I first came across Carl Jung’s “Active Imagination Meditation” while I was discussing different psychotherapy practices with some friends. One of them had been reading Jung’s Red Book and stumbled upon the technique. I’m glad they did because it is quite fascinating.
What first struck me about Active Imagination was how utterly unique it is. It’s a method for exploring the psyche based on dreams. If you’re a fan of the Swiss psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Carl Jung or you are simply looking for a new way to meditate, you really must try this. So let’s take a look. In this guide I’ll discuss how the method works, the instructions for it, and a guided meditation you can try at home.
About Active Imagination Technique
If we are to understand Active Imagination, we first need to know a little about Jungian Psychology, the psychological framework created by Carl Gustav Jung in the early 1900s. It’s a framework based predominantly around theories of the unconscious mind, archetypes (symbolic images representing the unconscious) and individuation (which is similar to self realization). Essentially by working with the archetypes and symbols of the unconscious main we can gain self realization. And this is precisely what Active Imagination is about: working with the unconscious mind to achieve a meaningful, purposeful, and fulfilling life.
Overview of Active Imagination
In Active Imagination we engage with the contents of the subconscious mind by focusing on mental imagery that has presented itself to us in our dreams. As we focus on these subconscious symbols we allow our unconscious to communicate with us. This bridges the conscious and the unconscious, which Jung said leads to a deeper understanding of ourselves.
You might notice that this is very different from regular meditation. Indeed, I love how unique Active Imagination is. Usually we meditate by consciously focusing the mind on the present moment with little if any involvement of the imagination. This is a shame because, as poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, imagination is the “condition for cognitive participation in a sacramental universe”, a view shared in Islamic philosophy in which a spiritual realm called Alam al-Mithal exists between the physical and spiritual worlds. By bringing imagination into our meditation we access a more spiritual state than we do by simply mindful breathing. You’ll notice this when you try the exercise below.
How To Do Active Imagination Meditation
- Before beginning, try to recall an image from your dreams. If you cannot remember an image from your dreams, choose any imagery that means something to you on a subconscious level.
- Sit comfortably or lie down with good posture. Close your eyes. Practice mindful breathing for a few minutes to relax.
- Bring to mind your dream image and focus on it lightly, so that you are concentrating on it but you’re not holding it too tightly. This is important because it will allow your imagination to develop.
- As you continue to focus on this image, allow the image to develop. You might start to see related images or to see a “movie in your mind”. Maybe you’ll hear sounds. Allow all of this to happen.
- Enter a dialogue with the characters and symbols in your scene. Ask questions and listen to responses as you would do in Third Eye Meditation.
- Slowly open your eyes.
- Create an arristic representation of your experience (this could be a story, painting, or any other artistic expression).
- Take a break.
- Later, reflect on the experience. You might find it helpful to create a journal of what you saw, your thoughts, and your emotional responses.
Possible Benefits of Active Imagination
There is little to no modern research on the method, and indeed much of Jung’s work has been characterized as pseudoscience (I mostly am creating this guide for educational purposes for those of us who are aficionados of meditation techniques as I am). However, I will speculate as to some of the possible benefits of active meditation technique.
Firstly, I do strongly believe that the method can help with self discovery. Are there quantifiable benefits of meditating on subconscious symbols? Well like most of Jung’s work there is no way to know for sure. But the simple fact that the method makes us get in touch with our subconscious and consider the meaning of our dreams, that by itself must surely encourage self discovery.
Also, it must surely be beneficial for the imagination by making us more mindful of it. And this can only be a good thing given the benefits of having a healthy imagination, such as improved problem solving skills and heightened creativity. Indeed this is one reason why I advocate for imagination exercises. However, there are arguable better meditations for creativity.
As for the therapeutic uses, well, in truth there is absolutely no way to know if this technique is beneficial or not. Some would argue that it helps us bring up repressed feelings and emotions and to release them, which is essential for healing. Others would say it’s pure pseudoscience.
I’ve always been a fan of Jung without necessarily believing much of his claims, which have been widely dismissed by the scientific community. Jung will always be an inspiration who made us dream about the “What Ifs” of psychology. And I think this meditation perfectly reflects that. What if bridging the gap between conscious and unconscious helps us release repressed thoughts and emotions? What if the imagination truly is the bridge over which the mind may access the spiritual realm? What if we can achieve self realization by meditating on images from our dreams? It all sounds so magical. But it is also completely unprovable. And as such, I’d say go ahead, try this technique, and draw your own conclusions. But for me I will consider it a fun alternative way to meditate rather than a serious tool for my mental health.
Giving Is Caring
Paul Harrison BSc is a qualified meditation teacher who believes in genuine, authentic meditation. He has more than 15 years experience in teaching meditation and mindfulness both to individuals and to corporations and is the author of four books on meditation. He has been featured in Psychology Today, Breathe Magazine, Healthline, Psych Central and Lion’s Roar.
Paul studied meditation in beautiful Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University.
Paul’s biggest inspirations include Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat Zinn, and Jack Kornfield.
“My goal is to provide the most authentic meditation sessions so you can harness the power of your own mind for personal transformation” – Paul Harrison