Imagination As Medicine
Ryan Maher, MA, LCPC, CYT
The use of imagination is an immense resource that can improve mood, enhance
productivity, and lead to dynamic and satisfying relationships. Imagination is also an indispensable part of psychotherapy. After all, the process of psychotherapy is, in many respects, an imaginative one that invites you to see your life and the world through a new lens. In therapy, as you reflect on your experiences (both pleasurable and painful) and your relationships, you discover new ways to perceive the unique stories that comprise your life. As you explore these different facets of your life, you can integrate imaginative practices to gain deeper understandings, identify previously unknown connections, and generate new ideas relating to who you are, who you wish to become, and how you wish
The belief that humans come into the world with a completely blank slate, known as tabula rasa, has been largely invalidated. Rather, we are born with certain genetic and archetypal predispositions, which affect the ways we see and experience the world and ultimately who we become. This does not mean, however, that we are completely powerless in the ways our lives ultimately unfold. We all makes choices and decide to take certain actions that influence the direction of our lives. We seek out experiences, we learn, and we grow. In other words, while we are not exactly a blank canvass upon entry into this world, our circumstances and choices can both have an impact on who we become and how we see the world. Imagination can play a vital and inseparable role in
both our willful decisions and also the less controllable conditions that shape how we experience life.
During infancy and childhood millions of neurological pathways are created in the brain, which helps to process information and formulate memory. Experience and imagination assist developing children in understanding the world, navigating relationships, and acquiring knowledge. These neurological networks inform how the world is understood and experienced. Furthermore, as we age these neuro pathways contribute to the creation of personalities as well as habits and patterns, which flavor and color all our experiences in life. In the yogic perspective this patterning is referred to as samskaras. Our imagination can be harnessed to positively influence, change, and create new neuro pathways, or samskaras. This consequently influences our cognitive and behavioral patterns; therefore affecting how we experience the world and how people experience us.
Take a moment and consider your relationship to imagination. What role does
imagination play in your life? Do you consider yourself an imaginative or creative
person? Was imagination and creativity something encouraged and valued in your family of origin? What comes to mind and what do you feel in your body when you think about imagination?
There is a plethora of ways to stimulate, strengthen, and connect with your imagination. Creating music and/or images, being in nature, reading poetry/comics/fiction and nonfiction, working with your dreams, writing, and participating in guided visualizations are some practices that can promote imaginative functioning. Additionally, when you substitute one of these activities for a more habitual activity that you wish to change, you can literally influence the neural structure of your brain in positive and healthy ways. If imagination is something that feels foreign and inaccessible don’t worry. Try to let go of expectation and allow yourself to engage in a creative activity, perhaps one of the activities listed above. And above all else, enjoy the experience. As the poet Mary Oliver so keenly observes: “…the world offers itself to your imagination”.