Learning from a Living Image

In my last two posts on Self-Trust (here for Part I and here for Part II) you probably noticed a strong emphasis on images and metaphors. In Part I the image of the river and ferryman are dominant, leading in Part II to an exploration of the image of the temple. I have used these images to support a shift in focus from the conquest of fear to engagement with personal mystery, with the fundamental goal of liberating personal potentials, especially the potential to lead “in exposed places.”

If you are not familiar with the use of images in this way, it is easy to have a reaction — either to feel invited into a very different world, or to be put off by the “illogical” nature of the process. As a coach, I have frequently found such images to be especially powerful in the efforts of clients to know themselves and gain some form of liberation from blocks and inner barriers, especially when conversation alone has not seemed to do the trick. For example, I once worked with an Executive Director level client who expressed considerable anger with the people who reported to her. Our work together seemed to go nowhere until I asked her to draw a picture of her life. She drew colorful fields, one inside the next with high fences between them all. As we studied and explored this drawing some important aspects of her past came to light, including a private and secret promise she had made to a deceased child, a promise that she had never shared with anyone. Once that came into the open, many other important connections appeared, including a particularly critical key to her agitation with the people who reported to her. Understanding the image led directly to relief and changes in her own patterns of leadership behavior.

If you are a skeptical about such processes, I don’t blame you. But I also have seen some very remarkable things happen when people allow images to come forward. A client once told me — after the fact — that he had intended to undermine my request for a picture of his situation. He set out to sabotage the process by just “scribbling out anything” on a piece of paper. When he was done, however, he broke into tears because despite his conscious effort to derail the exercise he found that he had drawn a symbolic picture of his family members and their relationships — a series of circles and “vines” that revealed the painful distances among them all. In yet another case, the client saw how an otherwise beautifully well-ordered drawing had been “marred” by a blotch of dark-colored formless scratches in one part of her work. The blotch, she quickly realized, was her own disappointment with herself and her job situation and how that was marring her life. This, in turn, gave her insight about the back pain she had been experiencing and also her own collusion in the problems she wanted to solve. These interpretations of drawings were not the result of going to some sort of dream catalogue to find out what this or that symbol meant. Water or horses or images of flying or purely abstract forms don’t always mean the same thing. They mean only what they do only in the context of a particular individual and his or her situation. It is the person who unlocks their significance.

Such images can show up through a variety of methods. They may emerge from meditation — disciplined or freeform, from writing fairy tales, from art forms such as collage, poetry, sculpture, or dance. Sometimes the image has an immediately apparent meaning, such as the fields and fences of the the Executive Director, but just as often they represent less obvious, more ambiguous messages that are equally powerful. The fact that they do not explain themselves easily causes us to think about them, wonder about their interior meaning over time. If you want to learn more about such processes, I suggest taking a look at the sections on active imagination in Robert A. Johnson’s classic study, Inner Work: Using Dreams & Active Imagination for Personal Growth. For even greater understanding of the roots of the notion that “psyche is image,” access Jungian psychology and modern derivatives, especially this well thought out collection of excerpts from the work of psychologist, James Hillman.

Now back to rivers and temples. It is an interesting exercise — and you might want to try it — to draw some symbols for yourself in the context of shifting your own perspectives. You can do this by first imagining the obstacle that you are facing, a place that you experience hesitation, anxiety or fear and that you sense limits your potentials. Once you have done this, then take that same energy and “convert” it to an image of a temple, where the temple represents the fear transformed to awe. I want to emphasize right away that drawing in this context requires no artistic skill whatsoever. In fact, if you do have artistic skill, the exercise may be a little less useful for you. This isn’t about an elegant picture; it is about the experience of seeing something that is inside you, that is part of your inner world.

Let me share a personal example. If I were to draw an image of my fear it would look pretty much like an abyss or bottomless pit. A big dark mass. (I used to think and feel exactly this way about my finances — and it’s still easy to feel that dark emptiness doing my taxes!) When I convert that energy to awe. I get something like what you see below, which I constructed using Powerpoint and Photoshop, tools that work for me just as well as pencils, pens or paintbrushes. (Click on the image to make it larger, if you like).

Looking at this image, what I see is that the energy is still “hot” — there’s fire in this temple — but there is also a god there, too. Surrounding the temple is the natural world and a path that naturally leads up floating steps to the interior. When I see the god I experience the conversion of that fearful energy to something that reframes it as an awesome mystery. I have objectified it into a set of symbols, uniquely mine, offering a sense of transcendence. On the steps of this temple is where I do my taxes, write my books, confront awkward situations and mistakes, and step out into the exposed space. It’s on those steps that I experience self-trust. As long as I am there I am not falling into any pits. The god is present and literally “has my back.” There are moments, even, when I would say the god actually speaks through me, a kind of radiant presence, but this is definitely not something I can make happen. It’s simultaneously humbling and strengthening. What I sense at such moments is only that there is flow.

To be sure this is a very literal rendition of the transformation of energy. The image actually doesn’t do anything beyond reminding me of inner coordinates. It is a symbol, after all, not the thing itself. The image simply helps get me little closer to a source of strength (translate that as self-trust) by pointing to a sacred dimension in the heart of the fear. That’s the key. The temple image I have created is a powerful metaphor for an aspect of me that I can call upon when fear creeps in.

Why don’t you try this, and if you like, send me your thoughts about the experience of creating such an image, along with a jpg of your drawings? It will be fascinating to post and compare a few images here. To do this give yourself some quiet time. Use whatever medium suits you: paper, pen, paintbrush, computer graphics, etc. Try to focus on a situation or challenge that ignites anxiety in you, that you can actually feel just thinking about it. Try to get to the very heart of that anxiety. Allow whatever image of that anxiety to emerge. (A friend drew himself as a little boy with a towering robed and hooded figure pointing down at him). Then remind yourself that this image is not to be overcome but to be transformed. Allow instead an image of some kind of temple, however you define that term, to come to mind. See if you can get an approximation of that down on paper (or cyberpaper) in some way, and send it along to me as a jpg. How did it feel to do this? What does the image mean to you? Let me know.

If you need inspiration because you are not used to using images in this way, try googling images for fear and for temples on the net. For example, as I was writing this post I came across this stunning photograph of a temple entrance by Craig Ferguson.

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  • Dick Richards wrote:

    Really nice Dan. I recognize the challenge you took on here–trying to explain something non-logical (symbol, myth, etc.) in logical terms. Well done indeed and it brought up in me many symbols and myths that have had meaning and power for me at different points in my life. Thanks for the reminders.

  • Thank you, Dick. Perhaps such “non-linear” approaches stand at the edge of acceptance for many, but that’s just the point. It’s a frontier and I want to explore the territory. What fun to reverse Joseph Campbell’s famous line in order to study “the outer reaches of inner space.”

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