Approached skillfully, visualizations can inspire mindful practice and cultivate resilience in youth. Students who find basic mindful practice “boring” at first are often willing to engage in guided imagery. This can lead to more openness for simple mindful sitting. A child or teens’ ability to see a healthy, successful future has been cited as a protective factor against risk. Mindful visualization practices need to be augmented to fit the developmental needs and abilities.
Here are some helpful guidelines to keep in mind to ensure a safe, effective, mindful experience:
Before beginning any visualization or mindful practice, it is important to first ground and relax the body. The degree of grounding will match the level of intensity of the visualization. For instance, a classroom teacher asks her students to visualize a bright golden sun for 5 breaths before test-taking. One minute of grounding the feet on the floor and relaxing the hands will suffice. Yoga and mindfulness teachers may guide a group of students on a 15 minute intricate visualization or mindful practice. A good five minute relaxation process including mindful movements will prepare their bodies and minds for the experience. In short, give students an experience of being “in their bodies” before guiding them to their minds. Otherwise, the experience can be too intangible and leave children and teens feeling less connected with themselves and their lives.
Clear, mindful Comeback
Coming back to “reality” slowly and surely is equally as critical as the grounding aspect. Give clear, concise instructions for re-entering the space of the room. Prompt students to the feeling of the body and the presence of whoever is around. For example, “Now it is time to bring our minds back to this room. Breathe deeply as you feel the ground beneath you, think about the four walls around you and the ceiling above. Now, breathe deeply into your body. Feel your toes, feet, legs, belly, back, chest, arms, hands, head. Feel your body here. And finally, remember the presence of others around you. Slowly flicker your eyes open as you take in the sights of the present moment.”
Guide, not Lead
In her book, The Soul of Education, Rachael Kessler encourages us to “elicit, not instill” imagery. This key point reminds us that we are guides, not leaders, into the minds and hearts of youth. Rather than telling students what to visualize, we are offering them a safe space to conjure their own unique images. Students choose images that are resonant with their individual needs and interests. We provide the suggestions from which the imagery arises. Offer enough imagery to guide them to a place where their own thoughts can blossom. For example, I often guide students to visualize a path that leads to a clearing in a forest. Children and teens themselves decide what the path looks like. It could be an asphalt street, a ravine or a luminous ray of light. Their own needs and experiences determine the actual imagery.
Know your audience. Utilize stories and images from students’ own culture, the culture of the school and community. When guiding teens through visualizations in Louisiana, I won’t expect them to have a rich experience visualizing icebergs in Greenland! Rather, I will first call upon the images and experiences both familiar and meaningful to them. Perhaps a pirogue ride through river channels to a swamp forest. Likewise, the swamp experience would be inappropriate to my inner-city Los Angeles students; at least at first. In other words, if you know your students do not have fireplaces, avoid visualizations focused on the mantle. Find imagery that connects to the lives of your students.
Further, consider your own cultural connections to imagery. It is common in adult yoga, meditation and other healing experiences for deities and other non-secular images to be utilized. In secular settings, avoid using imagery that could impose upon a students own world view and/or spiritual or religious beliefs.
Encourage Mindful Expression
Giving students the opportunity to share their experiences from visualizations can deepen the effects of the practice. Depending on available time and resources, there are several practical ways to encourage expression. In smaller groups, when time permits, ask students to share one memorable moment from their visualization. The diversity of images, and the commonalities, can provide for a rich conversation on difference and perspective. Build a few minutes into your plan for students to share with a classmate through dialogue. Ring a chime or otherwise signify when time is halfway done to ensure that each child has equal share time. When possible, plan to spend 10-15 minutes letting students journal or draw a picture depicting their experience.
Suggest that teens let their parents and/or caregivers know about their experience if they are so compelled. There may be images that are private to students. However, try to avoid the visualizations becoming secrets. Encouraging expression provokes students to engage in actual practice, rather than just daydreaming. The expressions also become artifacts in their lives’. A picture, conversation, or journal entry can remind us of the potential to shape our future through visualization.
Most Requested Visualizations from Shanti Generation Students
And, why I love sharing visualization practices with teens.