Minding the Indigenous Mind
The Healing Power of Visualization: Limitless Potential
Greetings Mindful Relatives and Friends,
In the Medicine Buddha Meditation a visualization practice designed for “Healing For Yourself” is provided to the reader that wishes to use her or his own creative mind to recover from illness. A passage from the text reads: “In response to your request, infinite blue rays of light stream down from the heart and body of the King of Medicine. The light completely fills your body from head to toe, purifying all diseases. If you have any pain or any specific illnesses, focus the blue light directly to this spot and visualize the light burning away the pain and disease. All ailments due to interfering forces and the negative karma and mental obscurations that cause these, as well as anxiety, fear and negative emotions are also purified. These leave you in the form of dirty liquid which then completely disappears.”
Visualization is a powerful practice that can be used to heal many emotional, spiritual, and physical disorders and improve performance. The belief that visualizing healing thoughts can result in improving a person’s well being was, and still is, considered silly and childish by many practitioners of western mainstream medicine. However, visualization, positive thinking, and mindfulness meditation practice (all part of the mind body medicine) have increasingly gained credibility as more and more scientific evidence of their effectiveness has been documented.
In this column, I will define visualization, share some interesting and incredible stories of how it has been used, and offer a simple healing visualization exercise that you can practice.
The practice of visualization is not new. It dates back thousands of years. The Medicine Buddha Meditation manuscript, that contains the above healing visualization practice, was written more than 1400 years ago. Throughout history there is evidence that it has been used to prevent and heal physical and emotional disease.
What is visualization?
The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “the formation of mental visual images.” But more than that, it is our ability to see things with the mind and experience the content of the visual mental imagery that we see. It involves focusing our imagination on behaviors or events that we want to occur in our life. For instance, if we want to lose twenty pounds we might begin by visualizing ourselves looking and feeling lean, fit, and healthy. After, let’s say after 15 minutes of practice, twice a day for two weeks, we then shift our visualization to include seeing that our clothes are looser and stepping onto a scale that reads twenty pounds lighter. On a deeper level, our visualization will be reprogramming our attitudes and behaviors so that we can lose the weight. It also will be changing our brain chemistry for learning and memory so that we can integrate more incoming information (what else do I need to do to lose weight?) with the data that we already have stored (what have I already tried that’s worked or not worked?).
Visualization is a big part of our evolutionary biology and human consciousness. In fact, Mike and Nancy Samuels, the authors of the book, Seeing With the Mind’s Eye: The history, techniques, and Uses of Visualization, say that “visualization is the way we think. Before words, images were. It is the heart of the bio-computer. The human brain programs and self-programs through its images. It is the ultimate consciousness tool.”
Visualization in the News
There are numerous stories of the healing power of visualization. On March 3, 2011, Elizabeth Cohen, CNN senior medical correspondent wrote a story entitled, “Can You Imagine Cancer Away?” The article shared David Seidler’s story of overcoming cancer using visualization. In 2011 Seidler, 73, won an Oscar for best original screenplay for the movie, "The King's Speech." Cohen says he suffered from cancer but survived because “he visualized his cancer away.” Seidler says he beat his bladder cancer by visualizing a "lovely, clean healthy bladder" for two weeks, and the cancer disappeared. He's been cancer-free for more than five years.
One of the most impressive stories about the power of visualization that I’ve read concerns Tibetan monks using a practice called Tummo, which is documented to produce extraordinary levels of body heat. In a 2002 article in the Harvard Gazette, staff writer William J. Cromie, wrote: “In a monastery in northern India, thinly clad Tibetan monks sat quietly in a room where the temperature was a chilly 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Using a yoga technique known as Tummo, they entered a state of deep meditation. Other monks soaked 3-by-6-foot sheets in cold water (49 degrees) and placed them over the meditators' shoulders.
“For untrained people, such frigid wrappings would produce uncontrolled shivering. If body temperatures continue to drop under these conditions, death can result. But it was not long before steam began rising from the sheets. As a result of body heat produced by the monks during meditation, the sheets dried in about an hour. Attendants removed the sheets, then covered the meditators with a second chilled, wet wrapping. Each monk was required to dry three sheets over a period of several hours.” When asked how they are able to produce such extreme changes in their body temperature, “the monks describe relaxing, focusing on their breathing. They picture air coming in and out, as a kind of energy. They visualize it as a flame, a fire coming out their chest.” If you’re interested you can watch the following Youtube video about the practice of Tummo: “The Best Hard Evidence for Buddhist Tummo (Inner Fire) Meditation,” www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Arr4C52grQ.
Many celebrities are well known for their use of visualization and claim that it has played an important role in their success. In a Youtube video, Billy Mills, Lakota, winner of the men’s 10,000 meter race in the 1964 Olympics describes how visualization helped him win the race: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfLLNksZmoY. Allyson Felix, the winner of the women’s 200 meter race in the July, 2012 Olympics has spoken of how visualization has helped her racing performance. Figures such as Tiger Woods, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Will Smith, and Bill Gates have also discussed how visualization has been important to their success.
My favorite visualization story is about actor Jim Carrey. When Carrey was just starting out in Hollywood, he was completely broke and out of work. He decided to do something about it. He wrote a check to himself in 1987 in the sum of 10 million dollars. He dated it Thanksgiving 1995. On the bottom he wrote “for acting services rendered.” He carried around the check in his wallet and looked at it every day and visualized it for years. In November of 1994 he received $10M for his role in the movie “Dumb and Dumber.” Amazing.
What a lot of folks may not know is that outside his comedic personality and movie roles, Jim Carrey has been engaged in a life-long pursuit for meaning and purpose. An important online video clip of this rarely seen side of him is entitled, “Jim Carry on Awakening.” It can be found in the spirit library at: http://spiritlibrary.com/videos/eckhart-tolle/jim-carrey-on-awakening.
Trying Practicing Visualization
If we want to experience the healing power of visualization it is important that we practice consistently and creatively. Below is a simple visualization that you can begin with. When you are ready you can find many more practices by searching the web, buying a CD or book, or joining a group that engaging in therapeutic visualization.
Mountain Meditation Visualization
1. Find a time when you can sit quietly for 10 minutes
2. Sit in a comfortable position to be in that allows your spine and head to be straight. Make sure your head is straight, but relaxed and your chin is slightly tucked in towards the chest. Both feet should be flat on the floor and hands resting on your lap.
3. Begin to progressively tense and release the muscles from your toes to your head until they become relaxed and peaceful. Notice where there is tension and smooth and calm those muscles in your imagination.
4. Begin observing your breath and observe your breath as it enters and leaves your body. Remain in tune with feeling air pass in and out of your nostrils as you inhale and exhale.
5. Visualize a mountain and then become that mountain. See yourself as being that majestic mountain with your summit in the clouds. Imagine how solid and strong and how connected to the earth you are. You have stood for thousands of years strong, peaceful, and stable. Now quietly say to yourself:
in, I see myself as a mountain
Breathing out, I feel solid and strong.
The weather has always been in a state of flux around you. The views change from blue sky with gentle breezes and showers to mighty banks of storm clouds, dispensing heavy downpours, to sleet and snow. Yet, you have stood firm and immovable, and the winds of change have whirled for centuries around you without any noticeable effects. Now say to yourself:
makes me calm.
Breathing out helps me settle.
Just like changes in weather around the mountain that are whirling about outside of you, any troubling emotions, feelings, symptoms, or thoughts that whirl around you in your everyday life shall not disturb you when your visualize. You shall remain tall, solid, strong and connected. Now say to yourself:
in, I see and feel secure.
Breathing out, I feel grounded and well.
You shall remain upright, firmly grounded and connected to the earth, regardless of the weather and emotions whirling around you. So now just sit and continue to follow your breath as you sink deeply into a clear visual awareness of your majestic mountain base. Become one with the feelings of solidity, strength and connection. Say to yourself:
in, I feel still and connected.
Breathing out, I am grounded and healed.
End your visualization when you are ready.
The Mountain Visualization Meditation practice leads to a calm, strong, and grounded state of mind. You can use this exercise as often as you need to overcome the stress and uncertainty that arises in your life. Remember, you have limitless potential and visualization can transform you in amazing ways. But it will not happen until you make it a regular part your life. Begin today and tomorrow you may find yourself recovering from a serious illness or reaching a goal you thought was not possible. Visualize deep healing and radiant health within you; see it extending to everyone in the community. Can you see it? I can.
Now, I’d love to hear from you.
My Daughter: Arundhati Yellow Bird, Age 4 1/2
Michael Yellow Bird, MSW, Ph.D., is an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes and a professor and the director of graduate education in the Department of Social Work at Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA. His teaching, writing, research, and community work focuses on social work with Indigenous Peoples, neurodecolonization, neuroscience and social work, and employing mainstream and traditional Indigenous mindfulness practices in tribal communities to promote health and well being. He can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org