Jung On Active Imagination

When it comes to Jungian psychology, I tend to just like the ideas because they applied well, and they felt like they fit with…whatever I was going through, or dealing with, that I’d get all Jungian about. I’d take it as a given that Jung was a child of the times, being a Swiss dude who worked between the 1910s to 1960s. I considered Active Imagination an inevitable outcome of his research into dream symbolism and the relation thereof to the mental state of his patients. I also picked up somewhere that Freudian psychology and Jungian psychology branched off when their respective founders disagreed; and just a cursory look at Freudian psychology revealed some reductive, harmful ideas disguised as intellectual rigor. Jungian psychology still has its problems, but started off with a pluralistic enough view of the human condition to…remain relevant.

So, I thought of it coldly, in terms of “irreconcilable philosophical difference.” It made sense that they would split.

Joan Chodorow’s compilation and commentary of Jung’s writings on the Active Imagination method of therapy gave the context I lacked. By the read of it, the ‘breakup’ with Freud had outright traumatized Jung. He found himself subject to fatigue and terrors, and unable to write. So, now technically without peers in his field, he turned to the theories he developed about his own mind. There had to be some way that he could heal the psychological damage from within.

Several years later, Jung could be caught walking in the garden, having lively conversations with an invisible man named like a Pokémon. That’s what it sometimes looks like when this therapy is working well. Jung’s first essay on this topic was entitled “The Transcendental Function”, begun in 1916 and finally published in 1958. Now that’s a bad case of writer’s block.

A fantasy is more or less your own invention, and remains on the surface of personal things and conscious expectations. But active imagination, as the term denotes, means that the images have a life of their own and that the symbolic events develop according to their own logic – that is, of course, if your conscious reason does not interfere. You begin by concentrating on a starting point (…) when you concentrate on a mental picture, it begins to stir, the image becomes enriched by details, it moves and develops. Each time, naturally, you mistrust it and have the idea that you have just made it up, that it is merely your own invention. But you have to overcome that doubt, because it is not true.

We can really produce precious little by our conscious mind. All the time we are dependent upon the things that literally fall into our consciousness; therefore in German we call them Einfälle. For instance, if my unconscious should prefer not to give me ideas, I could not proceed with my lecture, because I could not invent the next step.

You all know the experience when you want to mention a name or a word which you know quite well, and it simply does not present itself; but some time later it drops into your memory. We depend entirely upon the benevolent cooperation of our unconscious. If it does not cooperate, we are completely lost. Therefore I am convinced that we cannot do much in the way of conscious invention; we over-estimate the power of intention and the will. And so when we concentrate on an inner picture and when we are careful not to interrupt the natural flow of events, our unconscious will produce a series of images which will make a complete story.

I have tried that method with many patients and for many years, and possess a large collection of such ‘opera.’

Joan Chodorow comments:

In the spontaneous dramatic play of childhood, upsetting life situations are enacted symbolically, but this time the child is in control.


The major danger of the method [of active imagination] involves being overwhelmed by the powerful effects, impulses and images of the unconscious. It should be attempted only by psychologically mature individuals who are capable of withstanding a powerful confrontation with the unconscious. A well developed ego standpoint is needed so that conscious and unconscious may encounter each other as equals.

Those are some conflicting messages, whether to set out on active imaginings with a mature and controlling attitude, or more immersive playful symbolism. Jung’s writings of his own meditative journeys in The Red Book were almost never purely descriptive. Everything had to mean something in this system of symbols and archetypes. This was, Jung maintained early on in Chodorow’s compilation, the difference between art therapy (enactments of this active imagination) and artistry (which produced the same things, not exactly the same things, but still through the mind). Artists who were Jung’s contemporaries might have what I call a sidereal intention, but didn’t have the skills to psychoanalyze themselves—according to Jung. Considering that Jung was codifying those very skills, though, that was an uncharacteristically dickweedish thing to say.

This entry was posted in psyche.

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