The Mind's Eye

Imagination’s inner power can help heal the whole person.

By Lisa James

March 2008

A woman, moaning in pain, is wheeled to the recovery room after surgery. There, a nurse gives her something to take the edge off and holds her hand. “In your mind, I want you to visualize a place where you are happy and calm,” the nurse says in a low, soothing voice. “It can be a place you know well or a place you’d like to go.” As the woman enters that special place in her mind, the nurse asks for details: What time of the year is it? Are you alone or with someone? The nurse then tells the woman to breathe slowly, holding onto that calm feeling, for the next five minutes or so.

Such a scene may seem out of place amid the average hospital’s technological clatter. But the body’s ability to heal through creative imagery, visual or otherwise, is powerful. What’s more, anyone can learn how to tap into that power.

“It is important to remember that all healing is ultimately self-healing,” says British meditation teacher David Fontana, author of Creative Meditation and Visualization (Watkins/Sterling). “Visualization enlists the support of the unconscious, which is then instrumental in mustering the body’s healing mechanisms.” It does so through the autonomic nervous system, the part of the brain that controls such life-support functions as heartbeat and breathing. Once thought of in western medicine as being detached from consciousness, Fontana says that this system can be accessed “by entering the proper mindset—in particular through the use of visualization.”

Healing Through Images
Pain relief has been one area in which guided imagery—a process that uses either a provided script or an outside facilitator, such as a nurse, in creating images—has come up big in research.

That’s not surprising, given that pain perception varies from person to person. “The level of pain experienced is what the patient says it is,” says Marianne J. Davino, RN, BSN, a critical care nurse at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, New York, who uses guided imagery as her “intervention of choice” in the recovery room. What’s more, she adds, “Some people have much more agitation coming out of general anesthesia, and medication is often not the best answer.”

Nancy Hicks, RN of Franklin, North Carolina, is another nurse who sees great value in guided imagery. When she worked at a hospice center, “I’d guide patients through a meditation and they were able to go in and find an inner courage” to talk about difficult subjects with family members.

Pain isn’t the only problem helped by imagery. “It can be used for people with addictions, all kinds of different things,” says Hicks, who now does private consulting. Studies have found that this simple practice has, among other things, shortened hospital stays after cardiac surgery and helped people stop smoking (Out­comes Management 7-9/02, Journal of Nursing Scholarship
7-9/05).

Dreaming into Wholeness
Guided imagery, while one of the most popular forms of imagination-based healing, is only
a start. Others include receptive visualization, in which one’s own inner being provides the appropriate images, and affirmation, which relies on strong, positive statements such as “I am surrounded by love” or “I am filled with a warm, healing light.”

Dreams can be a powerful source of healing images. “Dreams diagnose our problems, sometimes years before symptoms develop,” says Robert Moss, author of The Three “Only” Things (New World Library, www.mossdreams.com). “Dreaming is possibly the best source of imagery because it’s yours.”

Moss, who has led dream workshops around the world, believes that healing only starts with what’s happening within the body. “Everybody wants to feel that they are in touch with a bigger story in their life,” he explains. “If we don’t have a bigger story in our lives our immune system is shot and we are prey to disease.”

Moss has seen remarkable situations arise in his dealings with such clients as an artist, already a cancer survivor and facing another biopsy, who kept dreaming about a spider growing before her eyes. Although frightened, she agreed to follow Moss’ suggestion to go back into the dream. “When the spider got to human size it shape-shifted into a beautiful woman, who gave the artist the power to shape-shift her body’s energy,” he recalls. “When she went for the biopsy, she was cancer-free.”

Moss believes such power is within the grasp of all. But “we do not develop the inner resources that we have,” he says. “It’s about reclaiming gifts that belonged to us as very young children.” The idea is to channel those gifts through the rich world of imagery.

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