Visualization is a staple practice in the New Age/self-help movement. For years, I never even bothered to question whether visualization worked or not since I have practiced visualization meditation and experienced the benefits. But one day, I was recommended the book, “The Success Principles” by Jack Canfield. On reading the chapter on visualization, it dawned on me that what I meant by visualization and what the self-help movement means by it are totally different.
Because unlike some out-there ideas (see attraction, law of), visualization actually has some scientific basis. So, I decided to dig deeper and answer the question: does the process of visualization, as defined by the self-help movement, achieve the goals it claims?
How the self-help movement defines visualization
Visualize your goal, and you’ll make it come true. That’s what most self-help books say In “The Success Principles,” Jack Canfield describes the practice of visualization. Canfield says all you have to do is visualize a goal, view it as already complete in vivid detail, and then allow yourself to feel that result of your goal (fuel your emotions).
This, Canfield says, is all you need to do. After that, you will “attract” your goals to you.
So, let’s focus on Canfield’s main assertion: visualizing a goal will bring you closer to that goal.
Visualization Does Work
A very common argument used in self-help books is that visualization has been proven to work scientifically. Now, when I looked up the motivational stories and anecdotes found in self-help books, lo and behold I discovered they were telling the truth.
Science has indeed shown that visualization does work to some extent in the field of sports psychology. Some studies have shown things like athletes who visualized shooting free throws did just as well as those who actually practiced. Others showed that by visualizing weight training, some athletes gained muscle mass—not as much as those who actually did the training, but they did gain muscle mass.
Many athletes use visualization. In fact, Tiger Woods is a well-known practitioner of visualization—no doubt coming from his Buddhist background.
And Canfield tells the often-told story of Jack Nicklaus who used visualization in golf to show how visualizing a goal can make it come true.
But what is it that athletes are visualizing?
You’ve got Tiger, Jack, and a slew of athletes using visualization, so it must work just like Canfield says, right? Well, let’s look at what athletes are actually visualizing.
Are they visualizing the goal itself, as Canfield recommends doing, or are they visualizing the actions they have to take in order to attain that success?
If you go and actually read all those studies you can see that athletes are visualizing actions not results.
So, there now appears to be two different approaches to visualization: The Canfield approach (visualize results) and the athletic approach (visualizing actions that lead to results).
So, which one works?
What do those pesky scientists say?
Shelley Taylor, Ph.D., a psychologist at UCLA, undertook an experiment that I think perfectly illustrates the difference in the Canfield approach to visualization and the athletic approach to visualization.
In an experiment, Taylor took students who were studying for an exam and broke them up into two groups (I’ll call them the Canfield group and the Tiger group). She asked the Canfield group to visualize the happiness they will receive at getting an A on the test. In other words, they were to visualize the result of getting an A and “fuel their emotions” as Canfield would say.
She asked the Tiger group to visualize sitting in a library studying their textbooks and going over lecture notes.
Which group did better?
It was the Tiger group, who not only performed better on the test, but also achieved success with lower levels of stress and anxiety.
Only Visualizing Goals Does Not Work
At the conclusion, Taylor expressed doubts about the Canfield style of visualization and felt that it can actually move you farther away from your goals. Taylor says, “First of all, it separates the goal from what you need to do to get it. And second, it enables you to enjoy the feeling of being successful without actually having achieved anything. That takes away the power of the goal” — and can even make you complacent, unwilling to work hard or take risks to get what you already have in your daydreams.”
I agree with this conclusion. Science has never proven that visualizing being or having something leads to actually being or having those things. And without the cover of science to silence your poop-detector, this whole “visualizing makes it so” talk starts to sound less and less convincing.
So, if there’s a difference, why does Canfield and all those other motivation speakers keep using athletes for proof? Well, I was very interested in one little paragraph in “The Success Principles” in the chapter on visualization. I will quote it in its entirety.
“When you perform any task in real life, researchers have found, you brain use the same identical processes it would use if you were only vividly visualizing that activity. In other words, your brain sees no difference whatsoever between visualizing something and actually doing it.”
Did you catch that neat little trick? He used the word “activity” in the first sentence, but then rephrased it as “something” in the next. An activity is not a something, it is a do-ing. If you think I am being nitpicky, think again because Canfield is using this to prove that the visualization with scientific backing is the same kind of visualization he is telling you to do.
By not noting the difference, Canfield is trying to have the best of both worlds. He wants the credibility of the scientific community for a practice that has no credible scientific basis.
What about a spiritual basis for visualization?
Some of you might say hold on a minute. Science can’t prove everything. Visualization is beyond science! I can understand this feeling. As someone who practices Vispassana meditation in the Therevada Buddhist tradition (same tradition Tiger Woods’s mother was raised in), I have experience with visualization meditation.
So, let’s see what this Buddhist religious tradition might say about Canfield’s view of visualization.
In the self-help industry, there is a tendency to rip off “cool” ideas from Buddhism and other Eastern religions. Basically, what they do is present the idea and take out all the work. In other words, present the idea without the practice or make the practice as effortless as possible. For example, I read a whole book on the power of being in the present moment. I know this idea from Buddhism. But according to Buddhism, actually training the mind to be aware of the present moment takes a lifetime of practice.
In Theravada Buddhism, there are two kinds of meditation: concentration mediation and insight meditation. One type is about improving a skill (concentration), the other is about gaining wisdom into one’s existence.
Can you guess which one visualization falls under?
Yep, it’s a form on concentration meditation. In this meditation, the mediator looks at an object (circle of light, bowl of water, etc.) and then closes his eyes while visualizing the object. Once you lose the image, you open your eyes again and start over.
The goal is for you to be able to keep in object in your mind as long as you can. This keeps your mind focused and sharp. With a focused mind, the practitioner can move on to the higher practice of insight meditation.
So, in Therevada Buddhism, visualization is seen as a way to keep the mind focused. Isn’t that what athletes use visualization for—improving their focus?
It all comes down to this
So, how would I use visualization? There are a couple of ways
- Visualize actions that lead to a concrete end. A goal like “having money” is way too vague. Your goal should be concrete and achievable. That’s why it works so well with athletes. They have a finite set of steps to visualize. For example, if you have to write a report, visualize every step you need to take in order to complete it.
I do this and follow it up with making a checklist. This works well for mentally preparing for a task and gets you focused on the task at hand.
2. Use visualization as part of a spiritual practice (a real one..not one that charges you money to learn..I don’t care if the guy goes by the name Master Pao or Lama Dorje Karmapa Rinpoche…I’ve never been asked to pay money to learn meditation and if anyone charges you, they’re BS gurus pure and simple.)
Other than that, simply visualizing something you want is not going to make it so. By focusing only on what you want and not what it takes to get there, you are not getting closer to achieving your goals… you’re moving further and further away.
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