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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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Cultivating your dreams can be a deeply therapeutic process. Mostly I’ve found the effects to be subtle, your outlook changing gradually over time as more of your unconscious knots are straightened out and the threads drawn up into consciousness, but every now and then a single dream can usher in a dramtic change of outlook.

For about a year now I’ve found myself in the apparent midst of a storm of anxieties that’s had my mood plummeting in a seemingly irrecoverable nose-dive. It’s been a combination of things – a series of terrible world events, the slow motion train wreck of the western economy, and the erasing of any sense of a secure financial future for myself and those I love. It seems relentless, with the media gleefully swinging one meaty cosh after the other at us, as if to reinforce on a daily basis how truly awful things are.

Am I being overly pessimistic? Of course I am, but that’s it when the dark clouds settle in; they amplify the slightest thing to apocalyptic proportions and you suddenly find yourself embattled, taking cover and bracing yourself against things that might never happen.

The darkness seemed to deepen over a long, bitter winter and steadfastly defied the loveliest of springs, even as the blossom came out and the first mow released the heady perfume of fresh-cut grass. There seemed to be no escape, but then at the beginning of April I made a trip to the Lake District and while I was there I spent a meditative hour by a waterfall. I think this single act granted me a bit of a breathing space and ushered in a subtle change of direction.

 On my return from the Lakes, I began idly leafing through my dream journals from 2002 and 2003. I had no particular aim in mind – at least none I was consciously aware of. What struck me though was the richness, the detail and the frequency with which I had once dreamed. By contrast, in more recent years, I’ve fallen out of the habit, recording only a few dreams over the course of a year, when once I’d dreamed most nights and applied myself dilligently to the Jungian interpretation of the symbols that arose.

I don’t know why I stopped cultivating my dreams like this. I suppose it came down to necessity and I’d apparently felt more of a need in those days, while recent years have been marked, I’d perhaps pompously assumed, by a philosophical resilience, and an outlook that had seemed to require little by way of bolstering from the denizens of my inner world. And if you don’t court your dreams, they vanish on waking.

Inspired anew by these old dreams, I began cultivating them again recently. Cultivating one’s dreams is no more complicated than lying down of a night and simply asking yourself to try to remember them. Things didn’t happen straight away – I think it took a few nights before I was permitted leave to recall my nocturnal wanderings again, and it was yet a few more nights after that before I was rewarded with a series of dreams that were highly detailed, visually startling and emotionally charged.

The last of these dreams occurred on the night of April 18th, the night of the full moon, which in imagination at least I’ve always associated with a peak in imaginative energy. In the dream I encountered an unknown woman – the classic symbol of the soul, or in drier, Jungian terminology, the Anima archetype. She was once a familiar visitor, chosing a different disguise each time – sometime evasive, sometimes challenging, sometimes downright lascivious. But whoever or whatever she was, on this occasion she restored in me a sense of the most profoundly transcendent love. In the dream she seduced me into thinking the love I felt was for her, but on waking the feel of that love remained like a warm glow in my guts, and I recognised it as a connection with something old and fundamental.

I rose into a world unchanged in any tangible way. The news from Libya was dire, and the fiscal pundits on the radio were bleating as usual about our financial ruin, while the politicians traded insults, and the media sought with tiresome pedantry to find the cracks between them as if it mattered or we actually cared any more. But it was a world that no longer assailed me. I was a man in love with something, or rather I was a man who had been reminded he was in love, that he had somehow forgotten – but it was all right, his lover was constant and patient, and she had apparently forgiven him.

I drove to work, past the petrol station whose regularly ratcheting fuel prices have become a curious indicator of my rising anxieties – and though the price had jumped overnight to a record high, I was unable to muster much of a reaction.

Indeed it seemed trivial. I had regained a more balanced perspective and was able to let it go.

I only hope it lasts.

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