Dreams & Active Imagination, II: The Function of Dreams & Active Imagination

My previous post provided an overview of Jung’s understanding of dreams and active imagination (i.e., the manifestation of dream-like content in a waking state). This post focuses on the function dreams and active imagination serve within an individual’s psychic life.


According to Jung, his method of interpreting dreams (and active imagination) “brings a mass of unconscious material to light,”[1] alleviates tension in the unconscious, and exhibits “material rich in archetypal images and associations.”[2] The fundamental purpose of both dreams and active imagination is to compensate the conscious realm[3] by incorporating unconscious material, which is either repressed or “too feeble” to be integrated into consciousness as it is.[4] When unconscious material becomes significant to the function of an individual’s consciousness (e.g., when an individual encounters obstacles in life), dreams and the waking fantasies of active imagination become intense and disturb the consciousness “necessarily and automatically”[5] in an effort to compel the psyche to adjust and restore proper psychological balance.[6]


In light of their compensatory function, Jung called dreams “the most important and most obvious results of unconscious psychic processes” to impose themselves on consciousness.[7] By extension, active imagination would be included in this statement since, as the expression of dream content in waking life, active imagination makes unconscious processes visible as well. Although uncontrolled by human will, Jung writes that dreams and active imagination present “the unvarnished, natural truth” when an individual’s consciousness deviates from its foundations and encounters obstacles.[8]


Dreams and active imagination work to reestablish balance in life and serve a therapeutic function for an individual.[9] A common objection to the therapeutic benefit that both dreams and active imagination provide is the assumption that for the content to effectively influence an individual’s consciousness, the individual must be cognizant of the information and the process.[10] According to Jung, “many things can be effective without being understood,” and the content of both dreams and active imagination will perform a compensatory function regardless of whether an individual understands it.[11]


Our unconscious desires integration, assimilation, and psychological wholeness, such that it constantly adjusts the one-sided perspective of our consciousness, which may refuse to see undesirable aspects within us.[12] Unconscious material (i.e., “memories, insights, experiences…[and] dormant qualities in the personality”[13]) is reshaped through dreams and active imagination, and enters consciousness where it reveals the image of the whole individual.[14] The revelation of the whole person through symbolic images and archetypal figures heals the conflicted psyche.[15] Understanding a dream or the product of active imagination as an objective “communication or message from the unconscious” enables an individual to begin a healing process of self-reflection to renew psychological wholeness.[16] To undertake this healing process, Jung advocates an analysis aimed at shaping new perspectives and overcoming obstacles created by the symbolic and archetypal nature of the content in dreams and active imagination.[17]


Dreams and active imagination speak to an individual through symbolic images and archetypal figures that engage unconsciousness[18] and exist beyond the boundaries of consciousness.[19] Symbols and archetypes display a variety of themes, including: “chaotic multiplicity and order; duality; the opposition of light and dark, upper and lower, right and left; the union of opposites in a third; the quaternity (square, cross); rotation (circle, sphere); and finally the centering process.”[20]


Next time: The Language of the Unconscious, I: Symbols



[1] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 9.1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), par. 320.

[2] Jung, CW 9.1:102.

[3] 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. 487.

[4] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Civilization in Transition, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 10 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), par. 492. Jung prefers the compensatory view of dreams as opposed to a complementary view because compensation “designates a relationship in which two things supplement one another more or less mechanically” (CW 8:545).

[5] Jung, CW 8:487.

[6] See Jung, CW 8:469; C. G. Jung, “Approaching the Unconscious,” in Man and His Symbols, ed. C. G. Jung (New York: Dell, 1968), 34.

[7] Jung, CW 8: 294.

[8] Jung, CW 10:317.

[9] According to Jung, dreams come in handy “when simple methods…fail and doctors do not know how to proceed” (CW 8:548).

[10] Jung, CW 8:506.

[11] Ibid., 8:560.

[12] Ibid., 8:557.

[13] Ibid., 8:549.

[14] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Symbolic Life: Miscellaneous Writings, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 18 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), par. 1809.

[15] Ibid., 18:270.

[16] Jung, CW 10:318.

[17] Jung, CW 8:549.

[18] Jung, CW 18:474.

[19] Jung, “Approaching the Unconscious,” 53.

[20] Jung, CW 8:401.


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