Category Archives: Spiritual direction

Active imagination can deepen your life: A four step process

L’atmosphère Météorologie by Camille Flammarion, ca. 1888

Most of us could use a tool (or twelve) to deepen our spiritual awareness. What I mean by “spiritual awareness” is the ability we all have to experience the Spirit of God. If you don’t relate to God personally, then I mean your ability to experience the “numinous,” the outside-my-understanding events that stay with us throughout our lives, even after we’ve tried to explain them away. You may have been ordered to repress or deny that capacity for a variety of reasons. For instance, one genius-of-a-friend reported for med school at Jefferson U. and was quickly told his faith had no place in the upper realms of research for which he was headed. The order to squash his spiritual awareness was direct and not implied! You may have been squashed too!

So most of us could use a tool to help us deepen our spiritual awareness. We’ve all got it, but we have a lot of reasons we have not been using it. Active imagination is such a tool (much like dream work last week). The idea is fairly easy to understand, since it relates to the fantasies that regularly run through our head. We may entertain or dismiss our fantasies, but most of us rarely take their energy seriously, try to harness it, or learn from that common experience of what is going on inside.

According to Robert A Johns in Inner Work:

Active imagination is a dialogue that you enter into with the different parts of yourself that live in the unconscious. In some ways it is similar to dreaming, except that you are fully awake and conscious during the experience. This, in fact, is what gives this technique its distinctive quality. Instead of going into a dream, you go into your imagination while you are awake. You allow images to rise up out of the unconscious, and they come to on the level of imagination just as they would come to you if you were asleep.

Active imagination is a common experience in the Bible

Before you Christians get nervous about being self-centered and lost in a perpetual search for elusive meanings in your inner world, let me remind you that people with the most active of imaginations wrote the Bible. At least that is what Eugene Peterson (of The Message fame) told Krista Tippet that time during On Being. If you cannot ponder metaphor, or cannot see yourself in the Bible, or cannot imagine how the Spirit of God is relating to the part of you that is also beyond your ordinary awareness, you might be religious but you’ll be a dissatisfied Jesus follower. Our imagination is a beautiful part of us and is a doorway into the deep realms of the Spirit into which God calls us in Jesus. And let’s not forget God calls all sort of people who don’t know Jesus, too, who begin their journey by knowing their own capacity to be aware of spiritual things.

And before I get to my very-abridged summary of Johnson’s steps to practicing active imagination in service to our growth, let me add a couple of warnings. On the one hand, most of us will probably have a tough time getting the process of active imagination going. We’ve been “ordered” to repress it, after all, by secular and religious authorities. It may take some experimenting. On the other hand, and this is a real warning, some of us might go too far, get lost in the realm of purposeless fantasy and have trouble getting back to the here and now. If you suspect that is likely to be you, enter into the process holding the hand of Jesus and definitely holding the hand of a therapist or friend who can bring you back if you get lost. I compare this necessity to the rope people tied to the high priest when he went into the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple so they could pull him out if he got lost somehow, or died. The legend of that practice is not true; there is no evidence people really did that. But you get the idea. Active imagination needs to stay tethered to an real-time purpose, or it is something else.

Many of us are familiar with Ignatius of Loyola and his teaching on entering the Bible story as an active participant, especially when it comes to records about Jesus. Active imagination is a similar kind of exercise, only the context is not outside us but in us. We are entering into the interesting interchanges happening within us, walking and talking with the persons we find in our unconscious, confronting and arguing, making friends and probably fighting. We consciously participate in the drama of our imagination. You can see this is not passive fantasy, like worrying, or like repeating negative messages. We are acting as that observing and relating “I” we all are, getting to know all the territory of our unconscious, and so deepening communication among all the parts of us.

Four steps

Robert A. Johnson has some fascinating examples of active imagination in his book. They are all examples of personifying some content from the unconscious that arises to the surface, putting it into image form so one can dialogue and deal with it. For instance, when you have stomped off from a heated argument and sit sulking somewhere, you might turn to the anger, which likely comes from someplace deep, and ask it who it is. You might find some lonely child, or some power-hungry tyrant, or some confused priest. You wouldn’t judge them before you got to know them, just see who is there and honor their right to be you.

Here are the four steps. Like when we were talking about dreams, the explanations are abbreviated, but I hope they whet your appetite and give you and idea of what you might try. You might even read Johnson’s book.

Step One: Invite the unconscious

Invite the inner persons to start the dialogue. Take your mind off the external world and focus on your imagination and wait to see who shows up. When you let yourself rest in Christ, you might find yourself in what I call my “inner landscape” where my encounters often take place. Be patient and stay alert. If something comes up, don’t judge, just go with it. If it feels productive, hang with it. If it is just a fantasy, or you are not ready for it, move on.

Step Two: The dialogue

A helpful dialogue with personified images from your unconscious is very much like a healthy conversation with anyone. You demonstrate a willingness to listen and actively do that. This is best done with a journal. As I was in the process of writing this post I had a very useful time of active imagination in which I managed to turn into a feeling, ask who it was and listen. But when I went back to it this morning, it was a hazy memory. Writing out the main things being said and experienced helps to make the most of the process.

Sometimes we’ll have an argument and that might be when we are really getting somewhere. However it works out, a problem will be revealed, different viewpoints will be noted and a response of some kind will come. This could take a few minutes or days or even years.

Step Three: The Values

This step is important for everyone and especially for Jesus followers who are no longer alone and usurping God’s place. Johnson says:

Once the imaginative process is launched, once the primordial forces are invited to come up to the surface and be heard, some limits have to be set. It is the conscious ego, guided by a sense of ethics, that must set limits in order to protect the imaginative process from becoming inhuman or destructive or going off into extremes. (Inner Work)

Hold out for what is good. Don’t let one energy take over at the expense of the others. Nurture what serves human life, practical needs and healthy relationships. Do it all in Christ.

Step Four: The Rituals

We always want to incarnate our active imagination so it gets out of the abstract and gets connected to the earthbound. When we have an insight or a resolution, we do something to make it concrete. My active imagination often makes me feel better, but it is best when I do better. Remember not to act out some fantasy or project some inner conflict on someone else. We’re talking about integrating the essence, the meaning, the principle we have derived into our practical life.

I hope this brief intro (or reminder) encourages you to do some inner work this week. The world needs deep people. Plus, this activity is great for times of stress and confusion. We can gain a lot of confidence for what we need to do on the outside when we are in less turmoil inside.

Find your contemplation where you can

I have enjoyed getting to know spiritual direction students and teachers over the past semester. My cohort is a diverse, sincere bunch of people that always remind me of God’s goodness and humanity’s capacity for compassion and hope.

There is only one thing about my new group of friends that is funny. Many of them remind me a lot of the old SNL skits about NPR.

Sometimes that NPR voice is such a wonder, like on my favorite WHYY voice, Jennifer Lynn. Other times the special character of that voice makes me wonder if the sincerity of it is just another act of branding. With everything on ZOOM now, a lot of us now have ring lights and new microphones. And I think a lot of us have started to wonder how to act on screen, including how to sound.

What does the voice mean, now?  My spiritual direction teachers and many of their students seem to have learned to speak with an NPR voice. Is that a thing, or is it just me? I know I’ve been tagged with a “Mr. Rogers” voice, so maybe I learned it a long time ago.

Voice command

Our voice is a powerful instrument. We had four children before the oldest turned 4. I developed their attention to my voice as a high priority, especially my command voice: “Do not step off that curb!” and “Let go of your brother’s neck, now!” Since we were often in a church meeting, I could turn the command volume down very low, “Give me that marker!”

Humanity continues to prove it is hell-bent on emulating the perceived power of God  through its own control and manipulation. This is kind of a leap, but I think the medium of radio does its control and manipulation via voice command. As my children tell me I did, I think NPR commands with an iron fist in a velvet glove. By this time, many of us fans can seem very empathetic and nonthreatening while advancing the same old domination.

I bring this up because my teachers, and most of the authors they suggest, basically move with Eurocentric, privileged assumptions that leak out as “best practices” for spiritual formation and direction. There is usually a candle. There is often Taize music (from France) or classical music (based in Europe), there is aloneness and silence, which, in themselves, are often hard-to-find luxuries. There is often a call to “let go,” which is hard to do if your are barely hanging on. There are often calls to “submit” or “surrender” since they are in charge and conquering something by nature. And when they speak it could be right out of NPR.

I have spent decades perfecting all the spiritual practices practices that come with the dominant culture – and to a good end. I think my teachers last semester were great. Candles, Taize, silence in solitude, and submission are all elemental to my spiritual practice.

reaching for the edge of contemplation

There is another side

I also have enjoyed the luxury of getting to know other ways to contemplate contributed by the nondominant cultures around me. Fortunately for me, my parents came from the U.S. underclass and felt blessed to have clawed themselves into the lower middle class. So when I brought classical music home from college as the first to attend one, it did not go over well. I was called on to let go of the pride of thinking I was better than someone else, rather than called on to let go of the assumption I was better than most of the world, like most world-dominating Americans assume.

Many people from nondominant cultures are invited into contemplation by Eurocentric people and the “hospitality offered may be more stifling than respiting, more harm than blessing…The ways that marginalized groups answer the question of who God is needs to be contemplated in a more authentic way than the ‘average’ contemporary expression of spirituality might expect” (Ruth Takiko West*). So true. Besides, members of the so-called “dominant culture” are also very diverse, so forcing them into learning the Eurocentric practices as if they are “best practices” could be a mistake. Leaders need a lot of intentional introspection if they hope to alleviate the problem of merely dominating instead of liberating. The image of God does not just reside in people such as oneself.

Your culture is fine, as is mine. But Jesus is transcultural, even though he comes from a culture, in a gender, and is born into a family system. He experienced the dominant culture providing some kind of general order. But he insisted on enacting the liberative, reconciling work of the Spirit by giving preference to the poorer or more distant, as well as those yet to be included.

The ever-accepting Savior calls us into a mutually accepting relationship with Him and everyone else. Jesus is the Spirit in a body, the body of Christ is the Spirit making all of us into family: the body of Christ. This works out in all cultures. One does not need to look outside of one’s culture or outside of oneself to meet God. Henri Nouwen said, “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that declares we are loved. Being the beloved expresses the core truth of our existence” (see Spiritual Direction).

The presence of the Spirit transcends and infuses culture

We don’t need to act one way or another to develop intimacy with God, and though Jesus came one way, the Spirit of God with which he graced us is as multifaceted as the Creator. If God speaks to you in an NPR voice, wonderful; it is a sweet voice. But it can be a dominating voice, especially when white teachers unwittingly erase other sounds by making it prescriptive.

The rich experience of Black Americans, even those who understand Taize, Thomas Merton, and such, is often run over by the soft tones of people in charge, even though they have a rich tradition of their own that might be even better. James Cone writes, “The spirituals were a ritualization of God in song. They are not documents for philosophy; they are material for worship and praise for the One who had continued to be present with black humanity despite European insanity” (in The Spirituals and the Blues). Solitude in silence is to be treasured but contemplation is bigger. It is purpose, intention and deep consideration. As such it comes in many forms in as many cultures. Takiko West describes the Black experience in community where contemplation is exercised in the singing and the hearing of songs like the spirituals:

The presence of God is evidenced by the movement of the Spirit that causes one to jump to their feet, hands thrown up in the air when the soloist hits that one note and sustains it as if he/she needed to make sure the sound would reach heaven. It is within that moment that there is communal solidarity around the awareness of God’s grace.*

Cone writes, “The certain fact is always that God is present with them and trouble will not have the last word.”

I’ve had the privilege of being invited into this kind of contemplation in cultures other than my own all over the world. I have a feel for NPR’s more Eurocentric contemplation and I have also been blessed by Aretha Franklin’s. In the following video from Franklin’s 1972 live album, Amazing Grace, she manages to lead the moment of contemplation in a setting of a live recording. In it she bridges the societal divides, as she was so good at, by taking a Carol King song and combining it with a familiar gospel tune, in a South LA church. The album is in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Aretha Franklin demonstrates how the nondominant find their place in the culture and how they keep a hold of their dignity and affirm their identity as the beloved.  The contemplative scene she leads is just as useful as the singular, quiet, secure-that-your-body-will-be-there-when-you-get-back-to-it, Eurocentric contemplation. We don’t need to choose. There is one body, one faith, one Lord. No one is excluded.

* From her essay in Kaleidescope: Broadening the Palette in the Art of Spiritual Direction. Ineda P. Adesanya, editor.