About Holistic Psychotherapy
Imagine yourself going therapy shopping, in a great big therapy department store. When you walk through the glass doors at the entrance you see the different kinds of talk therapists, listening hard, nodding sympathetically, and giving their various forms of treatment. Downstairs in the basement, you find the psychoanalysts, trained in the original Freudian style, writing on notepads and pushing up their glasses once in a while as people on couches are talking. Get on the elevator, and it takes you up to Cognitive Therapy on the second floor, where those therapists are encouraging their clients to write “thought records”, and log their therapy home works for the following week.
But something strange is afoot in the therapy store! There are more floors to this building, but you can’t reach them, the elevator won’t go there. Puzzled, you punch away at the buttons for those floors, but they don’t light up, and the elevator still won’t move. Finally you shrug your shoulders and figure those floors are empty or nothing is for sale up there. And now you have pretty much seen all that conventional psychotherapy has to offer in this store.
But wait! Here come the holistic approaches, and they give you access to the rest of the building. Much of what they offer has been used in emotional healing for far longer than conventional therapy has existed, but it doesn’t always get counted in the ‘therapy” category these days. So on the floor above Cognitive Therapy are Body Interventions, like tai chi, yoga, qi gong, therapeutic massage, and many others. Next stop is Meditation Practices from all around the world, and on the floor above that is Diet and Exercise, which we now know are closely linked to our mood and well-being. These approaches are not always targeted at specific emotional issues or bad memories, but they bring a focus and a new perspective that can be the underpinning to healing.
Go one more floor up, and you’re at Holistic Psychotherapy, and that’s where I am. Yes, I offer products from the other floors of the building, but I am located here because the Holistic Psychotherapy I do works through the Imagination. This word “Imagination” has gotten a pretty raw deal over the years, and these days it means little more than “fantasy,” or “not real”, as in having “an imaginary friend”. But the true meaning of “Imagination” is a far cry from the world of Walter Mitty.
Imagination is our innate ability to see images created inside us, rather than the impressions that come in through our senses. William Blake, the 18th century poet called this realm the Holy Imagination, and described it as “infinite and eternal”; Joseph Campbell saw it as the ground of myths and meaning-making, while the psychologist Carl Jung called it the Collective Unconscious, a collective mind spanning all cultures, races, and eras of human life. Children have natural access to Imagination, and that’s part of why we love them so much, while indigenous people throughout the world reach Imagination through strikingly similar rituals and ceremonies. But in Western culture, we have cut ourselves off from Imagination, we have grown fearful of it and drained it of meaning, and we only return there at night, when the gatekeeper of our rational mind switches off, and we dream long fantasies.
But here’s the exciting thing: even if you have not plunged into your inner worlds since you were very young, the Imagination remains as “infinite and eternal” – and reachable – as it ever was. Knock on the door, and you’ll be admitted into an inner world that is fresh and bright, and most likely entirely novel to you. Many of my clients have expressed great surprise that their Imagination comes alive so easily it’s just that they’ve never been invited to explore it before. It’s a bit like being shown a violin and discovering that you can immediately play it.
There are many routes into Imagination, and no single way fits all people at all times. What I have done is carefully bring together the most effective and complementary mind/body/spirit methods that my research could find, so I can lead you along the best routes into our final, final frontier. To give you a flavor of what the work looks like in practice, I’ll show you two of these methods through the stories of different customers who have visited me in the therapy store.
Parts Work: Anita
Anita had trouble with saying no. Her core personality was straight-talking, and honest, but as a girl, she had been raised to be a good, compliant and non-confrontational little girl. When her younger sister was bullying or unreasonable, her mother would tell Anita to be the “grown up one” and not complain or set limits. This constant habit of deferring did not serve her well as she grew into adult life, where people took advantage of her financially, romantically and in her personal interactions. She never followed a profession even though she wanted to, and she used alcohol and sex to compensate for her bad moods and confusion.
Anita used the Internal Family Systems Therapy model, or Parts Work, in her emotional healing. Parts Work is organized and systematic in its approach, and yet at the same time it is very intuitive and internal. I invited Anita to go inside herself and to tune in to the part of herself she called the Good Little Polite Girl. This young part who still lived inside her was, you could say, the unwitting cause of her misalignment with adult life. Anita saw her as a girl about four years old, in a blue and white striped party dress, sitting on a ledge, her legs dangling in dark space. It took a while to establish trust between Anita and this little person inside her, but eventually they were able to work together well. It emerged that the girl was actually perched in a child’s school chair on an upper story of a high-rise building in a space without walls, too scared to shift either backwards or forwards. She was being polite and compliant out of pure terror that she might fall.
Anita worked with the Good Little Polite Girl to see that the consequences of speaking up for herself were no longer the freefall into scary disaster that it had once seemed. The Good Little Polite Girl took in that new message and responded by remodeling the space around her in the high-rise, tossing out unneeded attitudes and furniture, and putting up walls around the edges. She changed her clothing to that of a severe, no-nonsense business women, and enabled Anita to assert herself more strongly, stopping people from teasing her meanly, giving her (now grown) sister the clear and firm boundaries she had always needed, and finally, Anita started to train for work in the medical profession. Changes Anita made in her internal world directly translated to changes in her life.
Guided Meditation: Graciela, Martine
Guided meditation comes in many forms – it can be led by the therapist, or the leader can be your own Imagination, unfolding out of its own needs and wisdom. It’s never the same twice, so here are a couple of examples of what I mean.
Graciela could not sleep at night out of a constant and unreasonable fear of intruders. She also compulsively washed her hands and cleaned her house with bleach in the aftermath of a serious infectious illness, she could not eat out for fear of germs – she was beset with fears and anxieties. In one session I asked Graciela to envision in her mind’s eye a safe and beautiful place for her to take refuge from her dark moods. Graciela conjured a house in her island homeland that overlooks the sea, and it is where her forebears had lived for generations. Much to her surprise, Graciela’s great grandmother came out of the house, started to chat, showed her around the house, and told her the story of her long life. Graciela never did get down to the peaceful beach below the house!
But over the next few months, Graciela connected with several of her ancestors as they lived in her mind’s eye, and most especially she listened to a different great grandmother’s story of loss and isolation. Graciela then helped this great grandmother heal from her grief, and release the bottled up emotions she had never been able to express. “You have to acknowledge the hurt,” the great grandmother said after her healing, “always acknowledge the pain. Don’t hide it. You have that freedom. This pain (the great grandmother’s) will not come to you if you listen to that.” And indeed, as the great grandmother healed, Graciela’s phobias began to fade, and anxiety held less of a grip over her life. Was this really her great grandmother talking to her? I have no idea, but what I do know is that we targeted certain problems and symptoms with inner work, they improved greatly. Not only that, Graciela found a deeper understanding of who she was, and a new connection with her sense of the past.
Martine used guided meditation quite differently. She was feeling confused and overwhelmed by powerful feelings that were the result of early childhood trauma. Talking about what she was feeling only took her deeper into her bad feelings, and so I asked Martine to close her eyes and see her feelings as a picture. When she did this, she saw a mass of chaotic colors zapping in random directions. Martine said it was like a monitor had been smashed and the pixels were flying all over the place.
As Martine stayed with the image, feeling less afraid of it, less overcome by it, and more composed, the pixels eventually calmed down and became more like mosaics, searching for a pattern. Eventually they found one, and the mosaics became a beautiful rainbow-colored covering for an altar, with shapes built in for candle sticks to stand. As Martine contemplated the candles burning on the altar, she felt a sense of calm and resilience, her frantic feelings fading. The next morning she pulled out an old sewing machine in her house, and after a hiatus of many years, started designing and making clothes again, re-forging her links with her own creativity. With this one meditation all her symptoms did not go away, but she fastened on to her sense of self in a new and powerful way.
A Journey of Discovery
No two people encounter Imagination in the same way, but whatever way you get there, it always requires a journey into the unknown that is you. In the end you can thank your problems and issues for dragging you into this journey of discovery that you probably would not have embarked upon otherwise. When the images in your mind change, so do you and so does the way that you show up for living in the world. Healing through the Imagination is our ancient birthright, and it is ours to claim. We are all free to reach out and grasp it.