Active imagination is a mental practice developed by the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung between 1913 and 1916. It involves opening oneself to the unconscious and giving free rein to fantasy, while at the same time maintaining an active, attentive, conscious point of view. The process leads to a synthesis that contains both perspectives, but in a new and surprising way.
Different versions of this technique have been around for hundreds of years. Avicenna and the Sufis took it as a gateway to the realm of the divine. It’s a cousin to Blake’s Divine Imagination and the Aboriginal Dreamtime.
active imagination vs. day dreaming
Active imagination and day dreaming both use images from the unconscious but the issues that come up in day dreaming don’t get resolved. Day dreams just repeat themselves over and over again on the edges of our minds but there is no evolution because the ego never confronts the fantasy situation. Day dreaming doesn’t require any effort or concentration. Active imagination on the other hand is a skill that requires practice and dedication.
Dr. John Sarno was a specialist in treating back pain. He noticed that many of his patients suffered from suppressed emotions (usually anger) and realized that these suppressed emotions were actually the underlying source of their pain (and other symptoms).
Over time unexpressed emotions accumulate in the subconscious where they eventually reach a boiling point. To prevent them from boiling over, the subconscious creates pain (or other symptoms) as a distraction. This is to protect the person from these suppressed emotions become conscious.
Sarno reasoned that if the subconscious could create an illness, it could also be used to undo that illness. So he got his patients to journal as a way to get in touch with their subconscious. Once they became consciously aware of their suppressed emotions, the subconscious no longer needed to protect them against their emotions, and their symptoms subsided.
Dr. Sarno’s journaling method is a form of active imagination, in that it is designed to communicate with the subconscious. If you find it hard to focus then his method is the perfect place to start. Read more about Dr. Sarno on this page.
The main difference between Sarno’s and Jung’s form of active imagination is that with Sarno you are sending a message to your subconscious while with Jung your subconscious is sending a message to you.
If you want to dig deeper into the subconscious and connect to your deeper self and reveal your innermost feelings and desires then Jung’s method is the path for you.
In Inner Work Robert A. Johnson wrote that there are two ways to reach the subconscious. One is through dreams and the other is through the imagination. Jung’s method focuses on the dream world while Johnson’s is aimed at solving a particular problem.
one ~ find focus
Choose one of your most recent dreams to analyze, grab a pen and notebook, find a comfortable place to sit where you won’t be disturbed. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and take a few minutes to quiet your mind.
two ~ the dream
Once you feel feel sufficiently relaxed move your attention to an image from the dream you chose. The trick here is to keep your attention on the image. If you find your mind wandering simply bring your attention back to the dream image.
three ~ communicate
To receive the message that your unconscious tried to communicate to you through your dream begin to loosen your focus just enough so that the unconscious can start to animate the dream image.
As you allow your unconscious mind to speak you may find yourself entering back into the dream, or you may end up speaking to one of the dream characters. This is usually a pleasant experience but sometimes it may be dark, weird, or even hostile, especially if you’re trying to understand a nightmare.
four — an artifact
In your journal write, draw, or paint whatever you just experienced. Don’t get caught up on trying to make it perfect. Your task is simply to turn that unconscious image into something tangible so that you can decipher in the next step. If it comes out like a mess then so be it!
five — analyze
Take a short break. The purpose of the break is to take your mind out of the imaginative state and return it to a normal state of consciousness.
Analyze what you captured in your journal. Usually various interpretations will come up but then suddenly something will “click” in your psyche and you’ll know it’s the right answer.