Visualisation, meditation, and pathworking

Meditating in Madison Square Park

Meditating in Madison Square Park, Manhattan, New York City

Often people use the terms visualisation, meditation and pathworking interchangeably, but they are different techniques, with different purposes and histories of development.

A meditation invites you to focus on your breathing, your body, or your feelings; it does not usually involve visualising. It is designed to increase awareness of your body. Typically, meditation techniques are drawn from Taoism or Buddhism.

Another related technique is contemplation, where the practitioner focuses on a deity, virtue, or quality (such as love). The technique is used in both Christianity and Islam, but was also advocated by Plato. Examples of contemplation include contemplative prayer, centering prayer, and lectio divina. Some people contemplate Nature as a spiritual practice.

A visualisation invites you to focus on specific images; sometimes it tells a story or involves travelling through a landscape (real or imaginary); sometimes it is intended to bring about a specific result – this is known as creative visualisation. Visualisation is popular with both Pagans and New Agers.

A pathworking takes you on a journey through an inner landscape. Pathworking as a technique is derived from magical uses of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. In that system, a pathworking is a journey along one of the 22 paths of the Tree of Life, each of which has a specific set of landscape and symbolism associated with it (and corresponds to one of the twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana of the Tarot).

I would say that guided meditations were suitable for large groups; guided visualisations and pathworkings should probably be used in smaller groups where the person leading can be more aware of participants’ emotional responses.

Some visualisations are not safe (e.g. ones that invite you to visualise going out of your body) and should not be attempted by the inexperienced. People often think that it’s all happening in your head and therefore you can visualise whatever you like with no consequences, but that is not necessarily the case. Magic (defined here as “the art of changing consciousness in accordance with will”) does have real effects, even if they’re only psychological effects.

I never pre-record either visualisations or meditations – I prefer to do them live and feel the mood of the participants, going slower or faster depending on whether I feel the participants are following, and adding bits for the specific audience. Also, I would always try out a visualisation myself before leading others in it.

I have come across a lot of people who cannot visualise at all. For small group work, I always ask if there are people who can’t visualise, and adapt by talking about feelings and spatial cues as well as visual imagery.

You can test whether someone can visualise by getting them to think of an orange – most people can manage to see an orange sphere in their mind’s eye, and if they can’t, the chances are that they are one of those people who cannot see with their mind’s eye. I, and several other people that I know, can taste on my mind’s tongue (and smell on my mind’s nose) but many people can’t do this.

You can check whether people can experience all five senses with the orange visualisation – imagine touching the pitted surface, prising the fruit open with your fingers, hearing the noise of the tearing peel, smelling the orange oil from the skin and the juice inside, then tasting the fruit, and feeling the juice on your tongue. For people who can’t visualise in any sense modality, get them to remember the emotional feeling they get when they eat an orange; you can then use the same approach for other visualisations.

About Yvonne Aburrow

Yvonne Aburrow has been a Pagan since 1985 and a Wiccan since 1991. She has an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities from Bath Spa University, and lives and works in Oxford, UK. She has written four books on the mythology and folklore of trees, birds, and animals, and two anthologies of poetry. She is the editor of the Theologies of Immanence wiki, a collaborative project for creating grass-roots Pagan theology.

  • louise_rogers

    There are some of us who do not have a ‘mind’s eye’. These are not necessarily people who aren’t visual in their lives e.g. some artists have no mind’s eye. There has been little research but on web forums there are clearly quite a lot of us. However I have been unable to find a common thread in terms of how people imagine without visuals.

    I do know that I can see visuals in dreams and in the hynogogic state (between sleeping and waking) but as I awake I ‘see’ the mental imagery fading away. I can sort of ‘see’ things in my mind but it is more of a sense of the image than the image itself – really cannot describe it any better than that. I am better at sensing photographs than real life. My daughter used to spend a week with her granny a few times a year and I remember often being surprised when she arrived home at what she looked like. So I think that my memory (don’t know how that is related to my mind’s eye) is not very visual.

    When I say that I feel things this is not an emotional response but a sensing.Sight, sound, taste and smell are very much focused in the head. Touch is not – it runs throughout the body. I relate well to phrases such as ‘I feel it in my bones’ or ‘I feel it in my water’. I can only work on things if they make sense – I experience quite a disconnect when things don’t make sense. I remember irritating a colleague who wanted me to use a particular community development model and I couldn’t (I couldn’t even pretend) because it made no sense to me. It is as if my brain hurts.

    What does this mean for me when being asked to do a visualisation? I like to have music and then I dance in my head and in this state I do get fleeting visuals – some woman in a floaty dress and often white winged horses flying. I get immense pleasure from this but I am essentially ignoring the visualisation ‘instructions’. But then I am happy and so is everyone else. I don’t have a special place as some visualisations take you to but I do have a special activity – flying with my white winged horses. I also get these horses when I am having Reiki.

    I think that the important thing is to be aware that we are all different, that not having a mind’s eye does not mean that we are unimaginative, and to find a way before and during any process to encourage people to do what works for them rather than struggle with something that they cannot do.

  • Christopher Scott Thompson

    I’d agree that people often use these words according to the definitions you give here, but historically “meditation” did not just refer to the type of meditation you describe. It has only taken on that meaning because it was used to translate various words in Asian languages describing that type of meditation.


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