Visualization meditation is a way of focusing the mind on our goals so we can be successful in life.
Problem is: There is a right way to do it and a wrong way. And oh boy, is the wrong way bad for you.
Years ago, psychologists proved that there is both a right way to do visualization meditation and a wrong way. But, lured by the promises of self help books, millions of people the world over continue to use visualization incorrectly.
It would be bad enough if those people were just wasting their time.
It’s far worse.
Improper visualization technique can actually prevent you from being successful.
When you practice visualisation meditation incorrectly, you’re going to pay for it
Matthew Stinton is a university student working towards a degree in psychology.
Adorning his bedroom wall is a large calendar on which he’s written a detailed plan designed to help him secure a first class degree. But as I enter his room he’s sitting playing a video game with a couple of friends.
I ask whether he’s been following his plan.
“I’m trying,” he says, “but I find it impossible to motivate myself to succeed.”
He laughs as a friend’s in-game character shoots him in the head.
“No fair, I wasn’t looking.”
Too late, much like it’s often too late in the day that many of us find the right mindset for success.
On Matthew Stinton’s desk is one of Jack Cornfield’s self help books opened to a page on visualization.
“It’s not working,” he says, setting the controller down. “I’ve been visualizing my future, imagining myself passing my exams every day, but it doesn’t seem to help. Maybe it’s just me.” He tells me of a time when, as a kid, he entered a swimming race as a hot favorite to win. He entered the pool optimistic, but somehow when he started racing he just didn’t have the desire to really put his full effort into it. He and ended up coming seventh out of eight kids.
‘I’ve always been that way, sort of talented but without the determination or motivation to make anything happen,” he says.
Self help books have been his go-to, but, he says, “I just can’t seem to get myself going.”
Could it be that those self help books are not only not helping, but actually hindering Stinton?
The visualization technique Stinton has been using is a classic technique used in self help.
The process is simple. You imagine yourself having accomplished whatever you want to accomplish. Want a billion dollars? Visualize a future in which you have a billion dollars in your bank account. Want a beautiful husband or wife, imagine it. Self help books have advocated this technique for years and have sold millions of books teaching it. But science shows that this technique isn’t just unhelpful, it’s damaging.
Science writer David DiSalvo tells us to “Visualize your success if you want to fail.”  And he makes a good point.
Scientific research has proven that the traditional use of visualization-meditation is hugely flawed and is in fact damaging to your chances of success.
Scientific research conducted by Heather Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen, and published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, shows that the classic visualization meditation (in which you imagine yourself already having what you want) actually prevents you from being successful.
The researchers were keen to test the theory of visualization. They believed that if these self help books were actually damaging people (and people who number well into the millions) then those good people deserved to know, and the self help authors deserve to be called-out on their grievous mistake.
The researchers used control groups to study the effects of visualizing that you’re already successful, as opposed to simply focusing on what you have to do.
The research shows that when you imagine that you already have what you want your brain actually truly believes that you have what you want right now without actually working for it. It’s the equivalent of paying someone to go to work without them actually going to work (why would your brain put effort into achieving something it’s already achieved?).
It’s easy to see how this visualization technique could be damaging for a student like Stinton.
As I tell him about the research he kicks himself and scoffs.
“I can’t believe that what I thought had been helping me is the very reason I’ve been failing.”
No doubt the millions of people who read self help books can understand Stinton’s disappointment.
“It’s my own fault though,” says Stinton. He throws one of his many self help books in the trash. “I mean, the self help industry is an industry. Food industry lies about what’s in food, pretending it’s healthy. Why would these guys be different?”
Millions of people continue to believe that McDonald’s now has healthy options, because they’re told so. And they continue to believe that visualization will get them anything they desire. And today, those self help books continue to fly on the shelves in droves.
But if all this seems like a kick on the groin of the self help industry—the authors of which often are genuinely trying to help even if they are a little misguided—then there is good news: self help books can be remarkably helpful tools, it’s just that they need to be taken with a grain of salt.
Self help books are valuable and can be very beneficial, but they should never be taken at face value.
Visualization meditation does help when done correctly
Visualization technique can hep when it’s done properly.
It’s just that most of those self help authors are more concerned with selling books that truly showing people the right way to visualize their future and their goals.
And indeed, there is a right way of visualizing your future, and it can be remarkably helpful when done correctly.
The “right way” to do the vusalisation technique is to tie your eventual goal back to the present moment in a logical “story” or “sequence of events”.
Let’s say your aim is to be toned within six months.
If you simply visualize yourself being toned your brain will simply think “I’m already toned, why do I need to bother working out?” because you have essentially forced your brain to believe you’re already toned by visualizing your success.
Instead, the right way to visualize your future and your goals is to imagine a story that leads you from right now, through a logical series of event, over the inevitable obstacles, and to your goal.
You want to get toned. Right now you could stand to lose a few pounds. Visualize the “story” or “logical sequence of events” that will lead from where you are right now to where you want to be. And include the problems.
Heidi Grant Halvorson Ph.D tells THE DAILY MEDITATION, “People who spend too much time fantasizing about the wonderful future that awaits them don’t have enough gas left in the tank to actually get there.
“You can cultivate a more realistically optimistic outlook by combining confidence in your ability to succeed with an honest assessment of the challenges that await you. Don’t visualize success—visualize the steps you will take in order to make success happen.”
This is similar to the powerful technique known as mental contrasting.
The key is to accept that there will be challenges and complications along the way. Visualize those potential setbacks and challenges, and visualize the hard work you will put in to get through.
Yes, you will need to workout.
Yes, you sometimes won’t feel like it.
Yes, you will face cravings.
Yes, some days will be better than others.
Visualize the entire process. Visualize waking up, not wanting to workout but doing it regardless. Visualize facing cravings but overcoming them. Visualize the gradual steps from where you are now to where you want to go.
That is the right way to visualize your future and goals.
As I tell Stinton this news, he gazes over the calendar on his wall, full of a list of various study dates and exams, and pinches his eyes shut. I ask what he’s doing. “Visualizing working hard towards succeeding, rather than just succeeding by some divine miracle.” He scratches the back of his neck. “This is more stressful than simply imagining I’ve already succeeded,” he says. “But hell, I can’t fail. So I’ll just have to face it. I’ve got work to do. But so long as I get my degree in the end”—he puffs his cheeks out—“it’ll be worth it.”
Use this visualization meditation for real success
- Close your eyes and take 25 mindful breaths (breathe while focusing on your breath)
- Bring to mind the success you want to achieve (for example, losing weight)
- Imagine what it would be like to lose weight, how you would feel once you’re successful
- Now list all the problems that will likely get in your way (lack of motivation, craving food, etc.)
- Now visualize how you will overcome each of those problems so you will actually be successful
- Now imagine your future starting from now. Imagine putting in the effort. Imagine overcoming every problem. Finally imagine your success
This is the proper visualization meditation. It is a powerful but realistic way of training the mind to accomplish your life goals.
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