According to Jung, the best way to access unconscious material is by engaging in a process called active imagination. In this article I will discussing active imagination and the ‘play’ instinct and how an individual can engage in this practice.
Jung’s interest in the process of active imagination began in 1913 when he began the production of his Black Books. At this time, he was unaware of what he was engaging in; it was only until later while researching alchemy that he began to understand the relevance of his earlier project. The physician and Jungian analyst, Lance Owens describes how “through a concentrated engagement with imagination, fantasy and vision,” Jung had “gained entry into the autonomous realm of nature” (Owens, 2017, p. 105). Likewise, Shamdasani suggests:
The task of individuation lay in establishing a dialogue with the fantasy figures – or the collective unconscious and integrating them into consciousness, hence recovering the value of mythopoeic imagination which had been lost to the modern age, and thereby reconciling the spirit of the time with the spirit of the depths (Jung 2009, para 209).
The Jungian Analyst Marie-Louis Von Franz describes this same process as “talking to our personified complexes and trying in our imagination and fantasies to personify certain (aspects) of our complexes and have it out with them” (Franz 1979, 22). As there is an archetypal core to every complex, you can potential engage with universal and archetypal imagery with this practice. It is important to note that this experiment cannot be taken lightly and is difficult to achieve.
Jung states that every good idea and creative work owes its origination from the imagination and fantasy, with ‘play’ acting as the dynamic principle. Mathews describes how Jung regarded this impulse to play “as a key instinct, ranked alongside sex and nutrition” (Matthews 2015, 126). Through play an individual disregards directed and critical thinking and, instead reacts to the impulses and images streaming in from the unconscious. Jung himself writes:
The dynamic principle of fantasy is play, a characteristic also of the child, and as such it appears inconsistent with the principles of serious work. But without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to play of the imagination is incalculable (Jung 1921, 93).
According to Jung engaging with play and imagination in their raw states possess no viable worth, and instead needs to be developed a stage further. This is acknowledged by the differentiation between active and passive fantasy. The latter refers to low tension fantasies, whereas the former describes high tension fantasies. Jung considered high tension fantasies as “one of the highest forms of psychic activity” he continues:
For here the conscious and the unconscious personality of the subject flow together into a common product in which both are united. Such a fantasy can be the highest expression of the unity of man’s individuality, and may even create that individuality by giving perfect expression to its unity (Jung 1921, para. 714).
Active imagination is a high-tension fantasy play which is used as a “method of assimilating unconscious contents through some form of self-reflection” (Sharp, 1991, p. 12). Jung describes how this method exists spontaneously by nature herself or can be taught to a patient by an analyst. Jung’s technique for inducing spontaneous fantasies consisted of methodical exercises for the elimination of critical attention and negative judgments. Once this was achieved, you are advised to concentrate on a specific mood and attempt to become conscious of the fantasies and association that arose in connection with it. This fantasy free play then, hopefully led to bringing a symbolic expression of mood to consciousness, making it more understandable.
Jung describes the process of active imagination in two stages. The first stage is like dreaming with your eyes open; you can begin by either focusing on a dream or fantasy image or, by concentrating on a bad mood and associating visual imagery with it. When an image has been chosen, an individual needs to fix this image in their mind and focus their attention. Jung instructs:
Usually it will alter, as the mere fact of contemplating it animates it. The alterations must be carefully noted down all the time, for they reflect the psychic processes in the unconscious background, which appear in the form of images consisting of conscious memory material. In this way conscious and unconscious are united, just as a waterfall connects above and below (Jung 1955, para. 706).
The second stage moves beyond simply observing the images and requires the individual to consciously participate. Jung describes, “although, to a certain extent, he looks on from the outside, impartially, he is also an acting and suffering figure in the drama of the psyche. This recognition is absolutely necessary and marks an important advance” (Jung 1955, para. 753). Jung states that it is a psychic fact that this fantasy is happening, and you must recognize your involvement by entering it as if you were one of the fantasy figures.
Jung discusses four possible results when engaging with active imagination: the subject cannot get passed Freud’s ‘free association’ and gets caught in a circle of his own complexes; the subject has a purely aesthetic interest and remains stuck in a sequence of theatrical images; the subliminal contents in the subject’s psyche overpowers the conscious mind and takes control of the personality, potentially triggering a descent into madness or, an individual successfully produces the transcendent function.
For the process of active imagination to be successful the subject needs to concentrate on both aesthetic formulation and understanding the meaning. Jung describes how when the subject focuses too much attention on the aesthetic formulation “a kind of condensation of motifs into a more or less stereotyped symbol takes place” (Jung 1960, para. 173). Whereas, when the focus is placed chiefly on understanding the content it is subjected to intellectual analysis and interpretation which essentially diminishes the value of the symbolic content.
For this practice, it is essential that the ego and the unconscious are treated equally, Jung advises “the ego takes the lead, but the unconscious must be allowed to have its say too” (Jung1960, para. 185). Jung states that this is an important warning, for just as the conscious mind of civilized man has a restricting effect on the unconscious, the rediscovered unconscious can also have a dangerous effect on the ego.
Franz, M. V. (1979). Alchemical Active Imagination. Colorado: Shambhala Publications, Inc. (2d. edition 1997).
Jung, C. (1950). The Symbolic Life (CW 18). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Jung, C. (1954). Spirit in Man, Art & Literature. U.K: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Jung, C. (1955). Mysterium Coniunctionis. New York: Bollingen Foundation.
Jung, C. (1960). Structure & Dynamics of the Psyche. New York: Bollingen Foundation.
Jung, C. G. (1921). Psychological Types. New York: Bollingen Foundation.
Jung, C. G. (2009). The Red Book: Liber Novus (S. Shamdasani, Ed.). NY: WW Norton & Co.
Matthews, R. (2015). An Analytical Psychology View on Wholeness. International Journal of Jungian Studies Vol.7, 124-138.
Sharp, D. (1991). C.G Jung Lexicon: A primer of Terms of Concepts . Canada: Inner City Books.