what is

active imagination?

In active imagination, we invite the subconscious parts of ourselves — our symptoms, our psychological complexes, and even the figures from our dreams — to step forward and interact with us.

Active imagination is a technique that opens a door of communication between the conscious and unconscious parts of ourselves. Using this practice, we can converse with the figures that populate our dreams, explore our inner terrain, and connect with archetypal figures — such as the Shadow. Writers and artists may find this tool useful for connecting with their creative source, while for complex psychologists, active imagination is a primary tool for imaginal research. The benefits of active imagination vary from person to person but, practiced regularly, many people find the practice improves their quality of life, and gives them greater insight into themselves and the larger world.

active imagination

Complex psychology holds that there are territories within us — understood as unconscious or subconscious — that quietly affect our behaviors and beliefs. Normally, we interact with the subconscious in our nighttime dreams, or experience it in the form of projection on the outer world. But dreams and projection aren’t the only way to connect with the subconscious mind. Active imagination opens this door, as well.

In A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis, Samuels et al helpfully describe active imagination as dreaming with open eyes.[2] Sometimes this is literally the case, as one of the core techniques of active imagination is to select an encounter from a nighttime dream and, in cooperation with the figures of the inner world, to re-enter the dream, allowing the narrative to continue to unfold. Such dream re-entry is one several imaginal methods for inviting unconscious content forward and allowing it to ‘speak.’ This work can be done in artistic media — painting or performance, for instance — but the best form for this work may be the imaginal dialogue.

In this approach to active imagination, we invite subconscious parts of ourselves — including symptoms, complexes and other inner figures — to step forward and interact with us. From the point of view of our ‘I’ (the ego, or ego-complex), we can speak with these parts of our psyches, ask them questions, and even have shared adventures. In this way, the subconscious mind is given the time and space to express its images, its desires, its wishes.

Though it bears similarities to both shamanic journeying and meditation, active imagination requires no deliberately induced trance or altered state of consciousness. The ego remains fully conscious during the practice and brings its own ethics and resources to the imaginal conversation. Additionally, there are no hard-and-fast rules or pre-established structures. The main requirement for active imagination is a time commitment — as little as 15-20 minutes per session — and a willingness to treat one’s inner images as real, at least for the duration of the dialogue.

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