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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA



Cinema Alchemy – Using the Power of Film for Healing and Transformation

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT

I have loved movies all my life, and they often had a powerful impact on me. For example, I remember Il Postino (The Postman) (1994).

In this film, the main character Marios talents and passionate heart never had reason to show themselves. His life on a quiet Italian island had been simple, carved out for him as it was by his fisherman father. But when renowned poet Pablo Neruda is sentenced to political exile there, Mario takes the job of delivering his daily fan mail, and gradually becomes friends with the famous man. This friendship serves as a catalyst for Mario to get in touch with his passion for poetry and the natural beauty around him.

I fell under The Postman's spell and became completely enchanted. There is so much vitality and genuine passion in this film. While I watched with increased conscious awareness, the simplicity in the main characters lives as well as their appreciation for poetry and nature made me feel joyful and relaxed. It felt as if I could breathe a little deeper, as if my busy life had stopped for a while, and I enjoyed these moments of peacefulness. The tenderness in the relationship between Mario and Neruda, as well as the authenticity that Mario displayed, touched me deeply. After the closing credits this feeling stayed with me, and I recognized that the movie had made me aware of deeply held values again, values that had been buried in my everyday life. I decided to bring these qualities back by spending more time alone in nature, simplifying my life and bringing more tenderness and authenticity into my relationships.

These and many other amazing experiences with movies have planted a seed that continues to grow over time. I learned, and teach now, that one of the most important aspects in utilizing the power of movies is watching films with conscious awareness. We enhance our conscious awareness when we bring non-judging attention, curiosity, and acceptance to whatever is arising in our experience of the present moment while viewing a film.

Many spiritual orientations teach us to become more aware of ourselves because they recognize the healing power of awareness. The Jewish Talmud points out that normally we do not see what we think we see, that what we perceive is more a reflection of us than it is objectively it. Everything we experience is altered and shaped by our minds. Our desires filter our selection of the items that we perceive. Our emotions color those perceptions. And finally, our attention wanders from perception to perception, virtually guaranteeing that what we see of the world and ourselves is mostly inaccurate.

Buddhism makes the same basic observation saying that our awareness is usually clouded and that we are spiritually asleep. When we are not mindful we replace authentic experience with habitual responses. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, speak of this state as a dream, illusion, or maya in which our minds are veiled. St. Paul claimed, A veil lies over their mind, while Islam multiplied the metaphor to seventy-thousand veils. Charles Tart offered that we live in a consensus trance that is a much more pervasive, powerful, and artificial state than ordinary hypnosis, and it is all too trance like. The metaphors differ, but the message is the same.

The experience of watching movies can be seen as a metaphor for this trance or illusionary state. Becoming consciously aware in the present moment helps us to wake up. This is like remembering that we are watching a film even as we are deeply absorbed in the story. Sensing our arms as they touch the sides of our seat in a movie theater or in front of the TV might make us conscious that we are just watching images on a screen in front of us.

Abbreviated Guidelines to Watch Movies with Conscious Awareness:

Since our rational mind is only a small part of the portal to your inner wisdom, I suggest a process in which you watch and listen with your whole body, not simply with your mind.

In preparation for each viewing session, before a movie starts in a theater or before you turn on the video, sit comfortably and relax. Let your attention move effortlessly, without strain, first to your whole body and then to your breath. Notice any tension or holding. To release tension you may experiment with "breathing into" any part of your body that feels strained.

When you start watching the movie, pay attention to the story and to yourself. Do not continue to create a particular state, such as relaxation, but rather be a compassionate witness of what is. Observe especially how the movies images, ideas, conversations, and characters affect your physical sensations. What happens when these throw you off balance because they trigger undesired emotions? Just put your attention on that experience while you are watching. In all likelihood, whatever unbalances you in response to a movie character or scene is similar to whatever unbalances you in daily life.

Stay present and alert. Watch your responses with an interested, curious detachment. Bring your inner attention to "all of you" head, heart, belly, etc. Once in a while you might notice a certain sensation or emotional response from your subtle, always-present intuitive core. You might let yourself get totally absorbed by the movie for a while and forget about anything else. Notice your sensations when you come back to awareness of yourself.

These guidelines are intended as a practice in observing from the inside. As a witness, you step back and the bigger picture becomes more obvious. You will notice that, at first, it is easier to stay consciously aware of your reactions to movie characters than to real people with whom you might experience some emotional entanglement. Practicing with movies will help you apply conscious awareness from reel life to scenes in your real life. You will regain access to values or capacities in the big movie of your life with which you might have lost touch. As I experienced with Il Postino, this process can provide an opportunity for you to become deeply present, connect with your inner wisdom and essential Self.


Birgit Wolz wrote the following continuing education online courses;

Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.

Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.

Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.

Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)

Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.

DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.

Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy