Dreaming the Myth Forward: Jungian Neopaganism
Carl Jung's ideas have been influencing the development of Neopaganism from its inception in the 1960s and 1970s. But what if Jung's ideas have been misunderstood by many Pagans: literalized on the one hand and oversimplified on the other? What fresh insights can a Jungian Nepaganism contribute to Pagan discourse and practice today? And might Jungianism serve as a bridge between the earth-centered and deity-centered Pagan communities?
Jungian Pagan Practice, Part 1: Active Imagination
What does a Jungian Pagan spiritual practice look like? So far, on this blog, my writing has been highly abstract. I'd like to get does to the practical side of things now.
A Jungian spiritual practice may take many forms. What all of these forms have in common is that they bring together the rational conscious mind with the non-rational unconscious mind. Dreamwork, for example, is not just dreaming, but upon waking, analyzing the dream and integrating the unconscious contents into one's conscious life.
Dreamwork is only the most well known form of Jungian spiritual practice. Any activity that creates a space and invites the unconscious to dialogue with the conscious mind may be a form of Jungian spiritual practice. The key is to hold the conscious mind in abeyance temporarily so the unconscious can speak and then to allow the conscious mind to interact with the contents of the unconscious in a reciprocal fashion.
Different methods achieve different balances between the conscious and unconscious. Lucid dreaming, for example, involves greater participation of the conscious mind than ordinary dreaming. Another example is any creative activity, such as the expressive arts. Meditative practice and intentional silence are other examples. Therapy may be a spiritual practice also. This is what Jung was referring to when he said that "the gods have become diseases." Our psychological and psychosomatic symptoms are the unconscious speaking to us, and we interact with these "gods" in therapy.
In this installment, I want to write a little bit about a lesser known form of Jungian practice, called "active imagination." "Active imagination" can be a somewhat misleading term. It refers to a kind of meditative state in which the ego is relaxed so that the unconscious world of symbols can manifest. Unlike fantasy, which remains more or less conscious, active imagination "means that the images have a life of their own and that the symbolic events develop according to their own logic." (Jung, Tavistock Lectures).
As James Hollis explains, by "active imagination"
"Jung did not mean free association, meditation, or guided imagery. Active imagination needs to be understood literally as the activation of the image, a technique which invites Auseinandersetzung or a dialogue with the unconscious. Active imagination affords the unconscious its own freedom, its own integrity. It seeks an expanded consciousness, which arises out of an encounter with the intrapsychic Other." (James Hollis, Archetypal Imagination).
By relinquishing ego control and allowing oneself to be open to the mystery of the symbol, an encounter can occur with the transcendent "Other" which is, nevertheless, within us. The goal is for symbolic images take on a life of their own so that the conscious and unconscious can dialogue. The image acts as a bridge between the raw emotion and the conscious articulation necessary for understanding and transformation.
But consciousness is not abandoned in this process; Jung was equally emphatic about this. There needs to be a balance between the need to let the image develop and transform on its own and the conscious need to understand the image. Jung advises to let the unconscious take the lead, but he reminds us to never lose sight of your conscious and rational side. Ideally, there would be dialogue between your conscious self and the image. This is how the unconscious and conscious mind are integrated.
The actual practice of active imagination is not complicated, but it can be tricky. Begin by trying to empty your conscious mind. Then focus with a feeling, a mood or an emotion, that you want to interrogate, perhaps a feeling associated with an event in your past or perhaps something you are feeling in the present. It may be helpful to locate the feeling in your body. Concentrate on the feeling. Consciously invite the unconscious to manifest itself. You can verbalize this invitation. Continue to concentrate on the feeling until an image appears. Let the image arise spontaneously. If an image does not appear, refocus on the feeling. If your mind wanders, redirect your attention to the feeling in a non-judgmental fashion.
Once an image appears, focus on it. Do not judge it. This is your unconscious communicating with you. Hold the image ... but not so tightly that the image cannot move and develop on its own. Hold the image lightly ... but not so lightly that you loose the image. If your mind wanders, redirect your attention to the image in a non-judgmental way. Observe how the image transforms. In a letter, Jung explained the process this way:
"Contemplate [the image] and carefully observe how the picture begins to unfold or to change. Don't try to make it into something, just do nothing but observe what its spontaneous changes are. Any mental picture you contemplate in this way will sooner or later change through a spontaneous association that causes a slight alteration of the picture. You must carefully avoid impatient jumping from one subject to another. Hold fast to the one image you have chosen and wait until it changes by itself."
Eventually, you may interact with the image. Ask it questions. Ask it what it is trying to tell you. Wait for the response. In another letter, Jung advises his correspondent to ask: "'Who or what has come alive?' ... 'Who or what has entered my psychic life and created disturbances and wants to be heard?' To this you should add: 'Let it speak!'" You can even step into the mental frame yourself and imagine yourself speaking with the image.
Jung recommends later finding some way to make the image concrete, by drawing, painting, or sculpting, for example. Ritual may be another way to concretize the symbol.
Instead of starting with a feeling, you can also start with an image. The image might be one from a recent dream. Or it could also be an image which has some religious significance to you
Jung wrote about his own experimentation with active imagination. One figure which appeared to him, which he called "Philemon", was Jung's personal image of the "Wise Old Man" archetype, which functioned as a psychopomp for Jung. Jung explains that these figures had a life of their own:
“Philemon and other figures of my fantasies brought home to me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life. Philemon represented a force that was not myself. In my fantasies I held conversations with him, and he said things which I had not consciously thought. [...] I understood that there is something in me which can say things that I do not know and do not intend, things which may even be directed against me. [...] Psychologically, Philemon represented superior insight. He was a mysterious figure to me. At times he seemed to me quite real, as if he were a living personality.” (Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections).
This kind of experience may be familiar to some Pagan, especially polytheistic Pagans. I've written here about how the polytheistic experience of gods might be understood in Jungian terms.
My own first attempt at the practice of active imagination was surprisingly successful. I am a lawyer. On one occasion, I was feeling a high level of anxiety about an anticipated trial. This wasn't unusual for me. While I my anxiety disappears the moment the trial begins, the days and nights leading up to trial are nerve-racking. Sometimes the anxiety interferes with my sleep, which is especially important the night before the trial. I have tried many things to eliminate this anxiety, from distracting myself to trying to rationalize it away, to no avail.
So, I decided to attempt active imagination. I sat in a comfortable spot and focused on my anxiety. I located the feeling in my solar plexus. I emptied my mind and just focused on the unpleasant feeling, asking it silently to reveal to me whatever it wanted to. For a while, nothing happened. My mind did not wander much, but there was just blackness. Then there appeared an image, an image of a wooden crucifix. I imagined this image located at my own center, at my solar plexus. I continued to focus on the image and then, quite spontaneously, the image burst into green leaves, as if it were a not a dead piece of wood, but a living tree. And what was most remarkable was that the feeling of anxiety disappeared! And it did not return for some time. Interestingly, I later read that Jung experienced a similar feeling when he practiced active imagination. He wrote in Memories, Dreams, Reflections that after the images appeared for him, "the unrest or sense of oppression vanished."
Of course, this sense of relief made no sense to my rational mind. "Why should this image release my anxiety when my rational mind had not been able to?", I wondered. Of course, that question answers itself. The image of the crucifix was, for me, a representation of a state of fixity and death. It symbolized what I was doing emotionally, clinging tightly to my desired outcome, hoping to control every eventuality with my rational mind. The blossoming of the cross represented motion and life. It symbolized a cathartic release of of my desire for control.
This interpretation was confirmed for me when I attempted the practice a second time, under similar circumstances. This time, the image that appeared to me was of a rose that had frozen and turned blue. As I dwelt with the image, it melted and transformed into a living red rose which moved with life. I felt the same cathartic release of my anxiety. Synchronistically, the following day, my wife showed me a YouTube video of a flower blossoming in time lapse.
I probably should have stayed with these images longer and "dialogued" with them more, but I was so excited by the dramatic release of tension that I was propelled to get up and move around, and I let the image go.
This experience reminded me of something written by Alan Watts in his book, Behold the Spirit:
"A certain type of mind is frightened by the mutability, the elusiveness, and the mystery of life, and thinks of salvation as a state of everlasting fixity and certainty from which the disconcerting elements of spontaneity, surprise and mystery are largely removed. A image of God in which the ridged male qualities predominate, which excludes the beautiful, the fluid, the playful and the feminine, simply mirrors that fear of life and Reality. The rigid, male God embodies the ideal of the possessive will—to grasp and hold the mystery of life, to freeze the desired form of the living moment into an eternal and immobile possession. And so frozen, the thing is quite dead. The moment, the movement, the life has passed on and gone free. ...
"For another type of mind fixity is death, and instead of trying to catch and possess the wind of life, he lets it blow freely around and through him, finding peace, joy and salvation in its very movement. He surrenders the desire to possess it in any fixed state or form, and lets it possess him, affirming and joining in its unceasing and ungraspable movement as in some divine dance or melody."
The next time I had a trial, I found an image that represented the experience of the blossoming crucifix, and I carried this with me. And while I still felt some anxiety, it was demonstrably lessened.
Now, of course, there is nothing particularly "Pagan" about this practice. But since I am Pagan, the images that appear to me will often have Pagan associations. It is not coincidence, for example, that I had a negative association with the crucifix and a positive association with the "flowering rod" imagery from nature.
In future posts, I hope write about other forms of Jungian Pagan practice, including dreamwork, creative arts, and therapy.
Please login first in order for you to submit comments