Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth by Robert A. Johnson

(Harper One; New York, 1986)

I wonder whether one reason theologies in the Enlightenment tradition have struggled to deal with the topic of religious experience is because it is just very difficult to explain, and Enlightenment empiricism is all about explaining data.  Somehow, my friend ‘the painter’ and my friend ‘the story teller’ seem much more equipped than I to communicate something meaningful about the inner life of human beings.  Well, that may be the case, but this post is my attempt at some explanation of my inner spirituality.

Robert Johnson is a Jungian analyst who has written several books on the inner life.  He writes really well, so if you want a book to facilitate personal engagement with psycho-analytic tools for personal-growth I recommend him.  Though I also recommend you don’t get into this without some kind of trusted and skilled, debrief person in place.  In this book Johnson describes the tools of dream analysis and active imagination, tools for waking up the unconscious world of our psyche.  Night dreams are different to active imagination and the process of working with dreams and imagination is different.  The former is m0re reflective, given that one begins to interact with the story only upon it’s conclusion when the dreamer wakes up!  Journalling is key to both strategies as a way to hone insight. 

I’ve never had much memory of my dreams so that’s not been all that helpful to me.  Active imagination however, has been very powerful.  Active imagination as Johnson describes it seems to be parallel to hypnotherapy as it is practised in many clinical psychology settings.  It is an exercise is internal story telling, whilst relaxed and focused within one’s self.  In my experience active imagination has always been a vibrant, 3D movie world!  To prepare I go through a relaxation exercise and put on the 3D glasses, opening my mind to the unfolding story.

Johnson is careful to distinguish between active imagination and fantasy.  In imagination, you do not force the unfolding of the story, you just let it be.  They feel very different.   In my experience fantasy has a shade of the illicit to it, like I am manipulating the characters from behind the scenes.  I’m not an advocate of indulging fantasy! 

Johnson is also careful to distinguish between archetypal voices or persons in the imagination and the personal characters.  An archetypal image is one that is universal – that every human being would have access to in their imagination.  Characters who fulfil social roles are classic archetypes – mother, lover, child, heroine, and so on.  The reason why the Greek gods and goddesses are so often used as symbolic representions of the archetypes is the sense of their eternal existence, and in my internal images, they take on a kind of grandeur and glamour – they are ‘larger than life’.  There are other figures in my imagination which are more ordinary and reflect the particular experience of my life.  They don’t stand for everyone’s experiences – just mine.   It’s not that they are less integral characters to the storyline, they are just not as luminous.  It’s kind of like the difference between a blockbuster moviestar and a character actress from an interesting indi film.  These stories of my inner life are full of drama and dilemmas – they’d actually make pretty good movie scripts!

So right away here, there are at least 2 types of ‘voices’  or articulations of my whole personhood in my inner life, that I am clear are quite distinct.  What has fascinated me on this journey however, is that this kind of unconscious story telling is also very different to the experiences of my prayerful imagination.  Whilst on retreat several months ago, a vivid and vibrant image popped into my head as a picture of my inner ‘place’ of prayer – it’s been a wonderful gift.  Jesus is there.  As is the Father and the Holy Spirit.  So too are all the people who I hold in my heart, and a very distinct version of myself.  It’s a place of conversation and engagement with God – we talk (we hug) and I mull over important decisions and directions there.  As characters in the storyline of my imagination, God feels very different to the images of my self.  There is something independent about God, just as my friends and family remain their own distinct person, no matter how close we feel.  This place of prayer is for me a place of integration.  I am my self.  God is God’s self.  Others are them selves.   (By the way, Johnson advises to be careful about using real people in active imagination – we have no right to impose our choices on other people, even in the privacy of our inner world.)  Prayer imagination is full of scriptural images and indeed that has become for me the litmas test as to whether it is a conversation with God (prayer) or a conversation with my self (active imagination) – prayer images match up with scriptural images and themes.  They also have discernable consequences of blessing – a flow on affect, usually for others as well as myself. 

So, now we’re up to 5 different types of characters that come up for me in imagination – the archetypes, aspects of my semi- and un-conscious self, my whole self, God, and any number of real individuals (when I’m in prayer only, because I reform real people in active imagination, searching for the expression of my self not the other).    But wait, there’s more!  Very occasionally in my 40 years I have heard the distinct voice of God speak directly to me.  That experience was one of something totally beyond me intruding into my inner space, in quite a startling and unsettling way.  Sometimes an insight might startle me – a penny drops and I suddenly ‘know’ something with absolutely clarity. Like a little bubble of fresh air burbed up from the deep. Still feels like I came up with it myself.  The God intrusions feel different. 

That’s 7 different experiences of the inner life.  It’s busy!  It’s often very noisy in my head!!  Compare that then, with the practice of contemplative prayer. 

Christian meditation focuses on the emptying or stilling of the mind, as all meditation does.  However, the emphasis for the Christian is on openness to that which is wholly other.  The mysterious fullness of God which is beyond all human articulation – in words or images.  I often think about it as making space to encounter God, I have to clear things out of the way for God to get in the room!  There is such a luxurious peacefulness about that which, for me, is entirely at odds with my experience of my self.  I do not lose myself when God envelopes me, but I am wrapped up and cajoaled like a newborn baby.   

It’s taken me quite some time to write this post but I persisted because I think it’s really important.  I believe that knowing ourselves to deeper levels is critical for the Church in this time of massive socio-cultural transition.  We will not move beyond factionalism and marginalisation until we can live powerfully from a place of knowing with infinite certainty that we are loved and lovable.

2 thoughts on “Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth by Robert A. Johnson

  1. I really appreciate this post, ‘Chelle. It makes sense to me. My experience has been that understanding something of this complexity in myself enables me to be more loving toward myself and also – I hope – more understanding of others.

    • I’ve often wondered and wandered through my history with a living sense of ‘active biography’. I’m not sure why, and perhaps I don’t need the certainty, but I do feel comfort in my emerging story as it weaves and intersects with the stories of others. K.

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