Jungian Therapy, Jungian Analysis, New York

Active imagination in the psychology of C. G. Jung. from Psychotherapy by von Franz, pp 146-162.
Jungian therapy, jungian analysis, new york city, dream interpretation narcissistic or narcissistic men narcissistic women narcissitic mothers

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.

Another kind of mistake that is often made occurs when the meditator appears in the inner events not really as himself but as a fictive personality. Through this approach, of course, the inner happenings is divested of any character of a genuine interplay and synthesis of the conscious and the unconscious. This mistake is often so subtle that it can often be detected only indirectly through reactions in dreams and through the absence of any effect whatever. When the imagination comes off very easily, this is often suspicious, since real active imagination is a considerable endeavor that in the beginning can rarely be kept up for longer than ten to fifteen minutes. Also, there are often difficulties at the beginning, of which the following are the most common.

One difficulty is a kind of cramp of consciousness that makes it so that nothing comes to one's mind. Another typical difficulty expresses itself in lethargic resistance and insurmountable disgust or in a negative inner mood that is always saying, "This whole thing is not real, it's just being made up." Jung said:

The art of letting things happen, action through non-action, letting go of oneself, as taught by Meister Eckhart, became for me the key opening the door to the way. We must be able to let things happen in the psyche. For us, this actually is an art of which few people know anything. Consciousness is forever interfering, helping, correcting, and negating, and never leaving the simple growth of the psychic process in peace.

While the first two difficulties mentioned can be overcome only with patience or with the courage to be objective, in my experience the best way to deal with the voice of the doubter is simply to let it talk and then answer it: "It's possible that this is not real, but for the time begin, I'm going to go ahead." Usually then something happens that convinces one of the uncannily alive, independent reality of the conversation partner. One realizes, "I never could have consciously invented this myself." Whether an active imagination is genuine or not can be best told by the effect it has, for this is enormous and immediately perceivable, whether in a positive or a negative sense. That is why active imagination is such a dangerous instrument and should generally not be attempted without the supervision of an experienced person. It can, as Jung stressed, bring latent psychoses to the point of outbreak. At such a point, patients may slip into a psychotic interval right in the midst of the imagination.

A further danger is the appearance of somatic symptoms. I remember the following example. The case was that of an artist who had undertaken analysis because of a tendency toward alcoholism and a general sense of disorientation. In his dreams there repeatedly appeared a particular shadow figure; let us call him Albert. This figure was a schizoid, highly intelligent, completely cynical, and amoral man who in reality had long since committed suicide. Since we were unable to come to terms with this "shadow," I advised the artist to try having it out with this inner Albert in a frank conversation. He undertook this with great courage and openness. But Albert very cleverly gave a negative twist to everything the artist said: he was only going through treatment because he was afraid of the consequences of alcoholism; he was a good-for-nothing, a coward who as a last resort was trying to save himself through psychology, and so forth. His arguments were so clever and incisive that at a certain point in the conversation, the artist felt beaten. He sadly admitted that Albert was right and broke off the conversation. Shortly thereafter, a psychogenic heart attack took place. The doctor who rushed to the scene concluded that there was no organic problem but that the artist's state was nonetheless rather disquieting.

It is significant that the heart, the symbolic seat of the feelings, revolted. I pointed out to the artist that though he had been intellectually defeated by Albert, there are such things as arguments of the heart that he, the artist, had not used against him. He then returned to his inner conversation. Albert immediately began to mock him: "So now your psychological governess has given you a piece of good advice; but it didn't come from you!" And so on. However, this time, the artist did not let himself be thrown, but kept his feet on the ground and got the upper hand with Albert. The following night he dreamed that Albert died, and starting from then, this inner figure, whom he had dreamed about until that point at least twice a week, appeared only once more in his dreams over the next few years, and then he was no longer quite the same old Albert but had undergone a positive change. At the same time and, in my view, more significant phase of artistic achievement for the artist began.

With this we come to what is perhaps the most important aspect of active imagination: it is a means of influencing the unconscious. It is true that the right understanding of a dream, if it is more than intellectual, brings about a change in the conscious personality, which in turn affects the unconscious; but the effect from active imagination is stronger out of all proportion. Moreover, a dream and the ability to understand it depends, as it were, on the grace of the Holy Ghost. By contrast, active imagination puts a key in our hand; at least within a modest framework, it enables us to constitute ourselves. For that reason, it is an invaluable means for the analysand in developing himself toward being less childishly dependent on his analyst. Beyond that, it is a liberating experience for all those whom fate-- a marriage, a change of profession, a return to one's homeland, the death of the analyst--spatially separates from their analyst.

However, beyond that and far more important is that active imagination makes the autonomy of the analysand possible altogether. Indeed Jung referred to acceptance and practice of this form of meditation as the criteria of whether an analysand was willing to take responsibility for himself or would seek to continue forever living as a parasite on his analyst. Along the same lines as this liberating effect is the fact that active imagination makes possible extraordinary direct work with affects that can provide a way out of the impasse of suppression or abreaction, of which the first is unhealthy and the second often impossible externally.

I am reminded of the example of a young girl who was suffering from a very pronounced negative mother complex with mild paranoid ideas. As the irony of fate would have it, she rented her student quarters in the house of an evil-tempered and totally paranoid old woman who was notorious in the whole neighborhood. This old woman immediately began to harass her unmercifully, which of course coincided in a very unfortunate way with the girl's subjective tendencies. It was part of the rental agreement that the girl was allowed to swim in the Rhine, which flowed right by the front of the house But one day, the old woman, without any pressing reason, permanently forebade her this pleasure. The girl had enough self-control to accept this situation externally, but was so upset by her own rage that for two whole hours she could only curse away to herself and abreact internally, unable to return to her intellectual work. As we know, such affects are very unprofitable and exhausting, and the fact that one is "in the right" does not prevent one's own rage from wrecking havoc on oneself.

The girl then carried out the following active imagination. She saw the river with a sign in it surrounded by high waves saying "Swimming Prohibited." The "doubter" voice said: "That's no more than an image of your own emotions." Nonetheless she carried unwaveringly on with the fantasy. The waves separated, and from them emerged a froglike black gnome about two and a half feet tall. She though, "Oh, that's just my personalized affect," but continued objectively watching to see what would happen next. The gnome padded on its frog feet toward the house, and she thought, full of horror, "Oh, God, surely he's going to murder the old woman, or maybe he'll explode all of a sudden like a bunch of dynamite!" A moral conflict began within her: "Should I let him into the house? But what if I refuse to and he gets angry at me?" She decided to let the gnome, who was ringing the doorbell, into the house and ask him what he wanted. He immediately indicated with gestures that he wanted to go up to where the old lady was. Once again, conflict arose on account of the murder problem. The girl decided at this juncture to go ahead and ring the bell of the old woman's apartment but to stay there with the gnome to prevent him from any misdeed. The old woman approached to open the door. At this point the girl was seized by the thought of what an infinitely funny and amazing impression it wold make on the old woman to see her standing there with the black frog-footed dwarf, and she had to laugh. In fact the old woman in her amazement did make a preposterous face, but the girl said, "This gentleman would like to speak with you, Mrs. X." Embarrassed, the old woman invited the two of them into her best sitting room, which, by the way, in reality the girl had never been in before. (When much later she did have occasion to go in there, she discovered to her astonishment that in active imagination she had imagined it as it actually was.) Now, when te two of them had seated themselves on the plush sofa across from the old woman, the dwarf began to tell the woman erotic jokes with double entendres in them, which made her so happy that she sent the girl away so she could be alone with the nice "gentleman."

When the girl emerged from this fantasy into consciousness, she was in a contented, detached mood and was able to devote herself to her intellectual work without further problem. When toward evening she met the landlady on the stairs, thinking of the imagined story, she had to smile. And now for a further unexpected result: the old woman was objectively as though transformed. Until her death, she never once troubled the girl again.

The liberating effect of this imagination is connected with an archetypal motif. That the "Great Mother," when absorbed in fury and grief, can be brought back to humanity through coarse jokes is something we know from the Demeter myth. Guides still point out today the well shaft in the ruins of Eleusis near which the resentful and mourning Demeter sat when the maid Baubo, with a course joke, stripped before Demeter and thus made the goddess smile again for the first time. But according to certain cultic inscriptions, Baubo, Demeter, and her daughter Kore are one and the same goddess!

That the Great Mother was accompanied from the most ancient times by phallic gnomes (Kabiri) who were her companions is surely known to many. Through this archetypal background was familiar to the girl in our example, it was not very present to her mind. We can also see in this example how the skeptically commenting consciousness makes false connections; for dwarfs, in contrast to giants, are personifications not of affects but of creative impulses. Thus the apparitions in the imagination had already taken on a constructive force, whereas consciousness with its "reasonable" static preconceptions suspected the presence of a destructive affect.

You might think that this imagination was not a very active one, and it is true that it unfolded relatively passively and cinematically. But it was genuine to the extent that in certain moments the girl participated in it fully and made ethical decisions: whether, on the one hand, to let the gnome in despite his being dangerous, or, on the other hand, to hinder him in attempting to murder the old woman. Naturally she could have behaved entirely differently. For example, she could have told the Kabirus that she would not let him in if he did not first confess what he wanted.

When I listen to the active imagination of analysands, I often think at particular points, "I would not have behaved that way!" But this very reaction shows to what a great extent the imagination that comes about is a personally conditioned, unique series of events (the English would say, a "just-so-story"), like the reality of the individual life itself. That the paranoid old woman also underwent a change is bit surprising but not unusual. And this brings us to another danger inherent in active imagination, the danger of misusing it as a kind of black magic to achieve egoistic ends or to influence others.

A young female analysand once came to me with a dream that told her he had fallen under the power of a witch. As I was exploring her inner and outer activities of recent days, she reported that she had done an active imagination--at least that is what she called it--against(!) one of her acquaintances. This person had annoyed her and she had indulged in a fantasy in which she had beheaded her, turned her on the rack, spat on her, and so on. In this way, as she put it, she wanted to "abreact her anger." Not I but her unconscious found the right name for what she had done--not active imagination, but witchery. Such a misuse of the imagination is very dangerous. Especially to people with schizoid tendencies, it may be very attractive. However, it by no means gets them out of their mess, but on the contrary makes them vulnerable to psychosis. Imagining as a form of "love sorcery" or in service of one's own delusions of grandeur (heroic fantasies) belongs to the same category. Wish-fulfillment fantasies have less than nothing to do with real active imagination. The girl whose case is described above had no intention whatever of influencing the old woman. She only wanted to get rid of the destructive influence of her own affect. This ethical purity of intention is one of the most important basic prerequisites of any active imagination.

The use of active imagination by analysands is not always advisable. It is already limited by the fat that quite a few people simply cannot overcome their resistances to it and should not be forced to do so. Moreover, as mentioned, in cases of latent psychosis it is extremely dangerous. Also, in borderline cases of schizophrenia, ego weakness is often already so great that this meditative form is hardly advisable. (But here, too, there are exceptions once in just such an exceptional case, I saw it have its liberating effect and greatly speed the healing process.) In general the use of active imagination is indicated either when there is heightened pressure from the unconscious--that is, when too many dreams and fantasies keep coming up--or, conversely, when dream life is blocked and does not "flow." In all cases where inner independence is sought, active imagination offers a unique opportunity to bring it about.

The element of rapid, efficacious self-liberation from obsessive affects and ideas make active imagination an especially important instrument for the therapist himself. C. G. Jung even regards it as indispensable for the analyst to master this meditative form. As we know, strong emotions are very contagious, and it is difficult for the analyst, and often also not indicated, to withdraw from their contagion, because after all one needs sym-pathy and com-passion in order to be able to help. The same goes for having to listen to and watch the unfolding of perverse, morbid fantasies or images that, willy-nilly, destroy one's balance; for as Jung said, the impression of something ugly leaves something ugly behind in one's own psyche. And in relating to these "impressions," one cannot always wait around for a healing dream or until they fade away as a result of one's own healthy instincts. Especially when, on the same day, other analysands are coming in; after all, one cannot receive them in such a disturbed state, thus spreading the contagion still further. However, one can always fit in a short active imagination--in such cases, one rarely needs more than ten minutes--and free oneself by this means. When one does not even have time for that, sometimes just the sincere decision to deal with the disturbance through active imagination later on will help. After all, ultimately a psychotherapist is a person who can heal himself. According to Aelian, the dog is the animal associated with the god of healing, Asclepius, because he has the knowledge to eat grass in order to make himself vomit up harmful food, and because he licks his own wounds with his disinfectant saliva!

People from the polar regions distinguish the mentally ill from medicine men and shamans as follows: the mentally ill person is possessed by spirits and demons; the medicine man or shaman, however, is one who, though also possessed, is able to liberate himself again on his own. Ugly affects and morbid, perverse ideas actually act like demons. They enter us and obsess us. The right active imagination, however, is a creative act of liberation carried out through symbols. It could be misunderstood as a dangerous tendency toward "self-salvation," but in fact this danger is precluded because the proper use of active imagination can only take place in a religious context, that is, in the presence of an awe-filled, conscientious regard for the numinous.

In addition to its protective quality referred to in the examples, active imagination is to even a higher degree the vehicle of what Jung called the individuation process, the complete and conscious self-realization of individual wholeness. Through this process of imago dei (God-image) is experienced in the individual and begins to actualize its influence beyond the level of the ego. The ego becomes a servant of its tendencies toward actualization, a servant without which the Self is incapable of incarnating itself in our dimension of space and time.

The small practicable examples I have provided as an illustration of the nature of active imagination represent only a minor segment within such a process of individual development, and the archetype of the Self, the whole, does not even appear in them. However, when such a meditative procedure is undertaken for a longer period of time and in connection with essential problems of life, empirically almost always, this central content, that is, the Self, comes clearly to the fore, and in these more essential contexts a certain parallelism to various religious paths of meditation can be clearly seen. For this reason, Jung also made, in a series of lectures at the Zurich School of Technology, a detailed comparisons between the unconscious as he conceived of it and Eastern forms of yoga, the exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola, and the meditation practices of the alchemists. From this it emerges that this last is much more closely related to Jung's active imagination than the other two for the following reason. In the Eastern yoga forms (perhaps with the exception of Zen Buddhist meditation, to which I will return later), the "guru" to a great extent takes over the lead, and certain instructions are also given in the texts which might guide the student to the experience of that which we call the Self. In the Christian exercises, the image of the Self is made visible in Christ, and here too the student is led to approach it inwardly in a certain way. In both cases, the student is warned against obstacles and told how he should "dismiss them or shoo them off as temptations."

In comparison with all these processes, Jungian active imagination is much less programatic. There is no goal that must be attained (no "individuation training"), no model, image, or text as a guide on the path, pre prescribed physical posture or breath control ( and not couch, no participation in fantasies by the analst). One simply begins with what presents itself from within, or with a relatively inconclusive-seeming dream situation or a momentary mood. If an obstacle arises, the meditator is free to see it as an obstacle or not; it is up to him how he should react to it. Thus each step becomes a unique, responsible individual choice an for that reason also a unique "just-so" synthesis of conscious and unconscious tendencies. Let us say an imaginer is struggling in a fantasy to reach the summit of a high mountain, and beautiful women come along and try to lure him into the depths. We do not say to him at that point: "That is an erotic fantasy, a temptation that is trying to keep you from achieving your lofty goal." We also do not say, "That is a part of life that you must integrate before you continue your climb!" We do not say anything. The imaginer must explore on his own what it is that he is encountering and what he should do about it - just the same way as in outer individual life.

It is this absolute freedom which differentiates the Jungian form of active imagination from almost all other known forms of meditation and what most makes it resemble the imaginatio vera of the alchemists. The alchemists were experimenting with the (for them) completely unknown nature of material reality and its psychic aspect. They had no program, but were looking in the dark for nothing other than their own genuine experience of it. They had no views, or only vague intuitive ones, concerning what it was all about, and no externally adopted ethical guidelines of or - nothing but their own inner voice. They were seeking the "divine reality" in the here an now of material existence; they themselves, for the most part, knew nothing more than that. That is why their way and their experience of symbols so closely resemble those of many modern men and women.

In this freedom totally without a program, it is perhaps Zen Buddism with its steps towards the satori experience that comes closest to the Jungian approach. Also here there is only the fact that a number of masters possess a real experience of the Self and live from it - everything else is unpreconceived and unpreconceivable. The only thing that distinguishes Zen from the Jungian active imagination, as far as I can see, is the following. In Zen Buddhism--or so at least I was once assured in a conversation with Professor D.T. Suzuki--fantasy images and dreams that arise are not regarded as inessential elements that still cover up the "true nature." The master attempts to shake the student loose from them as from his other false ego attachments. By contrast, in Jung's active imagination, without judgement, we stoop to pick up every fragment of symbol that our psyche offers us and work with it, since to us it might seem to be an adumbration or a part of the Self--maybe an unrecognized part. In any case, there is no prescribed or. This greatest freedom is indeed the most difficult, but in my opinion the most valuable, aspect of the Jungian way inward.

That brings us to a certain problem that might possibly be a subject of controversy. Jung was part of that group of psychotherapists on the furthest left wing of those who unconditionally advocated the freedom of the individual. In meditation as represented, for example, by J.H. Schultz's autogenic training, we still find physical relaxation exercises prescribed. In Carl Happich's guide to meditation, themes like "childhood's meadows" or "the mountains" are suggested, and the psychotherapist "guides" the analysand within the fantasy toward them. As concerns Rene Desoille's reve eveille (waking dream), a method that owes a lot of Jung, a fundamental distinction is that the psychotherapist offers his own reaction to the symbolic inner events; for example, he suggest to the patient what the latter might or should do in the symbolic situation. Also, Desoille requires an experience of the collective unconscious and its archetypes and, at the same time, that these last be mastered. Thus, all to great an emphasis, for our taste, is placed on the guidance of the psychotherapist and his reactions; this by no means fosters the moral and spiritual independence of the analysand.

As we see from this and the examples I have provided, in Jungian active imagination, the psychotherapist only takes a position on the question of whether a fantasy is genuine or ingenuine. His only further intervention is, when symptoms or dreams ensue by way of reaction to interpret the significance of these dreams and symptoms in the way otherwise usual in analysis. As we may recall, it was a dream and not I that accused the female analysand referred to earlier of black magic; and it was a psychogenic heart attack that warned the artist not to forget the "heart."

These spontaneous reactions of the unconscious to active imagination occur frequently. They permit us to give analysands a free hand as described. For them it is a valuable experience that the "master" ultimately lies in his own psyche--a medicus intimus, as Professor Schmaltz so aptly called it. The Eastern meditative forms and the Christian ones are built upon age-old historical tradition and thus have the advantage of offering guidelines that have already been tried out and adapted by many people; but for this reason, they become a strait-jacket o the just-so-ness of the individual. As Jung repeatedly pointed out, modern human beings are already so heavily overloaded, both internally and externally, with precepts, demands, advice, slogans, collective suggestions, idealism, and other (also good) guidelines, that is perhaps worth the effort to provide them with an opportunity to realize their own nature in an unforced and fully self-responsible fashion. This is the way, perhaps, that the divine influence makes its appearance in the psyche in its purest form--all by itself. And it is also likely that the individual best resists the destructive collective influence of his time when, all alone and through his own inner experience, he becomes rooted in his relationship to God.