Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination Robert A. Johnson

From the Introduction


The unconscious is an enormous field of energy, much larger than the conscious mind. Jung compared the ego — the conscious mind — to a cork bobbing in the enormous ocean of the unconscious. He also compared the conscious mind to the tip of an iceberg that rises above the surface of the water. Ninety-five percent of an iceberg is hidden beneath the dark, icy waters. The unconscious, like most of the iceberg, is out of sight. But it is enormously powerful — and as dangerous as a submerged iceberg if not respected. More people have sunk after collisions with the unconscious than Titanics after collisions with icebergs.

Ego, in Latin, simply means “I”. Freud and Jung referred to the conscious mind as the ego because this is the part of the psyche that calls itself “I,” that is “self-conscious” — aware of itself as a being, as a field of energy that is independent and distinct from others. When we say “I” we are referring to only that small sector of ourselves of which we are aware. We assume that “I” contains only this personality, these traits, these values and viewpoints that are up on the surface within the ego’s range of vision, accessible to consciousness. This is my limited, highly inaccurate version of who “I” am. 

The ego-mind is not aware that the total “I” is much larger, more extensive than the ego, that the part of the psyche that is hidden in the unconscious is much greater than the conscious mind and much more powerful. 

Our egos tend to think of the unconscious as being outside ourselves, even though its contents are actually deep inside us. This is why we hear people say things like “I just wasn’t myself when I did that.” When we find ourselves doing something unexpected, something that doesn’t fit in with our conscious conception of ourselves, we speak of it as though someone else were acting rather than ourselves. The conscious mind is startled, because it pretends that the unconscious isn’t there. Since the total psyche “I” is much larger and more complex than the ego-mind can grasp, these unexpected things always feel as though they come from outside us rather than within us. 

In dreams and myths, the conscious mind is often symbolised by an island. Like an island people in an island world, the ego sets a little world of its own— a system of order and a set of assumptions about reality. Our egos are not aware that outside the limits of their little islands, outside the narrow perimeters of their vision, there is a whole universe of realities and truths contained in the vast sea of the unconscious that our egos can’t perceive. 

Deep in this unseen ocean of energy, huge forces are at work, mythical kingdoms, symbolised by the legends of Atlantis, exist there in the depths and carry on lives parallel to the daily life of our conscious minds. Centers of alternative consciousness, alternative values, attitudes, and ideas exist there like other islands in the great sea. They wait to be discovered and acknowledged by the searching conscious mind. 

The purpose of learning to work with the unconscious is not just to resolve our conflicts or deal with our neuroses. We find there a deep source of renewal, growth, strength, and wisdom. 

We connect with the source of our evolving character; we cooperate with the process whereby we bring the total self together; we learn to tap that rich lode of energy and intelligence that waits within. 


The inner life that Jung described is the secret life we all lead, by day and night, in constant companionship with our unseen, unconscious, inner selves. When human life is in balance, the conscious mind and the unconscious live in relationship. There is a constant flow of energy and information between the two levels as they meet in the dimension of dream, vision, ritual, and imagination. 

The disaster that has overtaken the modern world is the complete splitting off of the conscious mind from its roots in the unconscious. All the forms of interaction with the unconscious that nourished our ancestors— dream, vision, ritual, and religious experience — are largely lost to us, dismissed by the modern mind as primitive or superstitious. Thus, in our pride and hubris, our faith in our unassailable reason, we cut ourselves off from our origins in the unconscious and from the deepest parts of ourselves. 

In modern Western society we have reached a point at which we try to get by without acknowledging the inner life at all. We act as though there were no unconscious, no realm of the soul, as though we could live full lives by fixating ourselves completely on the external, material world. We try to deal with all the issues of life by external means — making more money, getting more power, starting a love affair, or “accomplishing something” in the material world. But we discover to our surprise that the inner world is a reality that we ultimately have to face. 

Jung observed that most of the neurosis, the feeling of fragmentation, the vacuum of meaning, in modern lives, results from this isolation of the ego-mind from the unconscious. As conscious beings we all go about with a vague sense that we have lost a part of ourselves, that something that once belonged to us is missing. 

Our isolation from the unconscious is synonymous with our isolation from our souls, from the life of the spirit. It results in the loss of our religious life, for it is in the unconscious that we find our individual conception of God and experience our deities. The religious function — this inborn demand for meaning and inner experience — is cut off with the rest of the inner life. And it can only force its way back into our lives through neurosis, inner conflicts, and psychological symptoms that demand our attention. 

Several years ago I was invited to speak at a Roman Catholic seminary. At the last minute some mischievous urge took hold of me and I entitled my lecture “Your Neurosis is a Low-grade Religious Experience.” The lecture apparently shook the congregation profoundly. I had a greater deluge of questions, impassioned conversations, and raised voices than I had ever had. The subject touched a raw nerve, you see. People were startled to hear that if we don’t go to the spirit, the spirit comes to us as neurosis. This is the immediate, practical connection between psychology and religion in our time. 

Every person must live the inner life in one form or another. Consciously or unconsciously, voluntarily or involuntarily, the inner world will claim us and exact its dues. If we go to that realm consciously, it is by our inner work, our prayers, meditations, dream work, ceremonies, and Active Imagination.

If we try to ignore the inner world, as most of us do, the unconscious will find ways into our lives through pathology, or psychosomatic symptoms, compulsions, depressions and neurosis.


Individuation is the term Jung used to refer to the lifelong process of becoming the complete human beings we were born to be. 

Individuation is our waking up to our total selves, allowing our conscious personalities to develop until they include all the basic elements that are inherent in each of us at the preconscious level. This is the “actualising” of the blueprint” of which we spoke earlier. 

Why should this be called “individuation”? Because this process of actualising oneself and becoming more complete also reveals one’s special, individual structure. It shows how the universal human traits and possibilities are combined in each individual in a way that is unlike anyone else. 

Jung emphasised the uniqueness of each person’s psychological structure. Thus, the name he gave this process was not an accident; it reflected his conviction that the more one faces the unconscious and makes a synthesis between its contents and what is in the conscious mind, the more one derives a sense of one’s unique individuality. 

At the same time, individuation does not mean becoming isolated from the human race. Once we feel more secure as individuals, more complete within ourselves, it is natural also to seek the myriad ways in which we resemble our fellow human beings— the values, interests, and essentially human qualities that bind us together in the human tribe. If we look closely, we see that our individuality consists in the special way that we combine the universal psychological patterns and energy systems that all human beings have in common: Jung called these patterns the archetypes.

Since the archetypes are universal, they are all  present in the unconscious of each person. But they combine in infinite variations to create individual human psyches. We may compare all this to the physical human body. In some ways, our bodies are like those of all other human beings. We all have arms, legs, hearts livers, and skin in one form or another. They are universal characteristics of the human species. Yet, if I compare my fingerprints or strands of my hair with those of other people, I find that no two human bodies are exactly alike. 

In the same way, the universal psychological energies and capacities in the human race are combined differently in each of us. Each person has a distinct psychological structure. It is only by living that inherent structure that one discovers what it means to be an individual. 

If we work at individuation, we begin to see the difference between the ideas and values that come out of our own selves and the social opinions that we absorb from the world around us. We can cease to be mere appendages of a society or a clique of people. We learn that we have our own values, our own ways of life, that proceed naturally out of our inborn natures. 

A great sense of security develops from this process of individuation. One begins to understand that it isn’t necessary to struggle to be like someone else, for by being one’s own self one stands on the surest ground. We realize that to know ourselves completely and to develop all the strengths that are built into us is a lifetime task. We don’t need to make an imitation of someone else’s life. There is no further need for pretensions, for what is already ours is riches enough, and far more than we ever expected.

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