One of the most surprising and vivid experiences of my life occurred because of my Jungian studies. Our Philadelphia seminar was studying active imagination, and our reading included a letter from Jung to “Mr. O”:
“The point is that you start with any image, for instance just with that yellow mass in your dream. Contemplate it and carefully observe how the picture begins to unfold or to change. Don’t try to make it into something, just do nothing but observe what its spontaneous changes are. Any mental picture you contemplate in this way will sooner or later change through a spontaneous association that causes a slight alteration of the picture. You must carefully avoid impatient jumping from one subject to another. Hold fast to the one image you have chosen and wait until it changes by itself. Note all these changes and eventually step into the picture yourself, and if it is a speaking figure at all then say what you have to say to that figure and listen to what he or she has to say….therewith you gradually create the unity of conscious and unconscious without which there is no individuation at all.”*
With a mixture of skepticism, curiosity and hope, I went outside, sat down in a lawn chair, and focused on a nearby river-fed pool where watercress grows. In my image, the pool was about four feet in diameter, with the black-green cress growing thickly around the edges. Suddenly two bright red eyes gleamed up at me from the upper right quadrant of the pool, just in front of the watercress, and I saw the gestalt: the pool was a face, with curly cress locks and two eyes, which then blinked shut, as the frog to whom they belonged sank beneath the surface. I knelt down and found myself brushing leafy locks from the water maiden’s face as a mother would brush hair from the face of her sleeping child. And then I simply leaned into the pool, dived down, and found myself swimming underwater behind the ruby-eyed frog.
My vision went on to an encounter that was alive and surprising. Although I had had intention to actively imagine, “I” did not control the process and could never have created such a magical gift—one that ended with an introduction to a lost part of myself I could then begin consciously to reclaim. I understood what Jungian analyst Edith Wallace meant when she said that to be understood, Jung must be experienced.
Over time I came to understand that Jung’s psychology and methodology repeatedly seeks to achieve a dialectical, experiential relationship between consciousness and the unconscious. This is the essence of the process of individuation, or wholeness, that is central to Jung’s work. Unlike dreams, reverie, meditation, or fantasy, active imagination allows an intentional, living relationship with the unconscious. Jung says active imagination “…is a way of attaining liberation by one’s own efforts and of finding the courage to be oneself.”
I love the availability of active imagination. Although what arises—or doesn’t—on any particular day is uncertain, the unconscious tends to welcome willingness to engage it, and active imagination provides a connection in waking life to the autonomous, creative inner companion Jung so often referenced. Often, some new aspect of the chosen image or issue will emerge that consciousness can continue to mull over to make meaning—or reflect on with gratitude.
What I know for sure is that when our conscious self and the unconscious engage over time in the mutual play of active imagination, we find ourselves bigger, more alive, and truly companioned.
*You can find this passage and more in Joan Chodorow’s book, On Active Imagination, part of the Encountering Jung series.
Deborah Stewart is a Jungian Analyst and Licensed Clinical Social Worker residing in Cape Cod, MA. You can find her at www.DeborahCStewart.com. She is Co-Creator of This Jungian Life Podcast. She is a member of the Philadelphia Association of Jungian Analysts, where she co-chairs and teaches in the training seminar and contributes to the Association’s blog. She is an active member of the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts and participates in other professional organizations. She has a special interest in trauma and is the author of Encounters with Monsters: The Significance of Non-Human Images of Trauma in the Psyche.