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Dreaming the Dream Forward
On active imagination and learning from your unconscious
I am sitting in my office trying to let the day fade away from consciousness. I turn my attention to what’s happening inside and start thinking of someone I encountered in a recent dream. I go to the place where I encountered this person and wait for them to arrive. Eventually, the person appears but looks different than she did in my dream. I ask why she looks different and a conversation unfolds between us.
This was the first breakthrough I had experimenting with active imagination. The technique, resurrected and popularized by Carl Jung, is a powerful way to engage with one’s unconscious while in a waking state. It might sound a little esoteric but it’s remarkably easy to fall into the depths of one’s unconscious. The steps are straightforward. In a calm setting, you call up an image in your mind. It can be helpful to think of an image or person from a recent dream. With that image in mind, you simply focus on it until it moves or does something on its own. Jung referred to this technique as “dreaming the dream forward.”
Active imagination and dreaming deal with the same unprocessed material of the unconscious. When we dream, we receive signals from the unconscious but our conscious mind (otherwise known as the ego) doesn’t participate. It is only after we wake up that the conscious mind can begin to think about the meaning of the signals from the depths.
In active imagination, by contrast, the conscious mind is awake and participates in the events that unfold in the unconscious. You sit with a pen and take careful notes about everything you encounter. The act of writing ensures that you don’t fall into some daydreaming fantasy (or fall asleep). It ensures that your ego remains active and engaged.
Active imagination is not like some popular “visualization” techniques in which one imagines something with a goal in mind. There is no script. It has a completely different relationship with the unconscious, one based on recognition of its reality and power. You go to your unconscious to find out what is there and to learn what it has to offer to the conscious mind. The unconscious is not something to be manipulated to suit the purposes of the conscious mind, but an equal partner to engage in dialogue that leads to a fuller maturity or wholeness.
The unconscious, you will come to find out, works in symbols. When we experience a symbol in our unconscious, to paraphrase the renowned Jungian analyst Robert A Johnson, we simultaneously experience the complex, the archetype, the inner psychic entity that are represented by the symbol. When the image speaks, it is with one of our own inner voices. When we answer back, it is the unseen inner part of our own self that listens and registers.
As you go deeper with a practice of active imagination, the two levels of consciousness (the unconscious and the observing conscious or ego) flow into each other to create one powerful stream. They grow to complement each other and work together. For Jung, this union gives rise to the transcendent function – the self – which is the synthesis of the two. Curiously, active imagination done correctly can slow the number of dreams one has because the unassimilated material of the unconscious is dealt with before it comes up in dream form.
There is a great example of what active imagination looks like in the seminal volume by Robert Johnson. A woman in her late 30s is consumed with a house renovation to the point where she can’t sleep and it affects her relationships (we can all relate). She stays up at night tossing and turning, thinking about which color to paint the walls. Fed up one night, she begins an active imagination and encounters a Japanese artist. The artist is one of her inner characters and she asks why he is making her so obsessive about the renovations. He explains that his creativity has been stifled because the woman has a busy professional life. He is afraid that when the renovation is complete, he will be ignored again. The woman listens and the two finally reach an agreement. She will start a pottery class when the renovation is complete so that her inner Japanese artist has an outlet for creativity.
The story of the Japanese artist demonstrates how interacting with the unconscious can yield practical steps for what needs to be addressed or explored in one’s waking life. Yet, the prospect of such breakthroughs is daunting because there are many suppressed emotions in our unconscious. Some people are confronted with depression, loneliness, anxiety, and alienation when they begin active imagination. Often this material has been suppressed for years or decades. Dredging it up can be harrowing and takes courage, just like embarking on a therapeutic psychedelic journey.
In many cases, the suppressed emotions and inner people can be reluctant to engage. They have been repressed deep down inside of us for so long that they don't want to rush up on stage quickly. You need to tread lightly and respect the process. The only way to find the unknown parts of ourselves is to go to the unconscious and become receptive to its messages. Jung has shown that by approaching the unconscious and learning its symbolic language, we can live richer and fuller lives.
Given the strength and assertiveness of my ego, I find that approaching active imagination with a sense of reverence has been key to opening the doors of the unconscious. Reverence helps to calm and quiet my ego so that I can descend deeper into my unconscious. Just like a psilocybin journey or profound meditation practice, active imagination is a powerful spiritual experience. The mere fact that we can engage with these aspects of ourselves in an attempt to become whole (to become our true self, in Jungian terms) feels like a gift of divine origin.
The crux of active imagination is to calm the conscious mind to make space for the unconscious mind to open itself up. As much as I am excited about all this internal exploration, I can’t let that intellectual mind get carried away. I must focus on stillness and allow the unconscious to lead. It’s the only way to dream the dream forward.
This is the second part of my series on Jung and how his ideas are influencing my personal journey of individuation. The series will culminate with a long essay I have written for The New Fatherhood about parenting, psychedelics, and Jung. For now, the comment section is open and I would love to hear from you. See you next week.