Imagery as a Spiritual Practice
I first went to see my imagery teacher because of a nagging, tickle cough in my throat, which I thought might be connected to a general feeling of being blocked in my life. Dr. Gerald ("Jerry") Epstein had written a book called Healing Visualizations about how to use imagery to create physical and emotional health. Within minutes of my arrival, he had me designing my own exercise.
"What does it feel like to be blocked?" he asked me.
"What image comes to you?"
"A balloon about to burst."
Jerry then told me to close my eyes and breathe out and in several times until I was relaxed. "Now see your balloon and imagine it changing in some way," he said.
"It is getting longer. It is made out of a thicker and more flexible material."
He suggested that I see myself climbing on the balloon and flying to a place I had never been, all the while describing to him what I was experiencing. Once I had flown back home again, he asked, "How do you feel?"
"I'm a little light-headed, and my throat feels more open."
The change in my physical sensations was impressive, but even more amazing to me was that the entire experience came out of images that had arisen spontaneously from my imagination.
I used imagery that day for a mind/body healing, and that is the most common application of this work today. The practitioner seeks a specific change in his or her physical or emotional state as a result of doing a particular exercise. An anxious person is encouraged to relax by visualizing a peaceful, safe place. An athlete tries to improve his performance by imagining the perfect execution of a maneuver.
Most of my experiences, however, have not been directed toward physical healing. For me, imagination is a spiritual practice, a vehicle of discovery. It is how I check in with my inner life.
Christian tradition offers a good example of this kind of practice in The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. You imagine yourself in the scene of a biblical story, identifying with one of the characters, and taking part in the action. Variations on these exercises were designed by Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello for his classic guide to contemplation, Sadhana.
Morton Kelsey, another teacher of Christian meditation, refers to the world that can be explored this way as "the other side of silence." There is a realm of the imagination that is neither defined by logic nor limited by linear time and finite space. It has been called the "No Time," the "Eternal Now," and "Infinity." We know it through our night dreams, and we can access it directly by doing imagination exercises.
My practice of imagination reflects the training I have received from Jerry and his teacher, Colette Aboulker-Muscat of Jerusalem, Israel. The exercises they use tend to be short, under five minutes -- a blessing for someone like me who is susceptible to rational thought intrusions. The instructions are indirect or open-ended, and the imagery -- pictures and associated sounds, smells, and textures -- arises spontaneously, rather than in response to a scripted description. A group of people doing the same exercise, therefore, will report a wide variety of experiences. The images that come to me most often speak directly about the challenges and blessings of my spiritual life.
In one experience, I saw myself walking through a thick jungle. I was carrying two valuable artifacts that I was determined to keep. That was the challenge: recognizing my own greed. As I moved on, I met ways to deal with the dilemma. Two authority figures (women from my Weight Watchers group) demanded that I give the objects to them, but I ran past them. Then I passed a recycling can. Without thinking about it, I lifted its lid and put the objects inside; I also added a bouquet of flowers. This ritual, performed imaginally, revealed that I could redirect my desires to the public good. Immediately afterward, the imagery changed dramatically. I found myself in the center of a pyramid constructed of golden rays that transformed into a pillar of light and then into a beautiful green meadow. I discovered that there is a place of power, beauty, and calm available to me where I can go via imagination to find strength, nurturing, and insight.
Imagery is the bridge to this inner reality; it is the language of the invisible realm. By noticing your own images -- your unique vernacular -- and by recognizing universal images that connect you with others, you discover where you are in this moment and what opportunities are available to you. Then you can make, through your imagination, inner changes that will have an impact on your outer life. Imagery becomes a spiritual practice when we realize that the images that come to us are gifts from the Spirit showing us how to live.
How To Practice
One way to begin an imagination practice is by using exercises that other people have found useful. Here are some examples. Many more appear in the books recommended on the opposite page.
For short exercises, you can usually read the instructions in advance. Or you can tape-record the exercise, using your own voice as the instructor. Leave a space of silence to do the exercise, then say on the tape, "Breathe out and open your eyes." You will soon discover the amount of time for the exercise that feels most natural to you.
When you are ready to do the imagination exercise, go to a relatively quiet place where you will not be bothered by irritating noises. Sit in a chair upright with a straight back, placing your arms on its armrests, palms open and down. Your feet should be uncrossed and firmly placed on the floor.
Close your eyes and make a long, slow exhalation through your mouth, followed by a normal inhalation through your nose. Do this three times. This signals your mind and body to relax deeply and to be ready to receive images.
Recall the instructions you have read or listen to your recorded tape. Let the images come to you. Don't try to anticipate or to think them up or to match them to some symbolic meaning you have read about. If you repeat the exercise, you may get entirely different images. Over time, you will become adept at reading what your images mean in the context of your spiritual life. Keeping a notebook where you both write narratives of your experiences and draw key images is a helpful way to discover patterns.
Remember, because of the mind/body unity, imagery work is accompanied by emotional reactions and physical sensations. Imagery is never only in your head. Most exercises contain instructions to "feel" and "sense." These exercises give you a way of embodying your spiritual practice. There may be times when you receive threatening, unnerving, or baffling images. With practice, you can learn to read what these images mean to you. If you find your images disturbing, however, you may want to ask someone with more practice to work with you. The guide, for example, can instruct you to find a light if you are stuck in a dark place.
Finally, don't worry that you might not be "good" at this. It is best not to force it or look for results. For many people it simply takes time to get used to receiving input in this way. Or the exercise may be visually oriented and you may be someone who responds more intensely to senses other than sight.
The Good Samaritan
The following exercise uses the method described in The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola. You put yourself into a Bible story and respond to the spontaneous images, feelings, and thoughts that then arise.
Read the Parable of the Good Samaritan in the Bible -- Luke 10: 29-37. Imagine yourself in the scene of the story on the road to Jericho. Be one of the people in the story: the man beaten and robbed by thieves, the priest who passes by, the Levite who walks away, the Samaritan who tends to his wounds, the innkeeper who cares for him. You also may choose to remain an observer of these events. Notice your location and how you are feeling.
Replay the sequence of events in the story, staying with any parts of it that touch you. Being there, what do you say? What do you do? How do you feel about what is happening?
The Examen of Consciousness and Conscience
Most of the world religions recommend a daily review of your behavior. One part, often called "The Examen of Consciousness," identifies those times when you become aware of the presence of God. The other part, often called "The Examen of Conscience," looks at your own behavior and whether your actions have moved you closer to or farther from God and others.
A variation of the examen includes the correcting of behavior. When you see something that you want to change, you enter into it imaginally and change it. Once I got an upsetting image of my cat hanging by his claws to a rope outside our window. To correct it, I imagined that I held a net under him, and when he fell, I brought him inside to safety. By correcting the image, I signaled my inner self that there was available to me a way out of whatever was making me feel that I, too, was at the end of my rope.
The following exercise, which is to be done at the end of the day, enables you to move closer to God and others through acts of correction. It is based on the "Nighttime Reversing" exercise created by Colette Aboulker-Muscat of Jerusalem, Israel, a world-renowned teacher of the imagination as a way to explore the inner reality. It appears in books on imagery by her student Dr. Gerald Epstein.
Just before going to sleep, lying in bed with your eyes closed, review your day, moment by moment, moving backwards in time. Start with the last event of the day and relive it in imagery. Continue in reverse order, reliving again your activities and conversations. Watch for moments when you felt God's closeness and notice how you responded. See yourself showing gratitude for this presence, whether or not you did so at the time.
Also notice the moments when you had difficulty. Go through each event slowly, trying to correct your attitudes and behavior. Continue this reversing and correcting process until you are back at the moment when you woke up. When you have finished, you can go to sleep. If you find that you fall asleep before finishing, do not be discouraged. Repeat the exercise every night until you are able to finish it.
One of the basic principles of imagery work is that the inner affects the outer; by imagining a change in your inner world, you catalyze a change in your outer reality.
Here are three different exercises about change; the first one was created by Colette Aboulker-Muscat and the other two by me. You can try any or all of them. Once you discover which one is the most powerful for you, work with it for a period of 21 days, repeating the exercise at the three key transition points of each day: upon rising before breakfast, at twilight, and at bedtime.
"Opening to Possibilities." Close your eyes and breathe out three times. Find yourself in a cocoon, knowing how it feels to be in there and how much you can move around. Now break the cocoon and find your way out. Begin to stretch and with each movement emit a sound. Sense all the different ways your body is stretching and sounding. When you are finished, open your eyes.
"Getting Unstuck." Close your eyes and breathe out three times. See yourself stuck in a hole in the ground. Using a little golden spade, a golden shovel, or a golden backhoe (whatever you need), dig yourself out of that place. Then open your eyes.
"Changing through Difficulties." Close your eyes and breathe out three times. See yourself as a gem being polished through friction. Know that through your trials and difficulties you are being made to shine. Then open your eyes.
Sadhana: A Way To God: Christian Exercises in Eastern Form (Liguori/Triumph, 1998) by Anthony de Mello.
Healing into Immortality: A New Spiritual Medicine of Healing Stories and Imagery (ACMI Press, 1997) by Gerald Epstein. Available through the author: 16 E. 96th St., #1A, New York, New York 10128, $10.95 plus $3.50 shipping.
Climbing Jacob's Ladder: Finding Spiritual Freedom through Stories of the Bible (ACMI Press, 1999) by Gerald Epstein. Available from the author (see above) for $14.95 plus $3.50 shipping.
Healing Visualizations: Creating Health Through Imagery (Bantam, 1989) by Gerald Epstein.
The Other Side of Silence: Meditation for the Twenty-First Century (Paulist Press, 1997) by Morton Kelsey.Staying Well with Guided Imagery (Warner Books, 1995) by Belleruth Naparstek.