top of page

active imagination as a way to understand illness

Active Imagination is a mental technique developed by psychoanalyst Carl Jung to access the subconscious mind. It involves using fantasy to explore the inner workings of the mind. You can use this technique to journey through the depths of your  imagination  and  perhaps discover the  hidden roots of your illness.

 a brief history of dream time


Carl Jung may have coined the term 'active imagination but the actual practice has been around for a long time. The Indigenous Australians have been practicing a form of active imagination for thousands of years called 'dreaming' to explain the origin of the universe and workings of nature and humanity. ‘Dreaming’ takes place in a space beyond time. Sufi mystics also practiced active imagination and used it to connect with other spiritual realms.


Avicenna, an 11th century Persian scholar and physician took it as a gateway to the realm of the divine. It’s a cousin to Blake’s Divine Imagination and the Aboriginal Dreamtime. The mystical English artist and poet, William Blake, believed that it could bring the spirit world into conscious awareness. Because without imagination, science is blind and art is crippled.

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, a specialist in back pain, noticed that many of his patients suffered from suppressed emotions (usually anger) and realized that these suppressed emotions were actually the underlying cause of their pain and other symptoms.



Jung’s method 


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.


Doctor Sarno


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. 


active imagination


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.

bottom of page