Jung on Active Imagination: Features, Methods and Warnings

… active imagination… is a method (devised by myself) of introspection for observing the stream of interior images.”

“… the method of ‘active imagination’ … I have been using for more than thirty years in the treatment of neurosis, as a means to bring unconscious contents to consciousness.” 

“… active imagination… enables us to get an active grasp of things that also find expression in dream life.” 

One of Jung’s legacy to the discipline of psychology and psychotherapy is his method of active imagination. In this essay, after defining this method and noting its features, I will illustrate how it works, its value and the cautions to be mindful of in using it. 

Definitions of Active Imagination

Jung first used the term “active imagination” in his Tavistock Lectures, which he gave in London in 1935. At that meeting one of his questioners called active imagination a “technique.” Jung called it a “method,” which “to some extent takes the place of dreams.” Elsewhere Jung referred to active imagination as “visionary meditation,” a “psychological process,” “a sequence of fantasies produced by deliberate concentration,” “a method … of introspection for observing the stream of interior images.” and a method which “enables us to get an active grasp of things that also find expression in dream life. The process is in both cases an irrigation of the conscious mind by the unconscious,…”. 

Jung used active imagination in his work with his own dreams, as well as with his patients. Even those who rarely remembered their dreams could connect with their unconscious with this method. In my work with my own dreams, and with my dream students, I have found active imagination useful, especially in those times when we hit a “dry spell” in dream recall. 

Features of Active Imagination

Since our unconscious contains all manner of things, it is not surprising that the method of active imagination can produce a wide array of images, conscious memory material, feelings, symbols, figures (human, animal, mythological), complicated pictures (including mandalas) and images of wholeness (e.g. circular and spherical forms) redolent with numinosity (often indicative of our connecting with the Self). 

Jung would urge us to be open to whatever the psyche presents. Often it wants to give “form to what is unformed,” to “illustrate the tension and nature of the opposites, and thus prepare the synthesis,” or to grip us by an emotion. At times the process produces a dream on our “inner stage,” with “the actors appearing one by one and the plot thickens”–all of the figures having “some purposeful relationship to [our] conscious situation.” When a patient would report such an inner drama, Jung would suggest the person “really have it out with his alter ego,” that is, not to “just sit in a theater” (of his/her psyche’s making) but to “take part in the play” and wrestle with the characters (which represented energies active in his/her “inner city”). 

When we are at a crux point–a time of major life transition–and do active imagination, the psyche may produce “fantasy-images” that have “a striking resemblance to mythological motifs.” These may contain images that we have “no conscious knowledge” about: they are part of our inherited collective unconscious, and they often come to consciousness as support for us in navigating a big change in life. In my experience, I have done active imagination in times of transition with authority figures showing up. Jung lists some of these: “a magician, doctor, priest, teacher, professor, grandfather,…”. In my most memorable active imagination, the figure was a very tall, commanding woman who reminded me of the goddess Athena. We trust whatever arises is what is “needed but cannot be mustered on one’s own resources.” 

How to Do Active Imagination

In my own experience using active imagination, I have found the adjective “active” to be confusing, because while I was “active” in setting a conscious intention to do this (as prompted by my analyst), I was instructed not to drive or try to make anything happen. So, when I have done this unique Jungian method, it has seemed to be a passive sort of activity. I think Jung would agree with this seeming paradox, given how much he appreciated the Chinese concept of wu wei–action through non-action. We consciously set out to do it, but then simply allow the images, fantasies or feelings to come up. 

Given that the process is paradoxical–action through non-action–say what??–Western people may initially look askance at the prospect of trying active imagination. Jung notes how some of his patients had “some resignation or a feeling of resentment” when asked to do it. I was skeptical at first, given how “heady” I am–my rational intellect always wants to jump in and “figure things out.” But here the ego consciousness only gets in the way. Rather than logic and reason, we begin with a 

“…dream or some other fantasy-image, and concentrate on it by simply catching hold of it and looking at it. You can also use a bad mood as a starting-point, and then try to find out what sort of fantasy-image it will produce, or what image expresses this mood. You then fix this image in the mind by concentrating your attention. Usually it will alter, as the mere fact of contemplating it animates it. The alterations must be carefully noted down all the time, for they reflect the psychic processes in the unconscious background, which appear in the form of images consisting of conscious memory material. In this way conscious and unconscious are united, …”.

In Jung’s time audio recorders were not common, so he had his patients write down what happened. I find it much better (i.e. less likely to pull me out of the process) to speak what is going on into a voice-activated recording device. Later on, after the process is finished, the “interior entertainment” can be written down, to produce the “ocular evidence” which Jung felt was important to “effectively counteract the ever-ready tendency to self-deception.” 

Jung was explicit that active imagination takes time and determination. Turn off the phone (especially that cell phone that has become ubiquitous in so many lives); eliminate other possible distractions; sit in a quiet place and commit a block of time. Then follow Jung’s instructions:

“Take the unconscious in one of its handiest forms, say a spontaneous fantasy, a dream, an irrational mood, an affect, or something of the kind, and operate with it. Give it your special attention, concentrate on it, and observe its alterations objectively. Spare no effort to devote yourself to this task, follow the subsequent transformations of the spontaneous fantasy attentively and carefully. Above all, don’t let anything from outside, that does not belong, get into it, for the fantasy-image has ‘everything it needs.’ In this way one is certain of not interfering by conscious caprice and of giving the unconscious a free hand.” 

Resist the temptation to have your mind wander, and try to take Jung on trust–that the psyche really does have “everything it needs.” 

Note the dual nature of the role: While the person doing active imagination “looks on from outside, impartially, he is also an acting and suffering figure in the drama of the psyche.” Jung felt the recognition of this dual role is “absolutely necessary.” Why? because if we simply are looking at what shows up and not being aware of our personal involvement, the 

“flow of images ceases, [and] next to nothing has happened…. But if you recognize your own involvement you yourself must enter the process with your personal reactions, just as if you were one of the fantasy figures, or rather, as if the drama being enacted before your eyes were real.”

Jung knew that “It is a psychic fact that this fantasy is happening, and it is as real as you–as a psychic entity–are real.” 

Placing oneself in the drama also is important because it helps the process “gain in actuality” as it also fosters “criticism of the fantasy,” and, by this criticism, the person gains “an effective counterbalance to its tendency to get out of hand.” This critical attitude must not occur while the process is underway. We “observe the changes taking place in it” [the fantasy], meanwhile “suspending all criticism; the rational mind (given to criticism and evaluation) must not meddle in the action. But, at the same time, we must observe what is going on “with absolute objectivity.” 

The common tendency when doing active imagination (at least in the early efforts) is to raise “the objection that the whole thing is ‘arbitrary’ or ‘thought up’ and this must be ‘set aside’.” Jung felt that this objection “springs from the anxiety of an ego-consciousness which brooks no master besides itself in its own house. In other words, it is the inhibition exerted by the conscious mind on the unconscious.” 

Jung also made a point of distinguishing the word “imagination” from “fantasy.” While he used “fantasy” repeatedly in his descriptions of active imagination, he was not using “fantasy” as something “fantastical.” He referred back to “the old doctors” who recognized the difference between imagination and fantasy when “they said that ‘opus nostrum,’ our work, ought to be done ‘per veram imaginationem et non phantastica’–by true imagination and not by a fantastical one.” 

From his own experience using active imagination, Jung knew that it can be fostered in many different ways: from a dream, or a dream series, by feeling-values that arise, or when we are “gripped by an emotion which, if given form, would be explainable.” The bleak mood of a depression can be especially powerful as a goad to the process: 

“… he [the person about to do active imagination] must make the emotional state the basis or starting point of the procedure. He must make himself as conscious as possible of the mood he is in, sinking himself in it without reserve and noting down on paper all the fantasies and other associations that come up. Fantasy must be allowed the freest possible play, yet not in such a manner that it leaves the orbit of its object, namely the affect, by setting off a kind of “chain-reaction” association process.”

At this point Jung reminds his readers of the need to avoid falling into Freud’s “free association” which would lead “away from the object to all sorts of complexes, and one can never be sure that they relate to the affect and are not displacements which have appeared in its stead.”

Rather than trying to avoid the gloomy emotional state, Jung would have his patient become preoccupied with it, so that 

“there comes a more or less complete expression of the mood, which reproduces the content of the depression in some way, either concretely or symbolically. Since the depression was not manufactured by the conscious mind but is an unwelcome intrusion from the unconscious, the elaboration of the mood is, as it were, a picture of the contents and tendencies of the unconscious that were massed together in the depression.”

No wonder Jung noted resentment and reluctance on the part of some of his patients!–he was asking them to do precisely what they wanted to get rid of!

Intellectual clarification of the image was not as important, according to Jung, as is “giving it visible shape.” This can involve writing down what happens, but it can also take the form of “drawing or painting” for those have artistic interest or talent. Jung stressed that this form of active imagination did not have to be “technically or aesthetically satisfying.” The key was “for the fantasy to have free play and for the whole thing to be done as well as possible.” This advice was comforting for me, when I tried to draw the result of an active imagination, because the only thing I can draw reliably is my daily bath water. 

Jung recognized that different types will work the process according to their innate preference. So 

“visual types should concentrate on the expectation that an inner image will be produced. As a rule such a fantasy-picture will actually appear – perhaps hypnagogically – and should be carefully observed and noted down in writing. Audio-verbal types usually hear in words, perhaps mere fragments of apparently meaningless sentences to begin with, which however should be carefully noted down too. Others at such times simply hear their “other” voice.”

This is so for me. Over years of experience I learned that my psyche speaks to me in words, much more than in images or kinesthetic intuitions.  

The psyche is not limited to sight and hearing in active imagination. Jung saw how some people 

“… neither see nor hear anything inside themselves, but [their] hands have the knack of giving expression to the contents of the unconscious. Such people can profitably work with plastic materials. Those who are able to express the unconscious by means of bodily movements are rather rare. The disadvantage that movements cannot easily be fixed in the mind must be met by making careful drawings of the movements afterwards, so that they shall not be lost to the memory. Still rarer, but equally valuable, is automatic writing, direct or with the planchette. This, too, yields useful results.” 

Jung recognized that active imagination can take place while a person does yoga. It also can occur “in the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola.” Ignatius spoke of consideratio, contemplatio, meditatio, ponderatio, and imaginatio per sensus–the practice of reflective consideration, contemplation, meditation, pondering, and imaging with our senses–as ways that can help us become more aware. 

In short, it really does not matter which modality one uses. Auditory, visual and kinesthetic approaches can be equally effective in “embodying the striving of the unconscious for the light and the striving of the conscious for substance.” So we all have what it takes to do active imagination. But why bother? Why did Jung develop it and find it so helpful? Jung offers over two dozen ways in which active imagination is valuable.

The Value of Active Imagination

Multiple of these ways relate to Jung’s primary concern to realize our purpose as human beings, i.e. to create more consciousness. So active imagination is valuable because it “brings a mass of unconscious material to light:” it provides “a new insight or conscious awareness;” and it makes projections “conscious and gives form to what is unformed.”–in all these ways supporting both the analyst and the patient. 

By giving an opportunity for “a more or less complete expression of a mood,” active imagination allows patients to get a “picture of the contents and tendencies of the unconscious,” and this differentiation of inner reality can both enrich and clarify what we are feeling. When “a union or synthesis of the personality becomes an imperative necessity,” active imagination can serve to bring the “conflict between the conscious and the unconscious” out into the open and helps to resolve the tension. 

Active imagination can also help us recognize our projections and neurotic symptoms. Jung used this quality of the method in his treatments of both neurotic and psychotic patients; he also found it to be of benefit to anyone who wants to foster their individuation. Jung noted that

“… the whole procedure is a kind of enrichment and clarification of the affect, whereby the affect and its contents are brought nearer to consciousness, becoming at the same time more impressive and more understandable. This work by itself can have a favorable and vitalizing influence. At all events, it creates a new situation, since the previously unrelated affect has become a more or less clear and articulate idea, thanks to the assistance and cooperation of the conscious mind. This is the beginning of the transcendent function, i.e., of the collaboration of conscious and unconscious data.” 

This “collaboration” can be a big help in handling situations where there is a tension of opposites.

Being “naturally therapeutic in the first place,” active imagination” furnishes rich empirical material” which the analyst can use to quicken “the process of maturation, for analysis is a process of quickened maturation.” Patients who follow Jung’s advice and use this method can heal faster, overcome a “state of spiritual deficiency,” and become their own guru–a goal Jung much encouraged, in his desire to have people internalize a locus of authority. Ever eager to empower his patients, Jung wanted them to have tools to do the work of creating more consciousness after their analysis had ended, and he knew active imagination was a valuable tool. But he also knew it is not without its dangers.

Warnings Jung Provides about Active Imagination

Active imagination is not for everyone. Jung identifies several situations in which it should not be used without the supervision of a trained analyst. For example,

“With slightly pathological individuals, and particularly in the not infrequent cases of latent schizophrenia, the method may, in certain circumstances, prove to be rather dangerous and therefore requires medical control. It is based on a deliberate weakening of the conscious mind and its inhibiting effect,…”

and this could create problems which might overwhelm the skills of an person without psychotherapeutic training. Likewise, for a “psychopathically disposed patient,” active imagination could “unleash a psychosis.” Jung found this possibility usually was most likely 

“at the beginning of the treatment, when… dream-analysis has activated the unconscious. unconscious. But if it has got so far that the patient can do active imagination and shape out his fantasies, and there are no suspicious incidents, then there is as a rule no longer any serious danger.” 

Jung counsels us that “there are sufficient reasons for fear and uncertainty because voluntary participation in a fantasy is alarming to a naïve mind…”. Since “it may carry us too far away from reality.” we would do well to be circumspect, lest we have 

“a dramatic fantasy” which pulls us “into the interior world of images as a fictitious personality and thereby prevents any real participation; it may even endanger consciousness because you then become the victim of your own fantasy and succumb to the powers of the unconscious, whose dangers the analyst knows all too well.” 

To provide protection against such “dangers” Jung gives us several suggestions.

First, it should be used in response to some form of prompting from the unconscious, e.g. a dream, a mood, a feeling, even a dream-vision of a recently departed loved one. The key here is that it should never be initiated by the ego, or engaged in tritely as if it were some sort of parlor game. Recall the advice Jung gave to Pastor Pfäfflin (discussed in the previous essay, “Imagination and the Imaginal Realm”) whose

recently-deceased brother had appeared to him in a dream:

“With regard to contact with your brother, I would add that this is likely to be possible only as long as the feeling of the presence of the dead continues. But it should not be experimented with because of the danger of a disintegration of consciousness. To be on the safe side, one must be content with spontaneous experiences. Experimenting with this contact regularly leads either to the so-called communications becoming more and more stupid or to a dangerous dissociation of consciousness…. There are experiences which show that the dead entangle themselves, so to speak, in the physiology (sympathetic nervous system) of the living. This would probably result in states of possession.”

Much as the man might have wished for regular talks with his brother, Jung warned him off any such desire. 

Jung also recognized that not every person would be psychologically suited to do active imagination, so he issued “a warning against thoughtless application.” He knew it was not a panacea, and that

“… there have to be definite indications that the method is suitable for the individual, and there are a number of patients with whom it would be wrong to force it upon them.” 

When Jung chose to suggest it, the patient was usually in the later stages of the analysis, and Jung was aiming to equip the person to take up working with his/her unconscious on his/her own. He knew active imagination could be useful in this endeavor, and so it can be for anyone of sound mental and emotional health who wishes to become more creative by contacting and working with the unconscious as it proffers up its riches. 


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