Almost every magical text written in the last century describes “visualization” as the key to success. But what if you have trouble forming mental pictures?
Visualization exercises are everywhere in magic. Whether we’re talking about “seeing” yourself in a new car, or “scrying” into the Astral Plane, this idea of mental imagery is a near constant. It’s also something many people struggle with when they’re first getting into magic.
I was one of those people.
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve had exceptionally vivid dreams. I also read constantly, with horror stories being among my favorite, and could get lost in a book for hours. These worlds I visited, either in dreams or books, all seemed incredibly real to me. And yet, the first time I tried a visualization exercise I saw described in a how-to-magic book, I failed miserably.
The second time was a failure, too. And the tenth. And the hundredth.
I started studying magic when I was twelve years old. It wasn’t until I was sixteen, four years after I started practicing, that I finally got visualization. Now, at the ripe old age of grumble mumble something, it’s second nature to me.
In this post, I’d like to give you an “exercise routine” to help you practice visualization. If you’re struggling, maybe this will save you a few years.
Not everyone can do visualization
Believe it or not, some people are simply incapable of visualization–at least as it’s described in the books. In this section, I’ll discuss some of the reasons why, and try to give you some advice where I can.
First, let’s talk about people who are vision impaired. When the impairment is the result of an illness or injury experienced after a person was born, they usually have no more trouble visualizing things than people without vision impairment. If this describes you, I’ll say that the first exercise in this post requires sight, but you might be able to adapt it and the rest this post to suit your needs.
If someone has been totally blind since birth, that’s a different story. There is evidence that the brains of such people still experience vision-related electrical activity, but they’re certainly not “seeing” in the “conventional” sense of the word. If this describes you, this post might not be of much help to you.
This post also won’t be of much help to those people who experience aphantasia.
Aphantasia is the inability to voluntarily form mental pictures. It was first noted back in 1880, but no one actually began to study it until 2005! As such, there’s not a whole lot of data on aphantasia. Based on the studies we do have, though, it seems that about four percent of the population experiences some form of it.
Ever since aphantasia gained wider awareness, I’ve seen a lot of people claim to have it. And by “a lot” of people, I mean way more than four percent.
Almost always, these are people who are relatively new to magic.
Now, it’s certainly possible (even probable!) that the prevalence of aphantasia has been wildly understated. It hasn’t been studied for that long, and there’s a lot we don’t know about it. If you think you might have aphantasia, I strongly encourage you to seek out a medical professional in your area and speak with them. You might not only be able to help deepen our knowledge of this condition, there’s evidence that it could be linked to dementia later on in life.
BUT…visualization is also a skill, and it takes time and effort to learn. Remember up top when I said it took me four years to get it right? Don’t expect to be an overnight success with this. I think this post can help speed the process, but it’s not going to do the work for you. Even if you get absolutely no success, try as you might, please give it some time before self-diagnosing a neurological condition.
With that out of the way, let’s get visualizing.
So, we want to see something in our mind’s eye. That’s the goal, here, right? We want to be able to close our eyes and picture something, anything we want, in detail. How do we start? We start simply.
I’m going to give you a basic shape, you’re going to stare at it for thirty seconds (trying not to blink too much), then you’re going to close your eyes. When you close your eyes, you’ll see an “after image” of the shape. Your mission in this exercise is to hold on to that image. You want to keep that image for as long as you can. If you have a timer you can start without having to look at it, it’ll help you track your progress. You’ll be doing this exercise more than once.
Ready for the shape? Here it is…
Simple, right. It’s just a red, equilateral triangle. (There’s a reason I chose this for your first shape. It was the first one that I used back in the day!)
Click on the triangle to make it big, and keep your eyes on it for thirty seconds. Just count one Mississippi, two Mississippi, etc. Then close your eyes and hold onto the triangle you “see” there. Fun fact, the triangle you see behind your eyes will be blue! (Assuming you don’t have certain forms color vision deficiency.)
Go on, try it. I’ll wait.
You’re back? Great! How’d you do? Did you “see” the triangle? Was it blue? How long were you able to keep it there?
If staring at the image above hurt your eyes at all, or you’d like to be able to do this exercise away from a screen, that’s fine. Just get a piece of white paper, and either draw the triangle on it, or use some red construction paper and paste it on with a glue stick. It’ll work the same way.
Do this exercise three times a day for three days, but give yourself a break in between attempts. Your break should be no less than twenty minutes, but an hour is better. Give your eyes and your mind a chance to relax and reset. Once you’ve taken a break, try it again. See if you go a little longer this time.
After three days of practice, take day four off before moving on to the next exercise.
While you’re doing this, though…
Bet you didn’t know this first exercise was a two-parter. Yup. You’re going to do this on the same days you’re staring at the triangle. It’s okay, though. You don’t need a computer screen or a craft project for this. All you need is a towel.
Well, that and a table and chair. And about ten minutes.
Clear a couple of square feet off the table, pull the chair up, and lay the towel down to your right if you’re right-handed, your left if you’re left-handed. You want to be able to comfortably sit, reach out with your dominant hand, and lay it flat on the bare table without touching the towel. You also want to be able to lay it flat on the towel without touching the bare table. Got it? Good.
Towels and tables
Now, sit (if you’re not already), put your hand on the bare table, and close your eyes. You want to sit like this for one minute. While you’re doing that, really try to feel the table under your hand. Don’t massage it or anything, keep your hand still. Just feel it. Is it cold? Warm? Rough? Smooth? Really sink yourself into the feeling.
Once the minute is up, open your eyes, move your hand to the towel, and close your eyes again. You’re going to spend one minute feeling the towel. As before, keep your hand still. Just feel what you feel. Is it fuzzy? Is it rough? Should you maybe switch fabric softeners? Again, try to feel the towel as intensely as you can. And yes, I’m aware of how that sounds. Just go with it.
After you’ve spent a minute feeling the towel, open your eyes, move your hand to the table, and do this whole thing again. One minute of table, one minute of towel. You want to spend a total of six minutes doing this–three minutes for each, one minute at a time. At the end of six minutes, your hand should be on the towel.
Do you know where your towel is?
This is the fun part. Don’t open your eyes, and don’t move your hand. Instead, imagine moving your hand to the table. Keep your “real” hand where it is, but “see” your “imaginary” hand move to the table and “feel” the table under it. Really try to see your hand move, really try to feel the table. Don’t worry if this doesn’t seem to be working, just keep at it.
After one minute, keep your eyes closed, move your “imaginary” hand back to the towel, and “feel” the towel. This should be easier, right? I mean, your “real” hand is actually on the towel.
A minute later, open your eyes, actually move your hand to the table, then close your eyes again. You guessed it, you’re feeling the table for another minute. After that, you’re going to keep your eyes closed and imagine your hand moving to the towel. Feel it under your hand? Try to focus as hard as you can on what the towel feels like for one solid minute.
Then you’re done! See, I told you it would take about ten minutes.
How’d you do? Are you wondering what the point of this was? I’ll tell you in the next exercise! In the meantime, do this towel trick once a day for three days, then take the fourth day off. On the fifth day, move on to the next exercise.
Visualization is about “seeing” things, sure. But seeing is just one way of perceiving. The visual part of the first exercise is specifically about seeing. The towel part of the exercise was partly about seeing, but it was mainly about feeling. We’re working two senses, sight and touch, at the same time. Why?
Because what we’re really trying to do is to get your mind to perceive something which “isn’t really there.” By working double-duty, you’re going to get to where you want to be a lot faster.
Anyway, it’s day five (if you’ve been following the schedule I suggested) so it’s time for another exercise. And this one you can do pretty much anywhere, so long as you aren’t driving or operating heavy machinery or something.
During day five, and as often as you can during day five, you want to take a minute to close your eyes and see the triangle from the first exercise. That’s right, we’re trying unassisted visualization now. Try to see that blue triangle behind your eyes.
You can do this on the bus, or while sitting in the bathroom, or waiting for your order at the café–wherever and whenever you can give it a shot safely, go for it. Don’t do this for more than about a minute at a time, though, and give yourself at least a five-minute break before trying it again.
Here’s where you might be in for a surprise. Some people start seeing success at this point! Not a lot of people, and certainly not most, but some do. The triangle is usually quite dim and “flickery,” but you’ll know if it’s there or not. It’ll probably go a little lop-sided, or it might stretch or shrink. The triangle–if you see it–will seem to do everything but stand still.
If, by the end of day five, this describes you, then congratulations! You’re visualizing!
However, if you just don’t get any sort of triangle at all during the whole day, it’s back to the first exercise for you. And that’s okay! Most people don’t get this on the first pass. Go back, do three days of triangles and towels, take the fourth day off, and try this exercise again.
Keep at it until you can get the triangle at least somewhat reliably without the visual aid.
Once you can see the triangle without using a visual aid, keep doing the towel and table trick every other day or so. You want to aim for three times a week, with a day or two off in between. It really will help speed your progress.
I mentioned that the triangle you first visualize is probably going to be dim, flickering, and it will almost constantly shift around. This is normal when you first begin, but it’s not where we want to end up. This section is going to give you an ongoing program which will help you not only make the triangle behave, it will also lead to you visualizing whatever you want.
This practice should take no more than fifteen to twenty minutes. If you can do it every day, great, but don’t try it more than once a day. I also wouldn’t try it if you’re feeling tired, or just ate a large meal. You want to be at your best, otherwise you’ll just be spinning your wheels and frustrating yourself.
You want to set aside about twenty minutes or so, and find a comfortable place to sit where it’s quiet and you won’t be disturbed. We’re going to be doing some meditation, so make your space as amiable to relaxation and concentration as possible.
Sit and breathe
Sit in your space, take a deep breath, and slowly release it while you let your eyes gently close. Don’t try to visualize anything yet, just breathe. You don’t have to breathe in any particular way, except that you do want to completely fill, then empty your lungs. This is sometimes called “belly breathing.” If you’re reading this blog, you probably already know what I’m talking about.
Take a few minutes to just “check in” with your body. Feel your limbs, let your thoughts do whatever, then slowly bring your attention to your breath. Again, don’t try to time it or control it. Just let yourself breathe naturally and fully, inhaling, then exhaling.
Keep your attention on your breath for a few minutes. If you feel your mind start to wander, bring it gently back to your breath. Inhale. Exhale. Relax.
Once you feel relaxed and focused on your breath, call up the triangle and shift your attention to it. You’re about to begin the hard part. You want to hold the triangle in your mind and keep it still.
The goal is to maintain the triangle at a constant size, and keep it’s shape and orientation the same. If it starts to grow or shrink, gently reset it to its proper size. Do the same if it moves or tries to change its proportions. The keyword here is “gently.” Don’t get angry or frustrated. This is really hard to do, and it takes a lot of practice to do it well.
When you first begin, if you’re able to keep the triangle still for even ten seconds that’s a serious accomplishment.
After you have reached the point where you can hold the triangle still for at least thirty seconds, you’re ready to try another shape. Getting to this point will likely take you a few weeks of consistent practice. That’s right. Weeks. Again, don’t be discouraged. Be patient.
What shape should you use next? Dealer’s choice. I suggest trying a square, a circle, or a five-pointed star, but it’s really up to you. Just keep it simple, and don’t make a visual aid for it like we did with the triangle. By now, you should be able to call up one of these simple shapes on your own.
As to color? You can stick with the blue you’ve been seeing, but you can try another primary color as you wish. When you can hold any simple shape of any color in your mind for a full minute, without any noticeable movement, you’re golden.
At that point, try any simple, unmoving, three-dimensional object. It may seem more challenging at first, but if you’ve come this far it shouldn’t take you more than about a week to start seeing some progress. Start with a cube if you can’t think of anything else.
Once you can hold a 3D object for a minute, then you can try making it move. For instance, if you’re using a cube, make it slowly rotate. Have it rotate along one axis at first, in one direction then in the other. When you have the hang of that, make it rotate along two axis. Sooner than you think, you’ll be able to make the cube tumble through space, in any direction at all, exactly according to your desire.
By now, you’re so far along that you really don’t need any more guidance. I’ll throw this last bit out there just in case, though.
Move on to two simple solids. Hold them still at first, then have them move and rotate. Even have them bump off of each other. Then you can move on to three, four, and even five objects. Make them all the same, or make them all different.
Try complex objects that you’re familiar with, such as your favorite chair, or the lamp on your desk.
If you can manage to do that, congratulations! You should be able to visualize anything you need or want to.
I assume you read this post and went through all of the work above because you had a goal, a reason for wanting to get good at visualization. Well, whatever that goal is, your next step is obviously to go and do it. Most people practice visualization as a prelude to Astral Travel, or what I usually call “Journeying.” If that’s you, then you’ll have no trouble beginning that practice now.
Beyond that, the only thing I can do is remind you that visualization is a skill. Not only does it take time and effort to learn, but it can also get “rusty” if you don’t use it regularly. You can probably stop with the towel and table routine, but you’d do well to keep meditating and building those concentration muscles.
Anyway, I hope this post helped!
If you have any tips or thoughts on visualization, feel free to drop them in the comments below. I’d love to read them and I’m sure other people would too.
Have a blessed day!