THE HEALING RESPONSE
Through case histories, Bosnak suggests how Embodied Imagination stimulates and intensifies the endogenous healing response. The patient is in a placebo-like experience, ideally enveloped by an expectation of cure. As discussed by Kradin (as reported in Bosnak, 2008), the placebo response causes significant changes in brain chemistry and can have powerful effects. He reports studies in which people have recovered from major depression and found relief from the pain of osteoarthritis as a result of placebo. Atlas and Wagner (2011) discuss the successful use of placebo in alleviating certain symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Kradin states that the placebo response is about to enter a new phase of its history. Instead of being considered only “imaginary” or an annoying problem in clinical trials, it will become regarded as a scientifically definable mind/body response, a powerful form of endogenous healing.
One of the bases of Embodied Imagination is a metaphorical alchemical process, as espoused by James Hillman in Alchemical Psychology. Alchemy is an early, proto-scientific method, the forerunner of modern chemistry, as well as a philosophical system of spiritual transformation involving the expansion of consciousness and the development of insight and intuition through images. Hillman thought the poetic, metaphorical language of alchemy is itself therapeutic.
Although alchemy has been discredited for years, it is now being viewed, in a metaphorical sense, as a path to help us return to the nonphysical world from a preoccupation with the physical. Also historians are becoming aware of the connection between alchemy and the evolution of science and philosophy as well to mystical movements such as Kabbala and spiritualism.
In concrete terms, alchemists believed there was a process by which base metals can be turned into gold.* However, it was the spirit of the metal in which they were most interested. According to the alchemists, each metal wanted to return to its highest state (silver or gold), much like a patient’s wish to actualize. The alchemist’s focus is the release of the spirit of the metal, not the concrete metal itself. For example, lead has slowness to it while iron has anger and passion. The work is of constant refinement until there is a transformation. Exactly the right amount of heat must be applied. Just as the therapist, the alchemist must know when to use luke-warm heat and when to raise the temperature very high. It takes heat to change a substance.
THE ALCHEMICAL PROCESS AND PSYCHOTHERAPY
The following discussion of alchemy is based in part on Robert Bosnak’s lectures at the above-mentioned above retreat in Malinaco, Mexico, January 2016. For ease of narration, I will describe this process in a linear fashion. However, in trying to grasp alchemical changes, it is very important to keep in mind the simultaneity of multiple processes.
Citing the work of Hillman, Bosnak describes metaphorical stages of development in the alchemical process. Each stage is represented by a different color: Green, White/Silver, Yellow and Red. Most of these stages contain metaphorical or imaginal** sulphur, an ingredient that the alchemists thought, along with mercury, was contained in all metals. The burning of sulphur, “the stone that burns”, is crucial to the alchemical process. In metaphorical terms, sulphur is heat. Sulphur is desire. It has intensity, turns outward, and is phallic-like. Both Embodied Imagination and psychotherapy are a process of burning and refining the “sulphur, the raw impulse,” so the patient can have agency.
In this first stage, the Green, the process has not yet begun. The patient may deny he has any problems at all. He is in a state of “innocence”, despite others telling him he needs help.
The alchemical process begins with the Black when the patient blames others and feels extremely pessimistic and hopeless. He or she is a helpless victim of the past. The Black contains too much raw sulphur and can manifest as compulsion and concrete thinking. The patient must have a cigarette, must buy the expensive watch, must have sex with that woman. Unless the patient can emerge from this, the Black can become chronic, creating an ongoing hopelessness and/or impulsivity. Drug abuse is a possible outcome.
Next is the White, which is equivalent to Silver (Moon). This is the stage of reflection, of being able to take multiple perspectives -- the stage of reflective awareness in therapy that interrupts the compulsions of the Black. Alchemists call it “cutting the paws of the green lion”. In this stage, the sulphur turns white. This can be seen as a state of passionate reflection and speculation. Eventually, however, we must move out of reflection and begin to interact with the world. Silver is the color of daybreak but not until the Red arrives do we see the sunrise.
The Yellow follows; this is a thickening process. The white image is put in the earth to ferment. This can be likened to the process of “working-through” in psychotherapy. This is when the patient makes the insights “his” and practices in the world to solidify the gains made.
Without this fermenting process, one cannot go out into the world; instead the patient may withdraw and become remote, having an explanation for everything, for example, people who become “over-analyzed” and cannot live in the moment. This is being trapped in the White.
Next comes the Red and the sulphur has been sufficiently clarified. The patient has moved out of compulsion but there is still volatility. The patient has moved out of the purely mental state but there is still reflection. He or she is able to see subtleties of light and dark while retaining a sense of faith and optimism.
These stages also occur during the practice of Embodied Imagination. Embodied Imagination is a method that allows the dreamer to move through the Black, then the White and the Yellow, finally, achieving the Red. The dream worker helps the dreamer go through a process of change, just as the alchemists created change in the spirit of the metals, attempting to transform them into gold.
Using this technique, the dream worker helps the dreamer enter into the dream and embody images, that is, feel them in his or her body. The process is as follows. The dream worker listens carefully to the dream several times, paying attention to its “geometry”, listening for contrasts in images, movements, symmetry. Then he decides on a strategy: the primary images to embody. The dream worker first goes to a “safe” image, with which the dreamer can easily identify. The dream worker also chooses some alien images, including when possible, the most alien. This allows the dreamer to leave his habitual consciousness and try on new personas.
The dream worker proceeds in a sensate manner, such as “Can you sense into the hunched man as he leans forward, rounding his shoulders”, and so on. Done very slowly and carefully, this helps the dreamer “enter” the image. Then the dreamer sees the world from the image’s point of view. The dreamer has left his habitual consciousness, --for example, the dreamer Jim, a young, athletic man in real life, now becomes the man in the dream with the arthritic, hunched back. This is slow, careful work; as the alchemists said, you must “hurry slowly.”
A composite, a “dream body”, is now formed from the chosen images. This has brought the dreamer to the White of the metaphorical alchemical process.
This “dream body,” if practiced can precipitate change. The dreamer repeats the images over and over until they coalesce into one image. This is done for 20 minutes a day for a few weeks. Research supports that 20-minute daily practice is required to change a habit or develop a new one. This practice is the Yellowing, the fermentation of the composite. The composite must decay to transform the system so the practice is crucial. This is the stage we begin “to see in the dark.” We see the world as “just so” not as we think it is or as we would like it to be.
After this practice, it is likely that new patterns, possibly new neurological networks, are formed from the sustained practice. This is the Red. The sunrise is happening. The dreamer leaves his habitual state and enters into a changed and different state. There is a danger of staying even in this state, the Red. Then we would be in perpetual summer with no contrast, no seasons.
This process of moving from the Green though the Red happens repeatedly through our life and is part of our natural evolution.
* Closer to our modern thinking, some alchemists, such as Jabir in the 8th century, thought gold was hidden in alloyed ores and could be released by certain processes. Jabir himself is believed to be the inventor of aqua regia, a mixture of hydrochloric and nitric acids, one of the few substances that can dissolve gold. It is still often used for gold recovery and purification.
** The imaginal world is the place of the imagination, which exists between the purely mental world and physical reality.
Atlas, L.W. and T.D. Wagner (2011). The neural basis of the placebo effect in pain. In
Aizenstat, S. and Bosnak, R. (Eds.) Imagination and medicine: The future of healing in an age of neuroscience (pp.107-134). New Orleans: Spring Journal.
Bosnak, R. (2008). Embodiment: Creative imagination in medicine, art and travel. New York: Routledge.