The Spirit of the Depths:

Active Imagination, the Red Book, and the Recovery of an Imaginal Epistemology


James Liter


But on the seventh night, the spirit of the depths spoke to me: “Look into your depths, pray to your depths, awaken the dead.

(Jung, 2009, p. 140)

The Red Book

C.G. Jung’s Red Book is a bombastic volume, much like a medieval illuminated manuscript, recording in images and narrative reflections Jung’s encounters with the unconscious (Hoerni, 2009, p. xi). The content of the Red Book was created by recording—and thereby preserving—Jung’s dreams and visions, his imaginal research during this “confrontation with the unconscious” (Jung, 1989, pp. 170-199), first in the “Black Books,” and later transferring them to the large portfolio known as the Red Book (Hoerni, 2009, p. xi). The creation of the Red Book was for Jung a “necessary but annoying ‘aestheticizing elaboration’” and the contents were “autobiographical records” he felt should not be included in the publication of his collected works since they were not of a scholarly nature (Hoerni, 2009, p. xii). The often mystical images and text of the Red Book came during a highly emotional period for Jung (1989), in which he tried to “find the images which were concealed in the emotions” and wrote them down in a “’high-flown language’” that irritated him, but which he used since the archetypes themselves speak in a language of “high rhetoric, even of bombast” (pp. 177-78).

In the few years since its publication, there has been a fair amount of scholarship on the Red Book: Shamdasani says it shows “Jung’s descent into Hell,” establishes an “individual cosmology,” and “depicts the rebirth of God in the soul” (Shamdasani, 2009, p. 31). Hillman said that opening the Red Book “is like opening the mouth of the dead,” to which Shamdasani replied “the work is Jung’s ‘Book of the Dead’” (Hillman & Shamdasani, 2013, p. 1). Drob (2012) said that the Red Book is “akin to a ‘dream,’ not the dream of any individual but a dream of the discipline and practice of psychology,” and that the “’time capsuled’ volume is the suppressed masterwork of one of psychology’s giants” (p. xvii). While these conversations focused on the historical, religious, and mystical imagery of the Red Book, Giegerich (2010) focused more on the literary, asking “what kind of a book is the Red Book?” and, unable to place it into a literary or artistic genre, claimed it to be “a most curious and puzzling phenomenon” (p. 362), one that provides insight into Jung’s personal and historical context (p. 409).

As far as I have been able to discern, the main contribution the Red Book makes is on the matter of knowing; it is a product of imaginal research that can tell us much about imaginal research. The Red Book is viewed here not as a literary, mystical, or artistic product (though it certainly is all of those to some degree), but a product of imaginal knowing that provides us with an invitation and a means to re-imagine our own knowing. Even if we decline, the Red Book invites us to consider the imaginal encountered in dreams and imagination as a valid way of research and knowing. We will return to the Red Book at the close of this paper, but for now, in order to understand how it offers and validates imaginal research, we must turn our attention and focus to the broader context of the imaginal from a more general approach.

Active imagination is distinct from fantasy, meaning that the images encountered in active imagination “have a life of their own and that the symbolic events develop according to their own logic”

(Jung, 1935/1997, p. 145).

The Jungian technique of Active Imagination is one way to engage the question of imaginal knowing. What is Active Imagination? In his letters to a Mr. O., Jung (1947/1997a) provides more information on the technique: it is, he says, “a dialectical procedure” carried out with the unconscious, “meant to go to the roots” (pp. 458-59). The method is to begin imagining any image, such as an image from a dream and then “Contemplate it and carefully observe how the picture begins to unfold or change,” and then through “stepping into the picture with your ordinary human reactions and emotions,” (Jung, 1947/1997a, p. 461) to engage in a dialogue with the image, speaking and listening (Jung, 1947/1997a, p. 460). The intent should not be to control the image but to observe the changes that will arise from spontaneous associations (Jung, 1947/1997a, p. 460), allowing the psyche to move and act of its own accord through the image. Active imagination can be seen as a form of dreaming or even day-dreaming in which the ego neither relinquishes control nor attempts to assert control over the images in the psyche, but simply watches them. It is important to always return to the image chosen and to avoid “impatient jumping” from image to image (Jung, 1947/1997a, p. 460). Active imagination is distinct from fantasy, meaning that the images encountered in active imagination “have a life of their own and that the symbolic events develop according to their own logic” (Jung, 1935/1997, p. 145).

orpheusHead50transpAnother form of imaginal knowing is the dream. This is a large topic that exceeds the scope of this paper. What matters to us at the present is the question: what is it about dreams and active imagination, and the imaginal life they visit upon us, that makes them so central and meaningful to us? Dreams and visions have always been an inherent part of being human, but modernity seems to be in an odd position—we are fascinated by dreams and imagination, yet we give to them only a secondary ranking, if any at all, as a means of knowing and experiencing life. We are still drawn to the imaginal though, still enchanted by it and the strongly felt sense that it contains deep meaning that is vital to us in some way. Yet, modernity passes over these visitations of the unconscious, even scoffs at times, and we shake off their enchantment and remind ourselves that inner reality isn’t really real. With the loss of the imaginal as a way of knowing, we have, it seems, lost a large part of being human and instead have given ourselves over to the whims of epistemology as perceived by philosophical inquiry. This has left us stranded in a barren wasteland.

Let us not be distracted too long; we do not wish here to go into a lengthy discussion of epistemology. What seems to be relevant to us right now, and common among epistemological theories, is that knowledge is a form of experience. Knowledge becomes a verb: knowledge-ing. It seems self-evident that the psyche is how we experience all knowledge-ing and, this being the case, it is difficult to justify how any knowledge-ing can be rejected without rejecting the inherent imaginal knowledge-ing functions of the psyche. Yet, this seems to be the current state of things. Epistemology has mostly rejected imaginal knowing and has thereby also rejected the imaginal functions of the psyche. Epistemology’s crisis of knowledge becomes our crisis of psyche, and leads to unfortunate circumstances in regards to psychospiritual wellness. A therapeutic technique is needed to redress this rejection. Rather than scoffing at imaginal knowing, we need to embrace it and seek to integrate the knowing it provides; we need to reclaim an imaginal epistemology.


You open the gates of the soul to let the dark flood of chaos flow into your order and meaning. If you marry the ordered to the chaos you produce the divine child, the supreme meaning beyond meaning and meaninglessness.

(Jung, 2009, p. 139)


The main problem that epistemology seems to have with imaginal knowing is that it, like any other knowing, can be labelled subjective. This must be put to the test though, and in so doing we find that it is less subjective than one might think, and less so even than many other forms of knowing. If, for example, we look into the collective dream of mythology, do we not find similar motifs and images occurring around the world in cultures far removed from each other in space and time? Joseph Campbell (1991) said that “myth is the public dream, and the dream is the private myth” (p. 48). The imaginal methods of working with the unconscious, dreams and active imagination, are often things of “pure myth that carry a mythic theme” (Campbell & Moyers, 1991, p. 49). From this, we can conclude that imaginal knowing arises from the same source that gave us the similar motifs of the world’s mythology and this suggests that there is something other than subjective experience at play in imaginal knowing. According to Campbell (1949/1972), “myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation” (p. 3). Myth and dreams are made of the same stuff; both arise out of the collective unconscious and the personal or cultural psyche. They are not only subjective but are expressions of numinous and universal archetypes—the energy of the cosmos—informing and describing the processes of psychospiritual life, to wholeness of psyche, of individuation (Campbell, 1949/1972, pp. 8-9).

As Jung (1938/1990) maintained, the archetypes are not “determined as regards their content,” but only in regards to their form (p. 92 [CW 9, pt. 1, para. 79]). They are universal forms, inherent to all humans, that are filled with the content of our personal experiences and expressed in our dreams and active imagination. In understanding this, it becomes apparent that the imaginal knowing in dreams and active imagination, like the adventures of myth, are more than stories or strange experiences of the imagination. They are metaphors of our own psychic life (Campbell. 1949/1972, p. 4) moving in conjunction with the collective and objective psyche. The images of our dreams and active imagination, though often different in appearance to the heroes and gods of myth, are of the same source and are thus extensions of mythic metaphors, subjectively us and objectively all humans. Their struggles and quests are the many events and experiences of our psyche and poignant stories of psychological and spiritual, personal and collective importance. Imaginal knowing is cloaked in our subjective experience, but is also archetypal, universal, not subjective. Engaging the images of dreams, active imagination, and similar imaginal experiences, those aspects of life all too often thrown under the bus of modernity, suddenly become a knowledge-ing not of the individual but of the full psyche, which in turn is a part of the world soul and thus the scope of our discussion of imaginal knowing must be extended.

Not only psychological, the archetypes can also be seen as instincts informing our knowing; specifically, they are universal physiological functions that stimulate the imaginal psyche and provoke a definite feeling tone in the individual experiencing them (Jung, 1954/1973, p. 114-16 [CW 8, para. 403-05]). Jung (1954/1973) described the archetypes as being on a spectrum that includes both the physiological and the psychological, suggesting that however experienced, they are of the same origin. They are psychoid, matter and spirit, “two different aspects of one and the same thing” (pp. 117,121, 124-26 [CW 8, para. 408, 414, 417-420]). It is here that we clearly leave the realm of purely subjective and inner psychological knowing and begin to see an archetypal connection between knowing of matter and of psychic images. Behind this idea, is the notion of the archetype-as-such, which is fully unconscious and incapable of reaching the conscious psyche except through “perceptible phenomena” and “archetypal images and ideas” (Jung, 1954/1973, p. 123-24 [CW 8, para. 417]), such as those which inform the images encountered in dreams and active imagination (Jung, 1935/1997, p. 143). Being fully unconscious, the archetype-as-such makes it more difficult to assert that imaginal knowing is subjective, which implies some level of conscious awareness.

2Bb.002aThe archetypes are also mathematical and geometrical in their ordering of the psyche (Tarnas, 2007, p.57). The unification of the physical and psychological in the archetypes and the mathematical ordering thereof begins to suggest a larger unity that encompasses not only the human psyche but also the very structuring of the world, with psyche being one inherent part of “a unitary reality and rest(ing) upon a common ‘transcendental background’” (Le Grice, 2010, p. 171). The human psyche is a personal psyche living within a greater world psyche or world soul, the anima mundi (Le Grice, 2010, p. 171). Jung referred to the anima mundi, saying “the world soul is a natural force which is responsible for all the phenomena of life and the psyche” (Jung, 1954/1973, p. 106 [CW 8, para. 393]). Hillman (1989) describes the anima mundi as “that particular soul spark, that seminal image, which offers itself through each thing in its visible form,” and that it is “animated possibilities presented by each event as it is, its sensuous presentation as a face bespeaking its interior image;” it is, in short, an “ensouled world” (p. 99). This moves us into a much broader view of the natural world, indeed of the universe, and also of imaginal knowing. On this view, we live in a world that is comprised of ensouled images—and therefore imaginal knowing is not only beneficial but also necessary in order to know that world. Realizing this unity and necessity should have a far reaching impact on our relationship to imaginal research. The cosmos, inner and outer, is not dead matter, it has a soul, the anima mundi, upon which the human psyche is founded, within which it lives, and which can only be experienced through imaginal knowing, such as that stimulated by the archetypes in dreams and active imagination.

More—our imaginative recognition, the childlike act of imagining the world, animates the world and returns it to soul.

(Hillman, 1989, p. 99)

Not only is imaginal knowing beneficial and necessary to know the world, it is the psyche as it actually is, thus it is also necessary to psychology and psychospiritual health. Whether driven by unconscious complexes or conscious intent, we are always participating in imaginal knowing. The human psyche, with both its conscious and unconscious content, is a part of the anima mundi, and exerts its influence when repressed, creating forms of compensation and longing for that which was lost (Tarnas, 1993, p. 442). This explains why we are so enchanted by dreams—even though modernity has severed the imaginal from the body of valid knowing, the unconscious remains active and autonomous; it longs for a conscious imaginal experience of being human and attempts compensation. This leads to the conclusion that if the human psyche unconsciously but directly participates in the imaginal worlds of the anima mundi (Tarnas, 2007, p. 17), then it should also be possible through imaginal research for the psyche to consciously but directly participate. This begins to suggest the necessity and therapeutic aspect of the role imaginal knowing can play in a healthy individuation process. What is needed is a Notitia, an attentive noticing, of the images of the anima mundi (Hillman, 1989, p. 101) through dreams and active imagination. This allows the images of psyche and world, whether subjective or objective, whether material or psychic, to be recognized and engaged as ensouled subjects existing in their own right within the anima mundi. This “animates the world and returns it to soul” (Hillman, 1989, p. 99), laying the foundation for a new type of knowing emerging from the dichotomy of spirit and matter, of subjective and objective knowing. This brings everything together within one soul and enlivens the dialectical procedure of active imagination (Jung, 1947/1997a, p. 458)—the whole world dreams.

A new and broader perspective of the cosmos opens up and through imaginal knowing the psyche becomes the intermediary between the subjective and the objective, comprised of both; the archetypes present themselves as psychoid, the full psyche is heard and can be honored. The imaginal way of knowing presented in dreams and active imagination provides us with a new vocabulary with which to converse about things that otherwise would evade us. It is therapeutic, personally and collectively, as images are encountered and integrated from the unconscious into the conscious, causing complexes to unravel, inherited worldviews and assumptions to crack open to new ways of being in the world, new ways of engaging the experience of being an ensouled being amongst other ensouled beings. Recovering an imaginal epistemology is also therapeutic to the ideas that guide us. It can move us out of the shackles of academic inquiry, unconscious cultural assumptions and complexes. As place becomes Place, so too does knowing become Knowing. It opens the “gates of the soul” and marries “the ordered to the chaos” (Jung, 2009, p. 139), allowing the psyche to come into the world in ways more suitable for its multi-dimensionality.

We can now see that the Red Book is a record of one such journey and, as a product of the imaginal, is much more than a literary or artistic work; it is the image of Jung’s imaginal knowledge-ing experiences. If imaginal knowing is to be admitted into epistemological consideration, as I have argued it must, the Red Book stands as a testament to this form of knowing. Considering the imaginal research that created the Red Book, all questions that ask what kind of literature it is, though valid in their own way, miss the mark; it is a form of literature and art, but it is much more a record of imaginal knowing. As Shamdasani said, psychologists should not turn literature into 98iukja1200800Sidepsychology, but “allow their own endeavor to grapple with the limitation, the pretention of a certain kind of understanding when shown up against the humble respect toward the inexplicableness of human nature” (Hillman & Shamdasani, 2013, p. 225).

The Red Book thus begins an essential recovery of an imaginal epistemology for psychology and for modernity more generally. This is its value—it preserves valuable imaginal research and invites us back, giving us permission to reclaim our inherent and necessary imaginal knowing. It depicts, confirms, and celebrates psychic reality by offering a bold first-hand account of the therapeutic techniques of the imaginal. It thereby nurtures meaningful and soulful transformation, individuation, personally and collectively. It brings to the “dream of the discipline and practice of psychology” (Drob, 2012, p. xvii) the spirit of the depths (Jung, 2009, p. 140) and allows that spirit to speak also to us.



Campbell, J. (1972). The hero with a thousand faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1949)

Campbell, J., & Moyers, B. D. (1991). The power of myth. B. S. Flowers (Ed.). New York: Anchor Books.

Drob, S. L. (2012). Reading the red book: An interpretive guide to C.G. Jung’s Liber Novus. New Orleans, LA: Spring Journal Books.

Galindo, N. (2007). Tending the living dream image: A phenomenological study. (pp. 1-31; 47-67; 115-123) (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations & Thesis Database. (AAT 3289681)

Giegerich, W. (2010). Liber novus, that is, the new bible: A first  analysis of C.G. Jung’s red book. Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture, 83, 361-411.

Hillman, J. (1989). A blue fire: Selected writings. T. Moore (Ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Hillman, J., & Shamdasani, S. (2013). Lament of the dead: Psychology after Jung’s Red book. New York, NY: Norton & Company.

Hoerni, U. (2009). Preface. In S. Shamdasani (Ed.), The red book liber novus: A reader’s edition (pp. x1-xiv). New York, NY: Norton.

Jung, C.G. (1964). Mind and earth. (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.) In H. E. Read, et al (Series Eds.), The collected works of C.G. Jung (Vol. 10, pp. 29-49). New York, N.Y.: Bollingen Foundation. (Original work published 1931).

Jung, C.G. (1973). On the nature of the psyche. (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.)  In H. E. Read, et al (Series Eds.), The collected works of C.G. Jung (Vol. 8, 3rd. ed., pp. 67-144). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1954).

Jung, C. G. (1989). Memories, dreams, reflections (R. Winston, & C. Winston, Trans.). A. Jaffé (Ed.). New York: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1961).

Jung, C.G. (1990). Psychological aspects of the mother archetype. (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.)  In E. Read, et al. (Series Eds.), The collected works of C.G. Jung (Vol. 9 pt. 1, 2nd. ed., pp. 75-110). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1938).

Jung, C. G. (1997). The Tavistock lectures. In J. Chodorow (Ed.), Jung on active imagination (pp. 143-153). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1935)

Jung, C. G. (1997a). Three letters to Mr. O. In J. Chodorow (Ed.), Jung on active imagination (pp. 163-66). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1947)

Jung, C. G. (2009). The red book = Liber novus: A reader’s edition (S. Shamdasani, Trans.). New York, NY: Norton & Company.

Jung, C. G. (2011). On the nature of dreams. In Dreams (R. F. Hull, Trans.) (pp. 67-83). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1945).

Le Grice, K. (2010). The archetypal cosmos: Rediscovering the gods in myth, science and astrology. Edinburgh: Floris Books.

Shamdasani, S. (2009). Introduction. In S. Shamdasani (Ed.), The red book liber novus: A reader’s edition (pp. 1-95). New York, NY: Norton.

Tarnas, R. (1993). The passion of the Western mind: Understanding the ideas that have shaped our world view. New York: Ballantine Books.

Tarnas, R. (2007). Cosmos and psyche: Intimations of a new world view. New York, NY: Plume.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *