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Multiplying Intuition: Jung's Active Imagination and the Voice of the Unconscious

Since beginning graduate school, I have not been posting as many blog posts as I would like to. And since beginning my winter break, I have not been feeling very inspired or motivated to write, perhaps because I've fallen out of step with inspiration (or, because the days are dark, or, because my family and I have been fighting the same sickness on and off for months). Whatever the origins of this dimming, I remind myself that there are many ways of writing. This year, I will practice writing a weekly post (every Sunday) that is less carefully crafted than my monthly essays, but can serve as a small bridge to connect my thoughts to the broader world. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences in reply, as I increasingly feel that the world is transformed in the synapses—the spaces between individuals— rather than in one transformed individual affecting another like a row of falling dominoes. It's the spark between where magic happens, not the spark within.

This week (at the advice of a friend), I started the Jungian "active imagination" after a long period of practicing only relaxing/ mind-emptying meditation. The basic practice is this: you breathe deeply, light a candle if you wish, make sure you have quietude and a bit of time (at least 20 minutes), and then see what unfolds when you close your eyes. Is it an object? A face? A path? A place? Just observe, your attention gentle and curious, not trying to impose or interpret (not yet, at least). One Jungian analyst begins by imagining walking along the beach. After a bit of walking, a character always joins him. If a character/ person joins you, you can ask them questions, if you'd like. Or, you can just watch what they do, how they interact with you and the broader world.

The first time I began the practice last week, I found myself a forest. I saw a woman who looked like me, but with darker hair, paler skin. As she drew nearer, I realized she was quite corpse-like. “Starving,” she rasped out. I watched her for awhile. She swept from place to place, a cold wind. She sharpened the edges of things, like death. She felt like an essential component to “genius” though I couldn’t place more than that. I visited my “active imagination” a few more times over the next two days. As I did, her appearance changed. She was still thin, though not gaunt. Her hair was still dark, but her skin was warming with life. She seemed like an Emily Dickinson figure: acutely present, boldly feeling, quietly observant. But no longer a corpse, coming to life as I offered her my attention. Since then, other figures have come and gone, and each revealing an essential piece of my unattended psyche.

A Jungian would say that this deep state of attention reveals not just imaginary friends or idle fantasies, but the universal reality of the collective unconscious. This doesn't mean that the images are not influenced by everyday thoughts and experiences— perhaps you ate an apple for lunch and the first image you see is an apple. Be patient and see what happens to that apple. What do you want to do with it? Does another character or object want to join the scene? Slowly, deeper layers will unpeel from the primary perception.

This practice rests on an assumption that in order to become fully human, you and I must let all inner possibilities be comfortable in the psyche— even the demons, even the "shadow side." If you don't learn to befriend all inner beings, even the dark ones, they will terrorize you from without. What isn't balanced inwardly becomes external drama, or even calamity. How many times have I "unconsciously" created certain situations in order to feed a part of my personality that could be attended to much more deeply and safely in the imaginal realm? How often do you seek entertainment that exemplifies a particular archetype, wasting countless hours watching rather than finding that archetype within, asking how it wants to manifest in your life?

The Jungian psychologist Robert Johnson worked with a woman who saw a wise older man in her active imagination, one who often gave her sound advice. After some time, he demanded she hand over her keys and purse, two items which symbolized her freedom. She did, and her personality altered thereafter. This story felt eerie— a familiar-yet-strange echo from a not-so-distant past. In my religious upbringing, people were always hearing the voice of God, and were encouraged to listen to it. This could be a good thing, if it were labeled as learning to listen to one’s inner intuition. But when outsourced to an all-knowing deity, this voice-hearing becomes the ultimate self-alienation. Rather than claiming what I wanted or what I knew, I was told to listen for the mysterious wisdom of a (literally) male-embodied father God whose commandments were spoken only to men. The wisdom I could receive was confined to confirmation of the male authorities’ words or clarification on how those commandments could be applied to my life (God could not tell me something that contradicted his revealed words to those male authorities).

I won't speculate here on the being or non-being of God, though I have written a bit about that here and here. But what interests me in this context is the way we can (or cannot) conceptualize God. If God is a wise old man, his words will be limited to the wisdom of that particularly gendered and historically mediated body. People tap into their intuition all the time, whether they attribute those inner feelings to a deity or not. What if that wise intuition is given a gender, a political affiliation, a set of dogmas? Then, wisdom will certainly speak, but the ones who follow will carve quite narrow lives. Such narrowly conceived ideas of wisdom, intuition, goodness are the ones we all live by— could tapping into the collective unconscious offer freer, more interesting ways of addressing the crises of this age?

Perhaps your inner world rests upon a vaster shared world (the collective unconscious) that is filled with various wisdoms meant to balance your psyche. Perhaps these wisdoms can proceed from a multiplicity of "imaginary" bodies.The quotation marks around "imaginary" are important here, and I'll leave them as an index for future musings. For now, I'll say that we can distinguish the imaginary from the "real" based on more or less profundity, but if we use the term "imaginary," we mustn't assume it refers to an irreality. This was one of Jung's brilliant insights, that the physicalist worldview has starved the soul of substance and relegated all immaterial reality to fantasy (except the "reality" of matter, which is invisible without a conscious perceiver). Jung doesn't make ontological claims about the "existence" of this collective unconscious, which some have criticized as lending itself to a wholly subjective interpretation. But the term "existence" is problematic in describing the most immanent level of reality anyway, and I'm happy to concede Jung the genius of his insights while practicing his methods.

I continue to meet my inmost self (that is also an outmost Self), with all her shifting masks, while the truest self rests just beneath, the one who sees the masks without being seen. This is how I differentiate these meditation practices: the meditations that bring you to thoughtless peace arrive you at the Self above or beneath all identities. But as long as you live in a culturally and historically laden body, other forms of self-knowing are often necessary. Active imagination is a wonderful way to access a deeper level of self-knowing, internal balance, and self-awareness on a microcosmic and macrocosmic scale (as within, so without— these archetypes can also be seen roaming wildly in self-blind societies). But, this practice can present dangers for one who is suffering various psychological imbalances. For a more in-depth introduction to active imagination, check out this video or this book, and if you need a guide to help your journey of self-knowing, please consult with a Jungian psychoanalyst.

If you try this practice (or have tried something similar before), please let me know in the comments below!

Until next week,


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