Removing Obstacles: Using Guided Visualization to Imagine Change by Doreen Maller, Ph.D., MFT and Leane Genstler, MA

It is so easy to get stuck in patterns of fear, oppression, or habits of mind. Whether you are teaching a class in physics, calculus, creative writing or science or working in social justice and human potential, sometimes the solution, answer or outcome we are searching for doesn’t seem obvious, either for the community or for your self. In fact, at times it can feel nearly impossible and unreachable to come to a settled place. Even the thought of moving from stuck and paralyzed, from not knowing how to take the next step, or realize what the next step is, can feel daunting. This work of mindful self-awareness can help open the heart and gain perspective. 

This work is a compilation of exercises developed for our Therapeutic Communications class at John F. Kennedy University. Created as an opportunity to look inward for insight and shared in community we consider these exercises a compassionate first step toward personal change and growth. Using visualization, art, and community-sharing, participants are guided through a series of exercises which may have been previously hidden from view and understanding.

Unstuck...from Inaction to Action

Research indicates that use of guided visualizations deepens the connection to our subconscious mind and can improve our visualization skills, which can help to improve right brain thinking. Guided visualizations also strengthen the connection between the right and left hemispheres of our brains, leading to more holistic or ‘whole brain’ thinking. The ability to approach a problem with our ‘whole brain’ or better yet - “both brains” - frequently leads to the emergence of insights, solutions, new ideas and new approaches to a problem. Ideas that were previously blocked suddenly emerge. Ideas that were not considered previously, because they were inaccessible, become available because we are using both hemispheres of our brain. The beauty of tapping into the ‘whole brain’ and the creative realm of the right brain is that we are opening ourselves up to new possibilities. And this can be accomplished with the use of guided visualization.

The guided visualization we selected for this presentation is specifically designed for the removing of obstacles and gaining perspective on a situation or problem. This guided visualization can be used in multiple contexts within various settings. Feel free to adjust the wording to suit your specific needs. You may also lengthen or shorten the visualization according to your audience and situation.

Managing timing and flow in the classroom

Depending on the length of your class and the number of students enrolled, your timing needs will vary. Here’s how we adapt to various situations:

If we have 1.5 - 2 hours or more we generally allocate the following amounts of time for each part of the activity:

• 5- 10 minutes - Set the Stage/Container - explain the purpose of the exercise

• 10-15 minutes - Facilitate the Guided Visualization

• 15-20 minutes - Have Students Make Art

• 30 - 60 minutes - Process Each Participants Art Piece as a Large Group*

• 10 - 15 minutes - Wrap Up & Discuss Benefits of the Exercise

*If we have less time or more students we will break the Process/Sharing of Art Piece into smaller groups (of 5-6 persons) to reduce the time it takes to share and process. Usually with a small group of students this can be completed in 10-15 minutes.

Suggested Art Materials List

• White Drawing Paper - (we usually provide a small and larger size)

• Colored Construction Paper

• Scrap Book Paper with patterns (various books are available)

• Oil Pastels or Cray Pastels

• Chalk Pastels

• Colored Markers/Pens

• Glue Sticks

• Craft Glue

• Scissors

Additional Items:

• Feathers, Pebbles, Sand, Glitter or Glitter Gel, Beads, Moss, Yarn, Shells, Objects from nature. All of these materials are easily found in local craft or art supply stores. They are also available for purchase online at Dick Blick Art Supplies 

Guided Visualization for the Removing of Obstacles and Gaining Perspective

This part is based on the work of Dr. Virginia Hernley DC, CCSP. The visualization starts with basic relaxation techniques. The one I use is based on the number three.

Invite the person(s) to find a comfortable seat, feet planted squarely, with closed or lidded eyes. Invite them to find their breath, focusing on the intake and the outflow of breath. Invite them to imagine their breath moving into their bodies and leaving their bodies, perhaps there is a color to the breath. Invite them to imagine the color. Invite them to leave the hustle and bustle of the day behind and think only of their breath. Focus on the rising and falling of the stomach as they take each breath. Invite them to put a hand on their stomach (optional).

And now, using the a series of three deep breaths, invite them to see their breath as color.

Visualization 1:

Breathe into the stomachs and release the breath and all tensions related to the breath downward toward their feet and grounded into the earth, taking any tensions with them...Breathing into the belly, base of the spine, thighs, knees, calves, ankles, toes and tension falling off the end of the toes...complete exhale at the toes. Repeat for a total of three breaths. (count them out – repeat prompt).

Visualization 2:

Breathe into the stomach and release the breath and all tensions related to the breath upward into to the trunk of the body and off the end of the fingertips. Leaving behind any tension held in the shoulders. Breathing into the base of the belly, up into the lungs, drop the shoulders, release into the upper arms, elbows, forearms, wrists, hands and finally releasing all tension off the base of the fingertips...complete exhale at the fingertips. Repeat for a total of three breaths. (count them out – repeat prompt).

Visualization 3:

Breathe into the stomach and release the breath and all tensions related to the breath upward into to the neck and head and off the end of the strands of hair or off through the top of the head into the universe above and around. Leaving behind any tension held in the neck. Relax the face, the muscles around the mouth, nose, earlobes, eyes...relax the forehead and feel the tension release off the ends of the hair or the top of the head, releasing the last of the body tensions into the air around and above. Let the last of the tension go. Repeat for a total of three breaths. (count them out – repeat prompt). Return to normal breathing

Next Stage of the Visualization

Scan crowd for deepness of relaxation (if too deep you will not be able to guide and may need to prompt for coming back to a middle stage of conscious connection). Invite the person(s) to find your voice and follow it though the next stage of the visualization.

Invite them to imagine walking in a safe space. Ask them to imagine this space, visualizing it...

Who are they with?

What is around them?

What does it smell like?

What does the ground feel like under them?

What is above them?

Is there a color to mark this space?

Invite them to feel the comfort of this space and to move through it Imagine moving though it. See if you can see yourself moving through it and feeling the safety of it. Feel the safety in sound, color, smell and a body sense of comfort  Keep moving through the space

And now, looking ahead on a path or on a way through the space, imagine an obstacle on this space. And see it in the distance, and walking toward it, imagine the sense of it, this obstacle blocking the space. Imagine how it feels to know it is there. Imagine getting right up to this obstacle. So close you can touch it with your hands, or feel it against your body, or lay your cheek on it. And stay in relationship with the obstacle. Feeling it, whatever it may be.

And now invite them to take a few steps back from the obstacle. Just a few. And in this new place a few steps back from the obstacle, imagine that you can fly. And invite them allow themselves to become a bird, or a person hovering, or an angel, giving permission to fly above this obstacle. And now, with permission to fly, invite them to feel the weightlessness of flight, and imagine soaring and feeling the tips of wings and the sense of being above, the freedom of the air. (silence for a few seconds) Invite them, with this newfound freedom to now, look down. And from this vantage point look down at the obstacle they left behind. To see who or what it is, how large, how does it sit in the path, is it high, is it wide, what is there to learn about it from this new, higher perspective. And keep flying and looking. (silence for a few seconds).

And now, invite them to say goodbye to the freedom of flight and return into their bodies, in front of obstacle that was left behind. (silence for a few seconds).

Invite them to incorporate what they learned in flight to navigate around the obstacle in whatever way made sense from what they learned in flight. Invite them to feel how it feels to navigate around the obstacle. (silence for a few seconds) Invite them to reconnect with themselves on the other side of the obstacle and feel what that feels like, in their bodies, in their hearts, in their minds. Invite them to walk away now from the obstacle feeling those feelings of navigating around the obstacle and remembering the feeling of being blocked, and hovering over and navigating though, and begin to move now on a path away from the obstacle, saying goodbye and leaving the obstacle behind and begin to breathe back into their bodies, and keep moving though space remembering the experience but leaving it behind. (silence for a few seconds)

Return them to their breathing, invite them when they feel ready to come back into their bodies. Without speaking move toward the art supplies and for a few minutes using the supplies provided, try to capture the essence of the experience of safety, and finding the obstacle, and gaining a new perspective, and leaving obstacle behind. Allow time to create the art.

Invite them to share what they created and tell their story (time this for the time each person has so everyone has a chance to speak). Invite them to process in a group how that was for them (this is different than telling the story). Close in a circle if this is a group with one word on the experience.... You can use the connected thumb circle if it feels right. (inspired by the work of Armand Volkas, LMFT).

Doreen Maller, MFT, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Chair of the Holistic Counseling Psychology department of John F Kennedy University. She is the series editor for the Praeger Handbook of Community Mental Health Practice (2013) and a new volume on Aging and Mental Health (2017). She has presented and published on a variety of topics including Family Systems, Addiction, Trauma, and Expressive Arts.




Leane Genstler, MA is a Marriage and Family Therapist. She is a graduate of John F Kennedy University’s Holistic Counseling Psychology Program. A member of John F. Kennedy’s adjunct faculty she teaches classes in Ther-apeutic Communication, Ethics and the Law, Community Mental Health and Couples Therapy.