Our vision connects us with the world. We use vision to find our way through a city, pick an item off a store shelf, and gaze into the eyes of a lover. Over the course of our lifetime, this visual experience creates a vast storehouse of memories. Our visual memory isn’t a static, fixed thing. Using imagination we modify real memories or create new ones.
While we may not be consciously aware of it, our mind’s eye constantly roams across this visual landscape. Sometimes our inner movies play in the background, and at other times we take them seriously, responding to our inner eye almost as intensely as if we were seeing physical events. As we walk into a meeting with a boss, or react to the misbehavior of our child, or listen to world news, the images that play across our mind color our attitudes and behavior. The memories, fears and fantasies we see in our internal movies may brighten our mood and lift us out of the doldrums, or crash us into dark fury and despair.
Anger and passion
Inner movies from the past are layered upon our awareness of the present. Like trying to see clearly in a hall of mirrors we find ourselves responding to a complex collage of past and present. Warm and uplifting images make us feel good and propel us towards our goals. On the opposite extreme, traumatic memories interfere with our sense of well being and drag us down. All of this information, much of it heavily loaded with emotion, clouds our judgment, and instead of resolving the problem at hand we find ourselves re-living old wounds.
We may be so caught up in the emotions, we don’t realize we’re responding to old or imagined images. Or if we do realize it, we may not feel we have control over them. The images may present themselves unbidden, and we feel compelled to respond. As we try to change ourselves, and improve old patterns we need to improve our insight into our visual dimension.
Becoming more aware
Meditation methods help us see the steady stream that constantly flows through our mind, just beneath our awareness. As we close our eyes, and try to still the endless chatter of thoughts, we catch glimpses of our internal movie screen. We gain deeper understanding, including more insight into the memories and dreams that drive us.
Children live in a world of vision and imagination
As small children, we didn’t yet use words to interpret every experience. Instead, we received raw impressions of the world directly from our senses. Drawing is an excellent medium for children to express and symbolize what they see and feel. But the vast majority of us put aside drawing skills when we switched our attention on learning how to read and write. As big children we picked up the message that drawing is just for little children and worked hard to build a layer of words between us and our experiences.
Over time, we fell out of touch with our own images. As adults, few of us draw, and most of us would say we don’t have good visual imagination. To satisfy our starvation for imagery, our culture surrounds us with billboards, the internet, logos on tee shirts, even ads on the gas pump. If absorbing images could satisfy our craving, surely this flood of pictures would have done the job. But even after we watch TV for hours we still feel depleted, never feeling like we’ve had enough.
Reawakening our visual dimension
Our starvation for images is a symptom of how disconnected we’ve become from our own visual mind. To satisfy this deep hunger, instead of trying to absorb more images created by others we need to work more creatively with our own. Since most of us have become disengaged from our visual imagination, we need to learn exercises and techniques to help us get back in touch.
Artistic expression, one of the most basic tools of visual exploration has been found in human culture since the dawn of history. Art reawakens our visual faculty and engages us in the memories, dreams and reflections that unite us with our soul. Art is not just for artists. We can approach art as an unstructured, spontaneous activity that helps us get in touch with the childlike innocence of our visual mind. Even drawing simple shapes and stick figures reveals volumes. By expressing ourselves through drawing we can organize and shape our images more constructively.
Doodling is a kind of meandering expression of the visual imagination, and satisfies some of the same functions as journaling does for our verbal thoughts. While doodling gets little respect, it can become a valuable method to help expand our introspective awareness. The free flowing doodle can give expression to thoughts and feelings we didn’t even realize were there. When we are at a point of confusion or intensity, we could explore our images through doodling. Similar to the way positive self-talk improves our mood, doodling can remind us of upbeat encouraging images when we feel down and relieve anxiety and stress. Drawing sunny skies, happy faces, and other images of pleasure and success can help lift us out of the doldrums.
Putting words to images
As adults, we often feel remote from our visual imagination, seeing our own images dimly and distantly if at all, and unable to focus our attention on them long enough to comprehend what we are seeing. To help bring these images back into focus, we can practice describing them, for example naming their color, their form, their brightness as if we were describing a scene to someone over the telephone. By consciously describing in words what we see in our mind’s eye, we build bridges that join together the powerful dimensions of vision and speech and give our adult brain a way to grasp, manipulate and communicate this information. Keeping a journal describing our visual impressions we can stretch and strengthen this mental skill, writing about what we see with our physical eyes, our imagination or our memory.
Another way to bring the visual aspect of our thinking more into play in our day-to-day lives is by brainstorming. We were taught in school to organize our thinking along a straight line, from beginning to end. But our mind works more organically grabbing thoughts and attaching them to each other free-form. By using a technique called mind mapping, we can follow the crazy-quilt flow of our thoughts, without being limited to a straight line. Mind mapping helps us think “out of the box” by getting in touch with the visually freer and more creative arrangement of reality. Visual brainstorming helps us include the elements of emotion, surprise, time, even color and shape.
Using imagery to our advantage
As we become aware of our inner movies, we realize that old visualizations limit us to follow along the same old patterns. But how can we change the visual images that pass through our own mind? These seem to be thrust upon us by our mind, and we seem to be passive recipients. But we can learn to select or imagine images that will cheer us up, ease our fears, and warm us with gentle emotions. The idea of actively using our imagination may seem foreign, something only available to children and artists. Such put-downs against the power of our own imagination are a by-product of our television age in which we expect stories and images to be spoon fed to us. Instead of surrendering to the images our mind dishes up, we can press into service the powerful tools of imagination, sometimes called daydreaming and fantasizing. These creative mental skills broaden our horizons and improve our quality of life.
Positive imagery improves our sense of well-being
When we fear that the world can crash in on us, our mind churns out protective and fearful thoughts and images. These images amplify our fears and make us feel worse. Instead of passively accepting these self-destructive mental habits, we can turn the tables and use visualization as a creative tool to generate self-confidence, relaxation, and other desired mental states.
For example, to lift ourselves out of anger, we could insert flashes of white light around an edgy encounter or visualize a golden halo around a child who has misbehaved, soothing and lifting our frame of mind so we are better able to clearly communicate, negotiate and resolve issues. When we feel unsafe, or overwhelmed by circumstances, we can build internal shelter from the storm by creating a carefree, comfortable place in our imagination. Picturing ourselves relaxing at a blue-skied beach, a peaceful mountain lookout, an easy-chair by a fireplace, or even simply surrounding ourselves in a glow of white light can help us find strength and poise, and let us take a mental break from the pressures of the world.
We can also use imagination to help deal with events that makes us anxious. To prepare to make a speech or confront a child who has been acting out, we can rehearse the scene in our mind’s eye, surrounding our imagination with optimistic, visually pleasing images, bright, colorful lights and positive outcomes, to help us stay upbeat. When we face the actual situation, we’ll be charged up by the positive elements of imagination, making us more poised and relaxed.
Most traditional therapy deals with words, but some therapy techniques also use the visual dimension. Art therapy brings unconscious images to the surface, where we can examine and integrate them. Other therapy methods use dreams as windows to our innermost secrets. Through visual imagery, story and metaphor, our dreams often reveal those things we’re having trouble resolving when we’re awake. By keeping a dream log by our bed and writing down the stories and what they mean to us, we may find valuable keys to unlocking problem areas.
Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) is a therapy that uses visualization to help us escape from depression, frustration or other unproductive emotions. NLP expands beyond traditional talking therapy to harness sight, touch, sound and other aspects of our experience. For example, one NLP technique for helping improve a difficult situation is to deeply relax, and to visualize images we associate with our problem. Even if the image is abstract, we try to visualize its color, texture, and material. Do we tend to see it near or far, light or dark, small or large? Once we have described the visual details of this problem, we then use the power of our imagination to create an alternate scenario, one that satisfies us and makes us happy, describing it in the same careful detail. To improve our feelings, we use the power of imagination to transform the unpleasant image into the positive one. Often we find our emotions have transformed as well
Healing childhood memories
When our lives are disrupted by strong emotions, tumultuous memories are awakened from the dimly lit corners of our mind. For example, if we ask our boss for a day off and he rejects our request we may feel helpless and frustrated. These feelings remind us, just at the corners of our consciousness, of images when we were small and powerless children. Such old memories impose on the adult mind, but are not clear or easy to understand because they were first formed when we didn’t yet have the words or ideas with which to create a story of what was taking place. Without such a story we absorbed experiences directly, by hearing the emotion behind people’s actions, missing their nurturing touch, and seeing things we didn’t fully grasp.
As we grew up we covered over these wordless frustrations with layers of coping and forgetting. As adults, we seldom take the opportunity to go back to these formative experiences and put healthy healing stories on them, stories that would help us deal with powerful memories in a more productive, more adult perspective. Now, as we wish to understand ourselves better, and understand how to react in ways that please us and others, part of our job of healing is to pierce the veils of shadow memories and try to shed light on them in new ways. By revisiting formative experiences, we can seek deeper self-awareness, acceptance and forgiveness to help us let go and move on.
Visual tools like drawing and dreams can help our exploration. Accessing visual memories as adults, we are able to bring to bear the full tool kit of our adult mind. We connect our feelings and our images, filling in the shadows of our internal awareness and helping us deal with sadness, shame, fear and other limiting emotions.
Releasing the hold of negative imagery
As we work towards integrating those important parts of ourselves into our conscious awareness, some memories and images might come into focus clearly, setting off light bulbs of awareness and clarity. Others may be hidden behind walls of terror. We can’t forgive what we can’t see. To help us face the anguish of painful memories, counselors can guide us to picture ourselves as spectators, witnessing our own childhood as if we’re watching ourselves on a movie screen. By separating ourselves in this way, we can gain enough distance and safety to explore our feelings without being overwhelmed, allowing us to develop deeper insights and healing.
Once we have a clear view of our childhood situation we use our imagination to introduce nurturing and forgiveness. Going back in time we can shower love and safety towards our childhood self, for example, by inserting white lights, or a kind, protective presence into the scene. By imaginatively re-scripting our story, complete with visual special effects, we soften our memories, taking away their sting and allowing us to come to peace with parts of ourselves that had been in turmoil.
Images are intimately intertwined in our experience of life, and yet most of us find ourselves in the passenger seat, driven by images, rather than controlling them. Getting in touch with our visual images will help us deal with the day to day reality of our own mind.
By understanding how images influence us, and learning how we can shape them, we gain powerful tools to build optimistic, safe and joyful mental habits. When we’re ready to move beyond old patterns, we can learn to take charge and transform our images from obstacles to allies.
See also: Child within, Dreams, Journaling, Meditation, Self-talk
Creative Visualization; using imagery and imagination for self-transformation by Ronald Shone
Introduction to Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) by Joseph O’connor