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Encounters with the Soul: Active Imagination as Developed by C.G. Jung

Commentary to The Inward Gaze by Marie-Louise von Franz

If we look inward, the “other” looks at us too, but with a strange faraway eye.

The unconscious begins to unveil its secret play of fantasy: images of seductive beauty and the most cruel abysses of nature.

They are framed above by a transparent snake, a symbol of spiritual power. Often Peter Birhauser was persecuted in his dreams by a strange ‘ ‘old woman,” an unrecognizable, terrifying enemy.

This is the dark side of nature, inertia and death, from which the creative artist has to wrestle free again and again.

The figure who sees this vision is colorless-his consciousness is drained of life, and the whole play of colors has gone into the reality of his unconscious, where a frog rises from below, an old symbol of resurrection. ~Marie-Louise von Franz, Encounters with the Soul, Page Page vii


When C. G. Jung went on the quest of finding his own myth after his break with Freud, he ventured into the realm of the collective unconscious, unguided and alone.

In this unique confrontation he discovered, by trial and error, a new way of coming to terms with the contents of the unconscious within the unitary reality of creative fantasy. Jung later called this method “active imagination,” and recommended it warmly to many of his patients.

He described active imagination as the only way toward a direct encounter with the reality of the unconscious without the intermediary use of tests or dream interpretation. Although he discussed documents of active imagination in seminars, he did not publish

any of them, probably because he realized how far removed these documents were from the collective, conscious views of his time.

A great change has taken place since then.

In Europe as well as in the United States, innumerable techniques have cropped up for releasing some forms of unconscious fantasies in an awakened state of consciousness.

All of them, however, are only forms of passive imagination, which nevertheless have a salutary effect.

Nowadays, there is practically no mental hospital where painting, modeling, dance, music and writing are not used to help patients express their problems.

At the end of his life, Jung remarked that passive imagination had been more or less understood by the world, unlike active imagination.

In short, what is lacking is the active, ethical confrontation, the active entering of the

whole person into the fantasy-drama. But in my experience, this is very difficult for people to understand in a practical way.

Barbara Hannah’s book is therefore a unique help for understanding this point through

her well-chosen examples.

Her point-by-point comments on every turn within the stories and dialogues were often surprising and most helpful for me.

The figures of the unconscious are powerful and weak, benevolent and insidious, and a very alert mind and heart are needed to avoid the mass of possible traps into which one can inadvertently step when dealing with them.

In a way, one must be potentially ”whole” already in order to enter the drama; if one is not, one will learn to become so by painful experience.

Active imagination is thus the most powerful tool in Jungian psychology for achieving wholeness-far more efficient than dream interpretation alone.

Barbara Hannah’s book is the first and only book I know of which can promote its understanding by illustrating, through various examples, the steps, the pitfalls and successes of this method of encountering the unconscious.

In contrast to the numerous existing techniques of passive imagination, active imagination is done alone, to which most people must overcome considerable resistance. It is a form of play, but a bloody serious one.

Perhaps, therefore, the resistance many people have against it is sometimes justified, and one should not push anyone into it thoughtlessly.

Very often, a situation of utter despair (as that which the World-Weary Man met) is needed to initially open the door.

But I think that nobody who has once discovered active imagination would ever want to miss it, because it can literally achieve miracles of inner transformation.

Barbara Hannah not only comments on several modern examples of active imagination, but also on two most remarkable historical examples.

We also know that many alchemists used an imaginatio vera et non phantastica in their work, which was a form of active imagination.

This gives us the satisfaction of knowing that we are dealing here not with a weird innovation, but with a human experience which has been lived through before.

It is actually a new form of one of the oldest forms of religio, in the sense of ” giving careful consideration to the numinous powers.” ~Marie-Louise von Franz, Encounters with the Soul, Page 1-2

Barbara Hannah