Visualization – BS or BFF?
Many a new age guru claim that “the secret” to getting the things you want is to “visualize” them – to see them clearly in your mind, to imagine them in great detail, and the universe will deliver it to your door. Want a new job? Visualize it! How about a new spouse? Visualize! Winning lotto ticket? SEE the numbers coming up on the ping pong balls and $200M is yours!
If it’s not working, it’s because you’re fearful or negatively attached or not seeing it clearly enough… …it’s your fault somehow. The method is pure, not to be questioned. Manifest what you desire through the power of your mind!
So. Is this actually The Secret or is it a load of new age hokum?
Unfortunately, it’s not hokum – there’s a lot to this and a lot going on here. It is poorly understood and articulated and that leads to silly things like visualizing lotto balls and blaming yourself when your shining knight turns out to be emotionally unavailable – again. But when used correctly visualization can be anything from really helpful up to downright spooky.
My experience with visualization has been both eerie and profound. I have attracted jobs that I wanted, living situations I wanted, even a spouse or two. And it’s that “or two” that’s part of the rub there. Just because you attract the thing you’ve intentionally chosen to you doesn’t mean that’s the thing that will make you happy. (More on this some other time.)
I have successfully attracted so many things that I have set out to attract only to find that they ultimately weren’t what I wanted, that I actually became convinced I was not really the best judge of what would make me happy. I even had to stop for a while. Now I use visualization very sparingly and carefully – like ALL CAPS in a text, or salt in the stew. You can’t take that stuff back, so you’ve got to be willing to eat the soup you make.
In the course of all this mad attracting, prompting the universe to throw things my way, I came to discover quite a lot about how attraction works and what the mechanics of this phenomenon are.
In my view it’s not something that involves universal energy, it’s not something that involves a conscious divine entity that is receiving your communications or perceiving your intention, making a note in the log and putting something into universal UPS for you. It’s about the structure of consciousness.
Imagine for a moment we’re playing a game..
Imagine for a moment we’re playing a game. Laid in front of you is a frozen scene of a bustling outdoor marketplace seen from the roof of four-story building. You can see the people like miniature figurines trundling about their day. There are hundreds of people each living a moment of their very separate lives, each doing something entirely different. There are goods and objects of all kinds, cars, benches, groceries, carts, bikes, a playground. A typical, if very crowded Saturday scene.
There are joyful things happening down there. There are questionable things happening. There are innocent figures and some sinister or even dangerous, but it is not a dangerous scene. Just ordinary life.
Now – win the game.
What’s that you say? What are the rules? What does winning look like? What’s the goal?
(This is how we come into life, by the way. No idea what the game is or how to win, just a sneaking suspicion that it is a game, it can be won, and it’s very important we do something.)
After listening to a bunch of people give wildly different answers to all these questions, we come to understand that this is a “Where’s Waldo?” scene.
OK – so we’ve got to find Waldo.
We begin to look and scrutinize the tiny people, surely one of them is Waldo. But… what does Waldo look like? We stop searching. We ask more people and eventually someone shows us a picture. Waldo is a hipster dweeb in a knit hat, retro glasses, and striped shirt. Why we want to find him is anyone’s guess – but that’s the game.
OK! Now we can win the game! We begin searching again in earnest. We see pretty things, but we keep looking. We see dangerous things, but we keep looking. And finally, we see the little bugger sitting out in the open without a care in the world.
This is how visualization works. The world presents to us an impossible amount of data to process – so we don’t. We make our best guess as to what’s going on and live inside that comfy narrative until it proves to be a noticeably bad guess. Then we make another guess and keep going. We DO NOT look at everything there is to see – there is just too much.
We don’t. See. Most. Of the world. Around us.
What we do instead is filter for things we are interested in. Things that are germane, different, and most especially dangerous or that we associate with a bad experience. (Those are very useful to see, because we want to avoid stumbling into them.) The rest – all the Waldos of the world – we comfortably ignore.
When we choose to look for Waldo, we add a filter to that list. Find the guy in the striped shirt. Sometimes it turns out he was just sitting there in plain sight. Magic? No. He was there before you started looking.
You cannot find what you are not looking for.
You cannot find what you are not looking for.
There's a beautiful quote from the book Dune, by Frank Herbert, "What senses do we lack that we cannot see another world all around us?"
There are an infinitude of worlds around you in this very moment. And what determines which of those worlds you are living in? The thoughts, filters, assumptions, and contexts that make up your thinking. Together these define not only what you are LIKELY to see but even ABLE to notice.
You are already visualizing and you are already attracting to you what you are visualizing. As strange as it sounds, what you are visualizing and attracting to you is “the way things are” and the ”ordinary” world you live in every day.
HOW TO PRODUCTIVELY USE VISUALIZATION
One evening long ago my fiancé and I were on our porch realizing we were done with L.A. and it was time to go. We began to make a list of the qualities we wanted in our next home. It was a stupid list. It had to be magical, there had to be animals and woods and water, it had to feel old world and be remote but blah blah blah. It was a totally unrealistic list.
Anyway, 6 months later we were driving up the coast of northern California on our honeymoon. Anyone who’s done this will tell you that motion sickness sets in somewhere around hour 2. We were in hour 5 and in dire need of a place to stay and sleep, but nothing seemed right… and then there was nothing at all… just hairpin turn after hairpin turn.
We stopped arguing for a minute and pulled over and said ‘ok, what do we want here?’ and made a little list. We wanted someplace that had fireplaces, someplace small and quaint, homey and a few other things. We got back on the road and in 3 minutes saw a homemade wooden sign that said “Fireplaces ¼ mile” with a little cabin and an arrow.
We pulled in to what looked like a ranch and found a few buildings made of giant stones, one of which was the office. It was after hours but this hippie kid came trotting out of the woods and eventually checked us in to ‘The Science Room’ (this had been a ranch and alternative boys school it turned out) which had a giant bed and lovely fireplace.
The next day, stepping into the unbelievably beautiful, rustic courtyard we hear a strange cry behind and above us. Turning we saw a peacock in full fan on the roof above the door. Walking past the sheep and garden we crossed the street and walked along a cliff-top trail looking out over the pacific and found our way down to the water’s edge.
After hanging out there for an hour or so we both kinda realized at the same time that “…hey! This place is our list! This is the stupid list we made in L.A.!”
Having realized that, I couldn’t leave without saying something. So, I asked the hippie caretaker who had checked us in “How do you get a job like this?”
He looked at me and said, “Do you want it?”
Turned out he was just coming to the end of the time he wanted to spend there after two years, so six months later we moved in.
I don’t think the universe served up Stillwater Cove Ranch to me because I visualized it. I think it just made it clear to me that this ranch was what I wanted, so that I was able to recognize it when it was in front of my face. If we hadn’t made that list we would have continued on up the road saying “That was the most amazing place!” and thought no more of it.
Instead I lived there for two years and it was one of the most important and formative experiences of my life.
Our visualization list didn’t create that ranch and it didn’t select our honeymoon path. What it did was illuminate a choice point. It made it clear and obvious when it was possible to make a decision to move toward a specific outcome.
That’s how visualization works.
That’s how visualization works.
This also explains why so often visualization doesn’t work.
Let’s take the example of wanting to lose 20 pounds. Let’s say that’s my goal and I clearly visualize my pants being loose on my waist, seeing that awesome number on the scale when I look down over my now flat belly, and being able to go to yoga class without shame or jiggle.
Seems like good visualizations, right?
No! That’s not likely to help anything at all. What choice points does it illuminate? What will I do differently in my life or in day because of these images? Nada! Zip! Bupkis! I’ll just end up feeling like a failure with no self-discipline and a big gut.
If you want to lose 20 pounds, visualize yourself opening the refrigerator to get something to eat, and then shutting it without taking out any food. Imagine yourself going to get a snack and filling your water bottle instead. Imagine yourself getting up early and loving the feel of the brisk air and quiet as you jog. Imagine feeling great after eating a healthy meal and feeling crappy after eating sugar, fats or processed foods.
For visualization to work it has to set your focus on the thing you need to see, when you need to see it, and the choice you need to make. Visualize what you need to CHOOSE and visualize taking the ACTIONS you need to take.
When you visualize these, you are searching for a Waldo that is right there in your life, hanging around in plain sight. Do you want a more fulfilling career? Get clear on what activities are fulfilling to you. The clearer you get the more you will hear about and see them around you. Do you want a more fulfilling relationship than your last attempt? Be really honest with yourself about when you have felt fulfilled in your life and why. Stop laying that at someone else’s feet and visualize for yourself those actions and choices that have led to true fulfillment for you. Come to your next relationship with a fulfilled life and you will find that relationship far more fulfilling.
Visualize your choices and your actions
And remember… what you choose to attract, what you visualize, is just a guess. It’s a stab in the dark and a hope for what will be fulfilling. Nothing more. It’s a way we can take responsibility for our lives and what we create. And a way to learn about and understand ourselves better in the ongoing experiment of trying to create a happy life.
In the beginning of this article I was being a bit tongue-in-cheek when I said “want a new job? A new spouse? a new home”, but honestly, I’ve ‘attracted’ 2 spouses, 3 jobs, 3 homes and my dream career this way. And I really don’t know why it works. It’s creepy as hell. This is my best guess. Try it...lightly. Have some fun doing it. And if you happen to get the thing you visualize and it turns out to not be so satisfying... Be generous with yourself. There's a lot more to a fulfilling life than getting what you want.
"You can't always get what you want...
but if you try sometimes..
..you just might find
you get what you need"
- Rolling Stones