LAWRENCE H. STAPLES, Ph.D., PsyA.
DIPLOMATE C.G. JUNG-INSTITUTE, ZURICH
914 TWENTY-FIFTH STREET, N.W.
WASHINGTON, DC 20037
What It Is
Active imagination is a technique developed by Jung to help amplify, interpret, and integrate the contents of dreams and creative works of art. When approached by way of writing, active imagination is like writing a play. One takes, for example, a figure that has appeared in one’s dreams or creative writings. Usually, these figures express a viewpoint quite the opposite of one’s normal conscious view. Sometimes it is a male, shadow figure. At other times, it may be a feminine, anima, or maternal figure. One starts to converse with the figure in writing. One challenges the dream figure and lets him/her challenge the dreamer. The dreamer asks the figure why he appeared in the dream. He asks the figure what it wants from him. Then, the ego, like a playwright, puts himself as best he can into the figure’s shoes and tries to express it and defend its viewpoint. There ensues an iterative dialogue between the writer and the opposite figure in his dream or piece of writing. With practice one can become accomplished at expressing both viewpoints, just as a playwright does. One gets better at this the more one does it, just as the playwright does. The technique of active imagination tends to detach the qualities and traits that are first seen in a dream or in a story as belonging to external persons, and coming to see them as belonging to one’s self. Active imagination, then, helps the writer become conscious of his opposite qualities by forcing him to give voice to figures, like shadow figures, that carry qualities opposite those of his ego. These qualities personify the rejected opposites that are present in the unconscious. This technique helps recover these rejected opposites and make them available to the ego and consciousness without necessarily having to act them out.
Example of Active Imagination
Following is an impressive and rich example of the power of this technique to affect and even shape our lives. It’s an active imagination done by a man in his late thirties. He was an extremely successful salesman who was, nevertheless, unhappy with his work and life. Despite his high income, work had lost its meaning for him. He had entered Jungian analysis in order to help him out of his suffocating existence and find a new and different way. He had a powerful dream that he took to his analyst. His analyst suggested he do active imagination with one of the figures in the dream. His is a beautiful example of lhstaples-active imagination active imagination that led to much more than a dialogue. It became the seed of a creative life that grew and flourished into a wholly new career. Out of his active imagination came a novel, LeRoi, which was then followed by two other novels, SamSara and Menopause Man. All have been published and he is living today as a successful writer. He has written still more books that are waiting in the wings to be published. His name is Mel Mathews. The power of the active imagination is seen in the fact that it unearthed in him some deep hidden spring of creativity that suddenly gushed forth. Apparently, he had been living a life of suspended animation that lay there until some psychic prince awoke it.
Mel’s book, LeRoi, was literally born from a dream and the active imagination he did with the dream. He had the following dream: A woman was sitting in a diner, in a booth smoking. “ Excuse me, I wonder if you could put your cigarette out?” I asked. She ignored me. A few minutes later she lit up again. I stood up, walked around to her booth, grabbed her pack of smokes and the ashtray and walked out the front door. I dumped the ashtray and stepped on her lit smoke; then, I dropped her pack and stomped them as well. I walked back inside, slammed the empty ashtray down on the coffee counter and sat down. A petite pony-tailed brunette walked up with the iced tea pitcher to refill my glass. “ Can I have some more ice please?” “ Sure”, she answered, “ I’m sure (Flo) the boss-lady will be out in a minute”, the brunette said, as she turned around with my ice. “What does she want?” “ You’ll have to ask her yourself.” Mel discussed the dream with his analyst who suggested a dialogue with the boss-lady.
Dialogue with the boss-lady
Here is his active imagination with Flo, the name of the boss-lady. This brief dialogue is to his novel what an acorn is to an oak tree. This brief dialogue apparently contained all the genetic codes necessary to make a novel just as an acorn has the genetic codes that lead to an oak tree.
Flo: Purdy hot day, huh?
Mel: I can stand the heat. It’s the stray cigarette smoke that sets me off.
Flo: So that gives you the right to run off one of my regulars.
Mel: I asked her to put it out.
Flo: Did you ask her or did you beat around the bush with some rude indirect comment?
Mel: Lady, I don’t know who you are or what’s on your mind, but I really don’t need any more crap today.
Flo: Well kid right now you’re in my diner and you’re runnin’ off my patrons.
Mel: Oh great.
Flo: I’ve dealt with your kind for years so let’s just cut to the quick.
Mel: Look, lady, I’m sorry if I offended anybody here, but I’ve got some problems. My MG is broken down across the street.
Flo: So what?
Mel: Things just aren’t falling into place today.
Flo: Would you like some chocolate milk little boy, or how about your ass wiped? In this café, the world doesn’t revolve around you.
The creative seed
While the creative process is different for each individual, one can sometimes discern similarities. The seed that unleashed Mel’s creative process was a dream and a few sentences associated with the dream. His process bears some resemblance to the process by which Isak Dineson created her work.
Isak Dineson, a Danish novelist, had quite a reputation as a storyteller, and following dinner her guests usually asked her to tell a story. She complied, but stipulated that her guests must supply her with the opening sentence. Using this sentence as her starting point, she would then spin tales that were hours long.
She had a way of forming and telling stories that is, perhaps, a microcosmic example of the macrocosmic processes of all creation. I could see that, like a verdant and luxurious garden, all creation must first be seeded before it can produce a crop. In Dineson’s case, the opening sentence given by the guest was the impregnating seed that she took into her imagination to create the story, like an acorn taken into the earth creates a tree. She began with a word (her acorn) that unfolded from itself a string of words connected to each other by some associative bond that produced a coherent creation. It is as if the opening sentence contained all the genetic codes that knew from the beginning where they were going and how they would get there. The mother is not conscious of the code; it operates invisibly and unconsciously once the seed is fertilized. The mystery is that such a simple, tiny seed can produce such a large and complicated product. It is as if the story develops in accordance with its own processes once the seed is planted in fertile soil. The tale was the crop that grew out of the seed. A mundane analogy to this process is the unwinding of a spool of yarn. The key is to find the tiny end, and then with that small piece in our hand we pull and find that attached to it is a long string that yields the totality of the yarn. We often refer to tales and stories as yarns.
Psychologists are familiar with these processes that are triggered by a single word, suggestion, or thought and that can appear in the verbal outpourings of their patients. They notice that words that belong together are part of an unconscious chain or string that is formed by a process that they called “association”. Jung’s work on his Association Experiments demonstrates the power of a word to stimulate the unconscious to produce other words that are meaningfully connected by association. Freud pioneered the use of “free association” to bring to consciousness a patient’s unconscious complexes. In “free association” all the words that belong together in that string are revealed just as all the yarn is revealed when the spool is spun and then unrolled. A book like Faulkner’s The lhstaples-active imagination Sound and the Fury is written in the style of free association, where words with an associative connection appear as if they were spilled upon the page. Some people read it and see it as meaningless or, at best, as loosely connected gibberish. Others experience it as great literature. The Nobel Prize Committee apparently agreed with the latter. James Joyce’s Ulysses and many other books have had similar mixed receptions. Some point to Jackson Pollock’s process of painting as equivalent to Faulkner’s writing, but in the case of Pollock it is drops of paint rather than words that are spilled. The works of both artists contain thousands of fragments (words or specks of paint) that have an associative coherence. In a sense, a novel is a big yarn, a long string that contains the bits and pieces that through association are attached to and belong with each other. If we think about it, we may suspect that there is some kind of “unconscious knowingness” behind this creative process. We can also suspect there is some kind of word (or note, or color or form) magnet in our psyche that draws to itself and coheres words, notes and colors that previously existed in isolation but, eventually, belong together.