Active Imagination: Confrontation with the Unconscious

“My soul, my soul, where are you? Do you hear me? I speak, I call you – are you there? I have returned, I am here again. I have shaken the dust of all the lands from my feet, and I have come to you, I am with you. After long years of long wandering, I have come to you again…”

Carl Jung, The Red Book

Active imagination is a technique developed by the Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Jung. It is one of the core concepts of analytical psychology. He considered it the most powerful tool to access the unconscious and for achieving wholeness of personality, which is latent potentiality.

At first, Jung didn’t have a name for active imagination, as he was reluctant to publish work on it. The Transcendent Function is the first major paper Jung wrote about the method he later came to call active imagination, before that he had also called it “the picture method”, or “visioning”, among others.

Active imagination is a dialogue with different parts of yourself that live in the unconscious. In some way it is similar to dreaming, except that you are fully awake and conscious during the experience. This, in fact, is what gives this technique its distinctive quality. Instead of going into a dream, you go into your imagination while you are awake. You allow the images to rise up out of the unconscious, and they come to you on the level of imagination just as they would come to you in dream if you were asleep.

If we honestly want to find our own wholeness, to live our individual fate as fully as possible; if we truly want to abolish illusion on principle and find the truth of our own being, however little we like to be the way we are, then there is nothing that can help us so much in our endeavour as active imagination.

Confrontation with the Unconscious & The Red Book

Active imagination is not just an expression of personal content, but of the collective unconscious. It is an attempt to uncover the quintessentially human. Jung discovered this method between the years of 1913 and 1916, a period of disorientation and intense inner turmoil which he called his confrontation with the unconscious. He searched for a method to heal himself from within, through the power of the imagination.

He wrote:

“It was during Advent of the year 1913 – December 12, to be exact – I resolved upon the decisive step. I was sitting at my desk once more, thinking over my fears. Then I let myself drop. Suddenly it was as though the ground literally gave way beneath my feet, and I plunged into the dark depths.”

Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

After his vision where he met with strange figures of his imagination in a dark cave, he became covered in imaginative blood, a thick jet of it leaped up and he felt nauseated. He continued to see fantasies in which blood was a recurring theme, including thousands of dead bodies and the whole sea turning into blood. This was just before the outbreak of the First World War.

The culmination of Jung’s experience with active imagination is presented in his Black Books, written between 1913 and 1932. He later began to copy these notes into the Liber Novus (the “New Book”), also known as the Red Book, because of its red leather-bound cover, where he included a medieval style calligraphy and depictions of his visions from the unconscious. This book he showed only to a few of his trusted friends. It was only around 50 years after his death that the Red Book was published in 2009.

Jung delved into an imaginative venture which he referred to as his “most difficult experiment”, and stated that, “to the superficial observer, it will appear like madness.” It was not, however, an illness, but a conscious and deliberate experiment. Jung remained firmly grounded in the world with his family and his work as a psychologist, and so did not become overpowered by his unconscious.

He began conversations with forces that were not himself, but rather archetypes of the collective unconscious. He saw what he called the “mythopoeic imagination” as the intermediary between consciousness and the unconscious (both personal unconscious and collective unconscious).

Alchemy and Jung

Alchemy played a key role in Jung’s understanding of the psyche. At first he disregarded it as indecipherable nonsense – but he soon realised that the strange symbols present in alchemy came from the same source he was investigating, the unconscious. He continued studying it throughout his life. In his final great work, Mysterium Coniunctionis, completed at the age of 81, Jung describes active imagination as the way to self-knowledge and the process of individuation, to becoming who you are, inspired by the alchemical process of the union of opposites, which in the deepest sense is inner transformation.

“The alchemical art and its allegories are the drama of our own souls – playing out the individuation process on the wheel of life.”

Jeffrey Raff, Jung and the Alchemical Imagination

Approaching Active Imagination

The important thing in active imagination is to let the fantasies or dreams run their course. Jung explained the process in a letter:

“The point is that you start with any image, for instance just with that yellow mass in your dream. Contemplate it and carefully observe how the picture begins to unfold or change. Don’t try to make it into something, just do nothing but observe what its spontaneous changes are. Any mental picture you contemplate in this way will sooner or later change through a spontaneous association that causes a slight alteration of the picture. You must carefully avoid impatient jumping from one subject to another. Hold fast to the one image you have chosen and wait until it changes by itself. Note all these changes and eventually step into the picture yourself, and if it is a speaking figure at all then say what you have to say to that figure and listen to what he or she has to say. Thus you can not only analyse your unconscious but you also give your unconscious a chance to analyse yourself, and therewith you gradually create the unity of conscious and unconscious without which there is no individuation at all.”

Carl Jung’s Letter to Mr. O (2 May 1947)

Precaution Before Starting Active Imagination

For most people the difficulty is in getting the active imagination started. However, there is a fundamental precaution that everyone must take before starting active imagination. Some people may be subject to being so totally possessed by the flow of images that they can’t pull out of it. Their minds get lost in the realm of fantasy and can’t find the way back to the here-and-now of the ordinary world. The unconscious is powerful, and if we are going to approach it, we must do so with respect and care. Though it is a solitary experiment, it is advisable to have someone close to you in the beginning in case you become overwhelmed by the imagination or to consult a competent Jungian analyst before undertaking this technique.

Inner Work: Active Imagination

In his book, Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth, the American author and Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson gives us a guide on how to do inner work, direct ways to approach the unconscious through dreams and active imagination, and discover the hidden depths of our personality, enriching our lives.

We will be focusing specifically on how to approach our inner self through active imagination.

Although Jung held dreams in high regard, he considered active imagination to be an even more effective path to the unconscious. The difference is this: when you dream, you receive signals from the unconscious, but the conscious mind does not participate. Unless you are experiencing a lucid dream where you are conscious that you are dreaming. In active imagination, by contrast, the conscious mind actively participates. The ego goes into the inner world, walks, makes friends with or fights with the people it finds there. You engage in conversation, exchange viewpoints, go through adventures together, and eventually learn something from each other. A new world with unlimited possibilities.

The events take place on the imaginative level, which is neither conscious nor unconscious but a meeting place, a common ground where both meet on equal terms, it gives rise to the transcendent function, the Self, that stands as the synthesis of the two opposites.

Distinguishing Active Imagination from Passive Fantasy

Active imagination is different from ordinary, passive fantasy. This is daydreaming: it is sitting and merely watching the stream of fantasy that goes on in the back of your mind as though you were at a movie. You do not consciously participate and thus it is a waste of energy, because the issues do not get resolved. The “I” must enter into the imaginative act as intensely as it would if it were an external, physical experience.

Active Imagination Example: Talking with the Inner Artist

Robert gives an example of a woman who was repainting her house and was unable to sleep because of her obsession with the different colours and designs. She became irritated toward her husband, who couldn’t understand her. One night, she entered into a dialogue with an inner being by expressing her mood, “JA” refers to an androgynous Japanese artist and “E” refers to her ego.

“JA: I am afraid.

E: Afraid of what?

JA: I am afraid that I will be locked up again.

E: Locked up?

JA: There are rarely any opportunities for me to express myself. It seems I must work very fast and intensely while the door is open to me. Soon it will be over, and I will be locked up again.

E: I begin to see what you mean. In my life there have been very few outlets provided for you, so few that I hardly knew you existed. The culture I live in doesn’t provide any place for you. And I have not stood separately from my culture in this matter to provide for you.

JA: That is true. I feel that I’ve been starving. This may be my only opportunity…”

Robert A. Johnson, Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth

In the aftermath of this active imagination, this woman found a new world opening to her. She had been so tied up with mental work – thinking, analysing, productivity – that there was no room in her life for the realm of physical beauty. She talked to this inner Japanese artist figure regularly. She started spending time working in her garden or at the ceramics workshop and in other physical or artistic activities that put her in contact with earthly, feminine values.

By honouring this part of herself, she derived a deep satisfaction, a knowledge that she is nourishing a part of herself that was starving before. Her sense of who she is had become amplified.

When You Think You’re Making Up Something

Robert had a patient who made up all his active imagination week after week, just to make a fool out of him. He revealed this the last day. Robert looked at him and the patient’s triumphant expression changed slowly to one of horror. Tears came to his eyes. He cursed and realised that all that he was doing was in fact true, but he didn’t want to admit it.

By trying to conjure up his “fake” story in order to fool Robert, he was spilling out the secret contents of his interior being.

It is common to ask: “How do I know that I’m not just making all this stuff up? How can I talk with someone who is only a figment of my imagination?”

Robert tells us that it is nearly impossible to produce anything in the imagination that is not an authentic representation of something in the unconscious. You are not just talking with yourself, but with your various selves. That is the whole point. The inner figures are autonomous. This is something we do not want to hear, as it is a frightening reality to know that we are not the masters of our house.

Active Imagination as Mythic Journey

Active imagination does not only have to do with immediate issues in our personal lives, but can also take the form of a mythical adventure, a journey into the archetypal realm. Setting foot into a land of evil, taking on a heroic quest to heal the sick and wounded and helping an innocent queen.

Each of us has all the great archetypal themes hidden inside. However, few of us can actually partake in this great primordial energy within us, unlike our primitive ancestors. This kind of active imagination connects us to the timeless cosmic dance of the archetypes that goes on eternally in the unconscious. It is a way of discovering how those universal energies flow through us as individuals, and express themselves in a unique and special way within our individual personalities.

Jung’s technique of amplification helps to interpret these archetypal images by using mythological, historical and cultural parallels in order to “turn up the volume” on the fantasy material.

The Four-Step Approach to Active Imagination

Robert gives us a four-step approach on how to get started with active imagination. But before beginning with the first step, it is important to find a convenient way to record the imagination as it flows out. Many give up before they get started because they can’t figure this out.

Your inner dialogue should be written, typed or recorded. This is your major protection against turning it into just another passive fantasy. The writing will help you remember and digest the experience. Just as the woman did in the example given, she wrote “E” to refer to the ego, and “JA” to refer to the Japanese artist.

If you type it down, you can use the lowercase setting to type what you are saying and capital letters to record what the other person in your imagination says back to you. In this way you can just pour the dialogue onto the page as quickly as they happen.

You can also use a recording device and talk and then transcribe them later, making sure to distinguish yourself from the unconscious inner being. This helps to stay in the visionary state and not have it interrupted by our impressions of the external world. Use any method that works best for you.

You should not try to “dress up” your imagination and make it sound impressive in case some other person happened to read or listen to it. It is highly personal and is something you are doing for yourself.

The goal is to experience and record whatever flows out of your unconscious honestly in its raw, spontaneous form.

Another important thing is the physical setting. There must be a room that is quiet and private enough that you can shut off the outside world for a while, at least half an hour. You also need to be alone.

If you live with other people, tell everyone in the house that you are not to be disturbed except for a nuclear blast or the Second Coming. You are entitled to that kind of freedom, privacy and security. You need it in order to make your journey into the inner world. You should be able to let out your raw feelings and emotions without worrying that someone is watching, or listening to you.

Step 1. Active Imagination: The Invitation

The first step in active imagination is to invite the creatures of the unconscious to come up to the surface and make contact with us. Every interaction helps us to develop the organs of perception of the imaginal world.

We often have something vague and invisible in the unconscious that bothers us. We can feel the conflict just below the surface, but we can’t see what is going on. We can’t associate it with anything specific. Sometimes it is an inexplicable, free-floating anger. We can’t say why we are angry, or at what—we just feel it. Moods, worries, depressions, inflations, and obsessions all come within this category. Robert writes:

“When this happens, you can go to the unconscious in your imagination and ask the unseen content to personify itself. You can start your Active Imagination by asking: Where is the obsession? Who is obsessed? Where does this feeling come from? Who is the one inside me who feels this way? What is its image? What does he or she look like?”

Robert A. Johnson, Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth

If you do this, an image eventually comes into your mind. We invite the inner persons to start the dialogue. By taking our minds off the external world around us and focusing on the imagination we can direct our inner eye to a place inside us, then we wait to see who will show up.

To invite the inner figures, we need to “empty the ego-mind”. We clear the mind of all thoughts of the external world and simply wait, with an alert and attentive attitude, to see who or what will appear. If you see someone, you can begin with asking: “Who are you? What do you want? What do you have to say?” Your dialogue begins. Surrender yourself to the experience and don’t try to control or push the imagination in any particular direction.

If you have a certain fantasy material that’s been in your mind all day, you can safely assume that it is expressing one of the main conflicts where psychic energy is concentrated in you. You can begin by going to that specific place as a starting point for active imagination, instead of passively watching the same fantasy repeat itself over and over in your mind, you carry the material forward.

You can also start active imagination by embodying one of your inner figures and assume their consciousness, or make your invitation by going to a symbolic place in your imagination. Robert writes:

“For me, the seashore is a magical place that often appears in my dreams. When I don’t know how to start my Active Imagination, I frequently go to the seashore in my mind and start walking. Inevitably something happens or someone appears, and then the imagination is launched. There have been a few days when I walked and walked, and almost nothing happened; sometimes you can grow weary walking. But generally, if you go to the inner place and search, you will find someone waiting for you.”

Robert A. Johnson, Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth

Jung also found that active imagination could be used for extending dreams. If you have a recent dream that you recall or a recurring dream, you can extend the dream by imagining where the dream left off. In this manner, you can effectively continue your dream and interact with it by extending it out. This is a legitimate process as the dream and the imagination come from the same source in the unconscious. It allows you to “continue to the story”, go through the next step the dream is leading toward, and bring the whole issue to a resolution.

Curiously, dreaming decreases dramatically when one does active imagination. The issues that would have been presented in dreams are confronted and worked out. As such, dreams become more focused and concentrated and less repetitious, for dreams do not waste your time. Jung used to describe this method for people who were too overwhelmed by intense and frequent dreams.

Step 2. Active Imagination: The Dialogue

You have invited the unconscious; the images have risen up into your imagination. Now you are ready to begin the second step, the dialogue. This is to give yourself over to the imagination and letting it flow, to let the inner figures have a life of their own.

In your imagination you begin to talk to your images and interact with them. They answer back. You are startled to find out that they express radically different viewpoints from those of your conscious mind. They tell you things you never consciously knew and express thoughts that you never consciously thought.

To begin the writing process, Jung wrote that:

“The alterations must be carefully noted down all the time, for they reflect the psychic processes in the unconscious background, which appear in the form of images consisting of conscious memory material. In this way conscious and unconscious are united, just as a waterfall connects above and below.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 14: Mysterium Coniunctionis

By focusing on your writing, you concentrate and experience the active imagination more deeply, protecting you from wandering off into passive fantasies that creep in from the edges of the mind.

Often the inner person will lead you off on a path. If you feel that it is wrong to follow the person, you have the right to say so. That, in turn, will often lead to a heated discussion of the conflict between this inner person and yourself. The dialogue has begun, and the different parts of the self are learning from each other.

Most people do a fair amount of talking in their active imagination, exchanging points of view with the inner figures, trying to work out a middle ground between opposing views, even asking for advice from some very wise ones who live in the unconscious. However, not all dialogue is verbal – it can also take the form of images, that speak to you without words.

It is important to stick with the image that we start with and not allow oneself to be distracted by other fantasy material. It may take days, weeks or even years for a certain fantasy to be resolved. You must be present with your feelings, and sense that it is actually happening. You are not merely an observer, but an active participant.

Do not try to dominate or manipulate the conversation either. Active imagination is, more than anything, a process of listening, either to the words or the images.

After so many years of ignoring these parts of ourselves, seeing them as the inferior characteristics in our personalities, we find that they have some very unpleasant things to tell us when we finally listen. They may also appear as frightening and threatening, this is your Golden Shadow, which you must wrestle with to find your undiscovered potential.

We must turn a friendly face to the unconscious. It is only when we humbly listen to them and give them time to express themselves, that we can gain new insights that can be integrated into our conscious life. As Jung wrote:

“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.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 12: Psychology and Alchemy

The ego is a small island surrounded by a deep unseen ocean of energy where huge forces are at work. Active imagination is underwater diving. Though our ego is small in comparison, we shouldn’t take everything the inner figures say as final authority. That would be just as one-sided as our ego-centred approach.

Active imagination starts out from affirming that the unconscious has its own wisdom. It should not be confused with guided meditation practice, which seeks to “program” the unconscious so that it will do what the ego wants it to do.

There is no script, nothing is predetermined. You will have to go your own way, which is both terrifying and exhilarating. You must ultimately walk the path alone.

Step 3. Active Imagination: The Values

The third step is the values and ethical element our ego must introduce. Ethics is derived from Greek and means “proper conduct”. It, in turn, derives from the Greek word ethos, meaning the “essential character or spirit” of a person or people.

It sets limits in order to protect the imaginative process from becoming inhuman or destructive. The universe is awesome and beautiful, but its forces behave in a way that is amoral. They are not concerned, as we are, with the specifically human values of justice, fairness, service to our fellow human beings. These primitive archetypes serve a realm close to the instincts. They do not have a super-ego (socially appropriate behaviour). And since the creatures who arise in our active imagination are personifications of the impersonal forces of nature, it is we who must bring the ethical into active imagination.

But not all archetypes are like this, some may be concerned with human values, by a sense of love and moral responsibility. There is some truth and wisdom in every figure that comes to us in active imagination, and they help us compensate the one-sidedness of our ego.

Robert recalls a case where a woman had a dialogue with what appeared to be a wise old man who gave her good insights. However, one day he told her to hand over her purse and keys, symbolising all her resources and complete control of her life. Robert immediately told her to go back and tell him that she must take her things back, and so she did. Unfortunately, after a year, she went off on an inflation and became a know-it-all, trying to dominate every situation. She became possessed by the trickster archetype and went off a self-destructive path.

It is as much the ego’s duty to bring a sense of responsibility to the creatures of the inner world as it is for us to tend to the welfare of our fellow humans in the outside world.

Jung wrote:

“The images of the unconscious place a great responsibility upon a man. Failure to understand them, or a shirking of ethical responsibility, deprives him of his wholeness and imposes a painful fragmentariness on his life.”

Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Step 4. Active Imagination: The Rituals

The fourth and last step is the rituals. To bring the active imagination off the abstract level we must give it the concreteness of immediate physical experience. The most important step of all is for the images of the unconscious to find their place and purpose in one’s outer life.

An important point here is not to take our inner conflicts and urges and try to live them out externally. For example, if a man is arguing with his inner figure during active imagination, he may go and start up the same argument with his wife immediately afterwards. He will try to live out the imagination externally and literally, by projecting on external people.

For this reason, it is important that one should not call to mind the image of one’s spouse, friend or co-worker and start talking with that person in one’s imagination. It is confusing the inner with the outer reality. If asked, the inner figure will almost always cooperate and alter his or her appearance. You can then enter into your dialogue with a clear sense that you are talking with a part of yourself, and not an external human being.

To incarnate the experience, we must do a physical ritual or integrate what we have learned in our daily life. This can be taking some alone time to be aware of one’s feelings, lighting a candle or incense, going for a walk and directing your eyes on the colours of nature and the sky, reconnecting to the physical world. Or make it into something tangible with sand play, drawing, playdough, etc. Jung’s ritual was the calligraphy and artwork of the Red Book, which occupied him for many years. He took his communication with the unconscious seriously and valued it greatly.

Each ritual must be custom-made out of the raw material of your own inner self. Keep your  rituals small and subtle, and they will be more powerful. The best rituals are physical, solitary and silent: These are the ones that register most deeply with the unconscious.

Our tendency in the West is to make everything abstract, to use wordy discussion as a substitute for direct feeling experience. We have a tremendous need to get our bodies and our feelings involved.

“Ritual, in its true form, is one of the most meaningful channels for our awe and sense of worship. This is why ritual came spontaneously into being among humans in all parts of the earth. This is why modern people who are deprived of meaningful ritual feel a chronic sense of emptiness. They are denied contact with the great archetypes that nourish our soul-life.”

Robert A. Johnson, Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth


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Active Imagination: Confrontation with the Unconscious

Active imagination is a technique developed by the Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Jung. He considered it the most powerful tool to access the unconscious and for achieving wholeness of personality.  

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