The Benefits Of Making Visualization Meditation A Part Of Your Daily Routine

The Benefits Of Making Visualization Meditation A Part Of Your Daily Routine Hero Image
Photo: @debrawr

Visualization practices have been used for centuries, which is not surprising given what visual beings we are. It’s estimated that a whopping 65 percent learn best through visual cues, as compared to auditory or kinesthetic learning styles. Anyone who has found alignment in a fitness class when the instructor cues the class to "lace up the rib cage like a corset" or "buckle the belly button to the spine" knows this phenomenon well. First, we visualize it. Then our body follows suit. As research has shown time and time again, the mind tends to follow the body, and the body follows the mind. So how can we benefit from a visualization meditation practice?

The benefits of visualization meditation practice.

First, it’s worth noting that there isn’t just one type of visualization practice, nor do they all have the same effects. One of the most well-documented types of visualization is ideokinesis, or imaginary movement visualization, which was first used by Soviet Union Olympians in the 1970s to enhance performance and has been utilized ever since.

Mentally rehearsing our physical performance, it seems, has a number of benefits, most notably, better performance and less anxiety about the performance itself.

In the same way that we feel a burst of fear when watching a scary movie, the primal centers of our brains—like the amygdala, responsible for the fight, flight, freeze response—are unable to distinguish between what we’re "seeing" and what is truly happening. This means that we physically register what is happening in visualization. One of the benefits of having primal hardwiring is that our central nervous systems are easily duped. This is one reason why visually running drills leading up to an athletic performance can be very effective, for example.

Meditation, visualization, and the sweet spot in between.

As both meditation and visualization gain traction in our repertoire of holistic practices, it can be easy to mentally bundle them together as being one and the same. However, they’re more like sisters who wear each other’s clothes from time to time. Not all meditation is visualized, and not all visualization is meditation. Consider a Venn diagram. There is one circle that comprises “visualization” as it’s own body of practice, and one circle that comprises “meditation.” As with most Venn diagrams, there is a sweet spot where the two circles overlap, and it’s here that visualization meditation lives. One simple question to discern whether your visualization is, indeed, meditation, is: does this visualization exist in the present moment?

ADVERTISEMENT

One of the hallmarks of meditation practice from a Buddhist perspective is that it intends to bring us closer to our moment to moment experience. It’s said that the Eskimos have 50 words for snow because it’s such a prominent part of their landscape. They’re able to notice the granular distinctions. In the same way, there are numerous names for “Meditation” in the Indio-Asiatic languages, and just as many translations. “Gom” in Tibetan translates roughly as “To familiarize.” “Samadhi” in Sanskrit can be translated as “To become intimate." While knowing these various translations won’t necessarily make us better meditators, it does give our practice some context. Something that most definitions agree on, is that meditation is a process of moving closer to what is, right here, right now. It’s a practice of resting with our direct experience. Which means that if your visualization is a projection of future desires, a replay of past events, or an imaginary (albeit, delicious) beach with hot sun and warm sand in the middle of December, there’s a pretty good chance that your visualization still has tremendous benefit (see above). However, it’s probably not meditation.

This is an important distinction to tease out so that we can feel both confident and clear about what we’re doing when we sit down on the cushion.

How to build a visualization meditation practice.

When we talk about meditation from a Buddhist perspective, there are typically two streams that we’re referencing. One is concentration practice, and the other is contemplation practice. Mindfulness meditation, for instance, belongs to the concentration stream. It’s the process of repeatedly ushering the attention back to a single point of focus, or concentration.

The second stream, contemplation, is where visualization meditation lives. There are a handful of classic visualization meditation practices meant to invoke or familiarize ourselves with qualities that already exist within us. Tonglen, the practice which can be translated as sending and receiving, has us breathing in the pain of others and exhaling spacious relief. It’s an exercise in deepening our empathy and our impulse to be of help. I’ve often practiced this when it’s clear a loved one or society is hurting, and I’m not sure how to help.

On the other hand, emotion contemplations, such as variations of traditional Chöd practice, often ask us to generate and then visualize the characteristics of what we are feeling. What is it’s texture? It’s weight? It’s color? This type of visualization helps us drop the storyline around our emotions and the impulse to “figure it out” and instead rest with the physical feel-ing itself.

As with all visualization meditation, it’s helpful to couch our visualization practice between two shorter periods of concentration, or Shamatha mediation. Shamatha is just a fancy Sanskrit way of referring to our breath as the object of meditation, or mindfulness of breath. I often say that it’s a very simple, but not easy instruction: as our mind wanders (which it naturally will), we simply acknowledge what captures our attention, and bring our awareness back to the breath in our body. This gives us an opportunity to stabilize the mind before and after our visualization practice.

One of the more popular and accessible visualization meditations is lovingkindness, or metta in it’s native Pali language. It’s a visualization meditation derived from Theravada Buddhism, which has recently been shown to help with everything from decreasing chronic pain, to boosting social connection, to buoying positive emotions. It’s a technique that works with imagery, phrases, and attention to feeling to invoke the qualities of friendliness and compassion that are already innately within us. As the meditation master Chogyam Trungpa once quipped, “Everyone loves something, even if it’s only tortillas.”

In lovingkindness meditation, we’re not visualizing anything that doesn’t already exist. We’re simply taking the love that we already know, amplifying it, and extending it outward. We’re also noticing when the act of extending goodwill becomes difficult or breaks down completely. It’s as much a practice of opening our hearts as it is one of identifying our biases and barriers.

There are some wonderful guided recordings available online from master teachers Tara Brach and, of course, Sharon Salzberg who literally wrote the book on lovingkindness. However if you would like to try it on your own, here are a few simple instructions.

A visualization meditation to try: lovingkindness (also known as metta).

1. First, find a comfortable seated position and take a moment to locate your breath in your body. There’s no need to control or manipulate the breath, just feel the way that it naturally moves in the body. Take a few minutes to work with the breath as the object of meditation. As the mind wanders, acknowledge where it lands, and then gently but firmly bring the attention back to the breath.

2. Moving our minds from concentration practice to contemplation practice, begin by bringing to mind someone in your life who is easy to love. This might be a dear friend or mentor. Perhaps your loved one has four legs and fur. This is often a very uncomplicated kind of love. Invite your loved one to sit in front of you. In your mind’s eye, visualize their facial features, the way that they hold their body. Notice how it feels to be in their presence, and any happiness, warmth, or tenderness that they evoke.

3. Touching in on the feeling of being with our loved one, extend it out to them by sending them these phrases:

  • May you be happy.
  • May you feel safe.
  • May you feel at home in your body.
  • May you live your life with ease.

4. Watch your loved one soaking in these wishes, and then thank them for coming, allowing their image to dissolve.

5. Next, visualize someone in your life who is a bit more neutral. You’ve probably seen or met them before, but haven’t really developed an opinion of them one way or another. Perhaps this is a local barista, or someone you’ve seen in the neighborhood. If you’re having difficulty locating someone who you regard as ‘neutral,’ you’re not alone. This is often sited as the most difficult person to visualize, as we rarely pay attention to what we find ‘neutral.’ Try not to overthink it. In the same way as our loved one, invite this person to sit in front of you. Visualize their facial features, the way that they hold their body.

6. Again, touch in on the feeling of being with our loved one, and extend it out to our neutral person using these phrases:

  • May you be happy.
  • May you feel safe.
  • May you feel at home in your body.
  • May you live your life with ease.

Watching your neutral person soaking in these wishes, thank them for coming and allow their image to dissolve.

7. This time, bring to mind someone in your life who is a bit more difficult. You may not want to start with the most triggering person, but someone who is annoying. Perhaps you’ve never met them in person. This could be someone who pushes your buttons from afar. Invite them to sit across from you. Visualize their facial features, the way that they hold their body.

8. Again, touch in on the feeling of being with our loved one, and extend it out to our difficult person using these phrases:

  • May you be happy.
  • May you feel safe.
  • May you feel at home in your body.
  • May you live your life with ease.

Watching your difficult person soaking in these wishes, thank them for coming and allow their image to dissolve.

9. This time, invite everyone you’ve visualized thus far to gather with you; your loved one, your neutral person, your difficult person. Include yourself in the circle this time. Touch in on the feeling, and extend it out through these phrases:

  • May we be happy.
  • May we feel safe.
  • May we feel at home in our bodies.
  • May we live our lives with ease.

10. You can continue this practice by using your imagination and expanding your circle of “we,” inviting everyone in your city into the circle. Invite everyone in your country into the circle. Invite everyone in the world into your circle. Include places you’ve never been and people you will never meet, continuing to extend the four phrases, above. Notice how far your visualization will take you.

11. Finish by contracting the circle of “we,” and bringing your visualization home. Close by again, touching in on the feeling of being with our loved one and extending it out through these phrases:

  • May I be happy.
  • May I feel safe.
  • May I feel at home in my body.
  • May I live my life with ease.

12. Notice any feeling that was generated in this visualization, whether it be tenderness, resistance, or anything in between. Close by allowing the contemplation to dissolve, and bookending your practice with a short breath-based meditation, in the same way as it began.

3 meditation techniques to try if visualization isn't for you.

True story. When I first began practicing visualization meditation, I was not a fan. I didn’t feel what I thought I “should” be feeling in practice. I kept getting distracted. I spent more time trying to figure out who I should be visualizing than doing the visualization itself.

It took me some time to figure out that this is all completely OK, and that it takes a bit of time to get the hang of it. This is why meditation is called a practice. It might take some time to deepen into visualization meditation, and it’s lasting effects aren’t quick, they’re cumulative.

If you’re finding yourself in the same boat, I encourage you to keep showing up. However, if you’ve decided that visualization meditation is definitely not your thing, here are a few other techniques worth trying.

Mantra Meditation

Born from the Vedic system (which also gave us the healing methods of Ayurveda), mantra meditation has been worked with for centuries to both center and transcend the mind using a series of syllables or words repeated silently in repetition. (Think: Transcendental Meditation.) While procuring a mantra of your own often requires an initial training in the practice, there are many great resources available for trying out mantra meditation and getting a feel for it’s effects.

Walking Meditation

It's said that when the historical Buddha taught meditation, he did so using the four postures of our lives: sitting meditation, standing meditation, lying down meditation, and walking meditation. While 'lying down meditation’ isn't commonly taught due to the ease with which most of us would just drift into nap time, walking meditation is still a commonplace practice which often peppers longer sitting meditation practices. It can also be practiced on its own. Rather than the breath, a mantra, or a visualization, the object of meditation in walking meditation is placed on the (slow and measured) movement itself.

Sound Baths

Sound baths have been steadily growing in popularity as a compliment to more traditional meditation techniques, and for good reason. According to Sara Auster, a leading Sound Therapy Practitioner and the Sound Director of both MNDFL meditation studios and The Big Quiet in New York City, “It’s a sigh of relief for the nervous system.” Working from the principle that the universe we live in is comprised of vibration and energy, a series of instruments are played to “bathe” participants in sound vibration to help facilitate a shift in both mind and body.

Regardless of what form of meditation you decide to engage, it’s always wise to study with a trained instructor.

Want to step up your meditation game? Check out our 14-day meditation reboot.


Explore More