Advanced visualisation and mental rehearsal., part two of a two-part series on imagining the future as you would like it to be. Using advanced imagination, visualisation, and mental rehearsal strategies.
Imagining the future part one, ‘Mental resilience and visualisation’: Using your imagination to visualise how to handle challenges in the future. Building mental resilience with visualisation. Imagining the future you prefer to experience. >>>> Part one is here >>>>
Imagining the future part two, ‘Advanced visualisation and mental rehearsal’: Visualisation that produces lasting results. Engaging neuroplasticity with visualisation. Advanced future pacing strategies. Making yourself immune to failure.
Willpower and logic will not get you what you want. At least not long term. And the unfortunate (or fortunate) truth is that habit and imagination are the two biggest drivers of human experience. In part one we covered how to build mental resilience with visualisation. In fact, I would go so far to say that without imagining a different future outcome, resilience never forms. Because you cannot get better at something without imagining how you would do it differently than how you’ve done it before. Logic has limited value here. And what about those times when you know how you want to be, but still behave or feel the same way? Knowing isn’t enough., willpower rarely succeeds in the face of habit. This is where applying certain aspects of how your mind works can radically improve your future. The alternative is spending your time going from one retreat, workshop, therapy, or coaching session to another looking for something to change you. Or not trying at all.
Advanced visualisation – intelligent use of natural brain function
Advanced visualisation & mental rehearsal relies on intelligent use of naturally occurring functions of the mind. And once you learn these simple but powerful distinctions, your success with visualisation will grow exponentially. You don’t need a dozen techniques. You only need one technique, done really well.
I encourage you to read the entirety of this article. The ideas are simple., but they are applied intelligently. In particular., step four of the advanced visualisation steps is not commonly used but is incredibly effective. Outlined below, is one of the simplest yet most powerful tools to maximise your future performance. And I have added advanced distinctions that will multiply its success rate dramatically.
You need to understand that thinking isn’t just thinking. It’s a physical process that physically changes your brain.
Neuroplasticity, attention, and habit
Is there a difference between neuroplasticity and habit forming? Not really. Neuroplasticity has been a bit of a buzzword and topic for years now. And the idea is, that the brain can re-wire itself based on attention, adaption, and a need for efficiency. Attention being the purposeful focus on a task/action, body part, or thought process. Because we are surrounded by stimulation. Most of which is regarded as just noise that we ignore. That which we pay attention to, is what will engage neuroplasticity. What do you pay attention to on a regular basis? And what do you NOT pay attention to that ends up being background noise? And have you got those two the right way around? IE: Are you paying attention to unpleasant things at the expense of all that is good around you? Are you imagining the future exactly the same as the present?
Neuroplasticity is constant
Neuroplasticity is always happening. And it’s actually a simple concept. There’s a phrase in neuroplastic literature and talks that says., ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’. In other words, the brain recognises that if you are doing something on a consistent basis, then you want to do it more. And so, it makes it easier by creating stronger connections between the brain cells responsible for the action or thought. This can happen unconsciously or consciously. Habits are habits because neuroplasticity has made them easier to do than anything else. And the brain is a self-organising system. IE: As long as it has energy and neural connections., it will continue to grow and evolve. Advanced visualisation involves literally rewiring the brain. Back that up with action, and the rewiring becomes more permanent. And to be clear, neuroplasticity can and does occur until the day you die. Age is not a limit to imagining the future differently than it is now.
Pre planning the future is a natural process
Whether it’s done consciously or not, you are consistently preparing to do or feel something in the future. It’s how the mind works. From simple decisions like what to have for lunch., to more impactful decisions like how you will behave next time you see your partner. Some people believe they don’t have much of an imagination. The truth., is that these people have habituated their imagination to keep imagining the same things! Because if you had no imagination., EVERYTHING would be a surprise. And how do we pre-plan and prepare for the future? By imagining it.
The ‘every thought becomes a reality’ fallacy
Does this mean that everything you imagine will come true?
Some followers of ‘the law of attraction’ get caught in that trap. But this is an error in understanding. Because if this were true, then thinking about money would make you rich. Or thinking about that horror film you watched would result in you being a victim of horror. Thought requires action to make the thought reality. Thinking about money without acting on inspirational ideas will not make you rich. Nor will thinking about yelling at someone without organising to meet them result in you yelling at them. Thought itself however, doesn’t require action to maintain the thought. And this is how anxious people stay anxious and depressed people stay depressed. Anxiety and depression are mental states that lead to less productive action or no action at all. This lack of action is the real reason why most negative thinking leads to negative results.
Emotion overrides logic
No-one would spend time imagining a future where they fail or are unhappy would they? Unfortunately., people do exactly that all the time. And they do so even when logic tells them that that’s what they’re doing. Here, logic fails. Because emotion overrides logic frequently. And emotion overriding logic is the basis of most challenges that people seek therapy for. The mind is really good at one thing in particular. And that is imagining.
What starts as imagination, turns into an auto-play loop that builds strength over time. An extreme example of this might be PTSD. In most cases with someone suffering with PTSD the danger is over. And they know that logically. But the mind has taken over logic and keeps the trauma alive in the persons experience.
For an introduction on how to deal with more serious habits of thought read:
DO get caught up in the details
Visualisation does require focus on details. And so when imagining the future, you should get into the details. But details are used as more of a direction than a blueprint. They are used to amplify the feeling. It’s how the visualisation makes you feel that counts., not the details. So, when I talk about details, it’s as a way to a feeling. And remember that how you want to feel, is the main driver of behaviour and therefore visualising your future. The details might end up being pretty accurate. Or they might change.
Advanced visualisation – awareness of current thought
The first step in ANY change (or therapy) is to become aware of what you think about and therefore do now. Seems obvious right!? But most people don’t pay much attention to consistent patterns of thinking as they are on auto pilot. Keeping a notebook with you is a great way to do this. Because you can write down what you are thinking at the times you feel less than ideal. Or take note of thoughts that are persistent when you meditate or spend time in silence. You will soon realise how often you think repeated thoughts. The patterns will become clear. And then with a sense of wonder, you can start to catch yourself and laugh, smile, and shrug it off.
The four steps – advanced visualisation and future pacing
[Read all four steps before starting]
Thinking about or imagining the future is how your brain prepares to be anxious. So, the strategy already works. You just need to replace the details of the thinking. The steps are easy. In NLP this idea is known as future pacing. And done correctly, is in my opinion the most important step in any therapy or coaching session. Because without future pacing, the danger is that the positive changes you have made will fade away. And/or they will not be present in your life when and where you need them. The session could potentially be wasted, and you may give up because you believe that you will never change. Future pacing is where you take new feelings, decisions, and habits and place them into your future timeline of life. It’s a way to re-program your mind for future success. And typically, this would be done at the end of a therapy or coaching session. But the principals apply to self-development also. It’s like giving a hypnotic suggestion but without the hypnosis.
Advanced visualisation, step one – create a well-formed goal
Having a well-formed goal or outcome is a step that a surprising amount of people get wrong. Because there are things to consider that will make the goal of your visualisation achievable or not.
- Is the goal specific and measurable? And if it’s not, how will you know you have achieved it? Make sure that what you want is clear and can be quantified. And that your visualisation contains evidence that you have achieved it. A goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline.
- Is the goal positively focused? You can’t visualise ‘not’ having or doing something. What will you have or do instead?
- Is the goal or ideal vision of yourself under your control? Having a goal that requires the world or others to change for you to get what you want, is potentially an exercise in futility.
The most common mistake when imagining the future
The most common mistake with well-formed goals or outcomes is ignoring ecology. Ecology in this application is the consideration of consequences. What is going to change when you adopt this new way of being? And does that effect the goal of the visualisation?
Other questions to consider here are:
- How might you get in your own way? Current habits are habits because on some level they work for you. Try asking yourself this: What does the critic in you say about this future goal or desire? What does that teach you? And how does that effect the goal?
- What is this change going to stop you from doing or have you start doing? And are you willing for that to be the case?
- What situations might not suit this change? And what people may object or make these new changes difficult? Some people find it hard to adjust to changes in the people they know.
The ecology of existing culture and environment
What culture and environment are you going back into? And how does that change who you want to be and how you want to act?
Think carefully about what or who else may be affected by you being different. And then role play in your mind effective ways to handle these changes. These roleplayed examples can be added to your visualisation sessions. The danger if you don’t do this., is that well-meaning people may anchor you back into old habits and beliefs. I’ve seen this happen time and time again. You need to protect yourself against the tendency of things to return to habitual levels. Because cultural expectations and habits can draw you back into old habits very quickly if you are not prepared for them. And some environments will not take easily to you changing. This step is where the skills you learnt in part one on mental resilience training can be added. Imagine dealing with negative people calmly and efficiently. And in fact, imagine feeling more centred and determined than ever by the negative actions of others.
Advanced visualisation, step two – vary the context
Do you want this new way of being to generalise to multiple areas of your life? Or is this better to be only in one specific context/situation? For example, you may want to eat more vegetables in every context. And by contrast, you may only want to be more assertive at work. Remember ecology. What would happen if you were more assertive everywhere, including your intimate relationships?
To make this change in a specific context, use only examples of that specific context. For example, if assertiveness is the goal with your co-workers: Imagine varying situations at work at different times but always with just those people.
Making a change generalise
To make the change generalise to multiple areas, use examples in different situations, locations, and with different people etc.
For example, if healthier eating is a goal: Imagine varying places (home, restaurants, café’s), mealtimes, people, events, the supermarket where you buy food, kindly refusing an offer of something you don’t want to eat anymore etc.
And in both cases you will imagine varying times in the future. This helps the change be more permanent (unless you change it again) and evolve over time.
Advanced visualisation, step three – imagine the ideal future
This is where you build your new future as you would like it to be. And in most cases you will want this new behaviour or feeling to be present over time. If you only want it present once, then imagine it only in that specific context and time. Use submodalities here if you want to amplify your imagination. Imagine a movie where you perform and behave in your new way. Make the movie rich with detail and feeling. And then imagine various times in the future behaving that way. This is best done in situations where in the past you would have behaved in the old way. Pick a time a day from now, a week, a month, six months and a year from now. And play these variations of the same themed movie in your mind as the new you. Remember if this is a general change, vary aspects of the movie to include different people, places, and situations as is appropriate. You are the producer and director of this movie. You can run it as often as you like until it’s right. That’s the beauty of being in charge of your own visualisations.
Use other people as examples
If you find it hard imagining a future acting or being different., try a second person perspective. IE: “Who do you know that already has/does what you want., and how would they be in this situation in the future?” Then imagine stepping into that person’s ability and attitude as if it is your own. Because your brain will not know the difference. You cannot want something without a reference to it. Which means that you have already experienced it in some way. That way may have been in the past or in a different context. Or you may have witnessed someone else experiencing it, put yourself in their position, and felt what you imagine they were feeling.
Advanced visualisation, step four – protect yourself from failure
Very few people do this step. And this is the main reason that people give up. This advanced visualisation & mental rehearsal technique is where you prepare yourself for setbacks intelligently. Because it’s probable that you will screw up and fall back into old behaviours at some point. How will you handle slipping back into old habits? It’s important to frame that in a way that results in further progress. If you don’t., temporary failure will likely lead to giving up. And this is where your inner critic will come in and say such useful things as, “I knew it, you can’t change” or “Oh for f***s sake., why do I always so this?”
Here’s what to do: Imagine yourself sometime in the future screwing up. Maybe that means doing the old action or behaviour again. Maybe in a week, and maybe again in a month. The key is to imagine how you will handle this TEMPORARY setback. And imagine realising in that moment with a sense of amusement, that this isn’t who you are any more. And then imagine getting right back on track and feeling a sense of pride for catching yourself and correcting your action. Of course, you may not screw up. And if you don’t, then nothing is lost. However, if you do., you now have a mentally rehearsed strategy for dealing with it in a productive way.
How often to use visualisation & mental rehearsal techniques
Repetition, consistency, and emotional intensity are the keys to long term success with advanced visualisation & mental rehearsal techniques. Much like meditation benefits or physical fitness., mental fitness requires maintenance. It’s true., one time eureka type events do happen. Just the right shift in thought and belief occurs resulting in profound lasting change. However., the change is maintained because of a change in action that is maintained. The more often you imagine the future consciously, the faster your daily thinking will change. And new habits of daily thinking are what is going to change your life. It doesn’t take much to do 5 minutes of this in the morning or evening. Start there and let the momentum build. It’s better to do 5-10 minutes every day than 30+ minutes once or twice a week. And the next step from there would 5-10 minutes three times a day. Because that sort of regular practice will eventually change your whole set point of thinking habits throughout the day. I suggest every day for the first week at least. And then maybe 2-3 times a week to reinforce it until you notice that it has become an automatic part of your life.
The neurochemistry of habits
Lasting habits come from changes in neurochemistry. Because we do things based on how we will feel doing them. Neurotransmitter chemicals like Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin, and others are released in response to reward, pleasure and positive feelings. This strengthens the neural pathways of the action or thought that produced the chemicals. Why? Because in evolutionary terms, anything that makes us feel good is likely to be good for us. Gathering food, bonding etc. This idea of ‘that which makes us feel good’ can obviously be abused in the case of drugs and other addictive habits. But in general, we adjust to doing more of something because it promotes longevity. Even sex hormones are responsible for strengthening some pathways in the brain. Getting a ‘hit’ of feel-good chemicals from an activity makes us want to do the activity again. Because we want that ‘hit’ again., and because the stronger neural pathways make that action easier. The key then., is to attach the release of these neurochemicals to activities that move you forward in life.
Neurochemicals follow the path of least resistance
Unfortunately, many people make the mistake of only attaching reward and pleasure to unproductive activities. And a classic example of this is the reward of a drink after work. For some, imagining the future stops at their next weekend. Although this feels good., over time work enjoyment may suffer. This is because the activity of work can lose its own satisfaction in favour of the easier ways to feel good. The body and mind get used to waiting for these other activities before releasing these feel-good chemicals. And the satisfaction and enjoyment for these less optional activities disappears. Science is unclear as to if or what limits there are to daily supply of these feel-good chemicals.
Neurotransmitter depletion and burnout
Neurotransmitter depletion and burn-out does happen. Especially with excess stress, alcohol, and drugs. And things like a lack of light, exercise and good diet can significantly reduce your supply from ideal levels. Constant stimulation of neurotransmitters can lead to adaption and a need for even higher levels to get the same effect. This is the start of addiction. Exhausting your supply of feel-good chemicals every day can literally cause life to become less enjoyable. And this is because with limited supply, the easy to enjoy activities will rob the neurochemicals from the less enjoyable ones. Using advanced visualisation, you can pre-program yourself to feel good at appropriate times.
Some people will even go on what is called a dopamine fast. The term isn’t exactly accurate, because you can’t fast from a naturally occurring hormone. But the positive results of reducing the reliance on unhealthy addictive stimulation is real. This is where you purposely stop doing the easy to enjoy but unimportant things for a period of a few days to a few weeks. Or even longer. The idea being two-fold: To help reset levels of these feel-good chemicals (especially dopamine)., and to adopt healthier habits. Dopamine fasting in its original form, is based on models of addiction. And companies spend billions trying to get you addicted to their product or service.
Examples of dopamine fasting
Examples of dopamine fasting might be to stop any or all the following:
Watching TV, gambling, shopping, eating comfort foods, alcohol or recreational drugs, social media use and excessive internet or gaming, porn and masturbation, and seeking thrills. The result of this type of abstinence often ends up being that you do other things that become enjoyable. And it becomes easier to feel good about more productive and important things. One of the things you can do with the extra time created is get into a routine of visualisation and mental rehearsal. Because doing so will make the need to ‘fast’ off anything less likely.
The truth about addiction
Studies show that rats exposed to an activity rich environment with other rats will ignore sweetened cocaine water in favour of plain water. However, if the stimulating environment is removed, the rats will get addicted to the cocaine and eventually overdose. The interesting conclusion is that addiction has less to do with the substance or activity than once thought. And more to do with time, and state management. This is an important distinction. Because given the choice, people will flourish in a stimulating environment as well without the need for mind altering drugs.
Advanced visualisation & emotional intensity activates neurochemistry
Significant emotional events make a big impact on us because of the action of these neurochemicals. Our brain chemistry literally adapts the structure of our brain in response to feelings. So use this to your advantage. The section on submodalities in part one of this series will help here. Amplify the emotional intensity of your imagination when you use advanced visualisation & mental rehearsal techniques. As this will help them be more effective. And make doing the practice itself rewarding, rather than something you ‘have to get through’. It’s ok to do something enjoyable afterwards. But don’t make what you do afterwards, the reward for creating your future on purpose. If you do, you will lose momentum and find excuses to not do it. And for the same reason, imagine celebrating your new actions or habits when using future pacing. You don’t want to just be different in the future., you want to enjoy it too.
Enhancing visualisation & mental rehearsal with trance states
What is the best state of mind to be in for visualising and imagining the future? Your mind receives new information best when it is in an altered state of consciousness. Meditation, hypnosis, breathwork and other methods can all get you into this ideal brain state. Or you can use technology like the one featured on this website. Using light and sound meditation sessions on the roXiva RX1 is a powerful way to enter deep profound trance states quickly and consistently. Relaxing or psychedelic light experiences can assist you in your journey of transformation. Because in these states certain brain activity like Theta and Alpha are dominant. And these are the brainwaves of learning and memory formation. By getting into these beneficial brain states first, you can accelerate your progress. And as a bonus, the activity becomes a lot more fun and rewarding. Don’t get fixated on needing to do this though. Visualisation & mental rehearsal are already trance states. You can’t get deep into imagination techniques like this without going into an altered state of consciousness.
Advanced visualisation & mental rehearsal summary
What’s something you want to start doing? Or if there’s something you want to stop doing., then what will you do instead? Use all the skills and distinctions you have learnt here to imagine the future doing that the way it would look, feel, and sound in the appropriate contexts. Check the ecology (possible consequences) of such a change and make any adjustments needed. Imagine that behaviour in a day or two, and again in a week, a month, 6 months and next year. For each time, play the new behaviour out in as much detail as you can. If something isn’t right, adjust it and do it again until it IS right. If your change is across contexts., then do the same with different people, places, and situations. Add in a couple of times where you catch yourself screwing up. And see yourself dealing with those gracefully and effectively. Reward yourself by feeling empowered during the practice, not just after. Also, experiment with meditating first or using technology to help you get into a learning state. And make one of the future paces, imagining you doing this very process again in the future! IE: Use the technique on itself. Use future pacing to program yourself to use more future pacing. That may well be the most intelligent thing you can do with ANY technique. Use the technique to program yourself to use the technique again!
Until next time.,
Enjoy your imagination. Your future depends on it.