How much do you know about self-guided imagery? If you think it’s about visualizing beautiful landscapes to cope with stress, that’s not it. Well, maybe that’s a little of it. I guess Thomas Moore summed it up well when he wrote, “I see imagination as the most important power we have. As we imagine the world, so we live and understand. But a great deal of the imagination that shapes us lies under the surface. We need to tap that underlying storehouse of images in order to grasp who we are and where we are headed.”
So whether we understand the power of self-guided imagery or not, we’re doing it all the time. So says author Leslie Davenport, a pioneer in the role of guided imagery in psychotherapy and integrative medicine. She is she a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with Master’s Degrees in both the arts and psychology, as well as an ordained minister in the interfaith Sufi tradition.
Leslie says that images are the natural language of our intuition and the wisdom of the heart. So understanding the images that flow constantly through consciousness as well as creating them deliberately can help heal and transform our lives. I asked Leslie to cover some of the basics on the hows and whys of self-guided imagery.
JHR: In your book Healing and Transformation Through Self-Guided Imagery (Celestial Arts/Ten Speed Press, Feb. 2009), you say that we are constantly being guided by imagery all the time, and that entering a different state of consciousness is not necessary. How does that work?
LD: If you have ever worried, daydreamed, or fantasized you have successfully done imagery. In essence, we move in and out of different states of consciousness all the time. Those common forms of imagery are a far cry from the range and depth of the healing possibilities with imagery, but it’s important to recognize that imagery, among other things, is the natural way that we store and expresses information. Try this simple 30 second exercise: Take a moment right now to answer the question, “How many doors, including closet doors, do you have in your home?” (pause) Unless you recently remodeled, you didn’t have a number pop into your head. You retrieved the information you were after by taking a quick imaginary tour of your home and looking around the rooms. The ability to enter imagery is easily available to everyone. And if we do take the time to relax and move into quieter realms within, we can also tour quite subtle and soulful aspects of our inner landscapes.
JHR: Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell talk about the idea that mythology is the result of the collective subconscious of humanity. Is there a link between this idea and the information individuals can glean from self-guided imagery?
LD: Yes – very much so! The imagery journey is paradoxical in that it is both intensely personal and vastly universal. The images that arise have a characteristic of being exactly what is needed for the person at that very time in their lives, and yet the images themselves are often surprising, as though they originated from a realm beyond their knowledge.
By turning our awareness within through an imagery process, we can travel below our personal beliefs and psychological defenses, and tap into the layers of the subconscious and unconscious. Jung referred to the collective unconscious a “reservoir of the experience of our species,” and it is said to hold shared ancestral experiences. In imagery, people often tap into wisdom images that have meaning for them, but are unexpected and unfamiliar. As we dip into this shared layer of consciousness, universal images, or archetypes, arise that often appear in many different eras and cultures. Joseph Campbell describes universal imagery as the “mythic imagination,” and writes of the hero archetype in his book, Hero With a Thousand Faces.
JHR: Why do you think the practice of self-guided imagery is experiencing a renaissance now?
LD: While imagery is a very natural way of knowing ourselves and life, it has been severely underutilized in our contemporary culture where achievement, analysis and organization are prized. While those skills are valuable, when we fail to draw upon the full range of human perception, it creates imbalance. The cumulative lack of balance eventually becomes unsustainability which is now showing up on a global scale in health, environment, and economic crisis. This is a time when we are not only called to action, but to examine why we find ourselves here. As Einstein is attributed as saying, “Problems cannot be solved by the same consciousness that created them.” While I’m not suggesting that if we had all done imagery none of these problems would exist, I am saying that we have collectively lost sight of the mystery, beauty and soulful aspects of life as ways to inform our decisions. Imagery is one of the ways to remain connected with those depth aspects of life.
JHR: If someone is first getting started in the practice of self-guided imagery, what are some basic steps to be aware of? Is it a good to begin the process with a facilitator?
LD: I can’t emphasize enough how imagery is a natural process, and for that reason, it is very possible for someone to tap into meaningful images on their own. That being said, there are quite a few misconceptions about imagery that can initially get in the way. One example I often hear is, “I’ve tried before to picture a pretty place, but I just can’t.” While about 55% of the population does have a visual orientation when it comes to internal sense perceptions, there are also kinesthetic impressions, auditory responses, olfactory memories, all of which are valid portals for the full expressing on internal guidance. We often just sense something and it is accompanied by a feeling that rings true. All these internal impressions are the language of imagery. When we did the 30 second “door” exercise in question one, the images of your home may not have been Technicolor, but it was clear enough imagery to retrieve the information you were after. That’s all it takes! The goal is not to picture something: The goal is to tap into the amazing source of wisdom and healing within. When you are new to imagery, sometimes it is useful to have an experienced guide who can coach you through some of these kinds of temporary obstacles.
JHR: How does self-guided imagery support physical healing? How is the process different from emotional or spiritual healing?
LD: Recent research has confirmed that whether we are imagining a situation, or actually experiencing it, our physiology responds in almost exactly the same way. For example, if you are replaying a heated argument you had yesterday with a neighbor, a cascade of stress chemicals are released in your body in much the same way they were when you actually interacted with that person! The good news is that we can use this same mind-body connection to cultivate images that support wellbeing and trigger a healing response.
We are unitive beings: Your body, mind, emotions, and spirit are intimately connected. If we begin to relax our muscles, it quiets our thoughts and emotions. If we let go of a distressing thought, our muscles naturally relax. At the same time, we are complex beings. If we find ourselves with an illness, for example, it doesn’t mean that we created it because we had “bad thoughts” or weren’t spiritual enough. It does mean, however, that we can focus our minds to optimize healing and wellbeing because of the existing links with the various layers of who we are.
Because imagery is based on focused awareness, we can become more acquainted with and attend to the wounds and wholeness within all areas of our being, physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.
JHR: Can you share an exercise that readers can use today to begin utilizing the process of self-guided imagery?
LD: The imagery journey begins as soon as you close your eyes and bring your focus away from your thinking mind. Bring attention to your breathing. Each time you breathe in, silently say the word clarity. Every time you exhale, silently say the word peace and feel your body relaxing. Continue to deepen your relaxation with this breath practice for about three minutes. Then invite an image to arise of an environment where you could feel even more peaceful and supported, and when it takes shape, notice the colors, texture, sounds scents and feel. Step in and soak in the healing atmosphere of your inner sanctuary.
JHR: What are you reading? What are some books or authors who have influenced you in your life and in your work?
LD: My earliest teacher of imagery came from years of embodying living images as a professional modern dancer. Tapping into the creative well within as a choreographer opened the way for a growing understanding of the body-mind-spirit connections which took a healing focus later in life. I have great respect for imagery colleagues Martin Rossman, David Bressler, Jeanne Achterberg and Belleruth Naparstek. In the spiritual arenas, I have been influenced by Thich Nhat Hanh, Byron Katie, Eckhart Tolle, Meister Eckhart and Patanjali. Poetry nourishes me, and Mary Oliver and Rumi are top favorites. I am currently reading Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating.