Creative visualization or mental imagery may conjure up sales pitches that promise us whatever we want just by imagining it. Despite its bad reputation, it’s a technique that takes advantage of our imagination and can have very real benefits in our lives. It’s based on the mind-body connection, which has become well established even in Western culture. We certainly feel it when we’re stressed and suffer from a tension headache or stomach problems.
Creative visualization uses that connection in a positive way. In my experience, there are actually two ways to approach it. I call the first approach intentional because we control what we imagine with the conscious mind. In a future post, I’ll discuss what I call unintentional creative visualization, which is more of an intuitive activity where we let our minds hand us images rather than trying to control them ourselves.
you can learn to use imagery to learn more about yourself — to become aware of emotional stresses or conflicts, or solutions to problems that you’re stuck with; to use your mind creatively, to move beyond blocks, both internal and external, in your life.
I’ve personally found this to be true, but only when I recognize that self-learning and change are gradual processes. The mental health benefits of creative visualization are cumulative. One session can relieve some stress, but long-term benefits require regular practice.
Mental imagery can also help us achieve desired outcomes and reach goals, but in my experience, it works in tandem with concrete actions. Dr. Zenon Pylyshyn is on the faculty of Rutgers at their Center of Cognitive Science. He wrote an entry on mental imagery in the second edition of the Oxford Companion to the Mind (2006) and makes this interesting observation:
They [mental images] are our images and we can make them have very nearly any property we wish – and we generally make them have the properties we believe would actually obtain if we were to see the real situation.
In other words, we gravitate towards imagery that feels comfortable to us, based on the situation and what we know of ourselves.
When using creative visualization to imagine something we’d like to achieve or happen, we have to stretch our imagination so that it pictures an unfulfilled potential. In my own experiences, I often find it difficult to push past what I’ve come to expect of myself. I really have to work hard to even imagine doing things differently or things happening differently. I believe this is a learning experience in itself. It gives us a chance to question the blocks that lie beneath our difficulty in imagining a different outcome than what we’ve come to expect of ourselves and our lives.
Creative Visualization Technique
Elizabeth Scott, the stress management guide at About.com, states that creative visualization is “virtually as easy as indulging in a vivid daydream.” She recommends tapping into as many senses as possible when we visualize: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste. This is hard work, particularly when we’re not used to working with our imagination this way, but I’ve found that it becomes easier with practice.
Possibly the most well-known mental imagery technique involves the peaceful place scenario. One version of it is at Imagerynet.com, maintained by Dr. David Gersten. It involves visualizing a peaceful setting with a cottage where you can relax. Elizabeth’s Scott’s instructions are less defined, simply telling readers to imagine “yourself in the midst of the most relaxing environment you can imagine.”
When I do the peaceful place visualization, I picture an ideal setting based on whatever makes me feel safe at the time. Usually it’s in nature, but sometimes it’s in some structure like a cozy little house in the woods or a roomy, well-lighted houseboat. Then I focus on different aspects of my surroundings, running through each sensory perception in turn. If I’m at the beach, I smell the ocean salt in the air. If I’m in a meadow, I feel the warm grass beneath me. If I’m in my ideal house, I may hear relaxing music.
Once I’ve settled on the details, I focus on feeling safe. Nothing can get to me here. I imagine the energies of the universe making everything right. Answers to all problems are being created as I sit here in safety, and when I venture back into the real world, they’ll be within reach. Obstacles that have already presented themselves and will present themselves in the future contain their own solutions, which I’ll eventually understand. I can stay as long as I need to and return as often as I need to.
Scott suggests counting from 10 or 20 down to 1 in order to gradually come out of a mental imagery session. I take a few deep breaths and let the scene fade out. I use creative visualization in my nightly meditation routine, but in times of stress, I’ll do a more detailed peaceful place visualization as frequently as I can. Even once every few days helps get me through rough times.
Perhaps some people hesitate to do mental imagery because it’s like we’re just sitting there doing nothing. Our society has problems with actions that don’t produce quick, concrete results. Creative visualization, in my experience, does produce results, though they take time to manifest. I encourage anyone who thinks this might be helpful to them to check out Imagerynet, which has descriptions of creative visualization scenarios for conditions like addiction, anger, and anxiety. Besides being fun and mentally beneficial, creative imagery helps us learn patience and focus.
Tags: creative visualization, mental imagery