Dreams & Active Imagination, I: Overview

My previous series of posts discussed the four elements, three stages, and the goal of the process of adaption and restoration (i.e., the process C.G. Jung called individuation). Jung observed adaption and restoration at work in the psychological lives of his patients, and developed his theory based on the manner in which psychological conflict manifested through images and figures in dreams and waking fantasies. The following posts provide a brief overview into Jung’s understanding of dreams and active imagination (i.e., the process through which psychological conflict manifested during a waking state).



Jung defined a dream as a natural, spontaneous, and symbolic self-portrait of the unconscious[1] that “may contain ineluctable truths, philosophical pronouncements, illusions, wild fantasies, memories, plans, anticipations, irrational experiences, even telepathic visions, and heaven knows what besides.”[2] As a psychic product relating to both conscious and unconscious,[2] a dream “obeys laws governing the psyche,”[4] and Jung focuses on dreams in his psychotherapeutic practice because dreams originate from “an emotional disturbance,” whose secrets are sometimes (though not always) betrayed by a dream’s content.[5]


Humanity spends “almost half our life […] in a more or less unconscious state” (i.e., in sleep), dreams express what lies in an individual’s unconscious,[6] and offer a glimpse into an individual’s conscious situation.[7] What appears as disagreeable and unwanted in a dream, Jung contends, demonstrates the unseen basis of conscious disturbances on the unconscious.[8] Because a dream operates below consciousness as a “subliminal process,”[9] and exists along the margins of consciousness,[10] dream contents seem extraneous to conscious life.[11] However, Jung asserts, dreams provide an accurate assessment of an individual’s psychic state (although consciousness might deny this) and are indispensable for diagnosing the cause, and suggesting to resolution to, an individual’s neurosis.[12]


Active Imagination:

To enhance retrieval of unconscious material during a waking state, and make unconscious material visible in imagery so as to provide the conscious with a means of confronting the unconscious Jung devised the process of active imagination.[13] Jung bases his theory of active imagination on his belief that unconscious material (1) wants to become visible and (2) can take form through artistic activities, such as painting, drawing, sculpture, dancing and “[o]f course […] writing.”[14] This experience of active imagination, James Hollis writes, involves a literal “activation of the image” that seeks to broaden conscious awareness.[15] Marie-Louis von Franz describes active imagination as a process of imaginative meditation through which an individual may encounter the unconscious and create a “connection with psychic phenomena.”[16] According to Jung, we may also conceive of active imagination as a form of art therapy through which a series of fantasies emerge (as pictures or in words) in an individual’s psyche, and assume on an active character. The images and figures associated with active imagination emerge spontaneously through a series of symbols and archetypes (i.e., images and figures), the same found in dreams. These symbols and archetypes demand engagement and encourage the individual to take a role in the psychic action to “really have it out with [her or] his alter ego.”[17]


Like dreams, the images appearing in products of active imagination are not self-consciously or deliberately created by the individual. That is, during active imagination an individual does not intentionally write or draw a specific image or figure with a known meaning and function. When an individual is engaged in active imagination, s/he is compelled to make images and figures (appearing in her or his waking fantasies) visible in writing or in pictures. The central difference between dreams and active imagination is the state of being asleep or being awake. Otherwise, the symbols, archetypes, and narrative themes are consistent between the two.


To this end, dreams and active imagination perform a healing function in an individual’s psyche in three ways: dreams and active imagination (1) act in a compensatory manner to (2) restore balance to our life by providing an opportunity for self-awareness, which (3) brings us to wholeness in accordance with the process of individuation.


Next time: The Function of Dreams and Active Imagination in the Individual’s Psyche.



[1] See C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Symbolic Life: Miscellaneous Writings, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 18 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), par. 248; C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 8 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), par. 505.

[2] C. J. Jung, Collected Works: Practice of Psychotherapy, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 16 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), par. 1317.

[3] Jung, CW 8:527.

[4] Jung, CW 8:450.

[5] Jung, CW 18:433-73.

[6] Jung, CW 16:1317.

[7] Jung, CW 8:469.

[8] Jung, CW 18:474.

[9] Jung, CW 18:511.

[10] C. G. Jung, “Approaching the Unconscious,” in Man and His Symbols, ed. C. G. Jung (New York: Dell, 1968), 53.

[11] Jung, CW 8:443.

[12] C. G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, trans. W.S. Dell and Caty F. Baynes (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1933), 5.

[13] Mary Ann Mattoon, Jung and the Human Psyche: An Understandable Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2005), 110.

[14] Jung, CW 18:400.

[15] James Hollis, The Archetypal Imagination (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2000), 67. Emphasis in original.

[16] M.-L.von Franz, “The Process of Individuation,” in Man and His Symbols, ed. C. G. Jung (New York: Dell, 1968), 219.

[17] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 14 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), par. 706.

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