Joining a client in their image world is a powerful act with the potential to both honour and transform their subjective reality. In the third part of her series about harnessing the power of clients’ imaginations, psychotherapist, author and transformational imagery pioneer Dr. Dina Glouberman discusses her approach to group work, and recalls an experience with one cohort member who felt drawn to death by her late boyfriend’s spirit.
My first experiences of participating in guided imagery exercises were of being guided through an internal imagery journey, often lying down, and then sharing the experience with others. But when I myself started to facilitate imagery in groups, I wanted us to have a living and shared experience.
I began to get people to stand up, step into being the image, move around, make sounds, and generally experience fully what it is like to be a lion or a stone or Death or a parent who has just died. Every now and then I would get people to share their images aloud. It is as if we could speak to each other from one dream to another.
Sharing the world of imagery turns out to be more powerful than I realised. Here, it helps to look at the work of the phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty. His view was that what we call ‘objective reality’ is really ‘intersubjective reality’, in other words, an external world that we share though from different perspectives.
Simply put, if I say “Can you hear that strange noise or am I going crazy?” what I am really saying is that for me to be sure that it is objectively happening, I need to know that others are hearing it too. It needs to be a shared experience. If others confirm that they hear it too, I can relax. It really is out there in the ‘real world’.
Similarly, by seeing your image as if it is there in the room with me, and speaking to it, I help you to honour the world of your own imagination as a real world. That said, it is not real in the way everyday physical reality is real. We know that the world of everyday physical reality is continuing in the background, and, should we have to evacuate the room we are in, we can jump out of the world of the imagination and do so. Both worlds are real, and the boundary between them is important.
When working in groups, I also teach group members to see other people’s images as if they are there in the room with them, and talk to them directly and sensitively. Then we are all living in the shared world of imagery together, and the experience gains enormous power.
Joining clients in their imaginations
I am reminded of Serena, a member of my group at the Skyros Centre, on Skyros Island in Greece, who wanted to stay behind from a group boat trip because she was afraid to go. It transpired that she felt that her boyfriend, who had recently died, wanted her to join him in death, and she was afraid she wouldn’t resist the pull to jump overboard.
When I invited her to have a conversation with the boyfriend, she told him that she was so sorry he had died but that she didn’t want to die too. However, when she switched roles and became the boyfriend, he spoke of how lonely and abandoned he felt, and how much he wanted Serena to join him.
Was the spirit of the dead boyfriend there in the room with us or was it ‘only’ her imagination? My premise when I am working in this way is that a person’s image world is as real to me as it is to them. This doesn’t mean that I agreed that this was the spirit of Serena’s boyfriend, but only that in the world of her imagination it was, and this was endangering her. And in that world, I am with her.
Feeling she was at risk, I immediately began to talk firmly to the boyfriend, as expressed by Serena, doing what I could to convince him that she had a right to live, and insisting that he stop his selfish behaviour. He was persistent, but I finally managed to convince him, and he agreed to let go of his grip on her. We were all incredibly relieved.
Serena, knowing we had all witnessed her boyfriend agree to let her go, felt that the matter had really and truly been settled. She decided to go on the boat trip, and later said that she hadn’t thought of him even once.
She was safe now. And I was once again reminded of the power of the shared world of imagery.
A full discussion of the background and the methods of creating a shared world of imagery are available in Dr. Dina Glouberman’s new book, ImageWork: The Complete Guide to Working with Transformational Imagery (PCCS Books, 2022).