A Visual Facilitator's Self-Experiment by Eileen Clegg May, 2015
Running head: A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 1
A Visual Facilitator’s Self-Experiment with a Story Mural:
Creating Personal Dialogue with Transformational Symbols in a Jungian Framework
Eileen M. Clegg
Sonoma State University
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This article suggests a systematic technique for visual facilitators to enhance their capability to
work effectively with symbols. The self-reflective story mural emerged during the author’s solo
journey with images inspired by her own psyche. This was a departure from her professional
work in which images are inspired by a group conversation. The goal of the journey was to better
understand how to work with symbols to facilitate transformation. In Jungian tradition, symbols
are autonomous sources of insight and energy that enable the transcendent function, bringing to-
gether conscious and unconscious material to create a new attitude. To work in the nonrational
realm where symbols are generated, the author engaged in an arts-based organic inquiry. In or-
ganic inquiry, the psyche works in partnership with the rational mind; in arts-based research, art
provides documentation and new data generated by the images. The experiment succeeded in
giving life, energy, and voice to symbols, notably the elephant. While initially the elephant ap-
peared as a tired metaphor for group dysfunction, it proved otherwise when it leaped from a pen
with a message: Symbols are powerful sources of wisdom that can be brought to life in the realm
of imagination. The self-reflective story mural enables dialogue with symbols over time, prevent-
ing premature intrusion by rational analysis. This practice sharpens the visual facilitator’s capac-
ity to generate and work with transformational symbols.
Key words: symbols, active imagination, transcendent function, Jung, art, visual
facilitation, organizational development, organic inquiry
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A Visual Facilitator’s Self-Experiment with a Story Mural:
Creating Personal Dialogue with Transformational Symbols in a Jungian Framework
“My speech is imperfect. Not because I want to shine with words, but out of the
impossibility of finding those words, I speak in images. With nothing else can I express the
words from the depths.”—Carl G. Jung (Jung, 2012b)
Art offers the gift of transformational wisdom when images successfully mediate between
the conscious and unconscious. Dr. Carl Gustav Jung characterized this phenomenon as the
transcendent function, the psyche’s symbol-producing capability to resolve contradictions and
achieve a new attitude (Jung, 1960/1969b). Jung believed that symbols were autonomous, and he
demonstrated how to have dialogue with them during self-experiments that many years later
were published as the Red Book (Jung, 2012b). Jung described two kinds of thinking—directed
thinking and fantasy thinking (Shamdasani, 2012b). Directed thinking typically is verbal and
logical, while fantasy thinking is more imaginative and associative. In his self-experiments, Jung
combined these to allow the images to perform directed thinking. In so doing, he demonstrated
how to consciously work with images from the unconscious to create personal transformation
Jung’s work with imagery sheds light on critical capabilities for practitioners in the
rapidly growing profession of visual facilitation, the practice of harvesting ideas from a group in
visual form, as people are talking. Capabilities for this practice include: finding mental images to
represent concepts, trusting the images to contribute to the dialogue, and arranging the images in
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a story mural that creates a different perspective for a group (Clegg, 2008). As a visual
facilitator, I sought insight from the writings of Jung and Jungian scholars about how to better
understand and hone my work with imagery to improve my effectiveness with groups. I wanted
to experiment with the theories in a personal way to gain a deeper understanding about my
relationship with symbols. I decided to look inward rather than outward for data, through a self-
experiment with symbols generated by my own psyche. This was new territory, as my focus
usually is on the group process rather than my own. I embarked on a journey that ultimately
would help me better understand myself and my profession, as well as how to work with
Figure 1: My experiment is here
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In this article, I describe a technique that developed from my journey. I call it the self-
reflective story mural. This is a way for visual practitioners—or anyone—to give shape and
voice to personal unconscious material. Before describing the personal discovery process, let me
explain the traditional use of the story mural as a tool for organizational development and group
Visual facilitators typically are called to support strategic planning, aspirational visioning
or ideation sessions, where they work on 4 foot high by 6 or 8 foot wide paper on the wall. An
increasing number of organizational leaders understand that individuals are more likely to think
differently, feel more engaged, and perceive innovative solutions when images as well as words
are used to reflect their interactions (Eppler and Platts, 2009). The practice began with what is
known as graphic recording, in which standard symbols developed by pioneers in the field
support specific process models for teamwork (Sibbet, 2011). The story mural approach began
with practitioners who advocate the creation of emergent symbols, ideally while in a state of
flow (Margulies, 2002). In my practice, I feel I am a vessel for capturing the essence of the
group’s nonverbal meanings with images that come to me through intuition. Once a story mural
is complete, I look for visual patterns and metaphors that suggest a narrative for the group.
Focus on the Practitioner
Channeling a group’s imagination sometimes is a daunting responsibility. After a difficult
experience that I will describe later in this article, I realized I needed a more intentional
relationship with symbols, and a clearer view of my role in groups. I wanted to focus on my own
role as practitioner, using the story mural technique that I typically used with groups. I had two
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interrelated questions: How can I work with symbols intentionally to create a transformational
story? How can I better understand my role as a visual facilitator?
I sought direct experience with the theory that symbols can lead to greater wholeness by
uncovering unconscious material that is compensating for deficiencies in conscious awareness
(Whitmont, 1969). Within the individual psyche and within groups there are complexes, meaning
unwelcome convictions and impulses that grow out of the unconscious mind (Jacobi, 1959). Not
able to be fully apprehended by the conscious mind or translated into words, such complex
contents take the form of symbols that are the best possible expression of them (Jung
1960/1969b). Because of experience with the unconscious producing meaningful images in
groups, I developed a hypothesis that a self-reflective story mural would enable symbols to speak
directly to me.
Over the period of several months, I worked with images through a variety of depth
methods, guided by the organic inquiry research methodology, in which the psyche takes the lead
(Clements, 1999), and expressed through arts-based research, in which the art works to reveal
wisdom (McNiff, 2013). At the end of the experiment, I received surprising insights that directly
addressed my questions in a symbol-generated story. The central symbol that emerged was the
elephant—a symbol I initially but unsuccessfully tried to reject. The elephant came to me as a
tired, banal symbol that needed to prove its power. And it did.
My purpose in this project was nested in layers. I wanted to use my visual tools on myself
to help me better understand and trust the images that arise, and to hone my image-making skills.
The challenge might be summed up in the paraphrase, “Facilitator, heal thyself!” Instead of
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creating story murals for others, I would create one for myself, asking specifically for answers
about how to work more systematically with symbols in the creation of story murals, and how to
clarify my role for myself. When I gave my psyche a voice with a story mural, I received an
answer to my questions, from the once-dreaded symbol of the elephant. When I experienced the
elephant symbol at the level of psyche—rather than through rational analysis—I understood its
power, and my own role in relation to it. The elephant told its own story as a metaphor for
working with powerful unconscious forces, with a warning to the rational mind not to be a bully.
The technique that emerged from this process is a systematic way of working with
images intentionally developed from one’s own psyche through depth methods over a period of
time. This technique helps a visual practitioner hone her craft and her self in relation to the work.
Similar to how clinical psychologists receive therapy themselves to differentiate their personal
issues from those of their clients, visual practitioners benefit from self-reflection that helps them
exercise their symbol-making capacity, and to practice patience, allowing images to take shape
and develop before they are subjected to rational analysis. The process can also help practitioners
recognize their personal unconscious material and how that relates to the group’s unconscious,
enabling a dialogue about symbols in partnership with the group. The technique also helps the
facilitator with incubation of images, which can support the transcendent function of groups
when those images become symbols that express unconscious material leading to new
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Motivation for the Work
As a visual facilitator for 15 years, I have become equally enchanted and mystified about
the power of images to affect change in organizations. Often, issues will surface and become
resolved when people see their conflicting ideas expressed in the vagary of images and they will
perceive a new approach. This aspect of group work was described by Olson (1990, p. 79): “the
transcendent function can operate wherever conflict and tension exist between opposing sides of
a polarity.” When people address group tensions, they often refer to “the elephant in the room,”
which seemed to me a banal phrase to mean whatever the speaker wishes was being discussed.
But, as Jung pointed out, sometimes the banal can stand between an image and the wisdom it has
to deliver (Jung, 2012a). I knew symbols could have a healing effect on groups, but I needed
more knowledge about how to work with them. Ironically, over the years, I could never really
draw an elephant very well. They usually ended up looking mouse-like. Looking back, I see that
I had a poor relationship with the elephant in these meetings rooms.
I once had a shattering experience as a result of not understanding how to handle the
power of symbols. A few years ago, I created a story mural that had a giant wave representing
technology discoveries that changed the world, in front of a sun that represented the social and
cultural changes of the time. As happens with innovations, conflict arose among some of the
inventors and their family members. One day, the people involved in one of these disputes set
aside their differences to gather and look at the story mural. For a brief time, they seemed
peaceful and able to have discussions more calmly. They wanted resolution. One of them asked
me to visually facilitate a session with the different factions and their attorneys, in a church. I
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was aghast at the thought of bringing this kind of activity into a church. I was focused on the
legal aspect and the conflict, instead of understanding the potential to help these individuals in
achieving a new attitude toward one another through visual facilitation. They did understand the
potential, because of the experience seeing their own lives in the context of the “wave” of
technologies in the original mural. I let them down because at that time I did not have the
intellectual framework to understand, appreciate or trust how images can affect change. I missed
an opportunity to be of great service and, instead, became perceived as part of the problem. Later
I would come to regret that choice. I was focused on my own personal limits, rather than seeing
myself as a conduit for images that carry wisdom independent of any individual. Amid that
stressful conflict experience, I had a dream in which a giant tidal wave was breaking over me and
stopped, frozen, just over my head. I had a visceral experience of powerful forces being shown to
me by my psyche. The giant wave from my story mural had lept off the page and into my
dreams. That dream was one of the reasons I decided to study depth psychology and Jungian
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Figure 2: The Wave and the Sun from Engelbart Mural
I had an internal conflict to resolve about my role as a visual facilitator, in addition to the
need for better tools to help groups with their conflicts and aspirations. I wanted to use my own
story mural process on myself, to capture images generated by the psyche. But there were no
protocols for this. Thus, I chose the organic inquiry process (Clements, Ettling, Jennet, and
Shields, 1999) which provides an emergent framework. In addition to self-understanding, my
quest was to create a conscious step-by-step approach to working with symbols as an alternative
to relying strictly on luck, intuition, or overused imagery. The organic inquiry methodology
proved an excellent framework for allowing a potent symbol to emerge and, ultimately, to speak
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in its own voice. Even though I had worked for years with symbols and intuition before
embarking on this project, my rational mind was still judging my own process harshly. I needed
experience, not just words to help me understand the elephant. As Kremer and Jackson-Paton
(2014) wrote, “the rational mind alone is hardly sufficient to effect personal growth and
transformative learning . . . the elephant is insufficiently explored by rational means” (p. 154). I
needed to be convinced.
Symbols: The Language of Transformation
Humans live in two worlds, one of physical reality and one of symbolic reality (Jacobi,
1959). Toggling back and forth is the challenge for meaning-making, mining images from the
unconscious for useful action. Symbols are transmitted in the language of the psyche, which does
not conceptualize or verbalize but rather speaks in images that arise from the unconscious
(Whitmont, 1969). They are ambiguous. Symbols are not simply images that represent specific
pre-existing things; rather, they are an expression for unconscious contents that may have
multiple meanings (Jung, 1956/1977). Images may carry meanings that otherwise cannot make it
into our consciousness. The ego can suppress unwanted contents, but symbols evolve outside the
ego, as explained by Chodorow (1997). They are asking for attention. Symbols represent the best
possible expression of unconscious material with which we must come to terms (Jung,
1956/1977). They offer us an opportunity for new insight as we become conscious of complex
facts not yet understood. The root of the word symbol is symballein, meaning to throw together
and indicating, for example, the function of symbols to bring together opposites, creating a
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transition from one attitude to another (Jacobi, 1959). Thus, symbols are a transformative energy
source, illuminating the transcendent function that can lead to a new attitude (Jung, 1960/1969a).
Jung (1960/1969b) believed that unconscious contents want to be seen and this can occur
when we give them shape. When images become symbols, they take on a life of their own
(Jacobi, 1959). In visual facilitation work, I depict concepts in images that come to me intuitively
while creating a story mural, as people are talking. These images may later become symbols if
the group begins using the image in conversations as they develop their ideas. During internal,
personal work with imagery—the process I explore in this article—an image may become a
symbol if it begins to reveal information not previously perceived by the conscious mind. An
individual can work with images to explore the mysteries they carry by bringing together the
conscious and the unconscious in a systematic way known as active imagination (Jung
1960/1969b). Jung was the pioneer of this method, which he first called active imagination in
1935 and later referred to as visioning, fantasizing, trancing, or introspection (Chodorow, 1977).
The idea was to explore the inner landscape as a sort of conscious dreaming (Jung, 1955/1970).
This is similar to observing a play in a theater but the stage is in one’s own imagination and
begins with a dream or a mood or a feeling. This is a pro-active method as opposed to a passive
experience of dreaming or daydreaming (Johnson, 1986). The individual actively explores the
feelings, mental pictures, memories, and ideas aroused by symbolic images that are brought into
one’s conscious life. Active imagination is essentially a dialogue with the self, but not necessarily
a verbal one. This dialogue occurs at a meeting place between the conscious and unconscious,
combining elements of both.
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Jung first engaged in active imagination as an experiment that he found calming and,
over time, he perceived that his task was to find the image in the emotion (Chodorow, 1977). The
image itself is relevant insofar as it facilitates interaction between conscious and unconscious
material, becoming a symbol that continually delivers meaning. Often we misuse the term
symbol to refer to a sign, which is an abstract representation of a generally understood meaning.
Examples are an arrow signaling a direction and the elephant as representing a political party.
Unlike signs, symbols are not static but are living entities pointing to something unknown, to
mystery (Edinger, 1972). Because the mystery of symbols cannot be understood through rational
means alone, working with them must engage multiple faculties including senses, intuition,
thoughts, and feelings (Jacobi, 1959). My psyche seemed to know this, and through dreams
guided my self-experiment with the directive to work with multiple depth methods.
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Letting Images Lead the Research
To do this experiment, I required a new process. Instead of channeling images from a
group, I now needed direct access to my own unconscious. Without an external source of data, I
chose the organic inquiry method, where the psyche is an instrument of study and helps guide the
process. (Clements, 2004, p. 27). This method provides a systematic approach to creative
process, which is a more mainstream term for the interrelationship between personal growth and
artistic expression (Clegg, 1999). While opening the door to the complexity of unconscious
forces, organic inquiry is the method offering the clearest guidelines for working in the liminal
realm, then returning to the world of the ego to integrate the insights (Clements, 2004). The
liminal is a state of awareness that is a gateway between two phases of being, a place where
transformation occurs. Organic inquiry can facilitate a direct, personal experience with spirit.
The organic inquiry method is designed for working with self-as-instrument, and honors
the sacred. The term sacred is a way of acknowledging the mysterious source of imagination that
generates insights as something greater than our individual selves. Depth psychologists view this
as the unconscious (Jung (1960/1969b), Plato called it the perfect forms (Cornford, 1971), and
the ancients called it the realm of the gods (James, 2003). Because of my personal belief in a
spirit that connects all people and the earth—and my commitment to serving that in my work—
the organic inquiry method is especially appropriate and supportive as it allows for recognition
of a spiritual element. As I am doing research not only with words and systematic process, but
also with images and creative process, I cannot be limited by what Clements et al. (1999) call
linear constraints and rational expectations that are part of traditional methods. I wish to be as
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much moved by the muse and the trickster as I am by rational reflection, the literature, and
documentation. Organic inquiry allows this.
Through organic inquiry, I was able to generate images and a process for working with
them—in one case, a dream image actually gave direction in the form of a list. Organic inquiry
was enhanced in the final phase of the work by art-based research, in which art is used to
express and develop research (McNiff, 2013). Through organic inquiry, I was led into an image-
rich series of processes that gave free reign to my psyche as a full partner in developing not only
material but also direction in how to develop the material. Art-based research came into play
when I put the material together in mural form that would connect the transcendent function with
storytelling. The literature on art-based research supported the validity of artistic ways of
knowing as having equal value to traditional research method through holistic process that
enables iterative meaning-making, new patterns, and generative theories (Leavy, 2009).
When I began, I knew only that I would be creating a story mural, and that the story
would be about myself in relation to my work. I trusted the organic inquiry methodology would
somehow bring life to the project. Organic inquiry is described metaphorically as the growth of a
tree by the people who originated the method (Clements et al., 1999). They delineated five
phases: the Sacred: preparing the soil; the Personal: planting the seed; the Chthonic: the roots
emerge; the Relational: growing the tree; and the Transformative: harvesting the fruit. The
beauty and discipline of organic inquiry is letting unconscious processes work in tandem with
rational thought. The ultimate result, the fruit, is produced by an integration of conscious and
unconscious contents that can be likened to Jung’s transcendent function. For my self-experiment
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this robust and flexible methodology enabled the wisdom of the psyche, which is different from
the logic of the rational mind, to emerge on its own terms. The phases have a natural flow.
One feature of this methodology was that it could only be fully explained in hindsight.
The process makes perfect sense to me now that I have harvested the metaphorical fruit.
However, while involved in the self-experiment, I frequently felt adrift and was able to continue
only because of my commitment to trust the autonomous power of images and the metaphor of
nature growing a tree. As it turned out, the phases of organic inquiry provide a hearty framework
for the unfolding of symbols through dreams, active imagination, and other depth methods.
Below I describe how my process of cultivating a wisdom-producing symbol was guided by
organic inquiry to a successful art-based harvest.
In the following sections, I describe the five phases of organic inquiry in the context of
my research project.
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Figure 3: Organic Inquiry Sketch
Phase One: Preparing the Ground, Changing the Habit of Being an Outsider
In phase one of organic inquiry, preparing the soil is a metaphor for changing old habits
to make way for new, in relation to the research question (Clements, 2004). My two-part research
question was: How can I work with symbols intentionally to create a transformational story?
How can I better understand my role as a visual facilitator?
During this phase, I opened my heart and mind to new ways of seeing and being. I
immersed myself in reading about symbols, and began to watch myself at work. As a result, I
changed my habit of seeing myself as outside the group process, as a mere observer. One day, I
created a mural for a group in which—for the first time—I saw myself: A shadow in an hourglass
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trying to get out. The image emerged from someone else's words and experience, and I found
myself compelled by it. This mechanism is projection. Projection is a spontaneous, unconscious
process that attaches emotions to an object, creating a dynamic relationship (Jung, 1950/1976).
This is one way an image becomes a symbol. Although I had first embarked on my self-
experiment with the image of a giant tidal wave frozen over me, the shadow girl projection gave
me some purpose: trying to get free of the hourglass. Also during this phase, I engaged in
extensive travel and began, unknowingly, creating what Bosnak (2007) described as welcoming
conditions for visitation. Travel serves as an amplifier for the signals from unconscious images
with weak signals that may not otherwise reach the threshold of consciousness. In the period of
just a couple of months, my work took me to India, Amsterdam, New York, and Washington,
D.C., where I’d been saturated with sensations from the environment and emotions of people.
Especially in India, I could almost feel myself evaporating into the heavy, humid, aromatic air.
As a visual and emotional person, I was transported by all of the colors and the raw humanity,
everywhere. Life, death, birth, spirit, bodily fluids, holiness, beauty, and ugliness were
simultaneously present. When I closed my eyes at night I'd see the colors of India: saffron, pea
green, maroon, and the cobalt blue of the Islamic tiles. Still in the preparation phases of organic
inquiry, my inner landscape started sprouting a variety images through dreams. Most of these
dreams focused on travel and work. Later, during the art-based research phase, I would depict
these dreams as bubbles around the shadow girl in the hourglass. In retrospect, I believe that the
mindset of changing habits enabled me to open up to new experiences that would provide a
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starting place for my research. The soil preparation work of organic inquiry involved planting
myself solidly in my physical environment.
Phase Two: Planting the Seed, Awakening the Unconscious
In phase two of organic inquiry—planting the seed—the topic of the research project
begins to form in a way that encourages psycho-spiritual growth. Here, the researcher’s personal,
subjective experience provides a beginning point for the story (Clements et al., 1999). The
researcher investigates her own style, deciding how to balance logical criteria with criteria that
emerge from creative process. To gain insight into my own process, I began using mindfulness
techniques; that is, I began to watch myself more closely, especially at work, so that my
instinctual actions might be understood better by my analytical mind. In common parlance of the
day, I was getting my left and right brain to talk to one another (Pink, 2005). I knew my project
would involve a mural and I still had the tidal wave image in mind, as well as the shadow girl,
but so far nothing spoke to me as a beginning for the artwork. I became stuck at this phase as my
conscious mind was ruling: I was preoccupied with daily activities, as well as struggling to figure
out a direction on my self-experiment. Yet whilst the conscious mind was busy, my unconscious
was apparently determined to get a message to me.
Apparently there was something I needed to do and I was not doing it, and my
unconscious literally tugged at me—in the form of a coyote who showed up in a dream, nipping
at my arms. Other people in my dream laughed mirthlessly at the coyote, but I was seriously
afraid of it. I wanted to call animal control and have the coyote put to sleep. When I reflected on
this dream, I felt the message was that my unconscious wanted my attention and could cause me
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harm if I didn’t figure out what to feed it. I decided that because the message came to me in a
dream, I might start making friends with my unconscious through dreamwork. Speaking through
symbolic language, dreams can tell us most of what we need to understand the meaning of our
lives (Johnson, 1986). Dreams are considered a direct link with the unconscious because the
events are occurring at the unconscious level without interference from the ego or conscious
It is important to note that I did not attempt to deeply analyze my dreams in this self-
experiment. Rather, I was looking to them for direction in the organic inquiry process, still
hoping that ultimately I would gain insight into my overarching questions about how to work
with symbols, and my own role as a visual facilitator. The slow unfolding of the meaning of
dreams proved to be key to my organic inquiry process. As Mattoon (1986) said, the accuracy of
interpretation of dream symbols can be verified over time. Certainly, my initial reaction to the
coyote dream proved generative. The coyote dream woke me up to the unconscious, and I
wanted to stay awake.
Phase Three: The Chthonic Phase, Saved from the Apocalypse
Chthonic refers to mysterious processes that have a life of their own (Clements et al.
1999). As a phase in the organic inquiry research process, it is non-rational and liminal, a
transitional period in which nothing noticeable is changing above ground, but shifts are occurring
underground. In the tree-growing metaphor used by the originators of the methodology
(Clements et al., 1999), this is the phase where the roots emerge. The chthonic phase was where
my project took on its own life, with the psyche taking the lead. Organic inquiry is associated
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with the archetypal feminine (Clements et al.,) and this phase is particularly so. Chthonic
translates to mysterious, dark, and primitive and, going back to the original Greek, in the earth.
In this phase, dreams and other manifestations of unconscious material are particularly
As I sought guidance for my project from the unconscious, I decided to embark on active
imagination, the technique used by Jung to dialogue with images. Unlike dreams, which emanate
from the unconscious, active imagination is a process that includes the conscious mind. This
work occurs in the realm of imagination, a common ground between the conscious and the
unconscious that combines elements of both (Johnson, 1986). The unconscious can provide
associations that explain symbols, if we systematically explore feelings, mental pictures,
memories, and ideas aroused by images that come up.
One night, amid travel, far away from home, as I settled into a restful, meditative mindset
I found myself looking straight into the eye of an elephant, which felt like an intrusion with its
harsh-looking hide and huge eye. The elephant was not offering me any help at all, but rather
seemingly turning to me for help. “I’m tired.” The words were clear to me. I wanted the elephant
to go away and make room for a more prosaic image. I acknowledged my aversion to the
elephant as a symbol. It seemed to lack energy. When I looked back over murals I had created
over the years, I saw that the elephants I drew lacked gravitas. They were rather mouse-like.
Considering my relationship to the elephant symbol, I realized that in my work, the elephant
actually was a tired sign, divorced from personal meaning, devoid of projection, just as, in my
active imagination, it told me it was. I did not understand nor was I interested in the appearance
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of the tired elephant in my active imagination. I immediately forgot all about the elephant, and
continued to seek my research muse. I had grown impatient and even began to wonder if I should
change my project entirely. I was ready to switch to group work instead of a self-experiment. I
had asked for a dream, but none spoke clearly to me, until I offered up my Shadow Girl as bait. I
begged psyche to help her out of the hourglass!
And then I was pulled into a dream that was so overwhelming in its symbolism and
impact on my psyche that many months later I still experience tears of shock writing about it. I
experienced an apocalypse, and a direction in my organic inquiry from this dream:
I am alone in an old neighborhood where I once lived. It is barren with houses gone. The
landscape is apocalyptic, black, grey, dry, cracked earth as far as they eye can see. The hold on
reality is tenuous, and I know it can all slip away any moment. Sheer emptiness, bleak
nothingness. I look around and the words come to me: “Someone stole the center.” Someone has
made a life at everyone else’s expense, and left behind this nothingness, where I am all alone and
it is so dark. I am so, so, so very alone. I am struck so deeply by my loneliness. My feeling sense
is about greed stealing the resources of our world. I feel I must do something to help, not just
myself but the world. I have never felt so alone. The only landform in the black, barren
landscape is a large stone, also looking as though something on it was burned away, black like
petrified ash. Then along comes a young man in a blue uniform to rescue me. I’m not so alone
now. He is tall, handsome, and blonde, with glasses and very short hair. “You can get there—you
just need a list,” he tells me. He helps me up. To the left is a giant outcropping of a rock. Very
scary. Dark. Yet I know we are in New York City. He says we must find my purse. We are walking
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toward the auditorium. There is a wrought iron gate ahead. I feel safe. Things are neat now. He
tells me he is Swiss. He says everything will be fine. All we need is a list. I think he has medals
for an EMT. I say “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” He has been speaking German, then French. I say, “of
course you can speak many languages.” The Swiss EMT gestures off to the distance where there
is a colorful, glowing light. It is an auditorium. It is a place of light, success, and hope. He lets
me know I can make it there, if I just follow the list (Dream Journal, December 20, 2013).
Each time I think of the appearance of the EMT in the dream, a feeling of relief washes
over me. Bereft and despondent in endless darkness, I felt the apocalyptic landscape as far more
terrifying than the frozen wave of the earlier dream. The EMT saved me. To me, he was an
irresistible hero, and probably representative of Dr. Carl Jung, carrying a list of methods for
accessing images from the psyche. I felt I received very clear direction from the EMT to use
multiple depth methods to generate images for my self-experiment. I made a list of those I had
studied or experienced. Because of the extent of the list, I decided against additional research in
each method, but relied on those with which I was familiar: dreamwork (Gendlin, 1986), active
imagination (Chodorow, 1997), alchemy (Raff, 2000), fairy tales (Tartar, 2004), poetry (Rosen,
2008), nature ritual (Shaw, 2010), sandplay (Cunningham, 2013), and embodiment (Bosnak,
2007). I was busily traveling, but determined to start practicing these depth methods, which I
describe in the following sections.
Phase Four: The Relational, the Symbol Asserts Herself
The data of organic inquiry emerge from human experience, and the researcher's
experience becomes increasingly relevant in unfolding the narrative and the story (Clements et
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al., 1999). In the relational phase of organic inquiry, relationships begin to send shoots into the
light of day. Using the tree metaphor, in this phase we expect the branches of the story to appear.
I wanted to further explore the relationship with the Swiss EMT, and hoped to conjure him up
again—my hero of the apocalypse. Although I embarked on active imagination with the specific
hope of reuniting with the EMT, instead the elephant appeared to me again, uninvited. The first
time the elephant appeared to me, the image was dominated by a huge eye. This time, I saw more
of the head and, once again, heard the words in my mind’s ear, “I’m tired. You help ME.” These
were not actual words or an actual voice, but clear nonetheless. I had a sense of the elephant as
female. This image clearly had not arrived to guide me, but rather was asking me to help her.
With this second appearance in an active imagination, I felt the elephant was a significant image,
and certainly felt like a being that arose from outside of my consciousness. My associations with
elephant were quite surface and negative—a hackneyed phrase from group process, a political
party I frequently disagree with, a metaphor for big. I relented and decided to open my mind to
other associations, and embarked on an exploration of the elephant symbol.
In Hinduism, the elephant-headed god Ganesha removes obstacles and guards thresholds.
In Buddhism, a story of Buddha’s conception is that his mother Maya dreamed of a white
elephant entering her womb. Their characteristics include size, weight, sociability, and
demonstrations of what we might consider emotions, including happiness upon seeing old
friends and grieving deaths (Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism, Martin, K., and
Ronnberg, A., 2010). In mythology, they carry the earth on their backs, sprout wings to change
shape and size, and represent fertility and vitality. Elephants can also represent aggression and
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 25
destructiveness, and social disorder. The ancient and zoological references are many, as are more
current myths and meanings. More personally, I considered how these various interpretations
have developed special meaning. I have resonated with Ganesha since the summer of 2013 when
I spent time in New Delhi, India, and visited temples where Ganesha was prominently present. I
felt the sacredness of the elephant at that time. The elephant had also recently appeared in a book
that resonated with me about the neuroscience of changing habits (Heath and Heath, 2010). The
authors borrowed the metaphor of the elephant and rider, the elephant being the emotional side
and the rider being the rational side. If there is a disagreement, the elephant loses. Looking a
layer deeper, I looked to the scholar who originated the metaphor. Haidt (2006) studied ancient
religions to arrive at his hypotheses about how understanding the emotional or elephant side of
ourselves could result in more positive feelings.
I began to relate to the elephant at a deeper level. I needed to ground this image for
myself. I began going down the list of depth methods from the Swiss EMT’s list. First, I decided
to write a fairy tale. Fairy tales are stories that focus on a central character on a quest, interacting
with others who help or thwart the quest (Tartar, 2004). Fairy tales describe complex psychic
facts and help us understand archetypes, which are unknown and impossible to translate into
intellectual terms (Von Franz, 1970). Characters such as heroes and princesses poetically
represent elementary emotional and behavioral structures of the psyche (1970).
I wrote a fairy tale in which a princess partners with an elephant to save the world from
the erroneous idea that everyone has to search somewhere else for happiness. Writing this fairy
tale led to a dream of myself as a princess, perched on a glass platform surrounded by trees,
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 26
asking for help to get down to the ground. The princess is under the influence of green, the color
that signifies the power of springtime and love of life in the tradition of alchemy, the ancient
study of chemicals that has developed as a metaphor for personal transformation (Raff, 2000).
Looking back, I see this dream as a recognition of being in the middle of my organic inquiry
process. I felt this princess as a springtime version of the shadow girl in the hourglass. She had
escaped from the glass, and now perched on top of it, trying to figure out how to get down to
At this point, I went out and bought my canvas for the story mural. Then I became
flooded with dreams and images that I felt were guiding me to more activities. For example, in
one dream I was handed a key by a poet; I took this as a suggestion to speak poems by heart. I
began trying out new voices, bigger voices than my own, with guidance from the work of Rosen
(2009). I found myself able to stand in front of others, speaking fully from my heart. I had a
chance to take the elephant out for some exercise during a class where we were invited to
embody a symbol. Bosnak (2007) writes about embodiment as a way to capture and shape
intelligence from the realm of imagination. He describes the practice in which a person
physically embodies the energy of an image, acting out its behavior and speaking its words. This
is not actually trying to become the other, but rather a respectful recognition that one is separate,
while trying to see the world through the eyes of another intelligence or energy. When engaged
in an exercise where I mimicked the walk of an elephant, I found myself speaking in the voice of
the elephant saying, “I am not a performer.”
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In this phase of the organic inquiry process, known metaphorically as growing the tree
(Clements et al., 1999), I suddenly found branches of insight developing almost on their own.
Each activity I engaged in led to another. For example, after I embodied the elephant in a somatic
exercise, I had a dream where I was walking alongside an invisible presence that I knew, by its
footprints, to be an elephant. This was not the annoying elephant from my initial active
imagination. This was a powerful force, so awesome that it could not be perceived by the eye,
and could be known only by the prints it left. I was beginning to realize that a mystery had come
into my life. This symbol had a life of its own, and at this point, that life was still a mystery to
My organic inquiry process still lacked direction. Over several months, I had invited
unconscious material to surface in images and tried to protect those images from over-analysis.
Now I was ready to bring some wisdom to the surface. Sandplay proved a catalyst for the
process. Sandplay involves the body and soul in a creative process, activating the imagination
and sense of touch, bringing together theory and action (Ammann, 1991). Through the
arrangement of figurines in a framed tray of sand I could be witnessed creating three-
dimensional pictures, in a child-like mode. In sandplay, I was able to enliven some of the static
images from dreams, and in some cases tried to finish a dream by picking up the storyline and
consciously carrying it forward. For example, in one dream I could not get into India because I
did not know my colors. In sandplay, I found a rainbow that I could carry forward, announcing
my best guess of my color. It helped overcome a feeling of powerlessness from the dream, and I
believe it contributed to my feeling more connected to the sacred. Having a witness provided the
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 28
relational insight I needed—to see myself in relation to the symbol of elephant, and to see myself
as connected to the sacred in my work.
Thus, I found myself ready to embark on what I’d considered the central part of the
research—the art-based exploration of my initial question. Art-based research is the adaptation
of creative expression to professional practice, bringing together artistic knowing and academic
research (McNiff, 2013). Because my primary expression in my professional work is visual art,
this approach grounded my research. My creative process was supported by the literature in art-
based inquiry that explains how art is at once the data and also represents the data (Leavy, 2009).
The art-based approach is a way of bringing together the artistic self with the scholarly self,
creating research tools in the process of doing research. This approach supported my
transformational experience with symbols as part of the research process. The art itself, then,
produced additional data. In addition to shape and content, I found that art also communicated
meaning through texture, brush strokes, and relative sizes. As soon as I began the story mural, I
had faith that it would speak to me—but I had no way of knowing how that would occur, and
how dramatic it would be.
Phase Five: The Transformative, Harvesting Wisdom from the Images
If the organic inquiry takes root and grows, ultimately there will be fruit in the form of
transformation (Clements et al., 1999). This fruit takes the form of personal empowerment of the
researcher, and beyond that, ideally, the transformation of social structures in a way that enriches
the culture. These changes ideally involve mind as well as heart, connecting the researcher more
deeply to spiritual or sacred sources (Clements, 2004). One recognizes this is occurring by the
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 29
sense of awe that seems to be inspired by something outside the conscious self. It cannot be fully
understood by the rational mind.
This is the part of the project I had anticipated from the beginning with great hope: that as
the images took their place in a story mural, they would reveal some wisdom to me. Following
the guidelines of art-based research, I let the tools and textures—the media themselves—tell part
of the story. For example, as I depicted the apocalypse in all of its bleak, cracked, black-and-
greyness, I found it to have the qualities of an elephant hide. Soon an abstract image of an
elephant’s head would cover almost one-quarter of my 4 by 4 foot canvas. The elephant emerged
because the apocalyptic landscape was surrounding the hourglass with the shadow girl. That
curve resulted in a trunk.
I let my psyche organize a multitude of images from my dreams, active imagination,
sandplay, poetry, and fairy tale on to the canvas. They made little sense logically, though I began
to see relationships between different images. For example, in one dream I had seen my hand
hennaed like an Indian bride throwing fire. In another dream, I had seen myself leaving a group
behind to go into an open field, apart. This juxtaposition of images helped me see that to perform
the sacred nature of my work, I do need to be apart from individuals, and in the field—field here
meaning the connections between people rather than the people themselves. Still, there was no
coherent story until I received the surprise. Based on my dreams, I felt I was understanding the
elephant as a kindly invisible force that I was walking with. My story mural was almost complete
and then I had a dream in which I am in a pen with an elephant.
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 30
The elephant is huge, angry, forceful and has the grace of a racehorse as it kicks and
bucks and ultimately escapes from the pen in a flying leap (April 25, 2014).
Elephant showed me something new: Fury. It was as though I’d been creating a
relationship with someone who turned out to have a bad temper and could go out of control.
Angry Elephant was another elephant aspect that I could feel. I had witnessed it in stories and
documentaries—angry herds of elephants stampeding, an angry circus elephant getting revenge
on the abusive master. I recalled my own experience embodying Elephant and saying, “I do not
want to perform.” In my embodiment those words emerged in a choke of tears. But now the tears
were different. They were more of anger than sadness, emanating from the elephant I embodied.
The feeling of anger deepened as I felt the elephantine resistance against performing. I knew the
elephant was angry about being put in a pen, and its anger was unleashed in a torrent of strength,
enabling it to leap like a champion jumping horse.
Later I came to understand this as the transformation of the elephant in the room. The
elephant is a metaphor for unconscious contents of a group that take on a life of their own as a
complex. Through the story mural, which I began in mid-February and completed at the end of
April, 2014, I came to see my own role as separate from individuals in the group, but part of the
field, where the elephant ultimately is corralled and then sets itself free. After such a visitation by
a symbol, I began to question my own capability for working with symbols. How does a visual
practitioner know that a particular image has the potency to be a symbol, rather than being a
representation or metaphor? I took this question with me on a walk during a nature ritual. In a
nature ritual, one makes a conscious separation with society, to cross a threshold into solitude in
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 31
a wilderness environment, open to insights from the natural world. I asked this question at
twilight, when the riverbank I walked along was in a veil of evening shade, and my answer came
in the form of a single ray of light from the sinking sun. The ray of light landed on a buttercup
and illuminated it. A symbol, I realized, is what lights up. It has energy. It carries forward
insights, feelings, and conversations. The elephant demonstrated to me the energy of a powerful
symbol: It will not be penned in, it is more than words, it as a life of its own, and it wants to be
free. When I tried to relate the narrative of my learnings from the story mural, something
happened. I found I could not tell the story myself, but that the elephant symbol became the
narrator. In the next section I let the elephant tell her own story.
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 32
The Story in the Voice of the Elephant
Join me for a dialogue between images and words. In the following, I describe how I
gave voice to images from an art piece I created as part of my research. Combining art-based
research and organic inquiry, I visually documented dreams and active imagination experiences
that emerged during my journey with symbols. On a 4 by 4 foot canvas with pastels, markers,
and acrylic paint, I brought the images to life in a process that seemed independent of my
conscious mind. As I created the piece over a period of six weeks, I sought to remain faithful to
the images that originally appeared to me. Still, a creative spirit intervened to inter-mingle the
images in certain ways that altered their original appearance and meaning to me. After
completing the piece, I studied it to discover what the images might tell me, upon their shift from
the realm of the imaginal to an artistic interpretation. The narrative that came to me was not in
my own voice, but rather in the voice of the elephant that first appeared to me in active
imagination and later in a dream. Following are outtakes from the art piece, with commentary in
the voice of the elephant.
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 33
Figure 4: Tidal Wave
Are you watching in shock from below, a tiny helpless stick girl threatened by a terrible force of
nature? Or have you become part of the wave—the icy, overwhelming, awe-inspiring wave that
can blot out the sun and level a landscape? You think that technology and massive inhuman
forces are the threat it represents, but what is your part in that? Ponder that, please, as the wave
—as you—freeze in place, not yet broken, beginning to melt and return to your original watery
substance that will take a new form.
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Figure 5: Shadow Girl in Hourglass
I’d sent the coyote with a message, so you should have been expecting a trick and here it
is. Usually you are on the outside, a reporter, separate from the action. But now you are deep
inside. Stuck, stuck, stuck as this Shadow Girl in an hourglass where the falling grains are dream
images, encased in bubbles, unanswered calls from psyche. You even put the coyote in a bubble.
That’s why you were unprepared for the trick, suddenly finding yourself in one of your own
murals. Maybe one day a bubble will pop and get your attention.
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 35
Figure 6: Apocalypse and Swiss EMT
You asked for a dream to get you started, asking the question: How will the Shadow Girl
get out of her hourglass? Wrong question. The question perhaps should have been: What’s on the
other side of the glass? And if you knew, would you want to leave? But you asked and you are
given—the apocalypse. The center did not hold—someone stole it. The only landform is a stone.
You have never felt more lonely and adrift and hopeless. But happily, you have some help. A
Swiss EMT who has a list for you. You will go down the list—down, down, down into your
unconscious. Of course you know that apocalypse means revelation. What will you find?
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 36
Figure 7: The Tired Elephant
Thank you for seeing me, and for prettying me up in purple. You know I have a grey,
rough hide, I’m not fuzzy and snuggly like this. But if this is how you can imagine me, that is fine.
I know you wanted someone different, a nurturing mother, a dashing hero, someone numinous to
guide you through the apocalypse but, alas, I am just a tired symbol. Yes I am tired. People talk
about the elephant in the room, but they do not understand me. I am tired of trying to be
understood. Maybe YOU can help ME.
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Figure 8. Princess Stuck in Glass
I hope it’s OK to laugh! You look so funny as a princess in a fuchsia dress with that
confused look on your face, standing on a glass and complaining that you cannot get down. It’s
not that far down. And I think you like it up there. You are hilarious! But you’ve been kind and
brought me to life, I’m starting to look a little more like myself, a proper Elephant, albeit still too
purple. So I am going to give you some help. Actually it’s not difficult at all, you can just slide
down my back and into the dirt. I think it’s dirt you are missing. Come have some fun for a while,
the apocalypse can wait.
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 38
Figure 9: Hennaed Hand
Sacred hand, hand of a bride, married to someone sacred, maybe even an elephant.
Unleash your power into the field! Scorch the land. Reveal. That is your job and, no, you do not
get to worry about the consequences if someone doesn’t like it. The fire is already started. You
didn’t take a minute to think—thank Goodness—or you would have talked yourself out of it.
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 39
Figure 10: Being Elephant
Relax, you’ve done this since you were a child. Bend at the waist. Arm in front, dangle;
it’s an elephant trunk. You are I, you are not I. You are in between. You can feel the words I
speak: I am elephant, strong. I can carry you on my back. Many of you at once. I am born to this.
You are light to me. I am not a performer. Do not ask me to perform.
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 40
Figure 11: Two Paths and a Key
In one road you can only see my prints and you are awestruck! It is my first appearance
to you, in a dream, and I am invisible. A mystery. In the other road you have a white van and a
key from a poet, this is the faster way. Every time you need to choose which path and be
conscious. On one, you may be misunderstood but in integrity. On the other, you will be exposed.
Like me, you must be equally willing to be seen and unseen.
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 41
Figure 12: The Safe Container
There is a place that is protected. It is a womblike container where you are away from the
field, sitting around a campfire, telling stories. Outdoors in nature, part of an ancient ritual. As
long as you are in the container, you are off the field, you are safe from the fire—your own and
others. This is where I come into the world for you.
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 42
Figure 13:A Silver Manuscript
So clear in its numinosity, its glory, its position overlooking the dangers and
complexities, this library is where you are writing a silver manuscript that contains important
wisdom for others. It is a safe place, like the container. You almost didn’t go there because of the
mountain lion, but the mountain lion probably wants to be your friend. Doesn’t it look a little like
a coyote? You know that I am leading you here. I, the elephant. You think you understand me as
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 43
Figure 14: Elephant Leaps From Pen
Think again! I will not be defined by your ego’s needs. I will not be penned in. I have the
power to leap out of any pen you put me in, as long as I am alive! You asked for a symbol and I
have appeared to you. Now know: If you want a powerful symbol, let me be free. I may surprise
you with more help than I could possibly give you as a domesticated pet.
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 44
Figure 15: We Know By How It Glows
Now I am as big as the wave. I am mirroring the wave! It is not a tidal wave anymore. It
is a wave from the hand of the future: Hello! We can look at it squarely—all the changes coming
to our world. It’s small and no longer eclipsing the sun. Remember the sun? All those aspirations
and visions about what humans could be and do.
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 45
The Elephant Story Mural
Figure 16: The Elephant Story Mural
The messages delivered by the elephant were more energetic than rational, yet they were
clear to me. In the language of symbols, the elephant answered my questions: How can I work
with symbols intentionally to create a transformational story? How can I better understand my
role as a visual facilitator? The elephant taught me that the unconscious will persevere to be seen,
and that my job is to walk with unseen forces until they are clear enough to be released. I learned
that I will have a better relationship with symbols if I let them take the lead, and give them time
and space in my psyche to show me the unexpected. I learned to laugh at the ego, to be big
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 46
enough to stand up for something that touches the soul and might not make sense to anyone else,
and to honor the beautiful mystery of symbols. Before this project, I thought of images as a way
to illustrate concepts. My journey with the elephant taught me in matters of the heart and soul—
when dealing with emotion and psyche—we should be doing the opposite. When working
mysteries of the human spirit, words are meant to amplify images, and not the other way around.
Following are specific implications of this project about the use of self-reflective story
• Just as therapists receive therapy themselves, visual facilitators benefit from using their
own tools. A personal story mural can be created with the support of a fellow visual
facilitator, working with a therapist, or working solo over time. The process enables the
visual facilitator to examine her unconscious material in relation to the work, which is
critical for effectiveness as a channel for groups. Visual facilitators can become blocked if
they do not tend to their own psychic hygiene. The story mural is a way to capture and
work with images that emerge from dreams, active imagination, or other depth methods
explored in his article. Working on a single story mural over time enables the images to
develop their own identities and stories.
• The self-reflective story mural can be used by coaches or therapists to help clients work
through questions. Instead of analyzing feelings, individual dreams, or other
confrontations with the unconscious, the story mural allows multiple expressions of
unconscious material to be recorded over time, potentially allowing an insight-producing
narrative to develop. In-depth analysis is not the goal, but rather the images are allowed
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 47
to do their work in a subtle way to bring forth unconscious contents that help one
naturally find a new perspective or attitude.
Insights from this project also had implications for the practice of creating group story
• The process of creating group story murals is a sacred one, as we are working with
symbols and powerful unconscious forces. Hence, we must do our own inner work on an
ongoing basis and become more conscious about how we work with symbols.
• The image that arises from a visual facilitators’ intuition or unconscious must be honored,
but in group work, its efficacy as a symbol depends on how the group works with the
image. While working on this project, I began having more conversations with clients in
which we referred to images as parts of a story (“Do you think the anchor will actually
stop the boat?” “Is there something else we can give the boat to give it more power to turn
around?”). Ideally, people in a group will begin developing and working with their own
symbols. On one recent occasion, I had depicted a barrier to success in the form of an
iceberg. The group did not think that worked, and they suggested an anchor instead.
• Depth methods may be used not only to enhance a visual facilitator’s self-knowledge, but
also to help her access symbols that are transformative for a group. While working on this
project, I used depth methods at the request of a client. After talking with me about my
work with symbols, the client asked me to engage in a dream or active imagination about
his group framework about resolving polarities. That night, I went into an active
imagination process that brought to me the image of a landscape image that had the
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 48
overall appearance of a butterfly. This image brought a sense of freedom and future-
thinking to the group as they identified concepts that once seemed contradictory but
could be integrated into a new approach.
Figure 17: Barry Johnson mural
These insights are relevant for our current time in history that has been described as the
Conceptual Age (Pink, 2005). Words and logic no longer suffice to help us navigate the
complexity of the world we live in today. Symbols are essential to the process. Through organic
inquiry, I came to see myself and other visual facilitators as as a midwives delivering symbols to
groups, and to do that, we must deliver our own first.
A VISUAL FACILITATOR'S SELF-EXPERIMENT 49
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