November 2011: Comfort Zone ONLINE
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.
If You Want to Read More About Raff's Philosophy
I have reviewed two previous books by Raff, both of which are much more philosophical and less user-friendly. I wrote about them back in the days of the paper Comfort Zone (Nov. 2001, Vol VI, Issue 4 and August 2003, Vol. VIII, Issue 3) so they are not in the Comfort Zone on-line archives at this website, but you can buy them in the website store. I'm also not sure that he still holds all of the same views, but I have put one of the 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:
November 2011 Articles:
November 2011 Articles: