My last article in this series introduced readers to the work of Arnold Mindell, A Jungian-trained psychologist who has developed ways of working with body symptoms for personality growth. This article discusses two of Dr. Mindell’s techniques that may help you utilize your body symptoms/illnesses for personal transformation.
The first technique involves approaching the symptom(s) as a metaphor for a deeper process occurring, or wanting to occur, in your life. For example, a young woman prone to chronic sinus infections had been experiencing a throbbing pain behind her cheekbones for several weeks. Her therapist, aware of the possible medical components to her client’s illness, sensed that the throbbing sensations might have a symbolic message as well. She asked her client what else in her life was like this repetitive, almost badgering pain. “Maybe it’s like how I criticize myself,” she ventured. “It seems like I’m always putting myself down.” During the session she was helped to examine this self-critical tendency within herself. She associated it with the voices of her step-father and ex-husband that had become a part of her own sense of self over the years. The therapist encouraged her to “talk back” to these belittling thoughts and to be more supportive of herself. As she took the advice to heart the throbbing pain subsided significantly.
In exploring the metaphorical components of your physical symptoms, it can be helpful to follow and describe, as accurately as possible, the sensations that you are experiencing. For example, if you are experiencing a severe headache, how would you describe the pain; what image would you give it? Is it the incessant pounding of a hammer, or a tight band around your head? Is it dull, or sharp like an ice pick? Is it an earthquake come to settle in your head? Or maybe a wild heavy metal drummer! Does it have a color, texture, or rhythm? Let your unconscious present any metaphor or image to describe the pain, no matter how fanciful, irrational, or outlandish it may seem. Then, reflect on this image or other descriptor of your pain, and explore it as a possible symbol of some other dimension or process within your life.
Let’s say you have a “splitting” headache. Is there some way in which you are split? Perhaps you are unaware that you have two very different viewpoints on a particular subject. If your headache is like an ice pick driven through your skull, why an ice pick? What in your life is like is like a piece of cold, hard metal piercing your thoughts? Or, perhaps, is your thinking so frozen, rigid, or cold that one would need an ice pick to get through? What might be trying to get through? If it is like an earthquake, how might a major shift of perspective, or worldview, be trying to take place in your life? If it is a tight band around your head, do you limit yourself through your thinking and beliefs in some way? If it is a heavy metal drummer, is he happy, angry, out-of-control? Dialogue with him in your imagination. What does he have to tell you? What advice would he give you?
Working with your body symptoms in this way requires a certain playfulness, receptivity, and openness of mind. But the things you learn can be transforming, not only of your life and relationships, but frequently of your pain as well. Allow your unconscious and spontaneous imagination help you to discover the messages contained in your symptoms through imagery and dialogue.
Another method for gaining insight from your symptoms and illnesses is called “amplification.” In amplification you, paradoxically, try to increase the intensity of a particular sensation or movement rather than trying to lessen it. Dr. Mindell has documented that pain sensations have a certain threshold at which they switch “channels” to a different sensory output. So, for example, the physical perception of pain is part of the body’s proprioceptive channel, and as the limits of this channel are reached, the channel switches to a visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or what Mindell calls the “world” channel (i.e., synchronistic events). Thus, the severe pain in your lower back may–if pushed to its limit rather than medicated away–transform from an excruciating physical sensation to the image a snake trapped in a cage (visual channel) or cause you to scream out like a woman giving birth (kinesthetic channel). In these shifts the secret process behind the pain is unlocked/uncovered and the pain typically decreases. Now that the pain is in a new channel it can be worked with symbolically or with movement in order to glean its deeper message. In the examples given above the person might be encouraged to dialogue with the snake or imagine letting it out of the cage and observing what it does. Or he/she might be encouraged to move like the snake, or to continue crying out as if giving birth, describing and following the experiences wherever they lead. (In this hypothetical example we might surmise that beneath this back pain may be a transformative energy seeking to be uncaged and birthed into the world.)
Here is another example. A man in his sixties experienced a rapid onset of tremors in his hands. Although the particular array of his symptoms, medical history, and test results did not place his illness neatly into any neurological disorder, he was given the tentative diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Within two months his tremors were so severe that they interfered with his ability to write, to do the woodworking he once enjoyed, and to feed himself without spilling his food. The progression of his illness made him more and more depressed, prompting his doctor to have him see a psychologist. His psychologist suggested that they try working with his symptoms to see what might be gleaned. During one session the man was encouraged to amplify his tremors, making his hands shake even more. He did so, and exclaimed that he would have no control whatsoever in his life if his hands and body shook that bad.
Here we are given a clue as to the core of his problem. This man’s personality was characterized by a tendency to try to control others, especially his wife and children. The psyche used his hands—often considered an extension of the ego—as a way to confront his controlling nature. The more he tried to consciously control his tremors, the more he actually shook. Conversely, as his therapy helped him to let go of his desires and efforts to control, his tremors decreased and he was able to feed himself again. This case illustrates not only the value of working with and learning from our body symptoms. It also reveals the paradoxical truth that the more we try to control life, the less control we actually have. And the more that we surrender to our life’s path, the more control we are given.
1. Mindell, Arnold. Dreambody: The Body’s Role in Revealing the Self, 2nd ed. Lao Tse Press: Portland, OR 1998.
2. Mindell, Arnold. The Quantum Mind and Healing. Hampton Roads Publishing Co., Inc.: Charlottesville, VA 2004.
3. Mindell, Arnold. Working with the Dreaming Body. Lao Tse Press: Portland, OR 2002.