Jung's Active Imagination


The following atrticle is excerpted from Jung the Mystic, now available from Tarcher/Penguin.

There was a method to Jung's madness: active imagination. It, along with the transcendent function, are the two most important discoveries Jung made in the years leading up to World War One. I would even argue that they were the most important discoveries of Jung's career, and that everything that came later had its roots in these two fundamental insights. This being so, they warrant a bit of attention.

Strangely, Jung seems to have done everything he could to hide these discoveries from all but his closest colleagues. The paper which discusses both in any detail, "The Transcendent Function," was written in 1916, while Jung was in the middle of his "deep reaching interior metamorphosis." (He was serving a stint of military duty, stationed near the Gotthard Pass at the time.) Yet it wasn't published until 1957, and only then when Jung was asked to contribute to a student publication, not something many of his readers would see. For forty years it remained in Jung's files, off-limits to the general public. Jung discussed the ideas in seminars and lectures, but usually only with his closest students, rather like an initiate sharing the most profound mysteries with only his most devoted pupils. Although subsequent Jungian analysts have recognized their importance, neither idea plays a prominent role in any of Jung's major works. For example, in Mysterium Coniunctionis , Jung's alchemical magnum opus, active imagination isn't mentioned at all, and the transcendent function is mentioned only twice. As is often the case with Jung's ideas, we need to go to his followers for anything like a clear definition.[1]

Some suggest Jung kept quiet about active imagination because he considered it possibly dangerous. In a note he cautioned that through it "subliminal contents [...] may overpower the conscious mind and take possession of the personality."[2] That Jung came upon it precisely when his own subliminal contents were mutinying against his ego makes this a reasonable concern. Yet there may have been other reasons. Weak egos might fragment practicing active imagination, but what would his peers think of a psychologist who talked to people in his head? As with his public and private opinions about spirits and the occult, Jung seems to have kept quiet about things that could threaten his persona as a scientist.

What, then, is active imagination? In practice it's exactly what Jung did in his visions and conversations with inner figures like Philemon, Ka and Salome mentioned above: entering a fantasy and talking with one's ‘self' -- at least a part of oneself ‘normally' left unconscious -- asking questions and receiving knowledge that one -- ‘you' -- did not know. In many ways, its something we engage in often already, but in a shallow, fleeting way, when we ‘ask ourselves' what we think or will do about a situation.

More abstractly,  it's a method of consciously entering into a dialogue with the unconscious, which triggers the transcendent function, a vital shift in consciousness, brought about through the union of the conscious and unconscious minds. Unexpected insights and self-renewal are some of the results of the transcendent function. It achieves what I call that elusive ‘Goldilocks' condition, the ‘just right' of having the conscious and unconscious minds work together, rather than being at odds. In the process it produces a third state more vivid and ‘real' than either; in it we recognize what consciousness should be like and see our ‘normal' state as at best a muddling-through. Previously, the transcendent function had helped Jung when faced with the dilemma of having to choose between science or the humanities. Then it operated through a dream, producing the mandala-like symbol of the giant radiolarian. In the simplest sense, the transcendent function is our in-built means of growth, psychological and spiritual -- it's ‘transcendent' only in the sense that it ‘transcends' the frequent deadlock between the conscious and unconscious minds -- and is a development of what Jung earlier recognized as the "prospective tendencies in man."

As the name implies, active imagination is a means of stimulating this, rather than waiting passively for the unconscious to do it on its own. It's a way of consciously ‘having it out with it' with the unconscious- the German is Auseinandersetzung -- that is, not passively accepting it, as we normally do in a dream or reverie, but confronting it, engaging with it, asking it what it wants. It isn't easy. As Marie-Louise von Franz, one of Jung's best interpreters and an acute psychological thinker in her own right, remarks, "if done rightly one is exhausted after ten minutes for it is a real effort and not a ‘letting go'."[3]

Although Jung describes several means of ‘doing' active imagination -- painting, sculpting, even dance -- the basic method is to allow a fantasy to appear, as Jung did. But rather than drift into "free association" -- which only allows complexes to take over - one grabs hold of an element in the fantasy and sticks to it. With practice one can follow the material as it develops, and can actually speak with it, as Jung did, which means, of course, that it can speak to you. As Jung explained to a correspondent: "The point is that you start with any image ... Contemplate it and carefully observe how the picture begins to unfold or to 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."[4]

In a lecture he gave to the Tavistock Clinic in London in 1935, Jung spoke of a patient who couldn't grasp what active imagination was, until one day he found himself looking at a travel poster at a railway station. It showed the Alps, with a waterfall, a meadow, and cows on a hill top. Jung's patient wondered what he would find if he walked over the hill. In a reverie he did, and found himself in a small chapel, looking at picture of the Virgin. Then a creature with pointed ears popped behind the altar and disappeared. At first Jung's patient thought this was nonsense, but he continued. The creature appeared again, although he hadn't imagined it there at all. It seemed to have a ‘life of its own'. After that, he understood what Jung meant.

Again, it sounds easy but it isn't. The critical ego wants to reject the fantasy for a number of reasons -- it's silly, obscene, absurd -- but it must be disciplined to withhold judgment and allow the material expression. Anyone who does creative work is familiar with this problem, and in many ways active imagination is similar to writing, painting and so on; all creative work entails a give-and-take between inspiration (unconscious) and execution (conscious) (As I am writing this, for example, I have to allow my intuitions expression before I can start editing them.)  The difference for Jung is that the aesthetic quality of the end product isn't important; understanding it is. Nevertheless, one of the best introductions to active imagination are the letters On the Aesthetic Education of Man by the poet Friedrich Schiller, a contemporary of Goethe, which discuss in detail the dialogue between the creative (unconscious) and critical (conscious) drives and their union in art, both creating and experiencing it.

In many ways, active imagination is similar to hypnagogia, and as we know, Jung was a good hypnagogist. His ideas on active imagination and the transcendent function may have been influenced by Herbert Silberer. In 1909 Silberer's paper[5] on hypnagogia was published in the psychoanalytical yearbook, and as editor Jung read it. Silberer discovered that hypnagogic imagery was auto-symbolic: it gave a pictorial or auditory assessment of one's current state, a characteristic Swedenborg had noticed almost two centuries earlier. For example, Silberer was resting and thinking of how to improve an awkward passage in an essay, and as he slipped into a reverie he saw himself smoothing out a piece of wood. Later, again resting, he contemplated the mysteries of human existence, and saw  himself on a jetty reaching out into a dark sea. Unable to keep an argument of Kant's and of Schopenhauer's in mind simultaneously, Silberer saw himself asking a secretary for information. Silberer concluded that the opposition of two "antagonistic elements" -- the effort of thinking while dozing -- produced the auto-symbolic effect. This seems very much like the effort to maintain conscious and unconscious processes simultaneously -- a wakeful reverie -- which is the essence of active imagination, and the symbols produced seem very similar to the work of the transcendent function. Years later Jung paid tribute to Silberer, saying he "has the merit of being the first to discover the secret threads that lead from alchemy to the psychology of the unconscious."[6]

Although one can practice active imagination ‘cold', most people do because, like Jung, they are faced with psychological distress. Paradoxically, the distress provides the best opportunity to practice active imagination, rather like an ailment containing its own cure. Jung suggests taking a bad mood, and focussing on it, making it as conscious as possible. This crystallizes it into a symbol, fantasy image, or some other representation, achieving an "enrichment and clarification of the affect" (emotion).[7] The unconscious seeks consciousness and Jung discovered that "as soon as the image was there, the unrest or sense of oppression vanished." "The whole energy of these emotions," Jung says, "was transformed into interest in and curiosity about the image" (my italics).[8] With no exaggeration, focusing on his dark moods and transforming them into inner images saved Jung from madness.


[1] Readers can find a good description of active imagination in therapeutic practice in Marie-Louise von Franz's Shadows and Evil in Fairytales (Spring Publications: Texas, 1980) pp. 74-8. For the transcendent function, see p. 224.

[2] Jung, "The Transcendent Function" p. 67.

[3] M-L. von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairytales p. 77.

[4] C.G. Jung Letters 1906-1950 ed. Gerhard Adler (Routledge and Kegan Paul: London, 1973) p. 460.

[5] "Report on a Method of Eliciting and Observing Certain Symbolic Hallucination-Phenomena," collected in Organisation and Pathology of Thought, David Rapaport ed. (Columbia University Press: New York, 1951).

[6] C.G. Jung Mysterium Coniunctionis (Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1977) p. 555.

[7] Jung "The Transcendent Function" p. 82.

[8] Jung, MDR p.212.

Image by turrido50, courtesy of Creative Commons license.