Visualization is the process of holding a mental image (of God, the self, a symbol, a place, or an event) to obtain physical or spiritual transformation (focus of mind, healing, enlightenment, unity with God). In contemporary American religion, visualization is primarily associated with New Age religion and with religious healing. Yet visualization has long been used as a meditative technique in both Eastern and Western religions.
Although the origins of visualization are unclear, it is most widely used in religions that conceive of the divine as immanent in this world and its imagery and that use meditation to become one with or to acquire the powers of that divinity. Many Eastern religions, including those practiced in the United States, fall into this category. Taoists, for example, believe that the human body is a microcosm of the universe and each organ possesses an energy represented by a divinity. By visualizing that deity, the meditator accesses its corresponding energy and thus preserves chi (vital energy), which in turn promotes health and even immortality.
Hindus practice visualization to achieve unity with the divine. Krishna devotees visualize their lord as a lover as they dance and chant his name. Devotees of Shiva visualize his divine consort, Shakti, as a spiral of energy within the body. The practice of kundalini Yoga involves visualizing that energy rising from the base of the spine to the top of the head to unify the meditator's body with that of God. Tantrists visualize a yantra (a geometric diagram that represents an abstract form of a deity) to focus the mind and become one with God.
Although early Buddhist philosophy was nontheistic, seeking to empty the mind of all images, visualization was used as a meditative technique to reduce desires and facilitate concentration. Theravāda Buddhists visualized decaying bodies in a cemetery to help shed desires of the flesh. Later Buddhist schools developed rich pantheons of celestial bodhisattvas and restored visualization as a means of spiritual transformation. Vajrayāna (tantric) Buddhists visualize or elaborate mandalas (visual images of bodhisattvas) or imagine the whole world as filled with Buddhas, not only to assist concentration but also to actualize the Buddha within themselves.
By contrast, when the divine is conceived of as transcendent, as it is in Western religions, reflection on images becomes idolatrous, and locating the divine within may be perceived as heresy. Even within the monotheistic traditions, however, visualization is practiced by mystical sects as a means of achieving ecstatic union with God.
Jewish mystics such the Hasidim or Kabbalists visualize the divine as Shekinah (God's bride) or use various combinations of Hebrew letters that symbolize the divine name. Christian mystics such as Teresa of Avila visualized the union of bride and bridegroom as a representation of the marriage between her soul and Christ. Contemporary Christians may visualize themselves meeting Christ, the Virgin, or other saints, or being bathed in heavenly light. Even in Islam, whose orthodox teaching is most adamant about rejecting imagery, Sufi mystics visualize saints and sacred words to realize oneness with Allah.
American adherents of mysticism and of Eastern religions have long used visualization, but the minority status of these traditions meant that the practice remained obscure. It was the New Age movement that propelled visualization into mainstream attention. This type of visualization uses different images—of the self rather than God—for a different purpose: healing and self-fulfillment rather than union with God.
The shift toward New Age visualization began in the nineteenth century with the metaphysical movement (Christian Science, Unity), which argued that since we are all perfect reflections of divine mind, illness is an error in thought that can be overcome by visualizing oneself as healthy. Beginning with writers such as Norman Vincent Peale and continuing to more recent authors such as Shakti Gawain, the positive-thinking movement has expanded the desired results of visualization to include emotional satisfaction, creative expression, and financial success. The notion that "you can create your own reality" has also been boosted by scientific research suggesting that visualization could improve athletic performance and recovery from psychological or even physical illness. The counterculture's interest in mysticism and in Eastern religions, as well as subsequent research on the use of meditation to reduce stress, attracted media attention to visualization as a technique of healing and resulted in a host of popular books on the subject. Although the effectiveness of visualization to achieve health is disputed, the technique is now used by a variety of religious groups, including conservative Christians who otherwise reject New Age teachings.
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