This article first presents a theoretical framework for understanding the different phases of a therapy session. Within this framework the use of the imagination in working with dreams, with metaphor and in exploring relationships is discussed. At the end some general points are made about the use of the imagination in therapy.
Cycle Of Experience
Any human activity has a “natural flow that begins with sensory awareness and ends when we are satisfied” (Clayton 1996). The cycle starts with a feeling of readiness, of anticipation (sensation phase), moving on to a growing awareness of needs, a connecting to self (awareness phase). Next we move on to becoming energised, and choosing to fully involve ourselves, with the process (action phase). This leads to a feeling of something complete, a sense of something having happened (full contact phase). Next we reflect or digest the experience (integration phase). Thus the cycle of experience can be summarised as follows.
A therapy session might contain a movement through all these phases. The client enters the session letting themselves settle and then gradually coming to an awareness of some need, then this is heightened, perhaps moving to some action that experiments with the awareness, leading to full contact, and then some integration of what has happened. In using the imagination it is usually at the awareness, action and integration phases that creativity and metaphor come into play.
Perls (one of the founders of Gestalt therapy) called dreams the royal road to integration. Dreams probably access the most creative parts of ourselves. Perls saw every part of a dream as expressing part of the dreamer and in exploring the dream he would get people to act out the different parts, thus getting them in touch with and integrating different parts of themselves. This is a short account of a dreamwork session with a client.
He had this dream while in a hotel room. He dreamt that an old man dressed in Victorian costume came rushing into his room and went over to the window and looked anxiously out and then went over to the opposite wall where there was a blocked up window and tried to look out that window. In the dream the client spoke to the old man and asked him to bring the cups down to the kitchen. The old man pinched him and hurt him and said I can’t stop now; I am looking for my wife.
In exploring the dream the client, in turn, became and spoke as the old man, the clear window, the obscure window and himself. The old man represented a part of him that was anxious and searching. At this point in his life he was unclear about his relationship with his wife, he was unsure of where he stood with her, in other words of where she was. In being himself he discovered that he will have to be prepared to be hurt in order to further explore his relationship with his wife. The clear window represented the part of him that can be very aware of himself and clear to other people, while the obscure window represented the part of him that is sometimes unaware of himself. There was a relationship between the two windows in that being clear meant he knew where he was and this sometimes left him unprotected in relationships and being obscure meant he had a way of protecting himself.
There is a classical way of working with dreams that follows the cycle of experience. First the client remembers the dream (sensation phase), then the therapist usually asks the client to tell the dream in the present tense. This heightens awareness and identification with the dream (awareness phase). Then the therapist asks the client to become and speak as different parts of the dream (action phase), leading to full contact with different parts of self (contact phase). This facilitates the client to integrate the different part of themselves (integration phase).
Another way of looking at dreams is to facilitate the client to be aware of an existential statement in the dream. An existential statement is a core statement that represents the current existence of the client. Thus a core statement from the above dream might be “I am anxiously looking”. After a car accident I had a very traumatic dream. In working on the dream the core statement which emerged was that “I was suffering a trauma” and needed to talk about the trauma of the car accident. A client told me a dream which included the statement “I was pinned up against a wall and could not move.” This client felt stuck in her present job which she hated but didn’t feel able to leave. By acting out the position of being pinned against the wall the client got in touch with some of her own power and possibility for movement.
Another way of exploring dreams is to look at the movement in the dream and see the movement as approaching or contacting the particular parts of oneself. So the movement in the above dream is the old man moving from window to window. This can be seen as the client approaching or making contact with the polar opposite parts of himself, the clear self and the unclear self. Thus the dreamwork might be to explore what it is like to approach and touch the clear self and what it is like to approach and touch on the obscure self. Working with the movement in the dream is at the energy/action part of the cycle.
If someone has difficulty remembering dreams, a creative possibility is to make up a dream. Possible ways of doing this are to let go with your imagination or just simply be aware of where you are now and let the situation take on a life of its own and develop from there. I did this in a bar and my dream consisted imaging some dance beat music playing in the pub and everybody moving in rhythm to the music. When I told the dream to a friend she pointed out that I was moving much more than I normally do. In this dream I was getting in touch with the rhythm inside myself.
Working with Images and Metaphor
As Marcus points out, images make use of subjective symbolism, thus by – passing the rational mind. They are a powerful tool of connection between our outer world (for instance pushing too hard) and our inner world. Images are a way of changing the context and often it is a safer and more flexible context for exploration.
The following is a brief account (from my personal therapy) of a therapy session which used metaphor. I started by saying that I was aware that I seemed to be pushing against every thing, trying too hard. The therapist asked what had an image for this pushing too hard. The image I had was of me in a wood cutting down trees with a blunt saw. The therapist asked what I needed as I did this and I said I needed someone to come along and give me a chain saw to do the job. What I did not need was someone giving out to me and telling me I am doing it wrong, I simply needed support and encouragement. The image built out to me cutting down various trees with the chain saw and then returning to the village and being part of a community and each person doing a specific job with the support of someone else. Immediately after the therapy session I found myself much more relaxed (as opposed to pushing). The therapy session also helped me change my relationship with my son. Until then I was always pushing him and criticising him for not doing things whereas now I focused on what help and encouragement he needed.
Kepner Describes a Therapy Session Using Metaphor:
This woman complained of her promiscuity, describing herself as a “a mattress” (awareness phase). I wanted to enliven her deadpan expression of the very important issue in her life and so suggested that she lie on the floor “like a mattress” while I placed pillows symbolising men on top of her one by one (action phase). As the experiment progressed her passivity and helplessness changed to resentment and then fury, as each pillow was added to the pile (contact phase). By acting out the metaphor in physical and exaggerated terms, she came to feel her passive and disowned resentment to being a mattress for men. Thus working with the metaphor translated into a definite physical experience of the part of her that abhorred being in such a position.” (Kepner 1993 p158.) (brackets mine)
Images are also useful at the integration point on the cycle. Imagination “operating at the levels, sensation, feeling, thinking, and intuition has an integrative effect: it simultaneously uses right and left brain functions.” (Marcus 1979 p. 127). At the end of a weeklong intensive therapy group the facilitator gave us an exercise to draw or write or make a collage or express in some symbolic form our participation in the group over the past week. I felt the image of a bodhran player. The bodhran player is someone who waits to join in the music. He picks up and follows the core rhythm of the music yet at the same time the rhythm he plays must come from deep inside himself. If he plays too loud or out of rhythm the music stops. Listening to the music of others, the bodhran player discovers his own music. The image of the bodhran player reflected my struggle in the group: a struggle of mainly waiting and responding rather than initiating.
Working with images not only facilitates integration, in a paradoxical fashion, it can also be cathartic. At the end of an intensive residential group we broke into small groups to review the group process. Our group saw the process in terms of the film, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” This image not only helped us integrate the group experience, by acting out the film and assigning roles amongst us, it also helped us move from the intensity of the process into some more lightness and hilarity (getting it out of our system so to speak). This integrative/cathartic process can be seen at the end of many training programmes where the students do a skit on the training programme.
Physical awareness, such as tensions or symptoms, can also be explored as metaphor. The classic Gestalt way of working with a symptom is to heighten the awareness, getting to know it in as much detail as possible e.g. where it is, how strong is it, is it throbbing, etc. Next the therapist suggests consciously making the symptom worse and then giving it life, letting it speak and listening to what it says. Thus when I explored some backpain I was feeling I discovered that it was a metaphor for my inflexibility and rigidity in other areas of my life; I also discovered how I was carrying myself in a rigid and inflexible posture.
Kepner Describes Working with Physical Symptoms as Follows:
“Many figures of speech have an explicit body orientation: “to stand on one’s own two feet” or ” to have backbone”, and these can be readily expanded into physical expression. We can explore the physical dimensions of standing on one’s own two feet: how you feel strong and how you feel weak when standing, how your self- support is undermined (the resistance) what you have do to mobilise to withstand outside pressures or burdens (by my action as the outside force through pushing or loading you down.)” (Kepner 1993 p 158.)
In Working with Physical Symptoms Marcus Describes the Use of Guided Imagery:
“I ask the person to see himself very small and to go inside his body (he can either go alone or take someone with him or call on someone at any time he wants); I ask for a description of where he is entering, how he is travelling, and what he is seeing along the way. The trip itself is very different with each client and even on repeated trips with the same client. Sometimes it is very symbolic, like fixing electric equipment or cleaning filters: at times there are encounters with past or present situations (which may reinforce the theory that different parts of the body contain their own memories). At the end of the trip I am careful to bring the person “out” and resume his normal size.”(p. 129)
Working with Relationships
Gestalt Therapy is a holistic therapy which includes a focus on all aspects of human experience. This includes thoughts, feelings, images, physical sensations, and the person’s relationship with others. It often happens in therapy that a client is talking about a difficult relationship and their focus is mostly on the other person. They are struggling to have a sense of themselves in the relationship. The following exercise, which draws on this holistic approach often facilitates clients to gain a separate sense of themselves in relationships.
“Close your eyes and go inside yourself imagine being with the person. First of all imagine the surroundings, then imagine the other person. Picture what they are saying and doing. Imagine how they are moving and imagine how physically close or distant they are from you. Now pay attention to yourself in the situation. Discover how you are physically, where you feel tense, where you feel relaxed. Discover how you are feeling as you are with this person. Pay attention to your breathing. Discover any thoughts or images you have. Pay attention to the distance or closeness between you and the other person and how you are moving in relation to this person. Now let the situation take on a life of its own and develop and see what happens. Now when you are ready, come back to the room here.”
In exploring this I usually ask the person to tell me what has happened and also to say something about what it was like to do the exercise. This latter question can bring out resistance such as “I found it hard to get into the exercises” or “I could imagine the other person but I found it hard to imagine myself. These processes can then be explored. The above exercise is also useful in a supervision to facilitate a therapist to discover more of themselves and their own process in a particular client – therapist relationship.
Morgan (p.997) describes how the use of images can be useful in exploring relationships in the workplace. He suggests thinking of the relationships in terms of “any image that occurs to you – whether bird, plant, animal TV or storybook character, or whatever” or using “different images to capture the person’s approach in different circumstances”. He then describes how communicating these images may lead to changes in the relationships. In gestalt therapy, the images would be seen as a projection. The image is part of the client and can be explored as such.
Imagining another person in one particular role it can bring out the complementary role that the subject is playing. Morgan gives the following example of a client who described their manager “as a kennel dog…. a pampered poodle living in a make- believe world… I am more like a field dog familiar with the challenge of the wilderness. I know how to survive… the poodle runs around in his yard and thinks that he knows what it’s like to be out here in the field.” (Morgan 1997 p.23)
In working with such an image I might suggest a conversation between the field dog and the poodle where the field dog begins by telling the poodle exactly what it is like out in the field. The field dog might discover what it needs from the poodle, perhaps a chance a to come in out of the field and rest in the kennel for a while or to show the poodle some of the tricks of survival.
Images are a useful way of exploring unfinished experiences in relationships. This is particularly true in processes of bereavement. So for instance in mourning someone might say “I wish I said goodbye to them”. Suggesting they imagine saying goodbye might help complete that wish. In bereavement therapy, imagining the symbols associated with the person can be a powerful way of connecting with that person. I did this in relation to my father and the strongest symbol that came to mind was that of a hurling stick. My father was a very good hurler and taught the whole family how to play hurling. In exploring this image I got in touch with and appreciated what my father had given me.
For seemingly intractable relationships, with which someone seems obsessed and can’t leave behind, I sometimes use what I call the “Put the person on the ceiling exercise”. This consists of picturing the other person and in your mind making them smaller and then moving the up the wall and on to the ceiling upside down and then leaving them there. At the very least this exercise can help people get some respite from obsessing about the relationship. Often it helps the person touch their own power. Other times it enables people to become aware of their care for the other person e.g. when they discover how carefully they put them on the ceiling.
A key question is when to use images and when to avoid using them. I only touch on this briefly here. I tend to pick up on images from the client rather than introducing them myself. If a client introduces an image as they talk, they are usually ready to explore it. I tend not to use images at the beginning with clients or especially with groups, preferring to first get people grounded in the relationship with me or with other people in the group. I also tend not to use imagination with people who are very well versed in images and metaphor e.g. writers and artists, whereas I do tend to use it with clients who struggle with projecting e.g., clients who take everything literally or are very concrete.
Clayton S., Gestalt – A Philosophy for Change Training Officer Jan/Feb 1996 Vol.32 No.1
Marcus E.H. Gestalt Therapy and Beyond Meat Publications, 1979.
Kepner I.L. Body Process, Jossey Bass, 1993.
Morgan G. Imagin.i.zation, New Mindsets for Seeing, Organisation, and Managing, Sage Publications, 1997.
Vincent Humphreys is a Gestalt Psychotherapist, supervisor, trainer and organisational consultant in private practice. He is founder and director of the Dublin Institute of Gestalt Therapy.