting together with others is an act of trust or perhaps inner knowing. It’s a gesture of acknowledgment that perhaps we don’t know it all and there might be more. We mutually agree to leave the workaday stuckaday world behind for a little bit and do it with others.

Together we do the equivalent of, metaphorically, going from one Imagination to another, in this case a larger one. It’s like we collectively stoop to enter the passageway into a cave.  We risk a change. We could be exposed, hoodwinked, when away from the safety of the social sleep. And we see that others have also taken the risk, paid the price.

That’s why there’s frequently some trust, even from the beginning, among people who meet in this way. We recognize fellows who are tired of the same sleep we’re tired of. It’s like meeting the stranger on the train to whom you can say things you mightn’t say to your intimates. This might be enhanced because this train is going to a strange, unknown, and even exciting, destination.

At least you hope it is.

You’ve paid a price and put yourself on the line. It’s more of a price than clicking “ACCEPT” at the bottom of a screen, or signing a simulacrum of your signature on a screen with your finger. You showed up with your body and your time with people that you don’t know but who’ve done the same.

There are many things that can be done to deepen this sense of shared venture. It could be one or more of what Parker Palmer calls a “third thing,” a poem, story, or cards with images. It could be the Simple Presencing Practice that starts with people in twos take a turn answering the question “what are you experiencing now?” Whichever you choose it’s taking the risk to show up that’s the first thing. The others come after. It’s beyond the scope of this paper to detail them here.

These are actually “rituals” that put us on the same page with each other. In effect they  say, “I’m willing to try something together with you even though I don’t know where it’s going.” Brave souls!

It’s not only important to do something together, it’s important to name it as well. It’s important to name that we’re shifting into a different Imagination and that these small devices mark that.  If we don’t say that then we don’t support people’s natural and healthy apprehension about doing something that’s not part of Imagination 1’s behaviour.

Another part of naming what’s happening is acknowledging that the small rituals aren’t the point of being together. They’re a way to invoke the wider imagination that might be helpful to us together.

People often have a flutter of ambivalent or negative reaction to making this shift because it’s not familiar. Also the person who is offering it can feel like he’s imposing. I’ve often not felt fully clear on this myself and have felt some artificiality in bringing in these Imagination 2 tropes, thinking people didn’t sign up for them.

                Why groups often get stuck here

Many groups and enterprises falter on this step. We say words about a greater imagination but we don’t take the step of securing agreement in the present.

Facebook is a great example of the consciousness that falls through the cracks here. Many well-intentioned words are said but the structure is pure Imagination 1. Despite valiant efforts to describe something like a higher consciousness , we remain alone at our computers

Participants in group work need lots of safety and transparent structure so they can locate themselves in making an agreement to shift with each other. The sleep zone is a deep habit and slipping out of it is counterintuitive.

Many projects founder right here because the movement to temporarily try on something else wasn’t made clearly enough. The result is that some members have entered the next stage of imaginative possibility while others remain dutifully asleep, doing what you’re supposed to do in Imagination 1. The group is in two different places, speaking two different tongues.

Historically the shift to Imagination 3 has only been very little understood. There were seldom enough individuals able to stand outside the consensus reality to make a group that could work  together in this way. It wasn’t time yet for work like this, but it’s time now.

Even those of us who are used to making the shift out of sleep consciousness don’t know much about how it happens. We’ve seldom made it an object of attention. So it’s easy for us to think it will just occur naturally for others.

Very likely it won’t. Words won’t be enough.

We easily overlook how much support that others need if they’re to shift also. We need something we do together. A shared agreement marked by a common action. The more the sensory engagement, the better.

Whatever devices we end up using aren’t the meal or the goal but part of the transition. They’re a small humbling ritual to acknowledge to each other we’re willing to be just human after all, willing to try noticing together. Because we’re all doing it together we’re saying to each other, yes, me too. I’m here, I’m “in.”

That’s the Exit Visa and the Passport to the imaginal realm right there.

3) Imagination 3, the Imaginal Realm

New vision and possibility starts to become visible here. Untethered, or relatively untethered from the fixed identity of sleep and with the passport to a hoped for new possibility, we start to see what else is available to us.

Quite a lot. This small initiation we’ve just gone through turns out to be enough because . . . there is something else there. There really is another room in the consciousness that we’d been focused away from.

The return on investment for time spent in Imagination 3 is extraordinarily high. The dice are fixed in our favor.

If we’ve prepared a little, the consciousness often seems to relax and welcome the chance to check out what else is here. This imaginative capacity for collaborative consciousness is already fully ours as part of our evolutionary heritage. Nature made it already! It’s native to us like musical or mathematical ability. We can choose not to develop it, but while we have consciousness, we can’t not have it as part of ourselves. The trick is to get clear enough focus on it to claim it for ourselves.

Concrete descriptions fail flat on their face here and a metaphoric language suits it better. You just notice that you’re not in Kansas anymore and it’s clear that anybody who thinks he’s still in Kansas deserves your respect and also your caretaking because you realize he hasn’t quite heard the music yet. You know you’re not in Kansas because all the rules have changed and you like these ones better. There’s a new quality, a bit like a scent each “dog” in the group picks up. You start tracking something with your inner nose that you can see others tracking too. It can feel familiar and homey, like sitting by the fire when things you’d forgotten you knew start being recalled by different people you like. The sense of a shared fond memory and also a shared memory you’re making.

Each of us would describes it differently and differently at different times in accord with the multi-faceted nature of the beast. Will calls it a “tingle.” My friend Michael calls it “groupness.” It’s as if the group is becoming aware of an underlying melody that was previously inaudible and each is contributing to, augmenting it in their own voice.

The stage three Imagination is not one thing though I think almost all would agree that it seems vaster than us, or at least vaster than who we thought we were.

Vastly vaster.

Time expands. We expand. It can encompass paradoxes in that you see them a new way – the seamless whole behind apparent differences for example.

When I say you sense “something there,” it’s not something there like a lump in the corner or a mute presence. It’s much more like an intelligence you’re part of that has something important to say.

Something you’re dying to hear. You feel yourself have expanded to encompass it or, more like, you recognize it encompasses you.

You get excited. The feeling is not unlike suddenly discovering you’re in a lucid dream in which you realize you’re literally dreaming-while-asleep and that you can go anywhere in this incredible dreamspace. You can have any experience! It’s all yours. A genie has appeared! A rush of exhilaration rises to your brain.

I hope you realize we’re talking metaphor here. But this is the natural language of the third Imagination. You can fall out of a good feeling in an imaginal space easily. You get caught for a moment on a mental trigger and your two left metaphoric feet trip over each other and suddenly you’re sprawling on the floor – not that anybody else really noticed. Usually you can usually find your way back into the flow because, like a jamming band you’re in, the music is continuing and you want to play.

                No single imagination is the point

However, Imagination 3 isn’t the point either. What we’re trying to do is to serve life and move it forward by moving ourselves forward.

The characteristic of Imagination 3 is gelling. In sleeping Imagination 1 entropy leads and things get more differentiated and dispersed (think bureaucratic writing). In Imagination 3 they begin to move together. They gel. New ideas and visions and possibilities start massing together into an ever more clear understanding.

But this gelling isn’t enough. It has to be implemented and worked with. It has to be brought back to Imagination 1. Except this is no longer fully sleeping Imagination 1 but waking Imagination 1.

People have to go back to the transactional world where most people are asleep, including possibly us, and do what we can. It’s back and forth, back and forth. Back to the well of Imagination 3, haul water, back to the transactional world of waking Imagination 1 and pour it on the plant, doing what we can.

We need all the imaginations, not a single higher one.

We need to move back and forth between them.

The specific gift of Imagination 3 is that it’s connected to the others in the group and to a greater intelligence. This greater intelligence informs the transformational capacity of the group which isn’t accessible at all at in sleeping Imagination 1.

Sleeping Imagination 1 has many words about higher things but in its form remains that of sleep.

Imagination 3 is felt as connecting to something very very big. We could add lots more verys, the way we use multiple zeros to describe light years in cosmic distance. We can imagine the imaginative world goes on forever. We’re the babiest of babies in understanding anything about it.

Because this understanding, when embodied, is so clarifying about our place in things, we can’t go back to sleeping Imagination 1.

Since Imagination 3 is an open-ended system and not limited at all, there’s no end to what can gained from further work moving between the imaginations.

In Part 2 of this essay I’ll share some thoughts about the mechanisms at play in Imagination 3 and how the individual consciousnesses connect to the individual consciousnesses forming a collective intelligence that’s both individually ours and collectively ours.

What I want to leave with you with here is that:

If you want to move yourself out of sleep, or support others in doing so, work in getting an exit visas from Imagination 1 and a passport to Imagination 3. It’s readily available. In my view, just as it would be hard to study wrestling alone, part of this “wrestling” must be done in the company of others. Then travel to Imagination 3 and have the time of your life.

Imagination 3 reveals the landscape of what needs to happenfor you as an individual and for us as a collective and actually starts ithappening. But to nourish it and ourselves, we then go back to the ordinarytransactional world in which we used to sleep and can do what we see needs tobe done.

Part 2 I share some ideas about just how individual consciousnesses come together to form a collective consciousness or intelligence. My hope is that understanding this is not a philosophical abstraction but a boost to our sense of agency. It’s our consciousness after all !