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Active Imagination, Jung's Technique for Exploring the Unconscious
or, How a hungry blue cow will teach you about your mind
The Collective Unconscious
Carl Jung, much like his contemporary Sigmund Freud, was interested in the role that the unconscious mind plays in our lives. Both men found that the depth of human actions could not be explained simply as a product of pure rationality, nor as a logical input-output system like one might find in a machine. Both men were certain that unconscious factors drive our thoughts, desires, and actions, whether we are aware of them or not.
Differing visions of the unconscious, alongside a tumultuous personal relationship, led to the men’s professional split in 1913. To Freud, the unconscious mind is a repository of repressed desires – most often sexual – that are powerful but dangerous, reined in by morality and social pressure. To Jung, the unconscious mind is far broader in scope, made up of a variety of forces interacting with one another. While Freud focused on the personal unconscious, based on the desires of the individual, Jung recognized a collective unconscious, patterns and figures shared across people, cultures, and history.
Interacting with the Unconscious
In the years immediately following his split with Freud, Jung recognized a need to explore his own unconscious mind if he were to move forward in his work. A fantastic article, “Jung, Alchemy and the Technique of Active Imagination” by Dr. Ian Irvine1 explains how this mission led Jung to develop the technique of active imagination as a method for encountering and interacting with the unconscious.
Active imagination can be described as a waking dream, in which one allows one’s imagination to creatively run free. Unlike an ordinary dream, the waking state allows one to form opinions on and even interact with the imagined world. To Jung, active imagination allows one to encounter the unconscious mind and integrate it with the conscious one:
In the latter case you choose a dream, or some other fantasy-image, and concentrate on it by simply catching hold of it and looking at it. You can also use a bad mood as a starting-point, and then try to find out what sort of fantasy-image it will produce, or what image expresses this mood. You then fix this image in the mind by concentrating your attention. Usually it will alter, as the mere fact of contemplating it animates it. The alterations must be carefully noted down all the time, for they reflect the psychic processes in the unconscious background, which appear in the form of images consisting of conscious memory material. In this way conscious and unconscious are united, just as a waterfall connects above and below.
Carl Jung: The Conjunction, Collected Works 14, par. 706
This active imagination is the technique that Dr. J Marvin Spiegelman used in writing The Tree, the subject of this blog. Over a series of many hours-long sessions, Spiegelman allowed his imagination to flow, and wrote of his interactions with the archetypal, mythological figures within.
Active Imagination in Practice
For an example of what this practice actually looks like, we may turn to one of the shorter episodes of The Tree, the first story of the Arab (one of Spiegelman’s guides through the unconscious.)
The inciting image here is a blue calf.
This is not just any blue calf (though its color alone would be extraordinary.) It is a brutal blue calf, owing to its appetite. Within minutes of its birth it weans itself off its mother and begins to eat grass. The Arab tells of its insatiable appetite, depriving both its and its neighbors’ fields. The master tries to restrain the calf: he ties it up, but it escapes; he builds a fence, but it leaps over; he builds a higher fence, but it tunnels underground. (The imagined calf now presents a question of what to do with an unsolvable problem.)
A meeting of the clan is called, with some neighbors in favor of killing the brutal blue calf before it grows – how much worse would it be as a bull? Others call the calf a creation of Allah that must be respected. Still others advocate doing nothing but hoping for the best. The Arab tells that he suspects many wanted the calf’s greed to continue, hoping for the destruction to come. (Note the interaction with the imagination; each neighbor presenting another judgement.)
The people fail to reach a conclusion, and give up to smoke hashish. But when the calf is no longer treated as a problem, it notices the people for the first time. It looks at them curiously, then willingly leaps into the area fenced off for it.
Branches of the Tree of Life
This short story is a great example of the results Jung found with active imagination. From a strange image, a recognizable pattern presents itself. And the brutal blue calf provides a lesson in how we must sometimes relinquish our controlling impulses, and allow nature to set itself right.
Now that we have looked into the history and practice of active imagination, we can dive into Spiegelman’s book. The Tree features ten of these guides, ranging from a medieval knight to a psychic Kabbalist, an atheist-communist and a Catholic nun. The stories are as varied as their presenters. Each represents different unconscious forces, and Spiegelman takes up the ambitious task of finding commonality between them, each as a single branch on the Tree of Life.
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It should be noted that Dr. Irvine’s PhD is not in psychology, but marine science. He has since found success as a creative writer; the linked article was originally presented as a talk to fellow authors on incorporating Jungian themes in fiction.