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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD Clinical Psychology, DPhil., MA (History)


The Imaginal World: Guided Fantasy

Paul Kiritsis - Sunday, September 23, 2012

Other Worlds by Christos Stamboulakis (2011)

One of the most important techniques for exploring the inner life was pioneered in the 1930s by French psychotherapist Robert Desoille (1890 –1966). Heavily influenced by the theorization of an unconscious whose foundations were being laid by the likes of Pierre Janet (1859-1947), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), Desoille developed a very practical method of unearthing unconscious and repressed thought-desires and transposing them to a level comprehensible to the conscious mind. This innovative technique was called the “directed waking dream” method and it was supposed to encourage self-development in the individual by opening up pathways leading to the lower and higher fulcrums of the human psyche.

The usual manner in which Desoille worked was to request that the subject assume a very comfortable position on the floor with his eyes shut and his attention turned inward. This closely resembled the preliminary stance for hypnosis. Once the subject was relaxed Desoille would stand directly behind and facilitate entrance into the imagined world by asking him or her to permit a certain scene to come to mind. The scenes were premeditated and fell into two categories–ascent and descent. Scenes of ascension intended to evoke the psychospiritual rubric of a person’s nature whilst those of descent reconnected the personal ego with its roots in the personal unconscious. Both classes explored archetypes as understood by Jung’s analytical psychology as well as rudimentary unconscious impulses that were supposedly inverted into socially acceptable acts of valuation by daylight. (Desoille was heavily influenced by Freudian theory.) Sometimes Desoille would encourage his subjects to write a critical investigation looking back on the experience which could then be used to make extrapolations on the phenomenology of the fantasy content. In all, it was a highly innovative manner of brining unconscious contents into consciousness at will for the purpose of analysis, one which transpersonal psychologists now call guided fantasy.   

Unlike many other transpersonal psychotherapeutic methods, the approach known as guided fantasy is much less rigid and dogmatic and much wider and broader in its methodological scope. For one, the subject doesn’t have to religiously adhere to a particular scene or approach proposed by the therapist and is free to fabricate one of his own. Because fantasy and dream content arises without a predilection for social conventions and proceeds rather spontaneously and intuitively, any bifurcations of possible experience contrived by a therapist can quickly become a serious drawback rather than a welcomed discovery for a subject wishing to reconnect with the shadowy, menacing aspects of their own psyche. In providing his subjects with prearranged scenes and symbols with which to begin their fantastical journeys and hasten psychospiritual growth, Desoille may have been tampering and modifying certain ends in a way that removed subjects from their own natural trends and from the explicit course of development relative to each trend. Despite these obvious dangers, therapists may introduce symbols and instructions passively into a sequence of scenes or an individual scene when they feel that it will hasten a realization without being of detrimental consequence to the subject.

To give an example a male subject named Jason might be tampering with the image of an albino snake that has ambushed him on a day when he stupidly chose to cut corners and walk home through a meadow with tall grasses instead of via his usual route. The snake rushes at him from an opening in the ground with such speed that it takes him unawares, wrapping itself around the length of his entire torso. Jason has never seen such an evil serpent before. It takes great pleasure in asphyxiating its victims and then swallowing them whole. Jason vividly describes the course of his struggle with the snake but he soon falls silent. The therapist mediating the visualization swiftly realizes that Jason has reached an unconscious sticking point and is therefore unable to descry what might happen next. He makes the suggestion that Jason might have a razor-sharp blade in his hands. Jason unconsciously accepts this newly established fact and runs with it. He realizes that he can mortally wound his reptilian assailant now, but before he can deliver the mortal blow its head morphs into the face of his sister, illuminating what appears to be an unresolved and hitherto unacknowledged conflict between siblings. By unveiling this current concern the therapist can facilitate healing by guiding the client to a specific imaginary scene conducive to conciliation; he further suggests that Jason take a stroll along a promenade with his estranged sister where the two of them can talk to one another in peace and quiet. Through this ethereal experience, Jason begins to acquire insights into his sister’s personality. She, too, is an individual with both virtues and vices, molded into what she has become by an agglomeration of circumstances that are as involutary as knee-jerk reactions and ocean tides. His unconscious fear has in fact undergone a positive transmutation into more character-building sentiments like empathy and compassion.

There are many benefits to this kind of psychotherapy. Unlike Freudian psychoanalysis where cycles of transference and countertransference are set in motion by client-therapist interaction, guided fantasy enables a much more independent and natural course of healing to emerge by allowing clients to enter their own unconscious space and directly encounter the root of immediate problems. In this way those conflicts and motivational or libidinal problems immediately repressed by the personal unconscious because of their traumatic and disturbing nature can be conjured and experienced in an impersonal and collective fashion. Desoille himself was convinced that letting the conscious mind wallow in fantastical imagery was enough to penetrate the uppermost layer of the collective unconscious and spur dynamic, constructive changes to the shadowy and less desirable aspects of subliminal motivation. The investigational mental imaging technique used by Desoille in developing his ‘waking dream’ system of exploring the psychology of the unconscious gained traction in the following centuries after its inauguration and eventually came to the attention of German psychiatrist Hanscarl Leuner (1919-1996).  The latter was a shrewd, eagle-eyed intellectual who wasted little time in anticipating how the cumulative role of imagination and guided mental imagery in therapeutic agencies might be reconciled with his own interest in drug therapy. He avoided the well-publicized shortcomings of Desoille’s method by broadening the varieties of presentation used so that modifications of one’s inner emotion could find expression through projected images of self-representation without any hindrance. Up until that time, Leuner was contented in calling his system Guided Affective Imagery but as soon as other analysts began to jump onto the same bandwagon he discarded this tentatively-titled clinical banner for a much more humanistic and user-friendly option–symboldrama.

Symboldrama works in quite the same manner as the ‘waking dream’ method but offers a much more comprehensive field of possible imagery than its predecessor and condenses the role of the mediating psychotherapist so that he or she can only interpolate fantastical imaginings passively. The method seems to work well without having to facilitate deep relaxation or induce hypnotic trance states in the respective subject. Usually, the therapist in charge will begin the exercise in guided fantasy by conjuring aspects and details of scenes and then ask the subject to behold it. A subject’s aptitude in visualization is usually self-evident; if he or she cannot summon internal images like flowers, plants, people, buildings, and natural or artificial settings and environments then the venture should be abandoned and replaced by a different form of psychosynthesis. Once the subject identifies an object, substance, or symbol, the therapist will attempt to discern the exact nature of its physiognomy as if it were a tangible aspect of the phenomenal world by putting forth questions like: What does it look like? What is its texture and color? Does it smell? Do you recall all your senses to behold it or are you visualizing it through a single one? Is it static or mobile? Is anything else present? Does it blend into or interact with its surroundings? Does it remind you of anything else? The underlying purpose of the questions is to exhume subliminal moods that have not been accredited or dealt with on a conscious level and their exact nature will often articulate whether or not further investigation is likely to be beneficial or counterproductive. For instance, a fantasy image that begins as a black rose and then mutates into a charred head breaking out in blisters, pus-filled lesions, and open wounds is probably a good indication that the guided fantasy be terminated. In this way the therapist discerns the approximate duration of any projective self-representation as well as the frequency of their own passive participation.

Leuner’s inaugurating scene was usually a meadow, though the suggestion was made in a way that enabled the subject to readily appropriate a different scene or image. Those of you who have undergone psychosynthesis through guided fantasy should recognize Leuner’s instructional passage below as a close variant of the one verbalized by your own psychotherapist. It goes like this:


Now please try to imagine a meadow. Imagining is not difficult .Simply any meadow. If something else appears before your eyes, that’s all right, too. Everything that comes along is fine. (Pause) Wait calmly and patiently until something appears before your eyes, perhaps a meadow or something else too. (Pause) And when an image appears, please talk about it. (Pause) But even if this should cause difficulties, tell me that, too, so that I can perhaps help. (Pause) You can also nod your head as a first sign that you have something in view.

(Leuner, 1984, p.31)

Logically, there are many other image-anchors we can throw into the sea of imagination to stimulate spontaneous responses. After a number of trials, Leuner discovered that nature scenes like lakes, streams, rivers, mountains, valleys, prairies, woods or forests were more likely to facilitate guided fantasy than manmade and synthetic ones. This shouldn’t really come as such a shock if we adhere to the Jungian proposition that the collective unconscious has an acquaintance with the phenomenal world preceding the evolution of human beings. If there is indeed an intimate allegiance between what we perceive as the inner realm of the unconscious and the outer realm of external reality, then logic would suggest that the former will project archetypal contents onto the slate of waking consciousness when it perceives its reflection in the latter. Taking this analogy a bit further we might equate the collective unconscious with a spool of film, the personal conscious with a video projection screen, and the presentation of a fantastical setting with a comprehensive, high-tech data projector. It’s the compatibility of the setting that enables the other two states to converse and exchange information effectively.

At any rate the scenes then that are most likely to generate successful projections with fantasy content include the act of ascending a mountain, penetrating the frontiers of a heavily wooded forest, following the meandering course of a rivulet or stream, and entering the cavernous depths of the earth. According to Leuner, these natural settings form a rudimentary level of guided fantasy and typically lend themselves to all practicing therapists and people. A dissimilar assemblage of scenes comprising animals like cows, elephants, bulls, lions and more gender-specific extracts like a proposed lift to a vehicle for a woman and a rose bush for a man underpin a second, intermediary level suitable only for application by more experienced therapists. Leunar also identifies an exclusive and advanced third group–scenes like a dusty photo album, a volcanic eruption, a transparent puddle within a swamp, and the anticipation of the appearance of an unknown individual from the mouth of a grotto–that are only used when an explicit set of circumstances are existent.

In this day and age, there are three basic approaches used by psychotherapists to incite guided fantasy: controlled symbolic visualization, spontaneous symbolic visualization, and symbolic visualization orientated towards psychospiritual development. The first is a systematic and coordinated method whereby pictorial parameters are raised by the psychotherapist and the subject is asked to adopt and work within them. These can be anything from a specific symbol like a mandala, a planetary or celestial sphere, or a tower, to symbolic representations of entire scenes like the act of meandering about in a dark labyrinth or constructing a plant nursery. Standing on the opposite end of the scale is spontaneous symbolic visualization which may hint at a symbolic form or sequence but resists compartmentalizing or giving a definitive form to the image. Once the subject has assumed a relaxed posture the psychotherapist might suggest the visualization of abstract concepts like prevailing emotional and somatic states or propose that the subject imagine a door, gate, or some other portal leading to another space or room and walk through it. With this second method the absence of any specific symbolic representation is supposed leave conscious space unformed so that any unconscious desire or feeling bubbling in the subconscious can manifest readily and liberally. The last is usually an adaptation of either of the first two methods where an idea or image evolves to encompass an altruistic or spiritual value. Some of the most popular contemporary techniques orientated towards the exploration of personal mythology like meeting spirit guides, inner teachers, and encounters with the goddess and the divine feminine are all by-products of the third type. 

From what we can see the psychotherapeutic technique of guided fantasy lends itself quite well to the exploration of the transpersonal. At its best, it is a masterful tool of exploring the total sum of implications that all gestating bifurcations of life might encompass or discovering the hidden subpersonalities within one’s hierarchy of being. It can unearth the root of unconscious stresses and problems, explore feasible consequences to certain actions, and assist one in reaching closure and healing. All these things contribute markedly to the enhancement of life quality. Thus people should make a conscious attempt to integrate it into their lives; you never quite know what little pearls are ruminating in that fantastical place, waiting to be snatched up and brought to the conscious surface where they’ll shine eternal…  



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