Like it or not, there is no way to distinguish inner from outer reality. Chuang-tzu pointed that out over 2300 years ago, when he asked himself the question, “Am I a man dreaming that I am a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man?” There is no point of reference outside of the present moment by which to judge the reality of the sense experience. David Hume came to the same conclusion in the 18th century. His philosophy was described as a radical empiricism. The brain is trapped inside its skull and can only function based upon the sense data arriving from God knows where. Literally only God could know where it was coming from because consciousness is flooded with sense data whether we are awake or asleep. We call waking consciousness “real” and sleeping consciousness “dreaming”. If you ever wondered why Carl Jung considered his research to be empirical, consider this, Hume set up the problem, Immanuel Kant showed us what we can and cannot know about it, and Jung’s main philosophical reading was the work of Immanuel Kant. So what? You may be asking yourself.
One of the most powerful insights in the mystical, alchemical, and psycho-therapeutic lineages is that the inner world is just as real as the outer one. It is just a bias of human nature to consider the outer world the “real world” and the inner world “imaginary”. The brain cannot choose the images which it is experiencing. Even with your eyes closed there could be a stream of images happening. And the soul or psyche learns from the experiences which it has. The traumatized Sultan, who killed his wives before they could betray him, was cured by his last wife. Her name was Scheherazade. She kept herself alive by telling stories which flowed into another after another, refusing to tell the conclusion until the following day. According to tradition this went on for three years (1001 nights) before the Sultan had acquired enough imaginal experiences to heal himself. We could say that he managed to “grow up” by listening to the stories.
Robert A. Johnson tells a similar story of a man who lived “for all practical purposes like a monk. He has remained a bachelor and leads a life that is reclusive, spending his days in prayer, contemplation, [and] meditation.” (p. 209, Inner Work, 1986) This man’s main function was to advise a large extended family. He was their counselor evidently. But he had a very unusual experience and told Johnson about it. Since Johnson was a Jungian analyst this wasn’t too surprising. Johnson was used to listening to his patients’ dreams and helping to analyze them. The man came to Johnson with a continuing set of dreams. Every night he returned to his voluptuous wife and children in an ancient Italian village where he was husband and father. “He loved his wife, fought with her, took care of the children, worked hard to support them. He went to work and brought home huge bags of food on his back to feed his hungry brood. He went through all the joys and griefs that a father goes through in living with a woman and rearing children with her (p. 209).” He lived twenty years with his inner wife and family during the one year in “this reality”. He spoke Italian at night and English by day, integrating his night life into his day consciousness. The dreams ended when he discovered that he had found the Self, the Divine Within, which he experienced as an ancient rose bush with one exquisite rose.
Johnson explains the symbol as the wholeness of the man’s being. “The rose is a great symbol of the archetypal self, associated in the Latin church with both the Holy Virgin and Christ. The self is the ancient rose that blooms in the center of one’s life. It was this primordial inner unity that this man brought into bloom, within his individual soul, by living in the ancient village, living out the ancient role of the family man, bringing all of the disparate parts of himself together. (p.210)” Just like the Sultan, this man became whole through living in his imagination and integrating what he learned there into his life. We all can do that.
The brain cannot tell whether the sense data are real or not, so we can learn from whatever images come to us. We just have to suspend our belief long enough to learn from our dreams and our imaginary experiences. That’s how we find the center of ourselves, what Carl Jung called the Self.