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Picturing Peacefulness: How Your Imagination Holds the Key to Calm and Control in Your Life

Visualization is a multi-tool of the mind with many positive aspects. Learn how you can break bad habits and meditate using these techniques.
by Fionnuala Kavanagh | Jul 12 2018

Using your imagination can take you somewhere a million miles away, but can also help you focus and stay present. Memories, dreams, and emotions power the imagination by creating pictures of what you want to be.

Intentional visualization is a tool to explore your emotional state in a controlled and increasingly focused way. Read on to understand how visualization techniques are used in meditation and in breaking bad habits. You’ll learn how to alter your thought processes, change your behavior, and gain the power to make any moment more calm.

Visualization for relaxation

Shut your eyes, conjure up a calming image in your mind closed off from all the stimuli around you: perhaps a flowing mountain river, rainforest, or being curled up inside the womb. Visualization is used in meditation practice to train your focus and draw your attention away from problematic thoughts and emotions. You don’t need to aim for a completely clear mind to reach a state of calm, you just need to avoid getting caught up in tangles of negativity.

Visualization techniques help you release stressful thought patterns. A classic exercise asks you to imagine your thoughts as leaves falling off a tree and drifting away down a river. The idea being that you are aware of the thoughts flowing by, though not engaging with them. You can also try imagining your thoughts as passengers on a train.

Think of your breathing as the engine. Even if the passengers are noisy, the rumble of the train’s motion is always there to recapture your attention. By focusing on calming images that emphasize the soothing pattern of your breathing, your mind feels less chaotic and you become more relaxed.

If you are starting to try out meditation and want other tried and tested visualization techniques, check out Unplug.

Visualization for breaking bad habits

Around 40% of our actions are determined by habit rather than conscious decisions. Habits influence a range of human experiences. For instance, the structure of your daily routine, compulsive behaviors like biting your nails, and even your spending patterns.

Your brain chunks sequences of actions into automated routines, so you work more efficiently and require less energy to ‘run’ so to speak. Such cue-routine-reward loops set you to autopilot mode and putting the brakes on these mechanisms is incredibly difficult.

So how is it possible to kill bad habits? Charles Duhigg advises in The Power of Habit to redirect the craving, instead of resisting it. Attempting to throw away the habit loop completely is tricky, so you need another tactic. Keep the same cues but exchange the earlier behavior for something more constructive.

This is where visualization comes in: it is possible to simulate the routine action with your imagination. For example, when you are craving a cigarette, take a moment to picture the process of smoking, including the smell on your hands, the feel of the head rush, and flicking the butt away.

This imagined sensation, drawn from your memory, is a watered down representation of smoking. It manages to satisfy the craving, at least partially. Visualization also helps you to focus and realize that you don’t really need that cigarette.

Now say you want to cut down on sugary foods. Instead of eating a slice of chocolate cake, imagine the taste and action of eating it. In that moment between cue and routine you may realize that you’re not hungry, so you don’t need to eat. Buddhist monks use this practice to train themselves to eat purely for sustenance.

Habits are not all about cravings creating vices. Willpower is an example of a cornerstone habit which sparks multiple positive effects. The famous “Marshmallow Experiment” conducted by Stanford University in the 1960’s demonstrated how children with stronger willpower went on to be more successful in many aspects of their later life.

Like a muscle, willpower can be trained with repeated practice. Using visualization techniques to resist your vices and realize your virtues is a great way of exercising and strengthening your willpower.

The Power of Habit helps us to understand the psychology behind habitual behavior, and to learn how to shake off bad habits and stick to good ones.

By showing you what you want, and who you want to be, the imagination offers possibilities for your future. Intentional visualization focuses you on your present state and shuts out distractions. This allows your mind to draw from past experiences so you can train your willpower and self-awareness. Through practice, you will gain the skills to calm your mind and focus on living life with greater intention and turning what were merely possibilities into reality.

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