The conscious relaxation state

No work on the clinical application of mental imagery would be complete without addressing the issue of procedures for inducing relaxed states. It is generally acknowledged in the literature, ‘. . . . that one key to helping a patient capture the imagery experience is a state of relative relaxation’ (Singer, 2006: 170). The everyday waking mind state is not regarded as conducive to consciously accessing the imaginal mind. Early pioneers recognised that there was a particular state of mind that allowed images to emerge; Happich (1932) called it the ‘meditative zone’. This site where rational and imaginal perspectives meet, interact and communicate is an intermediate state where images can arise and be viewed, experienced and, if need be, worked with. The link between the two perspectives is explicitly acknowledged in some of the terms used for image-based psychotherapy, such as ‘waking dreams’. In keeping with the deliberately transtheoretical position of the inclusive model, I will be using the term ‘conscious relaxation state’ throughout the practice section of this book. As this term implies, it is taken to mean a deliberate, purposive and conscious accessing of a receptive state of consciousness.

However, it is important to note that this intermediate zone is not a clearly marked and boundaried position but more a place on the continuum of consciousness between the rational and imaginal perspectives. The far end of the rational continuum would be abstract analytical reasoning and the far end of the imaginal being the dreaming mind during sleep. Initially, part of the therapist’s job, when working with mental imagery, is to help clients to access this midpoint of the continuum where both perspectives meet and to stabilise their attention there. This task is often difficult for people at first and takes practice. Furthermore, another level of difficulty is posed by the additional demands made on the client; as, in this intermediate zone, they are also required to hold the two different perspectives at the same time. Engaging with the imaginal perspective, the person is required to not only symbolise outer experience but also open up to experiencing the embodied nature of imagery in the form of other sensory modalities, e.g. physical sensation and emotion. In other words clients need to experience the imaginal landscape or symbolisation as if it were actually happening to them, i.e. from a first-person perspective. And, at the same time, engaging with the rational perspective, clients are required to hold a third-person perspective and view the imagery experience as a phenomenon that they are actively exploring and interpreting. An example would be the building image presented in the following chapter. Here, clients are asked to visualise a representation of their psychological structure in the form of a building. They are then required to imagine themselves standing in front of the building and to experience it as if they are actually in the landscape. As they explore the building they are also being asked to maintain a detached perspective that understands the image as a symbolisation of themselves.

Accessing this zone in talking therapies is usually, but not always, facilitated through an initial relaxation procedure. This is because there appears to be a relationship between types of conscious states and degrees of physical relaxation. Closing the eyes and relaxing mind and body allows the point of conscious attention to shift towards the intermediate zone. The degree of relaxation determines where the attention is positioned on the continuum between the two perspectives. Leuner elaborates further:

Precise observation has shown that there is a close functional correlation between the state of relaxation and the stimulated motif in the fantasy. As the fantasy becomes more active, the state of relaxation deepens; this, in turn, renders the fantasy increasingly more lively and colourful, which brings about a further deepening of the relaxation state.

(1978: 127)

Working with both perspectives in this intermediate zone of consciousness requires a balanced access to both. However, this balancing act is dynamic, fluid and ever-changing. Attention moves back and forward, along the continuum, as therapeutic needs shift and change through the course of the work. Sometimes a deeper access to the imaginal realms is operating when a mental image is functioning as a conduit for the rising up into consciousness of repressed experience. At these points the client can display signs of being deeply engaged with and immersed in the contents of the imagery. Sometimes a much more detached relationship with the image is operating as the client is accessing the rational perspective to consider the nature and meaning of the image. This can be seen, for example, when the client is considering how to use the reparative function and make an appropriate alteration to the imagery. Part of the therapist’s job will be helping the client manage this dynamic state of conscious relaxation in order to best facilitate therapeutic processes. This is a complex area of practice and requires experience and skills. Issues arising in working with conscious relaxation states are addressed further in Chapter 12.

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