Visualization holds a prominent place in the practices of most contemplative traditions.
In one of Buddhism’s central texts, the Visudhimagga, for example, numerous visual objects are outlined, everything from colored wheels to bloated corpses.¹
The student is directed towards a particular one depending on their temperament.
We probably don’t need to go to that kind of depth.
The fact still remains, however, that “visual meditations” can be potent tools for healing and relaxation. In this article, I want to look at two techniques.
A visualization is merely a mental image that is taken as the object of focus during meditation. The power of these “mental images” rests on the psychological impact they can have on us.
Holding your attention on a decaying corpse (a Buddhist technique), for example, is going to have a different effect on imagining rays of compassion radiating to your loved ones.
You can use visualization meditation purely as a means of healing and relaxation, or as a springboard for experiencing deeper meditative states.
The reason that it is useful as an initial practice is because it brings your thoughts (or your thinking faculty) in accordance with your intended aim – to focus.
If we jump straight into “mindfulness of breathing” for example, it can often feel that we’re fighting our minds.
By actively engaging our imagination to create a fiction we cut through this problem. Equally, a visualization used only for cultivating a positive state of mind is perfectly valid.
Visualization Meditation Script 1: Rays of Light
- Begin by settling yourself. Sit in a meditation posture and take a few deep, calming breaths.
- When your feel ready, imagine looking with your mind’s eye into a deep, clear blue sky. In the centre of this open space is a sun.
- Experience the blue sky as your mind: pure, broad, free of constraints.
- As you continue to hold this image, imagine the sun pouring light over you.
- Experience the rays of light as nourishing. Your worries and pains fade in its presence.
- Rest in this healing light for as long as you wish to.
- Whenever thoughts creep in, return to the image, experiencing it in all its vividness.
Visualization Meditation Script 2: Happiness for Yourself and Others
- Begin, again, by settling yourself.
- When ready, visualize yourself standing next to a beautiful fountain.
- This fountain, flowing with the purest water you have ever seen, exists in your own, radiant inner space.
- Experience the safety of this place. Feel yourself relax.
- Next to the fountain is an empty cup. Fill it with water and drink from it.
- As you quench your thirst, you feel a growing sense of well-being. It feels good.
- Next, invite your loved ones, your friends, to come and take a drink. Visualize each one.
- Relax into the joyfulness around you.
Using Guided Visualization Meditation for Success
We are visual beings, and that’s why visualization techniques have been used for many centuries. At least 65% of people learn through visual cues compared to other styles such as kinesthetic or auditory learning.
For instance, when you’re in a fitness class, your instructor might order you to lace up your rib cage like you do in a corset or buckle up the belly button all the way to the spine.
Although you didn’t do it, you mimicked that motion through imagination for perfect alignment. First, you visualized it, and your body did exactly as told.
Research has discovered that the mind always follows the body while the body follows the mind. So, you might be wondering how visualization meditation practice can be of importance to you.
Keep in mind that visualization practices are not limited to one type or similar effects for the various types available. Ideokinesis is one well-documented kind of visualization.
Also referred to as imaginary movement visualization, the Soviet Olympians used it in the 1970s to enhance their performance and was adopted worldwide after that. More recently, famous MMA fighter Conor McGregor uses visualization techniques before his fights.
Rehearsing your physical performance mentally has several benefits especially less anxiety about the whole process and better performance.
It’s similar to when you scream or shudder in fear when watching a scary movie. Note that, the amygdala and other primal centers of the brain responsible for creating the run, hide or fight response, usually have a hard time finding the distinction between what’s happening and what you’re seeing.
Your body will physically register what’s happening during visualization. We have primal hardwiring, and one of the benefits of that is our central nervous system can be duped easily. It comes in handy especially when running drills before doing an actual athletic performance for the best results.
Meditation and Visualization
As part of holistic practices, both visualization and meditation are often bundled up together as similar experiences. However, they have a few distinctions between them. For instance, not all meditation will be visualized and vice versa. Take a Venn diagram with two circles, one being visualization and the other meditation.
Just like other Venn diagrams, there’s an overlap of the two circles, and that’s where visualization meditation comes in. There are ways to distinguish between the two. Start by asking yourself how does visualization exist in the present moment to help you differentiate between visualization and meditation.
Buddhists often practice meditation and one of the hallmarks concluded from it is that it brings you closer to the experience of each moment. Note that, Eskimos have at least 50 words to describe snow because it’s a very prominent part of their environment. As such, they can notice the granular distinctions in each type.
Similarly, meditation has been described using various names in the Indio-Asiatic languages and with many more translations. These include:
a) “Gom”: A Tibetan word that roughly translated as ‘to familiarize.’
b) “Samadhi”: A Sanskrit word translated as ‘ to become intimate.’
Knowing the various translations will not improve your meditation skills, but it brings some context to the practice.
However, most definitions agree that meditation is a process that allows you to move closer to what is right here and now. It’s a process of resting with your direct experience.
On that note, visualization becomes a projection of your future desires and a replay of what has happened in the past.
For instance, you can always imagine being at the beach with hot sun and warm sand in the middle of winter. Yes, your visualization has a lot of benefits, but it’s not meditation.
You need to set out this clear distinction so that you can feel confident of what’s happening when you sit down.
How to Build a Visualization Meditation Practice
From a Buddhist perspective, meditation can be narrowed down to two streams.
First, there is a concentration practice, and secondly, we have contemplation practice.
For instance, mindfulness meditation is part of the concentration stream. Here, you will repeatedly bring your attention back to a single point of concentration or focus.
With the second stream of contemplation, visualization meditation exists. There are a few practices you can try out that will allow you to become familiar with qualities that already exist within you.
For instance, there’s Tonglen, a practice roughly translated as sending and receiving, which allows you to breathe in the pain of other people and exhale relief.
The exercise will enable you to deepen your empathy and your impulse toward helping other people. It comes in handy when you notice someone close to you is hurting, but you’re not sure how you can help.
There are also emotion contemplations including the variations of the traditional Chod practice. Here, you will be asked to generate and visualize characteristics of what you’re feeling.
What is the texture, weight, and color of your emotions?
Basically, you will drop any stories around your emotions and the impulse to sort the problem but rest with the physical feeling.
Just like with all types of visualization meditation, you need to couch your visualization practice between 2 shorter concentration periods, or Shamatha meditation.
It is a word in Sanskrit that refers to the object of your meditation being your breath or the mindfulness of it. It might be a simple but not easy instruction.
That’s because as your mind wanders naturally. You will acknowledge what will capture your attention. Focus your awareness on breathing.
That way, you can stabilize your mind before and once you’re done with the visualization practice.
One of the popular and more accessible visualization meditation techniques is loving-kindness, also referred to as Metta, in the Pali language.
The technique works with phrases, imagery, and attention to your feelings thus invoking compassion and friendliness, qualities that are found within you.
In this type of meditation, you’re not visualizing anything that doesn’t exist currently. Instead, you’re taking the love you know and amplifying it and extending it outwards.
Also, you will notice when an act of extending your goodwill becomes tough or breaks down completely. It’s a simple practice of opening up your heart and identifying any barriers or biases you might have.
Guided Visualization Script for Beginners
- Find a comfortable place to sit and take a moment to find the breath in your body. You don’t need to manipulate or control your breathing. Instead, you should feel the way it’s moving naturally in your body. With your breath as the object of your meditation, you need to take a moment to work with it. When your mind wanders, acknowledge where it lands then try to bring the attention back to your breath gently but firmly.
- Next, you need to move your mind from the concentration to the contemplation steam. Start by thinking of someone in your life who is easy to love, whether a friend or mentor. It could also be your lovely pet. It should be a love that’s not complicated. You can invite the person you’re thinking about to sit with you. With your mind, you should start visualizing their facial features and the way they hold their body. Notice how you feel when in their presence such as happiness, tenderness, warmth or any other emotion they evoke.
- With the emotion in mind, you need to extend it to them using the following phrases. “May you be happy, may you feel safe, may you feel at home in your body and many you live your life with ease. “
- Watch your loved one acknowledge these wishes and thank them for coming to the practice while allowing the image in your mind to dissolve.
- Next, try visualizing someone in your life who is a bit neutral. It might be someone you have seen or met before, but you haven’t developed an opinion about them in one way or the other. It could be your local barista or someone you have seen a few times in the neighborhood. Locating a neutral person in your life might be tough. It might be one of the most challenging things to visualize since our minds don’t pay attention to neutral things. However, don’t overthink it. Invite the person to sit with you then visualize their facial features and how they hold their body while in front of you.
- Consider how you feel when you’re with a loved one and extend the same to the neutral person while saying the following phrases. “May you be happy, may you feel safe, may you feel at home in your body and live your life with ease.” Watch as the neutral person acknowledges these wishes then thank them for coming and allow their image to dissolve in your mind.
- Next, you need to think about someone in your life who is a little difficult. Don’t start with a person who triggers you but only someone who’s annoying. You might have never met the person, but he/she might be pushing your buttons from a distance. Invite the person to sit with you then visualize their facial features and how they hold their body.
- Imagine how you feel with a loved one and extend the same to the difficult person uttering the following phrases. “May you be happy, may you feel safe, may you feel at home in your body and live your life with ease.” Watch as the person soaks in these amazing wishes then thank them for coming and allow your mind to dissolve the image completely.
- Now, you should invite everyone you have visualized so far to gather around you. It should be your loved one, the neutral person and the difficult one. You should include yourself in the circle this time around. Imagine the feeling of love and acceptance and pass it along using the following phrases. “May we be happy, may we feel safe, may we feel at home in our bodies and may we live our lives with ease.”
- Continue the practice through your imagination and expand the circle of people. You can invite everyone you know in the circle, people in the neighborhood, the city, country, and the whole world. You should include places you have never gone to and people you will never meet while extending the four phrases. Try to point out how far the visualization experience will take you.
- Finally, you should make the circle smaller and bring your visualization experience home. Close in by imagining the feeling of being with your loved one and using the following phrases to extend it. “May I be happy, may I feel safe, may I feel at home in my body and live my life with ease.”
- You should identify the feelings generated with this visualization exercise whether resistance, tenderness or anything else. Close the exercise by allowing the sense of contemplation to dissolve. You should finish with a short breath meditation exercise just like you began.
Visualization meditation is an excellent way to create an awareness of the present and bring relief and love to the people you love or those around you.
Other Visualizations to Try
“Metta-Bhavana:” A Buddhist meditation in which you visualize offering loving-kindness (Metta) first to yourself, second to someone whom you care about, third to someone to whom you have neutral feelings and finally to someone with whom you are upset or angry. It can be a deeply healing (not to say an uplifting) practice.
Chakra Meditation: Some people find that they’re well suited to meditating on particular chakras. Have a look at our guide.
Using Your Own Visualisation
You can choose any image that evokes certain feelings (contentment, energy, confidence) to use as the object of a meditation. As mentioned earlier, the power of visualizations lies in their ability to foster certain feelings.
Choose an image that represents what you want to experience. Don’t worry too much about making the right choice, allow your intuition to guide you.