Embodied Images: Healing Containers For Trauma
Judith Sarah Schmidt Ph.D
The deep resources of healing and wholeness offered by dream and imaginal journeying are central to both my personal and professional practices. I would like to share with you some of my thoughts and reflections on the healing worlds of imagination in times of trauma.
What are images? They are energies felt throughout our body in the form of pictures. Images are embodied forms of energy arising from deep within us. Images are communications that come from deep in the rich soil under our conscious selves. They awaken our felt senses. Images are the language of our feelings without words, our first and pristine language. Images bring surprise to our conscious minds. When we are quickened by an image, possibility can open when our conscious mind tells us there is no possibility.
B.’s marriage has dissolved after thirty -five years. Her husband
has left. She has lost the map of her known life and does not believe
she will have another. She can hardly find the strength in her
legs to walk the few blocks to my office.
We sit together. She tells me that she is on a bridge but will not be
able to cross to the other side. She fears she will fall into the
abyss and die.
“What kind of bridge are you on?” I ask.
“It is a Tibetan bridge, made of rope, without anything to hold
on to. It is suspended over an abyss between the mountains. And
it’s tossed by a wild wind. I am terrified.
There is no way I will ever make over it to the other side!”
Here, with the Tibetan bridge, she has received a powerful image that is cohering around her body’s absolute terror of dissolution. To arrive at this image is a capacity, a resource, that enables her to find herself somewhere in imaginal time and space. The images we find, the ones that find us, may not be a peaceful. Like B’s bridge, an image may come embodying a force of dread. That image becomes a container to hold the self in the midst of free fall. Once we resource an image, we are able to begin to dream the nightmare of form-shattering trauma.
In the midst of traumatic shock, we are overtaken by anxieties that are disintegrative forces. Winnicott talks about ‘unthinkable anxieties’, of ‘falling forever, of ‘falling apart’. The winds of these anxieties wipe away our capacity to think and sometimes even to hold our selves up, to get to the office of our therapist.
To find expression of our state in an image, even an image of dread, to be on a Tibetan bridge, is to be found and held by some form, to be taken into story and to be storied by the unfolding of the image. To begin storying is to begin to find and to make new meaning. To begin storying is to find renewed agency and thus new beginning.. The image lifts us out from the sheer cliffs of chaos and delivers us into dreamtime where all things are possible.
There we are carried by the energy of the image, as on a river. The image has its intrinsic order and if we surrender, it will take us to where we need to be. The image has its own life, connected to the life force of our body rather than to the logic of our mind. The traumatized self will register dread but the image from down under may, if followed through its energetic arc, carry the possibility of what is on the other side of dread.
During a moment of silence, I watch B’s facial tone, her breathing,
if she can bear this crossing that will be treacherous. If not, I am
ready to bring her out of imaginal space into the grounding
of our contact. I can see by observing her breathing and her facial
coloring that she is holding steady. Her eyelids are fluttering as
in REM sleep. As guide, it is my responsibility to keep her safe,
to assess that she can tolerate being on this journey. Her body
has become quiet. There is a hush in the room. She is there,
in the space of imagination.
My breathing slows into sync with hers. I am there with her.
I say: “take a moment to feel what you’re wearing.
You may want a pair of sturdy shoes to keep you solid on
the bridge. You can have them if you wish. ”
From where she is, she shakes her head “yes”. Good, she is
in imaginal space and still has grounded contact with me.
We are part of a resonant field, wandering together toward
we know not where. I am both her guide and her companion.
Together we follow the image.
There is a paradox. As guide, I follow the image and at the same
time, I contribute to opening the living reality of the image
by intuiting, asking the wondering-along questions. Wondering
aloud but not intruding. Opening, opening, opening the space
and still it is a holding safe ,space.
“You know”, I say, “in imaginal space anything is possible.
What do you need right now to help you get across the bridge?”
A few silent moments and then B. answers:
“The winds are quieter.
They are moving the bridge in a kind of rhythm that I can move with.”
“Yes, yes” I say. I see her breathing slow to the rhythm of the wind.
I hear my voice moving with the rhythm of the wind and the sway
of the bridge and her breathing. This shift in my breathing comes
as a natural embodiment of being sharing the resonant field
of imaginal space with B. rather than out of any deliberation. She is breathing with
the increasingly rhythmic movement of the wind, less shallow, more in her belly,
easier. This is no longer the breath of terror.
The energy of the image is carrying her somewhere other. Her
breathing and the long silence let me know that some turning
of dread is occurring.
Jung tells us that if we follow the full arc of an energy flow, there will
be a turning of that energy. I never cease to be amazed when I witness
this soul turning, which tends to arise as a spontaneous gesture
out of the pregnant silence.
“Where are you on the bridge now?” I ask.
“I am more than half way across. I can see the other side”
“What do you see there?” “I see trees. It is quiet there.
I don’t see any person. I just hear the quiet”.
“And the sky?” “It is blue. The clouds have faded.
It’s late afternoon. I’m so tired.
This is such hard slow work, this crossing over.
I need to go very slowly, one foot in front of the other.”
It is an arduous crossing but B. has her legs to carry her.
We both sigh, a deep sigh.
“Let me know when you reach the other side. When you set
foot on the ground there”.
She will make it there. Soon.
I place my hands together, look up and whisper “thank you,”
to the invisible mystery of creation out of which all healing
and poetry flow. A secret inner place.
“I’m there. I crossed over. I’m here on the other side”.
“What do you find there?” I see her weep.
“A bed of leaves. Waiting for me. A soft bed of leaves.”
B. has not wanted to sleep in her marriage bed. Nor has she yet wanted to
be rid of it. On the other side of the bridge of terror, she has come to a
place of rest that she had no idea would be there for her. Here, in this
in-between place, she has all the time in the world to feel her grief and
raging winds. Until she finds her legs. Slowly, she will find both a way
to bear her wounded self and a way to go on.
What feels sacred to me is how each one of us would have had our own image arise from out of our private unique mysterious being. From this place, our images surprise us, come to help and heal and even save us. It is for us to bow and to follow our images to where they want to take us. Such a crossing into the journey of imagination may not be peaceful, as it was not for B., but the embodied self will find it peaceable, knowing it to ring true in our cell and tissue and breathing life.
In the practice of guiding imagination, there can be no interpretation, no taking apart what comes to sit whole in the body and the heart. I do not ask B. how she
understands her bed of leaves. I do not speak of the connection I make between the bed of leaves and her marriage bed. I ask only about the bed of leaves.
“What does your bed of leaves look like?”
“it is soft and warm and safe, like eiderdown.” “Where is it?”
“It’s in a circle of birch trees.” “And where are you?” “I am resting
on my bed. I can sleep and cry in the good silence of this place. I am
watched over by some presence that I cannot see. But I can feel it”.
What rests anew in B’s heart is wrapped in wholeness and must not be taken apart by an analytic attitude. Here the difference must be weighed between the analytic attitude of taking things apart in order to understand them and the synthetic attitude of holding things in their wholeness and waiting for them to ripen into meaning in their own time and to unfold into the existence of the journeyer. The journey into imagination is a wandering without straight lines, asking us to be receptive rather than directive.
Buber teaches us of the I and the Thou. In the practice of guiding imagination, there is a two-fold I-Thou to be held. The Thou-ness of the journeyer, to be at her side, beside her moment to moment following along the pathways of the image. And an I- Thou in relation to the image itself. The bed of leaves has its own life, its own essence, calls to both the journeyer and the guide to be met and known for its own nature.
Whenever we are encountered by an image, found and called by it, it is usually simple and real because it is rooted in the senses, carrying its own sense, its own meaning, slowly bringing the journeyer to fathom that meaning and to unfold it into her life.
The Tibetan bridge, strong winds, a bed of leaves: each, like music, holds its own moving vibration. Through this experience, something in B. opens. A seed is planted, the seed of moving from despair toward the possibility of new hope. Several meetings later, B. tells me that she has let go of her marriage bed and is now sleeping on a soft mattress on the floor. On her bed of leaves. She tells me that she will wait until the time is right for a new bed. What is right for now is to sleep on her bed of solace that waited for her on the other side of the bridge of terror. In the safety of that place, and in the safety of our relationship, she will have time to let open the wails of her grief and her rage.
There will be many more waves of terror to ride, more bridges to cross over in the years of our work together. The crossing of the Tibetan bridge will be one of many images that will be strung together over time to form the inner landscape of her journey. Only in looking back over the landscape, does it become possible to see how the images that appear along the healing way reveal a profound sense of inherent order and wisdom in the depths of our being, under all the layers of the trauma body. There is something, some spark, within most of us that just will not be extinguished and waits patiently to be ignited.
In the Gnostic tradition of alchemy, there is, in the process of transforming lead to gold something called ‘the bath’, the immersion in the alchemical crucible. The image can be seen as an alchemical crucible in which the wounded self immerses and is bathed. Such is the sleeping upon leaves: an immersion of the trauma self into a healing image vessel.
From the perspective of neuroscience, this bathing soothes the activation of the trauma body, quiets the sympathetic nervous system and allows for the quieting of the parasympathetic system to come on line. The amygdala, which is the fire station of the brain, on red alert to ring the four- alarm bell, is quieted. Over the course of bathing in the imaginal crucible, new pathways are laid down in the brain. New capacities for self-soothing, self-reflection and self-creation emerge.
Out of this is born a sense that something unseen and abiding dwells deep within, some hidden Source, out of which some resource arises when there was none to hope for. Water appears out of the desert when least expected. Some trust is borne in the hidden sources of the Self. This is called faith. Jung tells us that this recognition is the beginning of our individuation process in which the ego, the conscious, knowing, directing self is no longer at the center of our identity. Rather, the ego steps to the side and bows like a servant to the Self, the guide deep within the center of our being which is a part of all Being. The ego as faithful servant will remove the marriage bed and find the mattress and eventually the new bed, will help her legs to hold to the ground, will serve the compass of the Self.
On my journey over the past thirty years as an imagery therapist, I can say that being a guide in imaginal space and time is a disciplined practice demanding the attention of a focused heart to the heart of the other. Usually, there is immediate inner feedback when focus is dropped either because I am tired or preoccupied or in some other way un-centered. In such moments, I may impinge on the journeyer by asking an untimely question or my analytic mind may be making some ‘smart’ mental connection. Internal feedback will come to tell me that I have missed the mark, am no longer traveling along- side the journeyer. We two have become an I and an It rather than an I and a thou. There is an unease deep in the belly of betrayal to both the life of the journeyer and to the life of the image. But, like every other relationship, once known, there can be repair. Gestures of repair become both part of the personal relationship between guide and journeyer and between the guide and the integrity of imaginal space and time.
It is through witnessing countless imaginal journeys, my own and others, that I have come to have a deepened faith in how such experiences can guide beyond the old rigidified self or the chaotic self of the trauma body. From imaginal experiences we receive the possibilities of our becoming. The vibrations of the imaginal field cohere to become our soul songs, guiding us to go on, to be fruitful in whatever ways we are called to be, and to help complete both the creation of our self-hood and of our world, for our images belong to the inter-being of all that is.