How to harness the power of imagination to create the life you want
Henry David Thoreau once said, “The world is but a canvas to the imagination.”
It’s no accident that the word “imagination” contains the root for the word magic. Its processes take place mysteriously in the inner world of the human psyche and seem to defy logic. Its powers can inspire you to explore life’s infinite possibilities, support you every step of the way in attaining your goals and provide impetus for creative activities of any kind. In fact, imagination has the ability to shape every single facet of life.
However, this extraordinary human faculty can be a double-edged sword. It can work for or against you, depending on the nature of the images it produces in your mind. Put simply, if you don’t exert any control over your imagination, your anxieties and fears can inhibit your progress and success in life.
Whether you use visualisation, affirmations or self-hypnosis, your imagination’s ability to change your mental, emotional and behavioural habits makes it an incredible resource for creating a wide range of constructive changes in your life.
The key to making the most of your imagination’s potential lies in two important factors: your awareness of the habitual ways in which it operates, and your willingness to work at changing these habits if they’re not allowing you to create the life you truly desire. So the good news is, if your imagination frequently conjures up negative images arising from your fears, it can be “retrained” to picture the results you truly desire. In this way its powerful energies can be used to support (rather than undermine) your wellbeing, fulfilment and success in life.
Changing the way you use your imagination can be facilitated by the regular practice of techniques such as visualisation of your desired outcomes, commonly termed “creative visualisation”, as well as the use of affirmations (positive statements) or more unusual techniques such as self-hypnosis.
The effectiveness of these techniques lies in their creation of imagery that produces positive thoughts, feelings and actions. Practised regularly, they gradually convey to your subconscious mind that the achievement of a desired outcome is possible. When “convinced” in this way, the subconscious mind is then stimulated to tap into the resources needed to attain the goal. Intuition plays an important role here, acting as a sort of messenger between the subconscious and conscious parts of your mind. It alerts you to opportunities in the external world that match the images or thoughts created in your mind.
While there’s nothing new about using the imagination to achieve desired outcomes — whoever invented the wheel would have been guided by some kind of mental image — it wasn’t until the 20th century that specific techniques were developed to use the imagination as a personal growth tool. Many self-help writers including Shakti Gawain, Louise L. Hay and Florence Scovel Shinn inspired countless people to bring positive change to their lives through the use of visualisation and affirmations, as well as through understanding of metaphysical laws such as the well-known Law of Attraction.
Imagination is an inner resource you can draw upon in every facet of life — a resource that, if used wisely, has the power to shape who you are, how you choose to live and what you contribute to the world. It can help you overcome challenges and bring about the deep levels of change that are often required to achieve goals.
Perhaps the most influential of these writers has been Shakti Gawain. Her book Creative Visualisation, first published in 1978, has since sold more than 3 million copies and has been published in 25 languages. The term she coined, “creative visualisation”, has become part of the public vocabulary and its principles continue to be used in goal attainment of any kind. Gawain also encouraged the use of affirmations as a way to increase the impact of visual imagery through the power of words. Let’s take a look at these two highly effective ways of using the imagination — creative visualisation and affirmations — as well as the more unusual technique of self-hypnosis.
The popular technique of creative visualisation is based on the understanding that your imagination can play an active role in creating successful results in your life by forming images of how you would like things to be. It involves bringing these positive mental pictures into your mind’s eye on a regular basis, thus sending a sustained message to your subconscious mind that you expect to achieve your goal. In this way creative visualisation can be used as a highly effective goal-attainment tool to improve your career, relationships, health or any other area of life.
Incidentally, the concept of the mind’s eye — where visualisation takes place — is often seen to exist within the so-called “third eye” area, situated between and above the actual eyes (where many Hindus wear a saffron or vermilion mark).
One of the main advantages of visualisation is it gives you the opportunity to evoke feelings and thoughts associated with experiences you may not have had. As the subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between a real or imagined experience — yes, it’s true! — mental images can virtually build a memory bank as a resource to draw upon. So creative visualisation allows you to bypass the rational, critical faculties of the conscious mind to form a sense of the reality you would like to have in your life.
While visual images are the major factor used in creative visualisation, virtually all the senses can be utilised. So, in order to form a particularly vivid experience in your mind, you could imagine sounds, smells, a sense of touch and even certain tastes if appropriate, in addition to your visual images. Incorporating a feeling or emotional element also works wonders: for example, you could focus on a feeling of inner peace, gratitude or inspiration.
The actual technique of creative visualisation is very straightforward. Gawain’s suggested method in her book Creative Visualisation basically boils down to the following steps: 1. Set your goal. 2. Create a clear idea or picture of your desired results in your mind (preferably while in a relaxed or meditative state, with the eyes closed). 3. Focus on the images you’ve created often and 4. Give them additional positive energy through the regular use of affirmations.
Regularity is an important factor here: Gawain recommends a visualisation session (about 15 minutes) soon after waking in the morning and another before falling asleep at night, with a third session in the middle of the day if suitable. If you have trouble actually seeing a mental picture when you close your eyes, she suggests you simply think about your goal, sensing how its attainment would feel in some way, or perhaps focus on a pre-prepared affirmation. To understand the beneficial impact of using affirmations, let’s take a look at how they work.
Stimulating the imagination through the power of words, affirmations are statements designed to evoke positive thoughts and feelings linked with your goals or intentions. By repeating a carefully worded, heartfelt affirmation, you encourage your subconscious mind to develop a belief that the outcome you desire is achievable.
As well as being a great way to energise visual images, affirmations can also be used alone in helping to change negative thoughts, attitudes and beliefs into positive ones. Whether spoken out loud, written down or repeated silently, affirmations gradually train the mind to think in new patterns. The only “rules” for affirmations are that they need to be phrased in the present tense and they need to convey a positive message.
For example, you could use an affirmation such as “I am now starting a wonderful new chapter of my life” to move forward after a crisis of some kind. As is the case with creative visualisation, affirmations are usually more effective if a person is in a relaxed or meditative state.
Another technique that utilises the power of the imagination is self-hypnosis. Although this term often raises a few eyebrows, in many ways self-hypnosis utilises the same principles as creative visualisation and affirmations: self-induced relaxation and the use of words and images to convince the subconscious mind that a particular outcome is possible (self-suggestion). However self-hypnosis often involves added therapeutic techniques such as self-analysis and the use of post-hypnotic suggestions that encourage positive thinking and plans of action.
In their book Healing Yourself with Self-Hypnosis, Frank Caprio M.D. and Joseph R. Berger show how self-hypnosis can be used to overcome problems such as pain, stress, emotional difficulties and unwanted habits, as well as for the attainment of personal and professional goals. The authors quote renowned medical hypnotherapist Dr Milton Erickson’s statement: “Self-hypnosis plays a valuable role in a process which makes it easier for an individual to discover and understand the workings of his own body and mind, learn the factors which basically cause his own distress and learn how to control them.”
Whether you use visualisation, affirmations or self-hypnosis, your imagination’s ability to change your mental, emotional and behavioural habits makes it an incredible resource for creating a wide range of constructive changes in your life. Let’s take a look at some of the potentials.
Using your imagination for healing & pain control
In the early 1900s French psychologist Émile Coué discovered the power of autosuggestion to help patients heal. He declared, “When your desires and imagination are in conflict, your imagination invariably wins the day.” (Joseph Murphy, The Power of Your Subconscious Mind). Coué became famous for the statement he encouraged patients to use: “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” He also developed a technique whereby patients were able to reduce physical or mental pain by calming their minds and repeating: “It is going, it is going, it is going.” Coué’s techniques laid the foundation for influential metaphysical writers such as Louise L. Hay, who encouraged the use of healing affirmations in her popular book, You Can Heal Your Life (1984).
As is the case with affirmations, the use of visual imagery has also become increasingly popular as a healing tool, particularly since the publication in 1978 of Getting Well Again by Simonton, Matthews-Simonton and Creighton. The book, written by medical doctors, provides evidence that visualisation can facilitate healing, even in the case of serious illness. Shakti Gawain’s suggestions for using visualisation for health and healing in her book Creative Visualisation have also helped many people to heal themselves of serious illnesses.
Breaking bad habits & building new ones
The power of the imagination can also be harnessed to break unwanted habits and behaviour patterns. The key here is your imagination’s ability to build new habits by regularly visualising their pleasurable impact on your wellbeing. Habits such as overeating, nail biting and smoking can gradually be dissolved in this way. For example, regularly visualising a piece of delicious fruit as your after-dinner snack can gradually break the sugary-dessert habit.
In The Power of Your Subconscious Mind, Joseph Murphy explains the principle behind this approach. “This is the law of substitution. Your imagination took you to [the habit]. Let it now take you to freedom and peace of mind.”
Self-hypnosis can also be used to eliminate unwanted habits and build new ones. In Healing Yourself with Self-Hypnosis, authors Caprio and Berger provide hypnotic techniques to break habits such as overeating, smoking, alcoholism and drug addiction.
Overcoming anxieties & fears
Techniques that utilise the power of your imagination can also be highly effective in overcoming distressing emotional states such as anxiety and fear. For example, visualisations and/or affirmations that relax the body, calm the mind and suggest positive outcomes can be of great assistance to people troubled by examinations, job interviews or irrational anxieties such as fear of flying or fear of snakes or spiders.
In these situations, the subconscious mind is virtually reprogrammed to view the feared situation in a more realistic and non-threatening light. So if, for example, you feel terrified at the thought of an upcoming event, you would start practising your visualisations, affirmations or self-hypnosis several days (or weeks, if necessary) before the actual event. You could set aside time in the morning and evening of each day for a session where your imagination creates a sense of the favourable outcome you desire.
Using the imagination to shape the way you view a particular event can akso improve your level of success in a wide variety of activities where there is pressure to perform effectively. Visualisation is often a key part of the regular routines practised by athletes, performers and those required to do public speaking of some kind. Often termed mental rehearsal, it provides a way to program the mind to succeed by visualising the way you would like things to occur at a particular event.
For example, many sportspeople familiarise themselves with the venue at which an upcoming event will be held so they can visualise their success there before the event takes place. Entertainers often visualise a high-quality performance and the enthusiastic response of their audience. Those required to speak in public often visualise themselves looking and feeling confident, and picture their audience responding positively to their speech.
In each case the imagination works together with a person’s existing skills, allowing the subconscious mind to play an important part in their ability to effectively draw on their resources. The techniques induce success because of the level of conviction produced in the subconscious mind by the imagination.
In his book Psycho-Cybernetics, Maxwell Maltz tells of a therapist who successfully used the technique of visualising oneself in a new role to help alcoholics “cross the ‘bridge’ from the old self to the new self”. He encouraged them to close their eyes, relax and picture themselves as sober, responsible people who enjoyed life without alcohol.
Maltz assures readers that, as many case histories have shown, a person is never too old (or too young) to change their self-image. Because a person’s actions, feelings and behaviour are consistent with their self-image, says Maltz, a new, positive self-image can be the “golden key to living a better life”.
Achieving career goals
The ability of your imagination to affect your state of mind makes it an incredible resource for achieving a wide range of career goals. In fact, it can be a crucial factor in determining both the nature of your career goals and your level of success. For example, regularly imagining yourself successfully performing your desired career role is a wonderful way to ensure your skills are fully utilised. Your imagination can also play a vital role in brainstorming career ideas when you don’t have a clear vocational path in mind.
When you use visualisation and affirmations for career purposes, you can draw on the rich material stored in your subconscious mind — a vast tapestry of your life experiences, things you’ve learned and observed and even material from your ancestral past. In addition, visualisation can sometimes access intuitive, innovative concepts that go way beyond your conscious awareness of your career potential. As Howard Figler and Richard Nelson Bolles state in The Career Counsellor’s Handbook, “Some of the best career paths emerge from wild dreaming and ideas that seem far-fetched at the time.”
Creative projects & other possibilities
The potential uses for visualisation and other imaginative techniques are virtually limitless. Creative activities are naturally one of the first things that come to mind. Whether or not you have a creative occupation, the stimulus of visualisation can be used to awaken ideas for any artistic, literary, musical or design project. And, of course, any work that involves thinking outside the box, such as scientific or technological invention or innovation, responds to the stimulus of visualisation.
Your imagination can also be used to achieve goals such as losing weight (for example, by regularly visualising your body being slimmer through eating smaller, healthier meals); improving your relationships (perhaps through visualising the initial sparks you and your partner experienced); or even enhancing your spirituality (for example, through visualising experiences such as unconditional, universal love). As you can see, there are no limits to the ways you might use your ability to visualise!
Tips & tools for cultivating your imagination
Through personal experience I’ve discovered that imagination works best under certain conditions, which include the following factors:
- The more clearly you can visualise the attainment of a goal, the easier it is for your intuition to guide you in taking the right actions. Put it this way: whatever you imagine vividly on a consistent basis is absorbed by your subconscious mind as objective reality. Once this inner conviction is established, your intuition is then able to guide you step-by-step in attaining your desired outcomes — as it’s linked with the vast form of intelligence often termed the Universal Mind. In this way your imagination and intuition make a great team!
- Your imagination needs to be supported by positive beliefs about what you deserve to receive and what you are capable of achieving in life. Affirmations can be used to create and reinforce new beliefs if your old ones aren’t helping you: for example, you could regularly repeat a statement such as: “I deserve to have a fulfilling life and I have the talents and persistence required to achieve my goals.”
- Develop trust in imagination’s processes and faith in its ability to work with your intuition to create your desired results. However, if you find your visualisations simply aren’t producing results, then, as Shakti Gawain points out, your goal may not, in fact, be in your best interests.
- If possible, slow down the pace of your day. Give yourself time to perform your daily activities in a way that honours both your conscious and subconscious mind. The enemies of imagination are multitasking and being time-pressured, both of which force the rational, conscious mind to dominate to an alarming degree. Slowing down allows your intuitive, imaginative subconscious mind to flourish and to integrate harmoniously with your conscious mind.
The role of imagination in the 21st century
Imagination allows you to counteract the increasing influence of negative (often violent) images that flood in daily from the technology-based screens that dominate 21st century life. Like a muscle, imagination strengthens with use and has the ability to endure as a highly effective resource you can utilise during the toughest of times. It allows you to communicate to your subconscious mind that you believe your dreams can be realised. The importance of this should never be underestimated. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
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