The History and Multi-Sensory Nature of Active Imagination

The History and Multi-Sensory Nature of Active Imagination
Joan Chodorow
(Palestra proferida no XIV Congresso do Associação Junguiana do Brasil (AJB):
Mundus Imaginalis – Arte, Ciência, Espiritualidade)

When the great swing has taken an individual into the world of symbolic mysteries,
nothing comes of it, nothing can come of it, unless it has been associated with the earth,
unless it has happened when that individual was in the body….And so individuation can
only take place if you first return to the body, to your earth, only then does it become
— C. G. Jung
Visions Seminars (1934) Vol. 2 (New York: Spring Publications. 1976), p. 473.
I am happy to be with you today and especially want to thank Dr. Joel Giglio and Elisabeth Zimmermann for inviting me. We first met in 2003 at the international congress on arts and play in psychotherapy and analysis in Bulgaria. It is a special pleasure to be in touch with culturally developed individuals, colleagues who recognize the depth psychological nature of the age-old cultural forms (art, religion, philosophy and society). Our congress theme reflects this. We gather as a community of Jungian analysts and candidates to explore the imaginal world through art, science and spirituality. Similar connections between psychological development and cultural development appear in Paulo Pereira’s study entitled “Reconnecting Body and Soul.”
Some of you may have seen it in the May 2004 issue of the San Francisco Institute Library Journal, including a wonderful photo of Paulo on the cover. More recently, I had the privilege of attending a workshop co-led by Joel Giglio and Elizabeth Zimmermann at the IV Latin American Congress of Analytical Psychology in Uruguay. Once again, I was impressed with the contributions of colleagues who embody and explore the interwoven nature of psyche and culture. This afternoon, I offer my perspective on the history and multi-sensory nature of active imagination, with special attention to the role of the analyst. In one section of my talk, I shall invite you to approach and explore the image-producing function of the psyche (the imagination) through experiential work, beginning with each of the traditional five senses, as well as the ongoing stream of somatosensory imageexperiences. In closing, I’ll invite you to consider an enlargement of active imagination, drawing from age-old cultural forms (religion, art, philosophy and society), and the inner symbolic cultural attitudes described by Joseph Henderson (the religious, the aesthetic, the philosophic/scientific, the social, and the central selfreflective psychological attitude). The symbolic cultural attitudes can be understood as intrinsic forms or categories of the archetypal imagination.
Jung’s experiments with self-healing
Jung described active imagination as his “analytical method of psychotherapy” (Letters, Vol. II, p. 222). He discovered it out of his own need for self-healing. Following the break with Freud around 1912-1913, Jung was disoriented and experienced a time of intense inner turmoil. He searched for a method to heal himself from within and finally decided to engage with the impulses and images of his unconscious. The first thing that came up was a childhood memory. At the age of 10 or  11, when his younger sister, his only sibling was a toddler, there was a period when he was fascinated with building games. His memory of spontaneous play released a rush of emotion. As a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis, Jung felt out of touch with his creative life. He knew he needed to bridge the distance between himself and the young boy. It all began with symbolic play. As Jung put it: “I had no choice but to … take up that child’s life with his childish games” (Jung 1961, p. 174). And so, Jung voluntarily submitted to his fantasies and began to enact them, that is, he began to play exactly as he had when he was a young boy. His building game turned out to be the beginning of a deep process of psychological development. In a thought-provoking review of Jung’s confrontation with the unconscious, Louis Stewart pointed out that play does not necessarily lead down the slope of memory to childishness; rather it leads directly to the unfinished business of childhood (Stewart 1982/1995, p. 378). But play does more.
Symbolic play activates the integrative function of imagination that puts us in touch with ourselves. In Jung’s case, he not only retrieved long forgotten memories from his past, but a flood of fantasies were released that ultimately reshaped his future: The years when I was pursuing my inner images were the most important in my life – in them everything essential was decided. It all began then; the later details are only supplements and clarification of the material that burst forth from the unconscious and at first swamped me. It was the prima material for a lifetime’s work. (Jung 1961, p. 199)
Jung came to call this process active imagination. As a psychotherapeutic method, it has two parts or stages: Letting the unconscious come up, and coming to terms with the unconscious. In his essays, he describes its starting points (mainly moods, images, sensations and impulses); and some of its many expressive forms (painting, sculpting, drawing, writing, dancing, weaving, dramatic enactment, inner visions, inner dialogues). He presents active imagination as an adjunctive technique, but by linking it to his symbolic method of dream interpretation and to the analytic relationship, Jung laid the groundwork for a comprehensive method of psychotherapy.
Multi-Sensory Imagination
From the beginning, Jung understood that images are experienced and expressed through any or all of the sensory modalities. These include the classic 5 senses: visual (sight), auditory (sound), olfactory (smell), and gustatory (taste), as well as tactile (touch). There is also the internally generated world of somatosensory imageexperiences such as muscular, temperature, pain, visceral, and vestibular (Damasio1999, p. 318). The Greek word for “body” is soma and the word somatosensory brings  to mind billions of receptors located all over the body providing an ongoing stream of sensory experience from the world and the self. As far back as 1902, Jung recognized that images are not only visual. In his medical dissertation “On the Psychology and Pathology of So-called Occult Phenomena,” he described a series of visions or hallucinations “of a systemic nature involving all of the sense organs equally” (Jung 1902, p. 22, par. 45). Following Charcot, Jung differentiated visual images, auditory images and motor images (Jung 1902, p. 51, par. 86, note 35). In his 1904 word association studies Jung wrote: “An inner image is vivid if the associations immediately connected with it spring to mind. The nearest associations upon the image of a concrete object are the sensory aspects: the visual, the acoustic, the tactile, and the motor” (Jung 1904-1909, p. 181, par. 472).
Jung’s early observation that inner images come to life when their sensory aspects are amplified (made ample), brings to mind a beautifully written contemporary study. In Body and Earth: An Experiential Guide, Andrea Olsen gives many examples of the multi-sensory nature of amplification. In the following passage, she interweaves neurological and experiential perspectives to describe the way a thought may develop into a vivid, dynamic image: “When an image begins in the cerebral cortex as a thought (imagine a tree), it travels down to the occipital lobe to the visual buffer [initial processing of what we see]. As we deepen our visualization (what does the tree look like, what is its smell, what movement does it inspire?) associations surface to fill in precise details, until the image becomes quite clear. In this way, we create a visual representation of our thoughts that can seem as real as an actual memory. When we visualize, imagine or image an activity, we also stimulate neuromuscular circuitry, engaging a full body response, even when we are sitting still. (Imagine climbing the tree: where do you put your foot, where do you touch the branch?) If visualization is accompanied by actual physical practice, it is highly effective in stimulating efficient, integrated, neuromuscular circuitry (Olsen 2002, p. 89).
Returning to Jung, he continued to explore the multi-sensory nature of the psyche. For example, in his 1916 essay about the method he came to call active imagination, Jung seemed to suggest a typology of the senses when he wrote that “visual types” tend to see fantasy pictures, while “audio-verbal types” are more likely to hear inner voices (Jung 1916/1958, p. 83, par. 170). I imagine he may have been thinking about tactile types when he wrote: “There are others again, who neither see nor hear anything inside themselves, but whose hands have the knack of giving expression to the contents of the unconscious.” (Jung 1916/1958, p. 83, par. 171). He goes on to say: “Often the hands know how to solve a riddle with which the intellect has wrestled in vain. By shaping it, one goes on dreaming the dream in greater detail in the waking state, and the initially incomprehensible, isolated event is integrated into the sphere of the total personality, even though it remains at first unconscious to the subject” (Jung 1916/1958, par. 180).
In this early paper, Jung also speaks of bodily movement as a way to express the imagination: “Those, finally, who are able to express the contents of the unconscious by means of bodily movement are fairly rare. The difficulty that movements cannot be easily remembered must be met by concentrating on the movements afterwards and practicing them so that they shall not escape the memory” (Jung 1916/1957, p. __). In a later version of the same paper, he suggested, “making careful drawings of the movements afterwards” (Jung 1916/1958, p. 84, par. 171). Years later, when discussing the mandala in his 1928-1930 dream seminar, he made the comment: “You can draw a mandala, you can build a mandala, or you can dance a mandala” (Jung 1928-30, p. 120).
In the same seminar (about a year later), he said: “Anyone with a motor imagination could make a very beautiful dance out of that motif” (Jung 1928-30, p. 474). Marie-Louise von Franz reported that Jung once told her symbolic enactment with the body is “more efficient than ‘ordinarily active imagination,’ but he could not explain why” (von Franz 1980, p. 126).
Jung on the analyst’s role in active imagination
To approach Jung’s ideas about the role of the analyst in active imagination, and his descriptions of how he worked, I gathered together many pages of quotes, everything I could find in his published works about active imagination and the therapeutic relationship. Reading it through many times, it became clear that Jung drew in a natural way from all of the age-old cultural forms (arts, religion, philosophy and society) and the inner symbolic cultural attitudes described by Joseph Henderson (1984). As we know, the practice of analysis involves an integrative process of blending and interweaving, drawing from the rich resources of human culture from a self-reflective, psychological point of view.
The arts
When appreciating the expressive movements of the body, or the vivid colors and shapes that bring a painting to life, or when using poetic metaphor to describe any number of events, it is obvious that Jung’s aesthetic imagination mirrored, affirmed and amplified that of his patients. Involved as both mentor and as highly differentiated witness, Jung’s intention was not as much about the creation of art, as it was `the living effect upon the patient himself ‘ (1931: par. 104).
For Jung, the contents that emerge in active imagination require understanding, but they do not require interpretation: `Image and meaning are identical, and as the first takes shape, so the latter becomes clear. Actually, the pattern needs no interpretation; it portrays its own meaning’ (Jung 1947: par. 402). His method of symbolic amplification is aligned with the natural process of parallel association, inviting exploration of questions around origins, meaning and purpose.
Encounter and dialogue with the gods
Inner-directed relationship seeks direct experience of the Self. In the deepest sense, the analyst brings conscious and unconscious together through ongoing intrapsychic work. In addition, Jung taught certain analysands to open to, engage with, and differentiate from the ongoing stream of visions in the mind’s eye and inner voices.
Although aspects of active imagination may be done alone, the therapeutic relationship is the container and it may also be an active part of the process. Toward the end of his life, Jung made a brief but significant addition to his 1916 essay, when he linked active imagination to transference enactments that may emerge or erupt in the analytic hour. In the following quote, he points toward enlarging active imagination to include work with the dynamics of the transference: “In most cases a long conflict will have to be borne, demanding sacrifices from both sides. Such a rapprochement could just as well take place between patient and analyst, the role of the devil’s advocate easily falling to the latter” (Jung 1916/1958: par. 186)
Multi-Sensory Experiences
I invite you now to consider a series of multi-sensory images. I encourage you to experiment with the parts you feel might be useful, and leave the rest. Take the time you need for transitions, especially from one mode to another. Although I shall sometimes describe the sensory modes separately, in reality, the natural, integrative function of imagination tends to create multi-sensory images. Andrea Olsen reminds us that perception is “cumulative, generally simultaneous, and necessarily selective. Rarely does one part of the sensory system act alone” (Olsen 2002, p. 57).
Classic five senses
As I invite you to explore this material, keep in mind that you do not have to do what I say. For example, if I suggest something that takes you away from yourself, follow your inner sense of what is wanted. If you are not sure, it is OK to bear the tension of uncertainty and see what psyche does with it. To begin: take a deep breath, close your eyes — go inside — and invite a visual image to appear. If psyche presents a particular visual image, let yourself play with it in your mind’s eye by imagining its sound, smell, taste, touch, movement and more. Later on, if it feels right, you may want to find a way to express it symbolically and open your self to stories of what it might be about.
Make a transition now toward an auditory image. You may hear or imagine or remember an inner voice, or voices, or sounds, or music from another time and place. Later on, if you want to amplify a particular sound, you might play with your voice, inviting the auditory image to whisper, speak, sound, or sing through your vocal apparatus. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung described his own experience of auditory images: “Sometimes it was as if I were hearing it with my ears, sometimes feeling it with my mouth, as if my tongue were formulating words; now and then I heard myself whispering aloud” (Jung 1961, p. 178). Sometimes sounds, vibrations and songs from within are harmonious and beautiful. Other times, there may be terrible inner sounds that play unbidden, repeatedly. Alfred Wolfsohn, a “shell shocked” veteran of the First World War was haunted for many years by the sounds of trench warfare, especially the screams of his wounded and dying comrades. It wasn’t until he found a way to express the unbearable sounds symbolically, that he began to find relief (Newham 1972).
If you are ready to explore another mode, make the transition now toward an olfactory image. You may notice actual aromas around you, or psyche may produce a particular fragrance or smell from another time and place. Take a deep breath. Make the transition now toward a gustatory image. Do you remember or imagine a particular taste? What are the associated textures, smells, temperatures and colors? Images of sweet, sour, bitter and salty tastes are actual flavors with corresponding receptors on the tongue; they are also symbolic experiences of life. How might the tastes of foods we accept and reject be expressed symbolically? How might the wanted and unwanted tastes of life itself be expressed and explored? Turn your attention now to the largest organ of the body, your skin. As you invite a tactile (touch) image, you may begin by sensing the actual contact between your skin and the clothes you are wearing. What is the difference between skin surrounded by air, and skin brushed lightly by soft fabric, or skin pressed more tightly by elastic? In addition to the present moment, there may also be memory fragments from another time and place of light touch, firm touch, gentle stroking, deep stimulation and more. Are there associations to comfort and well-being, or discomfort and pain? Are there associations to heat and cold? These questions may lead to a world of preverbal experiences involving touch, as well as many other associations. How do we discover ways to open to and express our experiences of touch symbolically, and when the time is right, how do we find ways to explore its meaning?
Somatosensory: Temperature, pain, visceral, vestibular and kinaesthetic imageexperiences
By attending to felt bodily sensations, your attention may be drawn to experiences of warmer or cooler temperature, both in the room and in your body. For example, in this room as we breathe, notice the temperature of the air as it enters your nose or mouth and lungs, and then the slightly warmer air you exhale. You may also remember and imagine symbolic impressions such as emotional warmth, heat, fire, or coolness, cold, freezing. How do we experience, express and communicate experiences of heat and cold, and how do we understand it psychologically? By attending inwardly, many of us notice various muscular aches and pains, perhaps especially as we grow older. In addition to sensory experience from pain receptors in different parts of the body there is also a parallel world of uncomfortable, sometimes unbearable emotional pain. People come to psychotherapy and analysis seeking relief. Yet the process tends to involve voluntarily opening oneself to pain,
usually from a symbolic perspective. Jung describes such a symbolic perspective in his 1929 “Commentary on The Secret of the Golden Flower”: What, on a lower level, had led to the wildest conflicts and to panicky outbursts of emotion, from the higher level of personality now looked like a storm in the valley seen from the mountain top. This does not mean that the storm is robbed of its reality, but instead of being in it one is above it. But since in a psychic sense, we are both valley and mountain, it might seem a vain illusion to deem oneself beyond what is human. One certainly does feel the affect and is shaken and tormented by it, yet at the same time one is aware of a higher consciousness looking on which prevents one from becoming identical with the affect, a consciousness which regards the affect as an object, and can say, “I know that I suffer.” (Jung 1929, par. 17)
Visceral images involve the autonomic nervous system, including changes in heart rate and respiration, together with the undulating motions and rumblings of the gut and many of the bodily felt patterns of various emotions. Vestibular images have much to do with equilibrium. Certain unwanted medical conditions produce vertigo. At the same time, kittens and puppies chase their own tails for the fun of it until they fall down. And children may spin voluntarily until they fall (and then watch the sky go round). In his beautifully written typology of play and games, Roger Caillois describes ilinx, a particular classification of games involving rapid whirling or falling movements that seek to “momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind” (Caillois 1979, p. 23).
Somatosensory: The moving imagination
Take another deep breath and turn your attention to the ongoing stream of kinesthetic (muscular) images that allow us to perceive the motion, weight or position of your body. Proprioceptive nerve endings in the muscles, tendons, joints, and inner ear provide an ongoing flow of sensory experience from within. With eyes closed, listen to your body and discover what kind of shapes it might want to make. As you explore different postural shapes and perhaps gestures, let yourself sense the momentto- moment experience from within. For example, even in stillness there is the subtle, continuous cycle of growing and shrinking in three dimensions (vertical, lateral, saggital). You may be focused on your actual body the way it is in the present moment. And/or, you may remember and imagine a world of movement experiences from the past and possibilities for the future.
At any moment, the body is at once actual and imaginal. The limbic system does not appear to differentiate between perceptions of the outer world (exteroceptive) and perceptions of the inner world (interoceptive). Either way, there is an emotional response. There is also an inner world of representations drawn from life experiences, stored throughout the brain-mind-body as conscious and unconscious memory fragments. These emotionally charged, multi-sensory impressions of both the outer world and the inner world of the embodied Self are intricately interwoven with psyche’s image-producing function. Whether expressed through play, dreams, fantasies, active imagination, or creative imagination, the image-producing function of the psyche is all about processing and integrating emotion. The great Russian dancer Galina Ulanova described her experience of this. She wrote: “All impressions of life settle in our minds. And the strongest, the most vivid and the most beautiful imperceptibly influence the development of what we call artistry” (Ulanova quoted in Kahn 1962, p. 211).
How do we approach and explore the psychological and symbolic dimensions of these powerful somatosensory image-experiences? Many core concepts in analytical psychology are compatible with insights emerging from contemporary neuroscience, especially concepts that focus on the multi-sensory, integrative nature of imagination, affect attunement, affect regulation, implicit (somatic unconscious) memory, creative and destructive aspects of projection and the overall body-psyche connection. The living body — infused with sensory and emotional experience — is a mystery and a miracle. As Jung described it in The Zarathustra Seminars: “The living body contains the secret of life, it is an intelligence. It is also a plurality which is gathered up in one mind” (Jung 1934-39, p. 360). He names different parts of the body, such as toes, fingers, ears, stomach, knees, and goes on to say: “Each part is always something in itself. The different forms and localizations are all represented in your mind as more or less different facts, so there is a plurality. What you think with your head doesn’t necessarily coincide with what you feel in your heart, and what your belly thinks is not necessarily what your mind thinks. The extension in space therefore, creates a pluralistic quality in the mind. That is probably the reason consciousness is possible” (Jung 1934-39, p. 360).
Closing Thoughts
Active imagination is more than a specific meditative procedure or expressive technique. In the deepest sense, it is the central, self-reflective psychological attitude that draws from all of the symbolic cultural attitudes described by Joseph Henderson (1984): the religious, the aesthetic, the scientific/philosophic and the social: I can imagine a group of future analysts teaching a new appreciation of old cultural attitudes not because they set out to do this on purpose in any missionarizing spirit but because this teaching would be an inevitable result of their way of working with their patients. (Henderson 1962: 14) In analysis, we are engaged with all of the intrinsic categories of the imagination. Depending on tastes and talents, inclinations and typology, different forms of the imagination will be prominent in the work of different individuals. Given the nature of the psyche, it seems inevitable that analysis invites the religious imagination, imagination of the mysteries expressed as visions in the mind’s eye, inner voices and intrapsychic work that develops toward an ongoing dialogue with the god or gods within.
Similarly, analysis invites the aesthetic imagination, imagination of beauty expressed through rhythm and rhythmic harmony. Fantasies may be expressed through drawing, painting, sculpting, dance, music, dramatic enactment, poetry and Sandplay, as well as tapestries, stories and many other forms, according to individual nature and preferences.
We engage also through the philosophic, scientific, scholarly imagination. Jung’s method of symbolic amplification is built upon the natural process of parallel association that draws in part from the rich resources of human knowledge including child development, animal studies, cultural history, mythology and more. In analysis, scholarly imagination is all about exploring and understanding the symbol in its personal, cultural and archetypal dimensions. Analysis is contained by and interwoven with the social imagination, the imagination of relationship, empathic imagination and work with the dynamics of the transference and countertransference. Jung referred to the transference as active imagination when he wrote: `The inner dialogue could just as well take place between patient and analyst’ (1916/1958: par. 186). Finally, analysis leads, inevitably, toward the central, self-reflective psychological imagination, which is a quintessence of the other four. By quintessence, I mean that the natural way to create and re-create the personality is through the symbolic cultural attitudes (religious, aesthetic, philosophical, social), shaped by the age-old value inscribed at the Delphic Oracle: Know Thyself.
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