Beyond The Margins - From Projective Identification to Active Imagination: The Question of Technique in Analytical Psychology

Sherry Salman
Rhinebeck, New York, USA
Jungian Psychoanalytic Association

One way we understand the goal of analytic treatment is as a well-functioning dialogue between ego identity, and what lies beyond its margins. This on-going process, whose ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ becomes more and more seamless over time, is what Jung imagined as analogous to the lapis, the invisible Stone. There seem to be two vectors which move towards this goal, both of which are integral to the individuation process, in its aspect of ‘becoming what one is’: 1) the ‘squaring of the circle’, work with opposites, differentiation, and wholeness, and 2) the cultivation of ‘true imagination’.

In Psychology and Alchemy, Jung imagined the imagination as the most important key to the understanding of the alchemical and analytic opus. Citing from the Rosarium:

Take care that thy door be well and firmly closed, so that he who is within cannot escape, and – God willing – thou wilt reach the goal. Nature performeth her operations gradually; and indeed I would have thee do the same: let thy imagination be guided wholly by nature. And observe according to nature, through whom substances regenerate themselves in the bowels of the earth. And imagine this with true and not with fantastic imagination. (CW 14, §218-219)

Jung understood ‘true imagination’ as the creation and evocation of images which have a life of their own and which develop according to their own logic, an “authentic feat of thought or ideation” which grasps inner facts and portrays them in images true to their nature. This is in contrast to ‘fantastic’ imagination (fantasy), a “mere conceit” of insubstantial thought, which “just plays with its objects”, spinning groundless fantasies on the surface of things, and concerned primarily with ‘conscious expectations’ (CW 18, §396-7). The alchemists repeatedly cautioned that the work had to be done with ‘true’ imagination, with active, purposive creation, and not with fantastic imagination. This extends to analysis, where we strive with various methods to separate the defensive fantasies generated by complexes, which interfere with integration and reconstruction, from the trajectory of psyche’s true imagination, the coherent synthesis of the real, the imaginal, and the mystery of what might be.

Jung began his speculations about technique in analysis with his typical concern and caution about focusing directly on technical methods. This appears to have been a reaction to what was perceived as Freud’s dogmatic use of theory and method, which in Jung’s view negated the primacy of the individual (see Cambray 2001). In the next breath however, he introduced the techniques of amplification and active imagination, which it seems he felt were both sufficiently tailored to the individual psyche, and yet also opened up into objective, and often collective psychological experience (see Salman 1997). Jung was prescient in his intuitions about intersubjectivity, field phenomena, and the interplay of subjectivity and objectivity. We now understand in more explicit ways that meaning and change in analysis are both created and discovered, both subjectively and objectively determined, and that all psychological mechanisms and techniques, whether they be amplification or projective identification, exist in a bi-directional field of inner-outer, self-other. As above, so below. Given the complexity and fluidity of this field, and the emergent nature of healing narratives in analysis, what does it mean then to practice techniques which ‘observe and imagine’ with true imagination?

One of the things I’ve been intrigued with is how we as Jungians can work analytically with so-called primitive mechanisms like dissociation, splitting, and projective identification from the perspective of our unique understanding of the role of imagination and emergent processes in psychological growth and reconstruction. As Jungians, we take it for granted that the language of true imagination is made up of symbols, which partake of both the perceptions and experiences of the already lived life, and the emergent capacities of imagination. We are less used to thinking about clinical phenomena like splitting and projective identification as mythopoetic expressions of the emergent psyche, as vectors of true imagination with an individuating function as generators of new meaning in an on-going story of individual development (Salman, 1999).

These pre-Oedipal dramas are often so prejudiced in a clinical notion of ‘primitivity’ that their value as ‘healing fictions’ is hard to discern. But it is in just such states-of-mind that we participate in both the imaginal construction of reality, its deconstruction, and its reconstruction, in the most ‘real’ and poignant ways. Here we are most, ‘in myth’, intrapsychically, interpersonally, transpersonally. Within the ritual of analysis, emerging reconstitutive possibilities are often experienced in the transference field, and expressed as personified mythologems. This is particularly true at early levels of process where the transference field stands in for the transcendent function. Mythologems in action, understood synthetically are not personalizations, but rather personifications of emerging psychological process, the play of true imagination which orients the analysis in a specific matrix.

Images, and especially affects, spontaneously arise in treatment which serve to both express, deconstruct (‘compensate’, in the older terminology), and re-create what had been previously privileged and fixed. True imagination is the capacity to transform the material of what was and is, into the real ‘potential other’, and liminal psychological states provide the opening for true imagination of both patient and analyst. The depths of borderline states and identifications ritualized in the transference are often the substances ‘beyond the margins’, ‘in the bowels of the earth’, from which psyche is being made. How might a patient’s narrative be experienced as an expression of true imagination (or not), and how does one evoke true imagination, get ‘beyond the margins’ of defenses and identifications, in a clinical process where the fantasies of the complexes are very entrenched? How does a field like projective identification, which begins by imaginally translocating dissociated splits into another, move into the field of true imagination so that emergent processes can proceed even further?


The title of this paper, “Beyond the Margins”, derives from F.W. Myers’ conception of ‘creative subliminal consciousness’, the first depth psychological formulation of a dynamic unconscious, an altered state of awareness “beyond the margins” of ego attention with a ‘mythopoetic’ function (Myers 1889). This initial formulation of a ‘creative unconscious’ which lay ‘beyond the margins’ was taken up in definitive ways by William James, Flournoy, Freud, and Jung. It both inspired the vision and defined the ‘workspace’ for our methods: psychological process, both archaic and growth-oriented, beyond the edges of ego’s awareness, defenses, and resistance. Mobilizing the purposive potentials ‘beyond the margins’, was and still remains, an essential and defining feature of any successful analytic technique.

Exploring altered states of awareness, our historical forebears experimented with automatic writing, hypnosis, spirits and seances, free association and word association, in their efforts to get beyond the margins. Jung and the generation he trained, were devoted to the techniques of amplification and active imagination, and followed the mythopoetic trails of imagination and possibility found in dreams, in their efforts to get beyond the margins. They believed firmly in the notion that all culture, including the culture of the individual psyche, originated from “incursions of the unconscious” (Neumann, p. 297). These incursions, these altered states of psychological process, were the secret doors through which our founders passed, and defined our craft at its beginnings. It is precisely the emergent nature of psychological process which can be traced back to the timely ‘emergence’ of those secondary, ‘subliminal’ and ‘multiple selves’ which so fascinated the psyche at the turn of the last century. But today we find ourselves practicing our craft in a ‘twilight of the magicians’, at the end-of-theroad and at the edge of new experience; for the wise old men and women in our field who seemed almost effortlessly at home ‘beyond the margins’ are mostly gone. We have since explored self psychology, object relations theory, ego psychology and modern psychoanalysis, pocketing, scavenging, and amalgamating various techniques which were of use.

At the same time, we have actively begun the process of deconstructing the reified structures of our own theory, looking both past its edges and into its essential core. While classical analytical psychology privileged the subject over the object, the inner over the outer, our forays beyond those margins privileged the object over the subject, the personal over the archetypal, and the ‘real’ over the imaginal. Likewise, we have paid attention to the details and dynamics of transference and countertransference to a degree which the older generations would have found distasteful and more important, of little use. Currently, we regard the idea that certain aspects of the transference are at best a nuisance as quite naïve, but has our focus on it lead to downplaying the techniques of active imagination and amplification, which were the original and unique contributions of the Jungian method? A constructive deconstruction, or ‘revisioning’ as Hillman originally proposed it is now underway, moving toward collapsing these oppositions. It is from this ‘post-Jungian’ perspective of the ever-present “azure vault” (Hillman, 2004) that the dynamics of the transference field and the techniques of amplification and active imagination may be bridged. Psyche’s narratives and dramas of creation and destruction are liminal phenomena which are readable with true imagination as mythologems, from splitting and projective identification through active imagination. Reading them and responding to them this way can help induce the emergent processes which seem so lacking in clinical situations where there are core archetypal identifications. The implicit meaning of our early history becomes explicit if we employ those techniques which meet the psyche at its edges, and keep us grounded ‘beyond the margins’ in the creative imagination.

True Imagination

The entire constructive and synthetic method is based around the implicit notion of ‘true imagination’, the prospective, emergent, even prophetic capacity of unconscious psychological process. If one believed entirely in the exclusive efficacy of the reductive method, then all unconscious activity would appear to be merely infantile, or wishful ‘fantasy’, a house of cards divined by false imaginings. Contemporary scientific data from studies on the nature of mind and brain support the notion of emergent psychological processes which rest in a ground of imagination. Advances in neurobiology provide paradigms and data suggesting that synthetic, constructive processes are evident in the neural responses of the brain. As new experience occurs, neural mapping of all similar past experience and memory is re-encoded in light of the new data; and these neural maps are themselves continuously emerging and being updated, based both on objective experience and on what, and how, this has subjective value and meaning for the individual. Are we now on the edge of discovering the material substrate of ‘true imagination’? If so, we are quite justified, even mandated, to focus our attention and understanding on those analytic techniques which, similar to dreaming, induce active states of memory and imagination.

Both the alchemists and Jung endowed ‘true imagination’ not only with extraordinary powers of perception and creation, but with a body. “Imagination is the star in man, the celestial or supercelestial body” (CW 12, §394) said the alchemists; Jung imagined further, that this supercelestial body was not a phantom, but corporeal, which he imagined as a ‘subtle body’ with ties to both subject and object, mind and matter. The expression “star” (“imagination is the star”) refers to the “quintessence”, making imagination the essence of life, both physical and psychological.

The imaginatio, or the act of imagining, was thus a physical activity that could be fitted into the cycle of material changes, that brought these about and was brought about by them in turn. In this way the alchemist related himself not only to the unconscious but directly to the very substance which he hoped to transform through the power of imagination. (Jung, CW 12, §394)

True imagination is intimately connected to reality. It is the ‘faculty of imagining the possible’, increasing adaptation to the possibilities which do arise, and acting to transform those realities. Defined by Beverley Zabriskie as “that which so submits to the realities of what was and is, that any breakthrough into what might be would occur on a continuum of true possibility” (p. 236). True imagination speaks to the difference between compulsive ‘plans’, the fantasies which are generated by complexes, and what we recognize clinically as genuine narrative reconstruction which reflects the integrity of an emerging psyche. Another way to ask the clinical question is: what if the neural substrates which support ‘true imagination’ have been damaged (which is one way to define trauma)? How does analysis begin this repair?

True Imagination and the Other

While Jung’s method of dialogue between conscious and unconscious was initially conceived as an intrapsychic process, by the time he wrote “Psychology of the Transference” he had expanded this view to include the analytic couple, and we now conceive of the entire analytic dialogue from within a multi-dimensional perspective. Practicing “true imagination” is a dialogue, or meditation, with the unseen, with both the ‘other’ within, the so-called coming-to-terms with the unconscious, and with what is manifest, incarnated, and experienced with others. What is unconscious, living in a state of projection, or simply ‘other’, is made manifest, ‘perfected’ in the alchemical sense, through the faculty of true imagination.

Imagination with a body like this transcends the boundaries of subjectivity, opening-up into the psycho-physical objectivity of others. The dialogue with ‘the other’ is also just that: the forging of an empathic connection to others. It is in this sense that the imaginal peculiarities of states of mind like projective identification, which can often feel just as hallucinatory as the chemically induced visions of the alchemists, can be understood in their full significance as psyche’s work of re-creating itself and its relation to others.

We know that symbols arise spontaneously to heal splits. Affect- laden relational fields also arise spontaneously in response to splits (Grotstein, 1981), in order to regulate, but also to heal the splits by empathetic affective linking. In the transference images and emotions are linked from the outset in an unfolding interactive field (Jung, CW 16, Rosaruim illustrations). Image and affect may be better understood not as a continuum (which was Jung’s original image of the red-violet spectrum), but more as different facets of the same emerging psychological process, psychoid phenomena outside the margins of the ego complex, expressions of the body/psyche field. Images give forms to emotions, and emotion gives a living body to imagination; the expression of new archetypal possibilities are often both poetic and dramatic. The poetics are most easily seen in the symbols of myth, in dreams, and evoked in the techniques of amplification and active imagination. The dramatics, the rituals, the affective component, are often more easily seen in the transference field, where the archetype has the autonomy and energy to significantly structure and restructure the field.

We are well aware of the contagion, psychic infection, and poisonous projections which can reach deeply into the psyche and body of analyst and patient alike. We dwell less upon the other, more gracious side of this effect: the empathic connections forged by both imagination and shared emotions. The fluidity of unconscious process opens the psyche to both the subjectivity and objectivity of other selves, and other realities. In this sense, emerging process like projective identification may be understood as archetypal enactments of mythologems which are very much alive, and may have something of an edge over symbols in terms of their ability to effect therapeutic change. This is often hard to get at however, due to both the ‘altered state’ nature of the field, and to the ‘attacks-on-linking’ these fields also perpetuate through the projection factor. De-linking may be just as evident however in those ‘symbols’, just images really, which are spun by defensive fantasies. Caution is also warranted regarding the pull toward archetypal reductionism, a premature concretizing of psychological process into images and mythologems, for it is often in the unconscious transference field that the most relevant mythologems are found. These may become explicit only over time, and often in the supervisory process.

The heightened, or lowered atmospheric changes which we experience during genuine reverie and imagination are often not unlike what we experience in affect-laden transference fields. All the alchemical warnings and procedures apply to both: close the vessel, tear down the house, remove the superfluous material, purify the stone. In Mysterium Coniunctionis Jung comments that the lapis is sufficiently purified when it is “led out of its proper house and enclosed in an alien house” (§180). From the Rosarium:

In the proper house the flying bird is begotten, and in the alien house the tincturing stone. Therefore pull down the house, destroy the walls, extract therefrom the purest juice with the blood, and cook that thou mayest eat. (§180)

This typical recipe calls for pulling down the house (dissolution of fantasies and complexes) so that the extraction of the pure juice (the opening of true imagination) can proceed and create the tincturing stone. There then remains the all-important question of cooking and particularly eating, assimilating. Here, the issue of relationship, and ‘conscience’ in analytic treatment, not just increasing consciousness, becomes pertinent, for it is often within relationships with others, “in the alien house”, that we face and suffer the ethical imperative to make meaning manifest, to ‘eat it’, to bring the living symbol into engaged experience. Ritual enactments are often an attempt to do this, the beginnings of true imagination, but sometimes seen through a glass, darkly. The rubber-meets-the-road within the intersubjective field where the press to both evoke and resist psyche’s true imagination is often greatest, from both sides.


The alchemists were ever optimistic:

To cause things hidden in the shadow to appear, and to take away the shadow from them. … All these things happen, and the eyes of the common men do not see them, but the eyes of the mind and of the imagination perceive them with true and truest vision. (Fabricius, 21.)

The implication seems to be that it is imagination which opens the shadow, moving the ego ‘beyond its margins’ into the reality of the psyche, into the heart of darkness of lived experience, into the shock of both internal recognition, and of the ever-present other. The idea that the work of analysis makes the unconscious conscious, puts an inordinate burden on the ego, one which is often untenable, too much to stomach. Even more pertinent, the tensions and connections of emerging process enter the transference field long before they become conscious process in either patient, or analyst, and it is in this arena that the deep transformative work of analysis, the “eating”, is taking place, usually in ritual dramas, beyond the margins of anyone’s understanding. These emergent processes need to be met on their own turf, metabolized through the vision of true imagination, and it is here that the amplification of mythologems comes into play.

In active imagination the “patient does not interpret what the image means but experiences what it means” (Adams, p. 16). In transference fields where core archetypal affects are active, there is often just no space for the symbolic dialogue of interpretation, and attempting it may be experienced as synonymous with destructive identifications, defenses, and “invasive objects” (Williams, 2004). One does not so much interpret the affect, but rather experiences it as one experiences, and is moved by, the ritual enactments of any living mythologem. The experience is then further informed by the interpretive technique of amplification, which makes the implicit meaning of both affects and images more and more explicit, cutting a groove in the psyche and supporting the trajectory of true imagination, the emergent processes in the patient’s psyche. Amplification in analysis, carrying as it does the currents of collective imagination and possibilities, provides not just an enhanced, transpersonal ‘holding environment’, but actually may open up new grooves in the psyche, creating new riverbeds for the flow of libido. Perhaps the mechanisms might be similar to those provided by psychotropic medications, which appear to sensitize new pathways and connections which can compete with those etched by trauma, depression, or the fantasies of complexes. Our very own pharmakon!

The song-like stories of amplification, their mythopoetic structure and their appeal to the non-rational psyche, can create an empathic resonance which reaches deeply into early levels of disturbance and process. This perspective may be particularly pertinent during those altered states of psychological process, where mythologems are being lived as ritual dramas in analysis, where we participate most fully in the destruction and creation of old paths, and new possibilities. This idea runs somewhat counter to the prevailing wisdom which says that amplification is not therapeutically effective at early levels of process, and may be experienced as itself invasive. It may be however, that amplification and a mythopoetic approach can provide the empathic links which are not possible through intersubjective analysis or analysis of the transference, as these require cognitive and affective abilities which post-date early levels of pathology. In any event, effective use of amplification arises not out of the defensive or supportive needs of either patient or analyst, but from beyond the margins, out of the ‘analytic third’, from the true imagination of the analysis itself. Our reactions as analysts may be informed as much by the press of imagination as they are by countertransference enactments of various sorts, and seeing through this lens may achieve a truly functional neutrality, based as it is, in the matrix of the patient’s psyche.


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