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Active Imagination

Do You Dream

Tony Crisp

Chapter Seven

Also see Active Imagination and Dreams

The most necessary personal quality to interpret dreams is imagination. By imagination is meant the ability to find or group associated ideas and images round a given subject. If I write the word HORSE, what ideas or associated images can we link with it? It can be big, small, brown, black, stallion or mare. It can be weak, strong, old, young, tame or wild, friendly or aggressive. A horse links with images of saddles, reins, bridle, cart, whip, jockey, race-course. It can run, jump, pull, trample, bite, kick, plunge, buck. We can ride it, be thrown from it, mount or dismount, sit easy or with difficulty. It can carry us or a load, and so on. This all links with what has already been said about association of ideas. But there is another aspect of imagination which can be used as a sort of ‘diver’s suit’. By this I mean that its use often enables us to dive deeply into ourselves, and contact parts of us difficult to reach by any other means. It cannot be used for all dreams, but where indicated, its results are sometimes in the light of revelations to the person using it.

This method is called active imagination; and although often mentioned in various technical or popular dream books, a detailed description of how to do it is seldom given. Yet once it is grasped it is one of the simplest types of dream interpretation or methods of self discovery possible. But before we deal directly with the method, it is necessary to take a further look at imagination.

Earlier we looked at some aspects of memory, and which attitudes of mind inhibit or release it. These attitudes of mind also are largely responsible for the fullness or poverty of imagination. Not that what was said covered the issue very well, or that it can be covered adequately in this book, for many other factors act upon memory and imagination. These range from diet to atmospheric conditions, glandular balance to social influences. All affect our memory and imagination. In the consideration of active imagination, however, for a working knowledge of the technique that follows, a few further remarks on memory are necessary. Earlier it was said that by correctly conditioning our state of mind, we can often remember dreams that had never before been conscious. Possibly re-member is the wrong word, because the dream had never been consciously known, to be forgotten. But at least we are recalling an experience had by us at a different level of consciousness. It was also said that some dreams are difficult to recall because they portray parts of our nature we are ashamed of, guilty about, or frightened of. These factors also control our imagination.

It is therefore fairly obvious that our code of morals also has an enormous influence on what we allow ourselves to remember or imagine. The reader may have grave doubts about this, believing that they are free agents as to what they think or imagine; but this is wishful thinking and its falsity will be demonstrated as we proceed.

Memory and imagination are almost one and the same thing, for we cannot imagine without memory. But imagination is the forming of images and ideas into new arrangements or previously unthought of relationships. Sometimes imagination simply appears as what one generally calls ‘fantasy’. That is, we may see ourselves meeting the Queen or President, and giving them vital information about the country, for which they reward us and honour us. Or else we see ourselves facing up to some bully or superior in work or life, and ‘wiping the floor’ with them, or really telling them a few home truths about themselves. If we are honest we call this wishful thinking. It is, however, a form of imagination. It is also a safe means of letting off steam, releasing emotions or aggressiveness, or hopes and longings, if we afterwards have the honesty to smile at ourselves.

On the other hand, imagination can be creative. We may be faced by the problem, as my small son was, of keeping two tall canes upright to support a badminton net, yet not be able to push them into the hard ground. He remembered, however, that nearby were bricks with holes in them. In his imagination he saw that the canes could be held upright through pushing them into the bricks. This he did, and created a new relationship he had not seen before. Most creative imagination is an extension of this ability to place the ‘known’ into new and useful relationships.

Active imagination is not quite like either of these two. It is not simply memory; it is not wishful thinking, nor is it only creation of new and useful relationships from known facts. It seems to be a combination of them all with another factor thrown in the intuitive discovery of the unknown. Its activity is conditioned by our ability to be receptive as already described, and, as far as possible, in temporarily putting aside our morals, preconceived ideas, fears and desires for self. Because of this, and despite its simplicity, many people find they cannot do it until much of themselves has already been realised and in some degree dealt with. If used correctly though, some dreams will release their meaning to almost anybody. Having said that, let us look at the technique itself. Let us slowly delve into the strange inner realm disclosed to us.

If the reader conscientiously tried to do the exercise of expressing thoughts in images instead of words; or if the idea that prior to speech mankind probably thought in images, was well understood; then this was the first step in understanding active imagination. Also, when our conscious self expresses dreams in story form, poems, drama, paintings or modelling, this also can be a type of active imagination. But, and this must be clearly understood, it is only active imagination when, during the creative procedure of writing, painting, or modelling, one feels as if the dream images have somehow come alive and are directing the course of events. At such a time there is a feeling of being moved by something other than conscious decisions or will. Not that one is powerless to stop the course of events. It could be interfered with, and that is why active imagination cannot be experienced in any great depth by those who have not learnt to sit back and watch. While a person persists in controlling and interfering with this spontaneous expression of their inner self; while they constantly block its expressions through their moral principles or preconceived ideas, then this work cannot take place. Yet with the right attitude, one is not possessed by this unconscious direction, but works with it as a partner to create new understandings, new forms, new life in oneself.

The contacting of this spontaneous outflow of the innermost being, has always been the highest aim of the world’s great religions. It was possibly the driving energy behind all the new forms of art at their inception. In our own social scene we see that the use of LSD and similar drugs have also been undertaken by many because of their ability to release in some this same contact. Sometimes the contact is expressed in body movement, such as the dance; sometimes vocally as in drama, oration and singing; sometimes through the hand, as in art, sculpture, love; sometimes in realisation, such as religious experience of bliss.

When we think of the early Quakers, we see their ‘Quaking’ as an expression. The first Wesleyans often knew similar effects. While today we have the Latihan experience of Subud; the spontaneous movements of Reichian therapy; and LSD. All of them, to be effective, require the attitude of mind already mentioned. All of them also are a co-partnership between the deep self and conscious self.

As for how we may contact this influence through our dreams, we must begin with simple experiments to obtain correct understanding. Let us start by building up an image of driving a car. To understand what is being explained, one must sit without distraction and with closed eyes and imaginatively enter into driving a car. As you imagine this, see yourself driving down a very steep hill, with a steep drop on the left. As the car goes down and down, the bends in the road swing this way and that, and suddenly a bend comes up and the car is going too fast to make it. There is a terrible slope, and the car goes right over the edge.

Before you read any further, please go through this whole sequence in imagination, noting carefully what happens. Then read on.

One of several things may have occurred.

(a) You may not have been able to imagine it.

(b) You saw it but it went before the car crashed off the road.

(c) You went right along and the car crashed down the hillside.

Without making any comments yet, I now want you to do the whole thing again. But this time, as the car goes off the edge of the road to smash down the hill, you must try to make it simply fly up into the air gracefully and land safely lower down the road. Try this before reading on.

Once more, several things may have happened. Basically, you will probably not have been able to control the car once it went over the edge of the road. It either crashed, or you could only slow it down. If you could control it then it shows a high degree of direction of your images. But why have we done all this?

Really, to show how difficult it is to produce the image, and then to control it once we have got it moving. Also, most people’s car will have crashed, even when they try to stop it. Yet these are simple images of which we are supposed to be in control. We see in this the conscious working of the because factor. Are we then, captains of our own mind?

With a little thought, the reason we cannot make the car do as we wish is obvious. The image of the car is moved by our desires and wishes. Therefore, because our fear of crashing is involved, it takes hold of the image and crashes it! In other words, because we cannot master our fear of crashing, it controls the image we have produced. Having realised this, we can then learn to face fear and move the image where we wish, until another fear or desire is involved. I do not have to spell out the tremendous meaning and possibilities of that. It is enough to say that through the manipulation or observance of our own images, we can discover, trace, change and live in our own innermost processes. This is not done by simply following the line of least resistance, as in day-dreaming, fantasy or wishful thinking. It is done by attempting to manipulate, trying to face, what is revealed by spontaneous fantasy or dreams. That is the therapeutic side of active imagination. The creative side lies in the sphere of discovery and expression of our own latent possibilities, wisdom and emotions. The fact that we may discover a ‘fear of crashing’ through indulging in the above experiment is important enough, but, even greater significance lies in the experience of not being able to stop the car from crashing even if we wish to. This shows that our fears or apprehensions, those subtle often unknown parts of our nature, are constantly influencing our behaviour. This may seem exaggerated until we realise that such fears control our thoughts. They control our memories and our imaginations. It is our thoughts, memories and imagination that are the basic causes of our actions or inactions in life. When not interfering in our actions, they are certainly modifying in many ways the manner in which we respond to outer circumstance.

It is difficult, by means of the written word, to hit on an image that will definitely show us how we are controlled in the way we think, do and respond. Many people may easily deal with the car situation in their imagination, or else not be able to see the point of it. But if we could experiment, we would probably find certain images which are terrifying or loathsome to attempt to deal with. Some we may not even wish to think about. Yet they are only mental images; nothing is being asked in the actual physical realm. All they involve are our own emotions, fears, prejudices and morals. Therefore, if the car fantasy has not provoked any feeling, try imagining sexual intercourse with one of your parents. Being such a taboo thought, it is almost bound to negatively involve much of our inner life. It is sufficient, however, if it is clearly understood that these images have a life of their own because our feelings, morals and fears are involved. To condense things we can call these parts of us our ‘psychic’ life, or soul. Therefore, if we realise that our soul is involved in the fantasy, we can take the next step in understanding active imagination. It is also hoped that through what has been done with the experiment of imagination, the forces that produce dreams are also more clearly seen. For if we cannot imagine something while conscious and bending our will to do so; the images that arise while this will is sleeping, come as direct results of the interrelationship of our different fears, hopes and psychic life. Just as the car crashing is a direct expression of our fear, and inability to control it, so in a dream, a car crashing would be just the same.

Although this subject is of enormous interest and application in many realms, such as child education, creative art and personal relationships, we have to explain it here, only in its connection with dreams. What is most important to understand, is what type of dream we can use it with effectively, and how to use it with such dreams. Very generally, it is the dream that faces us with problems we cannot get beyond; or figures in the dream we do not understand. While the way to use it is to put ourselves back into the dream situation and consciously move along with it, or manipulate the symbols.

Earlier in the book, while dealing with dream series, a dream was mentioned where the woman saw herself entering a tunnel. She then met and passed a ‘rather frightening little animal’, then a larger animal, and finally a ‘real monster, rather like a 60ft caterpillar with a lion’s head and fore feet’. This last was not passed, but she only got half way along, and woke. Literally, she woke in the middle of it. This was explained as of ‘possibly sexual nature’ due to the shape of the symbol. The fact that it was too big to get by, or cope with in the dream, makes it an excellent subject for active imagination. The size of the creature represents its emotional impact on the dreamer. Such ‘big’ emotions often need our conscious co-operation to deal with. The dream, by itself, might not find a way out of the difficulty. The speculation about the meaning of the symbol also invites us to try to realise its implications in active imagination.

The woman in question did use active imagination on this dream. She waited for a time when she would be undisturbed, made herself comfortable, and then tried to get back into the dream using her imagination. Her description is as follows:

‘Several things surprised me, To begin with I could not re-create the feeling of fear. I stood where the dream had left off and waited. Occasionally I saw the end of the tunnel and it opened out into light. Occasionally I saw a small white light just above and beyond the caterpillar’s back. Then I decided to climb on to its back to see if that produced any results. None. So I decided to crawl towards its tail. As I went along I found that its fur was full of an unpleasant slime; but I couldn’t decide exactly what it represented (apart from filth). I tried to decide what it meant and what I should do, but all the while now the far end of the tunnel was becoming lighter, and so I concluded that I had failed to discover anything useful in this experiment. The only bit that had come alive was the slime on the caterpillar’s back, and my revulsion at having to put my hands in it.’

At first sight this appears to be almost a failure. However, it shows that the tunnel’s end is in sight, and anyone trained in interpreting dreams would see that the discovery of slime on the caterpillar’s back is very important. But we do not have to speculate over this, as the very next day the whole thing ‘comes to light’. In fact, the caterpillar episode was very near to the ‘light of day’, or consciousness. The woman says, ‘I suddenly saw the meaning of the slime on the caterpillar: it was semen. It brought partial memory of the four year old’s sexual shock. I was somehow trapped, probably in the rather crude open-air toilets in the recreation ground, by a man who exhibited himself and almost certainly made me touch the phallus with my hands during ejaculation. Being small I had to reach up. My hands were ‘soiled’, and my face could have been. I am pretty sure I must have been sick. When I remembered the above I shuddered again and again and at last broke into tears. I’ve surely released a lot.’

Yes, she had released, and realised a lot; because her conscious self had sufficient courage and receptiveness to go along with, and investigate what her unconscious self was pushing up for her notice.

A similar experience of active imagination is shown in the following dream, by a young woman. In the dream she walked across the Rye, which is a large park, in a new ‘Maxi’ coat. The ground was like a bog, but she did not sink in, although she knew she had come to commit suicide. She lay on top of the bog, quite happy and ready. Then she saw a man walking towards her, only his legs visible. She knew she must now die, and thrust herself through the bog.

The first part of the dream was fairly easy to interpret. She had recently had an emotional shock through seeing her husband kissing another woman at a party. This was terrible because although such an action was not uncommon to her, she always felt very insecure emotionally, and her husband’s action was a blow to her security. The Rye was a place where her early courting took place, and represents her own sexual feelings, and the bog that underlies them. The ‘Maxi’ was a thing that she did not own, but hoped for. She was taking her outer hopes and life, on to the thin surface that covered the threat of her sexual feelings of insecurity. She was willing to face these feelings, though her old self might die in doing it. This much was understandable. It was the man’s legs that could not be fitted into the interpretation. They could have been interpreted as a threat of sex. but this did not provide a satisfying picture of the dream. Therefore the woman sat quietly, imagined herself back in the dream, and saw the man’s legs approaching. She was then asked to look up at the man’s face, and see who it was. She did so, and with great surprise said, ‘It’s my father!’ The realisation of which helped to show the part her father had played in shaping her emotional background.

Another example of how active imagination can help us to understand a symbol is again shown in the following dream and the active imagination.

‘I had, or was, a deformed baby, having four eyes, and a somewhat “not normal” face. The eyes were operated on, two being removed. But the baby grew up to be a dwarf, very lonely and shy.

‘The dwarf and normal I, were one, yet somehow separated. He lived downstairs and would often climb the stairs and stand outside my door, hoping I would see him and befriend him. I, inside, vaguely felt his presence, but whenever I got near the door, his shyness made him retreat downstairs.

‘Then I met him on a footpath between steep meadows. I asked him why his other two eyes had been removed, and he said, “Because I could see too many (confusing) things with all my eyes.” That is, too many images were presented at once, and could not be interpreted clearly.

‘He said, “Now I can see differently.” Pointing at the meadow he said, “Really there are no cows there at all.”

‘I looked and saw a lot of cows, and struggled to understand what he meant. While I was pondering he walked along a bit and said, “No, I was wrong; there is one cow there.” I looked and saw a very beautiful cow among the herd.

‘The next thing was that a large male dwarf, and two female dwarfs came along the footpath. The two men (whom I now was) recognised they were deeply related to each other, and ran into each other’s arms with great love. As they held each other they (1) felt that two incomplete parts had now found each other.’

Trying to interpret this rather long and involved dream without outside help, the dreamer found it difficult. He therefore held a picture of the dwarf in his imagination, and talked to it. Here is the record of his conversation.

Q. Why were you born deformed?

A. I am the part of you born deformed. Your sins from the past. The sins of the parents.

Q. Why did you have four eyes?

A. Because I looked for too many things. Through trying to look in too many directions there was confusion.

Q. What does it mean that you stood outside my door?

A. It means that we were so close all the time, but did not meet.

Q. Why was there only one cow?

A. There is only one cow because all the others are reflections, false images of the one. The others have no soul. You see the cows, because you have not lost the eyes as I have done. I can only see things with a soul, real things.

Q When you met the large dwarf, what is that?

A. Now we have met. You are but a larger, not complete dwarf. Together we make one person. The large dwarf is two thirds grown; I am only one third. Together we are complete.

When reading this one may feel that some of the answers are as confusing as the dream. It has to be realised that the conversation takes place within a particular person, between two parts of himself. This is something we do all the time, but not as consciously as in active imagination. If one wished to emigrate, for instance, but had aged parents who needed help, the desire to emigrate, and the desire to stay, could be represented as two people in a dream. These could talk and discuss their different desires, trying to find an agreement. But this conversation uses the education and background of the person. Therefore, a history professor might easily use terms foreign to a bricklayer, when talking to himself. The answers are therefore meaningful to ourselves, or become meaningful with a little thought. The man in question was helped to realise certain things about himself. As a child he had been extremely shy and lonely. At thirteen this had become such a problem that he took up various interests and activities to alter himself. In this way he developed the ability to meet people even more confidently and successfully than most; he spoke in public, and so on. So he felt, before the dream, that he had developed beyond his shyness, but the answers the dwarf gave him made him realise that in fact he had learnt to shut his shyness out of his life, ‘downstairs’ in the unconscious. For years he had not met this part of him due to the very differences in these two parts of him. But he could now see that his frequent blushing when certain topics were mentioned, that his conscious self had no ‘feelings’ about, suggested this other part.

This shy part of him had looked in so many directions for ‘real’ relationships with people, only to find confusion and dissatisfaction. So much so that he had had to ‘cut out’ his looking, to stop being hurt. While the cow is explained by the dreamer in these words. ‘I didn’t properly understand the bit about the cows, even after the dwarf had spoken to me. I knew that in India it is regarded as a sacred animal, and I thought of it as a sort of mother figure. Then I realised that it is a source of sustenance and motherhood. Milk is our first food, our first contact with mother. To see so many false cows was to see false sources of security and sustenance that a mother provides. I had made false ‘cows’ out of my desire for love and affection. But my shy, sensitive part, because only the real thing could satisfy it, could see through these shams.’

The same man had another interesting experience of active-imagination that demonstrates several of the other principles involved. As can be gathered from the above, he had been dealing with the relationship between himself and his mother. That is, not his present relationship, but the effects of his relationship as a baby and child. In this instance he did not use a dream as the focal point of the active imagination. It is important to understand this, as when we start working on dreams, some feelings, emotions, or memories, are unlocked by what we are doing, and may attempt to come up outside of our dream life. Unless we know how to deal with these ‘risings’ the development of our work will be much delayed. Here is the man’s account of the experience.

‘I was quite alone in the church; just sitting trying to allow my thoughts to become quiet. Usually, this was fairly easy for me, but on this particular day I could not keep my thoughts from turning to a woman I knew. Eventually, realising that some inner unrest must lie behind this constant desire, I gave myself over to it. I suppose it is meaningful that I had previously been contemplating a banner with the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus on it – the mother and child. In any case, as soon as I let my thoughts go where they wished, I saw myself at the woman’s breast. For several reasons I immediately drew my thoughts away from this. Firstly, I came to church not to fantasy sexual feelings, but to find something that helped one through the mire of personal relationships. One could go on and on fantasising sex. I had nothing against it, but such imagined scenes gave neither satisfaction, nor did they ever end. No satisfaction = no end. Also, I was married, and sexual fantasies with other women involve the very feelings that are needful to make one’s own married life complete. They divert the very emotions that are necessary in making a good home for wife and children.

‘Due to my past experiences in this realm, however, I felt I ought not to push these things aside out of hand. It was better for peace of mind to let such fantasies come up and out, rather than be bottled up inside. Therefore I put my reasons and morals on one side, sat back and watched. Immediately I went to the woman’s breast, as a baby might to its mother. There was a tremendous feeling of satisfaction and fulfilment, and gradually without trying to push it away, the whole scene lost its potency and faded; the emotions and desires having found release through the fantasy.

‘For a moment all was quiet. Then a thought came to me of its own accord. It was.’ ‘But that was only a substitute!” I naturally asked myself, “A substitute for what?” immediately the reply came, “Your mother’s breast.”

‘It is impossible to describe the flood of realisation or revelation this brought with it. The many women I had longed for outside of marriage, now took on the form of substitutes for the love and affection, fulfilment and satisfaction I desired at my mother’s breast. Realising this, I thought, “Well, I will imagine myself at my mother’s breast. Again, the shock of revelation is difficult to describe; because, the simple fact was, I found I could not do it.’

On this revelation of not being able to imagine himself at his mother’s breast, despite all his efforts, this period of active imagination ended. Later sessions, carrying on where the last left off, gradually revealed that it was feelings of uncleanness and rejection that prevented the image forming. This, in turn, led to the man reliving, during active imagination, a babyhood memory. In his own words, ‘I could not understand why I should have such strong feelings of uncleanness and rejection about an imagined picture of my mother’s breast. In fact I couldn’t get the picture. But by simply allowing these feelings to develop fully, as I had done with the original “substitute” experience, it began to move. Suddenly I was at my mother’s breast. I was a baby, I was re-living it. There I was in her arms, and I loved her so much, so enthusiastically, that I was sucking and expressing my pleasure by my body movements. I realised that a baby experiences infantile sexual feelings while at the mother’s breast. They come as a sort of blissful oneness with the mother.* But then my mother smacked me, or scolded me, (it must be understood that a baby does not separate the different parts of its being. Its emotions are not distinct from its thoughts, or its thoughts from its sexual feelings. When it does something, even as simple as shaking a rattle, it does so with all of itself, emotions, sexual feelings, hungers, etc.) because she felt that such feelings were unclean. I can understand this, as she still cannot accept my father’s feelings in this direction. And that, in a nutshell, is where my own sexual conflicts began, which now try to find substitutes outside of marriage for my sexual feelings. For I saw that a man replaces his mother with a wife, with whom he now shares and gives his deepest feelings. But his wife is his new mother. If he could not give himself to his mother because she made him feel unclean, then the same feelings of uncleanness pervade his attempts to give himself to his wife. It must be a problem that many men and women face, all begun at the mother’s breast, because the mother feels that sex is filth.’

The important thing to note in this description is the need to ‘go along’ with the images and feelings being released, without passing judgement on them. This allows them to rise, and reveal their source, which may be an event in early life, or a relationship between parts of oneself. The willingness to plunge again and again into unsavoury emotions and images, can also be seen as a necessity. The beautiful is often hidden in the dirt, or grows out of it. It is only when we see that beauty grows out of dirt that we realise dirt is not ‘filth’, but earth. It is the basic stuff of life, the material all growth emerges from; the stuff that our life forces transform in the process of growing. But if we are out of touch with the earth of our nature, our energy has nothing to transform into the flower of our manhood or womanhood. In the East, the lotus growing out of the mud has always been a symbol of this.

No attempt has been made in this description of active imagination to show its use in art, poetry and dance. This is because the chapters on dreams and poetry, painting and stories, cover this. It is also hoped the reader will, by grasping the general principles, be able to express what arises in his own way.

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