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Cool Art Therapy Intervention #2: Active Imagination

Art Therapy Prime Directive: Stick with the image. That’s it. Really.

If I had to identify the one moment in the history of psychiatry that opened the door to the emergence of art therapy as a psychotherapeutic approach, it would be the appearance of Carl Gustav Jung's invention of "active imagination" in the early 20th century. Coupled with Sigmund Freud's concept of free association and his work on the importance of images in dreams, it set a path for the use of art in psychotherapy in the 21st century. That is what makes active imagination the Cool Art Therapy Intervention #2 in this top ten list.

Carl Jung's Red Book exhibit just closed at the Library of Congress this past week; it recorded the creation of Jung's seminal theories developed after his 1913 split with Freud. It is also thought to be a product of Jung's own experience with active imagination. "The Transcendent Function" (1916) is believed to be Jung's first paper on what would later be called active imagination; he once observed that active imagination was somewhat of an extension of Freud's concept of free association (free association being the invitation to relate whatever comes to mind, in an uncensored way and with non-judgmental curiosity).

Modern day Jungian practitioners refer to the practice of active imagination as a way of accessing and consulting with one's inner wisdom. In its simplest sense, it is essentially a process of consciously dialoguing with your unconscious. According to Joan Chodorow and the International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Jung developed the process of active imagination from personal need when he "had no choice but to take up that child's life with his childish games." Jung's own visualizations, dreams, artworks, and fantasies brought him crucial insight into his psyche and, in his opinion, these image-based experiences had a life of their own. In brief, he discovered that as long as he could translate his emotions into symbolic images through visualization, art, play or imagination, he felt inwardly more at peace.

In reality, few art therapists use active imagination in its traditional sense (except those who have undergone Jungian analysis or training). But almost all use a loose variation of active imagination to help individuals find meaning in their art expressions. Depending on the therapeutic framework a practitioner uses, it might be called a "dialogue with the image," free association with the artwork's contents, spontaneous journaling about an artwork or dream, witnessing one's drawing or painting, or even an invitation to write a "rant" in the tradition of free-form poetry or prose about an image or series of images. It can also involve using another art form such as movement or music to explore an image, or even the creation of yet another artwork. For example, instead of asking an individual to talk about a painting, the therapist might invite the person to respond with a physical movement, use a drum or other instrument to develop a musical piece, or engage in a dramatic enactment that communicates the feeling or content. In fact, art therapy's close relative, expressive arts therapies, capitalizes on the use of multiple modes of self-expression and active imagination to help individuals explore meaning. Many in the field of art therapy agree that art making itself can be a form of active imagination if one allows images to unfold spontaneously without judgment, control, or intention for specific outcomes.

I think that active imagination, in its broadest sense, has a much larger role in art therapy than just allowing spontaneous images to unfold. It has a timely relevance in contemporary practice because of recent interest in mindfulness and techniques such as dialectical behavior therapy, somatic experiencing and focusing that encourage one to "stick with the image" and the body's "felt sense." These approaches are increasingly being used as methods for addressing trauma reactions and posttraumatic stress, among other emotional challenges and disorders. Mindfulness, espoused by neuroscience gurus like Dan Siegel and others, is a practice of balancing, very much similar to the non-judgmental, watchful attentiveness found in active imagination.

To me, active imagination is just that — a variation on mindfulness practice which is all about developing a more acute ability to clarify one's thoughts, feelings, and sensory experiences. The bonus in using art expression is that it brings the products of active imagination into tangible form, something that art therapy holds central and salient to the healing process. And as Jung implied, staying with the image just may be the transcendent function that helps us see who we are, hold the moment, and accept what is, rather than what ought to be.

So, what is Cool Art Therapy Intervention #1? Here is a hint: It is something that differentiates the way art therapists work from all other helping professionals who use art in psychotherapy.

© 2010 Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPCC, LPAT