There are some people for whom visualization comes as easily and naturally as breathing. They open the door of their Contemplative Prayer room, et voila, they can see every feature and describe exactly what the room looks like, down to the last detail.
There are other people who probably find those people baffling, because visualization is not as simple for them. Some people struggle to “see” or “picture” anything when they close their eyes, and the image of their Contemplative Prayer room may prove elusive or unsteady.
Is this because these people lack imagination or creativity? Are they just not spiritual enough, not as connected to God, or less favored by Heaven? Is there something wrong with them?
To state what is (hopefully) the obvious, the answer is “no” to all of the above. Everybody’s mind works differently, thanks to the beautiful individuality God stamped in each person’s design. Some people think in sequence, or words, or sounds, or constructs, rather than in pictures. This does not mean that they can’t visualize*. It just means it may take a little more effort, and a little more time to become adept and comfortable with this mental skill.
If you struggle with visualization, here are some suggestions.
- First of all, the annoying part you probably don’t want to hear: Don't give up – keep trying! Even though visualization is certainly more difficult for some people than others, the vast majority of people canvisualize if they put in the work. The brain can often be rewired to develop a new skill. Visualization is good exercise for the brain, and helps us to build up mental discipline. The discipline and structure provided by visualisation can be the key to freedom in our prayer lives. Even when you feel like it isn’t working, those new pathways are still slowly forming in your neural world, so give it a chance!
- Start very basic. It is always a lot easier for us to visualize things that are very familiar to us, so start by looking around the room or space you are actually in, then closing your eyes and imagining the same space in your mind’s eye. Practice with your home, your workplace, anywhere that is easier to see a little more clearly.
- Another option is to choose physical images you find either online or in magazines to represent your various rooms, print them off or cut them out, and put them somewhere visible around your house or workplace where frequent exposure will reinforce the images. You could also put them all together in a scrapbook, and go through the scrapbook before you pray. This is a great way to familiarize yourself with what you want your rooms to be, and also a fun creative project.
- Remember also that the rooms do not have to be in the structure of a house; they can be anything you want. There is no pressure to have elaborate or detailed rooms, or rooms that are similar to what you’ve heard other people have. You can start using a completely bare or empty space if you want to, and focus more on God’s presence than the details.
- Take measures to improve your focus and concentration. Sometimes the problem is not that a person is “bad” at visualization at all, rather that they are “bad” at prolonged concentration, and therefore struggle to keep an image in their mind consistently during prayer. Reduce phone scrolling and screen time; limit excessive stimulation and sources of stress where possible; ensure your diet and lifestyle are not working against you in this regard; exercise frequently, etc. Identify the source of your reduced capacity for focus and take steps to address it.
- If visualisation continues to pose a problem or if you just need a break from the frustration of feeling like it isn't working, which can certainly be counterproductive for your experience of prayer, leave the visualization alone for a while and focus on your other senses in prayer. Tune into what you can hear, what you can smell, touch, or taste, or how you feel physically in your body, and bring that into your mental prayer space. (This can actually enhance visualization as well; reaching out and touching something in your room can often have the effect of grounding you in the space. But you can also use your other senses without imagery.)
- Another option is to tune into your emotions, or emotional state, and aim to summon feelings of joy, peace, gratitude, etc. Again, bring these positive emotions into your prayer and use them to elevate you in your mental space with God, whether you “see” anything or not.
- Adapt your Contemplative Prayer experience to suit your mental strengths and individual processing. For instance, if you think more in words or in concepts rather than in images, try applying words or concepts to the rooms of your Contemplative Prayer structure instead of images.
- Don’t allow frustration to discourage or derail you! Take a break from Contemplative Prayer if you have to, and focus on Progressive Muscle Relaxation for a while. You can try Contemplative Prayer again when you are ready.
- Pray about it. Ask God to help you cultivate this imaginative ability, or to show you another way to reap the fruits of Contemplative Prayer without it/while you work on it. There is no frustration Heaven can’t help with.
The aim of Contemplative Prayer, ultimately, is to deepen and strengthen our relationship with God. It doesn't need to look the same in any two people, so don't worry, and don't be afraid to explore and experiment with what does that for you most effectively.
Whether you love visualization or it takes a little more effort, try to see this as an opportunity to be curious about how your mind works, how you process and think and conceptualize and integrate information. As we know from another Backpack lesson, the more self-aware we are, the better we can make the right choices for ourselves – and the more likely we will be to discover how to best harvest the fruits of our Contemplative Prayer practice, and develop our unrepeatable relationship with God.
*(There is a condition known as "Aphantasia", which essentially refers to a state of inner mental blindness, and those who have this condition do not formulate pictures in their mind the way most people do or can. Now just because someone struggles with visualisation doesn't mean they have Aphantasia, and we certainly don’t recommend self-diagnosis. That being said, if visualization has really proved beyond your comprehension thus far in your Contemplative Prayer journey, it may be helpful to research what methods help Aphantasics with visual techniques.)