The imagination combines the power of the waking world with the potential of the dreaming world. Learn how to address your pain in this imaginal space.
You have probably read studies that show how visualizing an exercise feels the same in our brain as if we performed it physically. Modern medicine continues to “reveal,” as if for the first time in history, the incredible power of imagination. But modern medicine is not the first or only field to do so.
For instance, shamanic practitioners know the power of imagination, as it is the primary tool of their healing journeys. The Navajo people combine divination with visualization in their healing ceremonies. Until Descartes came along to split the mind from the body (“I think, therefore I am”), Western medicine knew the truth of this, too. The Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) once said, “Man has a visible and an invisible workshop. The visible one is his body, the invisible one his imagination (mind).”
And, of course, we know from direct experience the impact imagination has on our own lives.
The Power of Imagination
We feel the power of imagination when a loved one gets sick or hurt. We’ve experienced the power of imagination as we create or recreate a conversation in our minds. We’ve seen how, with the aid of imagination, stories we’ve told or heard over the years shift and change, expand and contract. Or, perhaps we’ve seen how we can use the power of visualization to better navigate a difficult conversation or presentation.
So, rather than tamping it down or letting it run rampant, it's time for us to harness the power of our imagination for our own wellbeing.
Why Imagination Works
Imagination combines the consciousness of the waking world with the potentialities of the dreaming world to induce outcomes that might not be possible with the tools of the waking world alone. What might not be a statistical possibility in the outer world is completely within the realm of possibility in the imaginal world.
By accessing our imagination, we’re tapping into a world beyond limits. Beyond our ego’s sense of who we are and what we can do. Beyond our genes, tendencies, and risk factors. Beyond expectations, statistics, norms, and likelihoods. As we imagine, the cells of our body respond.
Steps to Work With Your Pain Through Active Imagination
1. Reclaim your imaginative capabilities
Even if you haven’t thought much about engaging with your imagination since you were a child, you haven’t lost this ability. It’s part of your makeup. Embrace the truth that there is an entire world that lies beyond this one—one that is formless, shapeless, and unconstrained by the beliefs and ideas of this world, and yet can influence this world.
2. Anthropomorphize your pain
In other words, in your imagination, give your pain a body and a personality. What does it look like? If it were an animal, what animal would it be? Give it a color, voice, body, texture, and smell. If it feels evil, go ahead and give it evil characteristics. You don’t have to be gentle.
3. Create a sacred space
Create a quiet, peaceful place in your home where you can sit undisturbed. Though you can lie down, a bed is generally not recommended for this exercise, as you might fall asleep there. Create instead a separate place that you can designate for your imaginal practices.
4. Drop into the imagination
Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Invite your pain to interact with you in the form you’ve given it. Perhaps you watch it, perhaps you yell at it, or maybe you just listen. It is in this space that you can make requests or seek information from it. Go slowly; the imaginal world doesn’t respond to force or demands. It works when you let go, trust, and are willing to explore ideas that can only come from this time and place outside of time and place.
5. Trade places
Now, switch places with your pain. Become the image that you created, and let the pain become you. Tell you what you need to hear.
Switch back and forth, back into the role of pain and again as yourself, until you feel the imaginary conversation is, for now, complete.
When you’re ready to return to the waking world, take some deep breaths and gently open your eyes. Jot down the ideas, images, and thoughts that arose through your interaction.
8. Continue the relationship
Continue to grow a relationship with your pain by following through with whatever suggestions or ideas you received during your time there. For instance, if you learned you needed to slow down, make sure to do so. Consider your pain as a messenger, not an enemy.
As you deepen your relationship with the imaginal world, you will become more comfortable in how to seek answers, find comfort, or reconnect with yourself. Whether or not you become “cured,” you will be more aware of the why and how of your pain or illness and will have the tools you need to create peace and acceptance.