The transformational journey of self-discovery in Guided Imagery and Music (GIM): A response to Lisa Summer’s 1992 article: Music: The Aesthetic Elixir

By Leslie Bunt

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At the end of Summer’s first paragraph she writes that "music is simply the ordered placement of sonic events in time." This statement provides the springboard for a series of reflections and questions in this response to Summer’s paper and of how music’s fluid connections to time assist clients in experiencing the evocative potential of the music in GIM to explore aspects of their own transformational journeys. Through a sense of deep listening within an altered state of consciousness (ASC) the music provides potential space for the re-visiting and re-construction of past events, including repressed memories, and glimpses into the future and what might be. Yet this is all beautifully held and contained within musical forms and structures in the present moment. From a psychoanalytic perspective, as forms part of Summer’s discussion, such a rich meeting in sound, silence and music integrates the brutish aspects of Freudian primary process held within the containing formal secondary process (The Interpretation of Dreams, Chapter 7, 1900). This kind of integration in time might relate to a blend of mythos and logos or "Dionysiac unbridled energy" contained in Apollonian logical form (Bunt, 1994, p. 177). The Irish writer John O’Donohue captured the essence of this journey through and in time in this telling sentence: "There is a profound sense in which music opens a secret door in time and reaches in to the eternal" (O'Donohue, 2003, p. 62).

Communication in Early Childhood – An Embodied Response to Pattern and Time

The timeless world of the young infant is a place where meaning is comprehended instantaneously through attention to the sound and musical features of the surrounding adult use of language. Music and GIM therapists have benefited considerably in recent years by being able to underpin their practices with increasing theoretical evidence that music and musical patterning are at the source of communication and the shared inter-subjective emotional landscape between infant and adult, long before the arrival of the first word (see the ever-evolving work on Communicative Musicality e.g. Malloch and Trevarthen, 2009 and Stern’s explorations of vitality affects and affect attunement e.g. Stern, 1985). During a GIM session does the music offer clients opportunities to traverse these liminal thresholds and to enter worlds where at times there is no further need for words, providing direct experience of the essential ingredients of communication, of what is basically the root of being human? A flowing melody, a surging crescendo, patterns of short accented sounds, different rhythms and textures and timbres of sound are all so well-known to us as part of our human story. They have deep, personal and collective historical connections within us, opening up associations with some of our earliest experiences of being held and contained. The sound world is familiar to us: it is part of from where we emerged and grew. Yet this kind of vivid re-visiting is not a primitive or archaic form of regression since we are stepping back into these earliest patterns and impulses from within the perspective of the present moment.

The elements of sound and music are at the source of our emotional development and communication with additional fundamental connections to external time-based and measurable patterns within the physical world. Vibration is present at the root of our flowing melody, surging crescendo or different rhythms. Imagine the complex overlap of vibrations within any live performance or recording of a symphony orchestra playing: bows agitating strings; columns of air being set into motion through breath and mouthpieces; pieces of metal and skin being struck and set vibrating. Vibrations are generated, moving through the air and being transformed eventually into the signals that are interpreted within our auditory cortices as sound or music. We are needed to complete the process originating from the initial idea of the composer, through the translation into some kind of "text" and performance to reach us as listeners. As Juliette Alvin used to question us in music therapy classes: can music exist without us? How do we manage to translate different speeds of vibrations into discrete pitches and eventual melodies? How are sequences of different lengths and loudness of sounds grouped into rhythmic patterns? Such journeys from external physical stimulus to internal musical perception are highly complex with many further contributing factors. How is it that listening to a favourite piece on one day will sound so different when we bring and open different parts of ourselves to the experience on the next? How is it that when under a great deal of pressure or stress we cannot take in too much music? We do not seem to have sufficient emotional or mental space to give to the music. But we can begin to echo many commentators by being aware of both the fundamental links that music has with the external world and that all manner of entrained individual resonances and responses appear to be taking place within us (for more discussion of entrainment and physiological responses to music in relation to music therapy see, for example, Schneck and Berger, 2006).

There are many times when witnessing clients during GIM sessions when elemental body-based experiences can observed to be evoked by musical changes, a kind of physical embodiment of the sound. A shift in harmony or sudden modulation might result in a reported synchronous shiver or tingling sensation in the body; a falling melody reminiscent of sighing may link with some tears with conversely upward leaping passages some smiling, such shifts in emotional territory also being observed in changes in facial colour, breathing or body posture (see Juslin and Sloboda 2001 and 2009 for comprehensive reviews of the different ways in which our emotions and responses are connected to the elemental and structural aspects of music). Within my experience of working, for example, with people living with cancer there are anecdotal examples of clients resting in the music with more settled breathing and less awareness of pain whilst listening with this deep body-based attention to the music. Clients appear to move into the music and become quickly entrained with the intricacies of musical form and the various elements. Sometimes words are not needed to communicate a deep connection to the flow of the musical ideas leading to the premise that clients can appear to be almost re-composing the music within their own timeframe. Alternatively do clients become the music as they tune their own instruments, their bodies, to the music? Is this what was happening when Helen Bonny decided to reassess her programmes from the perspective of listening through/with her body (Bonny, 1993)?

Connections to Winnicott

Summer’s article explores a gambit of therapeutic principles related to the work of Winnicott: the notions of transitional object and space, the creative space, me/not-me and good-enough mothering/support (Winnicott 1971/4). No progress can be achieved in any kind of therapy without some of the basic support mechanisms in place, akin to when a young child feels nurtured and can genuinely trust the caring adults. It is not coincidental that during the early stages of GIM, therapists will use the so-called beginners programmes that Helen Bonny created where there is this emphasis on a nurturing, caring and a safe and holding environment, what Summer in her article refers to as "an initial supportive 'me' experience in sound" (for a summary of Bonny’s programmes see Grocke 2002). During the GIM training courses there is much exploration of the use of short pieces of music with a great deal of predictability and repetition as safe containers, music that does not present major emotional challenges to the fledgling client. As the therapeutic alliance becomes more established the client can begin to explore larger containers, moving beyond the familiar and dipping into the emotional challenges of more complex music and longer pieces. These more intense pieces are often placed at the mid-point of these so-called working and advanced programmes, providing adequate time and enabling "the client to reach a deep altered state and to emerge from it during the music that precedes and follows it" (Bunt, 2000, p. 46). As with the growing infant there is an exploration of the music beyond the me experience, an exploration of different parts of the self and the experience of not me. Summer writes that classical music can "impel the move from the conscious 'me' experience towards the unconscious, a part of the self heretofore unknown or not experienced. The therapeutic application of carefully selected pre-recorded classical music provides a significant 'not-me' experience for the music therapy [GIM?] client." This unfolding creative process is also part of the client’s development of identity, both musical and of the self (MacDonald et al., 2002).

On Chronos and Kairos

Time features again in this rather chronological trajectory, as the young infant becomes more explorative and as paralleled by the client using the creative space to move and explore more complex and difficult music and areas of the self. There is a chronological aspect to the passing of clock time (chronos) in any performance or recording of music, for example the length in minutes of any particular piece, but whilst immersed in performing or listening to music it seems that our inner perception of time shifts. Here the passage of time seems more flexible and of a very different quality with common reporting of the actual felt experience of the music moving either much faster or slower than the specific chronological time. We appear to be re-framing time which brings us more into the unlimited world of kairos, a more vertical exploration of being in the present and right moment (for discussion of the Greek origins of chronos and kairos see, for example, Berendt, 1988a and for connections with time Rose, 2004). These are complex areas that traverse many disciplines, for example for a theological/musical perspective see theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie’s Theology, Music and Time (Begbie, 2000) and music therapist Gary Ansdell’s essay in response (Ansdell, 2005).

GIM appears to inhabit this world of kairos, providing endless opportunities to sum up the past and predict the immediate future, all contained within this present, this moment now. Imagine how a single sound encompasses what has gone before, including even the briefest the moment of silence after the previous sound, and yet carries within it the potentiality and expectation of what is to come. The complex world of music provides rich opportunities to stay in the present yet the moment can simultaneously be held within and transcend both past and future (Berendt, 1988b; Loewy, 2005). Of course the situation is made even more complex in GIM with the extra potentialities of the ASC and unfolding shifts across the different time dimensions in any imagery.

This way in which music provides these open structures, flexible frames and opportunities for moving through these different time zones within the present moment is a feature of many clients’ GIM sessions. It provides clients with creative moments for reviewing a life’s journey and associating with past memories, events and significant people; for acknowledging what was important in these past experiences; for embracing the full potential of the present moment and for making preparations for the future. For people nearing the end of their lives this might include preparation for death, those glimpsed moments of what is to come as the one known future reality we all share. As in other psychotherapeutic approaches GIM provides opportunities when needed for this re-construction of the past within the present moment in order to move with added insights into the future. But GIM differs from more verbally-based approaches given the evocative potential of the music as the third element within the triangle - client, therapist, music – and as the main transformative agent for change. I recall my GIM trainer, Dr. Kenneth Bruscia, proposing that one of our main responsibilities as GIM practitioners is to facilitate the client’s connection to the music.

Processes of Transformation in Music and GIM

Complex processes of transformation feature in any musical composition, "within and among the many layers of the music itself, with simultaneous and sequential organic changes occurring in melody, harmony, rhythm, form, timbre and so forth" (Bunt 2000, p. 45). Music is constantly shifting and changing, being in a continuous state of flux. Summer takes the example of sonata form and discusses how here composers explore the full potential of the initial themes, developing their identity. In any sonata form structure we can hear how contrasting themes are introduced (exposition section) and set against each other (often more than one contrasting theme) before being developed (development section) and brought back again in the aptly-named recapitulation section. In this third section the material usually returns to the opening home key but the return home feels very different, having passed through all manner of development and changes in the previous section. In many ways sonata form can be seen as a useful metaphor and narrative structure for many of the transformational processes within a client’s GIM journey. Initial images/themes are exposed and they pass through many transformations including fragmentation and re-arranging. Time and space, often after the session, are needed for the images to resonate further in order for any resultant insight and meaning to occur (the sonata form’s recapitulation here being rather extended over time). In one of the most interesting parts of Summer’s paper she posits that "This reappraisal of musical elements form the exposition to the development section of the musical sonata form is a parallel for the therapeutic experience of the 'me' and 'not me' experience." She explores how the original expansion of the me is not overwhelmed by the emergent not me. As with a composer’s excavation of the full potential of initial ideas so a deep search can take place in the psyche as various defences are loosened and material from deep down in unconscious is brought into the light of consciousness for exploration and trying out in new guises, endless possibilities and potential solutions. We can hear ourselves and aspects of the journey of the self in the music.

Clients use the GIM experience to explore aspects of their own unique journeys of self discovery. Is there work to be done on a personal level with a focus on everyday transactions within the external world or is the focus to be more internal with connections explored with the collective or transpersonal realms noted by Summer as being very much part of "becoming one with the music?" Very often a theme or pattern emerges that unites different images, which are elaborated in connection at their root to this overriding pattern (Bunt, 2000). Akin to the musical form of theme and variations this overriding/underlying pattern connecting the shifting images can be discovered in sessions across a whole therapeutic process. Whatever music is presented, a client’s psyche seems to unearth within the music the transformational processes and pattern that it is seeking, either on an individual or collective perspective, or both. An earlier study presented such a pattern during one client’s course of therapy when all the four elements of earth, water, air and eventually fire evoked to explore a new identity (Bunt, 2000). This client repeatedly found in the music the transformational process of a deepening into the unconscious, some kind of fragmentation before re-emerging feeling stronger with a new aspect of identity (exploring new parts of the self). Transformation, metamorphosis and transcendence were features of most sessions.

On Moving into the Transpersonal

Michael Mayne’s (2006) The Enduring Melody is an account of his final journey with cancer. In a section where he reflects on "time and eternity" (ibid., p. 193) Mayne refers to moments of birth and death as well as, among others, those of "suffering" and "healing" as when "the eternal breaks into time" (ibid., p. 196). So we now have more of a sense of a two way directional process: O’Donohue’s earlier "reaching in to the eternal" (O'Donohue, 2003, p. 62) to the "other side of time" (Mayne, 2006, p. 194) alongside Mayne’s notion of time being split apart to reveal the eternal within, with the eternal moving into time. Does music inhabit these timeless and wordless domains existing "somewhere between matter and spirit" (ibid., p. 7)? Vibration is once again at the source any such break in time, as it is at the beginning of so many Creation myths across different cultures. And words and rational thought seem meaningless here, George Steiner writing in Real Presences that "Music makes utterly substantive what I have sought to suggest of the real presence in meaning where that presence cannot be analytically shown or paraphrased" (Steiner, 1989, p. 218).

GIM provides many instances where clients’ deep connections with music enable glimpses of these timeless zones beyond words to occur, meetings with the numinous, and again within the present moment and in individually unique ways. Does the music capture our clients’ souls as composers grasp, for fleeting moments of time, the ineffable within their music? Some clients have referred to these moments in but also out of time of being drawn into or surrounded by light or being in touch with the source of everything, the music providing the bridge or pathway to these more transpersonal experiences. One client, for example, had a love of Bach who, in the client’s view was a composer very close to this source as the fount of his inspiration for his music. And listening to Bach’s music in an altered state of consciousness, for example to some solo vocal music from the cantatas or some of the solo music for strings, and with my presence as the attendant witness (and we must not underestimate the role of, in this case for the most part silent, witness) enabled the client to get as near as possible, on this physical plane, to this source. Resting in a place of solace can be experienced as a return to the original source from where we all came and might return. Connecting via composers to the source of their inspiration can be viewed as not constricting but liberating.

We have come full circle. And in reflecting on this conjunction between music and the source, the great Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan wrote: "Music reaches further than any other impression from the external world can reach. The beauty of music is that it is both the source of creation and the means of absorbing it. In other words, by music the world was created, and by music it is withdrawn again into the source that created it" (Khan, 1988, p. 120).

Sources: Some of the material has been developed from presentations to the European GIM conference (Norway, 2008) and the Association of Music Imagery conference (Chicago, 2009).


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