Active Imagination (Analytical Psychology)

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Active imagination in Carl Jung's analytical method of psychotherapy involves opening oneself to the unconscious and giving free rein to fantasy, while at the same time maintaining an active, attentive, conscious point of view. The process leads to a synthesis that contains both perspectives, but in a new and surprising way.

"The Transcendent Function" (1916b [1958]) is Jung's first paper about the method he later came to call active imagination. It has two parts or stages: Letting the unconscious come up and Coming to terms with the unconscious. He describes its starting points (mainly moods, images, bodily sensations); and some of its many expressive forms (painting, sculpting, drawing, writing, dancing, weaving, dramatic enactment, inner visions, inner dialogues). In this early essay he links his method to work with dreams and the therapeutic relationship. The term "transcendent function" encompasses both the method and its inborn dynamic function that unites opposite position in the psyche.

Jung discovered active imagination out of his own need for self-healing in a certain period of his life. It all began with symbolic play: "I had no choice but to. . .take up that child's life with his childish games" (Jung, 1962/1966, p. 174). He found that as long as he managed to translate his emotions into symbolic images, he was inwardly calmed and reassured. When he opened to the raw material of the unconscious, he did not identify with the affects and images, rather, he turned his curiosity toward the inner world of the imagination. This led to a deep process of renewal, as well as insights that gave him a new orientation. In the years that followed, he recommended it to many of his patients and students. He presents active imagination as an adjunctive technique, but by linking it to his symbolic method of dream interpretation and work with the analytic relationship, Jung laid the groundwork for a comprehensive method of psychotherapy.

Active imagination is a direct extension of Freud's free association (Jung, 1929, p. 47). Other related notions include the transcendent function; the natural healing function of play and imagination; Sandplay; active vs. passive attitudes toward fantasy; reductive and constructive ways to understand the unconscious content; creative formulation vs. understanding; liberation from the analyst (Chodorow, 1997).

Jungian analysts hold a wide range of views on active imagination (Samuels, 1985). For some it is a peripheral technique not much used anymore. For others it is the essence and goal of analysis.

Joan Chodorow

See also: Amplification (analytical psychology); Analytical psychology.


Chodorow, Joan. (1997). Introduction. Jung on active imagination (pp. 1-20). London: Routledge.

Jung, Carl Gustav. (1916b [1958]). The Transcendant Function. Coll. Works (Vol. VIII). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

. (1929-31). Freud and Jung: Contrasts. Coll. Works (Vol. IV). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

. (1966). Memories, dreams, reflections. London: Routledge. (Original work published 1962)

Samuels, Andrew. (1985). Jung and the Post-Jungians, London-Boston: Routledge.