Rather than the clinical psychologist, that he is by training, Akhter Ahsan appears more like a sufi saint, equally at ease with using Islamic and Hindu spiritual traditions to heal people’s minds.
At a time when alternative methods of healing are getting increasingly popular in the West and elsewhere, along comes a new branch of psychology that is one of the most concrete manifestations of spiritual healing. “Image Psychology” uses pictures of nature, parents and of gods and goddesses to treat patients suffering from psychological and even physiological problems. It considers the image to be the element most central to human activity and expression, in the same manner that behaviourists consider behaviour central to mental development.
Using the image as the focus of study, Image Psychology looks at various functions and operations of the mind and body, and employs this complex information to improve the human condition. Dr Akhter Ahsen is a leading exponent of the method and says it works “like magic”. He is, however, quick to add, “But it is science, since it conforms to all conditions that the discipline of psychology imposes upon its students and is far more effective than what has been so far practiced in the name of psychology.”
A Pakistani expatriate now settled in the US, Ahsen is regarded as an important theoretician, clinician and experimentalist who has tried to unite the best in both Eastern and Western traditions of science and philosophy. His work spans such diverse disciplines as psychotherapy, education, sociology, literature and mythology. Ahsen’s massive body of work on psychology, which comprises of more than 25 books and numerous articles, forms the backbone of the school of Image Psychology.
The parents of this pioneering and provocatively original psychologist were originally from Kashmir who moved to the town of Sialkot in Punjab and finally to Lahore. It was from Lahore’s Government College that Ahsen received his Master’s degree and later a PhD from the University of Punjab. He then joined the Pakistani army, but quit 10 years later in the wake of the 1965 India-Pakistan war. He then flew off to the United States where he acquired another PhD and began his own practice.
More than a clinical psychologist, Akhter Ahsen sounds and reads like a sufi saint who feels equally at ease with Islamic and Hindu sources and spiritual traditions, and uses them to heal people. During a recent visit to Pakistan, Ahsen treated a young woman suffering from epilepsy using the image of the Hindu god, Ganesh. His book, Ganesh – Broken and Misshapen (1995) gives a sequence to the hymns for the God found in various sacred sources. Many of Ahsen’s friends ask him to recite his mystic writings amidst the light of mustard oil lamps in a temple.
The book, originally published by Brandon House, was almost immediately sold out when it was republished in Pakistan. This work and Ahsen’s other works have rekindled an interest in Hindu mythology among other litterateurs in Pakistan. A leading Urdu poet, Zafar Iqbal, for example, recently wrote “Hey Hanuman”, an invocation to the simian god from the Hindu pantheon.
Ahsen’s Image Psychology concentrates on the Eidetic Image, an inner mental picture which is so concrete and real that it can be scanned and experienced by the visualiser as if it were an actual occuring. This creative picture in the mind serves as the source of new thought and imagination, and also generates fresh, repeatable, revealing experiences during the cure. Image psychologists claim that the Eidetic Image is genetic, with a grip over the human mind powerful enough to transform it. As Ahsen puts it, “Image is being in Psyche.”
As a reviewer put it, “What Dr Ahsen appears to be emphasising is that spontaneous psychical visual experience can be linked to emotional and psycho-physiological states to relieve anxiety and conflict and understand pattern of behaviour. This is pioneering work.” As images are studied at various levels, one is able to play with their infinite possibilities and induce desired changes in a patient’s state of mind.
In his search for Eidetic images — the healing images — Ahsen finds mythology the most revealing form of collective thought, and many of his books deal either directly or indirectly with mythology, or have a strong mythological bent. Mythology is vital to the study of the human consciousness and its origins, says Ahsen. “We have forgotten mythology and this forgetfulness is ripping us apart, tearing our minds, our souls, our hearts, our history and our future.” He dismisses the works of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud as “19th-century stuff” and believes instead that “we are at the threshold of a whole new era where mythology and origins are being reclaimed”.
It is through such a “reclamation” of image and mythology that Ahsen hopes to effect a cure for mental illness. “I attempt to establish certain staged conditions of imagery meaning that you bring in a few images and almost establish a state of interaction with them in the mind. WVien you have done that, you discover that these images possess a magical quality capable of revealing the source of disturbance as well as the key to healing.”
Ahsen says that his method is more effective than psychoanalysis, and repeatable clinical experiments seem to back his claim. He opposes psychoanalysis as a method that relies on words rather than images, assuming that the word uttered by the patient contains clues about the source of his or her illness. “The more a patient talks, the more the disease will be revealed —this is psychoanalysis. I am opposed to that view. It is the image seen by the patient that knows all the secrets of the disease.”
Image Psychology aims not only to cure mental illness but also to protect the mind from psychological disturbance —a form of psychological preventive medicine. “There is more than one method of treatment,” says Ahsen. “You can lop off the afflicted organ, you can treat it or you can prevent it from becoming diseased in the first place. I think psychology is still oriented towards the surgical method. Whatever is diseased, lop it off. The methodology, the approach appears very modern but it is really very archaic. Psychotherapy has become rationalistic. It has become laden with assumptions which need to be deconstructed, need to be smashed.”
Nature, according to Ahsen, is still the best cure for most human ills. “The only place where god finally appears is our inner self, our nature, not in our creations — most of which are just an endless patchwork that we heap upon Nature. If Nature holds the key to wellbeing, “image gives you the same vitality that Nature gives to a wild pigeon”, asserts Ahsen. It is through image that he hopes to reactivate the healing powers of Nature.
In Ahsen’s terminology, Eid is the “jubilation of Nature”. Ahsen’s provocative vision of the future also borrows heavily from religious mythology. “I feel our next leap will see us either as pigeons living in allotted spaces which will continue to shrink with time and terms of manoeuvrability, or all this will be replaced by a wholly different system of Nature in which man will give up his knowledge sacrifice it at the altar of Nature. He will become free, having known everything. Either way, things cannot go on like this. I feel that we have finally reached a point of really knowing that the whole damned thing is an exile.”
Predicting the dissolution of civilisation, Akhter Ahsen believes that apocalypse has been foretold in all mythological and religious traditions. “We started as Titans and ended up mice bred in the laboratory of civilisation, but all the sacred books say that we will return to the Garden of Eden. This means that laws will go to hell. They will be torn apart and only then will Eden arise agai^i. Up to that time there will be nothing but more and more laws, which will be like chains. More and more breeding of the rats until there is nothing left. Then we will throw them all away.”