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This has been a very intense and difficult paper to write because it touches the very essence of how we think and know. When we sit in a group, whatever the purpose we have in coming together, I am writing about a level of awareness that may be very rare. Even when there is awareness, it is rarely spoken about because it exists in the private confines of our inner, esoteric life. Bringing these dimensions into language is not easy.
Within individuals who have the capacity to contact the deeper realms of imagination, spontaneous images often arise as they go about their daily life. These may be images that they have worked with in the past that appear on their mental screen as ‘icons’ that offer insight about a particular person or situation or they may be new images. Those experienced in working with inner image have almost a quality of ‘clairvoyant knowing’ about what is occurring in the moment. When these images arise, the central question is whether they are present for the individual or for others? It requires great discernment to know whether or not to speak about the image with others or whether to hold it within to work with in private.
Many of us rarely put our attention at the level of experience where we are even aware of our inner images. But they exist in the space within us and between our self and others whether we connect to them or not. Where do these images come from and what is their meaning? How do they relate to our experience and how are they useful? What do we mean by image? How do we know when images are for our personal knowing or whether they are significant for others or a group?
The purpose of this writing is to bring to an explicit, outer level of awareness, an aspect of what is happening inwardly. I believe that when we become conscious of this more subtle awareness, we will become able to engage the group process in a larger way that simultaneously focuses inwardly as well as on the outward conversation. Instead of focusing only on the content of group engagement --by also connecting to our inner levels of awareness through the images that arise -- we can begin to sense other energies present within group encounters. And in this sensing, we are able to engage what is being said as well as what is not being spoken about and integrate them. Through this subtle awareness, we can approach the deeper levels of insight and creativity within the group process where the intelligence of the group has the potential of becoming greater than the intelligence of any single individual within the group. We begin to truly think together and reach a transcendent state of collective intelligence and wisdom.
I hope that this writing will actually begin a larger conversation on this topic. Perhaps it will raise awareness or invite readers to recall their own experiences when inner images came to them during a group process. Perhaps it will also initiate attending to and voicing our inner images to the groups we participate in. What might happen if we did this? How might this serve the greater wholeness?
An image could be a thought, a memory, a feeling in the body anywhere, an emotion, a mental picture that arises in your mind’s eye, a sound, color or smell. It can be the memory of being in your grandmother’s kitchen with the aromas and feelings evoked while she baked bread or cookies. Sometimes an image begins with a tickle on your chin or a strange sensation elsewhere in your body. It could be the terror you felt when something frightening or horrible happened long ago. An image can be pleasant, light or neutral or it can be very dark and negative. In fact, ‘shadow’ images are an important dimension of the wholeness of reality.
An image arises from the depths of our being – we open to the image -- rather than it being something we construct mentally. The soul often speaks to us in the language of image – these images arise from the core of our being to teach us and offer insight from the greater wholeness.
We are all imaginative beings. My definition of imagination is that it is the path between the experience of an event in our life and our response and action in the world. It is also the deeper, spiritual source of creativity and being within us. Imagination is what gives us the capacity to generate options, see possibilities, make every-day decisions, and respond to life in our unique way.
In their book, Reimagination of the World, David Spangler and William Irwin Thompson speak of imagination as a faculty that operates on many levels, with different functions and different ways of expressing its nature. Idle imagination is like daydreaming. This kind of imagination is self-oriented and helps us to define ourselves through a process of self-creation. Interpretive imagination is another level, where we take in the sensations that come to us from our physical contact with our environment and transform these sensations into images that we call ‘the real world.’ All of us generate these images in different ways and different images arise for each of us, even though we are having similar experiences. In this sense, everything we create in our world is ‘imaginary’, or from the experience of our unique images.
Creative imagination is a more deliberately exercised faculty that we use to bring new creations into the world. Someone imagined computers before they came into the world. Someone imagines a new product or production process before it can be implemented. The process of creative imagination usually involves ‘incubating’ a question or problem in an intellectual way and then releasing it. But where does it go? If our conceptual and abstract thinking joins our subjective ways of knowing, we can reach a state of transcendence. In transcendence, our consciousness shifts into another realm, which Goethe called the Realm of Archetypal Ideas and the Realm of Inspiration, where we see the world unencumbered by our personal prejudices and fantasies. In these realms, we can explore phenomenon directly connected to our soul life and the numinous mystery.
When we try to think about a problem that has many complex, contradictory, or confusing factors, we ordinarily use an ordinary process of thought in which one step follows another thought more or less logically over a period of time. Eventually, and if we’re open to the possibility, a sudden flash of understanding comes. As this new totality unfolds before us, some new mental image that contains the general features is displayed before us. This living picture is filled with higher insight about the phenomenon because it is actually formed in our consciousness by the phenomenon.
Our perceptions are called into play so that our mind can grasp the meaning of what has been created in the flash of understanding. It is a living idea, a living imagination which can continue growing and constellating in the higher consciousness. Our mind can continue to think and reason out more and more of the consequences implied by the new insight. The first unfolding of the insight came in the form of an image. Within the image, the whole content is implicit and enfolded. We simply need to use our powers of concentration and perception to ‘unpack’ the meaning in all of its subtleties. We’ve all heard of novel and original perceptions, such as those of Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein, in which new kinds of images and new ways of thinking about the world suddenly emerged through the creative imagination.
There is a fourth level of imagination that is probably the one that we are most unconscious of, the incarnational imagination. The incarnational imagination is very different, much more profound than the usual kind of self-imagery that we normally use to define ourselves. It is the place where the sacred lives in each of us. The images from this dimension extend into areas beyond the boundaries of time and space. These are the higher images that form the primary patterns that contain our specific incarnation. In some ways we experience them more as qualities than as images.
The incarnational imagination can be accessed through the use of other images, particularly those that arise through the creative imagination, especially when the images are dynamic and moving, rather than static as a fixed picture. In this state, one does not merely think of the image – they inhabit it. As one inhabits the image, the ordinary – images such as a simple flower, a flowing stream, the light of a star, the face of our mother – becomes a vehicle for the message of the Divine. As we inhabit the image, we often move into dimensions beyond time and space and experience qualities such as love, compassion, insight, deep connection, truth, and profound intelligence. We move into an enduring, ancient wisdom that is at the same time ‘new,’ and continually emerging and revealing more of its wholeness. As we bring this experience into our physical body and the current moment in time, we find ourselves more fully embodied within our self and our world through the integration of what we have learned into our daily life. The inner work in this realm is not about escaping from reality into the imaginal realm, but is about being able to more deeply engage in the world through the discovery of our soul’s connection to it.
Perhaps as the reader engaged the above description on the nature of imagination, they primarily related it to their own experience as a single individual. Particularly with the creative and incarnational imaginative experiences, we tend to think of these as only occurring during meditation or within the context of a structured spiritual practice. But in my experience, this is not necessarily so. These deeper images may arise during the course of routine, daily, mundane life. Receptivity and a quality of inner stillness are required but one doesn’t need to be alone. Often, images come during conversation with others, when I am still and silent and simply listening deeply to what is being said and connecting to others. Connecting is critically important – it is part of the energy that helps to actually form the image.
A central question is always whether the image comes for me personally or whether it is intended for the group. I never question whether it is relevant – I know my soul is speaking to me and I need to pay attention.
Sometimes the images that arise are very fleeting. It’s as if the intellect is going through a ‘rolodex’ of meaningful images, trying to find the best example before settling down. Other times I have a ‘fuzzy’ sense of something forming and as I stay present to the inner feeling and what is underway outwardly, the image slowly comes into clarity. This happens most often when an emotion is forming in me but in other situations, I have a feeling of an image (a picture) forming before I actually know what form it takes. Other times the image comes in strong and grows, turns, and expands as I sit with it while others in a group are talking. Each word that is spoken seems to open up another dimension of the image and expand it. At the time it appears and during this process of holding it while others are speaking, I may not intellectually know the meaning of the image but I stay fully with it while also taking in the conversation. There is a balancing act going on where an image is growing inside and from the outside, more is being taken in to nourish what is growing. Once the opportunity comes for me to speak, as I speak about the image and what I am experiencing – as I engage the image – it becomes even more alive and full. The fuller and larger it becomes, the more I am able to speak to its power and energy. It is not so much the literal form the image takes that matters, but the energy that the image carries. As I speak, I am compelled to convey both what the image is and also the energy of it. And the more fully I am able to accomplish this, others begin to see and feel the image.
In this situation, I know that the image is for the group but I need to stress that the time sitting with the image in silence is also of critical importance. As the words expand and open up other dimensions of the image during that time, the energy of the image is merging with others in the group and it is more likely that when the image is spoken about, that others in the group will really ‘get it’ and feel it’s power to both form and inform the group knowing. While I’m deeply listening to what others are speaking about, they often offer subtle hints that the image is very relevant to them through their use of examples or metaphors.
What kinds of images are these? Sometimes, emotions are growing within. If you are feeling strong emotions within a group, are you the only one having these feelings? Feelings of frustration, confusion, or discontentment from others may finally ‘burst’ out when they are named. If one person speaks to their experience, it’s quite possible that others are also unsettled but haven’t yet realized what they are feeling. Before speaking to any strong emotion, it is helpful to look around the room to sense where other people are. Do they look uncomfortable, are they paying attention, are there other signs of unrest? Naming any emotion, whether it is negative or positive, can have the effect of helping others to sort out what they are also experiencing, and help the direction the group is headed.
When frustration and disconnection to what is underway in a group are out in the open instead of seething under the surface, the group has the opportunity to stop, reflect, and shift their process and direction. By naming one person’s experience, an opening may be created for the group to get at what is underneath the feelings and for them to go deeper into whatever is underway. Frustration may be a sign that something is not working and needs to be corrected if the group is ever going to reach a collective intelligence. It also can be part of the energy that creates movement where the ‘opening’ happens that enables the group to jump to another, deeper level of engagement. The point is not to close down the energy, but to use it. There are many levels where we can share our understanding when we face the same situation. Also, we have to be realistic -- sometimes groups don’t want to reach a collective intelligence. There are times where the outcome of a group activity can be predicted before the group even comes together.
Always when images arise within us in a group setting, we have to be self-reflective and practice discernment as to whether our experience is for the group or for us alone to notice. For example, let’s look again at the example where frustration and disconnection arose. Did we come into the group carrying this feeling? If so, does it really belong in the group? Do I notice that my emotions increased every time a particular individual spoke or a particular issue in the conversation came up? Why do I have such an emotional charge at that time? Is it the other person or is it coming from something within me? Is it a solitary experience or something the group is experiencing? What is happening? To really listen to another is to risk being changed forever --we may realize our prejudices, our assumptions, our biases, or our projections if we attend to what is simultaneously occurring inwardly and outwardly. The group offers the opportunity to see things within ourselves that we can’t see when we are alone.
Expressed emotions are particularly difficult to handle within groups. We each have different levels of sensitivity toward how we experience our emotions. Many of us have been taught that it isn’t acceptable or safe to display emotions in public, especially with people we don’t know well. Consequently, we suppress our feelings when we are with others. If we are not experiencing the same emotion, we may feel distant and detached from the person who is expressing strong emotion. Others may feel empathic or want to ‘fix’ the person. The greatest challenge for the group is in how to use the emotion that is being expressed. And to use the energy, we each have to connect to it. Unfortunately, our most common reaction is to deny the feeling or to resent the intrusion of this energy. It is very common to deny the feeling because we aren’t embodied enough to actually feel anything. We are being too mental and have disconnected from what is happening in the rest of our body. But the energy is in the circle for some purpose and discovering that purpose may be very difficult and call us to our growing edge.
Within us, different images have different power and call for different outward action. Sometimes an image will come that will cause us to bring a question to the group. What is the relationship between x and y? How do we understand z? Can you say more about xxx? Questions often offer a way for a group to focus their energy on a common problem and when more and deeper questions are articulated in a group, it can be a sign that the group is moving toward a place of shared understanding. Questions focus our attention on a specific issue and ask us to think together from our individual perspective. Metaphors in the conversation are also a subtle sign that the group is moving toward shared understanding and those metaphoric images indicate brief interludes with the higher realms. Inter-relationships, connections, and patterns of a higher order are being seen. The energy of the group is becoming more coherent and the possibility of jumping up to a higher level of intelligence or wisdom within the group becomes a real possibility.
What would the effect be on a group if someone were to say that they were feeling a very strong emotion like love, compassion, or deep regard? Some individuals might be uncomfortable talking about those feelings, but when these feelings are truly present within a group, the energy is very creative and the group has reached a transcendent level of engagement together. How does that happen?
When we are in a group, how do we reach this state where awareness between our inner and outer activities is balanced and we are awake to both? How do groups develop a collective imagination? Can a group act and think in way that enables them to reach a transcendent state? What is that state like? Can a group lift its consciousness into the Realm of Archetypal Ideas or the Realm of Inspiration? How might this be possible?
Most of us have great awareness of the types of group activities that move us away from a collective experience. We’ve participated in groups that were disasters. Maybe we can recall a group where the power and hierarchical structure of the members were so defined or the intellectual positions were so rigid that the possibility of coming together was impossible. Perhaps another time, the group facilitator or leader was closed to certain categories of suggestions and limited the group outcome. We can all remember examples of groups that failed to reach their full potential and the time we’ve wasted. Many times we’re unable to pinpoint specifically what went wrong. Our world has reached such a state of complexity that it’s no longer possible for a single individual to make decisions and understand or even see the whole – we need to come together in groups to think and work together to do what we cannot do alone.
What do we bring to the group when we show up? Are we really present and fully engaged? Or, are we thinking of what we’re going to be doing next weekend or what we’re going to say on the telephone call we’re going to make at the lunch break? Being fully present and completely engaged at all levels requires a great deal from us. Can we truly listen to what is being said as well as what is not being said? Are we able to simultaneously feel our bodies, hear what is being spoken from others, and observe our own thoughts? Are we open and receptive or are we closed and limited in what we can take in? Where is our personal energy? What is the energy of the room and of the other participants in the group? What is the group energy? And, why does all this matter?
I imagine that everyone can recall an experience in their life where they felt uncomfortable in a particular place or with a particular person. They may not have understood or been able to articulate exactly was it was that they were feeling, but they sensed something that wasn’t right for them in that situation. We may have walked into a building and instantly were covered with goose bumps. We maintain a degree of personal space when we stand beside someone we don’t know. Maybe there is a particular room, building, or place in nature where we love to go because it feels wonderful to be there. These examples are about sensing and reacting to the subtle energies around us. Even though we may not be aware of precisely what we are sensing, we respond to these subtle feelings.
Some individuals are more sensitive than others to these subtle energies and have developed language to describe their experiences. By focusing their awareness on these energies and with discipline and practice, anyone can begin to develop their capacities for sensing the subtle world. It requires awareness of the feelings within one’s own body and the capacity to feel the subtle variations when these feelings shift. Our ‘sensing mechanism’ and the imagery of our language may vary from one person to another. For example, some individuals sense energy through a specific part of their body, such as their hands. Others may see mental pictures. I hear tones and see color. Often, once a sensitive person has worked with these energies extensively, they reach a point of direct knowing of the energies within themselves and around them.
When I am responsible for facilitating a group, I always check out the meeting room before the group enters. Usually a meeting space has been used for a wide range of meeting purposes and a large number of individual have been in that space over many years. In my experience, each meeting and person leaves a residue of energy there – a ‘thought form’ or ‘energy of the space’ develops that is unique. This energy is also influenced by many other factors: the physical shape of the space, the land it sits on, what is going on in the surrounding area, the amount and nature of whatever electronic devices are around, etc. When I sense the energy, I get an inner image, which is often a feeling in my body. But also, with this feeling, I inwardly hear a ‘tone’ that is unique to the place. Sometimes this translates to a color I see, but most importantly, it is the quality of the tone that really tells me most. What is its texture? Is it thick and heavy or is it light and open? Is it a high vibration or something muddled? Where do I feel the tone in my body when I listen to it? How do I feel emotionally when I listen to the tone? All of these questions are simultaneously swirling within as I connect to the space.
Where is my own energy as I’m listening to this tone of the empty space? This is the most important question in this process. In order for me to even hear the tone, I must be in a place of deepest listening and inner stillness. I must have my awareness totally within my body but also at the same time, expanded out large enough to fill the space of the room. It’s easy for me to expand my energy to fill the room but to simultaneously be fully embodied has taken a great deal more practice and experience. To hold these higher vibrational states requires great coherence mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. If I’m physically exhausted or emotionally upset about anything, I will quickly feel drained and will not be able to maintain this sensing state. Generally, it only takes a few seconds to sense the energy. I’m able to hold my awareness of the tone for much longer periods.
After sensing the tone, my goal is to hold the largest intention of the meeting and to clear and clean the space energetically. I want to feel an easy flow of energy in the room. There are many ways to work with the space but I use a combination of prayer and intention, my voice, and a Tibetan bowl if I have it with me. I know another person who uses essential oils with prayer and intention. I chant a sacred mantra and speak the meeting intention into the space. I invite the angels and guides of the people in the group to enter the room. I move about the room, letting sound fill all the corners. As I speak, I listen to my own inner tone in relation to the room’s tone. I hear a shift when what was heavy becomes light, when what was dark or thick becomes soft and fluid. This is an entirely intuitive process. Sometimes I see a shift in color and always, I make sound until the color shifts to white light and the vibration rises in the inner tone that I’ve been hearing. I am continually sensing with my whole body and I physically feel the energy shift. My goal is to make the space open, receptive, clear, clean, and see white light before anyone comes into the room. This whole process usually takes about 5-10 minutes and I usually work alone, although occasionally, others will volunteer to help. Playing soft music will hold the prepared space while people begin to enter.
During meetings, I am aware of an inner tone that is with me always. My inner tone has a vertical nature and I’m very familiar with it so if I hear other tones, I know they are from my surroundings. There is also a difference in the quality of the tones from the room and the group or individuals. Usually I experience these as much more horizontal or lateral from the group but when the vibration rises and the pitch or rhythm changes, I am aware of something collective constellating within the group. When there is conflict or people are in many different places in relation to the content or intention, I am able to sense the individual energies and the lack of coherence within the tone.
When a group is working in a very mental way, the group tone is very different than when people are speaking from the heart. When our mind and mental processes have been stilled or slowed down, we have the possibility of contacting the heart. Beneath the clutter of onrushing thoughts, plans, and daily concerns is a deeper flow of subtlety, sensations, and images. We most often find this place when we are deeply touched by an experience or when something that deeply matters to us is happening. When we hear personal stories of joy or suffering, pain or breakthrough, we feel our heart open and our humanity shines through. We speak about what really matters to us in a way that shows our emotions and connection to the experience and it doesn’t matter whether the meeting has a scientific focus or something else. It is possible to speak from the heart while our focus is on more mental tasks. Sometimes our voice breaks, we slow down and speak softly. We hear the resonance of our voice coming from deep down in our body and not just from our throat. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to show who we are and not only what we know.
When we speak from our heart, our words create a true connection to the experience—it is as if we are having the experience right then, and in many ways we are. When we speak from our experience, from what we feel in our heart, what we say and how we say it helps others to truly know the experience for themselves. When we stay connected to what has meaning and is heartfelt, others know it. It touches them in a way that enables them to remember similar experiences in their own life and to feel the connection between your joy or suffering or the excitement of a discovery and their own. Speaking from the heart, summoning the depth of our feeling, and allowing the fullness of us to come forward in a group, is an act of true relationship, trust, and authenticity and it greatly affects the energy of the group. We exist in a sea of complete forgiveness and compassion for others. It is here that the energy of unconditional love begins to emerge in the group process.
When our inner energy is very high up in our body, when we are speaking in a very mental way, it is reflected in our voices. If our energy is settled in the bowl of our belly, our voices are generally deeper and more resonant. We can hear the difference as we speak. We speak more slowly and there is time for inner reflection while our words are spoken. And when we speak from a fully embodied state, there is much more resonance and depth in the energy of the space around us and within the group.
When we feel an image rising and forming inwardly while we are in a group, speaking from that feeling space -- from our ‘unknowing’ rather than our ‘knowing’ -- often affects the energy of the group. As we do this, we connect to what we are experiencing and we often are surprised by the wisdom of the words that we have spoken. To speak from this place may be very frightening but the urge is so compelling that we know we must speak at that moment. Many times it is as if we are being spoken through and I think this is literally true. We speak from the energy, from the larger Spirit of the group, out of the larger wholeness. The effect of this is very different than when we are mentally constructing our response to what someone else is saying while they are still speaking. We are letting the energy form our thoughts and we are hearing what is emerging for the very first time ourselves.
When we are in a group and someone has spoken wisely from this place of unknowing, it doesn’t really matter specifically who that person is. Someone has responded to the energy building. The insight offered in this moment is from the whole of the group and this person is just the vehicle for the whole’s response. We have to give up our ego and attachment to the idea for the good of the whole and can’t claim what resulted. How many times have you sat in a group and fought a feeling of being absolutely compelled to speak but didn’t know what you were going to say? What might have happened if you had said: “I feel like I’m going to burst but I’m not sure what to say. This feeling has been building in me since we started talking about ___.”
The majority of the experiences I have drawn from for this writing come from groups with good intentions and people who had strong moral values. When we are thrust into circumstances where this is not the case, it may be necessary to react differently. But even these uncomfortable situations offer the opportunity to be present to the group energy and the energy and images that arise within ourselves. We need to be aware of the shadow images because they can also arise in groups where people have good intentions and strong moral values. It is part of the wholeness of reality for people to become defensive and argue, to make inappropriate projections on others, or to respond out of anger or envy. It is natural to feel discounted and resentful when a smaller group within a larger one talks only among themselves. We are appropriately hesitant and restrained around someone in a group who carries a lot of rage within their personality. We encounter these – and many other-- shadow elements at times, and they seriously affect the energy of any group and its capacity to have a collective experience.
One of my biggest pet peeves in group work happens when I’m in a large group. So many people want to speak that the facilitator has to queue up the next 5-10 people who want to comment. There is no way to build on what the previous person has spoken about because each person is speaking to something that happened earlier. The flow of ideas feels very disjointed. The concept of building on previous meaning within groups is an important dimension of coming toward a collective experience. The thoughts and ideas that are offered within a group become enfolded within the previous notions. From that space, new ideas and thoughts unfold. When we are finished with a thought, it doesn’t just end -- it becomes part of the fabric of the whole and may unfold in another form as the conversation continues. Our feelings unfold as thoughts and the thoughts go back and unfold as more feelings and movements within our body. This continues on as a constant process.
The point of our gathering in groups is to bring the power of our collective experience into some sort of order and coherence. When we’re lucky, patterns and relationships of these thoughts and feelings begin to emerge. We yearn for the beauty that is a reflection of wholeness and we know when we touch it. We want to feel part of a larger order in the universe and at the same time, it’s also important to go into more and more subtlety. When we individually get strong enough that we can stand firm in a distracting environment, we’re strong enough to look at the numinous qualities of the infinite. At that time, there is the possibility of the transformation of consciousness, both individually and collectively. What we can accomplish in groups, through our communication, becomes crucial. As Jacob Needleman said, the group may be the art form of the future.
Resources related to this topic:
Bohm, David, On Dialogue, Routledge Press, New York and London, 1996.
Bohm, David, On Creativity, Routledge Press, New York & London, 1998.
Cobb, Edith, The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood, Spring Publications, Dallas, 1977.
Klocek, Dennis, Seeking Spirit Vision, Rudolf Steiner College
Press, Fair Oaks, CA,
Sloan, Douglas, Insight-Imagination, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT, 1983.
Spangler, David and Thompson, William Irwin, Reimagination of the World, Bear & Company Publishing, Santa Fe, NM, 1991.
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