Musings in the Olive Grove

Active Imagination: Encountering the World Within


Jung’s active imagination is a soul making practice which forms a bridge between our conscious and unconscious world. The object of this process is to engage in mindful participation with the images that appear from our imaginal reality. Those images that grab us and don’t let go, we think about them, they leave a resonance that we carry with us through the day, we wonder as to the reason for their appearance. They come to us through dreams, waking life, art, myth and archetype. What do they want?  What do they mean? Why engage with these images if they are only in our imagination?  They are just weird dreams, what would be the point?

It is not unusual for us to wonder about the benefit of this engagement and to ask these questions.  Our Western religious philosophy over time has severed us from our soul, spiritual authority, and right to approach the sacred free from external intermediaries. Active imagination is one way in which we can reclaim our sovereignty, take personal responsibility and approach the sacred to discover our own answers.   

When we enter the world of soul it is important to remember that it is just as real as our physical reality. The inhabitants we encounter have a life of their own and develop according to their own intelligence. We must respect this reality and the autonomy of the image. According to Jung “it is exactly as if a dialogue were taking place between two humans with equal rights.” 

The more we engage with the imaginal world the clearer it becomes that indeed its inhabitants are real and independent thinkers.  They respond to us with their own views, experiences, feelings and will.  It is through regular communication with them that we begin to form relationships, as we do in our physical world. They become living guides and our connection with the sacred.

The process of active imagination is different to guided visualisation approaches.  The aim is to allow the image to come to you, open yourself up to it with all your senses and dialogue with it.   

In the words of Jung, “The intent should not be to control the image but to observe the changes that will arise from spontaneous associations. You yourself must enter into the process with your personal reactions…as if the drama being enacted before your eyes were real.”

 My version of the active imagination process is as follows: 

  1. Find a place where you will not be disturbed and enter a relaxed state of consciousness.  Focus on your breathing and ensure that your outbreath is prolonged, because this aids in the relaxation process.  This state of consciousness feels like 80% of your attention is in the imaginal realms with 20% alert to your physical surroundings. You are feeling relaxed and aware. 
  2. Let your mind go to a place in nature which you have experienced in the physical world and where you feel safe. When you have found this place, sit for a moment quietly remembering as much about it as you can.  Activate all your senses and immerse yourself in this beautiful and serene environment.  
  3. Now wait for something to move, for an image to present itself to you. Inspect this image, allow it to speak first and then respond gradually developing a relationship with it. If it moves, follow it, spend time together. 
  4. If there is a specific image that you would like to work with? For example, a dream symbol.  Then follow steps 1 & 2 and wait for this image to join you and enter into dialogue with it.
  5. Trust what you receive.  Don’t analyse and second guess.  Be fully in the process.
  6. The guidance you receive may not be solely through verbal dialogue.  By activating all of your senses you open yourself up to listening, observing actions and emotional responses.  All of this information requires subsequent reflection.
  7. When the encounter has come to an end, give thanks and come back to the here and now.  
  8. These meetings are like dreams and if we don’t capture them in some way they leave us. Ground the process through writing your experience as it happened in first person. You may also wish to draw or paint, because this facilitates further dialogue. Talk to someone who shares a similar worldview or practice.  Take some action in the physical world on what you have learned from the process. Embody the work in some way. 
  9. Practice the process and see what happens.  There is no right or wrong here.  Active imagination is one of many ways in which we can connect with our inner world. Remember, you are creating your own soul praxis and discovering what works for you.

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