Metachoric Experiences

In December 1913, psychiatrist Carl Jung first experienced what he was later to call active imagination. However, he did not talk about these experiences until twelve years later, when, in May and June 1925, he spoke for the first time of his inner development at two sessions of a series of weekly seminars he was giving in Zurich. The contents of these lectures were not published until 1989; but a partial account of these experiences was given in 1962 by Aniela Jaffé in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, a purported autobiography of Jung which she largely wrote. This account is the foundation myth, the charter, for active imagination.

In 1913, according to this account, Jung, profoundly distressed at his break with Freud, began to experiment with different ways to enter into his own imaginings. As James Hillman describes it, “When there was nothing else to hold to, Jung turned to the personified images of interior vision. He entered into an interior drama, took himself into an imaginative fiction and then, perhaps, began his healing — even if it has been called his breakdown.”

In this imaginal world, Jung began to confront and question the figures who appeared to him; and, to Jung’s surprise, those imaginal persons spoke back. “Near the steep slope of a rock,” Jung says, “I caught sight of two figures, an old man with a white beard and a beautiful young girl. I summoned up my courage and approached them as though they were real people, and listened attentively to what they told me.” Again: “I held conversations with him, and he said things which I had not consciously thought. For I observed clearly that it was he who spoke, not I.”

One of these imaginal people, a wise pagan whom Jung named Philemon, “seemed to me quite real, as if he were a living personality.” Philemon spoke to Jung as follows: “He said I treated thoughts as if I generated them myself, but in his view thoughts were like animals in the forest, or people in a room, or birds in the air.” It was this imaginal Philemon who taught Jung the reality of the psyche — “that there is something in me which can say things that I do not know and do not intend.”

There is good reason to believe that active imagination in fact falls in the class of what have been called metachoric experiences — hallucinations, lucid dreams, out-of-body experiences, and — despite Jung’s own dislike for “voluntary imagination,” which he considered to be superficial and trivial — the sort of eidetic visualization that lies at the heart of Tibetan Buddhist ritual meditation. What these experiences have in common is that they

  • occur with the force of a present perception of external reality;
  • have what appear to be the same quantity and quality of sensory detail as ordinary experiences;
  • are experienced as external to the experiencer; and
  • occur in what seems to the experiencer to be an extended and three-dimensional perceptual space — the sort of space which one can explore.

A patient with Charles Bonnet syndrome who sees a convingingly real three-dimensional monkey sitting on his neurologist's lap is having a metachoric experience. So is a lucid dreamer who decides to float down a staircase, or someone who hovers looking down at his own body during a surgery. For example, this is an episode of active imagination that seems clearly to be metachoric:

He saw the meadow and the road and walked up the hill among the cows, and then he came up to the top and looked down, and there was the meadow again, sloping down, and below was a hedge with a stile. So he walked down and over the stile, and there was a little footpath that ran round a ravine, and a rock, and when he came round that rock, there was a small chapel, with its door standing a little ajar. He thought he would like to enter, and so he pushed the door open and went in, and there upon an altar decorated with pretty stood a wooden figure of the Mother of God. He looked up at her face, and in that exact moment something with pointed ears disappeared behind the altar. He thought, “Well, that’s all nonsense,” and instantly the whole fantasy was gone.

These metachoric experiences can be characterized along two dimensions — first, according to the degree to which the experience is entered into intentionally; and, second, by the amount of control the experiencer exercises over the content of the experience. Active imagination, for example, would be high in intentionality and low on control; eidetic visualization would be high on both; and a Charles Bonnet hallucination would typically be low on both.

The same type of experience may occur in different places along these dimensions on different occasions. For example, hallucinations of the deceased are a commonly documented part of the grief reaction. Such experiences are typically low on intention, but may vary on control, to the extent that the bereaved attempts, for example, to engage the deceased in conversation, or perhaps even attempts to call the deceased for purposes of communication. A lucid dreamer may — or may not — be able to control the actions of dream objects and persons, or be able to do so to varying degrees.

Several things follow from this discussion. First, it seems that ayahuasca experiences specifically, and shamanic experiences generally, pretty much fall within the class of metachoric experiences. Shamanism seems, for example, to rank high on intentionality and relatively low on control, like active imagination. While the shaman can control his or her own actions while interacting with the spirits, the shaman has no direct control over the actions of the spirits; the shaman can ask a question, ask for help, even demand compliance, but most commonly cannot compel a particular response.

Tying shamanism to such experiences as lucid dreaming, active imagination, and eidetic visualization raises a number of interesting questions. Apart from their phenomenology, what do they have in common? A naïve ontology might postulate that the mechanism must be neuropsychological. I am not so sure that is true. I am not sure it is even looking in the right place.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that it is useful to consider similarities between active imagination and shamanism. When I personally explored Jungian psychology (including a period of Jungian analysis) I found active imagination fascinating and easy to enter into, once I overcame the fear I was "just making it all up." When I began shamanic studies under a Shuar shaman, he encouraged me to actively relate to any being I might meet, asking he, she or it, "Who are you? What do you have to teach me? What do you want from me?" and even "Give me your power!" As with active imagination, when I first attempted this, I had questions about my experiences like, is this real or "just" my imagination? But when I put such questions aside and in a kind of leap of faith entered intentionally into the experience, allowing whatever would happen next to arise as it might, amazing and often extremely informative as well as healing encounters and journeys ensued. I agree--high level of intentionality, low level of control. Suspension of disbelief helps.