Active imagination is a process in Jungian psychology used to bridge the gap between the conscious and unconscious minds: opening oneself to the unconscious and giving free rein to fantasy, while at the same time maintaining an active, attentive, conscious point of view. The process leads to a synthesis that contains both perspectives, but in a new and surprising way.
Jungian psychology places a heavy emphasis on dream interpretation and the contents of the unconscious mind. During the process of active imagination, Jungian analysts encourage clients to translate the contents of dreams without adding any analysis from the conscious mind.
This article is focused on providing a theoretical introduction and short history of the subject – for learning how to practice active imagination, read Active Imagination Technique: Essential Steps.
History of Active Imagination
Active imagination played a large role in theosophical works. The theosophy of post-Renaissance Europe embraced imaginal cognition. In this tradition, the active imagination serves as an “organ of the soul, thanks to which humanity can establish a cognitive and visionary relationship with an intermediate world”.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (buy his books from Amazon) distinguished imagination, which expresses realities of an imaginal realm transcending any personal existence, and “fancy”, or fantasy, which expresses the creativity of the artistic soul. For Coleridge, “imagination is the condition for cognitive participation in a sacramental universe”.
C.S. Lewis (buy his books from Amazon) considered that “reason is the organ of truth, but imagination is the organ of meaning”.
Rudolf Steiner suggested cultivating imaginative consciousness through meditative contemplations of texts, objects, or images. The resulting imaginal cognition he believed to be an initial step on a path leading from rational consciousness toward ever-deeper spiritual experience.
The imaginal realm is known in Islamic philosophy as alam al-mithal, the imaginal world. According to Avicenna, the imagination mediated between, and thus unified, human reason and divine being. This mediating quality manifested in two directions: on the one hand, reason, rising above itself, could attain to the level of active imagination, an activity shared with the lower divine beings. On the other hand, in order to manifest the concrete forms of the world, divinity created a range of intermediate beings, the angelic co-creators of the universe. According to philosophers of this tradition, the trained imagination can access a “nonspatial fabric” which mediates between the empirical/sensory and the cognititional/spiritual realms.
Jungian history of Active Imagination
As developed by Carl Jung between 1913 and 1916, active imagination is a meditation technique wherein the contents of one’s unconscious are translated into images, narrative or personified as separate entities. It can serve as a bridge between the conscious “ego” and the unconscious and includes working with dreams and the creative self via imagination or fantasy.
“The Transcendent Function” (1958) is Jung’s first paper about the method he later came to call active imagination. It has two parts or stages: Letting the unconscious come up and Coming to terms with the unconscious. He describes its starting points (mainly moods, images, bodily sensations); and some of its many expressive forms (painting, sculpting, drawing, writing, dancing, weaving, dramatic enactment, inner visions, inner dialogues). In this early essay he links his method to work with dreams and the therapeutic relationship. The term “transcendent function” encompasses both the method and its inborn dynamic function that unites opposite position in the psyche.
Jung (buy his books from Amazon) linked active imagination with the processes of alchemy in that both strive for oneness and inter-relatedness from a set of fragmented and dissociated parts. This process found expression for Jung in his Red Book.
How does it work
Active Imagination works by encouraging the conscious and unconscious mind to communicate through making our conscious attention explore down into the unconscious mind. It is considered an important aiding technique in the process of individuation and you can learn how to practice it alone by exploring the most obvious expressions of your unconscious mind – your dreams.