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Tarot & Active Imagination: A step-by-step guide

This is the one technique that has totally transformed and deepened my tarot practice.

We’ve all had the experience of being “haunted” by a tarot card, pulling it again and again over days, weeks, even years. And of course, we wonder if there’s something more we’re supposed to get about the card, if there’s something we’re missing, and that intuition is usually very right. Because the reason the card chases after us is that it wants to convey something deeply, something that can’t click in a single daily pull.

We have to bring the card, the archetype, up from the unconscious depths and into the conscious psyche. We have to truly meet it.

Over one hundred years ago, while experiencing a profound encounter with the unconscious, depth psychologist Carl Jung developed a technique for communicating archetypal images that he called Active Imagination. It was intended to turn off the controlling grip of the conscious mind and explore the unconscious messages through the space of the imagination. We can think of it like a sort of lucid dreaming. Our ego-minds have agency, but the unconscious directs the show. And the purpose of this technique is to translate the deeper meaning of the dream images and synchronicities that shock us awake while simultaneously mystifying us, so that we can actively participate in our individuation.

And though Jung never suggested we use active imagination with the tarot, their compatibility is obvious. In active imagination we begin with something offered by the unconscious, and in tarot we use the cards to reveal the symbols and archetypes that are unconsciously at play within us.

For years now I have recommended using active imagination with the cards that show up in my clients’ readings. This keeps the power of the reading present and offers a portal through which we can further integrate its messages. So now I’m sharing this technique with you, so that you, too, can fully alchemize your reading and harness it’s wisdom.

Here are the 4 steps of Tarot Active Imagination. Try it out, but remember to go slow and be wary. Jung often warned the encountering the unconscious does not come without risk. Check in with a friend before and after, and make sure you feel emotionally and physically supported.

Step 1: Lower the mental level

Begin with clearing yourself entirely, releasing whatever tensions or thoughts are lingering in your mind. Maybe this can happen through a few cleansing breaths, or a brief 2 minute meditation. Then we want to try what Jung called the abaissement du niveau mental, or the lowering of the mental level. What this means is that rather than turning off the mind, we’re dropping it down into unconsciousness.

I like to do this by visualizing my mind sinking, often with the image of the setting sun. When I reach a state of total darkness, I breathe into this space and feel a sense of surrender here. Sometimes I’ll even feel the tingle of invisible wisdom within me. Allow yourself to be fully present and aware, without a sense of mental focus.

Step 2: Enter the imaginal realm

The goal here is to be guided through a waking dream, making sure your ego does not take the lead. This is the tough part, but crucial. Start with calling up the image of the card you’re working with, and then allow it to guide you, speak to you, laugh at you, whatever it needs to do. Maybe an entire epic will unfold led by the Hermit. Maybe you will get into a full-fledged fight with the Queen of Swords. Maybe you’ll find yourself alone but content under the canopy of the 4 of Wands. Be present and open.

If your ego keeps trying to butt in and make some epic story, gently remind yourself to let go. Allow yourself to be transported into the archetypal world, however it comes to you. Notice where you go, what it said, what feelings, instincts arise. Everything has meaning in this space.

If nothing happens (which is common at first) that’s ok. Try starting a dialogue. Ask the image to lead you, or to tell you its meaning. And of course if anything becomes too intense, you always have permission to exit when you must.

Step 3: Create the artifact

Once you fell the episode has come to its natural conclusion, immediately record what you saw / felt / sensed. This should not be intellectual, but playful. Use any art form you enjoy, and don’t get bogged down with perfection or precision. Draw the Empress in her red dress. Record yourself singing the dark melody you heard with the 8 of Cups. Journal down the strange and wonderful things the Page of Swords revealed about herself. Don’t intellectualize, re-experience.

Step 4: Go deeper

Now we explore the meaning and significance of the symbols that came to you. This is the time to amplify your imaginative experience and the artifact you created. Amplification is a Jungian technique of considering all the associations you have with a symbol to garner its meaning, both personal and collective. Search your personal memories for a similar image or a feeling the symbol inspired, explore anything that comes up. Then move into the symbolic world, researching mythological meanings of the images that came.

For example, if you met the Hanged Man on an oak tree, ask yourself what associations you have with oak trees. Maybe you had one in your front yard as a kid and always felt a sense of magic inside of it, and so the Hanged Man is pointing to a sense of sacrifice to recover that youthful experience of wonder. Or maybe you do some research and read about the Norse god Odin and how he hung on the world tree Yggdrasil for 9 days and, like him, you sense a newfound call to search for deeper wisdom.

Be curious, but not critical. This is not shadow work. Anything that comes here is information, not a judgment. Allow the card to teach you about the depths of who you really are.

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