The following is an edited extract from my book ‘Waking Dreams’:
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.
Image-centric psychotherapy understands psychological suffering in respect to the limitations of fantasy imagining, a basic definition of which is given by the Jungian dream therapist Robert Bosnak:
“A mental process, akin to rational thinking . . . an indirect, disembodied feeling of distance, and a controlling, grasping attitude of habitual consciousness . . . the endless reconfirmation of pre-existing notions . . . erecting a wall against the fresh.”1
Fantasy is a disembodied and habitual imagining in which a subjective cache of memories and beliefs operates largely unchecked by evidence from the objective world. It is an imagination withdrawn from the world and stuffed inside; hence, the cliché of being “in your head” as a description for a fantasy life of frustrated desires, trapped within the confines of the known, unable to reimagine and adapt to changing circumstances. This requires a lot of effort to maintain, an effort we can call “neurosis”, or psychological suffering, the result of alienating modern lifestyles, a culture that fails to take dreaming seriously and an education system that neglects the training of feeling and sensation. It is the rump imagination that remains when, through neglect, fear or forgetfulness, sensory contact with lived experience is diminished, as James Hillman writes:
“The moment you leave sensing out of imagining, it is imagining that becomes an inferior function: sheer fantasy, mere imaginings, only a dream.”2
This is not to suggest that fantasy imagining is a black-and-white issue or that sufficient sensory awareness will be able to create a true or entirely accurate imagining. Fantasy is always a matter of degree. A purely objective non-fantasy imagining is not possible. The subjective aspect of imagination can only be refined but never eradicated completely.
In simple and familiar situations, a fantasy or habitual reimagining of the world makes sense. To be human is to become familiar with particular places, people, and tasks. Habits allow us to leave an art gallery and walk down any street without having to put time and energy into understanding anew every passing tree, cloud, and coffee shop window. Without this habituation, the beauty of the world would overwhelm us. Without habits, we would step outside each morning and spend the whole day awestruck by the mystery of trees, lost in the fascination of cloud patterns, and entranced by reflections in shop windows. However, the cost of this efficiency is a trade-off with wonder. As the novelist Anthony Doerr writes,
“The easier an experience, or the more entrenched, or the more familiar, the fainter our sensation of it becomes. This is true of chocolate and marriages and hometowns and narrative structures. Complexities wane, miracles become unremarkable, and if we’re not careful, pretty soon we’re gazing out at our lives as if through a burlap sack.”3
Habitual or fantasy reimagining maintains the expected by filtering out the novel, strange, and unfamiliar. The danger in this is a life without curiosity, possibility, and new meaning, a forever ordinary dullness —also known as being depressed. This is why people go to art galleries: to find inspiration that goes beyond habitual attitudes, interests, and concerns; a portal into a brighter existence, an enlivened imagining coloured and flavoured by the thinking and feeling of a Van Gogh, Monet, or Velazquez; an imagining that will hopefully not stop when they leave the art gallery but carry over into everyday life, as an enhanced sense of being there with the dog walkers, traffic lights, and rain drops snaking down the window pane on the bus home, a sense of participation and involvement that is the very antidote to the alienation and isolation characteristic of psychological suffering.
Image-centric therapy is a journey or movement away from the limitations of habitual reimagining. Whether it takes place in an art gallery, a walk in the park, or a psychotherapy session, it is the engagement within a process of imagining that is seen to be healing and transformative – a framework for psychological health that guides therapeutic work towards the cultivation of an ever more fluid and adaptable imaginative life, an engagement in the activity of images in everyday life that James Hillman names “soul-making”:
“The making of soul-stuff calls for dreaming, fantasying, imagining. To live psychologically means to imagine things; to be in touch with soul means to live in sensuous connection with fantasy. To be in soul is to experience the fantasy in all realities and the basic reality of fantasy.”4
Soul-making breaks up the story-fabric of the habitually imagined world. It makes conscious the assumptions of fantasy imagination and contemplates new possibilities and meanings, a re-visioning of the routine such that clouds, coffee shops, and even saying hello become fresh and new all over again, initiated by what I shall be calling “novel images”: figural or stand-out perceptions that bring the process of imagining into conscious awareness.
Love affairs and divorces, births and bereavements, new jobs and job losses—any significant life event can become a novel image. To walk along a beach and watch a sunset is to be moved by a novel image. To view a painting, read a book, or talk with a psychotherapist is to be taken on a journey by novel images. What before was simply an ordinary and unnoticed event is turned into a lived experience that touches and moves us, often with an element of anxiety or excitement, a dramatic tension that demands to be resolved.
Novel images open up the middle ground between self and world. The previously taken for granted becomes noticed and felt (Look at his eyes. He does care about this). The assumed way of things becomes provisional and uncertain (Maybe he’s not so cold-hearted after all?). To enter into this malleable, in-between imaginal perception is the primary creation of soul-making. As James Hillman writes, the focus of psychological creativity is “the awakening or engendering of soul”.5 The middle ground of soul is both a questioning of the old and also the creation of new possibilities from beyond the boundaries of habitual imagining (What if I spoke to him about it. How might that be?)
To notice and allow these possibilities to take shape and colour and feeling in imagination is a crucial step towards any form of creative action in the world. As therapist Rollo May writes: “Imagination is the home of intentionality.”6 Without the ability to imagine a future event or way of being as a realistic opportunity, it will be all too easy to revert to habitual imagining (No, he’ll take it the wrong way; best keep quiet). In this way, hopes and dreams remain unrealized subjective fantasies about what could have been; whereas, if the uncertainty of the new can be tolerated, then imagined possibilities will lead to real-world actions and events (“Hey, you know that thing that happened? . . .”).
Image-centric therapy assists clients in noticing then following through on the creative possibilities offered by novel images. In the first instance, this will be the novel image that catalyzed entry into therapy. The troubling thoughts, feelings, or sensations the client is suffering will be related to their associated novel images: an obsession to the image of a beautiful work colleague; an anxiety to images of angry people and being angry; a migraine to fantasies of being criticized. Within this work, the therapist will be on the lookout for further, smaller-scale novel images, as described by therapist Chris Robertson:
“The craft entails listening for that change of tone (a discordant harmony), the unfinished sentence, the pregnant pause, what is unsaid but felt as emergent. The quality of trust that you will be heard can catalyze the courage to risk speaking these “missing” possibilities.”7
Sooner or later, a crack in the story-fabric of fantasy imagining will open upon another world of “missing possibilities”: an atypical moment in the content or style of the client’s narrative, facial expression, gesture, or some other out-of-character behaviour that transforms the session into the middle-ground of soul-making. Here, the therapeutic task is to provide the care and attention that allows these missing stories to be further explored in imagination: an image-centric approach to psychological suffering which focuses upon the cultivation of an embodied imaginal sensitivity, one which is malleable and able to move in accordance with the shifting sensory impressions that constitute the people, places, and things of the surrounding world – the practical strategies of which we continue to explore in the next ‘Waking Dream’ chapter.
1. Robert Bosnak, Embodiment: Creative Imagination in Medicine, Art and Travel (Abbingdon, Oxon.: Routledge, 2007), 76.
2. James Hillman, “Image-Sense”, Working With Images: The Theoretical Base of Archetypal Psychology, ed. Benjamin Sells (Thompson, CT: Spring Publications, 2000), 183.
3. Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World (New York: Scribner,2008), 54.
4. James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992), 23.
5. James Hillman, The Myth of Analysis (New York: Harper Perennial, 1972), 21.
6. Rollo May, Love and Will (New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 2007), 211.
7. Chris Robertson, Transformation in Troubled Times: Re-Vision’s Soulful Approach to Therapeutic Work (Forres, Scotland: TransPersonal Press, 2018), 101.