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.