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28 Jun / Active Imagination: The Interior Vision


Active imagination is a technique or method devised by C.G. Jung, to engage, interpret, and integrate fantasy-images and other subliminal contents that arise from the unconscious. Jung originally referred to the method as spontaneous fantasy or non-directed thinking. Jung (1928) suggested that the method was “a question of releasing unconscious processes and letting them come into the conscious mind in the form of fantasies” (CW7, para. 342). In late 1913, Jung began to experiment with this process through visualization techniques. He imagined digging a hole and described this process of visualization in his Seminar on Analytical Psychology Given in 1925.

I devised such a boring method by fantasizing that I was digging a hole, and by accepting this fantasy as perfectly real. This is naturally somewhat difficult to do—to believe so thoroughly in a fantasy that it leads you into further fantasy, just as if you were digging a real hole and passing from one discovery to another. But when I began on the hole I worked and worked so hard that I knew something had to come of it—that fantasy had to produce, and lure out, other fantasies. (1989/2012, p. 51)

And that is exactly what happened. Jung’s initial attempt to bore his way into the unconscious led him down a rabbit hole of psychic images. In his autobiography, Jung (1961/1989) wrote that he let himself drop:

Suddenly it was as though the ground literally gave way at my feet, and I plunged down into dark depths. I could not fend off a feeling of panic. But then, abruptly, at not too great a depth, I landed on my feet in a soft, sticky mass. I felt great relief, although I was apparently in complete darkness. (p. 179)

What followed was a lengthy encounter with personified fantasy-images that would span the next three years. As he explored his own imagination he was met by two fantasy figures that themselves Elijah and Salome. They were accompanied by a third figure in the form of a large black snake that Jung described as a typical motif commonly found in hero myths. One can read in detail about Jung’s account of these figures in The Red Book. Jung (1961/1989) further wrote of those fantasies:

I had the feeling that I was in the land of the dead. The atmosphere was that of the other world. Near the steep slope of a rock I caught sight of two figures, an old man with a white beard and a beautiful young girl. I summoned up my courage and approached them as though they were real people, and listened attentively to what they told me. The old man explained that he was Elijah, and that gave me a shock. But the girl staggered me even more, for she called herself Salome! She was blind. What a strange couple: Salome and Elijah. But Elijah assured me that he and Salome had belonged together from all eternity, which completely astounded me… They had a black serpent living with them which displayed an unmistakable fondness for me. I stuck close to Elijah because he seemed to be the most reasonable of the three, and to have a clear intelligence. Of Salome was distinctly suspicious. Elijah and I had a long conversation which, however, I did not understand. (p. 181)

Figure 1. Philemon Fantasy-Figure. (The Red Book: Liber Novus, C.G. Jung.

Figure 1. Philemon.

Another figure eventually arose from the unconscious that Jung called Philemon (Fig. 1). Jung wrote that Philemon symbolized superior insight and demonstrated psychic objectivity. Jung’s description above marked his first attempt at articulating the method he would later formulate into active imagination. However, as early as childhood, Jung had lucid hypnagogic experiences that were consistent with the characteristics of active imagination (1961/1989, p. 181). He first described his method of active imagination in his essay “The Transcendent Function,” which was not published until 1957. When he first wrote the essay Jung was still referring to active imagination as spontaneous fantasy. Jung (1916/1957) suggested that

The capacity to produce free fantasies can, however . . . be developed with practice. The training consists first of all in systematic exercises for eliminating critical attention, thus producing a vacuum in consciousness. This encourages the emergence of any fantasies that are lying in readiness. A prerequisite, of course, is that fantasies with a high libido-charge are actually lying ready. (CW8, para. 155)

Thus, Jung was putting active imaginations on par with dreams. The central difference between active imaginations and dreams is that the individual has greater control with the former because they are exercised during a waking state. Although often undervalued, active imagination is an effective tool that anybody can use to further assimilate and understand his or her own unconscious contents. Jung further pointed out that there were a number of ways that one could do active imagination depending on the individual and his or her own psychic constitution. For some people painting may serve as an adequate way to engage their unconscious whereas for others writing may work best. It really just depends on the person. Lastly, one of the most important features of active imaginations is the way they apparently demonstrate that psychic images can have a life of their own, which accords with Jung’s hypothesis of psychic objectivity.

Key Points

  • Active imagination was first introduced by Jung as alternatively non-directed thinking and spontaneous fantasy.

  • The purpose of active imagination is to engage, interpret, and integrate fantasy-images and other subliminal contents that arise from the unconscious.

  • Jung first extensively employed his active imagination technique to engage inner fantasy figures in 1913, which is described at length in The Red Book.

  • Another term for fantasy-images are libido analogues.

  • In some cases, fantasy images could be thought to have a life, albeit a provisional one, of their own.


References

Jung, C.G. (1928). The technique of differentiation between the ego and figures of the unconscious. In: R. F. C. Hull (Trans.) & H. Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler, W. McGuire (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (Vol. 7). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jung, C.G. (1957). The transcendent function. In: R. F. C. Hull (Trans.) & H. Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler, W. McGuire (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (Vol. 8). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1916)

Jung, C.G. (1989). Memories, dreams, reflections. Aniela Jaffe. (ed.) Richard and Clara Winston. (Trans.) New York: NY: Vintage Book. (Original work published 1961)

Jung, C.G. (2012). Introduction to Jungian psychology: Notes on the seminar on analytical psychology given in 1925. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1989)

By The Depth Coach in Design, Life, Psychology, Uncategorized
8 Comments
  • Eric B.

    Are you saying that à la Jung’s psychological theory, that there are subliminal personalities that live within our psyche? That doesn’t sound very empirical. In fact, it sounds more like a throw back to the middle ages. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the psychological argument but find it rather far-reaching.

    • The Depth Coach

      Eric, there are things in the world that are very real that you can’t touch. The psyche and its contents, whether they are unconscious or unconscious are like that. The psyche is real and it stands to reason that there are living contents that coexist alongside the ego. It all sounds very strange but if one thing is true, we have only scratched the surface of the phenomenal world. To quote Shakespeare: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Eric, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

  • Bill Jackson

    Hey brother, never mind Eric. I follow what Jung is saying and find that fascinating. In fact, it makes a lot of sense to me. Good blog. Keep em’ coming!

    • The Depth Coach

      Bill, Thank you. I appreciate your vote of confidence. I am glad you enjoyed the blog. Take care.

  • Jackson McCready

    I researched all of your references. It all lines up I imagine. I have not read The Red Book yet, but from what I hear it’s rife with active imaginations. Is it all based on Jung’s fantasies?

    • The Depth Coach

      Hi Jackson, thank you for the post and I’ll try to answer your question. The Red Book is largely based on Jung’s fantasies and some dreams, however, if you read it closely one realizes that it largely mirrors not only Jung’s personal confrontation with what he calls the unconscious, but it mirrors what’s going on at the time and Europe and other parts of the world. When Jung had his initially fantasy he thought he may be lose a screw (Jung as a clinician well understood the symptoms of schizophrenia and psychosis) however, when WWI broke out in late July 1914 he realized that he was not going crazy but had simply tapped into some part of the collective psyche.

  • Sherry S.

    Well, for what it is worth. I liked the blog. I have already read The Red Book, however, I still don’t really get what Jung was saying. Thank you.

    • The Depth Coach

      Sherry, thank you for your comments, I appreciate you advancing the dialogue along. The Red Book can be difficult to follow in some areas, however, I’d encourage you to keep on reading, no matter how bad it hurts your head. You’ll get there.

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