Carl Jung’s “Active Imagination” and Buddhist Chod Practice

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“There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

Carl Jung

Recently I’ve been reading the works of Carl Jung. I’ve read other books of his in the past, and it had a profound impact on how I think of the self. But over recent years my views of the self have changed in large part to Buddhism but also in psychedelic use. In short, the conscious mind has just a tiny bit to tell us about ourselves. So much is going on deeper in the unconscious. 

Jung believed deeply in the importance of the unconscious mind. He thought that much was happening in our dream life, communicating intuitions that we could only vaguely be aware of in our everyday consciousness. I think he’s right. But it is hard to know how right he. I don’t really remember my dreams for one. And the ones I do remember are indecipherable to me (perhaps I need to see a Jungian analyst in therapy). 

But as I’ve read Jung more and more, I’ve discovered that dreams are not the only ways to approach the unconscious. My first introduction to making the unconscious conscious was through meditation practice, particularly a Tibetan Buddhist practice called Chod. Earlier this year, I finished a book called Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict, which explains the method further. (I am not going to explain how to do Chod here. It is a very complicated meditation that takes some practice to work with. But can find a detailed explanation in this Lions Roar article). 

Chod Practice and Jungian Unconscious 

Chod practice seeks to make our deepest unconscious fears and insecurities (i.e. our demons) and make them a part of our conscious mind. It asks to take something that scares us and to personify the fear into an actual demon to face. When I first heard about this meditation, I thought it was silly. As much as I like to think of myself as a spiritual person, sometimes when practices veer into New Agey territory, I want to roll my eyes with judgment. 

But as I read more about it, I realized that Chod has a long history in Tibetan Buddhism.  The practice was not created in the modern day by some Instagram guru, but by a female Tibetan Monk born over 1000 years ago named Machig Labdron. I don’t necessarily think that because something is old therefore it is wise. But it gave me pause, and I decided to give it a chance. 

To my surprise, I found that there was a lot to Chod practice. After practicing it a few times, I often found myself in tears and then afterward a profound sense of lightness. My demon personification was often terrifying to me. Spiders are one of my biggest fears, and sometimes I imagined large spiders right in front of me. I naturally found an aversion to facing this spider, but I kept with it.  I found that I had buried so many of my fears under a mountain of defenses. They were always there, raw, unloved, unseen. They needed the light of day for so long. And as they started to come up, I felt a sense of relief. I was still afraid, but less so. I could be honest about what hurts me. 

Photo by Josh Hild on

Active Imagination

My exploration of Chod stirred an interest in other ideas around demons and symbols, which eventually lead me back to Carl Jung’s work. There is a connection here between Jung’s ideas and Buddhism, which I was hereto unaware of. The connection is simple: the unconscious. 

As I read more and more, I discovered that Jung has a technique to try and dig into the unconscious that has many meditative principles. It is called Active Imagination. The details may differ on how to reach Active Imagination but the principle is the same: using the conscious mind to delve into the unconscious mind. 

Recently I’ve experimented with this using a mishmash of Buddhist and Jungian principles. I will outline the steps here for those who wish to explore Active Imagination in more detail. 

1. Use a Samatha Meditation 

The first step is pretty obvious to most meditators, sit down and on a mat and follow your breathing!  There are thousands of guides on how to do this all over the internet. But every Buddhist meditation begins with our breathing to gain stability and moves on from there. 

2. Let Your Unconscious Find an Image that Resonates or Use an Image from a Recent Dream

Either way works. There is no “right” way to do this. Our culture is obsessed with “doing” and making sure things are “right.” The unconscious mind is beyond that. We aren’t “doing” anything, we are exploring what is deep within us. So whatever image comes up, start there.

The difference between a regular dream and this Active Imagination activity is that you will take an active part in what happens. You will explore your image and/or world like a character might in a video game. You can talk to people, you can stare at plants, you can take vehicles, you can fly if your unconscious wishes. Do what you need to. But make sure you are really paying attention to what is happening. Jung has more to say about this, 

“The intent should not be to control the image but to observe the changes that will arise from spontaneous associations. You yourself must enter into the process with your personal reactions…as if the drama being enacted before your eyes were real.” 

Carl Jung

3. Reflect and Analyze What Happened

Now here is the hardest part, making sense of what your Active Imagination is saying to you. The good news is that these dream images are coming from you, which means you have the knowledge and wisdom to make sense of it. Most importantly reflect on the feeling of the dream. Your intuition will guide you. It will help make sense of the various images you have to sort through. You can reflect on what has happened in a number of ways. You could sit there and contemplate the session, you can write down your thoughts in a journal, you can draw what you felt or whatever else you want to make sense of it all. 

Remember there is no right answer. You exploring uncharted territory, the depths of our consciousness, unconscious, and spirituality. With some effort, we can connect to all the parts of ourselves we left unattended. 


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