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Reply To: Exploring Lucid Dreaming


James – no worries. I doubt Andrew even noticed you posted this in the Helpful Books thread (I’m just trying to keep conversational threads separate from those listing resources, to avoid sprawl).

To me, the difference between the practice of Jung’s concept of active imagination and the experience of lucid dreaming is analogous to the difference between imagining you are drinking a cup of coffee, and actually drinking a cup of coffee. Depending on how powerful one’s imagination is, it certainly is possible to recall the aroma, the flavor, how it feels in your belly, and the accompanying mental stimulation on more than just an abstract intellectual level when imagining that cup of coffee, but that still pales compared to the experience of actually drinking a cup of coffee.

A dream, like a psychedelic experience, is an altered state of consciousness – an immersive experience in an alternate reality, if you will, but reality nevertheless, at least to the “dream you.”.

Active imagination, on the other hand, is working with images, often from a dream one has already had, with the idea, in Jung’s terms, to “distinguish ourselves from the unconscious contents.” He originally referred to this as “the transcendent function,” and then “the picture method” – but also “active fantasy,” “trancing,” “visioning,” “exercises,” “dialectical method,” “technique of introversion,” “introspection,” and “techniques of the descent” – before using the term “active imagination” for the first time in public in his Tavistock Lectures in London in 1935.

There are many forms active imagination can take – working with and engaging the images in one’s own mind, for sure, often by selecting an image from a dream, vision or fantasy, or even focusing on a mood or psychosomatic symptom experience from waking life, which then activates the imagination (you can even do this with a painting or photo, concentrating on it until it comes alive, so to speak).

Other times this involves giving the imagination form through painting, drawing, sculpting, writing, dancing, and such. Jungian analyst Joan Chodorow, who compiled a collection of Jung’s passages on the subject, describes the process thus:

Sometimes the image appears first in the mind’s eye, but it may or may not want to come out. More often than not, images arise in a completely spontaneous way as we work with an expressive medium. Sooner or later the imagination is given physical form. Jung describes a wide variety of forms that include writing, drawing, painting, sculpting, weaving, music, dancing, as well as the creation of rituals and dramatic enactments. Marie-Louise von Franz reports that Jung once told her symbolic enactment with the body is more efficient than ‘ordinary active imagination’ but he could not say why.”

I’d venture to guess the reason for that is a symbolic enactment in the three-dimensional world gives the imagination body – the images put on flesh, so to speak, become real. “Play” is often an essential element: Jung’s return to an activity of his childhood, building houses and cities out of blocks, then graduating to stones and building the full-scale tower at Bollingen, was a form of active imagination – as were his inner dialogues with Philemon and Salome.

Despite some differences in minor details or terminology – whether Jung, von Franz, Robert Johnson, or other depth psychologists – the trajectory of active imagination is essentially the same: Let go of ego and open the mind to the unconscious (I believe Johnson phrases it “invite the unconscious”), then let an image arise, give the image some form of expression, let the ego react to it (applying waking world values by bringing in an ethical element), make it concrete with a physical ritual of some sort, and then live it.

There is intention to active imagination, which is something we do when awake. We do not think we are dreaming when doing it, nor do we think this is “real” (though for some individuals, it is possible to be overwhelmed by unconscious impulses if careless). Active imagination is not something that happens by chance – it is an intentional psychological process designed to achieve a result.

Lucid dreaming is very different. We know about lucid dreaming because it tends to arise spontaneously in the dream state. When dreaming, our experience feels just as real as when awake – but many many many people will at some point have an experience where they notice some sort of dissonance within the dream (e.g. sitting at the bottom of a swimming pool and suddenly realizing you haven’t been holding your breath, and yet are feeling no discomfort – or noticing your Aunt Martha left  the room by walking through the wall instead of out the door, which just doesn’t feel “right”).

Most of the time when impossible things happen in a dream we don’t think of them as strange at all, because we experience them as consistent with the dream logic of that dream reality. Dissonance arises when there is a sense or suspicion that we witness, or directly experience, as at odds with reality – which is often the result of the intrusion of conscious awareness into the dream reality.

For example, I have often had dreams where I am sort of skipping or dancing over the ground – a joyous experience – and then I notice that I’m actually traveling or floating long distances between skips, maybe thirty or forty feet, far beyond what should be possible –and that sense that this is at odds with reality leads me to wonder if I am dreaming. Other times I will find myself in a situation where I can’t remember what came before it – how did I end up on the back of this unicorn, or in my childhood bedroom – which is at odds with waking world experience, where I remember what came before I started typing this post, for example, and know how I ended up here.

Sometimes that’s a momentary twinge of awareness, and then I’ll slip right back into full immersion – but there are times when I realize that I really am dreaming. Often, when that happens, consciousness takes the rudder and suddenly I am fully awake – but there are other times when I remain in the dream, marveling at the reality of what is clearly impossible when I’m awake: the intervals between feet touching the ground when running or skipping grow longer and longer, and suddenly I am floating or flying, swooping and soaring, knowing I must be dreaming.

One doesn’t have to read Carl Jung or Robert Johnson to experience a lucid dream; these tend to arise spontaneously. There is no conscious purpose or intention to it for most dreamers.

Often these experiences are quite joyous and playful: there is a certain exhilaration to knowing I am dreaming. For example, if I am being chased by a snarling, hungry tiger, I experience a rush of adrenaline and tremendous fear and anxiety. This is true whether dreaming or awake – in either case, the threat and fear is real.

But if, while this happens, I suddenly realize I am dreaming, that changes the experience. The tiger may catch me, but I know that ultimately, there is nothing to fear as it’s just a dream, so I am able to have some fun with the experience.

(On a bit of a tangent, it is intrigues me that “Buddha” can mean He Who Is Awake – or the Awakened One. Buddha realizes life is sorrow, but knows that all is a dream, and that he is awake within the dream; his solution to that suffering, then, is to stop the dream and simply cease to be – nirvana: blown out, like the extinguishing of a candle. Three centuries later the figure of the Bodhisattva emerges, one who is on the cusp of Buddhahood – knows all is a dream and is awake with that dream, and yet determines to stay in the dream, experiencing the sorrows of life until all beings in the dream wake up to that – which Campbell refers to as the Bodhisattva formula: “Joyful participation in the sorrows of life”)

Knowing that lucid dreaming exists, a small number of people today actively aim to foster the experience of being awake within a dream, often for fun – but all, often with the intention of changing the dream (e.g. turn that snarling, threatening beast into a butterfly). That, however, is easier said than done, for even though one may know one is experiencing a dream, the ego having that experience is not exactly identical with one’s waking ego – it may be possible to influence the dream somewhat (say, float off into the sky, or imagine one is going to meet one’s first lover around the next bend in the path), but it is still dream, with its own dream logic. Dream characters may not react the way you want – might turn that tiger into a butterfly, but then the butterfly bites off your arm.

So Andrewl points out that he leans more toward experiencing the dream while awake within it without trying to script or manipulate it, or make it conform to one’s will. Indeed, one can apply active imagination to the images one encounters in a lucid dream.

It does indeed seem possible to achieve some psychological benefits from lucid dreaming.

Research remains ongoing . . . .