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Active Imagination

From Becoming Whole: Applied Psychoses

STANDARD WARNING: DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME! ONLY UNDER THE GUIDANCE OF A QUALIFIED THERAPIST.

STEPS (von Franz, 1993)

  1. Empty ego consciousness [akin to Zen meditation], get free of the flow of thoughts.
  2. Let image arise in mind, follow it through. Dialogue with imaginal figures common.

    What distinguishes active imagination from simple fantasy is the full participation of the ego, imaginatio vera versus imaginatio fantastica. An initial difficulty is thinking something like "Oh, I'm just making this up" (imaginatio fantastica). The ego consciousness which participates in active imagination is the full waking ego, not a fictive or dream ego.

    Let me illustrate with an example. An analysand recounted to Jung an imagination she had begun in the following terms: "I was on a beach by the sea, and a lion was coming toward me. He turned into a ship and was out on the sea -- " Jung interupted her: "Nonsense. When a lion comes toward you, you have a reaction. You don't just wait around and watch until the lion turns into a ship!" We might say that the fact that the analysand had no reaction -- for example, fear, self-defense, amazement -- shows that she did not take the image of the lion entirely seriously, but rather in some corner of her mind was thinking, "After all, it's only a fantasy lion."

    (von Franz, 1993, page 147)

    The ego likewise operates with concern for ethics. For example, von Franz relates an active imagination of analysand who was having trouble with her landlady. A toadlike dwarf emerged from a river and asked to speak to the landlady. The analysand sensed something threatening in the dwarf and had to decide whether or not to allow it to speak to the landlady, since she sensed the possiblility of it doing some harm. (von Franz, 1993, page 151)

  3. Give images/content of active imagination form through writing (most common), painting, sculpting, or dance (least common, make notes on dance). Don't be either obsessed with aesthetic or sloppy. Again honesty important.
  4. Apply what is learned to daily life. (Requirement of Jungian psychotherapy in general).

This is essentially von Franz' recipe as outlined in her book Psychotherapy (1993). Other descriptions vary, but they all have two things in common in order to qualify as active imagination:

  1. Full participation of the ego complex.
  2. No outside agencies, tools, effects.

    The relationship in active imagination is between ego-consciousness and the unconscious. The therapist does not 'guide' the analysand, there is no mantra, no soothing music playing in the background.

Diekman (1988) and others mention that the starting point for active imagination need not be a naturally occurring thought or image, but may be chosen (a figure in a dream, for example).

Due to the full participation of ego-consciousness in a relationship with the unconscious, the experience of active imagination can be a very powerful one. This is why one comes across warning such as the one at the beginning of this section. The truth of the relationship can be uncanny and may potentially activate latent psychoses. Dieckmann (1988) notes that it should only be engaged in by persons who have a strong degree of ego stability. After active imagination Jung would use yoga exercises to calm himself before making his paintings (von Franz, 1993), and access to a technique such as yoga or Zen meditation would be a valuable asset to anyone setting out to do active imagination, especially without the guidance of a qualified professional (not advised).

Von Franz also warns of affects which go beyond the person practicing the imagination. In the aforementioned case of the toadlike dwarf, the analysand decided that it could speak to the landlady so long as she accompanied it so that she could intervene if need be to keep it from doing harm. It told the landlady risqué stories which amused the landlady very much. According to von Franz, there was also a corresponding mellowing of mood in the actual landlady subsequent to the active imagination. Von Franz advises avoiding figures of actual living people in active imagination if at all possible. She also notes that she has experienced somatic effects of a positive or negative nature depending on the quality of active imaginations.

Active imagination is a powerful tool which if used should be used with caution. Dieckmann's doesn't mention any 'supernatural' effects, but he does specify the need for ego-stability due to the potential for active imagination to activate latent psychoses.


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