Most popular scriptures mention a time when we lived in harmony with ourselves and the world around us. Then we fell into darker times. Our vision became clouded by ignorance, and today we find ourselves cut off from our natural state, ignorant of the true nature of our existence. Fortunately, a few people kept alive the connection, rediscovering and developing techniques that harness our potential, allowing us to once again communicate with our natural state. They were known as saints, seers, mystics, healers, shamans, priests, magicians, great artists, exceptional musicians, brilliant scientists, etc. While the rest of us were living in a world of separation these people were able to tap into the source. They could perform amazing feats of healing, miracles, prophecies and create incredible works of art, science and philosophy, which to this day provide us with inspiration to search for that natural state from where it all comes.
The good news is that the potential exists in every one of us. It is part of the potential of the human experience. We can connect and communicate with higher, more subtle aspects of our being particularly through the medium of images. In other words, through the practice of visualization.
There is nothing as powerful as thought. Visualization is the process of harnessing thought in a constructive manner. We visualize all the time, mostly unconsciously, and create manifestations of uncontrolled thoughts and desires. In this way we create our world! Visualization can be used as a vehicle for expansion of consciousness, as a language between the mundane and the divine. By constructing specific forms and settings we allow for the possibility of interaction with divine energy.
It is a universal law that energy follows thought. What we imagine or focus on becomes manifest. Nothing exists in our lives without first being conceived of internally. The potential practical use of this fact is endless. It has been used to effect miraculous cures, pass examinations, develop positive attributes and manifest abundance, joy and peace. It is the process of creative visualization, which is not just optimistic (wishful) thinking as it brings these creative forces into play. The science fiction visualized and written about in the past is often todays manifest reality. But most people are unaware of what they are focusing on or visualizing. Since most of us have been conditioned into negative thinking and self-criticism, we unconsciously create this negativity. So, we need to become more aware of our mental imagery and thoughts, and actively begin to focus more positively.
The area of the brain stimulated by visualization is the same area utilized by the act of seeing. Visualizing an object can create the same physiological changes as actually seeing the object, induce healing mechanisms or create relaxation.
Visualization has been defined as the ability to create a mental picture, as seeing with the minds eye or using our imagination. It includes all forms of images, from static objects to entire scenes played out in a movie-like sequence.
The images have been also described in terms of vividness, from being so vivid one cannot tell the difference between image and reality, to very vague, unclear, barely perceptible images. Also, they can be described in terms of their controllability. If one is able to create and dispose of the image at will, change things within the image, or move their perception within the image, the image has high controllability. If the image comes in an unexpected flash and one is unable to manipulate it, it has low controllability. These descriptions served as a guide for psychologists to categorize the types of visual experiences as memory images, imagination, daydreams and fantasy, hypnogogic images, dreams, hallucinations and visions. The categories can help us become aware of our different visual experiences.
Memory images are reconstructed or resurrected from past experiences and perceptions, recent or distant. They may appear spontaneously or be summoned. They vary in vividness, but are usually very controllable. In addition to the visual component, memory images are often connected to one or more senses which trigger the memory.
Imagination is the next common type of visualization image. Here the images take on any form the creator desires. They may contain elements of past experiences, but possibly changed from how they were originally perceived. Unlike memory images, imagination images have no fixed reference point. They tend to be substantial and vividly coloured, and involve a concentrated attention on creating them, while association and intruder thoughts are inhibited. When harnessed, imagination becomes a powerful creative force.
Daydreams and fantasy are a special combination of memory and imagination images. In daydreams we picture scenes, objects and people in ongoing situations. The objects and people may be real or fictitious, and the scene may have occurred in the past or be future orientated. It may be a visualization of what one wished they had done in the past or what one would do should a particular situation arise. It is important to be aware of these images, as they consume a lot of energy and also harness the creative force of imagination. It is therefore better to daydream about success and positive outcomes to future situations rather than wasting energy on negative daydreams, fears, and fantasies about changing an event that has already occurred.
Hypnogogic images tend to be vivid, detached and beyond the reach of conscious control. They occur in the twilight state between being awake and asleep. Examples are light flashes, geometric forms, faces, and even whole scenes. They are vivid enough to seem real but generally most people will realize they are internal. If one practises each night to become aware of these images it will extend their awareness into the deeper states of mind where we normally become unconscious. They are useful in helping our inner journey and developing awareness.
Dreams tend to have the most compelling sense of reality out of all the images discussed. Visual images work differently to rational, verbal thought in that there is less analysis and a greater sense of participation. This is especially true of the dream state. Dream images are of tremendous practical value. They help us discover what lies in our subconscious and unconscious mind. Through analysis and interpretation they bring us to new levels of self-understanding. The practice of conscious or lucid dreaming, where one is aware they are dreaming, becomes incredibly useful as one can manipulate the dream imagery and further their growth.
Hallucinations and visions are especially vivid and differ from other types of imagery in that the experiencer believes the image to be outside themselves. Vision images are often the source of creative inspiration.
Visualization is one of the many so-called natural human functions. Like breathing, we do it all the time. If we become conscious of it, we can also take more control of it, deepen our visual experiences and take them to new levels.
Before practising visualization, we could practise a few preliminaries that help us retrain our minds and create the fertile ground on which visualization skills will grow. These are the ability to relax, concentrate and see. Fortunately, many practices have been developed to help us do this. Many yoga practices have these two aims, too.
Improving our visual sense perception can greatly improve our ability to visualize. The same part of the brain is stimulated when one sees an object with the eyes. So it seems obvious that developing our ability to look at things will help exercise the regions of our brain used in visualization.
Active, alert seeing involves using our mind as well as eyes. The better we train our mind to perceive external objects, the easier it becomes to imagine internal images. Seeing in this way involves developing the ability to look with awareness and alertness at whatever is in the visual field, to go beyond the everyday labels associated with the things seen and concentrate purely on the image.
Ways of developing seeing ability are simple, many and can be done all the time. Look at objects without labelling them, notice the textures, shadows, shades of colours, patterns, shapes, lines, forms, etc. Or look at a scene for a while, close the eyes and try to remember the objects. Another method is to examine an object from several different perspectives. Painting objects is also a great way to relax, concentrate and see. This sharpens our visualization and awareness, as it directly sharpens our ability to look.
Visualization is indispensable for healing work. We can invoke images of health and perfection where illness and disease have set in. Our ability to form these images is a most divine gift and privilege.
The idea of the inner guide, inner guru, spirit guide, higher self or universal self which eternally guides ones consciousness to evolve is prevalent in most belief systems. The common thread is that we all have contact with the information necessary to direct our own growth. It comes from a part of us deeper than the ego, which works through feelings, intuition and also strongly through spontaneous receptive visualization of pure images.
Many visualization techniques have been developed as a means of getting in touch with the images from our inner centres. They are called receptive techniques because they allow space for spontaneous images to appear within a guided visualization sequence or meditative practice. With practice, we are able to come into contact with our higher self through these pure images and guide ourselves on a process of growth. This leads to a more complete understanding of our true nature. The only pitfall is that other images coming from our ego or more superficial aspects of ourselves could also surface, and have more to do with fulfilment of our wants rather than our needs. However, if we are honest, we can easily discern an ego image from a pure one. The visualization techniques also have built-in safeguards, as they lead first to a positive, open, receptive and relaxed state of mind where the ego naturally becomes quieter.
Holding images in our minds affects us and the world around us. Our bodies respond universally to images, whether they are pure images from the inner world or ego images from the outer world. Concentration on pure images brings about harmony. Concentration on ego images has the same hit-and-miss effect as ego solutions have in our lives.
If we feel satisfied with a particular aspect of our lives, we will generally find that our images of that area will be positive. The reverse is also true. Areas we feel dissatisfied with have accompanying negative images. So, if we are holding negative images as a focus in that area, it is unlikely things will change for the better in that area.
By becoming aware of how these negative images come about, we can prevent them from recurring. It could be our boss criticizing our work, creating an image of low self-worth in our minds. Or, we start with a positive image but it gets changed to a negative one unconsciously. So, a powerful way to change is to become aware of the images we hold by looking at various aspects of our lives. Then by continuing to focus on the positive images, reinforcing them, and by changing our negative images to positive ones and consciously focusing on them, we begin to manifest more positivity. As we sow, so we grow, so shall we reap.
This is basically a technique of using our imagination to create what we want. Imagination is part of the basic creative energy of the universe. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, we use this force constantly. In creative visualization we create an image of something we wish to manifest. We continue to focus on the idea, or picture it regularly, giving it positive energy until it becomes an objective reality. Through practising creative visualization with regularity and a positive, open-minded approach, we are aligning ourselves with the natural principles that govern the universe and learning to use them in the most conscious and creative way.
The skill of visualization is harnessed, developed, expanded and sharpened directly and indirectly through many yogic practices. Yoga nidra uses all the principles of visualization. The criteria for effective visualization practice i.e. relaxation, concentration and ego withdrawal are met by the preparatory, rotation of consciousness and breath awareness stages. Basic visualization is practised in these stages as well.
The sankalpa stage follows similar principles to visualization, not only seeding the deeper levels of the mind with a positive focus (goal), but also harnessing the creative force that manifests the things we focus on most deeply. Along with repeating a short, positive, affirming sentence, we could also hold an image of attaining the sankalpa in mind. Then we are practising sankalpa and creative visualization at the same time. Double the fun!
The visualization stage of yoga nidra allows space for many different types of visualization practices, which can be chosen according to specific needs. Visualizations for healing, inner processing, problem-solving, creative thinking and developing spirituality are examples. Visualizations that allow for pure images to surface can be done here. The possibilities are limited only by our imagination!
Other practical aspects of visualization are incorporated into asana practice, which provides a focus that will keep our mind present, aware and concentrated during the performance. Visualizing before the practice causes physiological changes that would occur during the actual practice. This in a sense primes the body at a cellular level and makes the practice easier.
Visualization is one of the most powerful tools we have to bring about changes in our lives, and to communicate with deeper levels of our being. It is a tool we are all capable of using although our social conditioning has led us to largely ignore the development of this skill. Fortunately, the ability can be sharpened. When we begin to explore this dimension of our being, what mystery and adventure await us! It may take us on a journey of self-discovery, give meaning and direction to our lives and unleash the creative forces within.