Can you imagine that there might be an easily-learned technique, one you probably already know, that will help you achieve inner peace, and achieve it easily?
This is not a fantasy, but concrete reality. Our minds are powerful beyond our ability to imagine. Famously, Henry Ford once said, “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right!” On every level, no action can happen physically unless the mind conceives of it first and by doing so nudges the body into executing it.
However, I’d like to suggest some caution with this concept. Our minds are helpers, but have no business trying to be controllers. Life happens as it happens, much of it without our permission or input, and we are better off if we don’t get tangled up into playing manipulative mind games with a wonderful tool like visualization. I’d strongly advise any of us not to try to control anything, but to sense and feel what might be possible. There is an enormous difference.
And just what exactly is that difference? Described in the simplest way possible, we are changing the “picture” we have in our minds. We are not changing behavior. Rather than constructing an elaborate story designed to alter events, and playing it all out in our heads like a movie, complete with dialogue and a wide range of emotions, this is far simpler – we are just changing the picture we imagine. In order to be maximally effective, this process should be simple, calm, and non-verbal.
There is much benefit to cultivating quiet inner pictures, such as knowing that you will arrive safely somewhere, or getting your blood drawn for a medical test easily and painlessly, or imagining you will effortlessly get through the long list of all you have in a hectic day, and so forth. Rather than fret and worry, it feels so much better to occupy your mind with a quiet inner knowledge that all will be well.
With my own music students, I’ve always used a touching story, which is also true, about the effects that visualization had on the life and work of one of the great classical composers. Literally, it probably saved his life, and it helped him create some timeless and beloved music. This composer lives about a hundred years ago, and he had been in the depths of a terrible depression after being traumatized by a scathing review of the concert premiere of his first big composition. (Can any of my readers imagine how tough it is on all artists to get such awful reviews? This composer’s depression was so severe that it had lasted several years; his family and friends feared he was suicidal.
In desperation, friends persuaded him to work with a psychiatrist who was employing a new therapy called autosuggestion. This doctor helped his patients sink in a state of deep relaxation via hypnosis, and then helped them visualize success by listening to repetitive positive phrases.
The daily sessions were motivational. “I heard the same hypnotic formula repeated day after day while I lay half asleep in an armchair in his study,” the musician wrote. “You will begin to write your concerto,” said the psychiatrist “You will work with the greatest of ease. The concerto will be of excellent quality.”
The composer worked with the psychiatrist for three months, and then he wrote. “Although it may sound impossible to believe, this treatment really helped me. I began to compose at the beginning of the summer. The material grew in volume, and new musical ideas began to well up within me, many more than I needed for my concerto.”
“I felt that his treatment had strengthened my nervous system to a miraculous degree. Out of gratitude I dedicated my Second Concerto to him,” the composer concluded.
The composer in this story was Sergei Rachmaninoff, and the psychiatrist was Dr. Nikolai Dahl, to whom the Second Piano Concerto, one of the most beloved and popular piano concertos ever written, is dedicated. It is well worth noting that Rachmaninoff went on to have a full rich life of composing and playing, all possible though this experiment in visualization.
Rachmaninoff’s experience is not unique. After the 2018 Winter Olympics, the New York Times ran a series of recorded interviews with many athletes, all of whom described in detail how they spend many hours visualizing their performances. In perhaps the most dramatic example, the gold medalist in men’s figure skating had seriously reinjured his foot a few weeks before the competition, and in order for the foot to heal he could not skate at all. The only way he could practice his routines was through visualization, so he spent many hours simply imagining he was skating and mentally executing all of his leaps and spins. His gold medal performance despite his lack of practice time suggests the value of visualization.
All of these are examples of mental rehearsal, which is obviously extremely effective. There have even been scientific studies showing its effectiveness, proving that it is almost as good as actual physical practice. For those of us who have worked at physically demanding professions, like music or sports, visualization can save a lot of wear and tear on your body, and it can also prevent incorrect learning which can be a source of injury. If you can sort out an action in your mind before you actually do it, you do not have to subject your body to movement experiments that could tire it or create harmful habits. In fact some great musicians, like Glenn Gould and Mstislav Rostropovich, liked to practice first by visualizing, and then went to their instruments only when they had it all worked out mentally.
As an example of how forming mental pictures can be useful, one of my students went on a school sponsored weekend ski trip. She was from Europe and was not used to the type of ski lifts that she found on that particular slope. Every time she got off the lift at the top of the mountain she fell down, and she was fearful she would break a limb. Then she told me she remembered our discussion of visualization in class, and the next time she rode the lift up the mountain, all the way up she pictured in her mind how she would get off the lift easily and effortlessly, without falling. And she didn’t fall again, not once during the entire weekend.
As I’ve given examples of using visualization to improve physical performance, you may wonder how it could be used effectively in your life. While this is incredibly useful for any physical skill, visualization also has a great many other uses. And it pops up in different guises across cultures and traditions. A few years ago, when I began my training with the great QiGong Master Robert Peng, I was dumbfounded when we were taught to visualize much of what we were learning and doing. I realized that this was another form, beautifully done, of work I’d been doing for a long time. It’s also ancient, as QiGong has been around for 5000 years! I suppose one could say anything that has endured so long and has helped so many people for centuries is a tried and true modality for self-care.
We can visualize for many different health reasons. For our stress related purposes, you can imagine yourself stepping into a healing waterfall that washes away your stress. You can imagine writing down all the things that bother you, burning your list, and burying the ashes. If any task in front of you feels like it could be difficult, try seeing it as easily accomplished. And of course, you can invent your own.
And take a crack at using this lovely technique for your physical health too. If you break a bone, you can visualize the two sides of the break knitting back together and healing quickly. If you get an infection, you can imagine your immune system gobbling it up like characters in a video game. If you get a scrape or a burn, you can see the skin becoming healthy and smooth. If there is any part of your body that feels weak or misaligned, you can see it strong and straight. Truly, there are no limits to this, as there are no limits to your own imagination. I’ve always enjoyed helping my clients find the imagery that helps them, as it is a true joy to watch people use their own healing power creatively.
I urge you to give visualization a try! It’s fun, free, creative, and best of all, it works! Just remember, visualization is never about control, or about forcing anything to become reality by dint of your will. It involves sitting quietly for a few moments, maybe breathing a few times to calm ourselves, and then imagine simply changing the picture we see in our minds. That’s it. If you keep this in mind and give up wanting to control things, you might have great fun with this. What do you want in your life? Why not start by imagining it!