The Language of Image in the Clinical Setting

The language of image is one we speak every night as we dream. It just takes a little prompting for us to be able to develop our latent facility with this language. Simple questions, such as “What does this image remind you of?” open the messages from images in powerful ways. 

People who listen to the images of their dreams find this out very quickly. In traditional societies where ‘the journey’[note]The journey is an adaptation of the shamanic journey, which contributes to personal transformation in the clinical setting. The shamanic journey is a method of altering one’s state of awareness through the use of repetitive sound, most often a drum.[/note] was practiced, it was often paired with the practice of listening to dreams. 

Many ancient societies considered dreams to be primary sources of guidance. Cultures ranging from ancient Japan to ancient Greece had spiritual traditions where the dreamer was brought to a special temple to pray to the guardian of the temple for guidance in the dreamtime. The well-known story of Watson and Crick, the scientists who articulated the form of DNA based on guidance received in a dream, is but one of thousands of examples of accessing guidance through dreams.

The guidance that dreams provide has become difficult to experience for many modern people. Many people don’t actually sleep enough to be able to access the dreamtime. And when they do dream, they are not educated in the language of the dream to recognize that they are being provided with an access point to the wisdom of the deeper Self. Messages such as, “you were only dreaming,” or “it was just a dream” characterize the way most people approach the information that is readily available in the dreamtime. This robs them of the possibility of incorporating guidance from dreams into waking life. 

Dream drawing by a patient of Dr Alan McGlashan

One dreamer was trying to understand his relationship to his mother. On the surface, she seemed loving and kind, and he felt guilty because he could not really reciprocate her love. He was in the process of trying to understand the roots of his feelings when he had a dream. 

The dream was quite short. He reported “A woman in a white hat was pinching me. She poked me and jabbed me, and it hurt. And she waited for other people to leave before she started pinching and jabbing.” 

The process of opening images from the dream delivered a powerful message. When asked if the woman in the dream reminded him of anyone he knew, he said “no.” When asked if he knew anyone who wore a white hat, he started to say “no” and then reported, “When I was little, my mother was a nurse and she had to wear a white hat to work every day.” 

As he said this, he remembered that his mother had, indeed, been unkind to him as a small child. This was something he had forgotten. This guidance regarding his conflicted relationship with his mother was instrumental in helping him step out of his sense of guilt for not being the loving son he felt he should be. 

The language of dreams and the language of the journey is the same. I often refer to the journey and to dreams as islands in the same sea of awareness. When the practice of listening to guidance from images in dreams is combined with the practice of seeking guidance through images in the journey, powerful insights emerge to help modern seekers heal and evolve.    

The journey is an adaptation of the shamanic journey, which contributes to personal transformation in the clinical setting. The shamanic journey is a method of altering one’s state of awareness through the use of repetitive sound, most often a drum. When the journeyer’s awareness expands beyond conscious mind awareness with the help of this repetitive sound, they are able to access the inner cosmography of the shaman.  In all cultures where shamanism is practiced, this inner cosmography is considered the world of numinous power that is known to exist behind the forms of the natural landscape. This power is often perceived as forms of nature which arise internally and is often referred to as the world of ‘helping spirits.’

When the shamanic journey is used in traditional settings – to contact helping spirits and ask for their assistance in divination, healing, and the creation of ceremonies – it provides a powerful set of tools that shamans use to assist their communities. But it has its limitations for modern people, who have complex psychological and emotional issues that might not be served without an adaptation of the method into the modern context.  

Dream drawing by a patient of Dr Alan McGlashan

In traditional settings, there is no concept of self-evolution on a psychological level. This concept, however, is well developed in Buddhist psychology. Buddhist psychology and shamanic forms of healing find a happy home together in the healing modality that I have developed called Depth Hypnosis, which combines these two powerful spiritual practices with hypnotherapy, energy medicine, and transpersonal psychology. 

When the shamanic journey is combined with the intention of self-development and the self-actualization of Buddhist thought, particularly with the intention of Vipassana meditation, the journey is born – and it becomes a powerful tool for the transformation of personal experience. 

I have seen the power of the journey transform many modern ills over many years of clinical practice. As it is used to address issues such as depression, anxiety, personal boundaries, and a host of other emotional and psychological symptoms that arise in the modern context, the power of both ancient wisdom systems becomes relevant in a whole new way. 

The two following journeys, taken by people who had just learned to journey, demonstrate how people are guided to validate their own experience through this process. The subjects of inquiry here are decidedly modern: anxiety and personal boundary issues. 

Spider Monkey

In his second journey, the journeyer asked the question:  

What do I need to understand about the nature of my fear and anxiety?  

I met my Lower World guide, a little spider monkey who can fly as well as climb.  When I arrived in the Lower World, he was very high up in a tree.  I asked him what I needed to understand about the nature of my fear and anxiety.  He told me to climb up into the tree.  I climbed up and he did a dance and told me to do the same.  Then he pointed from the tree at something I couldn’t quite make out.  He told me to jump.  I told him that I was afraid, and he said, “Let go of your fear.  Jump!”  Then he jumped.  I followed and landed in water.  We swam to an underground cave.  He was inside with a light of some sort.  He said to follow him.  I got out of the water and followed him.  The earth beneath me became muddy and thick and it was difficult to walk.  He moved further and further away from me.  The light grew dimmer and dimmer until he disappeared, and I was stuck in this thick deep mud.  I felt afraid and began to panic.  Then I noticed there were trees with low hanging branches on either side of me.  I grabbed hold of one of the branches and began to pull myself up out of the mud.  I continued to climb up the tree until I reached the top and found my guide sitting there waiting for me, smiling.  It is the same tree that we jumped from at the beginning of the journey. 

In his interpretation of the journey, he says, “Words do not describe how powerful this journey was for me.  It was like the guide had taken me through my experience of fear and anxiety and showed me the other side of it.  I still have a lot to learn about this, but what I understand about my fear as a result of this journey is that I do not trust myself.  I hesitate and become stuck as a result of my fear, and anxiety follows.  When I became stuck in the mud and the guide left me, I was alone, abandoned, frightened.  I was left to fend for myself.  I had to trust myself.  And when I freed myself from the mud, I was reunited with my guide who had the general air of ‘See, that wasn’t so hard.’”

This journey demonstrates the very visceral way that the journey teaches. We are so used to learning through the intellectual experience of processing concepts that we can become disconnected from other ways of knowing and learning. The teachers in the journey tend to teach viscerally rather than intellectually in order to help people restore their ability to trust their experience. 


Here is another journey from a different new journeyer that echoes this method of teaching.  She was struggling with the issue of boundaries between her and other people. This was her second journey to her teacher, Seal.

How can I be open to others without getting swallowed up by them?

I’m going back down into the sinkhole again. I’m at the bottom now. I’m crawling through the tunnel. I am back in the cavern. There are some stone steps down to the water. There is the boat. I get back into the boat and sit down. I’m floating into the middle of the lake. 

The seal pops up in front of the bow of the boat. It’s floating on its back. I feel glad to see it. It doesn’t frighten me. It doesn’t want me to be frightened. It’s playing so I won’t feel scared. 

Actually, I feel frustrated. I want to be in the water, not in the boat. The seal lets me know it’s okay to go into the water. I take off my clothes and jump into the water with the seal. 

It swims around me, not circling, but just so I feel comfortable with it. I swim over to a place that is like a series of rocks coming out from the shore. They are smooth and rounded. I get onto the very tip of one. 

The seal swims back and forth in front of me. I ask the question. The seal swims further out into the water. It starts swimming with the top half of its body out of the water. It is glowing. It is as though I can see an aura around it. It is a white light, about two feet out from its body. Then it dips under the water. It swims off to the left and floats on its back. This time it’s got a yellow light. There is a yellow, doughnut-shaped ring around its body – about a foot and a half away from its belly. It’s trying to teach me how to see the energy, so I know what kind of energy it is. 

Dream drawing by a patient of Dr Alan McGlashan

It swims, still on its back. It floats up towards me. I am supposed to touch the yellow light. I put my hand six inches into the light. It makes me a bit agitated. But what I can do is use the energy coming from my hands to push back on the aura from the seal. When I push it back I feel safe. I can see the energy that comes off my hand when I do that. The seal comes out again with the top half of its body out of the water. There is a bluish white light all the way around it. I can’t see under the water. It is too dark. It comes closer. I push my hands onto it. It doesn’t feel threatening. I can feel where it begins. 

It feels like the seal is trying to show me how it can transfer beneficial energy to me. I don’t have to protect myself against this energy. It doesn’t deplete me. I put my hand through the aura and touch the seal’s skin with my hand to say thanks. I want to give it some of my energy without feeling threatened. It feels really good. A good, loving feeling is going back and forth between us. 

The seal is swimming with its head out of the water, looking at me moving away. It fades into the darkness. I get up and go back toward the narrow tunnel and crawl along. I am going up through the hole and up out of the water. I am on the path walking out of the sinkhole.

The issue of interpersonal boundaries is an issue many people confront. One of the reasons people have trouble understanding how to maintain the proper distance or closeness with others is because they try to solve their problems intellectually. Boundary issues are not intellectually solved because they arise out of the exchange of energy. No one really talks about boundaries in this way because no one is used to thinking about interpersonal exchanges as exchanges of energy. 

However, through the teachings in the journey, boundary issues are clearly addressed through the lessons in energy exchange Seal provides. The journeyer said that she understood how to keep herself safe and stay open to others for the first time in her life as a result of this journey, even though she had spent a lot of time trying to understand this issue.  


One journeyer, new to the practice, came for help with panic attacks. She was a math professor who had a powerful analytical mind that was affronted by its inability to control the panic. She learned how to journey to the Lower World where she was instructed to search for an aspect of herself that could help her with the panic attacks. She took the journey in the same way that people have journeyed for millennia – with the help of a sonic driver. 

In this case, the sound was the regular beat of a drum that remained consistent for about 10 minutes. The regular drumbeat is designed to help the journey alter their state of awareness so the focus inward becomes easier. Many people journeying for the first time worry that they will not be able to encounter the guidance within them that can take on forms of nature. 

She was no different – particularly because she was accustomed to the precisely quantifiable world of numbers. But she successfully followed the instruction to imagine herself going to the Lower World through a body of water, a cave, a hole in the ground, or a tree that she had previously encountered in nature. She met her guidance in the form of an eagle. 

As she returned from her journey, she was doubtful about her experience. “I just imagined it,” she said. When asked what the essence of the eagle seemed to be, she reported that the eagle seemed to be very direct and present. She agreed to a second journey to ask for assistance in the resolution of her panic attacks even though she was convinced she was simply imagining things. 

When Eagle met her at the entrance of the Lower World, it wound a noose around its neck and hung itself on the tree behind it. This startled her, and when she returned, she realized she had been given several important pieces of information that could help her understand the panic attacks. 

First, she exclaimed that there was no possible way that she would have ever imagined that Eagle would hang itself. This broke her grip on the idea that she was just imagining things and that she may have encountered an aspect of herself that might indeed provide some guidance. 

Second, Eagle’s bold move scared and startled her. She realized that this was the first time in a long time she had allowed herself to feel fear. She had normally used her analytical capacities to dissect any fear she experienced. She then realized that this dissection had pushed the fear further away from her, but then she had become vigilant that it might return and that she would not be able to manage it. This was the root of the panic. 

Listening to Eagle’s internal guidance in this way had several effects. It re-established a relationship with a wise aspect of herself she had lost touch with. It provided her a forum for remedying the fracturing effect on her spirit that the dismantling of fear through mental analysis created.  And it pointed to the next therapeutic step to heal the panic – to shift her relationship to her fear. 


One aspect of the journey that the modern journeyer must master is the language in which the journey takes place. This is the universal language of image and action. The journeyer re-educates the inner senses in the process of journeying. The journeyer soon realizes that images can be transmitted not only through the eyes – but through other internal senses as well. The howl of a fox in the darkness brings into focus the image of the fox. The smell of the skunk brings into focus the image of the skunk. 

Dream drawing by a patient of Dr Alan McGlashan

Journeyers must also learn to listen to the meanings of images they have held in their inner worlds for years. This is because it is often through these images that guidance makes its messages known. Each person’s “image lexicon” is very personal – and interestingly, largely unknown to the journeyer until inquiry is made at the suggestion of guidance. 

One journeyer who was highly doubtful of his ability to establish connection with his inner world found out how powerful the inquiry into the meaning of personal images can be. He came to the journey for assistance in relieving an unrelenting depression. 

In his first journey, he experienced blackness for almost the full 10 minutes of the journey. He experienced a familiar sense of discouragement and failure and was turning to come back to ordinary mind awareness when a single image of a reindeer in a heart appeared to him in a flash and disappeared. 

When asked what the reindeer might represent, he burst into tears. He said the reindeer was the same reindeer that he had always placed on his grandmother’s Christmas tree. As it turned out, his grandmother was the only influence in his childhood that was encouraging and loving. Through the single image of the reindeer, he was able to return to a sense of unconditional support that he had lost after his grandmother’s death. 

The language of image is potently demonstrated in this example. When we begin to understand how to work with images and learn how to translate them into words by asking the right questions of them, the inner world comes alive in a new and meaningful way. This meaning can provide keys to knowing that words alone cannot. In working with the images of dreams and the journey in the clinical setting in this way, people can find answers, solve problems and heal issues that may have seemed intractable without the meaning that emerges from the heart of image.