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inner work

Robert A Johnson (1921-2018] was a pioneering Jungian Analyst and a respected figure in the international psychoanalytical community. A student of Jiddu Krishnamurti and the Sri Aurobindo school in Pondicherry, he was also an author of many insightful works on human nature and self development.

In “Inner Work” he deals with dreams and active imagination as ways of communicating with the unconscious mind. The unconscious, while largely unknown, holds great influence over us. If we can meet it half way, it can be a powerful ally. It will fill our lives with enthusiasm, colour and meaning. But if we ignore it, our world becomes grey and meaningless. Worse, the unconscious will come back at us as depression and neuroses. On the world’s stage, those neuroses manifest as chaos, authoritarianism, and war.

To pre-modern cultures, unhindered by materialist prejudice, dream-work comes naturally. We all dream, but moderns tend to explain them away as an artefact of neural processing – in other words, garbage. But we have only to spend a little time with our dreams to see this is not so. Dreams provide us with an abstract picture of the flow of our inner psychical energies. They also provide a channel for making those energies conscious, and they challenge us to accept them as part of our waking lives. We feel better, more relaxed and motivated, and the world becomes once more a magical place of infinite possibility.

Serious dream work is not about looking up the images in a dream dictionary. Dreams are personal, the images in the dream being for us alone, and that’s how they must be interpreted. But dream-work isn’t easy. Its imagery is at times beyond bizarre. It can be by turns seductive and horrifying, and all too often incomprehensible.

A more direct way of engaging the unconscious is through active imagination. Here we seek dialogue with the personifications of whatever imaginary energies we can summon. We close our eyes, relax, a figure appears in our mind’s eye, and we talk to it.

Active imagination is risky because it can get out of control. Most authors advise against it unless you’re under the supervision of an analyst. That’s fine, but reading this book, I realize I’ve been doing it all my life. Also, writing fiction, we talk with the archetypal energies who take shape as characters in our stories. If you’re a writer you know what I mean, and this is probably safe territory for you. If you’re not, then best leave it alone.

Both techniques, as described here, come straight out of the Jungian tradition. In dream analysis, we write the dream down, then work through each dream-image. We list all the associations we can think of, returning each time to the image. Then we ask what dynamic, what mood, what emotion it might represent. Having done the groundwork then, the actual interpretation of the dream – the message – drops out more easily and the energies are released as a powerful “aha!”. Johnson then advises us to honour the dream by acting out an appropriate real-world ritual.

Dreams sometimes recur, but for most of us they last just the one night. In that single set piece they present us with an allegory of our inner psychical disposition. Active imagination is different and can go on for days, weeks, years. This is a difficult thing to describe, because it’s easy to say we’re just making stuff up, and it might indeed start out that way as we set the opening scene with our characters. But then we must prepare for the dialogue to go off script very quickly as the unconscious becomes an equal partner in the conversation. It can tell you things you did not know you knew. But it can also dominate the conversation and is therefore dangerous.

Dealing with archetypal energies, Johnson advises us to be mindful of the moral sense that comes with human consciousness. The archetypes are instinctive drives. They are often insightful and numinous, but they are also amoral and ill equipped for life in the conscious realm. A vulnerable individual might all too easily subordinate themselves to an archetype and become possessed by it. Then they act out its amoral tendencies in real life. It’s crucial therefore the ego uses its discernment, and brings to bear its moral sensibilities.

This touches on Jungian metaphysics which describes the universe as an idealist realm of pure mentation. The archetypal energies pour forth as collective or personal myths. The purpose of the human being then, is to use the gift of consciousness to shepherd these raw drives as best it can into something more compassionate and moral. Without that intervention, nature remains red in tooth and claw, and our evolution towards something higher is stalled.

Inner work can sound self-indulgent and new-agey. But unless enough of us attempt to awaken to these powerful energies, and deal with them positively, they will possess us in negative ways, possess the world too and run amok. They’ve done it before – just pick your century. The difference between past generations and ours though is we have the power to destroy ourselves several times over. Meanwhile, the doomsday clock approaches midnight, and right now it’s touch-and-go if we’re going to make it.

The book is very approachable, and clarifies for me some of Jung’s more difficult concepts. It features several fascinating dreams and examples of active imagination from Johnson’s work as an analyst. It’s a valuable guide for anyone undertaking serious inner work, but it will also appeal to anyone simply interested in dreams, the imagination, and the fascinating conundrum that is human nature.

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