The Origins of the Western Imagery Tradition


Imagery, dreams and visions have been throughout the world the most common method of diagnosis and treatment. In the Ancient Hellenic era, during which the art of medicine was at its peak, imagery-based diagnosis and therapy comprised the standard approach to health issues and guidance (Achterberg, 1985).

From Ancient Egypt to Ancient Greece, through the Middle Ages until the Era of Enlightenment where Reason was established, this spiritual tradition was practiced in the West, mainly by civilizations of the Mediterranean Basin, being the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek, Persian, Christian and Islamic cultures.

Authors of Antiquity such as Homer, Hesiod and Pindar provide data about Asclepius from which we may deduce that he existed as a famous doctor and war hero. He was presented as the son of Apollo who was brought into heaven by Zeus as a demigod. Apollo trusted Asclepius education to the centaur Chiron, who instructed him in an especially intensive form on the art of healing. As his fame grew, he became the patron of healing for centuries, and his influence extended far beyond the borders of Greece.

Asclepius death was tragic. Pluto accused him of having diminished the number of souls descending to hell, and Zeus, in revenge, killed him with his rays. After his death, Asclepius was venerated as God and in his honor were raised the «Asclepieions» or medical sanctuaries where Greek people attended seeking for their lost health. A testimony to the influence of Asclepius is found in the over 200 temples, or Asclepia, which were built throughout Greece, Italy, and Turkey both to pay tribute to him and to foster the practice of medicine. These Asclepions were the first holistic treatment centers where dream therapy or divine sleep, which later was renamed to incubation sleep by Christian practitioners, was perfected as a diagnostic and therapeutic tool.

The legend of Asclepius merged with that of the Egyptian god of healing, Imhotep, and with the god Serapis of the Ptolemics.

Aristotle, Hippocrates, and even Galen have their roots in the Asclepian tradition and were convinced that imagination played a central role in health. Aristotle proposed “that the emotional system did not function in the absence of images. Images were formed by the sensations taken in and then worked upon by the senses communis or the ‘collective sense.’” Also, he felt that images of the dream state deserved special notice.

Galen was the first one to provide a detailed outline of the relationship between mind and body. He proposed that the patient’s images or dreams provide valuable diagnostic information. For instance, images of loss, grief, or disgrace indicate an excess of melancholy (black bile), and images of fear or fighting reveal an excess of choler. Galen was aware of the vicious circle created by an excessive humor that produced corresponding images, which then exacerbated the humor; and he stressed that the cycle had to be broken in order to regain health (Binder, 1966; Osler, 1921). The art and science of Morphology, based on Galen’s teachings, is still taught to this day in medical schools of France so that the medical practitioners maintain a holistic approach in the treatment of their patients.

Paracelsus, a famous physician and the founder of modern chemistry, restated a theme common among the ancient Greeks—that is, the individual comprises three elements: the spiritual, the physical, and the mental. He reportedly said:

Man has a visible and an invisible workshop. The visible one is his body, the invisible one is imagination (mind)…. The imagination is the sun in the soul of man. . . . The spirit is the master, imagination the tool, and the body the plastic material. . . The power of the imagination is a great factor in medicine. It may produce diseases .. . and it may cure them. .. . Ills of the body may be cured by physical remedies or by the power of the spirit acting through the soul. (Hartman, 1973, pp. 111-112)

Paracelsus also maintained:

“Man is his own healer and finds proper healing herbs in his own garden, the physician is in ourselves, and in our own nature are all things that we need”. (Stoddard, 1911, p. 231).

Physicians of the Renaissance still considered health to be a matter of equilibrium, and their therapy consisted of adjusting imbalance. Hence they prescribed arousing images for the phlegmatic personality and used joyful images to combat melancholy.

The Asclepian tradition and the art of healing through imagination survived the gradual ascendancy of the Christian Church and its purge of pagan gods. Within Christendom the miracles of healing were no longer ascribed to the Asclepian family but rather to Saints Cosmas and Damian. The primary method of diagnosis and therapy in use was incubation sleep, a variation of the Asclepian divine sleep (Lyons & Petrucelli, 1978).

In later scripture, it is reported that the application of imagery was continued as a therapeutic and prophetic method by Abba Isaac the Syrian in France, Hildegard of Bijen in Germany, as well as Ignatius Loyola and Saint Teresa of Avila in Spain.

This holistic approach prevailed until the 17th century when Renè Descartes (1596-1650) proposed a revolutionary view. He defined the mind as a separate entity. He maintained that the mind or soul, terms he used interchangeably, is “entirely distinct from the body . . . and would not itself cease to be all that it is, even should the body cease to exist” (McMahon & Sheikh, 1984, p. 13). This dualistic view, which gradually won over Western thinkers, quite radically changed the approach to disease.

In the 20th century, the popularity of imagery as a healing modality resurfaced in Europe and in the USA thanks to prominent psychiatrists and psychotherapists, such as Dr. Robert Desoille with the Guided Waking Dream therapy, Dr. Hanscarl Leuner with Guided Affective Imagery, Dr. Carl Jung with Active Imagination and Madame Colette Aboulker-Muscat (Mental Imagery & Waking Dream), a psychotherapist and healer who taught the language of the Intelligence of the Heart through Mental Imagery in its purest form .

Madame Colette Aboulker-Muscat was the last lineage holder of the Visionary Kabbalah tradition, also known as the Kabbalah of Light, descending from the line of Prophets, as well as Merkavah mysticism. Her Sephardic ancestry could be traced all the way back to King David and among her ancestors were Isaac the Blind of Provence and the 13th century Rabbi Jacob Ben Sheshet of Gerona, Spain. She had become a realized being at the age of six. Towards the end of her studies at Sorbonne, she had studied waking dream under the guidance of French psychotherapist, Robert Desoille. She gained a world-wide reputation of a wise woman, helping thousands of people heal physically, emotionally and mentally, connecting to their higher self and finding balance in their everyday life.

This form of Kaballah is an esoteric visionary tradition; it is not a religion and is not to be confused with the Ecstatic Kabbalah that has somewhat become a fashion trend in recent years, made popular by a number of well-known celebrities. Based on chanting combinations of Hebrew letters while in a meditative state, Ecstatic Kabbalah is about two thousand and fifty years old and its practice is aimed at leaving behind the ordinariness of everyday life and shifting into the transcendent.

On the contrary, Visionary Kabbalah is four to five thousand years old with roots in the ancient esoteric tradition of the prophets of the greater Mediterranean region. It teaches that, in order to shift into transcendence, we must first balance our lives on earth; in other words, it is directed towards the descent of spirit into the ordinariness of life, creating healing for daily difficulties, as well as achieving mystical union. In this practice, visions of the Divine are transmitted through the sacred language of image, which is used to make the Divine present in our daily life.

One of Madame Colette’s direct students was Dr. Gerald Epstein, MD., an internationally renowned medical doctor and psychiatrist, based in New York City and the foremost practitioner of integrative healthcare for healing and self-transformation. Trained as a Freudian analyst, he abandoned this direction in 1974 to study the therapeutic uses of the imagination under Madame Colette Aboulker-Muscat, of Jerusalem. Since then, he was a pioneer in the use of Mental Imagery for treating physical and emotional problems. As his work evolved over the years, he became a leading exponent of the Western spiritual tradition and its application to healing and therapeutics.

Dr. Epstein was an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Mt. Sinai Medical Center and taught at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. He founded and directed the American Institute for Mental Imagery from 1974 until his death in 2019. There he trained health care practitioners and offered classes to the public in his GEMS model of Health. Today, AIMI continues to teach and publish his works. For 45 years, he was a pioneer in the use of mental imagery for treating physical and emotional problems. As his work evolved, he became a leading exponent of the Western spiritual tradition and its application to healing and therapeutics. He taught, conducted research, and wrote many books and articles for both clinicians and lay audience. He appeared and was featured on national television, radio shows, magazines, newspapers and websites, and maintained a social media presence.

The application of Mental Imagery is now multidisciplinary, as it is practiced by doctors, nurses, psychotherapists and coaches, by Chinese acupuncturists and therapists, massage therapists, homeopaths, energy therapists and many more.

Demetra Monocrousou’s mission is to contribute to the restoration and continuance of this wholistic approach, teaching the practice of mental imagery in its pure and authentic form as it has been transmitted from generation to generation, so that practitioners can use their insightful imagination to bring about good health and reconnect with their inner source of wisdom and regain their inner freedom.

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All services provided by Demetra Monocrusso are in alignment and in accordance with the wholistic model of health taught by the American Institute for Mental Imagery of New York which is chartered by the New York State Regents to train clinicians in the GEMS integrative healing system.

They have been personally endorsed and approved by the founder and director of the institute Dr. Gerald N. Epstein, MD, an internationally renowned psychiatrist and one of the foremost practitioners of integrative healthcare for healing and transformation.

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