Science Of The Lost Symbol


Visualization and Imagery in Healing

We begin our exploration of human self-healing capacities with one of the less controversial areas of research, imagery and visualization. This is itself a mysterious realm, but it has been widely accepted as fact that we can sometimes heal ourselves by imagining ourselves well. Pioneers in the field of healing imagery include Dr. O. Carl Simonton and Stephanie Matthews Simonton, Dr. Jeanne Archterberg, and Dr. Gerald Epstein. Dr. Epstein explains that imagery is simply the mind thinking in pictures, yet it’s also a way for us to touch in with our deepest inner reality. Many physicians and healers believe that the root cause of disease can be found in our subconscious and that emotions are intimately entwined with the state of our health at this subconscious level. By accessing our subconscious through the use of non-verbal and non-logical techniques such as imagery and visualization, we can heal ourselves by identifying and shifting the root emotional “hook” to the disease. In a less psychological vein, imagery may be used to harness the mind’s power to affect the body, using  imaginal journeys to venture into the body and root out diseased cells, return a malfunctioning organ to proper function, or generally boost the immune system.

That imagery works is not in doubt. Many hospitals and medical centers, especially oncology centers, have instituted healing imagery and visualization programs. There are even academic journals devoted to the study of imagery in healing. It has been discovered our brains really cannot distinguish—at the biochemical level—between an action and our thoughts about taking action.

The fact is that while we might not understand exactly how imagery works to heal disease and affect our bodies, we know that it can. As Epstein says, “the most remarkable feature about imagery work is that it can be accompanied by physiological changes” (4). He lists some of the conditions and diseases that people he has worked with have cured themselves of or have reduced the symptoms of illness by using imagery (often in conjunction with other treatments): enlarged prostate, rheumatoid arthritis, broken bones, ovarian cysts, inflammatory breast carcinoma, psoriasis, conjunctivitis, hemorrhoids, liver cancer, and more (5). Epstein’s book Healing Visualizations is among the best introductions to the work and is especially valuable because he provides dozens of imagery and visualization “scripts” for specific conditions and diseases.

As an example of how imagery works, we will recount one case Epstein reports on in his book (169-170). Psoriasis is a notoriously difficult condition to treat, with no cure and not even any effective treatments. While some people suffer from only small patches of the red, scaly and often wheezing rash, others can be covered from head to toe. A complication is that psoriasis predisposes the person to an often disabling form of arthritis. In the case Epsetin cites, a 39-year-old man with a severe case of full-body psoriasis decided to try to imagery as a last resort, since nothing else was helping him and he was down to medical options that he found extremely disagreeable. The man used two different imagery “scripts” Epstein taught him, one involving imaging himself in the cold of the Polar regions with a golden ice pick with which he scraped away the scales of the rash. He then washed in the icy waters and smoothed golden whale oil on his body, over the thin film of arctic water that coated his body.  Finally, he covered himself in a purple robe. In another, more complex visualization, which Epstein calls “Inside-Outside,” the man was asked to use imagery to cleanse his gastrointestinal tract, as Epstein believes a build-up of toxins in the colon contributes to a weakened immune system. Epstein typically has his patients perform “cycles” of imagery, doing the exercise for a few minutes a day for three weeks, then taking a week’s break (the timing varies). After three cycles of these two imagery exercises, which took about three months, the man was almost completely free of psoriasis, having only a few small spots left on his body.

Before you rush out and get imagery and visualization books and try this healing technique for yourself, you should be forewarned that for serious diseases such as cancer, imagery should be used only under the supervision of a professional or a physician schooled in the use of imagery for healing. Cancer can metastasize, and you don’t want to undertake any imagery that might inadvertently spread cancer cells in your body. Cancer is, however, one of the most common diseases for which imagery is used. People have imagined Pac Man like characters scurrying through their body, gobbling up cancer cells and removing them from their system. Others have used animals, such as tigers, to patrol their body, eating the caner. In the vast majority of cases, people tend to “attack” their cancer; however, there is another school of thought that says one should not attack the body at all, but learn to accept and even love the cells, no matter the type. Cancer cells are, after all, regular cells; it’s just that have lost information about how to divide normally.

As an example of this more benevolent approach to imagery, is Arielle Essex, an osteopath and author. She lived with a non-cancerous but troublesome brain tumor for nearly ten years, and it wasn’t until she was able to accept it and to invite it to stay with her for life that the tumor finally disappeared. 

While imagery in healing is considered a modern outgrowth of holistic medicine, its roots go back to prehistory through shamanism and what is called “shamanic journeying,” in which the shaman takes a journey in vivid detail to access knowledge and gain insight, often for healing. Shamans claim their journeys are real, but most academics believe they are simply deeply realized inner visions. That debate aside, the shamanic journey takes many forms, depending on the culture, but most are undertaken to retrieve knowledge that is beyond the realm of the senses or the intellect.

The shamanic journey has been modernized for use in both physical and psychological healing. A patient is trained to enter a “shamanic state of consciousness” and take an inner journey where any number of events may unfold, most usually involving meeting an inner guide, guardian or “power animal” that heals the person or tells him or her about healing remedies or curative courses of action. One comprehensive source of information on the psychotherapeutic use of shamanic journeying is Jeannette M. Gagan’s book Journeying: Where Shamanism and Psychology Meet.

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