Active Imagination: The Bridge to the Unconscious

Active Imagination: The Bridge to the Unconscious

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Between the universe that can be apprehended by pure intellectual perception and the universe perceptible to the senses, there is an intermediate world, the world of Idea-Images, of archetypal figures, of subtle substances, of “immaterial matter”. This world is as real and objective, as consistent and subsistent as the intelligible and sensible worlds; it is an intermediate universe ‘where the spiritual takes body and the body becomes spiritual,’ a world consisting of real matter and real extension, though by comparison to sensible, corruptible matter these are subtle and immaterial. The organ of this universe is the active Imagination; it is the place of theophanic visions, the scene on which visionary events and symbolic histories appear in their true reality (Henry Corbin).

This is the world we journey through every night in our dreams. The multitude of images and stories we experience have their own unique reality. We are said to “fall asleep.” We do, indeed, fall; rather we plunge into a world of depth and mystery. Most people just dismiss this as something we ate the previous day, or some other reductionist retort.

We in the West are trapped in materialism and, therefore, cannot accept the Imaginal. We can’t seem to bridge the yawning chasm Descartes placed between mind and body. We’ve been conditioned by several hundred years of rationalistic and materialistic thinking, to neglect the awesome forces within us.

On the other hand, this situation is changing dramatically. More and more people are awakening to the fact that we are more than simply biological automatons living in a world of dead matter. Even scientists are waking up. For example, biochemist Rupert Sheldrake has integrated Jungian ideas into his theories. Sheldrake mentions Jung in this quotation:

specific morphogenetic fields (consider Jung’s ‘archetypes’, Plato’s ‘Ideas’, or the astrological signs and planets as further examples of morphogenic fields ) are responsible for the characteristic form and organization of systems at all levels of complexity, not only in the realm of biology, but also in the realms of chemistry and physics. These fields order the systems with which they are associated by affecting events which, from an energetic point of view, appear to be indeterminate or probabilistic; they impose patterned restrictions on the energetically possible outcomes of physical processes. If morphogenetic fields are responsible for the organization and form of material systems, they must themselves have characteristic structures. …the structures of past systems affect subsequent similar systems by a cumulative influence which acts across both space and time (qtd. at

Henry Corbin, among others, has already told us how to cross the abyss and move into this amazing world of Imagination.

Corbin is saying that if you know how to use your imaginative faculty, you can reliably reach the Imaginal Realm. He called this faculty “active imagination,” the same term Jung used to describe his method of accessing the psychoid realm of the archetypes. Unfortunately, our culture is largely clueless about how an imaginative faculty works. Like other unused things, our active imaginations have atrophied. When it comes to imaginative muscle, we’re couch potatoes (The Door To The Imaginal, by Mary Pat Mann).

 In the following passage, Jung discusses the technique that he rediscovered (it was used by the ancients to gain spiritual insight):

It is therefore with the greatest hesita­tion that I make the attempt to illustrate from case-histories. The material I shall use comes partly from normal, partly from slightly neurotic, persons. It is part dream, part vision, or dream mixed with vision. These “visions” are far from being hallucina­tions or ecstatic states; they are spontaneous, visual images of fantasy or so-called active imagination. The latter is a method (devised by myself) of introspection for observing the stream of interior images. One concentrates one’s attention on some impressive but unintelligible dream image, or on a spontane­ous visual impression, and observes the changes taking place in it. Meanwhile, of course, all criticism must be suspended and the happenings observed and noted with absolute objectivity. Obviously, too, the objection that the whole thing is “arbitrary” or “thought up” must be set aside, since it springs from the anxiety of an ego-consciousness which brooks no master besides itself in its own house. In other words, it is the inhibition exerted by the conscious mind on the unconscious.

Under these conditions, long and often very dramatic series of fantasies ensue. The advantage of this method is that it brings a mass of unconscious material to light. Drawing, painting, and modelling can be used to the same end. Once a visual series has become dramatic, it can easily pass over into the auditive or linguistic sphere and give rise to dialogues and the like. With slightly pathological individuals, and particularly in the not in­frequent cases of latent schizophrenia, the method may, in cer­tain circumstances, prove to be rather dangerous and therefore requires medical control. It is based on a deliberate weakening of the conscious mind and its inhibiting effect, which either limits or suppresses the unconscious. The aim of the method is naturally therapeutic in the first place, while in the second it also furnishes rich empirical material. Some of our examples are taken from this. They differ from dreams only by reason of their better form, which comes from the fact that the contents were perceived not by a dreaming but by a waking consciousness (CW Vol. 9i, p 190).

Active imagination is the bridge that allows us to pass into another world. It is a practical means of dredging unconscious knowledge from the vast ocean of the unconscious.

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6 thoughts on “Active Imagination: The Bridge to the Unconscious

  1. I believe the majority of contemporary man to be in the dark about this issues, he has lost the ability to connect with his inner Heart, due to the onslaught of rationalism, and materialism who has displaced the eternal values, and treasures that await within our heart to be discovered,

    My hope it is that every human being carry within himself this bridge, and that maybe one day, he will be able to conjure the “open Sesame” that will open the gate

    In the meantime keep the good work helping people to find their inner realms.

  2. Good stuff. I discovered the area of active imagination through art therapy and since then it’s just opened up my ideas of what humans are capable of … and how shut down we’ve become in this flatpacked culture. When I find myself loathing humanity (not hard to do) I remind myself that they are not only potential Buddhas but also of the rooms and rooms inside each person that are full of treasure, if I could see them.

    Active imagination is quite scary at times. If you are hanging onto the idea that you are “this, and this only” it can be disconcerting to realise just what a cast of thousands there is inside one person, with no mental illness in sight 🙂

    Sue (Liminal_ on Twitter)

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