Imagination and Psychotherapy – the neuroscience is friendly

The imaginal function is important to psychotherapists because it connects us directly to what is  not yet know. Psychotherapy is not about what is known. Any therapist who purports to be able to tell you what is ailing you and what you should do about it is one to run a mile from. No, psychotherapy is about the unknown, the mysterious, the unconscious.

Where does imagination come from? Traditional psychodynamic and psychoanalytic approaches tend to have a reductionist answer to this – the unconscious is viewed as the repository of repressed memory, and imagination (the kind of metaphors and parallels and narratives which are brought in to therapy) is viewed as nothing more than a rehashing of this repressed material. In such psychoanalytically biased therapy dreams are worked with as representations of mere associations of past memories, the transference is explored as a rehashing of early positioning in family relationships, the subtle movements of the felt sense are interpreted as pointers to early repressed material which is being re-enacted.

For sure this is part of the story – we do indeed carry memories which need to be explored. But it is only part of the story. Dreams are not just associations from the past, but pointers towards ways of being which are so much more than we can be at the moment.

In 2014 a team of scientists (Brock Kiwan, Stefania Ashby and Michelle Nash) published a paper in the Journal Cognitive Neuroscience, showing that memory and imagination are not the same thing. Although both memories of what is past, and imaginings of what is future both activate areas of the hippocampus, they activate different parts of it. The function of memory and imagination are different. This is very important for psychotherapy – we can say that our imagination, i.e. our dreams and symbols, our imaginal world, contain ‘unknowns’ which are not governed only by our past – which do not consist just in a rehashing of repressed memory. As psychotherapists, whilst some of our job is to help people untangle the aspects of imagination which ARE to do with repressed memory, we can now be clear that some of the ‘unknowns’ are from elsewhere. From imagination. The link to a report of the paper is here

So how do we understand imagination and its function? Mystics have not needed to wait for the neuroscientists to catch up. Imagination has been understood by Henry Corbin as a distinct realm, the mundus imaginalis, with its own clear role – to transform the person in to the thing imagined. In other words, the transformational process operates through images. The heart perceives forms in the mundus imaginalis – and by receiving those forms in to oneself at an embodied level, those forms can be brought through in to being.

In this way of understanding, spirit reveals itself in images in the world of the creative imagination – the mundus imaginalis. We can then encounter those symbols and be ‘carried back’ by them to their source that is, we can come to know what they mean, but such knowledge is not the discursive knowledge of the mind, but the subtle knowing of the heart. Images reveal themselves to us in secret. This process is called ta’wil. To work with symbols, images, and narratives in this way allows the revelation of what is not known.

Carl Jung’s work was founded on the practice of active imagination. In this practice the imaginer takes themselves in to their imaginative capacity and explores what is present, in the service of becoming more whole – the service of individuation.

Dorit Netzer has developed a way of working with imagination which she calls ‘imaginal resonance’. She draws on the work of Rupert Sheldrake, who has written on the notion of resonance – a resonance is when there is some form of attraction or sympathetic response to an already existing quality. It is an attraction to shared consciousness. Thus consciousness can be shared, from one person to another, or one state to another. Netzer has explored this in relation to the experience of reading mystical poetry. My own research explores this in relation to being present in a garden. Essentially, the imagination is allowed to resonate with the other – the poem, the garden, or it could be with another person, or with a situation, or importantly with inwardly felt sensations and knowings. The expanded consciousness which is possible with this allows the person access to creative possibility beyond the circumstance they were in.

So imagination is more than memory. It is more than the mere gathering of associations from a personal troubled past. It is a way of knowing more than you could ever conceive of alone.



The spiritual bypass is what we call our unwillingness to explore the difficult aspects of our process. There can be a tendency for spiritually minded types (like me, and you if you are reading this blog…) to want to transcend. We love transcendence. The space! The freedom! The brush of angels wings! I am not being facetious. Well – maybe a bit, but opening the heart and freeing the wings of the soul to love and soar, and adore – yes, it is a good experience, one of the best human experiences possible.

But it is not the whole story. It is not, maybe, even half of the story. In the Islamic tradition there is a saying ‘I was a Hidden Treasure, and I so longed to be known… I created the world, that I could be known’. Lets open this up a bit. It is God speaking here, God is the ‘I’ in this saying (or instead of ‘God; you can say ‘the Cosmos’ or ‘Life’ or ‘the Universe’ or ‘Being’ or ‘the Source’  – whatever word is comfortable for you to express this particular inexpressible).

So….. the Source says ‘I was a Hidden Treasure’…. and then the words ‘and I so longed to be known’. Longed. Yearned. Loved. These words are so compelling….. the love. The world is created through love, this saying is showing us. I so longed/yearned/loved to be known.IMG_2298 ‘To be Known’…..what are we to make of that? It is relational. To be Known, means that there is one who knows, and one who is known – it is God coming out of One-ness in to multiplicity. In to relationship. ‘So I created the world’. And there is the meaning of existence. There is the meaning of life. The purpose. ‘So’  ‘Therefore’ ‘Accordingly’.

The world was created so that the Origin did not have to be lonely and unappreciated anymore. When I feel, or sit with a client who feels, lonely and unappreciated, at least there is the comfort here of being in very good company (and think of the implications of that…..).

So when we seek to ascend, transcend, go ‘up’ in search of our ‘spiritual’ life, we are going in the wrong direction really. Look down at your feet. Or if you are a bit less concrete thinking – look out at your life, this very life, right now, that you have because that is what IMG_6694is created for you right now. That is the face of ‘God’ to be known right now. That is a radical thing that I am saying here – behold your life, this circumstance, this freeze-framed moment in all its complexity, and there it is. The face of the Beloved. The face of Source. The face of God. Yes. Why did you think it was something else?IMG_2922

As psychotherapists we can see this in our work. People bring us a difficult situation that they are struggling with and one question we can ask is ‘what  face of God is being shown to this person in this situation? What do they have to know now? What is seeking to be Known through this?’. This is a way of working with circumstance as theophany. Ibn Arabi explored this at some length in his writings. Most mystics from most traditions had something to say about it (Julian of Norwich ‘All will be well ,and all will be well’ – she was noticing this).

The spiritual bypass happens when we forget all about the face of god being visible in the day to day. The spiritual bypass is when we try to run away from our life, and ourselves actually – our limited, cramped selves, in order to find the Hidden Treasure in the sky. It is not in the sky. It is to be found by staying with what is created, what is seen, and what is known through being thoroughly, messily, beautifully human.

‘I was a Hidden Treasure, and I so Longed to be Known, so I created the world, that I could be Known’.


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