Sunday, February 28, 2016

Active Imagination, the Spiritual World, and the "Maximus Homo"

Active Imagination, the Spiritual World, and the "Maximus Homo"
In 2013, I started doing "active imagination," a personal practice that I still do today. Active imagination is ultimately just a form of fantasy or daydreaming, but it differs from most daydreams in that you consciously participate in active imagination. Whereas a fantasy can unfold in your mind's eye and not make much of a dent on your conscious attitude, by doing imagination "actively," you insert yourself into the reverie and participate in it as though the daydream were real life.

What the practitioner of active imagination soon discovers is that the figures she encounters in fantasy are not passive recipients to her will. They have wills of their own; if you try to make them do what you want, they will stubbornly resist you. This used to frustrate me as a child. In my mind I would picture a scene and try making it change according to my will, but it would only sometimes cooperate. In reality, I was going along with our society's collective misconception of the imagination as something unreal. Imagination is actually very real, possibly more so than the world of dirt, pavement, and skyscrapers that surrounds us.

In doing active imagination, I discovered that certain recurring figures started emerging. One was the mysterious but kind woman in white. Another is an angry, thin man dressed in black. Yet another is a slothful lizard or snake. Though I came to this conclusion only slowly, I consider each of these figures to be as real as you or I. They just "live" in a different world: the world "between" each of us, the realm that exists in relation to this earth as the visuddha or throat chakra does in relation to the muladhara or root chakra. As a part of this, they pop up or even incarnate themselves in the world through what psychology would call a "projection." But they aren't projections in the sense most people use the term. These figures from the world of imagination "project" themselves from our mind onto the people and things surrounding us. That's what love at first sight is: I'm not falling in love with a fleshly person but instead an imaginal figure who forms part of my soul.

In a very real way, then, these presences from "the between" can incarnate themselves in the physical world. This is nothing scary; it happens all the time. In fact, I would say that any emotional attitude we display is evidence of a "presence" in the imaginal world. Feeling angry? Attribute it to the imaginal archetypes of anger. Are you ever lustful? Trace it back to the presences who personify lust in the between. This is a good way to explain the nature of the gods in classical mythologies, especially those of Greece: the emotional attitudes we embody are actually the gods and goddesses incarnating themselves through us. My fury comes from Ares; my lust derives from Aphrodite; my longing for meditative stillness originates in Hestia. Knowing this, we can read the stories of Greek mythology not as obsolete stories to entertain but instead as eternal patterns that display the relationship between emotional attitudes and those who would embody them.

Swedenborg also said this, albeit in a slightly different way. In his seminal work Heaven and Hell, he writes:
"There are good spirits and evil spirits with every individual. We have our union with heaven through the good spirits and our union with hell through the evil ones....When these spirits come to us, they come into our whole memory and from there into all our thinking--evil spirits into the matters of memory and thought that are evil, and good spirits into the matters of memory and thought that are good. These spirits are totally unaware that they are with us. Rather, as long as they are there, they believe that all these matters of our memory and thought are actually theirs. They do not see us, either, because their sight does not extend to things in our subsolar world."
The "good spirits and evil spirits" are what Swedenborg calls "forms of love." The good spirits embody good loves (i.e. good desires) and evil spirits embody evil loves (bad desires). When he says that the good and evil spirits flow into us, he's really just saying that we receive "influx" from the loves or desires to which they correspond. Moreover, Swedenborg writes that every spirit has a place in the Maximus Homo or Grand Human: a comprehensive human body that each spirit helps make up like cells or organs. Though that may sound odd, reflect on the last time you felt anger. Where in the body did you feel it? For me, I feel it as an indignant flame in the chest, a feeling Swedenborg would attribute to the spirits or forms of love that occupy that part of the Grand Human. I symbolize with it, you see; I am a microcosm to its macrocosm. When I feel the heat in various parts of my body that go with each emotion, I'm resonating with the fires of love that spirits embody in that part of the Maximus Homo. You can think of the chakras in Kundalini Yoga and various New Age systems the same way.

So when I do active imagination, what I'm really doing is letting those spirits--as embodiments of desires in the world "between" all of us--come out through me and speak directly. Swedenborg admits this is possible when he wrote in his spiritual diary that:
"Spirits, if permitted, could possess those who speak with them so utterly, that they would be as though they were entirely in the world; and indeed, in a manner so manifest, that they could communicate their thoughts through their medium, and event by letters; for they have sometimes, and indeed often, directed my hand when writing, as though it were quite their own; so that they thought it was not I, but themselves writing."
Active imagination is a way to consciously embody those presences we normally embody only unconsciously. By actively daydreaming or else engaging in actual conversations with these figures through writing, you start to understand the relationship between the various figures of this imaginal world. You learn the topography of heaven and hell; you know more and more of the Maximus Homo's anatomy. And in this process, you begin to learn more about the patterns you continually embody in your life. Do you keep attracting the same kind of relationship? Maybe that's because the spirits/loves that you projected onto the other person are connected to you in a way you haven't acknowledged. Do you have recurring dreams or nightmares? You may want to check out what presences lie behind the mask of those dream figures.

Anyway, active imagination is a good practice, and it's probably helped me more than any therapy or other attempts at self-improvement I've tried. If you're curious, look at these books for helpful advice on how to start: Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth by Robert A. Johnson (link) and Jung on Active Imagination (link).

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