Active Imagination: Facing the Inner Critic

After moving to our land in 1972, I often walked the trail heading south through my fields. My dog ran ahead and circled back the way retrievers do.  In five minutes, we entered the deep forest.

Elaine Willow woods

With Willow in the deep woods

I followed an old lumbering trail near the border of my property until I came to a stream. Then I turned east to walk uphill on a neighbor’s trail.

I headed toward “the government land” (now the Finger Lakes National Forest) and a hemlock gorge. At the top of the trail, I paused to lie on my back in a clearing surrounded by graceful trees with draping branches. I looked up and lay still until my breath quieted. The hemlock circle protected and calmed me. After my forest meditation, I walked downhill toward home.

In the circle of trees

In the circle of hemlocks

Lying on my back

Lying on my back & looking up









In 1989, my husband Vic and I organized a weekend workshop led by Jungian analyst and Vic’s writing colleague, Marvin Spiegelman. Some participants had marriage troubles. Others worried over children. I struggled with anxiety and paralyzing self-criticism. With my inner judge on the attack, I felt defenseless and beaten. No wonder I was anxious.

Vic, Marvin Spiegelman, his daughter, and me on the hemlock trail, 1990

Marvin Spiegelman, Vic, me, and Marvin’s daughter on the hemlock trail, 1990

“You’re wasting your life. What have you accomplished? Don’t you have any worthwhile goals?” the inner critic said. Part of me knew it wasn’t true, but I couldn’t defend myself.

That weekend, I worked on this complex I’d struggled with since I was a kid. I don’t remember what techniques Marvin used, but I remember feeling hopeless and stuck.

“Pay attention to your dreams tonight,” he said. “See what shows up.”

That night I had this dream. I lie on my back in the hemlock grove and look up toward sky. The trees surround the clearing in a perfect circle. As I watch, they move, slowly, in a swaying dance. The branches become arms, waving their green over me, holding me, comforting me. My heart opens as Tree Goddesses surround me with Mother Love.

“You need to talk to those trees,” Marvin said when I reported the dream the next morning. “Do you know how to do Active Imagination?”

DSC08028“I’ve read a little about it, but I’ve never tried it,” I said.

“Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Have a pen and a journal with you.” he said. “Give those trees a voice. Ask for their perspective and advice about your inner critic.  Speak back to them in a written dialogue, like writing a play.”

“Is it OK to do this on my own?” I asked.

“Yes,” Marvin said. “Stay focused, but listen inwardly. Don’t force anything. Let the conversation take its own path, but begin by asking those trees to help you.”

“I’ll try it,” I said, although I didn’t expect much.

“This is a good practice for you,” Marvin said. “If it feels like too much, back away, but otherwise keep talking to those trees.”

That night, I opened a new journal and wrote.

Draping branches

Draping branches

“Tree Mothers, please help me. Tree Mothers, I’ve forgotten how to love myself. Tree Mothers, show me the way.”

I paused and listened for what they might say.


I’m not an analyst and rarely recommend Active Imagination to others, but it’s my favorite tool for psychological understanding and exploration. Active imagination can be done with other creative forms such as painting, but I prefer writing in a notebook used only for this purpose. I talk to moods and the inner voices that hassle me, but I also interact with supportive images such as the trees or other dream images. If you’re easily overwhelmed, then this may not be for you. I recommend Jean Raffa’s article Active Imagination: A Tool for Self-Discovery. Wikipedia has a good article about origins and uses of Active Imagination. For another article about my use of Active Imagination, see I Thought I Could. In Grieving for a Sacred Grove, I write about the endangered hemlock grove.


  1. Another beautiful piece, Elaine ~ accompanied by your amazing nature photography. You have so many creative ideas for self-help in your toolbox! I’ve included this on my Tools for Healing board on Pinterest, Thank you! ♥

    • Thank you, Marty. I’m a Pinterest Dud, but will have a look at your Tools for Healing board. Thank so much for sharing my particle. You’re a love.

  2. This sounds like a wonderful exercise Elaine. I’m going to check out the links. 🙂 Thanks!

    • It’s a natural for writers, Debby. It’s about an intention to find the support you might need or find a way to deal with a psychological problem. It’s advised to not do Active Imagination with someone who is alive. Thanks for your comment. I have your blog on another screen. I’ll get there this morning.

  3. Elaine, your post reminds me of why I was so captivated by Jung as a high school girl ~ and of the restorative power of nature.

    The pictures are profound too. I especially like the one you snapped lying on your back. ( I wonder if any creepy-crawlies attacked you!)

    And the tree trunk foreshortened.

    • Don’t worry, Marian. I have a respectful relationship with nature and rarely get a bite, sting, scratch, or anything at all. I do bug searches on my skin for ticks (found one ambling up my leg this season, but that’s all) and generally stay on wide trails. I wouldn’t think of lying in tall grass, but there are only hemlock needles under those trees. Fortunately, the aphids interested in the trees aren’t interested in me.

      I believe something similar to Active Imagination is part of any writer’s bag of tricks, even if we don’t call it that or think of our writing as psychological process work. Active Imagination was my first form of daily writing beginning in the late 1980s.

  4. That inner critic – I find that when I am totally stuck in a cycle of negativity about myself and lack of ability about anything, it is time to take self for a walk and let the ego take a back seat. It helps; I sometimes touch the trees as I walk by in greeting. From my study I look out at many trees, there is something so calming about them, tall and stately, their roots reaching deep into the soil. Many years ago I did some AI writing when I was undergoing a Jungian analysis. I already asked my sister a long time ago to destroy all of those notebooks if I’m not around i.e. if I die. It wasn’t journal writing, it was AI with me as me and an accompanying respondent. It scared the hell out of me sometimes … but it was a worthwhile exercise in that it really was an experience of listening very deeply. Thank you Elaine.

    • I can imagine you touching those tree trunks as you walk by, Susan. Thanks for your perspective on Active Imagination. I wish I hadn’t destroyed those first conversations, but I might still find them as I have a small storage area I haven’t tackled. There are boxes in there with unknown contents and I think old notebooks. A winter project.

      I’m sometimes upset by what emerges in Active Imagination, but rarely if ever frightened. Maybe that’s because I did lots of dream and mythology exploration before beginning Active Imagination. When my ego grabs on to something negative and won’t let go, I turn to AI. The positive or balancing side usually shows up. I’m working with a Jungian therapist twice a month, so have her support, but if this process scared me, I wouldn’t continue on my own. I’m grateful for a technique that quiets my mind and allows me to listen deeply. It’s a meditation on content rather than on emptiness.

  5. What a wonderful practice for getting “unstuck.” It is easy for my inner critic to beat me up about things. Thanks for this explanation of using the “active imagination.”

    • It works, Jill. Sometimes the hardest part is to unstick myself enough to sit down with a pen and journal and begin. Most of us can get caught in the hopeless loop and resist making a move to get out. I think Active Imagination is natural for writers.

  6. Thanks for this lovely and helpful post, Elaine. I haven’t used active imagination in a while and am inspired to try it again the next time I have an issue. I’ve always used it with images from dreams, but your example of using it when I’m chewing on something problematic, and of taking a journal outdoors with me, is very appealing. And thank you very much for linking to my post on active imagination.

    • Jean, I remember commenting on your Active Imagination post a few years ago. You do the practice on your computer. I follow Marvin Spiegelman’s directions to use a pen and paper which he thought was more connected to the unconscious and less connected with thinking. Whatever works! The lovely part of my example is that I was stuck with my self-criticism even when working with a skilled therapist, but my dream gave me a healing image. It doesn’t always happen, as you know, but it’s a gift when it does.

  7. I like this exercise a great deal and think I will give it a try. Thanks so much 🙂

    • I’m so glad to hear that, Jeri. It works, especially for writers who are used to interacting with and creating characters. We can begin with the mood or complex itself, but in this example, I couldn’t get anywhere with a direct approach. I first needed that dream image so I could create an image of support.

  8. This makes me think of the glen of pines we had near my house in adolescence. It was quite unexceptional in any season but winter, when the density of the trees prevented snowfall on the forest floor. You could walk out of a blizzard into a scared, protected space. I was just a kid, but I remember the silence and the sense of sanctuary so vividly. I am writing this week about the importance of being alone with your thoughts, so this speaks to me.

    • Wonderful, Kara. Sometimes I get nowhere when I do Active Imagination with a troublesome complex like self-judgment or fear. But when we carry an inner image like your pine glen, we have a place to stand where we’re supported. The difficulty is less threatening and less in charge when we put it in that imaginal place, that sanctuary as you’ve called it. I look forward to your next post.

  9. I’d love to hear what the trees said to you, Elaine!

    • I’m looking for that first journal, Ann Marie. It’s somewhere in the old boxes I’m slowly sorting through. I don’t need the original to paraphrase what happened. I had many conversations with the trees and other symbols of protection along with conversations with the critic. The judge and I still have heart-to-hearts because he doesn’t give up–and neither do I. I’m contemplating writing a part II to this post. When dealing with an aggressive inner critic who stomps on our self-confidence and dreams, it’s good to begin by creating an image of self-protection. This voice so familiar to all of us can be fierce.

      • Very interesting that you call the judging voice “he.” The Animus?
        Lovely article as usual. I shall repost it. Xoxox

        • Good observation, Sharyn. The inner critic can have a masculine or feminine voice and it differs for everyone. And it can change.
          My most enduring inner critic is closely associated with my mother’s values and her self-criticism (and criticism of me), so why do I can it “him” when it’s linked to my mother? Mom had a strong feminine maternal side when I was a child so I felt supported by that maternal caring part of her. Trouble came from her unrelenting critic who drove her to great feats of determined “self-improvement” and demanded the same of me. Knowing her childhood stories, it was easy to trace this part of Mom to her father, my grandfather who was unendingly critical and impossible to please when she was a girl. So, although my inner critic feels masculine, it’s not my father’s voice or my husband’s. It’s my mother’s inner Negative Animus voice of “you can do better” and “I’m so disappointed with you.” It might have been wiser to call the inner critic “it.”

          It’s interesting to trace the family history of these parts of ourselves. Understanding helped me forgive my mother and empathize with her situation.

  10. When I was a young clergy wife in Dearborn, my husband led a retreat in which we used active imagination, and a nun had written a book about it. I don’t remember her name, but there was a meditation in there known as The God Tree. Several people got very exercised about whether this was Paganism, and, to give Paul credit, he respectfully engaged them to explain how it was not. I have ever since had a special relationship with a tree in almost every place I have lived. The apartment makes that a little more difficult, but I’m working on it. Lovely piece, as always Elaine.

    • Thank you, Paula. Although we’ve never met, we have geographic connections from Dearborn where I went to high school to central NY State.

      I understand concern about Active Imagination feeling pagan for someone who depends on a specific doctrine, but I know plenty of people from various religious backgrounds who use it. And others are doing what I call Active Imagination without naming it that. The unconscious doesn’t worry about our human rules. Active Imagination originated with Islamic philosophers such as Avicenna and Ibn Arabi (a Sufi philosopher and mystic). Various European philosophers became interested, and C.G. Jung created the technique he called Active Imagination in ~1915. The technique is flexible and can be used with movement, art work, music, any kind of creativity. We might say that all people who create from their imagination are actively imagining. Once we get a symbol of protection well established like The God Tree or a special tree, it can become an inner support. I see one pine tree standing above the canopy from my bedroom window, taller than all the other trees in the forest, so I also lean into that tree in my imagination (and sometimes in the forest). I’ve spent more time in the hemlock forest recently, because they may not survive long.

  11. I love your photographs of trees, Elaine. I can almost see your special relationship with them through these photos. This Active Imagination idea sounds like something I do regularly. I wonder?

    • Robin, I think most writers do something like this regularly, as well as other creative people (graphic artists like you, for example). We talk to the dead. We talk to the trees. We talk to our dogs and cats. Active Imagination is a way to bring attention to these inner conversations. Maybe active is the key word, or focused. AI is a way of focusing the conversations and allowing ourselves to go deeper to access information beyond our usual habitual thinking. When we focus on the dialogue, as in a meditation, and stay with a specific question or feeling, we open ourselves to new possibilities.

  12. very powerful and lovely.

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