Active Imagination Deciphered – The Ultimate Guide

Active imagination is the most disruptive endeavor Carl Jung partook in. As he says, he didn’t invent it, he simply rediscovered it. However, he took this practice to new heights and gave us a map and a terminology capable of capturing and translating the dynamism of the psyche into words, giving more people the gift of experimenting for themselves. I’ve been doing active imagination for about three years now and it’s been a great tool to unlock new perspectives and access new depths.

Before continuing I strongly recommend that you read at least this introductory guide on the shadow integration process

The Mirrored World

Before we dive into active imagination, it’s important to remember the notion of psychic reality and Carl Jung’s attitude toward metaphysics: “[…] It is really my purpose to push aside, without mercy, the metaphysical claims of all esoteric teaching” […] To understand metaphysically is impossible ; it can only be done psychologically I therefore strip things of their metaphysical wrappings in order to make them objects of psychology (C. G. Jung – The Secret of The Golden Flower – p. 129).

By adopting the notion of a psychic reality, the active imagination realm works like a mirrored world and portrays the reality of our soul. It unravels a symbolic representation of what we’re currently experiencing and uncovers the archetypal narrative we’re living. It gives us the key to develop a symbolic attitude and apprehend the mystery of the Self.

If psychic reality is a new concept for you, please read this introductory guide before continuing: The Foundations of Complex Psychology.

On Active Imagination

But perhaps, you’re asking yourself why it was so important to explore the notion of psychic reality, in the first place. Well, during active imagination we will be dealing with these psychic images directly and it’s important to be able to maintain an objective perspective. We’ll be accessing the very fabric of our reality and uncovering the deep psychological factors that are driving our psyche, namely complexes and archetypes. The main purpose is to deal with psychological complexes in a personified form and as you know they are autonomous, every aspect of the shadow, the psychological functions, and the animus and anima are all perceived as complexes.

“But, for the reasons given above, it is essential that nothing be subtracted from the reality of the unconscious, and that the figures of the unconscious should be understood as quantities which produce effects. Whoever has understood the thing meant by psychic reality need not fear falling back into primitive demonology because that reality is admitted. If the unconscious figures are not accorded the dignity of spontaneously effective factors, one becomes the victim of a one-sided belief in the conscious, which finally leads to a state of mental tension. Catastrophes are then bound to occur, because, despite all one’s consciousness, the dark psychic powers have been overlooked. It is not we who personify them ; they have a personal nature from the very beginning” (C. G. Jung – The Secret Of The Golden Flower p. 119).

To better understand this notion, I want you to imagine that every psychological state has a correspondent psychic image. To fully grasp a psychic image we need the four functions, this means that every image possesses a thinking pattern, an emotional state and judgment of value, unique fantasies, and patterns of behavior.

To make this really simple, just connect yourself with a loving feeling. This same feeling can turn into a poem, a nice and beautiful melody, it can lead you to imagine yourself with a loved one watching a beautiful sunset, it’s accompanied by physical sensations, and you feel your body warm and your heart racing, and it can also be turned into action, and you find yourself wanting to give a meaningful gift. See? … These psychic images are alive and are constantly driving our psyche. Every artist or creative person knows that, it’s an inspiration that completely overwhelms us. We are the object of this creative spirit and during a moment of inspiration, we allow it to move through us.

What happens during active imagination, is that we’re relating to these factors in a very direct way. Imagine that this force that allows us to compose a beautiful song can be personified. Try to imagine that it could be a person, how would it speak and act? This is just a little exercise to help you understand what we can encounter during the active imagination sessions. But the best way to understand it is to think about when we’re lucid dreaming. Sometimes it feels so real that we believe it happened in the concrete world. The characters we interact with during dreams are the personified complexes, the driving forces that shape our psyche. They reveal our deepest psychological tendencies and how we relate to them determines how they are going to be expressed. This is the most important part and why active imagination is so different from any other method.

During every form of meditation, hypnotherapy, or yoga nidra, the goal is always to let go and to detach ourselves from our conscious ego. It’s a very passive procedure. Now, during active imagination we need our ego-complex completely intact and we’ll be the ones directing the process. We have to make decisions, argue, ask questions, and challenge these inner figures. We need an ego complex that’s strong enough to contain the unconscious, i.e. capable of holding opposing and complementary truths at the same time. Not only that, but an ego complex capable of maintaining an objective perspective and not being identified with these figures. Because if you identify yourself with these archetypes you’ll experience psychic inflation. That’s when things can go badly, and we see megalomanic people thinking they are the next incarnation of Jesus.

Active Imagination and Its Dangers

That’s why this procedure obviously has to be done with caution and has its dangers, the most poignant one is psychosis. If you’re just curious and want to experiment with something different just don’t do it. If you’re not established in real life yet and have no real responsibilities don’t do it, you need solid roots in reality to be doing this.

During his confrontation with the unconscious, Carl Jung was raising a family, seeing several patients a day, and working for the Swiss army. He never neglected his commitments to real life and that’s a major part of constituting a strong ego-complex. Every time you hesitate in life and indulge in fantasies, you’re bound to face the dark and devouring facet of the unconscious. This is often the case with the Puer and Puella Aeternus. Active imagination is meant to be a support to better live your life, not a magical place you can escape to.

Lastly, If you’re using any kind of drugs, yes, even weed. Don’t do it. In this case, your ego-complex isn’t engaged in the process. You can read more about that in the book “Psychotherapy” by Marie Von Franz. Finally, always remember that the unconscious reacts to our conscious attitude. As Jung writes in Psychology and Alchemy: “We know that the mask of the unconscious is not rigid—it reflects the face we turn towards it. Hostility lends it a threatening aspect, friendliness softens its features” (C. G. Jung – V12 – §29).

When is Active Imagination advised? 

From the book “Inner Journey” by Barbara Hannah:

  1. “When the unconscious is obviously overflowing with fantasies, which is particularly often the case with people who are very rational or intellectual”.
  2. “To reduce the number of dreams when there are too many”.
  3. “A third reason for doing active imagination is when there are too few dreams”.
  4. ”If someone feels, or seems to be, under indefinable influences, under a sort of spell, or feels or seems to be behind a sort of glass screen”.
  5. “When the adaptation to life has been injured“.
  6. “When someone falls into the same hole again and again”.

This is a seminar taught by Babara Hannah, Jung personally attended to it and answered questions in the end. It’s worth the read.

The Procedure – A step-by-step approach

From the book “Psychotherapy” by Marie Von Franz:

1. As we know, first one must empty one’s own ego consciousness, free oneself from the thought flow of the ego. 

This is where regular meditation techniques can be helpful to put you on the right psychological state. Once this is achieved, you can just open yourself and allow the unconscious to manifest itself. However, I find it extremely helpful to have certain departure points and concentrate on them, these are the ones that tend to give the most results:

  • Affects.
  • Dream fragments.
  • A genuine question.
  • Spontaneous fantasies.
  • A narrative or repeating pattern.

You simply pick one of them and try your best to match the psychological state of when you’re experiencing it and allow things to unfold.

2. At this point one must let a fantasy image arising from the unconscious flow into the field of inner perception.

Remember that psychic images have four layers. Maybe you won’t see anything, but you’ll hear a word and even have physical sensations. The most important thing is to allow yourself to sink into the affects provided by these psychic images deeper and deeper.

3. Now comes the third phase. It consists of giving the innerly perceived fantasy image a form by writing it down, painting it, sculpting it, writing it as music, or dancing it (in which case the movements of the dance must be noted down).

It’s imperative to take the unconscious as a reality and refrain from altering your experiences. Try to be as faithful as possible as “The unconscious contents want first of all to be seen clearly, which can only be done by giving them shape, and to be judged only when everything they have to say is tangibly present“ (C. G. Jung – V8 – §179). In this first moment, the goal is to allow the unconscious to speak it’s only later that we’ll criticize it with our conscious judgments.

4. The fourth phase is the key one, the one that is missing in most imagination techniques—moral confrontation with the material one has already produced. At this point Jung warns us of a mistake that is frequently made that jeopardizes the whole process. This is the mistake of entering into the inner events with a fictive ego rather than one’s real ego. 

Many people enter the active imagination realm as a form of escape from the conflicts of their daily lives. As a result, they try to be something that they are not and act in a way completely different from their real personalities. This can jeopardize the whole process, your ego-complex and your whole personality must be in the process.

5. “ Finally there is still the concluding phase—applying in daily life what one has learned in active imagination.

Again, most people fail to bring into daily lives their insights and turn them into actual experience. This is the same thing as going to therapy every week and just because you’re talking about your conflicts, you pretend they’re resolved. In reality, this is just a maneuver to escape from your own soul. Once more, active imagination is meant to be a support to life. If you’re detaching from reality and feeling isolated, there’s something wrong. Either you’ve been neglecting your commitments to real life or you’re not taking the reality of the soul seriously. For instance, you made a deal with an inner figure and you’ve been neglecting it. Without concrete action and moral confrontation, everything is useless.

Barbara Hannah says that “It took Jung many years, for he was not satisfied with learning to see the images of the unconscious, or even with dealing with them actively in his fantasies. He did not feel at ease until he took “the most important step of all”: finding their place and purpose” in his own actual outer life. This, he says, the most important step in active imagination, is “what we usually neglect to do. Insight into the myth of our unconscious, must be converted into ethical obligation” (Barbara Hannah – Encounters With The Soul – p. 25).

Lastly, every time you seek knowledge from the unconscious, your responsibility increases and it becomes your duty to concretize it in real life. If you’re serious about this endeavor, the one book you have to read is “Encounters With The Soul” by Barbara Hannah, Jung entrusted her to expand and write on this topic making her our main reference.

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