So far, it may seem as though guided imagery is all about popping a tape into a player and visualizing the change you're after. But for those who want to delve more thoroughly into a medical or personal issue, there's a newer option: working with your own guide in a process called Interactive Guided Imagery. In every state in the United States as well as ten countries worldwide, nearly 800 health professionals have been certified by the Academy for Guided Imagery to help people experience their own, self-created imagery. The distinctive element is an encounter with an "inner adviser," that deeply intuitive part of yourself with whom you explore goals, hopes, and avenues for change. Of course, I'd already tried this on my own with Woody, but he and I had been winging it. I was intrigued by the idea of getting some expert help in communing with my unconscious.
A week after my session with Woody, I found myself in the spacious therapy office of Bob Schoenholtz, a Philadelphia art therapist and academy-trained guided imagery practitioner who believes that imagery is "a way to be in conversation with the wisest part of you." Tall and rangy, with curly gray hair and a warm, informal manner, Bob made clear to me at the outset that his role would be to facilitate that internal conversation, not to supply solutions. "You're in charge," he emphasized.
With that, I lay down on the couch, where Bob tucked a multicolored afghan around me and gave me a soft, plushy eye bag to shield my eyes from the afternoon sunlight. (He offered each of these comforts as options; I could have chosen instead to sit up and simply close my eyes.) Bob suggested that for this initial session, I not focus on any specific health or emotional issue but rather just "work with whatever emerges." He explained that such an open-ended exploration often unearths surprising—and surprisingly useful—knowledge about the self.
After leading me through a relaxation exercise, Bob asked me to imagine a "safe place" where I felt peaceful and secure. Almost immediately, I found myself perched on the edge of a dock overlooking the northern New Jersey lake where my family used to vacation when I was a kid. In my imagination, I watched the morning sun dance on the lake; I heard swallows and nuthatches twittering; I inhaled the scents of wood and water. Within a few minutes, I felt quietly happy.
"Now," said Bob, "why don't you invite an inner adviser into your safe place?"
Within moments, from behind a grove of trees at the lake's edge, a serious-looking man emerged. He was dressed in robes of pale blue and cream, and his dark, rather stringy hair framed a bearded face. I noticed that his feet were bare.
My heart sank to my toes. I was pretty sure I knew who he was, and I didn't like it one bit. "I'm not ready for this," I told Bob, who was sitting in a chair a few feet away. "I think I've got Jesus."
Bob was unfazed. "Just welcome him in," he advised. "Ask him what he'd like you to know."
"You don't understand," I protested. "I'm a survivor of Catholic schools, and I haven't been to church in 20 years. This will not work."
"Try and see," urged Bob.
I took a long breath. "Okay," I silently communicated to the man in robes. "Come on in. So what do you have to tell me?"
In my mind's eye, the man continued to stand at the edge of the grove, as though not wanting to invade my space. Then he said: "Love."
We Hear You!