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Meditation and Children, Part 5: Creative Visualization

Creative visualization goes by a number of names: creative imagination, visualization, visual imaging. Whatever the name, the process involves calling up images, sounds and/or feelings that calm the mind and body, and focus the attention on a specific task.
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So far in this blog series, we've reviewed the benefits of meditation for children, including progressive relaxation exercises which focus on the breath. Then we discussed seated meditation and "The Monkey Mind." In today's post, I'd like to introduce you and your child to the practice of creative visualization. Combined with meditation, creative visualization can be a powerful tool in your child's life.

CREATIVE VISUALIZATION (or Creative Imagination)

Creative visualization goes by a number of names: creative imagination, visualization, visual imaging. Whatever the name, the process involves calling up images, sounds and/or feelings that calm the mind and body, and focus the attention on a specific task.

The idea is simple: if you can imagine yourself carrying out a task or goal, if you can actually see and feel yourself doing it step-by-step, you will be well on your way to actually achieving that goal. The process works whether your goal is simply to do better at school or to train for the Olympics.

Many people believe that if they simply will themselves to achieve a goal, they should be able to accomplish it. Then they are surprised when it doesn't work. Success in achieving goals is not simply a matter of will power. It is a matter of using the will combined with the power of the imagination, as well.

That is where creative visualization comes in. It combines both the left brain activities of language, logic, and will, with the right brain's domain of dreams, creativity, and visual images.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Visualization has two parts: first, you relax; then, you see yourself achieving your goals. Almost as if you were watching a movie, you can see yourself carrying out all the steps in an activity that you have specified as your goal. You might be winning a tennis match, or performing in a play, or taking a test that you get an A on effortlessly.

Once your child becomes familiar with this technique and applies it to specific goals, he will be able to use it to enhance performance in everything from sports to schoolwork. This technique works for relaxation (or raising energy levels, if that is desired), memory improvement, changing behavior, relieving pain, and achieving whatever goals your child sets before himself.

Visualization also is being used effectively in a variety of medical contexts. Cancer patients of all ages -- children and adults -- have been taught to visualize their protective white blood cells killing off their cancer cells, as if they are witnessing a video-game battle. The results have been impressive: tumors have been shown to shrink. Patients have also been able to minimize the side effects of cancer medications and thus feel stronger and more in control of their healing.

Research at Johns Hopkins University with cancer patients supports this idea that the mind can have a powerful effect on the body. In one study, researchers gave placebo medication to patients who were told it was chemotherapy. Those on placebo reacted as if they were really on chemotherapy: they became nauseated and their hair fell out. In another study, others were given chemotherapy but instructed on how to vividly imagine the medicine as an ally in their fight against the disease. These patients were able to reduce the usual unpleasant side effects.

Not only can the mind affect the body, actions that begin with your body can affect your mind. For example, if you hug yourself, the body can't really tell who is giving the hug -- you or another person. Your body experiences it as a hug, with all the positive effects that usually brings: a feeling of warmth and pleasure.

The same happens when you smile. Even if you are not genuinely happy at the moment, the signal that goes to the brain as a result of that familiar facial gesture is one of a feeling of well-being (if not outright happiness). So no matter what your mood, you will find that feel slightly better as a result of the physical act of smiling.

OLYMPIC ATHLETES USE IT TO TRAIN

The use of creative visualization in sports has gotten a lot of attention in recent years because it is being used by Olympic and professional athletes alike as an integral part of sports training. It even has a name: autogenic training.

Jim Thorpe, the great Indian Olympic gold medal winner in 1912, was one of the first to hit upon the effectiveness of visualization. Before the Olympics, his coach found him leaning back on a deck chair, gazing out at the sky. The coach got mad and asked him why he wasn't out there training. Thorpe replied: "I am. I am watching every step I am going to take in my mind." Of course, there is no substitute in sports for actual physical training. But visualization can help an athlete go beyond the limitations of what his body can achieve with physical activity alone.

Visualization is also being used by amateur athletes. W. Timothy Gallwey has written a very popular series of books describing how to use this technique for every sport you can name. There is Inner Golf, Inner Tennis, Inner Skiing, and more. In all his books, he explains that the inner game, or mental attitude and mental training, are as critical to performing at your peak as are physical practice and skill.

Whatever your child's aim, visualization can help him to learn faster and remember better. It works no matter what your child's IQ.

In next week's blog post, I will teach you how to help your child learn the basics of creative visualization.