by Jessica Macbeth
      Gateway Books, 1991

21. Observation Skills

You may notice that I use the words "imagine" and "image" a great deal, but hardly use the words "visualize" or "visualization" at all. An image can take many forms - a sound, an emotion, a memory, a physical sensation, or an inner vision. Some people find it easy to form visual images, seeing with the mind's eye, while others may find that difficult or impossible.
This need not be a handicap to working with imagery.
An image is a representation in the mind. Such a representation may use any of the senses - or any combination of them. Sight, hearing, touch, taste, and scent are all equally useful in guided imagery. There is also the "kinesthetic sense" - the feel of the body and its position in space and in relationship to its surroundings. For example, can you imagine the sensation of walking, of moving your arms, of standing on the ceiling with your head hanging down?
Another way of sensing images is to perceive them as if we were remembering something that once had happened. This kind of "knowing" can provide a richness of detail and depth of experience that a simple visual picture may lack.
The problem for some of us is that, if we can't see something, we find it difficult to trust our other perceptions of it. This is like our desire to turn on the light in order to cross a darkened room even though we are so familiar with it that we could easily cross it blindfolded - and possibly backwards as well. In ordinary life, most of us take in about 80% of our conscious information about the world through our eyes. We are so accustomed to depending on that one sense that we tend to undervalue the rest. One of the ways in which imagery can expand our consciousness and enhance our capacity to be fully in the world is by helping us to learn to consciously observe through all our senses. Let's try a small imagery journey just to check out which senses we can easily use and which we need to learn to pay more attention to.
Approximate travel time: 15 minutes

Checking It Out

    Please begin by taking a couple of deep breaths. Notice each breath as you inhale, as you exhale. As you release the next breath, allow any tension in your shoulders to release with the outgoing breath. As you inhale the next breath, breathe in calmness and breathe our anything in yourself that you don't want or need.
    As you take the next breath, begin to imagine that you are standing barefoot on grass. Imagine the grass - its softness, its coolness, its greenness. You may even be able to smell the grass. Imagine yourself wiggling your toes in the grass, and as you wiggle your toes, feel the breeze with your fingers. The air around you is warm and soft, moving gently over your face, your hands, over all of you skin that is exposed.
    As you begin to sense what is around you, you notice some rose bushes to your left. Imagine yourself reaching out with your left hand and touching one of the deep, deep red roses. The rich scent of the rose floats on the air, and the texture of the petals is soft and smooth, like a baby's skin. If you touch the tip of a thorn, you will find that it is very sharp, sharp and piercing.
    As you turn away from the roses, you find a marble column to your right. It is just about the height of your chest, and resting on top of it there is a sculpture. At first you may think it is made of glass, but you realize that you can feel the cold coming from it, and it is extremely cold ice. It seems very strange that the ice doesn't melt, and you touch it to be certain that it really is ice. You can feel the coldness and slickness and wetness with your fingers as you stroke it.
    While you are touching the ice, you realize you can hear voices singing. You look around you, but there are no people in sight. This is puzzling, but after a bit, you tilt your head back and look up. Just about fifty feet above you a balloon is flating past, and the people in the balloon basket are singing a familiar song. The music floats down upon you like gentle warmth.
    As you watch, one of the children looks over the side and sees you. She waves a green silk scarf at you, and then ducks out of sight for a moment. When she reappears she is holding an apple, and she tosses the apple down to you. It seems to fall and fall and fall with dream-like slowness, but as you catch it in your hand, it smacks hard against your palm.
    The apple is a Golden Delicious, and it has a wonderful aroma. You sniff the smooth, scented skin, and bite into it. It is so juicy that the juice runs down your chin. The taste is surprisingly tart, sweet and tart at the same time.
    To your surprise, the apple disappears from your hand just as you start to take another bite. You look up again, but the balloon, too, has banished. You look around you, but the rose bush and the marble pillar have also gone. The ice sculpture is suspended in the air, but it is melting, melting, melting - and as you watch, it evaporates into the air.
    Even the earth beneath your feet is gone and you are floating in a soft, misty void.
    You take a deep breath and find yourself back in this room. Be aware of the surface you are sitting on.
    Take two or three deep breaths, and then flex your fingers and toes.
    And another deep breath.
    When you are ready, open your eyes and stretch.
Was your imagery primarily visual, or were you also able to imagine the other senses? Which of the senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, scent, kinesthetic) are the clearest for you? Do your images feel like physical sensations or are they an inner knowing? Or perhaps some of each?
The way we improve the kinds of images that are less clear is by paying more attention to them in our daily life. If vision is the dominant sense (as it is for most people), we could benefit by paying more attention to the textures, the scents, and the sounds we encounter in our everyday activities. One reason for the dominance of vision is that it gives us warning of things while they are still at a distance. We have more time between becoming aware of something and actually encountering it, more time to prepare ourselves. Hearing is the next most dominant sense for the same reason. Yet the interesting thing is that we tend to react much more emotionally, more intimately and immediately to touch, taste, and scent. A small child explores with all the senses, worrying its parents by putting everything in its mount, and if possible, swallowing it. As we grow older we distance ourselves from our environment by concentrating on vision and hearing. Practicing awareness of our other senses helps us to be more present in the here-and-now.
The necessity for actually seeing pictures in an imagery journey is overrated by people who do it well. All you need to do is to accept whatever you do get from your unconscious in whatever form it comes. Your images may come inthe form of thought impressions, physical sensations, or emotional feelings. These may be vivid or very subtle. The important thing is to flow with whatever you do get - don't argue with it or try to change it. Arguing with the images or trying to control them pushes you out of that receptive, relaxed state of consciousness in which you best perceive your inner images.
Most people don't have really vivid impressions, visual or otherwise, at first, unless they have had quite a bit of practice in some related mental discipline. However, for nearly everyone, the imagery experience becomes much more vivid and 'real' with practice. Simply accept what you get, allow yourself to follow along.
When you don't get an immediate response to a request for an image, just allow yourself to skip over it - without criticizing yourself for not having the response. It is best to stay in the flow of the imagery than to become bogged down over one recalcitrant image. Let yourself be a part of the flow, a free-wheeling part of the process.

This is Chapter 21 in Sun Over Mountain
Copyright © 1991 by Jessica Macbeth. All rights reserved.
Published by Gateway Books.
Your comments will be read with interest.