Sunday, May 10, 2015

Active Imagination

Carl Jung, in Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, described how therapeutic it could be to translate his own emotions into images (a process now referred to by Jungian therapists as active imagination). He described being visited by a "friend of Gandhi's... a highly cultivated elderly Indian whose guru was a 'commentator on the Vedas who died centuries ago.'"

Jung was a bit embarrassed to talk about this, remarking on the irony that a psychiatrist should discover within himself "the same psychic material which is the stuff of psychosis." He was relieved to realize he'd only experienced "the sort of thing that could happen to others who make similar efforts." 

We all talk to ourselves, but we sometimes do that as part of a negative cycle of worry, blame, or guilt. Active imagination personifies the "parts" of us that are talking – to create more clarity or even resolution that might not be possible with ordinary linear problem-solving.  

Anything could stimulate active imagination. You might be seeking clarity on a key decision, or puzzled by an emotional reaction you've had to someone, or curious about a dream you've had. Here's how one of my clients used active imagination to help resolve her performance anxiety.

Sue had always loved giving pep talks to her own team, so when she was promoted to Vice President, she was surprised to find herself "freezing" when required to give formal presentations in the corporate Board Room.

While agonizing over this, she had a dream in which her aging mother wanted to die and asked Sue to kill her. Sue imagined herself talking to the mother in her dream and wrote down the conversation below. This dialogue is fascinating because it shows the creativity of active imagination – it can move in any direction if you just let yourself go:
Sue to Dream Mother: "Why are you here? What role are you playing in this dream?"
Mother: "Think of the pampas grass in your yard and how you're attracted to it, the way it grows luxurious, seductive, how it feathers itself for attention, how it says, 'Look at me! Look at me!'"

Sue: "I know I want to be heard, I want to make a good impression. But why are you showing up in my dream?"

Mother: "I'm the mother in you who tells you your wishes and what you have to say are unimportant. Everyone loves me because I'm nice, because I hide my critical nature, because I'm not aggressive, because I have no voice."

Sue: "Why are you asking me to kill you?"

Mother: "It's time for you to 'kill' your fear of speaking out, your urge to be 'nice' at the expense of your own wishes and ideas. Meditate on loving what's within, discover your voice is already there, you speak from it every day of your life. Speak to the part of you who doesn't yet see that."

Sue: "It's hard to find that part, to give form to how hard it is to speak out. I picture a murky cloud."

Cloud: "I'm murky because the sun feels blinding. I'm not sure if I can stand the excitement. I've covered the sun so long I've lowered my tolerance for energy, for light, for seeing things clearly, and for saying things clearly.


Sue: "So, how can I move past that?"

Cloud: "Picture yourself in the space where you're anxious. Imagine the light is set low on a dimmer. Slowly turn the dimmer up until your eyes get used to the bright light."
This internal dialogue helped Sue better understand the nature of her anxiety. She also used the visualization as she prepared her next Board Room presentation. She was delighted (and a little surprised) that her anxiety dimmed as she allowed herself to shine.


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