Tag Archives: unconscious

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.

Dreams can deepen your life — 4 steps to understanding them

Spanish woman asleep on the train.

Dreams are a handy, important doorway into our unconscious process. During the pandemic many people have been sleeping more. As a result they are remembering their dreams more, too.

Most people don’t typically remember their dreams. Living through the coronavirus pandemic might be changing that due to heightened isolation and stress, influencing the content of dreams and allowing some dreamers to remember more of them. For one, anxiety and lack of activity decrease sleep quality. Frequent awakenings, also called parasomnias, are associated with increased dream recall. Latent emotions and memories from the previous day can also influence the content of dreams and one’s emotional response within the dream itself. (National Geographic)

Some of these dreams are as frightening as the pandemic and as anxiety-provoking as societal and economic changes that have accompanied it. But all of them are instructive and help us use our wakeful times to learn about ourselves and grow deeper in grace.

Inner Work provides a useful approach

Robert A. Johnson

I think I have been remembering more of my dreams because I decided to do so. I have often gone to bed and told myself, even prayed, to remember a useful dream. This month I read a new book that deepened my capacity to explore my inner life in this way. The book is by one of my favorite authors: Robert A. Johnson’s Inner Work. I recommended it to a friend with two caveats: 1) It is Christian-adjacent, but sympathetic enough to orthodoxy for me; 2) It is a book on DIY Jungian dream work and active imagination and such work should never really be done on one’s own. It would be best to work with a partner.

That being said, I think this book is about as practical as a book on dreams can be. It provides a simple (but deep) approach to understanding one’s dreams and applying their meaning. It also details the process of active imagination (which I might outline for you next week). There are many ways to cooperate with our transformation. We can hire a professional to help us with most of them. Among the many ways, I think dream work is an important element. I have enjoyed my own version of it for many years and Johnson has improved my understanding greatly. I highlighted so much of Inner Work, I will be reading most of the book again when I look at my notes — that might be a good thing.

You should read the book for the full treatment, of course. But I want to outline his steps for you so you can get started. There is no cut-and-dried approach to interpreting dreams, internet summaries notwithstanding. The true meaning of our dreams is mainly in how we personally interact with them. That relationship is changeable and ongoing, since our dreams contain elements as vast as our unconscious experience. We have to do our own work. But it is pleasant work.

Before I get to the four steps, I think it is important to repeat that reading books and interpreting dreams is best done with someone who loves you while holding Jesus’ hand. Do-it-yourself is not the same as being personally responsible. So imagine the following steps happening in a community in which Jesus is the center, not in your own personal universe with your ego in charge.

Four steps toward understanding your dreams

Johnson’s four step process is

  • Step One: Associations
  • Step 2: Dynamics
  • Step 3: Interpretations
  • Step 4: Rituals

You will note right away that this looks like a process you have encountered in different areas when teachers were helping you take steps into depth or wholeness (like the Flow Questions our pastors offer cell leaders or the 2PROAPT method for personal or group Bible study). The process starts with observing without judgment. Then it moves to relating to what is “on the table” so to speak. Then it brings the process to an interpretation that is the main take away. Finally, it leads us to doing something about it, like we always remind ourselves to “do the word.”

Step 1 – Associations

The first step begins with writing out the dream and thinking about it. Many dreams will be quite short, not a movie script. They are essentially a series of images connected as a story which doesn’t need to be rational – some of us fly, or swim like fish, or experience mayhem in our dreams. So write out the dream and then go through it again, noting every association that comes to mind for every image. Each image is a symbol of something occurring in the unconscious. A dream may contain persons, objects, situations, colors, sounds, or speech. Each of these, for the purpose of step one, is a distinct image and needs to be looked at specifically for its symbolic value.

Write down the first image that appears in the dream. Then ask yourself, “What feeling do I have about this image? What words or ideas come to mind when I look at it?” Your association is any word, idea, mental picture, feeling or memory that pops into your mind, anything you spontaneously connect with the image. (Inner Work)

You can see why this is called dream work. It takes a bit of effort but it bears a lot of fruit. Collect as many associations as you can before you sort them out. The first one or most likely one might not be the most relevant. In the next step we will be looking for the energy of the dream, the association that “clicks.”

Step 2: Dynamics

In the second step we connect each dream image we have identified with the parts of our inner self it represents. In our dreams we meet our many selves. This concept is a major Jungian viewpoint that trips some people up. They sometimes think seeing different parts of oneself as different people turns them into a scattered mess. Maybe for some people that could happen! But for most of us, it is a short trip from seeing how we have internal conversations within ourselves all the time (“That was stupid, Rod!” Or “If you do that you will be sorry” to “Why did you never learn the piano?”) to dialoguing more consciously with “selves” who are less conscious and making themselves known in our dreams.

God may meet us in our dreams, but most of the time our dreams are contained within our nightly brain-ordering process. So when we see each image we ask things like “”What part of me is that? Where have I seen it functioning in my life lately? Where do I see that in my personality? Who is it, in me, who feels of behaves like that?” (Inner Work) First we gathered the facts, now we add the feelings, the relating to the dynamics, or energies. (See 1 Cor 12 – our bodies work like the Body of Christ).  There are dynamics surging in us – an emotional event, an inner conflict, an unloved personality, and attitude or mood.

Step 3: Interpretation

This step is the end result of all the work of the first two steps. We put together the information we have gleaned and arrive at a view of the dream’s meaning when taken as a whole. Like we skim much of the media we encounter and find shortcuts for our video games, it is tempting to take our first impression of a dream as a decent interpretation – “That was a bad dream!” But that is like taking our first impression of a person as all there is to them. It is not a very respectful way to treat your inner process by just making a snap judgment about yourself. If you are listening to your dreams well, your dream journal could end up with quite a bit of process on the way to coming to a “simple statement of the one, main idea that the dream communicates. Ask yourself: ‘What is the single most important insight that the dream is trying to get across to me?’” (Inner Work) Johnson has a LOT more help to give, but that gets you started.

Step 4: Rituals

This step is a physical act that affirms the message of the dream. A ceremonious action makes the dream more conscious and imprints its meaning more clearly in the here and now. The action could be very practical: “I will restrict TV to an hour a day,” or it could be symbolic: You buy a hamburger that represents your “junk-food relating” and bury it in the backyard. You can see that we are taking ourselves very seriously if we do this. Some people might be afraid they would be mocked if they were caught being this heartfelt – like some people never take communion for similar reasons.

Johnson recommends,

“Keep you physical rituals small and subtle, and they will be more powerful. The ritual is a physical representation of the inner attitude change that the dream called for, and it is this level of change that is requested by the dream…It is also a not a good idea to try to make a ritual out of talking about your dream or trying to explain yourself to people. Talking tends to put the whole experience back on an abstract level…Instead of a vivid private experience, you wind up with an amorphous collective chat. The best rituals are physical, solitary, and silent. These are the ones that register most deeply with the unconscious.” (Inner Work)