Active Imagination is one element of what the Jungian Analyst Murray Stein calls “the four pillars of Jungian psychotherapy.” In one of my recent posts I suggested that this technique is also essential in the context of career counseling from a Jungian perspective.
Active imagination is a powerful technique for healing and personal growth. It is also a very flexible technique and can be adapted for many different situations and individuals.
In this post I want to go a little deeper into just what active imagination is and how it can be used in the course of Jungian therapy.
Image and Psyche
“The psyche consists essentially of images. It is a series of images in the truest sense, not an accidental juxtaposition or sequence, but a structure that is throughout full of meaning and purpose; it is a ‘picturing’ of vital activities.” ~ C.G. Jung
According to Carl Jung, nothing can be known until it first takes the form of a psychic image. In other words, the human psyche is like a lens through which the raw data of life passes and is given form in the shape of thoughts, ideas, feelings, sensations, or visual pictures. We do not become aware of things as they are, Jung would say, we become aware of our experience of things.
Because of this fact, Jung was deeply impressed by what he termed ‘psychic reality’ and he believed that observing the flow of images within one’s imagination gave a person access to the activity of their inner lives — the “picturing of their vital activities.” This is why the dream plays such an important role in Jungian Psychology.
Furthermore, he discovered that interacting with the images of one’s unconscious produced healing changes in a both the individual’s inner and outer lives. This process of interacting with the images of one’s psyche he called active imagination.
The Neurobiology of Active Imagination
In his book, The Neurobiology of the Gods, Erik Goodwyn surveys the current findings of the neurosciences in relation to the recurrence of certain kinds of images as they appear in dreams and fantasy. He finds that contemporary research is validating many of Jung’s key insights into the role of psychic images.
One of the main findings that Goodwyn reports is the evidence showing the autonomy of unconscious systems of mental functioning. Ultimately, what the research indicates is that there are multiple unconscious systems of emotion that are often at odds with the conscious intentions we have for our lives. These unconscious systems are “revealed” to our conscious minds through the symbolic images of our dreams and fantasies. According to Goodwyn:
“Such a symbol is a personality, complete with motivations, intent, purpose, and so on, and because of this it can be an important ‘player’ in our lives.”
Our conscious access to these unconscious emotional systems is limited and so we cannot simply override them with our willpower. We are obliged to enter into a relationship with these systems and to seek out some way to integrate them into our life experience. This is exactly the purpose of the active imagination method.
The Technique of Active Imagination
Active imagination, as the name suggests, is the active engagement with the natural symbol making function of the psyche. At its most basic, it is a process of noticing the images that are being produced by the mind and that have a strong, though mostly unconscious, impact on our daily life.
Everyone is familiar with the popular cartoon image of the man with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. These two forces attempt to convince him to do the right thing, or tempt him to do the wrong one. Although this portrait is a clichéd one, it presents the broad outlines of this technique.
There are ‘voices’ inside us and we must enter into conversation with them if we don’t want them to drown out our own voice and unconsciously run our lives.
The procedure itself is relatively simple, if not particularly easy. Here is how Jung describes the process:
“[The patient] 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.”
The first step, then, is to allow one’s mood to become a fantasy, but a fantasy that stays connected to the emotional situation. It is not a random free association process. How a person develops the fantasy depends on personal preference and ability. It can be done by writing, drawing, painting, acting, or even dancing.
Once an image has been formed and elaborated, the second step is to try to understand it, though not necessarily in the sense of interpreting it. The process is more one of coming to terms with the image, responding to it, and developing a relationship with it. Just as a healthy relationship with a human being is one of mutual respect and compromise, so the same is true of one’s relationship with the figures of one’s own psyche.
“It is exactly as if a dialogue were taking place between two human beings with equal rights, each of whom gives the other credit for a valid argument and considers it worth while to modify the conflicting standpoints by means of thorough comparison and discussion or else to distinguish them clearly from one another.”
The question then arises: what does this process look like in the context of psychotherapy and what does it add to the whole experience?
Jake (not his real name) turned to active imagination to deal with a troubling anxiety that was preventing him from taking the necessary next steps in his career development. He had never had difficulty going for what he wanted in the past, but now he found himself feeling paralyzed.
As he focused on his anxiety, Jake saw himself in his imagination standing at the end of a dirt road on the edge of town that looked like it was from the Wild West. He began to walk down the road into town and was reminded of the Clint Eastwood “Man with No Name” character from the movies. He felt utterly alone and afraid while all about him seemed rough and disorderly.
This trip through the Wild West seems like a strange detour for a person trying to figure out their next career move to make. But for Jake, the experience of active imagination allowed him to understand not only his need for more intimate relationships, but it helped him to see the dynamics of his anxiety.
Jake realized that his anxiety was a result of holding himself aloof from others, of taking a heroic, self-sufficient approach to life. This way of being was isolating him from others and the more isolated he felt, the more anxious he became.
To move forward in his work and in his life, Jake realized that he would need to cultivate deeper connections with others, to risk moving from a defensive independence to a capacity for interdependence. By paying attention to the images emerging from his unconscious, he was able to begin the process of releasing himself from a feeling of being possessed by his anxiety and to gain objectivity regarding his own emotional experiences.
The goal of active imagination is just this kind of objectivity toward the unconscious dynamics that affect our daily living. This, in turn, allows us to become free from our habitual reactions and behaviors and to begin to make new choices, to gain more flexibility in our possible responses to the situations of our lives.
“[Active imagination] is a way of attaining liberation by one’s own efforts and of finding the courage to be oneself.”
And this, of course, is also the goal of psychotherapy–to be liberated from those feelings and experiences that prevent us from living fully and joyfully in the present and becoming who we are meant to be. Active imagination is a powerful tool for bringing a person closer to that goal.