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 Ten Commandments for transpersonal researchers

What if scripture points you to how to develop your inner life? Your reflexivity? Adopting an esoteric reading of the Ten Commandments, we can find reflexive ways forward.  The thinking here is a development of the work of Edward Edinger in ‘The Bible and the Psyche: Individuation Symbolism in the Old Testament'(1). I have extended and applied his work to qualitative research practice. So what follows covers both a psychological view of the ten commandments, and also an extension for qualitative researchers (I am getting deep in to my doctorate…..!)

This post is taken from the appendix to my 2015 paper on Self Inquiry, which you can see on the ‘Papers’ section of my blog. For the uninitiated, Self Inquiry can be understood as a spiritual practice, as a way of thinking about psychotherapy, and as a research method (where it is often called auto ethnography or heuristic inquiry, or where it is found as an aspect of other research methods).



1.You shall have no other gods except me. At a psychological level this can be thought to refer to the Self, the fundamental feature of which is that it is integrated, and whole. It is the All. In research using Self Inquiry we can understand this as an injunction to obey that which arises from the centre, to be rigorous in our integrity and authenticity in approaching our research.

2.You shall not make yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them. Psychologically this can refer to the tendency to separate and worship one part of the psyche at the expense of the whole. Spiritually perhaps it refers to a tendency to want to split the divine in to something we can manage or understand. In research this refers to the need to question and move on from any proposition set out, questioning and challenging as we go.

3.You shall not utter the name of Yahweh your God to misuse it, for Yahweh will not leave unpunished the man who utters his name to misuse it. Psychologically this can refer to the false claim that one is whole or in some way ‘enlightened’, as Edinger  says ‘the presumptuous assumption that one is operating out of wholeness’. In Self Inquiry as a research method this could be understood to be  a warning against assuming a piece of content is arising from your Self, when in fact it is unverified by inner process and may in fact be tinged with shadow, with egoic material.

4.Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy as Yahweh your God has commanded you For six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath for Yahweh your God…For in six days yahweh made the heavens and the earth and the sea and al that these hold, but on the seventh day he rested; that is why Yahweh has blessed the sabbath day and made it sacred. The advice for Self Inquirers here is clear – take time away from your labours. The importance of incubation is stressed by many writers on the research methods which most use Self Inquiry such as the heuristic inquiry of Clark Moustakas and the Intuitive Inquiry of Rosemarie Anderson (see the 2015 paper for more detail). At the level of inner work, there are cycles of action and rest.

5.Honour your father and mother, as Yahweh your God has commanded you, so that you may have long life and may prosper in the land that Yahweh your God gives to you. Respect your sources. That which sources you and resources you. Take care of your body, your environment, and the shoulders of the giants on which you are standing. And do so with an attitude of humility. Reference properly. Be nice.

6.You shall not kill. Psychologically this injunction requires us to allow unconscious contents to emerge and not be repressed. In research it refers to the same situation – allow what is difficult, consider your outliers .

7.You shall not commit adultery. This means to ensure that what emerges is not adulterated, but psychologically this relates to material which proceeds from the conjuncito, that which follows union or marriage at an inner level. Edinger says ‘psychological adultery is a violation of ones highest perceived value, a regressive back-sliding’. In Self Inquiry as a research tool this refers to the process of discernment in your research, the ability to  know when to bring in other material, and when not to.

8.You shall not steal. At a psychological level this refers to the necessity to know what is yours and what is not, or not yet, yours. It might also refer to the necessity for sacrifice and exchange on the inner path. In research we know about the importance of not plagiarizing the work of others. How does this relate to Self Inquiry? how might the Self be stolen from by the ego?

9.You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. In psychological inner work this commandment can be understood as relating to the shadow, and to the process of projection. We are required to be honest about the parts of ourselves with which we are less comfortable, and to own them as our own and not to project them out on to our neighbour. In research using Self Inquiry this teaches us the discipline of drawing each insight back in to the self and testing it against one’s inner compass, finding the inner resonance.

10.You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, you shall not set your heart on his house, his field, his servant – man or woman – his ox, his donkey or anything that is his. Not only must we not steal what is not ours we must not want it either. We must not even want what is not ours. Do not compare yourself to others, but be willing to find your own path. In Self Inquiry we follow our own path, wanting that which is ours, uniquely, our own subjectivity.



  1. Edinger, E. F. (1986). The Bible and the psyche: Individuation symbolism in the Old Testament. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.





Self Inquiry -avoiding the ‘me’ trap

‘The treasury of the heart is the library of God’ (Ibn Arabi – Kernel of the Kernel)

I have just uploaded my 2015 paper on Self Inquiry to the Papers section of this blog. In the paper I explore how self inquiry can be undertaken as a spiritual practice, as a joint enterprise in psychotherapy, and as a qualitative research method in disciplined inquiry.

‘When it is over I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world in to my arms’  (Mary Oliver)

The most important thing about self inquiry is to avoid sinking in to an egoic whirlpool of solipsism, narcissism and delusion. Obviously in therapy we all go through this at a phase of the therapy (it is to be welcomed and celebrated, and held gently and lovingly by the therapist) – but for a successful outcome for the therapy we have to overcome it.

In my paper I put it like this

  • In spiritual practice the injunction to keep going and not identify with what you have found in your self on the path – don’t be distracted by yourself, keep going out, or up (or down….) further, further, further…..
  • In psychotherapy the practice of relationship comes to the forefront of the work when the selfness is seen clearly, so that the heart is engaged. As therapists we open ourselves to what arises. We have set up strong ethical injunctions to keep our work adequately supervised and overseen so that we can do this well.
  • In disciplined inquiry we guard against narcissism by adopting rigorous procedures, and clear and conscious criteria for assessing the ‘validity’ of our work – its capacity to touch and to transform for example.

The paper particularly concerns the  qualitative research aspect of Self Inquiry, but spiritual practitioners and psychotherapists might like it as well.


(The image attached to this post is a collage made by my friend Viv Stacey, one of a series of contemporary icons based on the work of d’Osuna)


‘Many Beings in One Being – inside the wheat grain a thousand sheaf stacks – inside the needle’s eye, a turning night of stars……’ (Rumi as per Coleman Barks)

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