A couple of years ago, my teenage daughter—whom I long ago nicknamed Miss Zinnia—came to me one night, distraught. For a solid year, she’d been busy adding activities to her schedule, laboring to make herself the Most Attractive College Applicant Ever. She’d also been laboring to lift a girlfriend battling suicidal fantasies. Under-rested, overwrought, she didn’t have anything left to give.
As she unraveled before my eyes, I had a thought. What if I could take her into a meditative moment scaffolded on a narrative? One that featured her as a journeyer on a quest for self-healing? Having discovered on my own the dramatic benefits of meditation, I knew it was worth a try. But I also knew that she wasn’t likely to resonate to the more technical practice I did each day.
So, I summoned my storytelling voice, told her we were going to do a different kind of meditation together, and began.
A different kind of meditation
In my story, I led my Zinnia out into a solitary mindscape where stars wheeled across the night sky and meadow grasses stirred in the wind. In the center of the meadow huddled a tiny, broken creature, her knees pulled up to her chest, her face to the ground. As the story went, Miss Zinnia knelt down to investigate, and that’s when she noticed that the creature’s wings had sheared off, leaving twin wounds on her back. A fairy, unable to fly.
When my girl reached out and laid her hands on the fairy’s back, a perfect set of wings sprouted once more from the fairy’s shoulder blades, opening, pumping, lifting her into the air. The fairy vanished, but a set of gorgeous wings sprouted suddenly from Miss Zinnia’s own back, opening, pumping, lifting her off the ground and into the sky.
The healer became the healed.
When I finished my story-meditation, Miss Zinnia crawled into my lap–all five feet eight inches of her—and cried until she’d finished feeling broken. Look, it seemed hollow to promise my girl that everything would turn out okay. She felt what she felt. And I wanted to honor that. But I also wanted her to feel that rush of healing power. And to imagine the feel of those wings sprouting from her own shoulder blades.
So, I cast her as a hero journeyer and set her down in a mindscape where she could phase from victim to healer.
For the skeptics out there, let me be clear: no, my daughter was not instantly cured of her anxiety in one miraculous meditation session built on a hero’s journey narrative. However, what happened that evening primed her for subsequent sessions which continued to feature her as the journeyer, venturing into places laden with obstacles as well as beauty, giving her the chance to feel the thrill of executing strategic workarounds as a prelude to claiming the wisdom at the journey’s end. The fact that these experiences occurred in her imagination rather than in the *real world* seemed to make zero difference in terms of her take-aways. Why? Because imagined or not, to her, they felt real.
Why story-meditation works
These days, we know more about the way the brain processes experience, and whether the journey unfolds inside our heads or outside, the benefits and the learnings are the same. In his fascinating docu-series The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge, author of the bestselling book by the same name, interviewed Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. In a series of unusual experiments, Pascual-Leone had participants either practice a five-finger piano exercise, or simply sit at the piano and think about practicing the exercise.
Amazingly, whether the participants actually practiced or simply sat and thought about practicing, their brains changed in exactly the same way: the part of the brain that controls finger flexions got larger and larger. According to Pascual-Leone, “The idea is that just thinking will change your brain. And what that means is that one needs to be careful what one thinks!” Reiterating this novel idea, Doidge himself says, “Pascual-Leone’s remarkable experiments have shown that we can change and restructure our brain anatomy simply by using our imaginations” (italics mine).
For meditators seeking imaginal experiences that feel as real as lived experiences, a journeying practice can be a game changer, particularly if the real world feels freighted with anxiety or depression triggers.
Take Miss Zinnia, for example. On that fateful evening a few years back, there was no way she actually could have journeyed to the place I guided her. There was no meadow nearby. No wingless fairy huddled on the ground. And certainly no opportunity to grow an actual set of powerful wings herself. But that wasn’t the point! In a meditative exercise rich with sensory imagery, her brain read the experience as real, and some valve opened inside her, allowing her to touch into her sadness and fear in order to process and release it. In short, that imaginal reality was no less potent for having unfolded exclusively inside her mind.
For a journeying practice, the key is to stage a felt experience, creating sensory images that invite the listener to imagine seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching.
The more sensorily rich the imagery, the more real it feels to the meditator, and the more her brain interprets the moment as genuine. During Miss Zinnia’s first experience with a mind journey, there was no experiment being conducted. No fMRI results to confirm blood flow to the brain centers that control vision or hand movements. No metric for measuring the feeling of imaginary wings sprouting, opening, and pumping. Nevertheless, the felt reality of that healing moment created authenticity and impact, helping her connect with a stronger sense of self and begin to trust that perhaps some of the power and agency she sought already lived inside her.
Journey your way to wholeness.
Folks, life can be heavy. Sometimes it shears your wings right off. When that happens, you need a meditation practice that builds out the mindscapes whose vivid, imaginal realities let you journey your way to wholeness. When your actual world feels bleak indeed, the act of stepping into an imaginary world lets your mind launch, even as your body goes still.
Listeners become Journeyers and Avatars, navigating richly imagined mindscapes as they travel, problem-solve, and unlock the powerful wisdom awaiting them at the journey’s end.
So. Are you ready to journey?
Rebecca Davidson is a former Assistant Professor of English, a published author, and the Creator and Founder of Lotimus, a unique meditation practice built around the hero’s journey motif. To listen to a mind journey, go to www.lotimus.com or reach out to Rebecca at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photos in this article are courtesy of Rebecca.