The Active Imagination and the problem of the conjunction of the opposites

The Active Imagination and the problem of the conjunction of the opposites

Papel presentato al 12° Congresso ISARS ( International Society of Academic Research on Shamanism) tenutosi a Delfi (Grecia) dal 9 al 13 ottobre 2015

The Active Imagination and the problem of the conjunction of the opposites.


In the years immediately preceeding the two World Wars, from the consciousness of the psychiatrist C.G. Jung arose images portraying Europe flooded by a sea of blood. At first, he believed to be on the verge of psychosis, but then, when the war started, he began to realise what those images meant, and ventured himself into an exploration of the inner self, that he afterwards called “Active Imagination.” This whole experience is illustrated and commented in the Red Book.

This paper dwells on the testimony embodied by the book, regarding the issue of the archetypal polarities. The practice of the Active Imagination, still not popular in mainstream culture, represents an individual and collective source apt to overcome the global crisis, in an Era, which we live in today, where the hypertrophic and extroverted vision has brought a profound division in the archetypal opposites. The outcoming conflict is projected to the outside world, in greater proportions.

The internal vision of the Active Imagination opens a path to reignite counsciousness, clarifying that whatever is unsolved in the inner self, conflicts externally. What we said has a value for the life of the individual, and, moreover, as a consequence to Society in its entirety.

The Active Imagination is connotated as a way of transformation wich is perpetrated through the vision of the inner cosmology: a process without which, to acquire consciousness of the opposites, and the conflicts deriving from their division, wouldn’t be possible.

If you have read the abstract I presented, you’ll probably already wondered which is the familiarity between intuitions with respect to the processes of psychological transformation and the study of the present situation of the world shamanism, and the theme of our panel “Approaching the End: precariousness, Transcendence, Politics “
I’m not going to respond in a exhaustive manner but this research is motivated by the question: “which is the function of this emerging phenomenon, which is the depth psychology, in the context of the crisis, of the precariousness?

The analytical psychology carried out by Carl Gustav Jung is particular (peculiar) because the aim of it is to study the self and the community within a vision that sees the phenomena as dynamic moments of a transformative cycle that takes place on different levels: they happen on a physical matter level, on society level and on self level. What stands out in his works, studying and comparing the mythopoietic productions of the psyche (religions, myths, rituals) is that in history there has been a progressive withdrawal of the projections (this is what it claims also Gerard van der Leeuw, theologian and historian of religions, contemporary with Jung).

What was once lived in a concrete way, animistic, often,during a process that takes place unconsciously (what Jung would call a natural individuation process), becomes first more abstract and than introjected.

If we look at human relationships, politics, and economy, this process is still ongoing and far from being conscious. When it happens on unconscious level, that is in a no voluntary way, both the collective and individual consciousness identified often itself only with one pole of each phenomenon, while continuing to project the opposite on the other (?), and this increases the split among the selves or among the group he belongs to, or among their reference values and the otherness, what is not me, is not us or what is opposite to what I consider my tradition.

Today we are witnessing the revival of popular interest in rituals, alternative techniques and disciplines, to search for more human dimensions in the field of healing both psychological and physical. These modern phenomena promote the return to an irrational dimension (which I prefer to call a-rational) to experience the self and the outside world.

But we can notice, in the current times, that beside a very evolved dimension of rational, the irrational part is still experienced in an archaic form. The search for natural healing of human evolution is still focused on teachers, gurus, techniques and rituals, without the search for an access to the direct experience requested by the a-rational dimension, just to be the domain of the direct perception. This situation is the manifestation of how in more recent centuries, the irrational has been rejected in favor of a unique domain of rational and of how much it is difficult to legitimate feelings, inner vision and dreams. However, as Jung and history teach us, what is rejected come back to the surface giving account of itself in catastrophic forms, such as wars, ideologies (which have nothing rational) and crises of all kinds.

My intent is to cover summarily the process of what shamanism, as well as the European medieval alchemy and its ancient roots, is for depth psychology, an early progenitor, to be observed as a teacher and then go further, combining past and contemporaneity, without rejecting neither the one nor the other, combining magic and rational, mind and body, inner and outer, individual (self) and the world, visible and invisible.

Jungian psychology is part of a process of introversion and symbolization of spirituality, of research on human nature and the supernatural magic. Jung in the Red Book says:

Depths and surface should mix so that new life can develop. Yet the new life does not develop outside of us, but within us. What happens outside us in these days is the image that the peoples live in events, to bequeath this image immemorially to far-off times so that they might learn from it for their own way; just as we learned from the images that the ancients had lived before us in events (Jung 2010).

As long as rationality is taken to the absolute dominion and as long it continues to deny these natural and human phenomena alone that it can not understand and explain by itself, it is not possible a real evolution of consciousness and human history, but it instead creates an involution, where the denied irrational relegated to the shadows of the past takes over unconsciously, leading to seemingly unsolvable crisis. Both the body and the psyche, in fact, as shamanism teaches, are realms where energies that do not follow only the laws of cause and effect manifest themselves and this is why they are neither categorized nor quantifiable, without loosing the track of the global meaning .

The work of Jung, and his experience of life, is a still relevant attempt, to cope the need to integrate in us also what we call “magic”, irrational; to cope the need to become aware that what we fear and deny or seek outside of us, it is something that intimately belongs to us but that we still project outside of us, idealizing it, reducing it, denying it or avoiding it.

Delphi, 2015

The a-rational, that for the rational western-style culture now globalized, is a shadow looming on the individual and the community, which, like the rational one, is an essential part of life, as well as the feminine, to be accepted, learn and integrate in the conscious attitude.
In the same years they develop both quantum physics and psychology of CG Jung and Marie Louise von Franz. In the correspondence between Jung and Pauli (Nobel prize will for physics in 1945) Jung says:

In the same way in which the psyche and matter are contained in one and the same world, there are also, in permanent contact and are supported ultimately by transcendental incomprehensible factors; infact, it is possible, and even very probable, that matter and psyche are two different aspects of the same and unique thing. I think the synchronic phenomena turn in this direction: the non psychiccould act as the psychic”, and vice versa, without there being a causal relationship between them. ” (C. Meier, 1999).

Jung, supported by the simultaneous investigations of quantum mechanics and later by certain areas of neuroscience, makes explicit the sense he finds in the events of the twentieth century, that is he sees in social conflicts, in the crisis of traditional and religious values and in the individual mental illness, the need to unite opposites and make conscious the symbolic level that the ancients projected on the matter and natural forces and that instead is denied by moderns, disowned and left in the shadows like a dragon or an evil spirit, ready to burn everything.

I’m not here to make an introduction to the analytical psychology, or to give a lecture on the myth of Jung, but I think the fruitful seed of his intuitions should still, in 2015, entirely sprout.

What have in common shamanism and that germ I am speaking about?
The shaman embodies the image of the healer by means of rituals that connect him to invisible energies, activates a process of change in the community and maintains community identity through communication with images and timeless and ancestral energies.
Jungian epistemology, focuses on individuative needs, that is the natural law of transformation, which brings the being to develop fully the significance of his existence, to realize what he embodies, consciously or more often unconsciously.

The Self, (the psychic totality, that transcends the individual consciousness and that is transpersonal), includes both the I (the center of consciousness) with whom we identify, and what we do not recognize and that we project externally.
Make the individuation process conscious and voluntary, means fulfill a step that humanity is called to do, according to Jung, and considering the tragedies of the twentieth century. Make the individuation process conscious and facilitate the integration of split images, disowned and projected on the outside world, means starting to see within oneself, all that before one could see outside. It means to recognize the psychic totality as containing everything, even what we fear or that fascinates us, it is to experience the (we note here the link with the genius loci of the place where this conference takes place) “Know thyself”, dear here in Delphi .

I quote Jung again to deepen the process that binds depth psychology the transcendence of shamanism. In Mysterium Coniuctionis he says:

But this much we do know beyond all doubt,that empirical reality has a trascendental background, a fact which, (….) can be expressed by Plato’s parable of the cave. The common background of mycrophysics and depth-psycology is as much physical as psychic and therefore neither, but rather a third thing, a neutral nature which can at most be grasped in hints since in essence it is trascendental. The background of our empirical world thus appears to be in fact a unus mundus(CG Jung, 1955-56)

We start from the most important experience of Jung. He, who was not a student of Freud, but a young psychiatrist who worked at Burghozli (Psychiatric University Clinic) in Zurich, interested in the meaning of the psychic manifestations of the patients of the clinic, he found the concept of the unconscious that Freud was studying, as a key for the deepening of that the sense he believed peculiar both for the understanding of these people, and for the “cure”. In an era of external conflicts, the search for this sense became urgent. His personal psychology, this work and his vicissitudes of life, led him to a major crisis. He saw, while awake, images of Europe devastated. At first he thought he was getting himself into a psychosis, just as his patients of Burghozli, then, when the First World War broke out, he realized his unconscious already contained the precounciousness of future events. But he was not a seer, or a shaman, at least not most of those psychotic patients. He then had the intuition that the unconscious symbolizes when consciousness fails to symbolize and that if those symbols or images are not made conscious, they manifests in psychic, somatic or collective conflicts. Then he started a long period of immersion in his own images, in his own unconscious world and in the dialogue with the different parts of himself, he called this path active imagination. This dialogue was what patients and people could not and can not fulfill this task and therefore this task was entrusted to the shaman, the the healer, to the mystic and nowadays to the psychoanalyst.

In those years of traveling among the images of the unconscious, he wrote what we now know as the Red Book, First Matter, from which then he developed his entire theoretical reflection.
In his works, it is not so much in the foreground his personal experience, his images, but mainly what he has perceived as collective in this journey, and that belong to that famous collective unconscious. He often underline how it is important that everybody undertake his own inner journey in order to meet within himself both what he doesn’t accept of himself and of human history, and what the consciousness more identifies with .

But what Jung did not want, in line with the concept of archetypal individuation, was that a numinous image was projecting on him and then, that an external figure became responsible for his own identification, of the “know thyself”.
Maybe that process of personal integration, discovery and becoming entire is still collectively l difficult, and this is why Jung did not want to publish the Red Book, if not at least 50 years after his death.

In this personal journey of initiation in which the guide is interior, the magical element ceases to be something external, the object is no longer “mana”, that is, endowed with magical powers, but the a-casual and syncronic phenomena, are perceived as part of one’s psyche, and what was magic before, can be seen and cured as a a-rational part of the self, opposed to rational.

Shamanism is going through a crisis at cultural, political, symbolic level: it seems that few individuals can no more compensate the hypertrophic development of rationality that split, divides and judges.
The study of dreams and of inner images by means of the active imagination, is seen as an initiatory modern process for initiation, where it is the individual who comes in contact with the natural forces that he can feel into himself, into his images, into his dreams, into his discomfort. Forse cercavi:

The shamans and the so-called primitive peoples lived their life symbolically, but the symbol was projected on the object. The principio individuationis studied and promoted by this Jung and few others’ psychology of initiation, becomes part of habitual life, in which everything that happens, is part of the symbol that one’s own psyche produces.To live it, means to live one’s own myth, and the events that take place and roles represented by local characters, are necessary for the unfolding of the story that if projected outside on gods and heroes, has the function of representing the human experience, but if observed from within, it has the function of transcending the conflict of opposites and to create new ways forward.

Jung in his autobiography Memories Dreams and Reflections (an autobiography based more than on the facts of life, on inner impressions and perceptions) states:

My aim was to show that delusions and hallucinations were not just specific symptoms of mental disease but also had a human meaning. To discover this meaning is to see, and accept the polarities existing in every natural and human phenomenon. He also states: “The assimilation of the fundamental insight that psychic life has two poles still remains a task for the future.”

Jung worked for the process of awareness of matter and psyche mutual influence: the psyche is considered (conceived) as a space where it is possible to the world and, in practice, the only way to influence it.
About this Edinger says:

Concepts and abstractions do not coagulate, they make air and not soil, they are agents of sublimatio. The images of dreams and active imagination, however, coagulate: they connect the outside world with the inner world by means of similar or proportional pictures, and so they coagulate matter of soul stuff.

Considering the active imagination, Marie Louise von Franz states:

Some active imaginations may be realized as conversations with parts of one’s body perceived internally or hearing them talk. This is of great help especially in cases of psychogenic physical symptoms. Whatever is the material one put in contact with, inside or outside the body, especially many synchronistic events can occur, this is a fact that highlights the extraordinary power of active imagination. (Marie Louise von Franz, 1977)

I will conclude my contribution by mentioning a phenomenon that become fundamental concept in the research of human dephts and of the human (?) nature, both in physics than in Jungian psychology: synchronicity. The process of integration of the images projected on the outside world seems to create a kind of acceleration of the process itself therefore the archetype of the self, of the psychic totality activates, within which not only happen causalistic events, but also synchronic, which are that unconscious reality that motivates the belief in magic.

The awareness that these magical or synchronic phenomena increase more and more when we are occupied in listening to what resonates within ourselves, lead to the realization that we are joined with the whole human race and with nature.

I finsh my contribution by saying that perhaps it is no coincidence (synchronicity?) that we are here to talk about the destiny of a more intuitive awareness of oneself and of nature, in the homeland of the Oracle of Delphi, where, as Dodds says:

The Pythia became entheos, plena deo.The god entered into her and used her vocal organs as if they were his own, exactly as the so-called “control” does in modern spirit-mediumship; that is why Apollo’s Delphic utterances are always couched in the first person, never in the third. There were, indeed, in later times, those who held that it was beneath the dignity of a divine being to enter into a mortal body, and preferred to believe like many psychical researcher in our own day that all prophetic madness was due to an innate faculty of the soul itself , which it coul exercise in certain conditions, when liberated from bodily interference and from rational control. (E. R. Dodds)

Even here it seems that the archetype of the Self, or what that brings us to the awareness of the irrational connection of all things, is a reality that has always existed and that today we need to be more and more aware of it, at an age when it is more and more urgent an inner renewal of the individual, and a social, political and economic renewal.


C.G.Jung, Sonu Shamdasani (a cura di), Libro Rosso, 2010

C.G.Jung, Mysterium Coniuctionis, 1955-56

C.G.Jung, Aniela Jaffè (a cura di), Sogni, ricordi, riflessioni, 1965

C.Meier, Il carteggio Pauli-Jung, Roma, 1999

E. R. Dodds, I greci e l’irrazionale, 1951

E. Edinger, Anatomia della Psiche, 1985

E. De Martino, Il mondo magico, 1973

Gerardus van der Leeuw. Fenomenologia della religione, 2002.

M.L.Von Franz, Alchemical Active Imagination, 1979

M.L.Von Franz, rivistapsicologianalitica., cap. 7, n.17-1977,

Plutarco, Dialoghi Delfici, 1983

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