Active Imagination

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Active Imagination and Expressive Arts Therapy

"We know that every good idea and all creative work are the offspring of the imagination, and have their source in what one is pleased to call infantile fantasy. Not the artist alone, but every creative individual whatsoever owes all that is greatest in life to fantasy. The dynamic principle of fantasy is play...[and] without this playing with fantasy no creative work has every yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable." (C. G. Jung, Collected Works, volume 6, para 93)


In this section, I will give you an overview of the method of "Active Imagination," a pathway to accessing the unconscious layers of the psyche. I will then describe how we might utilize this technique in psychotherapy, Jungian analysis, and expressive arts therapy, according to the interest of the person with whom I am working.


Let me begin with a definition: Active imagination is the process of allowing contents of the personal and collective unconscious to emerge freely while maintaining some working relationship to images, feelings, sensations and thoughts springing forth from the unconscious into consciousness. It is the process of turning attention within, toward one's inner world and then expressing it creatively, while maintaining a reflective and psychological point of view. About the use of this method Jung writes, "The essential thing is to differentiate oneself from these unconscious contents by personifying them, and at the same time to bring them into relationship with consciousness." (C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, 1961, p. 187)


Marie-Louise von Franz sub-divides active imagination into four different stages: first, to empty one's mind from the trains of thought of the ego; second is letting an unconscious phantasy image [feeling, sensation, etc...] enter into the field of inner attention; third, is to give the phantasy some form of expression, such as writing, painting, sculpting or dancing; and fourth, is the ethical confrontation with whatever one has previously produced. (von Franz, 1983, p. 125-127)


Jung writes on this last and most essential step, "The images of the unconscious place a great responsibility upon a man. Failure to understand them, or a shirking of ethical responsibility, deprives him of his wholeness and imposes a painful fragmentariness on his life." (Jung, 1961, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, p.193) Here, Jung is emphasizing the importance of bringing the meaning gained from these practice into life, in a real way. In my mind this quote speaks to the interconnection between the individual and the world in that it is one's ethical responsibility to bring insights into consciousness for the sake of personal, cultural and collective change.


What does it look like to utilize this method in psychotherapy and Jungian analysis? During a session, you may want to amplify some aspect of your experience that is arising in the moment while we sit together in dialogue, such as a dream image, a feeling, a memory, a sensation, or an intuition. I may suggest that you notice your breath so that you can begin to focus on your inner world. The aim will be to assist you in actively engaging with the material in your imagination and notice what arises from your unconscious into consciousness. We may also notice what is arising in your body-felt experience in order to access that which lies in the somatic aspect of psyche. There is a kind of "impregnating" of the psychic material in order to deepen in your experience. As we explore this material, you may want to utilize an expressive arts modality, such as drawing, writing, or movement, or you may chose to employ the method of sandplay. 


I also want to say that my approach to working with the expressive arts and authentic movement is based on the principles of active imagination. Active imagination provides an excellent foundation for engaging with the imagination and body in a therapeutic context. Whether we sit together in conversation and/or engage with your dreams and imagination, we aim to help you make changes so you can live a more satisfying and meaningful life.


Jung writes, "I therefore took up a dream-image or an association of the patient's and with this as a point of departure, set him the task of elaborating or developing his theme by giving free rein to his fantasy. This according to individual taste and talent, could be done in any number of ways, dramatic, dialectic, visual, acoustic, or in the form of dancing, painting, drawing, or modeling." (C. G. Jung, Collected Works, volume 8, para. 400)


Picture: "Atmavictu," meaning the "breath of life," a statue standing in C. G. Jung's garden at his home in Kusnacht, Switzerland.