I Don’t Do Visualizations

I attend a local Rime (nonsectarian) Vajrayana Buddhist Temple and I love it. I go to as many events and retreats as I can and I volunteer for a few duties, including teaching classes. My community means a lot to me.

This means I’ve been on retreats with Vajrayana teachers multiple times (sometimes Theravada and Zen teachers visit too). I like Vajrayana teachers, I really do. I find the bowing and chanting and bells and drums to be interesting and entertaining.

I have to admit the big focus on rebirth is something I don’t connect with at all. I am, by nature, skeptical of such things in a way that most of the people in my community are not. And that’s okay. That’s definitely on the list of reasons I give when people ask why I have trouble thinking of myself as a Vajrayana Buddhist. But that’s not what I’m writing about now.

I’m writing about visualization practices. I’m confessing that I don’t really do them.

A point comes where the teacher says something along the lines of: “Imagine a glowing ball of clear light directly in front of you.” or “Picture a Buddha sitting up here in front of you, looking upon you with eyes of compassion.”

These sound like lovely practices and they are. But I have trouble. And I wonder if I’m the only one. I sit there trying to picture clear light for 20 minutes. Sometimes I do for a little bit, but I always end up giving up and going to following the breath or zazen instead. And I often wonder, “Are the other 40 or so people in this room doing this without difficulty? Am I the only one?” and “When people say they connect with Vajrayana practice, is this what they mean?”

I have friends who are deeply involved in Vajrayana practice. They are engaged in dedicated study with a good teacher. They do visualization practices and I don’t think they struggle with them at all.

On a final note I want to say something about Trungpa. I almost consider Chogyam Trungpa as one of my teachers. I consider him a patriarch of American Buddhism. I’ve meditated in his stupa. I’ve studied his teachings a great deal. But there’s only so far I seem to be able to go with the training he set up.

Visualization meditations are a huge roadblock for me and at the higher levels of his teachings, that’s really not something you can get around.

 

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About Daniel Scharpenburg

Daniel Scharpenburg is an independent dharma teacher living in Kansas City. He gives online teachings through the Open Heart Project, the largest virtual mindfulness community in the world. His writing has appeared in Lion's Roar, Patheos, Tattooed Buddha, and Elephant Journal.

7 Responses

  1. You are not the only one! Some of us are just not visual thinkers. Of course, if you are a visual thinker, visualizing is really useful. But if not, I think you can instead get a “felt sense” of what you are being asked to visualize. For example, bright light might be experienced as a growing and spreading warmth – like when you feel the sun on your face starting behind your closed eyelids. The “eyes of compassion” could be a sense of expansion from the heart center – like the feeling you get when you are truly loved. You probably are already doing this instinctively. I think this is what is meant by “skillful means”. I appreciate your honesty and willingness to share your personal experience – very inspiring!

  2. I’m also a vajrayana Buddhist and my main practice is a sadhana with visualizations. I “like” it and trust that it’s a practice of highly skillful means, but I don’t feel completely connected with it either and have been wanting do more basic sitting practice lately. I’m feeling drawn to do another meditation retreat (e.g., dathun at SMC where Trungpa Rinpoche’s stupa is). I also do intend to keep working with my sadhana practice too, and think the visualization aspect may likely improve with more practice. I have a feeling there are a lot of people, maybe in the West especially(?), who feel the similarly about visualization practice.

  3. Many people cannot visualize, it’s normal. By cannot I mean that they don’t think in terms of pictures. One sort of uses our senses or imagination differently if we cannot imagine a picture, it is perfectly fine to just feel the presence of something or to understand that it IS there.
    But be certain everyone can meditate.
    Even though I can visualize very well writing this has inspired me to meditate without visualizing, it sounds fun and who knows I just might prefer it. 🙂

    Thank you.

    QP

    1. Good point QP. I heard one teacher call it feeluization, meaning it’s more important to feel the presence of the deity than to be good and picturing it in our mind’s eye. One time I told my meditation instructor that I’m not good at visualization and he was like, “Picture yourself walking in the door of your house. Then picture yourself walking to the fridge and taking out a beer. Then picture yourself sitting down and drinking it.” I can picture that perfectly well! So, I think some of it is just a matter of familiarity too and getting to know the deity’s aspects, etc.

  4. The way it’s come to us in the US, eastern meditation is more receptive and western esotericism is more active. Receptive and active meditation can be thought of as two spiritual ‘structures’ which we develop with practice. If we consider them both equally important we can choose to work on the one which we feel is currently weaker in ourselves.

  5. Dear MWW, this is another good example. Calling it active and receptive meditation is an excellent expansion on this topic. I have the feeling that like most things there is a middle way between the two that when reached one would just know it to be the way. Your thoughts?

    QP

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