Jung on Active Imagination: key readings selected by Joan Chodorow

Jung on Active Imagination: key readings selected by Joan Chodorow

41HC3KRCM9L._SL500_AA300_Book review by Tasha Tollman

Joan Chodorow, dance therapist, analyst and analyst member of the C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco combed through volumes of Jung’s writings and lectures to bring us this collection of Jung’s writings on Active Imagination. Fascinating for me was the insight into the many different names Jung used for this process – transcendent function, picture method, active fantasy, active phantasying, trancing, visioning, exercises, dialectical method, technique of differentiation, technique of introversion, introspection and technique of the descent – before settling on the term Active Imagination.

Chodorow introduces the topic, beginning with Jung’s ‘Confrontation with the Unconscious’, following his break with Freud in 1912/1913.  During this period Jung entered a period of disorientation and intense inner turmoil:

“He suffered from lethargy and fears; his moods threatened to overwhelm him.  He had to find a way, a method to heal himself from within. Since he didn’t know what to do, he decided to engage with the impulses and images of the unconscious.” (p.1)

Jung’s first recorded active imagination began as he was sitting at his desk, thinking over his fears when …

“… he made the conscious decision to ‘drop down’ into the depths.  He landed on his feet and began to explore the strange inner landscape where he met the first of a long series of inner figures.  These fantasies seemed to personify his fears and other powerful emotions.  Over time, he realized that when he managed to translate his emotions into images, he was inwardly calmed and reassured.  He came to see that his task was to find the images that are concealed in the emotions.” (p.2)

Active imagination is based on the natural healing function of the imagination and Jung’s discovery that the unconscious desires to be known – to be seen, heard and experienced and that by engaging actively with the unconscious he could marry his inner and outer worlds, thus leading to a feeling of calmness, insight, energy, passion and meaning.

 “The great joy of play, fantasy and imagination is that for a time we are utterly spontaneous, free to imagine anything.  In such a state of pure being, no thought is ‘unthinkable’. Nothing is ‘unimaginable.’ That is why play and the imagination tend to put us in touch with material that is ordinarily repressed.” (p.5)

Jung’s confrontation with the unconscious was driven by inner necessity:

“He (Jung) came to see that his task was to find the images that are concealed in the emotions. He continued his experiments, trying out different ways to enter into his fantasies voluntarily: sometimes he imagined climbing down a steep descent; other time he imagined digging a hole, one shovel-full of dirt at a time.  With each descent, he explored the landscape and got better acquainted with the inner figures.  He used a number of expressive techniques (mainly writing, drawing, painting) to give symbolic form to his experience.” (p.2)

During these experiments Jung encountered an array of interesting internal characters such as Elijah, Salome and Philemon:  

“When he realized that his experiment in self-healing was successful, he began to teach the method to some of his patients.” (p.4)


“Many fundamental concepts of Jung’s analytical psychology come from his experiences with active imagination.  For example, the Shadow, the Syzygy (Anima and Animus), the Persona, the Ego, and the Self are concepts, but they are at the same time personifications of different structures and functions of the psyche.  Affect, archetype, complex, libido – all of these terms are based on real, human experiences.” (p.3)

In the introduction, Chodorow also discusses the stages of active imagination, dangers of active imagination and the role of the analyst.

Subsequent chapters present Jung’s writings and included Confrontation with the Unconscious from Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1961);The Transcendent Function from The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche (1916/58); The Technique of Differentiation between the Ego and the Figures of the Unconscious from the relations between the ego and the unconscious, in Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (1928); Commentary of The Secret of the Golden Flower, excerpt from Alchemical Studies (1929);  The aims of psychotherapy from The Practice of Psychotherapy (1931);A study in the process of individuation, excerpts from The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (1933/50); The Travistock lectures, excerpts from The Symbolic Life (1935);  The psychological aspects of the Kore, excerpt from The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (1940); On the nature of the psyche, excerpt from The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche (1947); Three letters to Mr O., from Letters vol.1 (1947); Mysterium Coniunctionis, excerpts from CW 14 (1955); Foreword to van Helsdingen: Beelden uit het Onbewuste from The Symbolic Life (CW18).

This book is a treasure trove of Jung’s thoughts and ideas around Active Imagination and I found myself delighting in numerous new insights and discoveries. For example, I found the story of the patient who couldn’t grasp what active imagination was, until one day he found himself looking at a travel poster of a railway station and found himself fantasying about the poster, imagining walking into the poster and that he could walk up the hill and see what was on the other side, highly illuminating. (p.143 & 144)

As with so many of his ideas, Jung’s work on active imagination, led to the development in the therapeutic mainstream of all the creative art psychotherapies – art, dance, music, drama, poetry and so being able to access Jung’s ideas on active imagination in one central point is invaluable.

However for the reader who is unfamiliar with Jungian thought or who has not had any exposure to the practical application of Active Imagination, this collection can be tough going and I would recommend they begin with Inner Work, Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth by Robert A Johnson.

You can find this book at Routledge

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Comments (2)

  • Rick Martinez Reply

    I came to the United States from a nation where there are gross human rights violations. Years later, during a life crisis I practiced the active imagination technique, as back home it had been taught to me by a Jungian analyst. The images that came to my conscious awareness were shocking: memories of real-life abductions of which I had had only fragmentary memories because, after some research I found out, were carried after I was surreptitiously sprayed with some sort of an atomized, odorless substance, as things are done in that nation; a nation not worth mentioning here. No conscious recollection of these abductions mean no accessibility to long-term memories about it, which lay deep in my unconscious mind. A traumatic past that Jung’s technique helped me unbury, to my great relief as a victim and a survivor of gross human rights violations.

    January 25, 2018 at 7:45 pm
  • Hadley Silvester Reply

    Carl Jung inspired me when I was young and motivated me to believe in the power of my own imagination.From the age of 14 I struggled for 19 years with massive depression but always valued the search for my own truth. Now at 68 I see active imagination as a capacity I have developed to help others and make wise decisions.Are there others out there with this experience

    July 8, 2018 at 2:29 pm

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