Active imagination is a foundational imaginal practice and can also be used as a primary method for imaginal research. One might even say that, in a sense, all imaginal research is a form of active imagination.
Complex psychology holds that there are territories within us — understood as unconscious or subconscious — that quietly affect our behaviors and beliefs. Normally, we interact with the subconscious in our nighttime dreams, or experience it in the form of projection on the outer world. But dreams and projection aren’t the only way to connect with the subconscious mind. Active imagination opens this door, as well.
In A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis, Samuels et al helpfully describe active imagination as
dreaming with open eyes. Sometimes this is literally the case, as one of the core techniques of active imagination is to
select an encounter from a nighttime dream and, in cooperation with the figures of the inner world, to re-enter the dream, allowing
the narrative to continue to unfold. Such dream re-entry is one several imaginal methods for inviting
unconscious content forward and
allowing it to ‘speak.’ This work can be done in artistic media — painting or performance, for instance — but the best form for
this work may be the imaginal dialogue.
In this approach to active imagination, we invite subconscious parts of ourselves — including symptoms, complexes and other inner figures — to step forward and interact with us. From the point of view of our ‘I’ (the ego, or ego-complex), we can speak with these parts of our psyches, ask them questions, and even have shared adventures. In this way, the subconscious mind is given the time and space to express its images, its desires, its wishes.
Though it bears similarities to both shamanic journeying and meditation, active imagination requires no deliberately induced trance or altered state of consciousness. The ego remains fully conscious during the practice and brings its own ethics and resources to the imaginal conversation. Additionally, there are no hard-and-fast rules or pre-established structures. The main requirement for active imagination is a time commitment — as little as 15-20 minutes per session — and a willingness to treat one’s inner images as real, at least for the duration of the dialogue.