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I have practiced meditation for the better part of a decade now. I wouldn't call myself a Buddhist, but that's immaterial. I've experienced and practiced many kinds of meditation (energy, dream, mindfulness), and all of the meditations I have practiced I have a logic for. I can understand the goal of the meditation and why the meditation works.

One meditation that I've always been troubled by is visualization meditation. The type where repeatedly visualizing a very complex scene leads to certain goals. How is it that by visualizing a certain scene I enact unique changes in my psyche?

Obviously there are many different flavors, but recently every path I turn to has resulted in some kind of visualization meditation and I quite honestly doubt the very fundamentals of such a meditation. When I have such a strong doubt I certainly won't be able to practice effectively.

Are there any resources on this subject?

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It depends on the system.

In the sutra system, there are analytical meditations involving visualizing the form of the body of the Buddha, for instance. You do this in order to achieve calm abiding on the mental image of the form of the body of the Buddha. It is very much practiced in Tibetan traditions, since it is said that the object (that mental image) is very virtuous and thus preferable to neutral objects such as one's breath and so forth. It is said that one has to focus on a mental image to achieve calm abiding: if you take the breath, usually from the fourth mental abiding (calm abiding itself being the tenth), your mind becomes so subtle that a mental image of the breath starts to appear. Taking a mental image (such as the form of the body of the Buddha) from the outset makes things easier.

In the tantra system, the way of visualizing, the reasons to do so, and the objects visualized are completely different. I will not go into it here because it is secret mantra. However, in general, one engages in deity yoga so as to take the resultant enjoyment body into a path. It's called "taking the result as a path", or "mixing of the ordinary states with the three kayas."

The idea is to create the substantial cause of the enjoyment body. This substantial cause has to be of a similar type (and in the continuity of its result). It is a special body, a special mental body you create the cause of when you identify with the deity.

  • I apologize I should have been more clear. I'm specifically referring to the practice within tantras. I also understand well that the specific objects of visualization certainly fall under secret mantra, but to me it feels very much as though the rationale behind this visualization as a practice is not secret mantra. This may just be my ignorance though. Thank you for the answer regardless of whether or not you are able to answer my clarified question. – Slater Victoroff Nov 24 '16 at 19:42
  • @SlaterTyranus I added a little but it is as far as I can go, hoping that it will not cause distrust in anyone's mind reading such seemingly weird assertions. Enjoy your practice! – Tenzin Dorje Nov 24 '16 at 20:02
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Many Kammaṭṭhāna (working places, or themes of meditation/reflection/visualisation), which are taught by the Buddha, are actually visualisations in regard of signs.

  • the 10 kasinas (certain colors, elements (as less distructing for the mind)
  • tenkind of corpse
  • (parts of) the body (kāya) (as to gain disenchantment in regard of form)

Especially objects in signs have the purpose to concentrate the mind. In regard of the objects of repulsion, they also give ground for transcendent form by focusing on it.

The other objects are visualisations of virtues (of the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha) or reflections on own virtues (generosity, conduct, virtues like Devas) and then there are certain other visualisations of thoughts to more directly "change" ones level of awarness.

All, how ever, are used to gain certain concentrations used on one hand as proper dwellings, livelihood for the mind on one hand and as object of investigation for insight.

Since the prerequisite to gain absorbed concentration is the (a good amount) abounding from sensuality, such as visualization of grave stimulating objects of form, beautifullness in form, form to identify one self with it or even such as "bodily sequences" are not found in the advices of the Buddha, with is also clear when remembering that to transcendent form is the very first step.

Where ever such kinds of meditations are found,they can be content regarded as "this is not the teaching of the Buddha".

It's pupose might be what ever kind of "illusion" one might objecting with it or what ever identification one tries to pursue with such, but certainly not for release, undinging, Nibbana. It might be also of use for wordily special powers.

Again, if reflecting on Deities and Devas, one is encouraged to remember virtues one has (means there must be experians to be able to visualise) equal them.

Form and material qualities are not regarded as graspworthy at all but obstacles for any useful one-pointness or for inside, aside of those giving disgust to it.

A person, having grasped after seeing the Buddha in Form, when finally met him was taught clearly that seeking after form makes no sense, not lasting as it is: "Who ever sees the Dhamma, sees the Tathagata, who ever sees the Tathagata, sees the Dhamma." It should be clear, that this does not put into hope that lasting, real Form can be found or worthy to seek after.

[Note: This is a gift of Dhamma and not meant for commercial purpose or other low wordily gains by means of trade and exchange.]

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Visualization utilizes the right hemisphere of the brain that encodes information in images far more efficiently than the left hemisphere that is verbal/linguistic/logical/rational. The old adage is that "a picture is worth a thousand words." This principle is the basis of the medieval system of memory training (see Francis Yates, The Art of Memory).

The unconscious expresses archetypal information using visual images and prelinguistic symbols that are psychologically powerful and empowering, as evidenced by the research of psychologist Carl Gustav Jung for example. Peter Harvey discusses visualization in his Introduction to Buddhism (Cambridge University Press), esp. pp. 347-57. See also Guenther, The Teachings of Padasambhava; Korn, Visualization: The Uses of Imagery in the Health Professions; Ahsen, PsychEye: A Basic Introduction to the Natural Self-Analytic Images of Consciousness Eidetics; and Assagioli, Psychosynthesis.

Virtually all religions and spiritual paths testify to powerful visionary experiences including in the Pali Canon, including collective visionary experiences. It seems to be psychologically innate. Poetry and art also testify to the power and importance of the visionary/symbolic dimension of consciousness.

  • Right brain left brain distinction is a thoroughly debunked myth. Visualization meditation is also very distinct from a visionary experience. – Slater Victoroff Mar 19 '18 at 22:17
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The purpose of visualization is manifold depending on the practice:

  • guidance of the energy systems of the body (sambhogakaya)
  • making oneself focused and absorbed (samadhi)
  • mental factors are cultivated (i.e. generosity when practicing giving away of the body to hungry ghosts)
  • realigning one's belief systems with Right View

These are not all true for every visualization practice.

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I would say that as a general mechanism, whether Buddhist visualization or some other kind, it probably relies on the concept of neural plasticity. Visualization could be viewed as an exercise for the brain, which in turn affected the mind.

Essentially, we are what we think, within limits of what is possible of course.

Scientifically there are many examples of the brain being physically changed by the input it receives. This has been shown in musicians for example and the representation in their primary somatosensory cortices. The increased representation is indicative of a greater abundance of receptors in the periphery and the combination confers better acuity, for example. Thus, the brain is sculpted by input, which in turn influences who we are or at the very least what we can do.

Now consider that mentally imagining an image or sound activates the same (or very similar) network of cells as perceiving the object for real. The implication is that our brains are also shaped by what we imagine, probably assuming you can imagine clearly.

Finally, perception, particularly when profound, has effects on the brain and body. Perhaps changing cardiorespiratory patterns, hormone release and all sorts of things. Presumably, if you could imagine the same percept very clearly, and sustained, it would lead to the same set of physiological changes. So, filling the mind with compassion, generating the experiential feeling associated with compassion should cause changes in the body that reflect genuine compassion, with the added bonus of the circuits being reinforced and easier to enter the next time.

Just a thought.

  • Definitely makes sense, but this is more about general meditation and doesn't have much to do with the specific practice I was mentioning. – Slater Victoroff Mar 19 '18 at 22:15
  • You didn't really describe the meditation owing to it being secret. Is whatever you're visualizing completely neutral? If not then whatever it evokes would be what you're reinforcing in your psyche. The whole idea of plasticity is that it is specific to the stimulus, i.e. your meditation. – Jash Mar 20 '18 at 19:40
  • As an aside, the right brain left brain distinction is hardly a debunked myth. Just last week scientists at the Max Planck Institute published work explaining how the right dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex processes music as Broca's area on the left process language. Perhaps the media and pop books have exaggerated the concept of laterality but it is certainly real. – Jash Mar 20 '18 at 20:27
  • I think you're looking at Tenzin Dorje's response on the secrecy. I'm referring to the general tantric practice of visualization: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… It's not a neutral, but rather extremely specific visualization that doesn't neatly fit into this explanation. I should have been more specific - I wasn't trying to say that there is no lateralization, more saying that the simplistic presentation made of it was thoroughly debunked. Hopefully reviewing the link above on the visualization I was talking about explains why this is not relevant. – Slater Victoroff Mar 21 '18 at 14:26

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