(5 min read)
For those newer to meditation or more specifically mindfulness, the question often arises as to how & where visualisation (including guided imagery) fits in.
The short answer is that visualisation is not mindfulness. Mindfulness is all about being fully present in the moment, and visualisation is a form of escape or disconnection from the present moment.
In the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program we focus a lot on learning to reconnect with ourselves in the present moment, because doing so reduces the impact of the stressors (things that cause us stress) in our lives. When we experience stress over a longer period of time, it is a form of chronic disconnection from the present moment.
Bringing our attention to the present moment “short-circuits” our stress response, activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and bringing us out of the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Put another way, mindfulness helps us manage and reduce the resulting stress created by our body & mind reacting to stressors. We learn to change our relationship to stress.
Many of us are disconnected as we go about our daily lives: disconnected from the physical sensations in our body (e.g., ignoring signals telling us we need to deal with soreness, pain, or just get up and move), disconnected from our thoughts (e.g., not aware of negative thought patterns and how they affect us), disconnected from our emotions (e.g., repressing them, hiding them from ourselves, or not feeling comfortable in showing our emotions). Mindfulness works because it’s a very efficient and practical way to learn to reconnect with ourselves.
Visualisation techniques, on the other hand, provide a way of disconnecting, providing an escape from the reality of our present moment experience. They are a short-term solution to dealing with stress, however they don’t address the underlying cause – our relationship to the things causing stress in our lives.
That’s not to say visualisation techniques aren’t useful and don’t have their place!
Are there situations where disconnecting can be a good thing? Absolutely.
For example, if you were to fall and break an arm/leg, would you really want to be fully present with the intense physical pain? Or would this be a time where you’d be better served disconnecting from the physical sensations in the body? Making a conscious choice to disconnect from the pain can definitely be the right choice in the moment. However, ignoring the resulting long-term effects of accidents or injuries in the body/mind can lead to worsening or chronic pain.
In addition, athletes often use visualization to great benefit as a tool to help get them into the right mindset before a big game/competition. Corporate rock stars may do the same before a big presentation. They visualize success and what that looks & feels like.
So, visualisation techniques can be very powerful and of great benefit, however they’re not used in mindfulness. The only exception is in the 8-week MBSR program, during the All-day retreat, there is a visualisation exercise (commonly a mountain or lake meditation). However, that visualisation is used specifically as a tool to evoke sensations, thoughts, emotions, sounds, etc. to which we pay mindful attention to in the present moment. It’s a “mindful visualisation”. This exercise is not a core part of mindfulness and the MBSR teacher lets the participants know.
Mindfulness is extremely efficient at exploring the root cause of what causes us stress & learning how to change our relationship to the stressors in our life. The results are life-changing.
Other types of meditation can be used, studied, and learned to offer many varying benefits to the practitioner. So how do we decide which one is right for us? I would encourage everyone to try out different ones and see what works for them. Then stick to practicing a single type for a least a few years so we can really dive deeply into it and experience the benefits. We are much better off choosing a single type of meditation and doing it regularly rather than constantly experimenting with multiple types and never committing to any.
Taking a teacher-led course, such as the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, can be a very supportive way to learn. Also, a certified MBSR teacher will authentically teach mindfulness – often what you find online for free, or even courses from teachers who aren’t actually certified in any style, mixes various types of meditation and psychology techniques together. I’ve seen countless yoga teachers and life coaches claim to teach mindfulness without ever having formally studied it. What they end up teaching is often a combination of things, much like what’s available online for free, which unfortunately doesn’t help realize the full potential of any of the types of meditation. Stick to a trusted source and you will personally get the most benefit. Don’t be afraid to ask for their qualifications.
And remember: whether it’s mindfulness, visualisation, or some other type of meditation, the more you practice the more you’ll get out of it.
Why not start your journey today?