Imagination in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life
by Allan Frater
…publication summer 2021 by transpersonal press
…cover design coming soon by Keith Robinson @RobinsonKH
A waking dream, also known as ‘active imagination’ and ‘guided imagery’, explores the borderland consciousness in-between waking and dreaming – as sometimes happens on waking from sleep when the dreamworld continues to feel present alongside an awareness of lying-in bed.
This book draws upon perspectives from ecotherapy, anthropology, complexity science and fractal geometry to go beyond a standard therapeutic presentation and develop new opportunities within waking dream practice.
Often presented as no different to sleeping dreams – as a means to generate image content for interpretation – this book focuses instead upon the continuation of consciousness while imagining in a waking dream. The blend of waking and dreaming is taken as a real-time interaction with images that grants the opportunity to become familiar with not just the content of what we imagine but also the process of how we imagine.
You will learn the theoretical basis and practical step-by-step method of ‘eyes-closed’ waking dreams alongside a wider image-centric approach to psychotherapy and everyday life as an on-going ‘eyes-wide-open’ waking dream. The result is a broadly understood appreciation of imagination, not just as a means to rational insight, but as a valuable experience and creative therapy in its own right.
If you are interested in cultivating a richer, story-filled and enchanted existence – or a therapist wanting to help others do so – this might be the book you have been waiting for.
Allan Frater is a psychotherapist in private practice and teacher at The Psychosynthesis Trust in London, UK.
Praise for Waking Dreams:
‘ ‘Waking Dreams’ offers a direct and inspiring immersion in the practice of working with the imagination, aimed particularly at therapists but also of interest to any practitioner. It effectively challenges the assumption that imagination is merely ‘inner’, and offers balanced, subtle techniques for developing hypnagogic experience that are clearly grounded in years of reflection on imaginative practice.’
ROBERT M. ELLIS, author of Red Book, Middle Way: How Jung Parallels the Buddha’s Method for Human Integration
Chapter 1 – Embodied Imagination
Chapter 2 – Waking Dreams#1 Entering
Chapter 3 – Immersive Imagination
Chapter 4 – Waking Dreams#2 Exploring
Chapter 5 – Animistic Imagination
Chapter 6 – Waking Dreams#3 Dialoguing
Chapter 7 – Mechanical Imagination
Chapter 8 – Waking Dreams#4 Shapeshifting
Chapter 9 – Ecological Imagination
Chapter 10 – Waking Dreams#5 Emerging
Chapter 11 – Fractal Imagination
Chapter 12 -Waking Dreams#6 Patterning
Chapter 13 – Transpersonal Imagination
To read a book on imagination can be a risky endeavour. If the aim is to have a more imaginative life, as it is in this book, caution needs to be taken.
There is no shortage, in these rational-minded times, of books that purport to explain what images mean—texts that translate memories, dreams and fantasies into symbolic representations of inner psychodynamics, the narrative templates of Greek myths, and the internalization of childhood history; maps of imagination, developmental pathways, escape routes from nightmares and anxieties. All of which is fine, so far as it goes.
There is a time and a place for analytical thinking. It allows us to step back and gain perspective, but it is not to be mistaken for living an imaginative life. The map is not the territory, as the saying goes.
In the same way that reading about expeditions across the polar ice caps is an armchair exploration from the safety and comfort of home, so too are clever explanations and theories about images not to be confused with the up-close, imaginative participation of story and dream. However, much of the psychological literature is decidedly unclear on this distinction between thinking and imagining; a muddled approach that assumes imagination to be an elaborate puzzle, images as ideas. The result being an atrophication of imagination into the frustrations of an inner-fantasy life.
Interpretation alone rarely leads to lasting transformation. The neurotic Woody Allen– type character, with lots of insight from years of therapy but no actual change in their behaviour, is a therapeutic cliché, a cartoon exaggeration of the impasse that occurs when analytical thinking eclipses the kind of imagination needed to turn insight into action.
An imagination that bridges desire into living realization in the world is little understood. Mainstream psychological theory and practice are predicated upon an “inner” idea of imagination quite separate from the world—an understanding of “images in the mind . . . not present to the senses”; perhaps at times a creative “faculty”, but often a pejorative “imaginary” or “fantasy”; a psychological interiority not to be confused with objective reality. As we shall see, though, this is at best a partial understanding. An inward focus and abstracted distance from the activity of images in everyday life that make it harder to imagine new ways of being and relationships.
This book offers a noninterpretative approach that focuses upon the quality of attention and skills needed to be imaginative rather than trying to figure out what images mean. It is something of a practical guidebook intended for those more intrepid readers who want to enter into and participate in the activity of images.
This is the book I would have liked to receive on starting my training as a psychotherapist. At that time, the imaginative richness of my life—that elusive sense of story and play and possibility—was fading. The surface images of everyday life—a walk in the park, a conversation with a neighbour, a cat sitting high up in a tree—were becoming ever emptier and weightless; like the scrolled-past content on my phone, no longer able to impinge upon and meaningfully touch me. I felt ever less absorbed and able to focus, seldom really feeling there anymore.
What was going on?
Perhaps it was just part of getting older, the latest in a series of losses all the way back to childhood chat with imaginary friends? Perhaps it was the alienating effects of online technologies. Perhaps depression? Whatever the reason, I wanted back those moments when an image would capture my attention—a russet autumnal sunset or even just a tattered plastic bag flapping in a hawthorn hedge, moments when I would stand and gaze, seduced into an implicit meaningfulness in just being alive.
I wanted that sensual imagining back again, and signing up for a psychotherapy training programme had been an attempt to get some practical guidance and advice. In a way it worked—just not quite as I expected.
It soon became apparent that learning to be a psychotherapist was not a direct route to the recovery of imagination. How to imagine was rather taken for granted. The emphasis was upon how best to use images. Imagination was assumed to be a kind of machine, something that could be controlled to manipulate psychological change. A lot of time was spent applying image-based techniques using carefully chosen symbols and stories that produced image puzzles that were explained using a lexicon of “subpersonality”, “super-ego”, and “shadow”.
While some of these ideas were practically useful and intellectually stimulating they were not helping me rediscover the imaginative life I had lost, at least not directly. In the dim corners of my mind questions slowly began to take shape—questions that arose despite rather than because of what I was taught, questions that grew in strength and clarity as I pursued them into clinical work and then a teaching career.
Over the years, many clients, students, and colleagues have helped test out, articulate, and refine answers that eventually led to the image-centric approach I now present here in book form. Due to the origins of the book, many of the ideas and examples come from a psychotherapeutic context. While this will most obviously be of interest to therapists, what follows has been written with a general-interest reader firmly in mind. No expert understanding is required. Technical academic language has largely been avoided, not least because it undermines imagining, and where used is explained in a straightforward fashion. In addition, much of the material is grounded in examples and exercises that go beyond a conventional therapeutic context. As the subtitle suggests, this is a book about imagination in psychotherapy and everyday life. It is for anyone who wants to enhance their imaginative life.
The main requirement for the enhancement of imagination is spending time with images, from watching clouds and sunsets to visiting art galleries and reading novels; in other words, approaching images on their own level, unmediated by any theoretical framework. To this end, the book has an experiential emphasis. In particular, the practice of “waking dreams” is presented across a series of chapters, each of which explores a different aspect of the principles and skills needed to enhance imaginative life.
A waking dream is the exploration of the borderland consciousness that lies in-between waking and dreaming, such as happens on gradually waking from sleep when the dream world continues to feel present alongside an awareness of lying in bed. Usually, these spontaneous waking dreams are of short duration but with practice we can learn to recreate the necessary conditions for a sustained exploration.
The subtle imaginal attention of this waking/dreaming state, also known as “active imagination” and “guided imagery”, will be familiar to actors, writers, artists and other explorers of creative imagination, as well as those psychotherapists, counsellors, coaches, and clinical psychologists who draw upon image-based orientations, such as psychosynthesis, gestalt, art therapy, and psychodrama. While it may seem familiar, waking-dream practice in this book goes beyond a standard presentation by developing two hitherto underexplored opportunities within this practice.
The first novel opportunity is an exploration of imagining in the moment. The obvious advantage of a waking dream over a sleeping dream (in which the surroundings convince entirely and only upon waking do we recognize it as a dream) is that consciousness continues while imagining within the dreamscape. The blend of waking and dreaming is a real-time interaction with images that grants the opportunity to become familiar with not just the content of what we imagine but also the process of how we imagine.
This is a somewhat novel emphasis because waking dreams or similar imaginative methods are often presented as no different from sleeping dreams: a means to generate image content that is then studied for psychological insight. This retrospective stance focuses on what images mean rather than on an experiential, up-close interaction with images on their own level; in other words, thinking about images as opposed to imagining alongside and with images, the effect of which is a cognitive distance from the immediacy of imaginative experience.
I will show that an emphasis on in-the-moment waking dreams serves as the basis for the transformative and healing effects of imagination. An everyday example is the lift in mood we feel after watching a movie. We leave the cinema having being moved by the language of images rather than any clever ideas that explain why we feel better. Indeed, such an interpretative approach might be a hindrance, eclipsing the effects of imaginative experience, as is well understood by the importance of experiential work in contemporary psychotherapy.
This experiential work focuses mostly upon embodied feeling states rather than images and imagination; however, the difficulty, even for experienced therapists, is that the alienating effects of modern lifestyles foster a general absence of bodily and feeling awareness, which often makes direct enquiries in this regard unproductive. The advantage of the image-based experiential work presented here is that the ability to describe and interact with images is a level of awareness readily available to most people and, as we shall discover, also an indirect route into embodied emotional experience.
The second novel opportunity developed in the book is an exploration of everyday life as an ongoing “eyes-wide-open” waking dream. The point of waking dreams is not just to get good at an introspective “eyes-closed” study of “images in the mind”; the wider aim is to carry this imaginal perception over into “normal” life as an ongoing “eyes-wide-open” waking dream.
In the book, I will show how the images and themes encountered in “eyes-closed” waking dreams are relatable to relationships with real-world people, places, and things. Of course, this is not to suggest that a scary-dragon image in an “eyes-closed” waking dream will literally be found afterwards crouched behind the garden fence, but rather, that the waking-dream story of the dragon will be an imaginal background or parallel pattern to real-world situations.
I will show how this patterning allows for connections to be made between seemingly disparate contexts—for example, the dragon image, a boss, an annoying neighbour, a movie character, and a historical caregiver—and that learning to notice these patterns is what cultivates an imaginal sensitivity to the activity of images in everyday life, a sensitivity that can then employ the same principles and practices developed in “eyes-closed” waking dreams to the reimaging of self and world.
As I will show, this second development of waking dream practice provides a basis for an image-centric approach to generic psychotherapy work as an “eyes-wide-open” waking dream. While the images found in memories, in-the-moment perceptions, and future fantasies constitute the raw material of any psychotherapy, conventional approaches often treat images as of only secondary importance. Typically, after a brief description of any such imagery, the therapist will focus upon the feeling and thought responses rather than work directly with the images themselves, asking questions such as “How does it make you feel?” or “How do you understand it?”, thus, allowing imagining to be eclipsed by thinking and feeling.
The image-centric approach I sketch out in these pages will show how feelings, thoughts, and body sensations can all be included within therapeutic work that maintains its primary focus upon images and imagining. Most directly applicable to this image-centric treatment will be art-based therapies, such as drawing, modelling, puppets, sand trays, drama, and movement, and popular image-based techniques, such as Gestalt “empty chair”, subpersonalities, and family constellation work.
I will explore bread-and-butter therapeutic work using client memories, future fantasies, phenomenological in-the-moment processing, and the “dreaming-up” of the transference relationship in the context of “eyes-wide-open” waking dreams—not as the invention of a new modality but as a way of using waking-dream principles to clarify the role of imagination already present within such experiential therapeutic work.
The more experiential Waking Dream chapters are alternated with a series of theoretical chapters. First-hand interaction with images is important, but in itself is not enough. What is also needed is the clearing of a conceptual space that validates imaginative experience. This is important because much of contemporary psychotherapeutic theory and practice does not ask, let alone answer, basic questions such as: What exactly is imagination? What is going on when we imagine? How can we imagine more fully? And why would we want to?
Instead of shying away from these key questions, this book turns directly towards them. As the psychotherapist Mary Watkins writes: “It is ironic that those psychologies which seem to give the greatest respect to the imaginal have not inquired into the subject of what they have imagined of imagining.”
What we imagine of imagination matters. The above questions are not just a theoretical but also a practical matter. To answer them is to ever more fully notice, validate, and enhance imagining. To ignore them is to perpetuate assumptions that limit imagining.
For instance, to assume that imagination is a psychological interiority, or “inner imagination”, blinkers us to its activity in everyday life; to assume that imagination is about visual images precludes noticing its presence in embodied sensory experience; and to assume pejoratively that imagination is “imaginary” or “made-up” pushes us away from considering its creative benefits. In order to work through these and many other assumptions, the theoretical chapters present a critical discussion of the conceptual frameworks and metaphors of imagination.
The theoretical discussion takes two converging critical perspectives. The first is a phenomenological enquiry that tests the conventional theoretical assumption of “inner imagination” against the experiential ground it purports to address.
I will use the viewing of a Van Gogh painting as an example of the lived experience, or “phenomenon”, of imagining. In reflecting upon this example, I will show that imagination, rather than “images in the mind”, is experientially an embodied act of everyday perception (chapter 1) in which we find ourselves immersed within an encompassing image environment (chapter 3) as if it is alive, or animate (chapter 5).
The second critical perspective considers the place of metaphor, the ability to imagine one thing “as if” it is another, in the understanding and experience of imagination. I will trace back the limiting effects of technology in shaping how we imagine (chapter 7) to the historical origins of the “mind-as-machine” metaphor still embedded in many commonly used psychological theories, and then consider the possibilities of a theory of imagination rooted in ecological rather than mechanical metaphors by drawing upon the integration of psychotherapy with contemporary perspectives from complexity theory (chapter 9) and fractal geometry (chapter 11). Finally, in the concluding chapter (chapter 13), I will draw together the various strands of the critical discussion to propose a transpersonal, or “beyond-the-personal” imagination as a framework that releases imagination from the dualistic assumptions of 20th century psychology. The result is a theory of imagination more closely aligned with and supportive of the actual phenomenological richness and complexity of imaginative experience.
The critical discussion draws upon and develops ideas from many sources. An inevitable influence has been my initial therapy training in the psychosynthesis of Roberto Assagioli. In no way a general introduction to psychosynthesis, the book can be read as a sympathetic development of the hidden potential within the many image-based applications of classical psychosynthesis, many of which have been taken up by other therapies but have received very little critical attention or modification over the years.
In particular, the book makes explicit the transpersonal context of psychosynthesis— “trans” in this context meaning “beyond”–to offer an application of image-based work that goes beyond the theoretical constraints of a purely personal or intrapsychic psychology. The Revisioning Transpersonal Theory of Jorge N. Ferrer has been an important influence on me in charting the characteristics of such a transpersonal imagining.
Another key influence for me has been the great Swiss psychoanalyst and early transpersonal theorist Carl Jung, who wrote that “Psyche is image” and “Every psychic process is an image and imagining”.
The book particularly draws upon the work of those post-Jungians who have developed his image-centric approach to psychotherapy, such as James Hillman, Mary Watkins, Robert Bosnak, and Russel Lockhart. The frequent usage of the term “imaginal” derives from this post-Jungian influence. The term “imaginal” was coined by Sufi scholar Henry Corbin from the Latin root imago and has been widely adopted as a means to convey a reality of imaginative experience that avoids the connotations of “imaginary” as unreal, made-up, or nonexistent.
Further influences that have helped me sketch out an approach to imagination beyond the therapeutic consulting room have come from ecopsychology and anthropology. While ecopsychology rarely mentions imagination, the writings of Theodor Roszak, Jerome Bernstein, and Andy Fisher have nevertheless helped shape the image-centric reconnection to the more-than-human world presented here. In a similar earth-centric vein, the cultural ecologist David Abram and anthropologists Hugh Brody, David Graeber, and Sean Kane have contributed to an understanding of an “everyday” imagination outside the bounds of both conventional psychotherapy and contemporary culture.
One of my favourite lines from Roberto Assagioli is “When will and imagination come into conflict, imagination wins”. His point is that imagination is an important precursor to change; good ideas and motivations are not enough. Without the ability to imagine those ideas as realistic opportunities, we go with the flow of the familiar rather than step into the uncertainty of the new. In order to change, an imaginative bridge is needed in order to turn hopes and dreams from frustrated inner fantasies into real-world actions and events.
In this view, therapy is primarily an act of imagination. To the extent imaginative possibilities can be engaged with a new “will”, a way forward can emerge, one that is able to carry ideas and dreams into expression in the world. This book provides the theoretical and practical basis for such an image-centric approach. The following chapters are full of ideas, examples, and exercises that address the place of imagining in the consulting room and beyond—an imagination for psychotherapy and everyday life.