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Active Imagination -- The Oracle Within

by Robin Robertson

As an adjunct to dreamwork, Jung developed a technique he called active imagination that allows anyone to consult an oracle within themselves. Active imagination is a process of consciously dialoguing with our unconscious "for the production of those contents of the unconscious which lie, as it were, immediately below the threshold of consciousness and, when intensified, are the most likely to erupt spontaneously into the conscious mind." [C.J. Jung, The Transcendent Function] Someone who has learned active imagination is thus able to take some degree of control over his or her own growth process.

When the oracle was consulted at Delphi, the priestess -- the Pythia -- became totally receptive to whatever flowed through her. Her role was simply to be a mouthpiece for Apollo. In contrast, in active imagination, we have to alternate between total receptivity -- to allow the unconscious to speak through us -- and a conscious engagement with the unconscious. It is the alternation between the two which is unique to Jung's method, and which makes it so useful a tool.

As with all oracular systems, start the process with reverence. Only use active imagination when something significant needs to be discovered, and only when you have already exhausted your conscious resources. Find a time and a place where you can be alone, then take a few moments to calm your mind. Once you feel relaxed, use one of two basic ways to access the unconscious -- visual or oral.

For the visual method, close your eyes, then begin with some visual starting point, perhaps a scene in a recent dream that has significance for the issue at hand. Get this starting point as clearly in your mind as you can make it, then let it unfold as it likes. If you are strongly visual, you may find that the resulting fantasy is virtually as vivid as a dream. The difference is that, because you are awake, you can consciously engage with the figures in the dream. As with any other encounter with the inner world, you need to walk a narrow path so that you remain receptive to whatever the unconscious produces, yet are able to react with conscious intent.

In the oral technique, you engage in a dialogue with a person or object who you feel might help you with the issue at hand. You can actually talk out loud, hold the dialogue in your head, or simply write both sides of the dialogue. I normally sit at the computer, slow my breathing and stop my monkey mind as much as I can. I then type a question to, for example, an enigmatic dream figure from a recent dream. Having begun the dialogue, I remain receptive to whatever emerges from within and simply type what comes out. After allowing the inner voice to speak as long as it likes, I shift back to my own personality and react to what has been said. The dialogue continues in that manner.

You may find that you actually hear the words coming from the unconscious, or they may simply come out in the writing, without any intermediate process of hearing. When I use either the visual or oral techniques, I normally "see" only vaguely, or "hear" not at all, but somehow fill in what is missing through "feelings" in my body. Jung experienced the same thing: "Sometimes it was as if I were hearing it with my ears, sometimes feeling it with my mouth, as if my tongue were formulating words; now and then I heard myself whispering aloud. Below the threshold of consciousness everything was seething with life."[C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections]

Jung only came to this method after a great deal of struggle. At first, you may feel foolish trying either of these methods, but if you do, you will probably surprise yourself with how easy it is to allow this process to occur. When using the visual technique, you will find that the initial dream scene used as a starting point evolves in directions you could never have predicted. Similarly, when using the oral technique, you will find that the voice and character of the dream figure is sharply distinct from your own, and that you won't be able to predict the direction the dialogue will take. This lack of control can make you as uncomfortable as it did Jung: "One of the greatest difficulties for me lay in dealing with my negative feelings. I was voluntarily submitting myself to emotions of which I could not really approve, and I was writing down fantasies which often struck me as nonsense, and toward which I had strong resistances." [C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections]

I've already said that one has to walk a tightrope in using active imagination. One danger is that we don't open ourselves sufficiently to the unconscious, but instead edit what comes out before it has had a chance to really emerge. Or we may start interpreting what this all means instead of simply remaining open to what is emerging. We need to just let what wants to come out, come out.

The opposite danger is perhaps more prevalent. We can become so enamored with the fantasies or dialogues that emerge from within that we don't really take them seriously as something with which we have to struggle. This can happen equally with dreamwork. We can simply become fascinated at an aesthetic level and never realize that we are being presented with a challenge to our values.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that active imagination is exactly the wrong method to use if one is already unstable and having a hard time separating reality from fantasy. Most active imagination is with personified aspects of your own personality. When you are encountering such figures, it is much like encountering others in the normal course of life. However, as I've already indicated, as you access deeper parts of the inner world, the people and situations become collective and cease to have anything to do with your individual personality.

It's not surprising that the ancients regarded these messages from within as coming from a god without. The unconscious often speaks like a god, which may make you feel uncomfortable or doubt that you can trust what is being said. As a modern man, Jung initially found this irritating: "Archetypes speak the language of high rhetoric, even of bombast. It is a style I find embarrassing; it grates on my nerves, as when someone draws his nails down a plaster wall, or scrapes his knife against a plate." [C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections]. But it is exactly that quality that indicates that you are indeed tapping truly unconscious material.

For someone who is less stable, instead of merely becoming uncomfortable, they may actually be possessed by the more-than-human energy that emerges. Jung says that sometimes "the subliminal contents already possess such a high energy that, when afforded an outlet by active imagination, they may overpower the conscious mind and take possession of the personality." [C.G. Jung, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche]. To the extent, however, that "active imagination" is truly active -- that is, that we engage consciously with the material, possession is highly unlikely. More likely is that we fail to remember that what is emerging is not us, but some collective power. We get inflated, puffed-up with the godlike energy that we feel. Or alternately, we may get depressed; in that case, accessing the unconscious demands so much energy that there is little left for consciousness. Cycles of inflation and depression are a normal part of life for anyone who digs into his or her inner world.

But over time, we learn both to recognize when we are inflated or depressed, and to dampen the extent of either. One excellent way to ground this process is simply to take the time to write the active imagination down in some sort of a journal so that you can refer back to it, just as you would a dream. I keep a combined journal of dreams and active imagination, with short biographical journal entries as well for each date. Active imagination is an incredibly powerful method for gaining access to information unavailable to consciousness. Those who try it will discover that each of us possesses an Oracle within who can be questioned in times of transition or difficulty.


This article is excerpted from Mining the Soul, 2000, by Robin Robertson. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Nicholas-Hays, Inc., distributed Red Wheel Weiser Inc. http://www.redwheelweiser.com

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About the Author

Robin Robertson is a psychologist, magician, mathematician, and writer, who has spent a lifetime bridging the worlds of science, psychology and the arts. He has written ten books and over a hundred articles and book reviews in psychology or his hobby field of magic. His Jungian-oriented books include Beginner's Guide to Jungian Psychology, Beginner's Guide to Revelation, Jungian Archetypes, and Your Shadow.



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