I have had a few people with questions about how to use their imagination to evoke beneficial physical or emotional changes. There were a couple of points that they were struggling with. One was whether what they were imagining needed to look similar to what was going on in their body. Another was a tendency to get concerned if their image changed as they continued to practice.
To address these I will use a metaphor of a computer.
Does what we imagine need to look like what is happening in the body?
When we use a computer we manipulate shapes on the screen to evoke changes in the computer’s circuits. The shape that we see on the screen does not look anything like what is going on inside the computer. But that does not matter. The shape is a representation of the processes that are going on in there. The computer’s operating system takes care of figuring out what needs to happen inside the computer when we interact with the shape on the screen.
In a similar manner, when we want to change something inside our body, we allow our imagination to create a representation of what we want to change. We then use our imagination to interact with that image so that changes occur in our body. Just like the shape on the screen, what we imagine does not have to look anything like what goes on in our body. What we imagine is a representation of the body processes and our operating system takes care of figuring out what needs to happen inside our body when we use our imagination.
Is it OK if the image changes as I practice?
As a computer gets upgraded it often gets a new version of its operating system. This means that the images we see on the screen may look different. In the same way, as our body responds to the image we are using its operating system may change. So what appears in our imagination may well look different then when we started.
Are there standard images that will evoke a particular change?
Here is where the analogy with the computer breaks down. Unlike a computer operating system which is the same for all computers using it (Windows, OS X), each person’s operating system is somewhat different. So an image that evokes a particular change in one person might have no effect in a second person and evoke the opposite change in a third.
For example some people can relax their body by imagining being at the beach. For others that causes them to be anxious. The variety of images that can represent health and healing seems infinite. One woman with cancer found herself imagining a hummingbird using its tongue to suck the cancer cells from her body. Another person with cancer found himself in a kiva with a shaman chanting over him and giving him herbs. A person with OCD imagined the part of her brain that was obsessing getting quieter and quieter.
What if the image fades over time?
The purpose of using the image is to evoke a change within our body. As our mind gets more familiar with evoking that change we may not need to put as much attention on the image. This is a sign of progress.
Generally there are three phases for using an image to evoke a change in our internal state. In the first phase, which some people can skip, we use a ritual so shift our state of consciousness so that our imagination can work more spontaneously. There are any number of such rituals and they can be as simple as closing our eyes and letting them relax, or staring off into space and letting ourselves start to daydream.
As we move to the second phase we become more familiar with the image and have less need for a ritual. In the third phase our mind knows how to evoke the experience without our conscious attention and the image fades.
So in Phase I we use the ritual to shift state, allow the imagination to create a form, and experience the change in our internal state.
Phase I: Ritual to shift state –> Imagined form –> Experience
Note that some people can skip Phase I because their imagination gives them something to work with immediately.
The next phase is to become so familiar with the imagined form that we can drop the ritual. We simply call to mind the imagined form and experience the change. This makes the technique easier to use because going through a ritual, even a short one, is rather awkward and somewhat difficult to work into daily life.
Phase II: Imagined form –> Experience
Imagining the form still takes conscious attention and as long as we need to turn our conscious attention to the imagined form we will not be able to experience the change while paying attention to other activities. So in the third phase the form itself fades and we can connect to the change directly with the barest amount of conscious attention.
Phase III: Experience (no ritual or imagined form needed)
What we imagine can have a beneficial effect on our physical and mental state. The effect can be large or small, but since it costs nothing to use our imagination it is generally worth our time to do so. Furthermore, we can use our imagination along with any recommended medical treatment so we can follow medical advice and simply add our imagination to that.