Depth Psychology Blog

Key Images

22 Dec 2012 7:32 PM | Kim Hermanson, PhD
The French writer Albert Camus wrote, "A man's life is nothing but a slow trek to rediscover through the detours…those one or two images in whose presence his heart first opened.” The poet Stanley Kunitz believed that writers have key images that captivated them as children, and they keep working these images over and over again in their writings. The mythologist Michael Meade says that at the core of each of our lives is an image that first “moved us” into the world. And Walt Whitman poetically wrote, “There was a child went forth, and the first thing he looked upon, that object he became.”

Is it possible, as the writers above suggest, that as children looking at the world with fresh eyes, certain key visual impressions make an impact on our hearts? Perhaps giving us a “ground” to stand on, and a lens or point of view through which we see the world? Psychologists report that the first five years of a child’s life are the most important for shaping our psychological health and functioning. While psychology tends to focus on dysfunctional impressions on children, it is not hard to believe that our hearts would remember images of beauty or things that captivate us as well. Perhaps each of us has a particular key image that we each in our own way, keep working throughout our lives. Perhaps those images that we loved as children stay with us, giving us ways of looking, ways of seeing the world. Here are some examples.

A friend of mine grew up near the sea in England. She’s a scientist of sorts, and woven through all her writings is the notion of oceanic waves. A somatic therapist friend of mine has a body of work that she’s developed called “clearing clouds.” The cosmologist Brian Swimme has devoted his life to telling the “creation” story. And one of my clients from Mexico holds a primary image of a bustling marketplace. Her early childhood years were spent accompanying her parents to the festive Mexican market where they sold their wares. My own key image is watching my father--an Iowa farmer--plant and grow things. Planting, growing, and digging my hands into rich soil are images that lie deep within my personal psychology, despite having spent most of my adult life living in the city.

What is the key image that lies in your own heart? How has it shaped how you see the world? How does it replenish you when times are difficult? What guidance does it offer for your future? How does your key image offer support and nourishment for other people, and for the larger world?

Kim Hermanson, PhD is on the faculty of Pacifica Graduate Institute and leads workshops at Esalen Institute. Her books include Getting Messy: A Guide to Taking Risks and Opening the Imagination and Sky’s the Limit: The Art of Nancy Dunlop Cawdrey, which received an Independent Publisher Award. Her PhD is in Adult Learning from the University of Chicago.


  • 23 Dec 2012 12:47 AM | Bonnie Bright (Administrator)
    Kim: Thanks for these thoughtful and insightful words. It's true: when I think of my own early images that shaped my life, it's so telling. Also true for images that repeatedly appear in dreams or waking daydreams, as well as over and over in family traditions, memories, and even challenges. The truth really does lie in the image, and unpacking it with depth psychological methods can truly impact our lives. Beautiful image in and of itself....Thanks again.
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  • 23 Dec 2012 8:52 AM | Shane M. Nygaard
    Kim, I think you're right on the mark with this! With Archetypal Psychology's focus to "stick with the image," it fits what you're writing about. It's interesting to consider, too, that diseases of the heart are the #1 killer in America these days.

    Though it's an image that I encountered during college, seeing the Broadway show "The Phantom of the Opera" was an almost-overwhelming experience for me, and the image of the show has been with me ever since. The notions of the Underworld, the Angel of Music, the genius, the mystery and the mask are all part of its image (and much more) that all play a role in my life, and have well before ever seeing the show. If there's anything from earlier that resonates as an image for me, I need to spend some time reflecting on it, but The Phantom is the first one that came to mind and heart when reading your post.
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    • 03 Jan 2013 4:40 PM | Kim Hermanson, PhD
      Hi Shane,
      Thanks for your comments. And your writing caused me to pause when you wrote that diseases of the heart are the #1 killer in America. Wow.
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  • 26 Dec 2012 8:32 AM | Mark Dotson
    Fascinating, Kim. Thanks for sharing this. It caused me to search my early memories for images that may have influenced my life and my work.
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