The Power of Images and Symbols

Discover why guided imagery and the symbols that arise
out of this experience support change and understanding.

Nymphalidae - Danaus plexippus Chrysalis-1
Ordinary Images Constantly Influence Our Lives

When the woman claimed she didn’t have “images” because she didn’t “see pictures” when she closed her eyes, I was very pleased. That’s because it’s always fun to take a group of imagery workshop participants through an animal exercise in which I ask everyone to close their eyes and imagine that a baby animal is right outside the room. Then when I suggest that the door opens and the animal enters, the smiles begin. Every single person, even those who don’t “visualize” things in their inner landscape, have a great time.

After several minutes, when they open their eyes and share what happened, it’s amazing to discover how many animals have been invited into that room. From common kittens and puppies to elephants, lion cubs and eagles, there’s not a single person who doesn’t know the color and size of the animal that has crept, crawled, jumped, flown, or slithered into his or her imagination.

But how could the woman who doesn’t “see” pictures know what her animal looked like? Well, it’s because we have five different senses. Every time she played with a childhood pet or stared with fascination at giraffes in the zoo, her brain (this complex and amazing mechanism that makes us the most evolved being on the earth) was busy absorbing not only sights of the animals, but the sounds, smells, and touch as well. Even taste could have been incorporated into animal memories if, for example, she had a pet rabbit and bit off a piece of carrot before feeding the rabbit. Therefore, although the majority of people tend to have visual memories and images, she is as capable of “knowing” about animals as the next person. We all have a huge rolodex of images from which to draw when we encounter a new dog whose degree of friendliness we have to determine quickly.

Obviously, however, our animal memories are only a tiny fraction of all our images. Our senses have laid down thousands and thousands of images that have been stored during other experiences – images that have become the building blocks of our personalities, perspectives and coping styles. Even images buried so deeply that we are not aware of their existence create the lubrication of change and the glue of habit.

In fact, every single thought contains an “image,” though we may not label it as an “image.” Even complex concepts like courage, generosity, love and peace all have images associated with them. When we laugh at a joke, it is because jokes embody images. When we take part in a political discussion, images influence our convictions. The truth is that we cannot not image — or surely we would never find our car in a parking lot, remember the face of an old friend or understand a novel.

Unfortunately, much of the time old, unconscious images encourage old patterns of thought . . . leading to old behaviors . . . and giving us old results. Even when we realize we must respond differently to a new challenge, the images stored in our minds become the blueprints we draw upon. If our images are basically positive and self-affirming, our new choices will add to our self-confidence and sense of well-being. If our images are negative and self-defeating, our decisions are likely to lead to further self-defeating behaviors that are harmful to our bodies, minds and spirits

Becoming Aware of Our Images

Fortunately, there is a way to change our images, as more and more people (both the general public and the scientific community) are learning. In the past ten to twenty years, the ancient techniques of “imagery” and “meditation” have been shown to be highly beneficial physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. For example, patients are increasingly taught to use imagery as an adjunct to medical treatment to help reduce pain and enhance the body’s natural healing mechanisms.

Further, “guided imagery” scripts or exercises can reinforce the life-affirming images of which you already are aware. These techniques can also help you create new images that can lead to new patterns of thought, new behaviors and new results.

  • Incidentally, other related techniques, such as hypnosis, biofeedback and yoga, are also becoming popular. Perhaps you’ve been thinking of trying one of them, but can’t decide which one is best. What is the difference between them? The short answer is “nothing important.” All of these methods are:
    Used by a growing number of people to reduce stress, create optimal health and enhance a sense of well-being.
  • Positively affect the autonomic nervous system.
  • Involve a focused mind and an altered state of consciousness or “self-forgetfulness”, similar to the awareness of being “in the flow” or in the zone that artists and athletes sometimes describe.

A longer answer about their differences centers around the purpose for which they are being used. Relaxation, meditation and yoga have no specific “goal” other than achieving a sense of physical, psychological and spiritual well-being. Self-hypnosis and guided imagery tend to be goal oriented, such as changing a habit, controlling pain, or discovering some hidden aspect of the psyche. Bio-feedback is used to teach people how to relax or achieve a certain state of mind.
If you experiment with several of these techniques, you will most probably find one or two that seem to work best for your needs. Out of any of them can come images that can change your life.

© Copyright 2012, Arlene F Harder, MA, MFT
This post originally appeared as an article on the former Support4Change website.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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