Have you ever been jolted awake from dream where you were falling? Then you know firsthand how visuals can affect your mind and body. As it turns out, you’re not alone. 40% of people respond more to visuals compared to plain information. In fact, the brain generally processes visuals 60,000 times faster. It makes sense to try harnessing the power of visuals to kickstart changes in our mind and body—as well as our sleeping patterns.
We’re not the first to suggest visualization to aid sleep, and we won’t be the last. After all, mindset plays a big role in the quality of our sleep. Meditation is often recommended as a method of quieting thoughts or soothing fears, and incorporating imagery into the practice gives beginners a more accessible entry point. After all, many of us struggle enough with sitting still—and that’s before we’re asked to do it with our eyes closed!
Visualization and meditation aren’t always the same thing, though. Visualization has been used for a variety of other purposes besides better shuteye. Athletes like Jack Nicklaus and members of various Olympic teams have been known to use visualization to enhance their performance. Many talents in the creative and tech sectors generate ideas using visualization. Even fields like psychology have long incorporated image-driven techniques like creative visualization to address issues like negative thought patterns.
What sets visualization meditation apart from these practices is a focus on the present. If you’ve been following our series on the different meditation techniques, you’ve probably noted that presence is a recurring theme. Visualization meditation is no different. Practitioners use images, visual cues, and their imagination to develop a richer awareness of the present moment.
Different Ways of Seeing: Visualization Meditation Methods
How practitioners use these tools can vary. That means you also have more freedom to find the best type of visualization meditation for your needs. There are a lot of methods for pairing imagery with meditation, and we’ve rounded up our favorite resources if you want to learn more.
To start with, here are some of the more popular visualization meditation techniques:
Also known as movement visualization, ideokinesis refers to mental rehearsals of an action or a sequence of movements. This is often used as a safe, controlled way to train our brain’s reaction to certain stimuli. You could, for example, mentally enact your gut reaction to a present fear or worry: rather than running around in a panic as your body’s impulses might want you to do, you instead imagine that action and work on getting it under control.
This type of visualization gives you a more forgiving environment to process unpleasant or disruptive situations, giving you space to regulate your response.
This method is more about visual cues. With gazing, you choose an object or image on which to focus your attention. This can be a real object (e.g., a candle in front of you), or an imagined version of your preferred image. Usually, this visual focus is related to your meditation session’s intention.
Gazing is a good method for drawing attention to your current environment or circumstances. A relevant image or object can serve as an effective anchor that nudges your attention in the desired direction. This option is especially great for meditation beginners who struggle with closed eyes or need a more tangible focus than their breath.
Also known as sending and receiving, this technique is all about recognizing the positive qualities inherent to us, like compassion and mercy, and using the present moment to develop these further. While your breath sets the rhythm of your practice, you direct your mind through a series of images meant to embody various realities and qualities.
On an inhalation, you envision what is difficult to accept: others’ pain, as well as your own; your flaws and shortcomings; and so on. The goal is to accept these realities as your body accepts the breath. On an exhalation, you then visualize positive qualities and reactions: compassion, mercy, patience, understanding, and so on. Tonglen asks that you imagine projecting these positive things out into the world, sharing them just as your body shares the breath.
Similar to Tonglen, the Chöd method and its variants focus on developing a richer understanding of your inner life, especially your emotions. This type of visualization is all about contemplating your feelings. You characterize each emotion by imagining its attributes, like weight, hue, texture, temperature, and so on. By drawing your attention to the minute details of your feelings, you’re encouraged to sit with each sensation, familiarizing yourself without getting carried away. This is a good method to try if you find yourself entering spirals of worry and speculation, spinning stressful storylines around negative emotions.
Metta comes from Theravada Buddhism, and like Tonglen and Chöd, it focuses on amplifying your positive attributes and reactions. Metta is commonly translated as “loving-kindness,” and as that implies, it’s all about cultivating your capacity to love and be kind. You visualize your inner reserves of compassion, and then you imagine the many avenues through which you can project those reserves into the world. You might, for example, envision a loved one to whom you might extend your help in the present, or a current need to which you can apply your abilities.
For each of these methods, the main goal is contemplation. Visualization meditation is a more active practice compared to other types of meditation like mindfulness. Your chosen point of focus—the image, visual cue, or imagined action or scenario—serves mostly as the starting point for a controlled exploration of yourself, your surroundings, and the current moment.
The Benefits of Visualization Meditation
Like other meditation methods, visualization meditation has been the subject of scientific research. Most studies have found positive physical, mental, and psychological results from maintaining a visualization meditation practice. Those effects include:
- Reduction of chronic pain, as evidenced by a study that found “significant improvements in pain and psychological distress” for patients who practiced loving-kindness (metta) meditation for 8 weeks.
- Improvements in overall physical health, according to a study that found vagal tone improvements in participants who cultivated positive emotions and outlooks through a loving-kindness meditation program.
- Better psychological health and a deeper reserve of internal resources, as seen in a study where participants reported more mindfulness, a greater sense of purpose, increased life satisfaction, and more, following a sustained loving-kindness meditation practice.
- Most relevant for Good Night’s Rest readers: greater ease in falling asleep, as evidenced by recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation.