Active Imagination: A Tool for Self-Discovery


I’ve used many tools on my continuing journey to self-understanding and internal transformation. One is called active imagination. This technique was invented and tested by Carl Jung during his deepest period of self-exploration between 1913 and 1916. Believing that our unconscious mind wants to communicate with our conscious mind, he conceived of a method to facilitate this. It is a process of visualizing unconscious issues by focusing on a concern, feeling or dream image, then entering a meditative state and inviting images to act them out.

An important difference between active imagination and ordinary fantasy is that far from being a random ramble into imaginary wish-fulfilling situations that give pleasure to the ego, the person enters the process as an observer who wants to understand, interacts with the characters and images as they emerge without censoring them, and records what happens. Jung recorded his experiences in writing and by painting beautiful mandalas, many of which can be found in his brilliant record of that time, The Red Book.

Wikipedia explains it thusly: “Key to the process of active imagination is the goal of exerting as little influence as possible on mental images as they unfold. For example, if a person were recording a spoken visualization of a scene or object from a dream, Jung’s approach would ask the practitioner to observe the scene, watch for changes, and report them, rather than to consciously fill the scene with one’s desired changes. One would then respond genuinely to these changes, and report any further changes in the scene. This approach is meant to ensure that the unconscious contents express themselves without overbearing influence from the conscious mind. At the same time, however, Jung was insistent that some form of participation in active imagination was essential: ‘You yourself must enter into the process with your personal reactions…as if the drama being enacted before your eyes were real’.”

Here’s how it works for me. I find a quiet, comfortable, private, and distraction-free place to sit, usually in front of my computer so I can record what is happening as I go along. Then I focus on an issue or concern or dream image that I have a question about and write it down. I light a candle to signify to my unconscious that I am setting aside a sacred time to listen to it, close my eyes, imagine myself in a beautiful, safe place, then, after clearing my mind, I ask my question and wait. When a thought, feeling or image shows up, even an unlikeable one, I don’t reject it. I just let it come, and without forcing the issue, I wait to see what happens. If nothing does, I might ask my original question again, or any other that occurs to me.

When I feel ready, I take a moment to write down what has happened so far, then return to where I left off. I write conversations like dialogues in plays, describing who’s speaking after brief designations like “Me” and “Stranger,” or maybe just the initials “M” and “S” so the writing takes up as little time as possible. Then I return and continue until I feel a sense of closure. The whole process usually takes me about a half hour.

One word of caution: if you are particularly impressionable this might not be right for you: the powers of the collective unconscious can be overwhelming. As Jung warned, “The method is not entirely without danger, because it may carry the patient too far away from  reality.” But if you decide to try, I hope you’ll let me know how it went and what you learned!  Enjoy.

Jean Raffa’s The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Amazon. E-book versions are at KoboBarnes And Noble and Smashwords. Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications, Inc.

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0 Responses

  1. I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years now. It started with a small meditation class that was doing work based on Edwin Steinbrecher’s book “The Inner Guide Meditation.” Basically Edwin used AI in a semi-structured format that had an ‘inner guide’ element present for guidance/protection. Various experiences over the years have suggested this is probably the one criteria Jung lacked that would have made a big difference.
    My experiences with this have changed and grown and go through cycles of being completely different things. Sometimes I approach ‘archetypes’ intentionally (it took me over a dozen years before I took tarot/astrology archetypes seriously), and in my world an archetype is _any_ collection of energy and my relationship with it. But now that I’m on my 4th Inner Guide, it’s gradually gotten to the point where I just let her drive (all the others were male. Bizarrely, Steinbrecher reported that the 4th were female for everyone he’d had reports on it from or worked with on it).
    I’m a rather left-brain former major-skeptic so it’s taken half my life to get to the point of true “fluency” with this work and even still I often can’t hear or see many elements or beings I talk to, and I think every time I’m introduced to a truly new energy I just pass out. I’ve had a number of tarot meditations that were so difficult they took me weeks or months and literally working with my brain to reprogram so instead of switching ‘off’ like a neural light switch, something else would happen and I could return to it.
    Eventually this work is a lot closer to some of the more serious south american shamanic style work, than it is to the “gentle psychology” that a lot of people perceive it as. Kind of like how some people use hypnosis for pretty fundamental NLP sorts of reprogramming while others use it as a relaxation exercise, there are some totally different experiences based on the same root dynamic, but having the same name for both of them is a little misleading. Like most things, all this stuff is based on faculties that have to be developed over time in a person. I couldn’t do any of what I do now, in the past. I would have read such things and considered them just sheer imagination. Learning to “ride the center rail” as I think of it, to truly let the inner world be autonomous to the degree possible — let alone gradually in a more beta state than how I began doing this work–took decades.
    Sometimes it’s very archetypal. Sometimes it’s just ‘another world’ Sometimes it’s other aspects of self, other seeming entities, whatever. It’s all in my head and it’s taken most of my life to learn to “allow” all that. Sometimes I get great personal growth and sometimes I don’t know what I’m getting out of it, but later on, I realize I’ve learned a lot from experience. Sometimes it’s brutal and ugly, or body-based, and sometimes it’s more fantasy. There isn’t really any one ‘thing’ it ‘is’. Jung really only had the very toe-dipping start of it frankly although a very powerful, excellent start. I have a post reviewing the intro to The Red Book related to my own perspective on my blog.
    Thanks for the post, it was interesting. I have an alert on ‘archetype meditation’ is how I found your blog initially.

    1. I’m very glad you found my blog. Your explanation of your process is a very valuable contribution to this discussion! Thanks so much for taking the time to write about it!
      I haven’t pursued active imagination nearly to the extent you have. I’ve focused on dreamwork and always found the left-brained writing part so much ‘easier’ than the right-brained visual part, so this is how I conduct most of my inner work. You’ve inspired me to broaden my approach to the unconscious. Thank you.

  2. Jeanie,
    Your post today was a large dose of synchronicity. I am giving a talk at noon about the writing of a historical novel I have just completed. This was my first attempt at fiction and required a great deal of active imagination on my part.
    I start my talk with a mention of the Alternative Future workshops I led over thirty years ago. Alternative Futures is a process developed by the Rand Corporation that activates the creative imagination of every participant in the workshop by having each individual visualize, by themselves, an accomplishment ten years hence with absolutely no concern of how it happened. The two-day process then leads everyone through a process of grounding their “dream” and creating strategies to accomplish it.
    In preparing my talk I realized how my involvement with that process so long ago, gave me a way to activate and trust my imagination; or better said (now having read today’s post) tap into and trust my unconscious.
    Before your post today I had not realized that the Alternative Futures workshops were actually tapping into, activating, our unconscious minds. We were following Jung’s lead even before I had begun to read his work.
    Thanks again for Matrignosis and your wisdom,

    1. Hi Sally,
      Your experience with the Alternative Future workshops sounds fascinating and very valuable. I wonder if the Rand Corporation knew about Jung’s work with active imagination when they created this program. Even if they didn’t, I can see how anyone’s experience with it would draw them to Jungian psychology and his respect for the power of imagination and the unconscious. It’s very real, isn’t it?
      Congratulations on finishing your newest book! I wish you the best of luck with it. Can you let me know the title and where I can purchase it when the time comes? I hope your talk goes well!

  3. This is how some of my best stories happen; I simply sink into an image and let it guide me until a story unfolds. Usually I wrap it up with my analytical mind, but the strongest parts come from simply observing where the scenery or characters take me.

    1. How very cool that you found the value of this process on your own! When it comes down to it, aren’t we really our own best guides? All we have to do to activate our creativity is trust our natural interests and follow them where they lead. What kinds of stories do you write? Thank you for stopping by and commenting. Your method is certainly another valuable form of active imagination.

      1. I suppose fantasy fiction would be the usual description. You can find in on my blog here, on wordpress, under my penname Kalo Andari. There is also a very recent dream of mine there and if you’d care to comment, I’d be very grateful since I am wondering a lot what it might be all about. (I have some ideas, of course, but they are rather gloomy.)

  4. Thank you for your beautiful and straight-forward description of Active Imagination. I’ve relied on this practice for many years and will add your suggestion to “light a candle to signify to my unconscious that I am setting aside a sacred time to listen to it…” Like many others, I spend hours writing and working at my computer. Using my favorite pen and notebook for Active Imagination helps me drop out of my head and into my heart and body.
    Your posts are a continuing gift and inspire me to continue on with my own writing.
    Thank you,
    Elaine at

    1. Hi Elaine, I love your idea of using your favorite pen and notebook as another message to your unconscious that you’re ready to switch modes! I’ll have to try that. Thanks for the kind words! Jeanie

  5. Hi, Jean. I found you through our mutual Twitter friend Tina. I too try to invite the unconscious mind into my memoir writing work by meditating and journaling before a writing session. I am amazed at how often my inspirational reading during this same time is an example of synchronicity. I wonder what I can do to go even deeper. I will reread this post! Do you have any specific comment on writing memoir rather than fiction or poetry?

    1. Hi Shirley, I’m so glad you found me here. My first two psychological books were a mixture of memoir and Jungian theory. Much of the material for Bridge to Wholeness came from active imagination and dreams and all the material for Dream Theatres of the Soul came from dreams. I found that the more intentionally I explored my unconscious in writing, the more material it gave me. For example, I’d go to bed with the current chapter I was writing on my mind and I’d wake up remembering a dream which, upon close inspection, turned out to have a marvelous insight that applied directly to what I was writing about — something I would never have thought to address otherwise, which added considerably to the narrative. And yes, whatever I was reading at the time (usually books about Jungian psychology!) always provided valuable material too. So my only suggestion would be to stay especially close to your dreams when you’re writing memoirs: record them, examine your associations to the symbols, and let them speak to you, and then conduct active imaginations with their most puzzling or intriguing aspects.
      My best wishes for your writing,

  6. Thank you Jeanie for writing so clearly about this. I began practising it about a month ago, after reading Robert Johnson’s “Inner Work”. One of the first things I noticed is how easy the process is, and how natural it feels. I remember doing it quite naturally as a child and it feels good to return to that marvelous place of trusting your own deeper self.

    1. Love Johnson’s “Inner Work”. It was an early formative book for me. It is easy, isn’t it? And so personally meaningful! Everything to do with self-discovery, especially my writing (which is how I express my creativity), has always come so much easier to me than everything else I do. You’ve described it well: it is like a return to my natural, effortless childlike state of trust. And the best part is that more and more, this state of being permeates into other areas of my life that I used to find difficult! Thanks for writing.

  7. I just began using active imagination a few months ago and have found it so helpful to communicate with some of my dream images in this way. It has brought me a whole new layer of understanding about some of the many parts of me. I also highly recommend Robert A. Johnson’s “Inner Work.” It provides a terrific overview of and step-by-step process for active imagination — including descriptions of what he calls the three basic levels of active imagination: horse-trading, embracing the unconscious and experiencing the spiritual dimension. In horse-trading, we communicate and negotiate with some part of ourselves that is putting us in conflict with our day-to-day lives. When we embrace the unconscious, we bring the unknown parts of ourselves into consciousness and make “peace with them.” When we are blessed to experience the spiritual dimension, Johnson says, “One sees, for a brief time, a glimpse of the true unity, beauty, and meaning of life.”

    1. Thanks for that wonderful information, Sarah! I read “Inner Work” early on in my Jungian studies and highly recommend it as well! It was the inspiration for my active imagination too, but I didn’t remember anything about the three levels. I’ll have to go back to my copy and re-read that section to connect more of the dots to my own experience. He’s such a gifted writer.
      Thank you also for your comment! I appreciate it.
      My best, Jeanie

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  9. Thanks for this post. I was searching on the topic of active imagination and found your excellent blog. I found your post on “The Light Shadow” useful and interesting too. Anything that slows my Internet browsing and causes me to reflect for a while is pretty special I feel. My practice in active imagination has morphed over the years into an inner collaboration of musical expression. I love what Jung had to say about music – “It expresses in sound what fantasies and visions express in visual images…music represents the movement, development and transformation of motifs of the collective unconscious”. I have found my imagination has been most stimulated by sound and music. The fantasies that emerge inhabit a strange and original sonic space that I can walk around in and explore. I help deliver the sound track for my explorations and the inhabitants I encounter feel very real to me. I share these sonic explorations in the “real world” freely too.
    Speaking for myself I can say the process of active imagination has been intense. Some of the Shadow material stirred up has been more than I can handle alone. Luckily, I found a great therapist to help me with the process. These days I see my therapist occasionally as a backup. Anyone who responds easily to fantasy and may feel they have a thinner “membrane” between this world and the next, might find a good therapist to consult with before taking on a serious practice in active imagination. Stable, grounded circumstances and steady friends and family can be really helpful. It can be a deeply transformative process but sometimes just as confronting as a psychedelic trip!

    1. You’re welcome. I’m glad you found my blog. Your experiences with active imagination and music sound marvelous and fruitful and I appreciate your sharing them. Although I’m highly responsive to music, for me it doesn’t elicit imaginative fantasies, but just a sort of peaceful, passive, wordless state of diffuse awareness and appreciation. However, my dream images can easily trigger my imagination. I guess we all have our own unique places where the membrane is thinner. You’re lucky and wise to have found a good therapist to help you with this. Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

    1. I think because of the possibility of projecting the person’s words and behavior in the active imagination session onto the real person in waking life, and then reacting to him/her as if he actually did or said those things. For example, you dream your husband/wife said or did something mean and then you wake up mad at him/her as if s/he had really done it. I heard something similar to that from Robert Johnson when he was talking about not taking the words or actions of someone you know who appears in a dream literally. In other words, just because someone you know appears in a in a certain way doesn’t mean he or she is that way in waking life. The person is in your dream because that image and what it represents to you can show you something about yourself. I hope that helps.

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