See It, Believe It

Imagine if everything went the way you wanted: your workouts, your relationships, your grandest career ambitions. Visioning can bring your life goals into clearer focus – and help you make them a reality.

Daydreaming has gotten a bad rap as a time-waster. The fact is, conjuring up mental pictures of your ideal relationship, job, house or body might actually be a very profitable way to spend your time. Visioning experts assert that when you actively imagine something you really desire, it prepares your mind for that reality, predisposing your subconscious to help manifest it – by noticing things you otherwise might not, for example, and by responding to opportunities you might otherwise pass by.

Essentially, visioning is a little like yoga for your brain cells – a chance for your mind to stretch and re-form itself around the experiences you’d like to have, thus creating the mental space and emotional energy for them to happen in actuality.

That makes visioning an ideal technique for achieving long-term goals. But it’s also a great strategy for refining your daily experience, and for optimizing your personal success in general – whether you’re getting ready for a tough phone call that’s 10 minutes away or preparing to compete in an athletic event a few months down the road.

Basic Training for Your Brain

Daydreaming comparisons aside, visioning is, at a practical level, a lot more than just vaguely and passively fantasizing about what you want. In fact, it’s quite an intense workout for the brain – a form of mental-emotional training that prepares you to see, attract and experience things that are entirely possible (and some would say, already available to you), but that you might otherwise inadvertently repel or pass over.

Brain researchers now know, from observing positron emission tomography (PET) scans of people imagining or watching various scenes, that the brain reacts very similarly to real, watched and imagined experiences. At a neurological level, it doesn’t really know the difference. The brain also develops neural pathways that reflect frequent-use patterns, and builds synaptic connections that support habitual trains of thought. So the idea is that, by visualizing a positive experience intensely and regularly enough, you may be able to develop a mental and emotional infrastructure that can support and process it in reality.

We also know that the eyes, ears and other senses take in far more information than the conscious brain actually processes. A part of the brain known as the reticular activating system, responsible for arousal and motivation, essentially filters all incoming information and acts as an “editor” of sorts, disregarding information it deems unimportant, while sending on significant data for further mental and emotional processing.

Many experts posit that it’s the reticular activating system that’s responsible for the phenomenon in which we learn a new word or concept and suddenly begin “seeing it everywhere.” It was there all along, of course; our brain just wasn’t taking note because the information had no real significance for us. By putting our brains through the exercise of imagining our chosen realities, the idea goes, we may make them more apt to “notice” and filter in the information and opportunities essential to making our dreams come true.

That’s why one of the cardinal rules of visioning is that you make your vision highly specific and infuse it with as much realistic, sensual detail as possible: sights, smells, feelings, and so on.

By consciously visualizing your life (or a specific, momentary experience) as you would like it to play out, you essentially “practice” it in ways that inform your flesh-and-blood neurology. You prepare your body-mind to process ?information and produce energy differently than it might if left to its own devices. And in the process, you grease the skids in the direction of success.

Moment by Moment

Whether you’re developing a vision for your entire future, for the day ahead, or for a specific challenging or unfamiliar task, the visioning process calls for you to first decide what you would like to be able to do or experience, and then prepare yourself by mentally walking through it, one detailed step at a time. In effect, you rehearse for your new “role” until it feels natural, believable, achievable – almost inevitable.

Steven Ungerleider, PhD, leading sports psychologist and author of Mental Training for Peak Performance: Top Athletes Reveal the Mind Exercises They Use to Excel (Rodale Press, 2005), calls it “mental blueprinting.” It works well for many athletes, he notes, because it helps develop the appropriate motor programs in our nervous systems: “Rehearsal of the sequence of movements involved in a task allows us to learn them symbolically,” he writes. “We then apply them when we go out on the field of competition.”

Ungerleider also points to a possible psychoneuromuscular reaction: Mental practice may be effective, he explains, “because it produces very small muscle contractions similar to those involved in physical practice. Images produced in the mind transmit electrical impulses to our muscles and tendons for the performance of an athletic exercise or event.”

But physical, athletic endeavors aren’t the only ones that rely on solid neurological networks. When an actor rehearses, the lines she repeats leave a synaptic trace, so when she goes back through them they flow more naturally.

Blueprinting can create a similar mental path for any experience to follow, whether that’s walking into a job interview, making a presentation or asking for an attractive person’s phone number. Your brain recalls the “future memory” you created, and as a result it acts much more comfortably and confidently in the new situation.

Because your subconscious doesn’t distinguish between actual events and imagined ones, it triggers positive feelings and reactions generated by the “past success” – the one you visualized – instead of the usual panic or paralysis. And then there you are, happily ensconced in a new kind of moment –the kind you thought you could only dream about.

Some combination of such neurological and psychological factors may also provide the practical underpinnings for what many personal-development experts refer to as the “Law of Attraction.” This is the notion that “like” attracts “like,” and that positive, empowered attitudes, beliefs and self-perceptions “draw in” people, experiences and energies that “vibrate” at a similar frequency. Whatever the case, from Napoleon Hill to Tony Robbins, there’s not a goal-guru out there who doesn’t advocate for some type of visioning or visualization as the basis for any good potential-expanding plan.

Making Your Mental Mark

“Sounds great for all those right-brained people,” you might be thinking, “but I’m not the imaginative type.” That’s OK – you don’t have to be. While visioning might be easier for people who respond well to creative stimuli, even abstract thinkers can adapt the blueprinting techniques and apply them. Here are the basic steps:

Gear Up for Your Goal. In Stephen Covey’s famed “Seven Habits” system, Habit No. 1 is “Be Proactive”; Habit No. 2 is “Begin With the End in Mind.” When you employ visualization, you’re doing both.

The “Be Proactive” part involves making time and space for visualization and then actually sitting down to do it – ideally on a repeated and regular basis. While you can certainly do one-time and “quickie” visualizations for short-term positive outcomes (say, while riding an elevator to a meeting or preparing to serve a tennis ball), you’ll be more effective doing longer-term, more involved visualizations if you carve out some regular quiet time to calm your body, focus your mind and direct all your attention to your detailed imaginings.

The “Begin With the End in Mind” aspect, of course, involves assembling a vision that is as complete, clear-cut and detailed as possible. If you’re working on a visualization toward living in your ideal body, what does it look like and feel like? What are you doing with it, what are you experiencing, and where are you going? If you’re developing a vision of your ideal job, in what kind of environment does it take place? Who are you working with, and what kinds of activities are you involved in? What is your salary? How many hours do you work and at what rhythm? The more specific you are, the more ownership you’ll have of your vision, and the clearer and more confident you’ll be when it’s time to act on behalf of your goals.

Respect Resistance. Visualizing your ideal reality may bring up a lot of enthusiasm and excitement, and it may also bring up some fears. So it’s important to acknowledge what you currently feel prepared to handle and what you’re willing to experience. That means having a clear understanding of all the elements required to make your dream a reality and working around the elements that are giving you trouble, says Patricia A. Farrell, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of How to Be Your Own Therapist (McGraw-Hill, 2004).

Perhaps you’re craving more adventure but you’re scared of flying. So switch gears: Picture yourself on an ocean liner instead, and experience that feeling. Know there’s more than one way to get to where you want to be, and find the way that feels best to you, one that doesn’t require you to change your entire personality.

And what if you have trouble conjuring up a detailed, positive visualization? Try focusing on feelings of accomplishment instead, or imagine receiving praise and congratulations on your success, suggests Vicky Thompson, author of Life-Changing Affirmations: A 30-Day Plan for Spiritual Transformation (Red Wheel, 2005).

“For example, if your goal is to get into shape but you’re not yet able to visualize that outcome, you can think about exercising and how strong it makes your body. You can imagine hearing others complimenting you on your new look. You might also go through your list of goals and applaud yourself as if you’ve already achieved your outcome,” Thompson says. “Feeling, hearing and affirming that you are a powerful person helps achieve the same outcomes as visioning.”

Make It Tangible. Transforming a vision from mind to matter is one of the fastest ways to make it feel, and become, real. This is the essence of the 10-step visioning method created by Lucia Capacchione, PhD, ATR, REAT, and author of Visioning: Ten Steps to Designing the Life of Your Dreams (Tarcher/Putnam, December 2000). Her strategy includes journaling and collage-making to help give a mental concept some physical form.

“This approach works because it’s based on the way designers and architects actually create what they create,” she explains. “Artists do not sit around simply visualizing. As soon as they get an idea, they get busy with their hands – right away. They make sketches, models and blueprints.”

“Mental imagery and visualization … is too ephemeral and vague, and for those who can’t visualize, mental imagery is not effective at all,” Capacchione says. “Lots of people cannot visualize in their mind’s eye, but anyone of any age can make collages of what they want. Even young children and teenagers in school programs have done this. Create a collage, and you have something tangible to measure your results against. You recognize the reality when it happens.”

Live the Dream. Spend some time each week taking stock of your vision, and evaluating which aspects of it are, or are not, represented in your weekly schedule. Maybe you’ve got a lot of fitness and healthy-activity images in your vision collage. Are you attending your Wednesday night yoga class? Are you keeping up with your commitment to your running group? A weekly sit-down with the collage is a great way to check in with yourself and see where the discrepancies are.

You can also use your collage or journal to galvanize your focus and sense of purpose when your motivation flags. If you’re spinning with self-doubt before a difficult phone call, looking at your collage may help you center yourself and remind you why you’re doing what you’re doing: To win the job you want, you need to ask for the interview. To buy your dream house, you’ve got to go through the mortgage process. Restoring the big picture in your brain can be an incredibly effective way to reduce anxiety and build your sense of connection to your higher goal. And that’s what visioning is all about.

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Courtney Helgoe is a freelance writer and editor based in Minneapolis.

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