Imaginal Responsibility by Douglas Thomas, PhD

Russell Lockhart (1980, 1983) has demonstrated how exploring the etymology of words leads to a discovery of images and hidden relationships that live inside our everyday language. Response is a word that appears with some frequency in the language of dream tending to describe what occurs between a dreamer and the autonomous living image that appears first in the world of the dream and then reanimates through the process of our tending the image in waking life (Aizenstat, 2009). We find ourselves responding to the image as it comes to life and the image in turn responds to us and the spontaneous expression of our deeper nature. We enter into a co-respondent relationship with the image.

What is at work in the inner life of this word response? It comes to us from the Latin word respondere meaning “to promise” (Pickett, 2011). To respond is to promise again. The root of the word has to do with making an offering, a pledge, or performing a rite. The same root gives us the words sponsor and spouse. These deeper images and relationships have particular meaning in the work of dream tending. Tending the images of our dreams involves a spiritual dimension that emerges through an attitude of care and respect for the process. Jung (1985) was fond of referring to the work of psychotherapy as creating the holy union, the hierosgamos, by which he meant the union of the opposing forces of conscious and unconscious. Metaphorically we often find ourselves wedded to the dream images that fascinate us. As we tend these images it’s not unusual for feelings of love to emerge as we find ourselves touching the essential nature of the image and the image responding to us in our deep subjectivity. Intuitively it makes sense that the response that is so fundamental to an intimate relationship is connected at its linguistic root to the spiritual bond we experience with a spouse. Intimacy in relationship emerges through the process of responding. With each response, we promise again: “Yes, my fate is wedded to yours. I know you. We are kin.” Perhaps this is the aspect of relationship Hillman (1992) is designating when he describes discovering the anima mundi through the experience of our aesthetic responses to the world around us.

Response. The word’s root also leads in a different direction to the word sponsor. The original meaning of this word had different connotations from the images that come to mind with corporate sponsorship and advertising in our contemporary consumer-driven society. “And now a word from our sponsor,” is a phrase that takes on a whole new meaning when we imagine it appearing within the landscape of a dream. The American Heritage Dictionary (2011) describes a sponsor as “one who assumes responsibility for another person or group during a period of instruction, apprenticeship, or probation” (p. 1692). In dream tending, however, there is the possibility for an inversion of the conventional notion, so that the dream image becomes the instructor and the dreamer the apprentice. Images teach us. We learn from them about who we are, what we lack, how we suffer, and what is needed in our lives and in the world around us. At the same time, as we become more responsive to these lessons, we learn how to act on behalf of the image in our lives. This suggests a relationship of mutual sponsorship: the image teaches us about its deeper capacities, and we sponsor those capacities through our modes of being in the world. This is the foundation of what we refer to as archetypal activism. So the response toward the image also involves the notion of sponsorship: a relationship of responsibility and learning. Tending dream images is a way of learning about the responsibilities that emerge in a responsive relationship. And here we find another word that invites closer inspection.

Responsibility. This is a word that was very important to Jung. In his quasi-autobiography he says, “The images of the unconscious place a great responsibility upon a man. Failure to understand them or a shirking of ethical responsibility deprives him of his wholeness and imposes a painful fragmentariness on his life” (Jung, 1989, p. 193). The word responsibility is also descended from the same root as response, spouse, and sponsor. Responsibility is more than a matter of obligation or duty; the root of the word reminds us it is also an expression of how we pledge ourselves to the relationships that matter the most. Responsibility becomes an embodiment of our fate expressed through love. Jung is expressing the necessity of responding to the dream through our actions as a means of achieving wholeness. This is how he imagined the patterns of nature working their way through us and around us toward some greater purpose. When we speak of our responsibility to the planet, it is customary to invoke the image of stewardship. Dream tending invites an alternative paradigm based on mutual sponsorship. The world soul is speaking through the patterns of nature that appear around us and within us through our dreams. We find here an opportunity to respond to those patterns as if we were a spouse, an apprentice, an activist of the psyche.   And so we find in the experience of tending our dreams a living network hidden in the language of the process, a network of deep relationships, a marriage between the dreamer and the poetic imagination of the soul, relationships of learning, loving, and responsibility. As we learn how to act on behalf of the images we love, we become sponsors of the subtle figures that first found us in our slumber.

It is not enough to contemplate an image, to record a dream and then explain it away, or to keep an inventory that becomes a storehouse of living images (if they were humans we would call such a place a prison). In order for the practice of dream tending to become a process of transformation in the individual and in the world, it requires this relational aspect of response, deep mutual sponsorship, and responsibility.