I was recently gifted Jungian analyst Robert Johnson’s book, Inner Work.
In those pages was an idea and practice I had never heard of before, despite have consuming a fair bit of Carl Jung’s work, called Active Imagination.
If dreamwork is watching a movie, then Active Imagination is putting on a virtual reality headset and being immersed in the story in realtime.
In dreamwork, you’re being shown things and spoken to.
In Active Imagination, you’re an equal participant and it’s 100% interactive.
Still though, all the content is sourced from your sliver of the collective unconscious.
I’m brand new to this practice of Active Imagination, but I’m already convinced that it is one of the most powerful ways to grow.
Active Imagination is an inner exploration pathway and tool that’s free, lightweight, and impossible to forget.
Johnson describes it as the ability to “go into his fantasy or vision, participate consciously in it, and make it into an active exchange between the conscious and unconscious energy systems.”
Pretty cool, right?
Who wouldn’t want to access this within themselves and make use of it.
Fundamentally, the imagination (like dreams) speaks in symbols and these symbolize parts of ourselves that lie deep within.
Jung brought the idea of dreamwork and its importance to the world, but he deemed Active Imagination as a an even more effective way to connect to the unconscious because of the exclusive ability to consciously interact and play a part.
Johnson says that “when Active Imagination is done correctly, it pulls the different parts of you together that have been fragmented or in conflict; it wakens you powerfully to the voices inside you; and it brings about peace and cooperation between the warring ego and unconscious.”
When you learn to communicate with your inner self in this way, your psyche will change.
You’ll gain insight into the vast scale and magnitude of the realm within you, all the while making you more aware and whole.
Using Active Imagination to take some cloudy, undefined part of your unconscious and turn it into a character you can interact with is the best way to do it.
Otherwise, this cluster of energy, feelings, and depth will be lost to you and be difficult to resolve or learn from.
Johnson gives us some questions we can be asking as we enter into our imagination:
If you sit with these questions long enough, proposed to your imagination, you’ll at some point see images appear for you to interact with.
IT’S CRAZY (and cool).
And just in case you think you may be just ‘imagining things’ or making things up, Johnson goes on to advise, “…it is nearly impossible to produce anything in the imagination that is not an authentic representation of something in the unconscious.”
If you really stop to think about, how could this not be true? Everything in your imagination has to have come from somewhere, right? It must have been living in you somewhere.
So it’s best to skip over the question of authentic or not, and jump straight into what you ought to do with what you see in there.
The whole point, after all, is to have a dialogue with the different personalities and characters that make you who you are ( remember you’re a Gaggle of selves ).
Look deep enough and you’ll realize it is the most accurate reflection of your inner life.
It’s an experience. One that can take you through the great archetypal stories with you as the main character.
It’s a great way to live out heroic tales and play on the intersection of your own psyche and the collective unconscious.
As silly as it may initially sound to do all of this, Johnson says, “Something specific and real is healed, deep inside, in response to a symbolic act of this quality.”
Active Imagination produces true change to your character, the energy balance, and ultimately your fate.
You can get lost in there.
Johnson advises us to be careful and have clear boundaries between Active Imagination and your everyday life.
You want to have clean cutoffs between the two and not have Active Imagination interrupting and distracting you while doing your typical day to day.
It helps to have someone else in your life who at least somewhat understands what you’re doing with Active Imagination so they can keep you grounded if need be.
The other important distinction to keep in mind is Active Imagination is not the same as passive fantasy.
Key word passive. Fantasy can go on and on forever in a number of directions without your involvement.
It’s a waste of time and to be avoided.
Other than that, I highly encourage you to give Active Imagination a whirl.
From the handful of sessions I’ve had with it, I was blown away by the effectiveness and depths of insight.
Now let’s jump into the basics of how to use Active Imagination.
You will want to pick out a nice quiet place to do it.
Wherever you’d meditate, that’s where you’ll use Active Imagination.
Away from people and distractions, somewhere you can really go inward with minimal friction.
It helps to document the experience as it’s happening.
Johnson says the easiest thing we can do here is just put the words of the characters within your Active Imagination in ALL CAPS and put your own questions and responses in lowercase.
This way, you can type or handwrite fairly quickly and keep up with what’s happening, yet still distinguish between the characters and yourself when you reflect on it later.
Oh, and write honestly. Don’t worry about other people reading it because they shouldn’t anyway. If you fear embarrassment, you’ll only be shortchanging yourself and this process.
The point of all of this is to seek out the different parts of yourself that have concerns, issues, and insights and bring it all back to some sort of harmony and resolution.
Johnson puts it simply: “We direct our inner eye to a place inside us, then we wait to see who will show up…Go to a place, describe it vividly and in detail so as to get yourself anchored there, and then see whom you encounter.”
The goal here isn’t to live out some grand Lord of the Rings type of adventure. Just do something honest and start with where you’re at.
Most of our imaginations get a bit dusty as adults anyway, so cut yourself some slack if it isn’t the most epic tale of all time. Your inner personalities may not be the most stoked to see you if you’ve spent years putting them off, so give it time & them time to warm up.
Again, what you’re calling in is going to be a representative of your own personal sliver of the collective unconscious that we all share.
An energetically connected aspect of you taking form as a character so that you may deal with it.
Carl Jung said, “It is exactly where you feel most frightened and most in pain that your greatest opportunity lies for personal growth.”
You definitely don’t have to start there, but it’s where we’ll all want this to lead eventually.
Some questions to prompt the imagination to get going, include:
Johnson then precautions us: “Once you have found the image and started the inner dialogue, you must relinquish control…you can’t dictate the focus of your imagination and you can’t push it in any particular direction.”
Once a character has shown up in your imagination, stick with him or her.
There are infinite distractions and possibilities, but it’s important to see the interaction through and aim for a conclusion.
Even I continue to dive into my imagination expecting some fortune cookie like resolution, but I don’t always get through the whole process that quickly. Usually, we will just have to keep coming back to it and picking up where we left off.
Johnson goes on to advise, “One must sense that it is real, that it is actually happening—even though it is inside rather than outside. If you are detached from it, or just feel that it is nothing but a fantasy you are watching from a safe distance, there is no real experience. If one is not really participating with the feeling side, it is not true Active Imagination.”
Whatever character you interact with in there, they are neither superior to you nor beneath you. You shouldn’t dish out orders and you shouldn’t be talked to that way either. Feel something, say something. The ego isn’t the enemy, but rather the capacity for consciousness. You’re not inherently bad or wrong, you just need to listen to deeper parts of you for more perspective.
And here’s a line from the Johnson’s book that I just adore:
“No one can tell you any longer the way, because there is no longer one prescribed way, but only a way—your way, which is as valid as any other as long as you live it honestly.”
The characters of the inner world aren’t human and don’t always share the same values as you.
So it’s important not to let one variation take full power or control, but instead be balanced out by your honest values and ethics.
If you bump into a part of you that wants to literally take over the world….maybe don’t.
None of these things or characters are 100% connected to the external. Just because you see a familiar face in there, does not mean it represents that person or should be addressed in the external. Use common sense.
It’s completely up to you as the human to have your ego hold it down regarding the values that make us uniquely human. Things like fairness, commitment, & justice.
Do everything you can to keep your thinking independent and clear, because no matter what insights and lessons you gain from Active Imagination, you still have to integrate it back into your life.
Now it’s time to take the lesson or insight and make it concrete, something of a ritual to honor it. Similar to integrating insights from dreamwork, you want to find a way to weave this into your 3D experience. And it doesn’t have to be drastic.
For example, I once had a powerful dream involving a polar bear and to ritualize that experience I simply held a piece of ice in each hand until they completely melted. Forever etching what that dream meant to me into my 3D life.
Johnson rounds us out with this fourth step, saying “To incarnate your imagination…does not mean to act out your fantasies in a literal way. It means, rather, to take the essence that you have distilled from it—the meaning, insight, or basic principle that you have derived from the experience—and incarnate it by doing physical ritual or by integrating it into your practical life.”
So that’s the gist of Active Imagination.
If you want to learn more, I highly encourage you check out Robert Johnson’s book, Inner Work .
I feel like I’ve just discovered one of the most powerful tools for personal growth ever and I’m thrilled to continue diving in and making this a practice in my life.
If you end up trying it and starting down this path, I would love to hear from you about how that’s going.
It’s always nice to bond with others who voyage inward.
Every day you can be learning a lesson or gaining insight. If you're like me, you'll be religious about getting these consistently. That's because I aim for a deep life full of treasures found.
Potential should never be traded for obedience. A dog's life looks very different than a wolf's, but as humans, we can get our lives mixed up. If we're lucky, with enough time and attention we can get it all straightened out.