Harnessing the Power of Imagery for Happiness and Health

“As children, magical possibilities were limitless. Every new discovery — about nature, our bodies, ourselves — held the potential of giving us that tingle of magic’s presence. Then we grew up and magic faded. Moments of wonderment, surprise and delight so common in youth became fewer and farther apart. For many of us they stopped altogether. Perhaps this is why, as adults, many of us seek passage back to magical places… .”

She Flies Without Wings, Mary Midkiff

What if you found a passage to a magical place that not only brought moments of wonderment and surprise but also real positive change in your life? What if this place had humor, quiet moments of warm intimacy, playfulness or daring adventure, suspense and heroic challenges? Yet there was never danger to life or limb and you could emerge with a new sense of self and your own possibilities. You could really improve your life. There are others who have gone before us and know this place well. You do not have to travel far, for it is located within reach of anyone wishing to open to the unused powers of their own imagination.

Carl Jung explored using the imagination actively, Joseph Campbell taught about the power of myth, shamans journey to the spirit world and return, quantum physicist Fred Alan Wolf, author of Eagle’s Quest, probed the physics of one’s consciousness. All speak of the authority and value of images, personal and collective, arising from the depths of our psyche to give us direction and help us fulfill our destiny. Native people have mined this language of the unconscious for centuries to understand and move through life. They knew that calling on animal spirit guides via imagery was a doorway to one’s most authentic voice where the deepest healing and wisdom awaited. Likewise, Judeo-Christian tradition has a long history of inner guides appearing as angels. Jung believed the modern mind subjected to the narrow rigidity of rationalism shut our consciousness down into darkness — a mental blackout. “[Rationalism] does not enrich us; it removes us more and more from a life with cosmic meaning, from the mythic world in which we were once at home.” (C.G. Jung) Shining light on our powers of imagery and actively using them offers us a new awakening to the fullness of being human, of taking charge of our life.

Today the ancient healing art of imagery is being rediscovered and used in visualization processes to help people achieve goals or live healthier, more satisfying lives. Athletes, cancer patients and psychotherapists alike use visualization in distinct ways. Used before or after surgery, imagery results in less pain, shorter hospital stays and less anxiety. Broken bones even heal faster. Brain studies show that when senses and feelings are engaged in imaging an event thoroughly, the brain experiences it as actually happening, resulting in profound physiological and psychological effects. Imagery can help cure physical and emotional imbalances while strengthening our faith and trust in ourselves. Read how one woman’s imagery was experienced and affected her life:

“I walked along the forest path feeling the soft earth beneath my feet, the cool shade of the trees. Ahead was a brightly lit mountain meadow beckoning. I stepped into the light, wild flowers gently nodding in the breeze. High above was a soaring eagle. I sighed, then my breath caught as I heard and felt the deep thud of hooves pounding the earth. I looked across the meadow to see a big black stallion racing toward me. “Black,” I whispered. He was at a full gallop, tossing his head, yet I was unafraid of this powerful horse coming at me. He stopped right in front of me and nuzzled me with his big head. I pet his forehead then cupped my hand around his velvety soft muzzle. There was a palpable deep fondness between us. I moved along his side stroking his back, feeling the firm muscles of his haunches shiver under my hand. He turned his head as I walked around him, patiently waiting as I slowly stroked his whole body, knowing I needed to feel safe with him. He wanted me to get on his back, but how without a saddle or stirrups? Then it just happened. I was on his back and he started walking. Worried, I asked about reins but he said I wouldn’t need them. My fears melted away. I knew, without knowing how I knew, that riding him was a cinch. He had been a part of me for so long. He was now taking me on a long journey. But we first had to pick up a little girl…—1st imagery journey, 1988

As a child I hungrily read every Black Stallion book. I entered this world, identifying with Alex, riding, racing with the wind, going through every suspenseful adventure and escaping danger together. It saved my spirit during a painful childhood time. Now the big horse was back and had entered my adult life as a symbol of personal strength and freedom. “Horse” lifts you up, taking you beyond former limits. This reunion in imagery sessions began an extraordinary time in my outer life, for it was a reunion with my own courage to scout new trails of personal and professional territory, though unsure where they would lead. This reunion with my creative spark and with my instinctive sense of what’s right for me led me to go where I needed to go unquestioningly, and likewise to flee what’s wrong for me without looking back (a.k.a., horse sense).

Soon in imagery I was riding him with a saddle, venturing out of the protection of this mountain meadow traveling far and wide. His spiritual residence was in my solar plexus. These imagery journeys foreshadowed actually leaving the confines of my pleasant suburban life to spend 4 years as a part time nomad crisscross the country by car, going up and down the Rocky Mountain states, a mid-life woman and her dog. Being in the west gave birth to my mountain woman spirit and eventually I fulfilled a life long dream and moved to southwest Colorado. Black is still with me, along with other marvelous animal spirits. — L.F., Colorado, 2001

Deep spontaneous imagery is a safe therapeutic way to activate the healing wealth of the mind — a route which gently bypasses typical ego obstacles, fears and resistance to arrive quickly at the insight, growth or change needed. During imagery you are relaxed, awake, and simply learning to harness the powers of your mind in a new way. It can be surprising at how effortlessly positive images arise just by asking. An imagery practitioner can guide you in learning how to interact or dialogue with an image, be it an animal, a nature scene or a wise figure, as it goes through a variety of scenes. The inner journey can be playful, uplifting, healing and always engaging. Even when dealing with painful issues, the dreamlike quality of spontaneous imagery makes talking about it and dealing with it easier.

Imagery Exercise
Get a taste of it right now with this short exercise. First be sure you will not be interrupted for about 10 minutes. A quiet place with dim light is best. Get in a relaxed position sitting in a recliner or lying on a sofa. You can read through the exercise first, but then go through it slowly and let it happen. What situation in your life is perplexing or troubling to you? Perhaps it is difficulty making a life decision, a relationship, health or job issue, or maybe a personal issue like self-esteem, stress, setting limits or healing an emotional wound. Once a particular issue stands out, you are going to close your eyes and take 4 breaths, giving your body and mind permission to relax completely. There’s nothing your mind has to do (left brain thinking) as this is a spontaneous process. The more your body and mind relax, the easier it is for the imagery to arise (right brain activity). Now begin taking 4-5 deep cleansing and releasing breaths focusing on how the air sounds going in and out, how your rib cage and lungs expand and relax.

Continue breathing easily and naturally, bringing your attention to the way your body rests on the recliner or sofa, the way it supports your whole body. Feel your body resting more deeply as you expand awareness to the support of the floor under the sofa and then the earth under the house. Nothing you have to do, nothing you have to think about for these few moments. Just breathe and relax.

Then ask aloud or quietly in your mind, “What image or animal will help me with ________? Come forth.” Breathe. See what shows up in your imagination. This might take a few seconds. As soon as you get a fairly clear picture or sense of an image or animal’s presence, whatever it is, say “hello” to it. See or get a sense of what it’s doing, what kind of environment it is in. If it is an animal, notice its attitude: strong, cocky, shy, injured, passive. What is your reaction: liking or not liking the image or animal, fearful, curious, etc.? Tell it how you feel about it. Breathe…

Then ask the image/animal, “What have you come to teach me about _______?” Watch how the animal responds to your question. You may hear a verbal answer in your mind or get a nonverbal sense of a response. The animal might move in a way suggesting it wants you to follow. Follow it. If you have any other questions or response, do so. Communicate with this image/animal with honesty and respect. When it finishes, say “Thank you and goodbye” before opening your eyes. Breathe. Make any notes about the journey and how you feel now. Remember if you receive an answer or instructions from imagery, you must carry it out in everyday reality to gain the benefit. This is most important.

Humans have always used their imagination to solve life threatening, social or personal problems. Every contemporary crisis we face now is one of relationship — with the Earth, other people of the world, between men and women and ultimately within ourselves. As we regain our ability to relate deeply to our whole self, we will have a greater sense of peace, joy and fulfillment. Spontaneous imagery is one pathway home to our heroic and truest self in harmony with each other and the greater circle of life, a way of aligning our personal life with the greater rhythms and abundance of the universe.

Florence Gaia, RN, M.Ed., registered nurse and psychotherapist.