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The Smile Powerhouse

Photos of smiling nuns taken when they came into religious service when they were in their early 20s, reveal which will live the longest. The right type of smile, wrong type of smile, it makes a difference.

While conducting research on the physiology of facial expressions in the mid-19th century, french physician Guillaume Duchenne identified two distinct types of smiles. A “Duchenne smile” involves contraction of both the zygomatic major muscle (which raises the corners of the mouth) and the orbicularis oculi muscle (which raises the cheeks and forms crow’s feet around the eyes). A non-Duchenne smile involves only the zygomatic major muscle.  Many researchers believe that Duchenne smiles indicate genuine spontaneous emotions since most people cannot voluntarily contract the outer portion of the orbicularis oculi muscle. The young women who were fated to be long-living and healthier nuns, wore the Duchenne smiles in their entry photos.

Fake smiles, on the other hand point a person in the direction of greater stress and greater illness. “A study of city bus drivers led by a Michigan State University business scholar found that the drivers who fake smiles at work worsen their mood throughout their day, which in turn affects their productivity. The problem is that smiling for the sake of smiling can lead to emotional exhaustion and withdrawal. Women were hurt more than men by the fake smiles, which the researchers attribute to the fact that women are both expected to and do show greater emotional intensity and expressiveness than men.” Link to article

Meditation masters have picked up on the power of the smile. Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hanh makes a simple smile part of his basic mindfulness practice (link to article)  Modern Taoist and teacher, Mantak Chia carries smiling instruction further by having us smile to the many parts of our body using an actual smile and our mind’s eye. Each part gets a smile and the opportunity to bath in good will and relaxation. Link to article on Chia’s methods  Link to Chia’s book, The Inner Smile

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Go Wide Focus – An instant stress reduction technique

This is an instant stress reduction technique in that it can be brought out, anywhere, anytime and–if practiced–will bring stress levels down very quickly. Stress comes down, but not to zero but to a level where you will have more wiggle room.

There are two secrets to this technique. First, it goes completely opposite of what your body and mind has been created to do when you are under a little or a lot of stress. Stress involves a narrowing of our focus. Our work shrinks down to what is of greatest interest to us at the moment. That can be worry, jumping out of the way of a bus, or trying to decide: “Do I flee, fight, or freeze?”

If you are jumping out of the way of a bus there is little you can do to control your stress narrowing of the mind. Nor would you want to! You are on a mission to save your life. If you are in less dire situations such as about to go into a job interview/review or are caught in the web of worry, then this is a good time to take your mind in the opposite direction.  Widening your focus, even for a few moments, will have an impact. Your attention will open up and your mind will open up. Then you might see a new way, or you might be able to catch your breath which will give you a chance to ground yourself in the moment and in your personal values.

The Technique

Right now, stop reading and expand your awareness to the space around you. You can either listen to or see actual things in the space or you can use your memory to flit from one point in the room and then to another and to another. This latter approach, gives you a sense of how big the space is. As you bring up memories to various points in the room such as the lamp in the corner behind you, the desk across the room, the doorway to the left, and the ceiling, your mind throws in details such as distance from you to these objects. This provides an approximation of the size of the space.

Hold that awareness for a few seconds or longer if you can. How do you feel? Your narrowed stress focus will be tugging at you to go back to where it was but just keep working the technique. Eventually, you probably will hit a balance of narrowed focus and Go Wide Focus.

You can go even wider if you have the chance. Think of a larger area just outside, perhaps the building, or the block. Or really open things up and think of the size of the sky. Anything to break you from the fixation of your stress-induced narrowed focus.

Look for a preferred way of doing this. You might find getting a fix on your immediate surroundings is the more powerful and effective way to go. Others will prefer very grand vistas (either visible or in the mind’s eye). Find yours.

Of course, you can flit between being in the narrowed focus to the Going Wide Focus and back again. You will not lose track with what’s going on around you or what you are there to do. What you will appreciate is the sudden easing of the stress so you can think and feel a bit more freely and be ready to explore new options when they pop up in your mind or appear before you.

Found Additional Resources:

Big Sky Meditation with Bells – Spirit Rock/Dharma Seed recording for streaming and downloading – go to Website – This presenter uses the Going Wide Focus technique and applies it to a meditation retreat surrounding for an extended time period.

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Forms of Imagination Practice

“What’s the difference between Jung’s Active Imagination and guided imagery,” that was the question put to me the other day. A good question. Let’s look at the various types of Imagery Practice out there.

Guided, From Heavy to Very Light
When people think about imagery they go to the “see a beach, you are walking on a beach” form of imagery work. Certainly that is the most used form most people have been exposed to. It is an important and easy practice to work with. If we are instructed in an imagery experience with very specific guidance on the location for our imagery, what we are to see/hear/taste/touch/smell once we draw the place up in our mind, what we are to do there, and why we are doing it—this is heavily-guided imagery work. Good stuff but there is more as your abilities grow and our interest in going deeper expands.

In the middle range of guided imagery is guidance that lays many details for us out but also leaves a fair amount unspecified. It is up to us to fill the gap with what we want to add. For instance, using the beach again, we can be guided to go to that place and open our all of our senses to soak up this or that. Next, we can be cut loose to explore the beach and to go in search of a note in a bottle. “Take a few minutes to head off and explore. Let me know when you have found the bottle,” would be typical instructions for middle-range guided imagery.

Lighty-guided imagery practice usually involves working out what you want to do in an imagery session before that session begins. In other words, you pick a theme, an event, an idea, or other thing to work on and your guide will give the time and freedom to do that. Your guide (in-person; on Skype; or on a recording) takes on: talking you into deeper relaxation, asking you to find a place of your choosing, and then reminding you of what you want to work on.  They may also, from time to time ask you : “What are experiencing now? Or let me know if we want me to take some notes so we are sure to capture the ideas and insights that pop-up.” The guide is also watching the clock and at the time you picked to end the session, the guide will guide you out of the experience. Very open and with light touches, that is lightly guided imagery work.

Of course, there is unguided imagery. The work is on our own shoulders to determine what works for us and what we want to do once you get into imagination. Typically, most of us have started off with guided imagery so we have developed a habit of borrowing from that form. For instance, we may always start off on some beach or in some “safe” place and then depart from there to do free exploring of the experience of being in touch with the unconscious or exploration of themes, ideas, events, etc.

The freest form of open imagination is simply closing our eyes, getting in touch with the imagination, and hanging out and observing what is coming up at that moment. Simple observing can include: noting images, hearing words, getting in touch with sensations in the body, maybe even being moved to make some sort of physical gesture, feeling feelings, watching ideas/concerns pop up.  The unconscious is always busy at work cooking up something to respond to a conscious concern or an unconscious reaction to something that has happened or might be coming up, or to resolve something that has been left undone. In other words, in this form we go into the “unconscious factory” to see what is being created for us today.  We can go with the flow, simply observing as your images/sensations/feelings rapid change or one or two might grab your interest and you can decide to focus on those. Focusing on them will require “holding” them in imagination and restraining new imagery from taking over. Either way, this is free-form imagery work.

There is a form that is a bit of lightly-guided and free form imagery work.  This sounds like a contradiction but it isn’t. practitioners of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) lead clients into relaxation and then they play specific selections of music during the session. GIM gives the guide the responsibility of moving the person into relaxation, selecting the right music for the session based upon what the client wants to do, asking the client from time to time “What are you experiencing right now?” and bringing the client out of imagination at the end of the session. The middle part of the session, when the music is playing, it is up to the client to experience it as they wish. GIM people see that the real guide of the session is the music itself.

Drumming remains a popular way to help people to go into imagination. The drumming tradition says that we need to find specific inner helpers, objects, and locations and sets us free to do that as we get carried with the specific beat that many people find imagination inducing. Here we have two guides: the goal we carry with us as we are imagination (i.e. find a power animal) and the power of the drumbeat.

Back to the Question
“What’s the difference between Jung’s Active Imagination and guided imagery?” Well, Jung mainly had his clients use moderately or lightly guided imagery when he worked with them. Over time, though, he expected many people to get good at free-form imagery work and to use that between sessions and when they left his care.

That’s a start on answering this question, but we will look further at Active Imagination in another blog post here, entitled: Target Imagery.

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How to Stare Your Imagination Awake

There is a long history of staring to activate the imagination.

From the new book, Caves and the Ancient Mind, we learn of the importance to Greek philosophers, proto-scientists, poetics, and mystics of the supreme darkness of caves and underground chambers. Prolonged looking into the darkness lit minds that shaped Western thought for centuries.

Leonardo da Vinci advised in his notebook, Treatise on Painting, to look closely at a random stain until it becomes alive:

“This is the case if you cast your glance on any walls dirty with such stains or walls made up of rock formations of different types.  If you have to invent some scenes, you will be able to discover them there in diverse forms,  in diverse landscapes, adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, extensive plains, valleys, and hills. You can even see different battle scenes and movements made up of unusual figures,  faces with strange expressions,  and myriad things which you can  transform into a complete and proper form constituting part of similar walls and rocks.

Don’t underestimate this idea of mine, which calls to mind that it would not be too much of an effort to pause sometimes to look into these stains on walls,  the ashes from the fire,  the clouds,  the mud, or other similar places.  If these are well contemplated, you will find fantastic inventions that awaken the genius of the painter to new inventions, such as compositions of battles, and men, as well as diverse composition of landscapes, and monstrous things, as devils and the like. These will do you well because they will awaken genius with this jumble of things.”

John Dee, an English mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occultist, navigator,  and consultant to Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century, would stare into an obsidian stone from Mexico. Dee was following the long tradition of mirror scyring  (also known as mirror gazing) to obtain visions of the future and of universal ideas.

Raymond Moody, the famous collector of near-death experiences and author, uses a similar process today for people to see and converse with departed loved ones. He places the person in a darken room that he calls The Psychomantuem, seated in a recliner and they stare at a mirror that is tilted towards dark curtains, providing a blank canvas for their imagination to roam (see book).

Hermann Hesse revealed another form of staring, fire watching, in his book Demian. When his naive major character meets with a mysterious new friend, he is shown how to stare into a fireplace: “With rigid eyes I stared at the fire as I sank into dreams and stillness, recognized figures in the smoke and pictures in the ashes. Once I was startled. My companion threw a piece of resin into the embers: a slim flame shoot up and I recognized the bird with the yellow sparrow hawk’s head. In the dying embers, red and gold threads ran together into nets, letters of the alphabet appeared, memories of faces, animals, plants, worms, and snakes.” (Demian, Harper & Row, 1965, p. 106).

More recently, in the 1960s and 1970s, sensory deprivation was studied for its ability to open access to the imagination. John Lilly, plumbed the depths of flotation chambers that were closed off to light, sound, and changes in air. Water in the chamber was heated to match normal body temperature which caused awareness of the body to drop away (the body seemed to merge with the water).  What was left was a mind free to fly off into detailed imagery.

A more modest approach to sensory deprivation is the Ganzfeld effect (article). Special eye pieces can be made from one ping pong ball by cutting it in half. These are placed over the eyes as a person reclines. Staring into this blank field along with wearing sound blocking headphones, will cause the mind to zone out and eventually images of all sorts will start to pour forth for the person who has properly practiced this technique.

Why it works
The mind hates a vacumn. Staring into darkness, an unchanging dark mirror, the white fog of ping pong ball eyelids, or the play of color/light/shadow, the mind gets impatient and seeks to pick up the pace. To do so, it pours out imagistic commentary on what it thinks it is seeing as well. It strives to find patterns. Along with these images come unique imagery from the mind. This imagery is probably the content of the day that churns below the surface reacting to what is going on in our lives at the moment and working on problems we are having or will have around the corner.

How to Do It
Pick an approach that appeals to you from the examples above (there are gazing mirrors available and the ping pong ball Ganzfeld setup just takes minutes to make).  Expect this to be a slow process so don’t rush it. Also, it is likely you will have to make this a dedicated practice to release its full potential. Try 10 to 15 minutes every day for awhile. As you stare, relax your body, and keep checking in to find any tension that may have popped up. Relax again. Wait. Let your focus become fuzzy and give that approach a try. Switch back to a sharper focus if you find that more productive. Go with any hints of imagery that comes up before your eyes, in your thoughts, feelings in your heart, or sensations in your body.

Stare, let go, wait, and imagine…dreaming with eyes-wide-open.

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The Naps of Thomas Edison

Inventor Edison

“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”

Edison worked his tail off every day searching for market-worthy inventions. One of the areas of his research included how to maximize his productivity and his thinking. One way to accomplish both was to nap: “I enjoy working about 18 hours a day. Besides the short catnaps I take each day, I average about four to five hours of sleep per night,” stated Edison.

During some of his nap sessions he did more than recharge his internal batteries, he used his imagination to work on creative problems. Working naps required sitting upright in a chair.  Sitting up made it harder for him to fully sleep and made it possible to stay lightly conscious during these sessions. To further assure that he would not lapse into sleep, he would hold a steel ball bearing in each hand. On the floor, placed directly below his closed hand would be a metal saucer. If he should fall completely asleep, his hands would relax and each ball bearing would fall to the floor, striking the metal saucer, making a noise loud enough to wake Edison.

What was he doing?
Edison was utilizing what was named hypnagogia. Hypnagogia is the state (actually a variety of states) that can be experienced as we hang onto consciousness while moving towards sleep. It involves bodily relaxation and the easing of the grip of cognitive/emotive focus. In hypnagogia we get the benefit of a sort of emotional and cognitive wandering. This wandering can be gently guided, as Edison did, or left open to go where it wants to go. Guided wandering has the benefit of keeping a topic of our interest in mind so we can observe it from new angles to learn new things. Edison meant business by setting up conditions so he could stay in this state for long periods.

Instead of steel balls
Edison’s approach works perfectly fine but here are two more ways which don’t require steel balls.

Approach 1 – Lie down on a bed, on your back and rest your upper arm (from shoulder to elbow) elbow flat on the bed. Bend your elbow and keep your lower arm (from your elbow to your finger tips) pointed straight up to the ceiling.  When you fall asleep, your arm will flop down on the bed and catch your attention. Wake up a bit and then cost back to hypnagogic wandering.

Approach 2 – Use a slightly modified wake-up alarm – Get a car doze-alerting alarm for a few dollars (see www.napzapper.com). Cover over the little speaker that screams an alarm when it detects the downward flop of the head of  dozing off. This will make the sound tolerable since you don’t need it screaming, just making enough noise to wake you up. Put the device over your ear and sit up in a chair like Edison. Keep your head level. Relax physically and mentally and let your mind wander.

What you will discover
In hypnagogia everything can swirl together—visions, thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and who knows what else. There will be so much going on that you can’t possibly remember it all so you will need some way to remember what is most important to you. Try making some notes during the process or shortly after you end the session. Use notes on paper or on a recorder.

All of this takes practice, but you will be shocked how quickly you can master entry into hypnagogia. Pleasant and fruitful wandering await you.

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Buyer’s Guide: How to Pick a Guided Imagery Recording

Guided imagery is a great pleasure, especially when it is done right. But things can turn sour if we don’t pick the right recording for our needs and our tastes. A very tricky business unless we know how to decrease the misses and increase the odds of getting the right recording.  Here is a list of things to look for you when you go shopping.

What Do You Want To Do?
Every recording has an objective. It can be basic relaxation or something as complex as mind/body medicine, past life regression or other deeper challenges. The basic element across all recordings is verbal guidance used to get your unconscious and regular consciousness to follow instructions.

It is best to start off with a basic relaxation recording rather than jumping into deep waters first time out. You will need to know how to calm down and go inside before you can do the other more complex work.  Starting off with a good relaxation recording will ease you into the whole guided imagery process.

Once you have relaxation within your grasp, track down specialized recordings if you have a special goal in mind. Look at the big bookstore and music websites but also cast your net wider by plugging your wants into a search engine.  There are many great recordings out there that don’t appear at the major sites because some guided imagery artists only sell from  their own websites.

Script Style – Highly Guided or Open-Ended
Each guided imagery artist has many choices to make in terms of scripting a recording. Some scripts focus on providing very precise suggestions as to what images the artist wants you to bring to mind and carefully lays out what you are to do with them once they appear. Other scripting will be more loose, such as: “See yourself in a meadow. Look around and note what you see.” This is very open-ended. Open-ended scripting assumes that the listener has had some experience with guided imagery and holds a skill/comfort level that lets them fill in the details of the inner work as they wish. Newcomers, on the other hand, are generally more comfortable with detailed imagery targets and suggestions. Determine which type of script is best for you and your goals and try your best to find a match out there in the CD and mp3 world by sampling recordings where you can (i.e. iTunes or Amazon).

Script Symbols
Scripting can differ in terms of what images a guided imagery artist uses. Some recordings keep things simple, such as “relax near a stream” or “open your heart and let go.” Other scripts will adopt imagery and terminology from some tradition such as the Tarot, yoga, Buddhism, or Kabbalah.  This can be a very powerful experience if you are well versed in what each symbol means and have personally connected with the tradition from which it is taken. But if you don’t know what the artist is talking about or is trying to get to, you probably will have a frustrating experience. For instance, if you don’t know what chakras of yoga are or have never picked up the Tarot, scripting using these symbols will be lost on you. Read each recording description well to determine what symbolic language the artist might be working with. Consider if their symbols will work with your interests and goals.

Voice, Use of Voice, and Music
The wrong voice is a killer. Everything else can be just right but without the proper guiding vocals the recording is junk. The only way to avoid making a bad purchase is work hard to find samples of the recording by taping into the samples at iTunes, Amazon, and CDBaby. How does the voice sound?  Is it such that you can let go and ignore it? Trust it? Prefer a man’s voice? A woman’s voice?

How the speaker uses their voice is also important. Some artists speak almost in a plain, simple, conversational way. Others use their voice almost like a musical instrument, adapting their voice to convey the sort of actions they want you to do. Examples: pitching their voice up when they want you to ascend a staircase or dropping the volume of their voice when they want your body to feel heavy. What do you prefer, plain and simple or with a little or lot of drama?

Lastly, consider a recording’s background music. Most recordings come with some sort of musical background (some also use sound effects) so listen to see if the music choice works for you by finding and listening to samples.

Too Fast or Just Right?
Closely related to voice, is timing. An extremely common mistake made by new guided imagery artists is moving too darn fast. Instructions come flying at the listener one after another with no time to get what the artist is asking or time to settle into an experience. Guided imagery takes time. The best guided imagery artists are those who have been led by many other artists and have developed a real feel of “inner world speed” versus our day-to-day outer world speed. The two speeds are very different. Again, track down some samples and get a sense if the imagery artist takes time to let you, the listener, work with what comes up.

You may prefer a compilation of short experiences or a longer break. Consider how you want to use the recording: quick 10 minute dips into imagination or do you really want to unplug and go for a guided journey? Consider getting both types, one for quick but regular imagination work and one for when you have plenty of time to go in deep. Read recording descriptions for this information on length.

Evidence-Based or Adopted by Institutions
Unfortunately no one has put guided imagery recordings side-by-side and tested their effectiveness. Studies have been done over the years to see if guided imagery works in medicine and if guided imagery is superior to listening to music alone or with just resting. Yes, guided imagery has performed well in the studies and there are many indications that guided imagery works better than resting or music without guidance.

A handful of recordings have been used at least once or maybe a few times in multiple medical research studies. In a later post, I will offer a listing of where to find these particular recordings and reference the studies in which they were used with the findings noted.

Some institutions such as major hospitals and clinics have produced audio and video recordings that they pass onto their patients. The Mayo Clinic produced two CDs a few years back that were excellent but they are out-of-print now. Several universities have recordings available online covering a wide range of relaxation and imagery topics for students, staff, and patients. Those recordings are waiting online for anyone to download free. If you prefer to pick recordings based upon this criteria, use a search engine. Include the search terms: hospital, clinic, and university along with terms that describe the sort of recording you are hunting for. In a later post, I will provide a list of recordings available from the hospitals/clinics and educational institutions with links on how to obtain them.

Special Background Beats, Whisperings, and Subliminal Suggestions
In addition to the spoken word and music, some recordings include special background beats, whispers, or subliminal suggestions. The thinking is that these methods will take a person deeper, faster, and more productively than a recording without these enhancements.  There is some evidence that enhanced backgrounds can be helpful but further research is required to determine if they are always helpful and by how much. It doesn’t hurt to try these sort of recordings but plain recordings with the right words, right music, and right goals will do just fine. Again, I promise to write a post later on these sorts of recordings.

Good luck shopping.