what is

imaginal ethics?

As one encounters inner figures through imaginal practice, the reality and autonomy of these psychic presences becomes apparent. Imaginal ethics asks the question, ‘What do we owe to those who occupy our inner territories?’

While depth psychologists have considered the ethical responsibility to do inner work,[1] and the responsibilities that imaginal work evokes,[2] there is relatively little information about our ethical responsibilities while working with imaginal figures. And yet, an ethical responsibility to do a thing, suggests that there might also reasonably be an ethical way to do that thing.

imaginal ethics

The inquiry of imaginal ethics concerns the question, What do we owe to those who occupy our inner territories? Just as a material-world ethics of relationships considers the appropriate treatment of outer others, imaginal ethics will consider what we bring to inner relationships in terms respect, orientation, and the roots of friendship, itself.

In considering an ethical system for interactions with imaginal figures, we might first give thought to who these figures are and whether they have needs answerable by ethical behavior. While there are certainly a variety of ‘types’ of inner figures, for the purposes of this introduction, let’s consider three broad categories.

Lucid dreaming

The first group we encounter nightly; they are the characters in our dreams. Of course, in most dreams, we have no volition, and so have no opportunity to apply any sort of ethics. But there is a category of dreaming where we can and do make choices: lucid dreaming. We dream lucidly when, if, as we sleep, we know we are dreaming.[4] In this state, Dr. Clare Johnson says, you can do pretty much anything you like.[5] Both in terms of Johnson’s work, and the lucid experience of many dreamers, this essentially means we can make unrestricted choices about who we engage as we dream and how we treat them while we are there. Given such an extraordinary lack of constraints—there are, in fact, lucid dreamers who take this freedom as a license to rape … and murder with impunity[6] — and considering that the only controls in lucid dreaming may be those we put on ourselves, it seems wise to make decisions beforehand about what constitutes ethical behavior with dream characters.

Active imagination

A second opportunity to encounter imaginal figures arises during the practice of active imagination. Described by Samuels et al as dreaming with open eyes,[7] active imagination is a set of practices intended to help us interact with the images of the unconscious. Of particular importance to the exploration of an ethical system, will be those practices which are dialogic — essentially forms of inner conversation — similar to those described in Robert Johnson’s Inner Work.[8] In these practices, we can engage figures that include complexes and psychic archetypes such as the anima, as well as re-encountering dream figures like as the ones mentioned above. It is here that the wheels of our ethics can really meet the road, as we can turn to inner figures in active imagination and ask them directly:  How would you like to be treated?

Shamanic journeying

Arguably related to active imagination is the practice of shamanic journeying. Described by neo-shaman Michael Harner as an altered state intended to contact and utilize an ordinarily hidden reality to acquire knowledge, power, and to help other persons,[9] such journeys often involve interaction with spirits[10] who may be helpers, psychoid aspects of the material world, or other subtle figures. Though one might reasonably ask whether the figures of shamanic journeying have existence beyond our individual psyches — they may, for instance, be viewed as denizens of a larger spiritual system — these figures remain subtle ‘others,’ and so an ethic of interaction would apply here, as well.

the need for imaginal ethics

As one encounters inner figures over the course of months and years, it is difficult not to become convinced of the reality and autonomy of these psychic presences, as well as the extraordinary subtlety of our connection — meaning that, if we are careless, our own biases may contaminate, injure, or ruin our interactions entirely.

At the same time, many of these inner figures are uniquely vulnerable. Some are child-like, eager for validation and willing to take the shape they think will best gain and hold my attention. Others carry old traumas, their wounding making them sensitive to further hurts in the forms of emotional invalidation, touchiness to anything that feels like manipulation, and the sense that they are being ‘used’ to some end.

Considering that many of us who come to imaginal work do so with some sort of purpose in mind, the risk of such woundings is not small. We often engage in dialogue hoping to find the inner figure who is ‘responsible’ for, or ‘holds’ our discomfort, striving to somehow repair things. But is it really fair or appropriate to enter into a relationship with a trauma survivor or a child — inner or outer — thinking primarily of what this relationship will ‘do’ for us? And, even when we are mindful of the unique needs of individual ‘parts,’ our imperfect knowledge that may create unintentional harm.

It is not unreasonable to hope, then, that imaginal ethics will improve the ‘living conditions’ of those who live in the inner worlds. If we consider that complexes, who make up much of the population of our psyches, are born largely from trauma,[12] there is much healing that might be done, much future wounding to be avoided.

At the same time, it is unlikely that many people will continue practicing active imagination if it is not rewarding in some way. If we do not come for reasons of utility — or not only for reasons of utility — why should we continue the work? The answer rests, I believe, in the question, why do we engage in any relationship? We live in relationship and, by design — biological, spiritual, or other — we derive satisfaction from our connections with other beings. If we can find a way — perhaps starting with an applied ethics — of creating inner relationships that are just as satisfying as outer ones, we may be more likely to return to the asana, the seat, of active imagination. And the more we do this inner work, the more we individuate, the more our wider worlds, inner and outer, benefit.

⌅   references for this article