From dream interpretation to active imagination, the inner work of Jungian psychology can help tap into the world of the unconscious.
Statistics show that we spend almost a third of our lives asleep. But what of our “waking” hours? Some would argue that even when we’re not sleeping, we operate through so much of the day on virtual “autopilot” that we’re not really all that aware. We’re conscious, to be sure. Just how conscious are we? We might be aware of our environment — at least aware enough to respond to others, take action in the face of danger, and engage with our surroundings. But how aware are we of our “inner environment” — that vast universe of feelings, urges, inclinations, yearnings, and needs that generally lies below the surface of normal consciousness?
For years, analytically-oriented psychologists and other therapists have sought to help folks become better connected with the world of the unconscious. Devotees of Jungian psychology call the systematic effort to access this virtually unlimited but generally untapped resource as “inner work.” Inner work is often carried out through the interpretation of dreams and a variety of other spiritually-oriented exercises. It’s through this inner work that we can get in deeper touch with our single greatest asset: ourselves.
Carl Jung believed that our dreams have a unique ability to inform us about hidden aspects of ourselves and acquaint us with our full nature. He went a step further than his mentor Sigmund Freud in his speculations about the roles various symbols in our dreams play. Both Freud and Jung viewed these symbols as the “language” our dreams use to connect us to those parts of ourselves we have either grown to ignore or for some reason have cast out of our conscious awareness through repression. Jung believed the characters, objects, and circumstances in our dreams provide us more than mere clues to our individual unconscious thoughts and yearnings. He viewed these things as the symbolic representation of the deeper realities inherent in all the various manifestations of creation. The symbols in our dreams therefore have the power to connect us not only to aspects of ourselves of which we’re generally unaware, but also to the even more vast or “collective” unconscious shared by all living entities.
To fully understand the meaning of various symbols and, consequently, the deeper meaning of our dreams, most of us need a disciplined regimen of reflection and introspection. It is within such a discipline that the real art of dream interpretation lies. Through the regular practice of various exercises that have proven their value over time, we can get in touch with ourselves at a level we might never have imagined possible.
Most folks well-versed in the art of inner work find it essential to keep a dream journal and to have the journal readily available to them, and not just at bedside. You don’t want to forget potentially important details of a dream, and keeping the journal handy will allow you to capture as much of the content of your dreams as you can and as soon as possible. While you want to get most of your journal entries made soon after you wake and your dreams are still fresh in memory, you might also find yourself remembering certain key things and having certain insights throughout the day, so having your journal with you and at the ready will allow you to add these things for later reflection. It’s a good idea to take special care to journal the parts of your dreams that stood out to you in some way, and to reflect a bit on the various “associations” you have with those key symbols. It’s also helpful to record the dominant feelings, emotions, and overall mood you remember were associated with the various characters and events in your dreams. While there’s no single “correct” way to journal, many find it helpful to leave some spaces between the thoughts and reflections being recorded so that insights that come with subsequent reflection can be easily inserted. Once you get into the practice, it’s easy to see why a dream and reflection journal is such an indispensable tool in one’s inner work.
Active imagination is another powerful inner work technique which Jung devised to amplify various features and symbols in dreams and to enrich the interpretation of them. When you use active imagination, you claim a special kind of “ownership” of the various characters and symbols in your dream. After all, even from a neurophysiological perspective, every aspect of your dream is a part of you. Through active imagination, you allow yourself to “get into character” in much the same way as an actor or playwright does. You can put words in the mouths of the characters you imagine rightfully belong there and attribute sentiments and feelings you sense apply. You can even carry out a dialog between characters, imagining what important message they bear or really want to convey, or what a certain part of you that identifies with a character wants another part to know. In the act of actively imagining, insights often flow steadily into your conscious awareness. If you just happen to have your journal nearby, you can record those insights for further reflection at a later time.
This article is not meant to be a comprehensive treatise on the discipline of inner work. It’s not even a primer on the subject. It’s meant as but a simple introduction to a most fascinating and time-tested method many have used to come to a powerful level of self-awareness. Keeping a dream journal and engaging in the practice of active imagination are just two of the many tools folks use to do their inner work. To really understand the process and access all of the other tools of greater self-discovery, it’s generally necessary to work with a specially trained analyst. Some Jungian analysts have even been trained at and certified by the Jung institute in Zurich. If you check around, you’re likely to find someone with the right credentials.
There are also many helpful resources that can better acquaint you with the principles of inner work, for example:
- Jungian Analysis
- Inner Work Blog
- Jung Society of Washington
- Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth by Robert A. Johnson
Ultimately, however, the real teacher when it comes to inner work is you. You have a vast storehouse of resources deep within you just waiting to be unlocked and accessed. As you become practiced in the art of inner work, your dreams will provide you the key.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by