Avicenna, Carl Jung, and the Magical Dimensions of Active Imagination

We tend to associate the practice of active imagination with psychiatrist Carl G. Jung and his pioneering depth psychology and frankly psychic, occult experiences. And of course it was Jung who brought it into western thought and practise related, he believed, to the psychological and spiritual world of alchemy. I write about it because my medium mother encountered it spontaneously, as part of her psychic sittings with friends, and passed it to me as her greatest gift.

But active imagination – in perhaps its most pure form – was described at least as early as the great Islamic philosopher Avicenna who lived from approximately 980 to 1030 AD. He taught that in the trained imagination we can access a ‘nonspatial fabric’ which mediates between the empirical/sensory and the cognitional/spiritual realms”.

Old Well – Universal symbol of ancient wisdom, water hidden deep for humanity to find in its own time, but also to inherit, through the generations.

This is a very tidy and complete definition of active imagination. We note that it is active in the sense that energy here can be directed towards creation and transformation. It is imagination because it is a special kind of interaction with a realm just beyond our normal, everyday range of mental awareness. And the activity undertaken here has a specific purpose – it mediates between the empirical/sensory and the cognitional/spiritual realsm.

Now we are getting close to the world inhabited by the Shaman. Here is where, in ancient terms, true magic can take place, if by magic we mean the mysterious transformation of the world through the power of Mind.

Note too that Avicenna speaks of the nonspatial fabric of which this realm is made. It seems that here, we have arrived, as do the shaman or advanced yogi, at the fourth dimension, that place beyond space and time where, we have come to believe, our reality as we know it is actually created.  Here, the Forms of which Plato wrote, reside; from them great archetypes imprint their outline and dynamics upon our individual and shared humanreality.

So when we enter a state of active imagination in meditation, we stand on a bridge to higher realms in which we can engage in the transformation of reality within our physical and psychologial worlds.

As a mystical bridge to mysterious, magical powers of Mind, active imagination has great implications for understanding the true nature of Shamanism and the source of its healing, creative, transformative power.

The Finnish Great Oak, foundation of the creation myth.

Transformation Through Symbol

Active imagination involves a particular level of Mind, and its language seems to rely heavily on symbol. As we know, the language of the psyche, particularly of the unconscious, reveals itself in dreams to be primarily symbol-based, though we do, at times, dream of real people and real events, past, present, and occasionally, those which are about to happen.

Similarly, in active imagination, the contents of the imaginal process can take place through symbols – including the animal allies which appear and carry out various activities for and with the shaman. However, sometimes, as in dreams, we see entirely accurate images of past events being re-created in our “mind’s eye” and follow the action with keen interst. We then also discover that active imagination is by no means a merely visual experience. The events and memories which rise up are usually drenched in their original emotions, and the drama which unfolds shows us how that original event permeated so many events later in our lives, complete with the identical set of original emotions.

New Growth Emerging From Snow – Universal symbol of hope in dark times.

Symbols will play a role almost always. Sometimes the first images which appear are symbolic, like a Great Tree of Life, or you see yourself at the foot of a Mountain, afraid to climb, afraid of what is hidden there, but what you need may be on the other side of.  Here, you may see yourself aided by an Old Man, who encourages you to climb…and you realize this is talking about a situation very current in your life. It is really like a mini psychic reading you are giving yourself.

Some well-known symbols come from religions, from the Cross to the Crescent, from the nun’s veil to the hijab. We recognize others as archetypes like the Wise Owl, the Ancient Well, the Wise Old Woman, the Mountain, the Bridge, and the World Tree.

People too, like the house you once lived in, a dog you once had, a car you had an accident in – these can all be symbols of something to us. In dream work we always ask the dreamer what a person or place “symbolizes” to them, and we interpret most of the dreamscape and its elements as symbolizing various themes, just as we do the opening scenes of a movie.

Glow of Hope or Lady With the Lamp – a symbol of both the Sacred Feminine and of the Light in the darkness…

Who Or What is Directing the Movies in Active Imagination?

Within the state of active imagination, the Mind appears to translate events and psychological processes or states into symbols, as a kind of psychic or magical short-hand. It then performs its alchemical work through the transformation of these symbols into new ones – like watching the sun come up in a “New Dawn” which conveys immediate new hope.

This process of 1) problem presented 2) roots of problem probed and 3) cure for problem presented in new understand or new deeds, is found in nearly all rituals human beings have developed in world religions and especially in shamanic rituals.

And all of this appears to be guided by an Intelligence which seems more than the raw power, albeit magnificent, of Mind. We can sense as we enter this remarkable nonspatial fabric, this living message board, that we are in the presence of an extraordinary, subtle Self. This is the Higher Self which appears to have access to all parts of our being. We learn that it can direct our energies to lost or separated personality fragments; it can take us back into past events, to transform through symbol those events which led to PTSD and other limitations. This Self is unique, but we know it when we meet it.

Time and patience are the key in the inner and outer work of our shamanistic Mind. In the fullness of time, what we discover, resolve, transform and create anew in symbolic form while in the imaginal world, will enter our everyday world and there, it will bring healing and new realities of growth and exploration.

For as Jung knew, the guided process which unfolds in active process is one taking place within a Mandala, a sacred circle embracing an ever-expanding Whole. and because it is guided by the Higher Self, we have only to let go, refrain from taking the reins, and surrender to the mysterious and magical process which is perhaps our greatest gift from the Cosmos.

Jung linked active imagination with the processes of alchemy in that both strive for oneness and inter-relatedness from a set of fragmented and dissociated parts. ” (Wikipedia on Active Imagination)

But we know now how deeply he pursued the philosophy of Gnosticism and of early Middle Eastern, and then Medieval European thought related to the works of the alchemists. From there, he branched out, searching in the cultures of the East for even more information on this mysterious inner process of self-transformation.

Jung – whose friends referred to him as “the shaman” – prized above all the seed years in which he discovered and most intensely engaged in this process:

The years… when I pursued the inner images, were the most important time of my life. Everything else is to be derived from this. It began at that time, and the later details hardly matter anymore. My entire life consisted in elaborating what had burst forth from the unconscious and flooded me like an enigmatic stream and threatened to break me. That was the stuff and material for more than only one life. Everything later was merely the outer classification, scientific elaboration, and the integration into life. But the numinous beginning, which contained everything, was then. (Red Book)

© Carol Leigh Rice 2024

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