Active imagination is a specific therapeutic technique of entering the imaginal world that was pioneered by Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) in the early twentieth century. We could think of it as forced intercourse between two corroborating aspects of being–the ego and the personal unconscious–that make up the transcendent self. Central to the endeavour is the plucking of an image, mood, picture, or event from the ocean of the unconscious, personifying or clothing the former in a way that makes it entirely comprehensible to the conscious mind, and then engaging it through spoken dialogue or some other implicitly understood form of communication. Throughout the entire length of the psychotherapeutic process you are engaging hitherto unacknowledged facets of yourself, other selves if you like, by allowing them to float up to an imaginal world existing between the conscious and unconscious universe. Your own role in this intermediary realm reflects that position–you have conscious control of feelings, actions, and words originating from the sphere of your own ego that should not under any circumstance extend to those communicated to you by your personified subselves.
What do you find by entering the imaginal world through active imagination? You discover the current state of psychic affairs, usually one that is both fragmented and irreconcilable. You meander about the imaginal landscape consciously participating in an internal drama and forging energetic relationships with all other inhabitants of the land. You make friends and enemies; you engage in love, war, heroic journeys and religious pilgrimages; you’re forced to act diplomatically and sign unconditional treaties of peace with hostile personalities or come to some sort of compromise about shared control of your body’s cerebral function with less hostile ones. You also learn a thing or two about yourself from other resident personas that you didn’t think were native to your own being. More often than not, you encounter viewpoints and feelings radically different from your own and at times you’ll find that yours will be ignored, overlooked, ridiculed, or fiercely resisted. Your fellow personalities have minds of their own and will often say and do things that might surprise, worry, frighten, infuriate, offend, or embarrass you. Why might this be so?
Well, the terrain from which these personified images have sprung is inextricably connected to the collective unconscious. As a cosmic and overarching entity, the former is ethically indifferent and morally neutral. It cares not for core and essential values deemed of utmost importance to the personal ego, the ethical balance of one’s conscious life, or the preservation of social standards that serve as adhesives in human relationships and culture. Its only purpose is to express the totality of its archetypal leitmotifs, either by facilitating a conscious channel for them to materialize in the phenomenal world or by projecting them into the realm of the imagination where the ego can actively and purposefully explore evolutionary possibilities associated with each one through guided fantasy, active imagination, or some other technique aimed at authentically illuminating unconscious material. This omission of social taboos and conventions that dictate and condition nearly all conscious interactions in the world of consensual reality from the realm of consciousness might mean that certain actions and words coming from undervalued and unacknowledged subselves will be crass and outrageous. Whatever the case may be, the two complementary and usually conflicting aspects of the total self (ego and unconscious) will converse until a feasible resolution can be reached. The length of time needed to achieve this depends on the nature and depth of the prevailing issue and how deeply entrenched in the black humus of the unconscious its roots actually are; it could take anything from a single session of active imagination to a whole cluster of them extending over weeks, months, and sometimes even years to see tangible results.
Carl Jung made ample use of the process on his many patients to drastically narrow the gaping chasm between the conscious will of the personal ego and the disenfranchised contents of a persona unconscious yearning for expression. The underlying theory behind this is when natural tendencies remain hidden as unrealized potentialities deep within the unconscious they manifest as neurotic imbalances. These might be experienced as subtle worries, irritations, or angers of no discernible cause that keep popping up at various intervals throughout the day or as vivid, disturbing nightmares and night terrors that can overturn an individual’s natural sleep cycle. By participating actively in a process which aims to descry the nature and purpose of an unacknowledged and fragmented image through dialogue, you intercept, confront, and resolve the inner conflict before it can materialize in the realm of dreams; in hypnagogic images; and in passive fantasies. Jung found that there was a vast reduction in the number of dreams and the repetition of archetypal content when one used active imagination in coming to terms with the psychospiritual situation of the inner life on a frequent basis. From this perspective we could say that this particular psychotherapeutic method serves two important purposes: to hamper the development and progression of neurotic behaviours and undesirable idiosyncrasies deemed to repeat throughout one’s life when left unaddressed, and to open up a channel of communication between the personal ego and the other muffled ‘voices’ within the unconscious longing to be listened to and engaged on an imaginal level. A most desirable consequence of achieving these two aims is that the complimentary opposites comprising the total self are harmonized and the newly unified personality can continue developing on the less travelled path of self-actualization; a path on which an individuating person awakens to the greater reality of the interconnectedness, the meaning, and the harmony inherent in the cosmos.
Sometimes, we awaken to find that our intricate psychological armoury is being pierced by sharp, painful arrows of inflation, torment, obsession, and other fiery temperaments. For some strange reason the pain is referred and unspecific, emanating to the totality of our anatomy; we can neither localize their point of entry into our bodies nor put a finger on specific causes. These are all latent neuroses and sterile vices hidden within the unconscious that are begging to be plucked out one by one and consciously integrated with psychological impulses already known to and acknowledged by the personal ego. The best way of bringing unconscious content to the imaginal world where it can be grasped by the conscious mind is to relax by reclining on a comfortable sofa or chair with the eyes closed and posing one or more of the following questions: What then is this? Where is this feeling coming from? Is it perhaps somebody who has something important to tell me? Is it somebody who feels differently than I? Who are you? Why are you upset? Show me what you look like.
More often than not, personified images will appear quite spontaneously before you can rattle off a train of questions longer than the Nile River. Once you have a clearly defined image in your mind’s eye you can proceed with an imaginal role-play that involves robust and often frictional communication between your own viewpoint and a conflicting one spawned by the ‘voice’ of an inferior subself or being. An important thing to remember with respect to conscious participation is that you must not allow the trajectory of the conversation to proceed along paths with feeling responses that are premeditated, forced, or controlled exclusively by you. Irrespective of how you might feel towards any one particular subself–in essence a personified blemish, weakness, or obstruction to the natural predispositions of your unconscious life–you must never sabotage or hinder the natural current of imagination by putting words into the inner person’s mouth or by determining their actions. Let the inferior subself say and do what he or she wants and be as unruly as he or she wishes to be, without consciously intervening as to prevent embarrassing words from being spoken and uncomfortable circumstances from arising. A determinative of true wisdom is the ability to listen without preconditions or judgement. Such an emotionally uninhibited approach to participation is probably the only way you’re likely to establish an authentic and accurate representation of the current psychic state of your inner life and thus get anything beneficial out of this psychotherapeutic exercise. Failure in giving yourself over to the contingencies of the imaginal cascade and allowing yourself to willingly experience angers, qualms, delights, titillations, and whatever else the transpiring communion with the individual subself calls for renders the entire proceeding obsolete. In hindsight, the absence of any prepared script to guide the intercourse between conscious and unconscious as well as the notion of relinquishing total control to chance is what makes Jungian active imagination different from other more rigid systems of visualization like guided fantasy or creative imagery.
The wonderful thing about active imagination is that it transcends dealing with moods, conflicts, and qualities that bubble beneath the surface of our conscious minds. You can use the technique to explore fascinating personalities and aspects of yourself wishing to be lived out, or heroic adventures that have occasionally manifested in passive fantasy; to continue an offensive dream that ended abruptly or unsatisfactorily until closure is attained; and to consciously experience the spiritual plane. Whatever your agenda may be, always proceed with caution and with the utmost respect for the generative powers of the collective unconscious. It doesn’t hurt to remember that archetypal forces are insurmountable, eternal, and transcendent powers or “fields of energy” that appear in the intermediary imaginal world clothed in humanistic garments for the sake of making themselves lucid and concrete to the human intellect. Those who refuse to remain firmly rooted to the earthbound realm of consensus physical reality and maintain clear differentiations between fantasy and the real world can become overwhelmed, possessed, and even severed from outer environmental influences when these archetypal fragments are blasted out of the unconscious. Generally speaking, personified images and events that take on a life of their own within the diverse and autonomous terrain of the psyche are symbolic interpretations of one’s current egocentric situation and are not directly connected to the objectified subsistence of the same images and events in the external world of phenomena and forms. Thus, we should never imbue personified images with exterior physiognomies that look identical to or resemble living relatives, friends, or acquaintances. Doing so gives the psyche the perfect excuse to blur the lines between the real and the imagined and aids in the fruition of illusions and delusions about one’s affiliations, relationships, and communions with others along with the greater community at large.
While labouring on this formulative level may be quite meaningful, constructive, healthy, and second-nature to experienced users of this therapeutic technique, first-time users and amateurs will often question the authenticity of the experience. There is nothing unusual about doubting labours on the transpersonal level, especially when those labours involve communing with psychic presences that are, in fact, subordinate configurations springing forth from the diverse and autonomous ground of your own psyche. Is it an authentic experience or are we merely making things up and engaging in child’s play for the fun of it? The important thing to remember when entertaining such doubts (because I’ve had them too) is that any act of imagination, whether voluntary or involuntary, involves a summoning of pre-existing archetypal contents from the unconscious, a transformation of these images from configurations of protean existence to personified forms (i.e. gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, men and women), and finally conscious manifestation. You cannot imagine something that isn’t lying dormant in the fertile slime of your own unconscious; you cannot grant it form unless it is a pre-existing aspect of your own becoming, a potentiality sown into the fabric of your own being. Consequently even slight fabrications of images and feeling responses in the imaginal world are faithful echoes of your unconscious voice.
Marie Louise Von Franz, Robert Johnston, and other Jungian psychotherapists have faithfully endorsed and developed a quaternary or four-stage approach to active imagination that builds upon Jung’s prototype. The initiatory phase involves clearing the conscious mind of random psychobabble and allowing fantasy content to emerge from the depths of the unconscious in personified form. This naturally blends into the second stage where the candidate selects one of the images that has surrendered itself to conscious expression and enters into a dialogue with it without impinging upon its ‘rights’ to self-determination. The third introduces the concept of moral conduct which separates humans from all other creatures on the planet: a set of ethical parameters that one should use during formative communication with subselves as to prevent the dialogue from degenerating into a primitive or inhumane altercation. Finally, no session of active imagination should be executed without a conscious intent to transpose the subtle, rarefied resolution to the earthbound dimension of existence. There just has to be a practical element, a way you can incorporate the conscious resolution into the circumstances of your own life. If you don’t complete the last phase and make it concrete the imaginary role-play would have all been for nothing. So think practically!