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Carl Gustav Jung argued that dreams and other unconscious images can be particularly vivid when these images attempt to make their way to the conscious mind. Through the process of active imagination, these images may become less vivid and allow the contents of the unconscious mind to healthily integrate with the conscious mind. Jung cautioned that the process of active imagination had to be done carefully because it could cause a disconnect with reality.

Active imagination is intended to bring about a state of hypnagogia. This is the state in between sleep and wakefulness, where people may be partially aware that they are dreaming. Jung (buy his books from Amazon) argued that active imagination can be achieved naturally during intense states of relaxation such as when listening to a story or drifting off to sleep.

No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.

1 - Obtain Focus

When we start meditating our minds are usually very active and restless, so our first step is to calm the mind and get a hold of our stream of attention.

As the mind relaxes we become aware of our small beam of attention that is there “witnessing” all our rushing thoughts, our conscious mind.

2 - Focus on the Dream

After the mind has calmed and we feel we are present, we then move our attention onto an image from a recent dream of our choosing.

The trick is to keep our attention held to the dream for as long as possible. We might lose our attention to more mundane things, but when that happens we calmly just bring it back to the dream image.

3 - Allow the Unconscious to Speak

When we focus on the dream image we are peering into the unconscious mind. To “get the message” that the unconscious is trying to communicate to us through our dream we need to start allowing the unconscious to speak through the image.

To do this we need to loosen our focus just enough so that the unconscious can start to animate the dream image, but we need to be careful not to loosen our focus too much or we may get absorbed and find ourselves thinking about mundane things again.

This is the crucial step, as we allow our unconscious mind to speak we may enter back into the narrative of the dream, or we may end up speaking to one of the dream characters. Dream characters might embody archetypal structures that reside in the lower parts of our psyche that want to make us aware of specific information that has the power to help us in our waking lives. It is very useful to learn more about archetypes, such as anima and animus, the shadow, the persona or the wise old man.

Sometimes the process of communicating with the unconscious may even be dark or weird, especially if we’re using this to understand nightmares, but this is alright, it’s just something we might have avoided facing in the past. This is a good moment to face our fears and accept our aspirations. We must not forget that the ultimate goal of active imagination is, in Jung’s perspective, to aid the person in engaging and completing his or hers own process of individuation, which never promises to be an easy task (on the contrary).

Whatever the form this “manifestion” takes engage with it and try to remember it as vividly as possible, because the fourth step is to bring it to life.

There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. 

4 - Create an Artifact

Now it’s time for writing, drawing, or painting whatever we just experienced in the silence of our mind.

The goal here is not to get caught up on trying to make a masterpiece, but merely to make that unconscious image into an artifact which we can try decipher in our next step.

This step shows the hidden bonus active imagination has in store for anyone suffering from writer’s block, it is a way to tap into an insane amount of creative potential. It also teaches the crucial lesson of creating first — then criticizing.

5 - Become your own Analyst

Now we take a break.  We take our minds out of the imagination and back into normal consciousness.

When we’re ready and grounded we turn to our intellect, and we see can we find the message contained within the piece of artwork we just made.

Go Deeper

Try the technique out several times, and when you reach a comfortable level of playing with it’s various concepts you can try experimenting with various alterations such as:

  • Focusing on a dream feeling instead of a dream image – it can help you better connect with deeper feelings that were suppressed or that you consider unacceptable
  • Create using clay, pottery  or a random medium instead of paper – different materials offer a very distinct sensation and call for often contrasting modalities of interaction which leads to the peeling back of the defence mechanisms that keep you from having a more clear view of yourself
  • Interact verbally with the characters, give them accents or create a different scene which seems more appropriate for your interaction

Always remember that the principle is always the same: to allow the unconscious to manifest into consciousness and then trying to integrate its lessons, thus making important progress towards achieving what Jung called individuation.

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