In a previous post, I wrote about creative visualization or mental imagery as a healing technique. I was focusing there on what I call intentional visualization, using our imagination to explore possibilities in emotional healing and reaching goals. There is, however, another way to use this technique for healing that involves a receptive approach. I call this unintentional creative visualization.
Psychoanalyst Carl Jung developed a technique that I see as a form of unintentional creative visualization called active imagination. Lawrence Staples at the Jung Society of Washington describes active imagination as involving spontaneous interaction with a character from a dream. We pick a person who appeared in a dream and call him or her up in our mind, perhaps within the environment of the dream or in a more neutral environment, if that feels like a better choice. Then, we engage in a conversation with the character in our mind.
The goal is to find out about some part of ourselves that we’re in conflict with, don’t understand, or are ignoring. For instance, I once had a dream about a guy who was a visual artist. I was at a party in his very artistic apartment. Although I was supposed to know who he was, I actually felt like he was a stranger. At the time, I recognized that he represented the artist within me, but I now feel that he represented more specifically a visual artist. I’ve always considered myself inept in the visual arts, but I’m currently learning how to do photo manipulation. It would be interesting to have a conversation with this figure to learn more about the visual artist within me.
It’s important in active imagination to just let the conversation go where it needs to go, even when we get uncomfortable or actually feel ourselves getting angry, afraid, or confused. I’m not so sure, though, that I agree with Staples that the dialogue has to involve conflict. We could also engage with a figure who holds onto past experiences, emotions, or desires that we don’t realize affect us so deeply. We can show sympathy, ask for more information, or just listen to whatever the figure has to say to us.
Dr. Marty Rossman talks about tapping into an inner guide or adviser through mental imagery. He describes a simple process of going to a peaceful place within the mind and then inviting “a wise, loving figure that knows [us] very well” into this place. Then we wait patiently as things unfold. Perhaps the wise figure will speak to us. Perhaps it will lead us to other places where we can learn something. Again, the idea is not to force anything and trust that we’ll receive information that’s meaningful to us.
He warns, though, that this inner guide could make suggestions for major changes in our lives that could scare us, like needing to communicate openly with people who mistreat us, change careers, move somewhere else and start over, etc. His advice, which I also follow myself, is to first explore within the mind what could happen if we make these major changes, both positive things and challenges. Doing this kind of walk-through in the mind can help us appreciate the potential rewards from the change and how we can face possible challenges.
Other Forms of Unintentional Creative Visualization
Both of the above techniques have some structure to them, focusing on a particular character or figure that we hope to learn from. We could also do a more free-form kind of visualization where we just place ourselves somewhere in the mind and see what develops on its own. It can be difficult, though, to distinguish between material that our conscious mind is handing us and material that truly comes from a deeper place.
When I do this, I try not to control myself too much. I might put myself on a beach or in a forest or on some rolling grassy hills and start walking, knowing that the conscious mind is behind the visualization so far. I’ll focus on creating a sensory-rich environment, and eventually, I find that things begin to happen on their own.
A few nights ago, for instance, I was looking at a picture of a red rocky canyon. I wondered what it would be like to be there, so I visualized myself there and started walking. At first, I knew I was imagining what I’d seen in the picture with the conscious mind.
However, the canyon eventually opened up to some grassy hills with flowers and then a forest. A stag led me through the forest to a clearing at the center with a cabin. In the cabin, there was a pit that reached deep into the earth. I stared into the pit and saw white light. A man came up behind me and put his arms around me. I felt love and knew I was in a safe place.
Unintentional creative visualization is more challenging than intentional mental imagery because we have to lay aside the conscious mind as much as possible. But it can also be a very profound experience, if we trust what we’re receiving.