Visualising -
An Important Step on the Tantric Path

Kathleen McDonald

In your attempts to calm and concentrate your mind, you have probably noticed visual images among the many things that distract your attention from the object of meditation: faces of loved ones, your home, other familiar places. appetising food, or memories of films you have seen. Such images arise spontaneously throughout the day but we are often too engrossed in external sensations to notice them. And each night our mind creates vivid scenes in which we interact with dream-people and dream-events. Visualisation, or imagination, is thus a mental technique we are all familiar with, but unless our work lies in, say, art, design or film, we do little or nothing to develop or utilise it.

This natural capacity to think in pictures can be used to deepen our meditative experience. Visualisation is used in several ways in the Tibetan tradition of spiritual development. It adds another dimension to analytical meditations -- for example, visualising ourselves dying in order to sharpen the awareness of our mortality. A mental image of the Buddha is recommended as the focus of attention in the development of single pointed concentration, and visualising enlightened beings while praying helps to enhance our faith and conviction.

But the art of visualising is used to its optimum in Vajrayana, or tantra, the most profound and rapid means of reaching enlightenment. The practices of this path involve identifying oneself completely, body and mind, with an enlightened being and seeing one' s environment as a pure realm. The ordinary, mistaken perceptions of oneself and all other phenomena are thus gradually abandoned as one's potential for enlightenment is allowed to express itself.

The meditational deities visualised in Vajrayana practice, such as Tara and Avalokiteshvara, are symbols of the enlightened state. Each is a manifestation of a specific quality - Avalokiteshvara, for example is the Buddha of Compassion - and each also represents the total experience of enlightenment. The details of the visualisation, such as colours, implements, hand gestures, posture and so forth, symbolise different aspects of the path to spiritual fulfilment.

Meditation on these deities (or images from other traditions that you are more comfortable with, for example, Christ or Mary) helps us to open our hearts to the pure energies of love, compassion, wisdom and strength that are ever present, all around us, wherever we may be. And, as the potential for these enlightened qualities lies within us, we should consider the images we contemplate to be reflections of our own true nature. Although ultimate reality is inexpressible, words lead us to discover it; so too can images remind us of the experience of enlightenment until it becomes a living reality.

The two kinds of meditation analytical and stabilising - are used together in visualisation techniques. We need analytical thought to construct the image at the beginning of the meditation and to recall it whenever it is lost during the session. Analysis is also used to deal with other problems that might occur, such as distraction or negative thoughts.

But developing a clear visualisation depends primarily on stabilising meditation. Once the image has been established and we feel comfortable with it, we should hold it with single-pointed attention, not letting the mind be distracted to other objects. Initially, our concentration will last only a few seconds, but with continual practice, we will be able to maintain it for increasingly longer periods of time. Each time our attention wanders or we lose the object, we should again bring it to mind. This way of meditating both increases our familiarity with positive images and strengthens our ability to control and concentrate the mind.

It is common to find visualisation difficult. If you are having problems it could be that you are trying too hard or expecting too much. The mind needs to be in the right state - relaxed, clear and open. Too much effort creates tension, and the only vision that can appear is darkness. Too little concentration means the mind is crowded with distractions, eaving no space for a visualised image. We should learn to adjust our concentration as we would tune a musical instrument - with sensitivity and patience - until we have found the proper mental state in which the object can appear clearly.

Remember too that visualisation utilises only the mental faculty, not the eyes. If you find that you are straining to see something, you misunderstand the technique. Relax and let the image appear from within your mind.

Furthermore, we should be satisfied with whatever does appear, even if it is just a blur of colour or a minor detail. It is more important to have a sense or feeling of the presence of an enlightened being than be too concerned about seeing a mental image. Thus it is very important to be relaxed and free of expectations. It is self-defeating to expect a complete, perfect visualisation after one or two attempts; it may take years of practice before you can really see the image. Again, it is a matter of tuning the mind to the right balance;. learning to work with the energies and elements of the mind to produce a positive, joyful meditative experience.


This teaching is an excerpt from How to Meditate by Kathleen McDonald, and is available from Wisdom Publications, Inc., the FPMT publishing company, and can be found at many good bookshops. Amazon can get them too
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