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Art and Imagination

What comes to mind when you consider the word 'imagination'?


It seems to me that this word can mean quite different things to different people, and in modern Western culture many have an uneasy relationship to it. Imagination is often referred to in a somewhat disparaging way, to mean that which is not real, made up, or of no particular consequence. I take the view that imagination is a vital human faculty, one that can be put to different uses, and it has not always been the case that it meant unreal. In fact, quite the opposite.

In his book The Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, Gary Lachman offers a definition of imagination which casts it in a very different light. "The ability to grasp realities that are not immediately present'. Not an escape from reality, or a substitute for it, but a deeper engagement with it. We could also say that imagination is simply our ability to grasp reality, or even, in some strange way, to create it, or at least to collaborate in its creation." This offers the view that far from being a fine way to waste some time, imagination is integral to how we live our lives. 

" is the source and medium of our other way of knowing. It shows us aspects and dimensions of reality that we would miss without it .... While it can be used for fantasy, illusion, make-believe, and escapism, the real work of imagination is to make contact with the strange world in which we live and to serve as both guide and inspiration for our development within it. It is the way we evolve. Imagination presents us with possible, potential realities that it is our job to actualise. It also presents us with a world that would not be complete without our help." — Gary Lachman.

The imagination is something with which we can engage, if we choose to do so, and there is a reality to images that is important to our sense of meaning and how we understand our experiences. 

Working with images and imagination during the therapy session

"The years... when I pursued the inner images were the most important time of my life. Everything else is to be derived from this...Everything later was merely the outer classification, the scientific elaboration, and the integration into life. But the numinous beginning, which contained everything was then.

— Carl Gustav Jung

C.G.Jung was very familiar with the task of translating inner images, into outer ones, which he did through what are quite beautiful and potent paintings. Jung's understanding was that Psyche works primarily through images, to the extent that he states "Psyche is image." Sometimes we may 'create' images in our minds, and at other times they seem to come to us, in much the same way as thoughts do, which sometimes are images. What this means for us in the therapy session, is that when you are expressing yourself through talking, we may consider how images are present. For example, someone may be describing their situation and how they are experiencing themselves, and say "I feel like I am trapped, it is like being in a well." We could acknowledge that there is an image present here, that of a well, and this could be explored in words, or the art materials could be used to engage with it. What is the significance of this particular image? What might it symbolise for the individual concerned? Being stuck in a 'well' has different qualities and symbolic meaning to feeling oneself to be stuck in a 'hole' or 'pit', for example. This is a way of working with metaphor, which can often be illuminating.  

Dreams are also images, openings to psyche, and it can be useful to explore these during the therapy session. 

In Art Psychotherapy there is the possibility of creating images which have a tangible presence by using the art materials. There are several advantages to this. A process of translation occurs as you create an image, taking something which has an inner origin and making it visible. There is your experience of making it, and what might be going on within you. This is a physical act, and so the body becomes involved in the expression too. Patient and therapist are then able to respond to the same image, although of course their experience of it will differ, which might then fuel further exploration through dialogue. 

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