Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: November 2011
This will be brief; it’s a busy time of year. It’s a review of a book, maybe a holiday gift for yourself, and the description of a practice, perhaps to begin in the New Year.
In the last few issues I have been writing about our spirituality. In the first installment I discussed religion a bit, including thoughts on those of you who are seeking spiritual experiences outside of, or in addition to, an established religion. In Part II, I wrote about the idea of individuation as described by Carl Jung–how it can be developed as a potential aspect of anyone’s spiritual life, and how individuation work includes using dreams and active imagination to gain more understanding of our large Self or psyche. In Part III, I focused on our need for personal experience of the sacred and the unique lens through which we each approach the sacred.
This article, Part IV, is one next step in that it discusses a specific method of personal experience, “ally work,” that makes use of active imagination. Active imagination is a method of having contact with the unconscious without having to wait for a dream to come along. Carl Jung began doing active imagination spontaneously during a crisis in his life, and if you have heard of his Red Book, that was the result.
I will say more about active imagination another time. I’ve taught how to do it in The Undervalued Self and in the paper issue of CZ, February 1998, Vol. III, Issue 1, and of course the book I’m about to suggest teaches it. Ally work is a good way to begin active imagination, in that it is almost always a positive experience, and once you know your ally, whatever happens during an active imagination you can always call on your ally for help.
The term “ally” is found in shamanism, but the book I am recommending, Jeffrey Raff’s The Practice of Ally Work (Nicholas-Hays, 2006), has its roots more in Sufism, the Kabbalah, and alchemy. The key idea is that “an ally is a divine being, a face of God that is unique to each human being. Every one of us has an ally with whom we could live, but of course most people are not aware of this fact….” (p. 3)
That is, you need not feel alone in this world. Ever. If you think this is possible, or you are at least curious, read on. I know some of you will be skeptical. But ally work does not require you to believe that your ally is always infallible or that you should act on how it answers, or even that you believe that it is anything more than something you are imagining, although Raff will give you a new perspective on what imagination really is. So you might want to bracket your skeptical self, which may be nothing more than a defense against past painful experiences of trusting and being bitterly disappointed.
Ally Work, its Broadest Meaning
Raff sees himself as providing something not found within organized religion, but those of you already well-anchored in a spiritual tradition may also enjoy this book if you can do some mental editing. Although Raff might not approve–I don’t know–when I read his book, thanks to my upbringing I could not help but think of Jesus. My beloved, very religious aunt and uncle would certainly see Jesus as their ally. I imagine others would see Muhammad or one of the bodhisattvas as their ally.
Does the ally of my aunt or uncle fit the above definition? Is it unique? Definitely, if unique means they have all of their ally’s love, time, and allegiance. But an ally is supposed to have a unique name, form, and personality, whereas Jesus is a single, fixed face of God. Well, I’m sure that if my aunt has a mental image of Jesus, a felt sense of his personality, or were to ask him questions about himself, none of this would be the same as my uncle’s or anyone else’s experience of Jesus. Only the name would be the same.
Religious dogma always struggles with how much room there should be for unique personal experiences–religion must provide some opportunities for these, and yet also avoid a cacophony of variations from the essential original message, otherwise called heresies. If we do not insist that our experience is the only correct one, perhaps there is room for more variation and personal uniqueness in our experience of religious figures than we allow ourselves.
Indeed, the Sufis, a mystical branch of Islam, and also traditional Judaism, see each individual’s uniqueness as an important spiritual truth, and therefore Sufis hold that each of us should develop that uniqueness, including spiritual uniqueness. If God made us spiritually unique, it would follow that each of us would need and have unique spiritual experiences. To them, the only universal truth or religious revelation is that all revelation is unique. This permission to allow and even invite a revelation from God, the one that is right for you, is the heart of ally work.
Then would ally work be any different for my aunt and uncle than prayer? The Practice of Ally Work provides specific activities for deepening one’s relationship with one’s ally, and I would imagine that these would work wonderfully well to deepen prayer and any relationship one already has with a spiritual figure. (Some of you will wonder how this relates to having a guardian angel or similar figure. Raff does discuss this, but it seemed complicated, so I will not try to repeat it.)
The Essence of Ally Work is Love
Raff insists that you will know your ally by his or her love for you. You feel it, and feel your own intense love for the ally. (By the way, you do not have to know your ally when you begin the book. Raff assures us that our unique ally exists and will show itself eventually, and he is very helpful with this.)
Here I have to add that what I discussed in Part III applies here in an important way: If you have an insecure adult attachment style, it will be more difficult to feel or feel certain of this love. If you are an avoidant, you may doubt that this whole approach will work for you or scoff at it (but you are still reading), especially now that I have mentioned love! If you are the anxious insecure type, you may intensely desire this relationship, but fear it will let you down in some way. Those with insecure attachment styles will have to face deep inner resistance to ally work, even though an attachment figure that is inside and always with you might seem like the answer to all your relationship needs. (It is not. Sorry. Your spiritual evolution also requires human relationships–a topic for another article.)
Raff insists that you can trust your ally, so you will simply have to trust Raff on this, who has his own ally and met and talked to many others who have had the same experience with allies. Especially you can completely trust its love for you, Raff says, but in other ways your ally will not be perfect. The ally actually comes to you imperfect and is transformed by your attention and love. Its ability to guide you will increase as you work with it. You can treat it as a source of wisdom and guidance, but not the only one. Still, “you should look forward to growing with the ally in love and wisdom, knowing that there will come a time for extraordinary experiences. Yet the goal is not the extraordinary but the relationship itself.” (pp. 48-49)
Focus, Intention, and Perception
“Ally work is the conscious effort to form and maintain a relationship with your ally” (p. 22). Even if it takes some time to find your ally, you can begin immediately to develop your ability to work in the imaginal realm, which involves giving your attention to this realm, holding an intention, focusing on a figure within the imagination, and then perceiving it as fully as possible. This may mean seeing or hearing it, but also having a “felt sense” for when an imaginal figure is present and what its intentions are. Once you have it in your awareness, you dialogue with it, using active imagination, and Raff provides detailed instructions on how to do that. Even if your experiences are frustratingly vague or uncertain at first (“I just made this all up”), with time, Raff assures his readers, you will have very “real,” objective-feeling experiences.
After 50 pages of introducing his ideas about the imaginal realm and the principles of ally work, the rest of this book’s 200 pages is devoted to 12 activities for developing your relationship with the imaginal realm, mainly with the ally. The results depend entirely upon how much time you give it. I would not bother to buy this book if you know you cannot devote 30 minutes to it 3 or 4 days a week. If you might, however, let Raff talk you into it. As he says, it is “work,” but playful, creative work, and I would add that this work is all about strengthening the qualities and skills that are most unique to highly sensitive people. It’s worth a try.
More About Raff’s Philosophy
Back in the days of the paper Comfort Zone, I reviewed two previous books by Raff, both of which are much more philosophical and less user-friendly. My reviews are no longer available and I’m also not sure that Raff still holds all of the same views. But I have put one of my reviews (from August 2003) here because it brings up deeper issues that some of you will want to think about.
Reprinted from August 2003 Comfort Zone:
Book Review: Healing the Wounded God by Jeffrey Raff and Linda Bonnington Vocatura (2002, Nicholas Hays, P. O. Box 612, York Beach, ME 03910-0612 or www.redwheelweiser.com, $18.95).
In a previous issue I reviewed Raff’s Jung and the Alchemical Imagination, a book that I warned was not for everyone. His new book, written with Vocatura, is equally distinctive. Its goal is to meet the spiritual needs of those dissatisfied with religion or other paths by introducing the reader to their personal inner ally, a being whom Raff and Vocatura are certain exists on its own, not merely as a creation of your imagination.
Their approach is based on personal imagery or imagination, not as the source but as the bridge to the Divine. It is also based on the idea of having a relationship with the Divine (as opposed to Buddhist and Vedanta ideas of being or becoming one with a universal field of consciousness containing all beings and all creation). Raff and Vocatura even go so far as to suggest that the Divine needs us in order to become whole just as much as we need the Divine. (In my opinion this last point is not necessary for accepting the first two.) They firmly state that all of the above is based on their own experiences and those of the members of the groups they facilitate. They do not claim that other experiences are not possible, but only that these are.
Part of what I enjoyed about this book was that Raff and Vocatura provide a number of new concepts and terms that arise from their experiences (I have always thought that spiritual seekers needed more of these, in line with that stuff about the Eskimos having all those words for snow). Some of these terms are the Self, God, the ego, the ally, the psychoid world, the human-Divine and the God-Divine. When the last two are united, they become what the authors term the EO.
But all of this sounds a little strange when stated so baldly. The book is much more subtle and convincing–at least that the authors are speaking from personal experience. Whether or not their path feels like yours, if you are interested in such matters, I think you will enjoy the book. In particular, read the first and sixth chapters.
IS THERE OR ISN’T THERE?
This book raises two related profound questions for those who have spiritual or mystical experiences. First, does this vision or ecstasy come from the transcendent level of absolute existence and truth, or is it a result of certain profound changes in my personal brain that cause me to imagine such a level and my connection with it? Raff and Vocatura state unequivocally that we should trust the reality of our experiences, in this case our ally, without reservation. The ally exists and exists specifically to help us in our personal development towards union with the Divine. Second, is the ally ever wrong? Most of those who recommend this type of inner work, including Jungians, are hesitant about or firmly against trusting that the ally is always right, but the authors decidedly and strongly differ from most other Jungians. Indeed, their discussion of this in the first chapter was for me the best part of the book.
Most Jungians see Jung as having said all religious and spiritual feeling comes from the “religious function of the psyche” and that it is beyond the scope of psychology to decide whether something exists beyond the psyche. Indeed, there is no way for anyone to know. Raff and Vocatura scoff at this as a trick played on us by the lesser gods so that we will not know about the Beyond and serve these lesser gods instead, following tradition instead of individuating. Of course good Jungians always cite the danger that speaking of religious certainty invites fanaticism and the imposition of one’s views onto others, and the related fear that encouraging everyone to treat their visions and imagination as the truth will cause someone quite crazy, or quite sane, to foist his or her beliefs on others.
Well, one must admit that having convinced the majority of people to view spiritual truth as relative or nonexistent has not lessened that sort of insanity. Raff and Vocatura respond to these fears in a sensible way: The messages sent by the ally are correct, but personal, suited to your time, circumstances, and personality. Rather than identifying with the ally and trying to be an ally or divine messenger to others, one should take one’s ally’s message and “personalize it,” live it privately in your own life. For example, if the ally says the world needs spiritual unity, you do not go out and convert everyone even to that idea, but live the truth of the underlying harmony of beliefs as you encounter others and hear their experiences. That would actually dictate the opposite behavior–consciously choosing not to harbor any desire to convert others. This does not solve the problem of the ally being merely some runaway complex and messing up your personal life, but Raff and Vocatura claim that after awhile you can readily tell the difference.
Are they right about a beyond that is beyond the human psyche? I know some of you would give a resounding yes, some an equally firm no. A middle view seems clearly impossible. Yet I think that Jung and at least one post-Jungian, Edward Edinger, did take that position. That Jung did is clearer from his life than his writings. But Edinger said clearly that to take a dream, image, or vision as purely symbolic is a mistake. Such symbols always stand for something beyond us and should be treated as real enough for us to take comfort and guidance from them. Given the many synchronicities most of us have experienced (if we have not dismissed them), it would seem that “something” is going on when we receive what feels like a message from beyond ourselves. Yet to take a dream, image, or vision perfectly literally and go out and act on it without reflection can also be a mistake, a serious mistake, at least until you can truly sort out the signal from the noise.
To take an in-between stance is difficult and even logically impossible. That we are receivers, but receive poorly, still means there’s something sending messages. Or there isn’t, and the only conclusion is that the human brain is capable of all sorts of wonderful things and that’s it. Perhaps it requires a rather developed mind to settle comfortably with any third possibility–perhaps that we don’t know, but that this mystery in itself is what we can trust as always present, always real, for a reason. Or perhaps you will find other answers.