Depth Psychology Blog

Shape-Shifting Through Darkness

20 Jan 2013 9:43 PM | Kim Hermanson, PhD

Three separate clients came to me recently in very dark places. One had just lost her job and felt trapped--she described herself as being in a “coffin.” The second one was a single mother with a 2-month old baby who was living in a foreign country with no support system. I saw her life as she had known it disintegrating and an image appeared of her “melting” into the earth. And the image that showed up with the third client’s story was of being caught inside a black bag, desperately trying to get out. For all of them of course, the rational choice would be to get the heck out of that dark place, clawing oneself--by whatever means available--back into the “light.”

As humans, our normal mode is to be in the light--working, connecting, building things, and busily interacting with other humans. When life as we know it disintegrates, we may find ourselves being pulled down into darkness and despair. Some people might describe it as suffocating under an oppressive weight or being trapped in a place they can’t move. This is very frightening for the psyche and our rational minds do everything they can to try to “get out of the coffin,” “keep solid physical form,” “open the dark bag,” or “climb over the wall.” Despite popular teachings advising us to “embrace what is,” most of us do not surrender willingly when we find ourselves in those dark places. Our natural human response is to try valiantly to get out of this place…as quickly as possible.

In training, new therapists learn not to get emotionally wrapped up in a client’s story. If we do that, we lose our objectivity and ability to help. That’s what I like about following the images. Images are neutral--they’re not good or bad. It’s our interpretation that makes something good or bad. Darkness, for example, can be rich, fertile soil--the source of growth and new life or it can be empty and cold. A rope can be used to hang people or it can help us find our way out of dense fog. Our minds might want to interpret, but when we let that go and merely notice the qualities of the image, we can be curious. What movement wants to happen here? How is the creative process flowing? What seems to be the next fertile possibility? Tapping into the deeper, richer level of metaphoric images, we take ourselves out of desperation and into inquiry. From a metaphoric point of view, all images are equally interesting with wisdom to share.

The creative process is not linear and it rarely goes in the direction we think it should go. Therefore, we can’t understand the course of our life (the ultimate creative process) in a rational, linear way. Images lie at the heart of the creative and by seeing the images that lie under the surface, we have a deep and profound way to make sense of things that seem senseless to our logical minds. Images provide layers of rich wisdom that we would not receive in any other way. Many of my clients tell me that the images that come up feel like “sacred gifts.” Image is an ancient language, coming from “the old mind” as Michael Meade calls it. The old mind is what has survived in humans--the instinctive, intuitive inheritance of rich metaphoric ways of knowing.

With all three women mentioned above, the creative movement was taking them into the darkness. In the darkness, they would “melt” or “merge” into something new--some new life form. Unlike the rational world of human intellect, in the imag-inal realm we can shape-shift. We can melt and become black tar and spread over the earth to fertilize the soil, or merge into the earth and plant seeds for new possibilities. We can be the eagle that is flying to new heights, or be the dark oppressive structure that is weighing us down. Our creative process is always moving, always breaking down the old and finding new, more productive forms to express itself. No matter what place we are in, in the ancient realm of image we always have our creativity available to us. We can shape-shift into darkness, try on new forms and emerge in a new mode when we are ready. No problem.

Our culture has prized the intellect and it is a beautiful thing, but the truth is, logical, analytical thinking does not give us the tools to see under the surface of life, nor to work with what we find there. That type of seeing requires the old mind and its ability to feel its way and shape-shift…through darkness.

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. With a gift for inspiring and unleashing people's creative brilliance, she has been offering life-changing opportunities for creative breakthroughs since 2002.


  • 24 Jan 2013 4:26 AM | Juliet Bruce, Ph.D.
    Thank you for this very nice article. The metaphor of the Abyss as birthing ground is the heart of my practice and I appreciate how well you've articulated this point of view. I try to help my clients find the "greening" question that will shift their reality -- not why, certainly, but what wants to emerge here? What is life asking of me now? Or just an unarticulated receptivity as in dream.
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    • 20 Feb 2013 1:04 PM | Kim Hermanson, PhD
      I love that question--"what wants to emerge?" It's so simple and profound. Thanks for commenting!
      Link  •  Reply
  • 24 Jan 2013 1:25 PM | Todd Hayen
    Excellent article...thank you very much. As you have stated here, it is so important to honor the images we encounter as important gifts in our own personal journey. Your last paragraph sums it up beautifully!
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