It is my task here to give an account of "active imagination" in the psychology of C.G. Jung. As is well known, this is a particular dialectical way of coming to terms with the unconscious. Jung began to discover it around 1916 in his work on himself. He described it for the first time in detail in 1929 in his introduction to Richard Wilhelm's Secret of the Golden Flower, and in 1933 in "The Relationship between the Ego and the Unconscious." He found that a beneficial effect arises from attempting to objectivize contents of the unconscious state and relate them consciously. This can be done through painting or sculpting--or, more rarely, through dancing--but principally through writing down inwardly observed phenomena. Conversations with inner figures play an especially prominent role here.
If one compares these written accounts of inner events and conversations with dream figures, one sees that the participation of consciousness often lends a significantly more coherent, more concentrated, and often also a more dramatic character to the same contents. In contrast to dreams, which represent a pure product of the unconscious, active imagination gives expression to the phychic factor that Jung called the transcendent function. (This is the function that brings about a synthesis between the conscious and unconscious personality.) Therefore, active imagination brings about something like an intensified and (compared with dream analysis alone) accelerated maturation of the personality.
Before going into greater detail regarding the general aspects of this theme, I would like to provide a few practical clarifications.
People who are not practicing active imagination, or not practicing it under the supervision of a teacher who understands it, can easily confuse it with so-called passive imagination, that is, with that "internal cinema" that nearly anyone with any gift for fantasy can cause to parade before his inner eye when in a relaxed state, such as before falling asleep. But also inner dialogue with a complex or an affect, or the kind of inner dialogue within an imagined situation that one so often carries on involuntarily with oneself, should by no means be confused with active imagination. In the mentioned forms of imagination, the party involved "knows" the whole time, as though in some other corner of his mind, that the whole thing is "only" a fantasy. If he did not know this, we would have to regard him as being in a very dubious state. But the active imagination that Jung also called, with a grain of salt, "anticipated psychosis" is distinguished from these forms of fantasizing in that the whole of the person consciously enters into the event.
Let me illustrate that with an example. An analysand recounted to Jung an imagination she had begun in the following terms: "I was on a beach by the sea, and a lion was coming towards me. He turned into a ship and was out on the sea--" Jung interrupted her: "Nonsense. When a lion comes toward you, you have a reaction. You don't just wait around and watch until the lion turns into a ship!" We might say that the fact that the analysand had no reaction--for example, fear, self defense, amazement--shows that she did not take the image of the lion entirely seriously, but rather in some corner of her mind was thinking, "After all, it's only a fantasy lion."
Many beginners also think that when something goes wrong in the midst of fantasy events, one can just, as it were, roll back the film and run it again differently. In an imagination, for "hygienic" reasons an analysand had evacuated and burned down the house of her childhood, where she had found a sick child (her own infantility). But then she realized that this had been a mistake, because in this way the sick child had been too abruptly uprooted. So without further ado, she began imagining that the house was once again there and "played" the fantasy further with the child in the house. Here again we see an example of an imagination that is not a genuine active imagination. The course of events is not real, has not been taken seriously--because, as we well know, what really happens is irreversible.