Seeing is believing

Even though each retreat day has a set program and we practice each part of those programs, every retreat day is different. There’s no telling before the start of a day how a particular group will respond to the program we plan. How each day will play out is, to a certain extent, unpredictable. 

To prepare for a day, there are different techniques we rely on. As I noted, we practice each activity or element that composes a retreat program. We also reflect at the end of each day how the program went, so that next time we’re running it we’re aware of ways we can do it even better.

But there’s one technique that I have found extremely helpful. In the lead up to a day, I imagine myself running the different parts of the day. The night before I’ll imagine myself doing my introduction. As I get ready the morning before, I think about how I’ll interact with the group and about my crowd control techniques. When I’m driving to the school or venue, I imagine how the group will respond to the tone and pace of my voice during different parts of the program.

More than just thinking or imagining each part, I try to see it in my mind. I visualise the day.

It’s a technique I learned playing basketball in high school, where I would visualise the things I would need to do for our team to win. I even use visualisation to prepare for an exam. I see myself in the exam room, with the exam paper on the desk in front of me. I visualise my response to seeing the exam questions when I first open the paper. I even visualise flicking to the right part of my textbook for an answer to the question (these were open book exams).

Self-help gurus have bandied around the term visualisation for a long time, spouting the belief that "if you see it, you can achieve it!" But there's actually more to visualisation than just imagining yourself winning the lottery. There's actually a considerable amount of science and research behind this practice, which is why so many coaches, scientists, psychologists and researchers recommend visualising.

Firstly though, what is visualisation? Put simply, its the process of seeing or imagining the desired outcome. Such imagining actually helps us achieve a positive outcome. It's the brain science behind the technique that makes visualising so effective. What happens in your brain when you visualise is that neurones interpret the image as an experience. New neural pathways develop, training your brain in the action before you actually attempt it. Your brain is literally prepared for the action and has processes in place for accomplishing it. Now, there are two ways of visualising: outcome visualisation and process visualisation.

Outcome visualisation involves seeing the final outcome you want to achieve, such as what you'd look like at your goal weight, or crossing the finish line of a marathon. You visualise what it would look like and what it would feel like. The feeling generated from this visualisation creates motivation and inspiration that actually drive you towards the desired outcome.

However, researchers have found an issue with outcome visualisation: the planning fallacy. Basically, things often don't go according to plan. Even our most thought out plans are subject to the randomness of life. Outcome visualisation doesn't account for what could happen, so when obstacles or setbacks crop up, they can be bigger stumbling blocks in attaining the desired outcome.

This is why researchers have found the second method of visualisation to be more effective. Process visualisation imagines each of the steps involved in attaining the desired outcome. For example, a study was conducted on students preparing for an exam. Some of the students engaged in outcome visualisation, i.e. they saw themselves doing well on the exam. The remaining students visualised the process: they imagined the study and preparation they would need to do. Because they had visualised the process, they were more motivated to engage in preparation practices. This resulted in the second group of students being more prepared for the test and having reduced anxiety.

We can see that process visualisation works because the neural pathways you build develop contingencies for things that could go wrong, where outcome visualisation only trains the brain for accomplishing the goal. Process visualisation trains the brain in the individual skills or components that will prime you in attaining the final desired outcome.

But how do you visualise? Is it as simple as seeing different situations in your mind? Simply, yes. However, our minds are more complicated than that, and might not be accustomed to holding things in the imagination. There are ways to practice though.

  1. Start by visualising inanimate objects, like an apple or chair. As you visualise the object, imagine all its different properties, its feel, any sounds it might make, does it have a taste, what does it smell like? 
  2. After you've tried this a few times, try visualising a friend or family member. Again, visualise as many details as you can. What sort of clothes are they wearing, what do they sound like, what would be the sort of things they would talk about, can you smell their perfume or cologne? 
  3. Then try to visualise a setting, a place that you've been to before or is important to you. Again, remember all the details that make it important to you.

Adding visualisation to your morning routine is a powerful way to approach the success and outcomes you want for your life, work and relationships. Seeing really is believing!