As we grow the skills of Active Dreaming and become a dreaming society again, imagery for healing will become central to our medicine. Advances in hard scientific research, especially in the fast-expanding field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) have helped to provide the mandate, because they supply overwhelming evidence that the body believes in images, and that our thoughts and feelings can make us sick or make us well.
It’s interesting to note that research in the PNI field was guided by dreaming long before it was given the clunky name. The first person to isolate and identify a neurotransmitter was Otto Loewi, and he saw how to perform the necessary experiment in a dream. He got out of bed, cut open a frog, and applied vagal juice to its heart as he had done in the dream; the relaxant in the vagal stuff was identified as the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
According to molecular biologist Candace Pert, there is a “psychosomatic communications network” that operates not only in the brain, but in all parts of the body. Our conscious or unconscious thoughts and feelings are constantly affecting our health by sending directives to a pharmaceuticals factory inside the body. In her passionate memoir, Molecules of Emotion, the late great Candace Pert describes how she was guided by dreams and synchronicity in her own scientific odyssey.
The key thing to know, as we seek resources for self-healing, is that the body believes in images and responds to images as if they are physical events. This means we have the ability to shape the condition and behavior of our bodies, for good or ill, according to the images we entertain and the thoughts and feelings that we allow to claim our attention.
Physician Larry Dossey, a leader in mind-body medicine since the 1980s, observes that “The body responds to mental input as if it were physically real. Images create bodily changes, just as if the experience were really happening. " Brain scans show that when we imagine an event, our thoughts “light up” the same areas of the brain that are triggered during the actual event.
We are often unaware of our shifting thoughts and feelings. We may be wholly unaware of memories and images, held in the body, that bring us down. The decision to bring unrecognized thoughts and feelings into consciousness is an essential step towards self-healing. Starting from here, we can develop the practice of investing the energy of our attention in images that make us well.
We can make it our choice, for example, to increase blood flow to a certain part body part, giving it the strength to flush out toxins and the nutrients required to heal. Norman Cousins got over a broken elbow and back on the tennis court in record time because he spent twenty minutes a day focusing on his intention to increase blood flow through the injured joint, after his doctor explained that elbow injuries often healed slowly because of poor blood supply.
When imagery is used as a clinical tool, it involves the deliberate focusing of attention on specific images to bring about desired changes. A 2007 study conducted for Blue Shield of California grabbed the attention of the health insurance industry by proving that imagery not only works but cuts costs. Insurance giant Blue Shield of California decided to test the effect of a guided imagery on 905 Health plan members scheduled for surgery were prepared by a simple guided imagery tape, designed to allay fears about the procedure and promote recovery. Most patients were able to receive the imagery, regardless of bias or upbringing, and for most it seemed to relieve anxiety and was held responsible for a notable reduction in the time required for recovery - and a saving of over $2,000 per patient due to reduced time in hospital.
Guided imagery CDs, like the one used in the California study, are now widely available. Hospitals are giving CDs to patients to help them marshal inner forces to attack cancer cells or to establish and visit a healing place in the imagination. In future imaginal healing, our society will go further. We can do much better than offering prefabricated imagery. We can learn to help each other to develop our personal factories of healing imagery, which are working nightly in our dreams. And we can learn to grow healing dreams for each other.
Community-based imaginal healing may include the following:
- Pre-need dream clinics
In our clinics and healthcare centers, and other community centers, people will meet to share dreams by an agreed protocol and will help each other to recognize and act on what dreams are giving us, which can range from diagnosis of a developing problem in the body (before symptoms present or are named) to an invitation to soul recovery.
- Imagery harvesting
Dreams are a factory of images. Anything that comes to us in dream, including the scary or unwanted things, is ripe and ready for work in the cause of growth and healing. I have found that almost any dream can be a source of healing, if we are willing to go back inside it or carry the story onward to a desired outcome. In my dream of healing medicine, the understanding of basic treatments will be expanded to include sessions to help patients harvest positive imagery for self-healing from dreams and also from positive life memories.
- Vision transfer training
We can grow a dream - a healing image, a script for recovery, a vision of larger life possibility - for someone in need of a dream. I teach vision transfer as a core technique of Active Dreaming. In my dream of healing medicine, nurses, therapists and community guides will be trained in vision transfer techniques for producing fresh, customized images for healing that can be gifted to someone in need of the right imagery. An image that I often use, for myself and others, to promote regeneration of the body's tissue and vitality, is that of a nurse stump or nurse log. The old tree has been cut down, or fallen, but from its apparent death new life is burgeoning; a new tree may rise, tall and strong, from the old Or I might use the image of a giant redwood that has been cored by fire but is still putting out fresh growth, high above.
- Story healing
We’ll come to grasp that finding meaning in any life passage may be at the heart of healing, and our healers – declared or undeclared – will help people to move beyond personal history into a bigger story that contains the juice and sense of purpose to get them through.
In all of this, we will be guided by Mark Twain’s insight that “The power which a man’s imagination has over his body to heal it or make it sick is a force which none of us is born without. The first man had it; the last one will possess it.”
For more on the vision of the coming dreaming society, please see my book Active Dreaming: Journeying beyond Self-Limitation to a Life of Wild Freedom.
Image: Nurse stump, symbol of regeneration and rebirth. Photo by RM.