Active Imagination

Ever Deeper Core of Meaning

Myths . . . are accessible collective narratives containing densely coded symbols and archetypes that can awaken stage-specific dynamic interplay between instinct and archetype.

—Maren T. Hansen, An evaluation case study of a myth class to stimulate identity development for early adolescents

     C. G. Jung taught that images are spontaneous irruptions from the deep psyche that can manifest in a variety of forms which are not limited only to visual images but can also appear as emotions, thoughts, fantasies, and daydreams. These psychic products are furthermore symbolic, meaning they contain hidden knowledge which the psyche is attempting to convey to the conscious sphere, whether this conscious sphere is that of an individual's or that of an entire society. In the context of “densely coded” symbolic images being conveyed to an entire society, the imaginal language of films, books, poems, fairy tales, myths, and a variety of visual and performing art forms such as music, dance, and religious ritual allow us to sound the depths of the psyche in order to understand the messages it has for us. 

     What we have learned during our course is that these symbolic images are imaginal stand-ins for the immense variety of psychological experiences we encounter during the span of one lifetime. Each image—whether it’s an overwhelming irruption of sorrow, a nasty moment of jealousy, or a drawn picture of a caged bird—is a symbol which represents an inner psychological event. Usually, the images that are spontaneously produced and the images we are drawn to at any given moment are reflective of the current cycle of psychological growth and development while throughout the vast pantheon of imaginal material produced by the human psyche we find images and narratives that tell the story of different stages of psychological experience. These are then grouped into types of myth and types of books and types of art, all of which reflect certain psychological and archetypal characteristics and processes. 

     All of us are living our lives from within the inner parameters of these different psychological cycles so that the stories in myths and fairytales, and their counterparts found in the art world and especially in the world of films, can help us to identify which stage we are in. These stage-specific narratives thus contain a great deal of information for how best to navigate that particular section of the psychological road. The overall goal, at least according to countless myths and fairytales, and according to depth psychology, is individuation, which is the process whereby the sphere of consciousness and the much larger and more powerful sphere of the unconscious form a symbiotic harmony, what has been termed the Ego/Self axis. This harmony is only achieved at a great price, namely, the price of enduring great psychological disharmony and suffering, for it is the continual defeat of the ego in the face of the much larger and transpersonal powers of the unconscious that slowly polishes the soul into a vibrant jewel. The quest for individuation and the seemingly never-ending obstacles faced on this quest are often symbolized in the myth of the hero’s journey, most notably articulated by mythologist Joseph Campbell. 

     My vocation—the calling of my soul—is to become a theoretical archetypal psychologist and a scholar. For me, the application of learned material to my own psychological life for the purpose of psychic research and to gain an ever deeper knowledge of the intricate and mysterious workings of the psyche is of paramount importance. In this sense, knowing the way myths and fairytales and films identify inner dynamics and show them to us through the use of symbolic images is of immense value. In this course, I have learned that images are not only symbolic but that they carry a moving, dynamic core of meaning which, when deciphered, explodes open our usual narrow ego perspectives.

And so, onward!

A Psychology of Perspective, A Look of Love

In Re-Visioning Psychology (1975), Hillman wrote that archetypal psychology is a psychology of perspective (p. xvi) and it encourages a special sort of vision—a metaphorical, mythic vision that generates universal meaning and insight. This sort of I-sight opens “the questions of life to transpersonal and culturally imaginative reflection” (Hillman, 2013, p. 28) leading us to that mode of perception “which recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic and metaphorical” (Hillman, 1975, p. xvi). Accordingly, myths are the I-sight of the archetypal perspective, “they open” (Hillman, 2013, p. 28) vistas of imaginative meaning, just as the lens of a camera opens to allow for more abundance and possibilities in the total composition. This vision is different from the monotheistic attitude which primarily enjoys classifying mythic images into categories that give each archetype one face, one direction, one value. 

A good example is the invigorating discussion of Mary in Paris’s Pagan Grace (1990). The monotheistic perspective places her in a limited role of passive mother who subserviently acquiesces to the brutal sacrifice of her son by the angry Fathers. In contrast, Paris explains how Demeter, as a mature woman Goddess with full powers, answers good with good and evil with evil—when her daughter is stolen, she rebels and doesn’t budge so Zeus acquiesces to her. Here we have metaphorical perspectives on universals of mothering, womanhood, and religion that open the imagination to reflection. I’m reminded of American Christian mothers who send their sons to die in wars, mothers who can’t stand up for their kids, won’t fight a corrupt system, who are conditioned to let their young be slaughtered in senseless wars, and how much this fits the mythic pattern of Mary as described by Paris (p. 38). Mary as fantasy and metaphor thus points to a relevant and modern cultural reality in need of tending. Both mothers are sad to lose a child, but the myths help us reimagine appropriate responses. 

Hillman, J. (1975) Re-visioning psychology. New York, NY: Harper & Row. 

Hillman, J. (2013). Archetypal psychology. The uniform edition of the writings of James Hillman, Vol. 1. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications. 

Paris, G. (1990). Pagan grace. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications. 

The Function of Images

An area of interest that has captured my attention this term has to do with the autonomy of the unconscious and the power it wields over us through its images. I had not considered before what the function of images might be, I had just accepted that images are spontaneously produced by the unconscious and that they are its language. But this term, I have learned about the function of images which, to me, seems an important point that deserves emphasis. 

As we know, in depth psychology images are emanations that spontaneously irrupt from the deep psyche. They take a variety of forms including text, creative expression, or even emotions and intuitions. They come at us in our dreams, they come at us in thought formations and fantasies, and they come at us through art, literature, poetry, and dance. The question is, why? Why do these images come at us at all and what are we to do with them? Jung says that the images hold a measure of libido or psychic energy and that they use this energy for their own specific purposes. Furthermore, since autonomous, the images prioritize their own needs above the needs of the ego complex. Our task is to, first of all, allow the images to exist and then to experience and interact with them on their own level—the imaginal level (Jung, 1928/1966, para. 346). The images wield tremendous power over consciousness. They hold this power down in the unconscious and we must interact with the images in order to gain access to that power. In other words, images are libido—they are psychic energy. Which means that our lives as we know them rely upon images for their existence since without energy there can only be psychic entropy—a catatonic state of total inertia. This explains the sometimes overbearing urgency of images and why they often harass us until we meet them on their own terms. They know something we don’t. 

Another interesting feature of images is that they hold a specific message or quality having to do with the situation of the individual who is encountering them. Jung explained that the unconscious is the feminine side of consciousness and that it insists upon a feeling function to restore psychic balance since the ego’s rational and intellectual perspective is usually too one-sided (Jung, 1928/1966, para. 216). The images are thus emissaries of this mission to restore psychological balance and they, therefore, wear outward forms which are most relevant to the individual’s specific issues. Furthermore, psychic balance is not always just a matter of correcting pathological or unwanted psychological manifestations. It is also a matter of individuation, which is to say, a matter of bringing the two spheres of consciousness into proper alignment so that the individual ends up living a life that feels richly endowed with meaning and purpose. The images thus have secret knowledge to impart and play a serious role in the psyche.

Jung further explained that we cannot simply stand back and passively watch the images and hope to understand, much less effect, their meanings, for the images are autonomous, they have a level of unconcern we must contend with. If we hope to access the knowledge they contain we must interact with them actively on the imaginal level, which is to say, inside the image itself, inside the fantasy, inside the dream (Jung, 1928/1966, para. 350). Jung said that by actively participating with the images we “gain possession of them by allowing them to possess” (Jung, 1928/1966, para. 368) us. This method, which Jung called active imagination, makes it possible for an individual to not only experience but also to interact, in a waking state, with the unconscious—to merge with it. In so doing, access is gained to the hidden and secret knowledge of the images and the deeper predilections breeding in the psychological volcanoes of our souls. Without access to this restorative imaginal knowledge, we remain divided, stunted, and incomplete, making titanic blunders as we continue to live a one-sided, egocentric life.  

Jung, C. G. (1966). The relations between the ego and the unconscious (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (Vol. 7, 2nd ed., pp.  121–241). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1928)