The Use of Imagination in Psychotherapy
The use of imagination in psychotherapy is extremely beneficial to most clients, for healing purposes as well as for personal and transpersonal development. It offers a great variety of tools and, in different ways, can apply to all approaches and conditions.
If we take the example of an integrative and humanistic model, Psychosynthesis for instance takes inspiration from various approaches, including the work of Jung whose main focus is on the imagination of symbols, metaphors, archetypes, mythology, imagery and the study of dreams (1). Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, also took his inspiration from the work of Freud, known for his interpretation of dreams (2) and the use of Greek mythology (Eros, Thanatos, Oedipus etc). Fink (3) describes dreams, daydreams and fantasies as being the “lion’s share” of the material of an analysis. As exposed by Parfitt (4), imagination offers a symbolic bridge between the conscious and the unconscious. It is a container, a conductor of psychological energy, and transformation can happen only once we have made this connection. Kelzer (5) says that, when approaching the mind, a touch of the poetic and a sense of its inherent mystery are essential. One could even say that this attitude is a prerequisite for a real understanding. Hillman goes further and affirms that psychology is only archetypal, imagistic, aesthetic and poetic. He defines psychology in these terms: “I am working toward a psychology of soul that is based in a psychology of image. I am suggesting both a poetic basis of mind and a psychology that starts neither in the physiology of the brain; the structure of language; the organization of society; nor the analysis of behaviour, but in the process of imagination”. Diagrams have been regularly used to describe models of the psyche (e.g. Freud’s iceberg, Assagioli’s egg etc.) and Jung’s mandalas (1) are a great representation of creative imagination in analysis. Genograms can take very creative shapes in constellation work and systemic therapy.
Real-life historical events depend on subjective interpretation according to the client’s emotional response and views. Imagination plays a crucial part in this process. Perhaps no event can find its place in reality through human perception without imagining it first; this links to the Buddhist belief that all is an illusion. In psychology, however, we take to be real the subjective reality of the client; that is, the way his psyche processed - and therefore imagined - the events. The French psychoanalyst Lacan (6) goes as far as to say that very little in the discourse of the client is true, but what matters is that everything he says, including his lies and fantasies, is 'real'. As Calderon simply says (7), “life is a dream”.
It would be difficult to disassociate imagination from creativity, and the latter could be seen as the result of the former (although mentioned as synonymous in the English thesaurus). Diana Cooper (8) says “add creativity to thoughts and you have imagination”. We are inherently imaginative and creative since birth. In the work of Winnicott, for example, it has been demonstrated that the baby needs a lot of imagination to find ways to soothe itself by finding transitional objects; this can be, for instance, in order to compensate for the various frustrations and traumas that inevitably occur from birth onwards. In the Primal wound (9) Friman and Gila explain that not a single one of us will escape without some amount of debilitating primal wounding in our lives, from birth and beyond. Assagioli (10) expresses the necessity to heal this “fundamental infirmity of man” by freeing himself from this enslavement and achieving a harmonious inner integration, true self-realisation and appropriate relationships with others.
To this aim, various imaginative techniques are to be found in most therapeutic approaches, including the most rational and pragmatic. It is regularly used in CBT for example, where the emphasis is placed on transforming inadequate thinking and behaviours once they have been clearly identified, by encouraging the client to imagine different ones and elaborate a strategy of change. Rowan (11) states that to say that everything to do with the imagination is part of the transpersonal would be both imperialistic and confusing.
The transpersonal psychologists Wilber and Rowan (12) established an interesting integrative, progressive and non-linear framework, which differentiates four levels of psycho-spiritual development going from healing and ego-building to development and ego-extending, opening and ego-reduction, and at last enlightenment. It is a useful scheme that helps follow the evolution and depth of various therapeutic practices, from instrumental and medical models to transpersonal and psycho-spiritual dimensions. Creative techniques are to be found in each level, except perhaps the last one defined by loss of words and symbols. Emptiness and silences are nevertheless of prime importance in the creative process as it fosters intuition and makes space for more to emerge. This is where meditation techniques can be significant to therapy. A French writer once said that a novel starts when thoughts stop (Le roman commence la ou la pensée s’arrête). Meditation can also contribute to appeasing an overactive mind and reduce rumination. The Mindfulness techniques made popular by Kabat-Zin and Williams (13) are largely drawn from meditation. Assagioli elaborated five different stages of Psychosynthesis (14). From zero to four, each phase explores in turn the survival of primal wounding, the exploration of the personality, the emergence of “I”, contact with the Self, and finally response to Self. This developmental approach is largely based on creative techniques.
It is through an apparent objective discourse that the client describes real life historical events. Lacan (15) believes that this discussion bears little interest and that what matters is the imaginative and sometimes deconstructed affective language. Words, which are themselves symbols, are certainly one of the most important vehicles in psychotherapy. It is important to not systematically associate them with a possible over intellectualisation and a way to stay in the mind to avoid deeper work. The French writer Modiano says that it is through details that he can elaborate and imagine his novels. His technique consists of meticulous research into the past, and it is the minute missing element which launches him into the imaginary world and makes his novel progress and become coherent. This comment is quite relevant to psychotherapy work with regards to the amount of words and details that, over time, a client brings into therapy, and what they make of these facts as well as the missing elements in order to create bridges and to heal. A talented poet uses this creative tool, which is literature like mud for sculpting, colour for painting or notes for music. Words convey images, symbols, thoughts and emotions, and make the therapy manifest.
To stimulate this vital imagination in therapy, a vast array of resources is available to the therapist and to the client. Young Brown (16) underlines that we can experience imagination with any and all of our senses: sight, hearing, bodily sensations and movements, smell and taste. Art in all its forms is highly inspirational for the creation of mental images and feelings. Symbols and metaphors, including dreams and archetypes in a Jungian fashion, as well as fairytales and religious icons and concepts can be used in parallel to intellectual and philosophical ideas. Hero figures and role models can also be found in the music world, the arts, literature as well visual sources, from films to television series and reality TV shows (17). Hypnotherapy, tightly connected to NLP, draws on techniques such as Desoille “rêve éveillé”, which takes the client a few steps deeper into imagination. In an article (18) Detoiles wrote “The directed daydream, an intermediate hypnoidal state which shades between wakefulness and sleep, is essentially a device for tapping the inexhaustible reservoir in which one accumulates, during the course of one’s life, anxieties, fears, desires and hopes. These factors maintain their determining influence over ongoing behaviour whenever one is coping with the external world. One important advantage of the directed daydream techniques is that it provokes intense emotional reactions very easily. This is indispensable for the attainment of certain state of consciousness and is essential to the achievement of a cure”. Countless artists such as Dali and Magritte have depicted dreams and imaginative imageries in their art. Picasso said that “art is a lie that makes us realize truth”. According to Jung (19) the power of surrealism mainly lies in the fact that the artist juxtaposes and associates objects in a dreamlike and somewhat absurd manner. They appear like visions of the unconscious. Fellini published an impressive book about his dreams, which can be very inspirational for certain clients (20). Through these abundant means, a client can project, transfer, identify, visualize and understand his various issues. He can imagine, compare and find mirroring and resonance with his own story in order to integrate this understanding. Mainly, he can explore deeper layers of his unconscious and heal.
Staying in the metaphorical and imaginative world with certain clients can provide better healing and transformation. It can be particularly helpful in cases of deep traumatic events, which can be impossible to access on a cognitive and conscious level, or to avoid re-traumatising a client. It is not always necessary to bring our shadow into consciousness to transform it or befriend it. It is possible to slowly bring into our clients’ lives positive transformation as it progressively occurs at an intangible level. This brings us back to the field of Transpersonal therapy, at the Subtle level (opening, ego-reduction). John Rowan (21) states that, if anything is particularly characteristic of the Subtle stage of consciousness, it is imagination. As Moore simply puts it (22); “The soul is not nearly as rational as the ego”. Therefore, it is not only through rational thinking that healing can be achieved, but also by helping the patient re-create more adequate abstract symbols for himself. In her comparative essay between the work of Jung (The Collective Unconscious) and Blake (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), Singer (23) points out the conflicts between reason and imagination, hence the difficulties inherent in a harmonious holistic approach.
It could be said that psychotherapy is an art as well as a science, and that it requires both rigorous knowledge and intuition. Imagination can be used within integrative and transpersonal approaches as well as with instrumental and medical models. Imagination is vital to touch conscious and unconscious elements. Creativity in psychotherapy can be as vast and infinite as the imagination of the client and the therapist. It offers original tools to facilitate and promote a rich therapeutic alliance. One of the goals of the counsellor is to be able to guide this imagination and play with the richness and variety of the means available, with precision and flexibility, in order to provide a very stimulating and more importantly, a very effective therapy.
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16. YOUNG BROWN, M (2004) Unfolding Self. New York: Helios Press
17. HAMILTON, J (2013) Reality TV as therapy. London: Therapy Today June 2013.
18. DESOILLE, R (2000) Le rêve éveillé dirigé. Paris : Eres (in French)
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21. MOORE, T (2004) Dark nights of the soul, London: Piatkus
22. SINGER, J (2000) Blake, Jung & the collective unconscious