Active imagination is a cognitive methodology that uses the imagination as an organ of understanding.

Disciplines of active imagination are found within various philosophical, religious and spiritual traditions. It is perhaps best known in the West today through C. G. Jung’s emphasis on the therapeutic value of this activity.

European tradition

The theosophy of post-Renaissance Europe embraced imaginal cognition. From Jakob Böhme to Swedenborg, active imagination played a large role in theosophical works.

In this tradition, the active imagination serves as an “organ of the soul, thanks to which humanity can establish a cognitive and visionary relationship with an intermediate world“.

Coleridge distinguished imagination, which expresses the realities of an imaginal realm transcending any personal existence, and “fancy“, or fantasy, which expresses the creativity of the artistic soul. For him, “imagination is the condition for cognitive participation in a sacramental universe”.

C.S. Lewis considered that “reason is the organ of truth, but imagination is the organ of meaning”

Carl Gustav Jung

As developed by Carl Jung between 1913 and 1916, active imagination is a meditation technique wherein the contents of one’s unconscious are translated into images, narrative or personified as separate entities.

It can serve as a bridge between the conscious “ego” and the unconscious and includes working with dreams and the creative self via imagination or fantasy.

Jung linked active imagination with the processes of alchemy in that both strive for oneness and inter-relatedness from a set of fragmented and dissociated parts. This process found expression for Jung in his Red Book.

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”

Of the origin of active imagination, Jung wrote:

It was during the Advent of the year 1913 – December 12, to be exact – that I resolved upon the decisive step. I was sitting at my desk once more, thinking over my fears. Then I let myself drop. Suddenly it was as though the ground literally gave way beneath my feet, and I plunged into the dark depths.

Further explaining its origination, Jung describes his conclusion that active imagination spawns from the desires and fantasies of the unconscious mind, which ultimately want to become conscious.

But once they are realized by the individual, dreams may become “weaker and less frequent” whereas they may have been quite vivid and recurring beforehand.

Carl Jung developed this technique as one of several that would define his distinctive contribution to the practice of psychotherapy.

Active imagination is a method for visualizing unconscious issues by letting them act themselves out. An active imagination can be done by visualization (which is how Jung himself did it), which can be considered similar in technique at least to shamanic journeying.

An active imagination can also be done by automatic writing, or by artistic activities such as dance, music, painting, sculpting, ceramics, crafts, etc. Jung considered indeed that:

“The patient can make himself creatively independent through this method … by painting himself he gives shape to himself”.

Doing active imagination permits the thoughtforms of the unconscious, or inner “self“, and of the totality of the psyche, to act out whatever messages they are trying to communicate to the conscious mind.

For Jung however, this technique had the potential not only to allow communication between the conscious and unconscious aspects of the personal psyche with its various components and inter-dynamics but also between the personal and “collective” unconscious; and therefore was to be embarked upon with due care and attentiveness.

Indeed, he warned with respect to “‘active imagination’ … The method is not entirely without danger, because it may carry the patient too far away from reality“.

The post-Jungian Michael Fordham was to go further, suggesting that:

“active imagination, as a transitional phenomenon … can be, and often is, both in adults and children put to nefarious purposes and promotes psychopathology. This probably takes place when the mother’s impingements have distorted the ‘cultural’ elements in maturation and therefore it becomes necessary to analyze childhood and infancy if the distortion is to be shown up.”

In partial answer to this critique, James Hillman and Sonu Shamdasani discuss at length the dangers of viewing active imagination solely as an expression of personal content, and propose that the technique is most easily misunderstood and misdirected when applied to the strictly biographical, and never used to bridge the personal with the wider human heritage of the living and the dead.

Instead, they suggest, active imagination in Jung’s usage was an exposition of the unvoiced influences of the collective unconscious, shedding the terminology of psychology to work directly through mythic images:

SS: … In reflecting on himself, he does not come across at rock bottom his own personal biography, but it’s an attempt to uncover the quintessentially human. These dialogues are not dialogues with his past, as you’re indicating […] But with the weight of human history. […] And this task of discrimination is what he spent the rest of his life engaged in. Yes, in some sense what happened to him was wholly particular but, in the other sense, it was universally human and that generates his project of the comparative study of the individuation process.

Active imagination removes or highlights traits and characteristics that are often also present in a dream, and without a broader perspective, the person working with active imagination may start to see them as their own traits.

Thus in this continuing effort to stress the importance of what Maslow would come to call the transpersonal, much of Jung’s later work was conceived as a comparative historical study of the active imagination and the individuation process in various cultures and epochs, conceived as a normative pattern of human development and the basis of a general scientific psychology.

Rudolf Steiner

Rudolf Steiner suggested cultivating imaginative consciousness through meditative contemplations of texts, objects, or images.

The resulting imaginal cognition he believed to be an initial step on a path leading from rational consciousness toward ever-deeper spiritual experience.

The steps following Imagination he termed Inspiration and Intuition. In Inspiration, a meditant clears away all personal content, including even the consciously chosen content of a symbolic form, while maintaining the activity of imagination itself, and thus becomes able to perceive the imaginal realm from which this activity itself stems.

In the next step, Intuition, the meditant leverages the connection to the imaginal or angelic realm established via the cognitive imagination, while releasing the images mediated via this connection.

By ceasing the activity of imaginative consciousness while allowing one’s awareness to remain in contact with the archetypal realm, the possibility opens up for an awareness deeper than the imaginal to be conveyed to the open soul by the mediating agents of this realm.

Islamic tradition

The imaginal realm is known in Islamic philosophy as alam al-mithal, the imaginal world. According to Avicenna, the imagination mediated between, and thus unified, human reason and divine being.

This mediating quality manifested in two directions: on the one hand, reason, rising above itself, could attain to the level of active imagination, an activity shared with the lower divine beings.

On the other hand, in order to manifest the concrete forms of the world, divinity created a range of intermediate beings, the angelic co-creators of the universe.

According to philosophers of this tradition, the trained imagination can access a “nonspatial fabric” which mediates between the empirical/sensory and the cognititional/spiritual realms.

Through Averroes, mainstream Islamic philosophy lost its relationship to the active imagination. The Sufi movement, as exemplified by Ibn Arabi, continued to explore contemplative approaches to the imaginal realm.

Henry Corbin

Henry Corbin considered imaginal cognition to be a “purely spiritual faculty independent of the physical organism and thus surviving it“.

Islamic philosophy in general, and Avicenna and Corbin in particular distinguish sharply between the true imaginations that stem from the imaginal realm, and personal fantasies, which have an unreal character and are “imaginary” in the common sense of this word. Corbin termed the imagination which transcended fantasy imagination vera.

Corbin suggested that by developing our imaginal perception, we can go beyond mere symbolic representations of archetypes to the point where “new senses perceive directly the order of [supersensible] reality“.

To accomplish this passage from symbol to reality requires a “transmutation of the being and of the spirit” Corbin describes the imaginal realm as “a precise order of reality, corresponding to a precise mode of perception“, the “cognitive Imagination

He considered the imaginal realm to be identical with the realm of angels described in many religions, which manifests not only through imaginations but also in people’s vocation and destiny.

Corbin (1964) suggests that it is by developing this faculty of cognitive imagination that we can overcome the “divorce between thinking and being“.

More recently, the imaginal concept was further developed in Communication Sciences domain. Samuel Mateus (2013) suggested a close link between imaginary, society and publicity.

The “public imaginal” was named after the dynamic, symbolic and complex set of diverse and heterogeneous imaginaries that permeate societies.

Role in scientific and mathematical discovery

Hadamard (1954) and Châtelet (1991) suggest that imagination and conceptual experiment play central roles in mathematical creativity.

Important scientific discoveries have been made through imaginative cognition, such as Kekulé’s famous discovery of the carbon ring structure of benzene through a dream of a snake eating its tail.

Other examples include Archimedes, in his bathtub, imagining that his body is nothing but a gourd of water, and Einstein imagining himself to be a photon on a horizon of velocities.


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