Visualization is a central teaching in many qigong schools. Without visualization, the theory goes, you can’t get results.
Even beginners are taught this philosophy.
I understand where these schools are coming from, but based on my experience, I can confidently say that they are wrong.
I know, I know — blasphemy!
I’m sure to ruffle some feathers with this article. But I always prefer to speak the truth as I see it, even if it gets me into trouble.
So what have I seen?
After observing thousands of students over a couple decades, I can easily concluded the following: You can get truly amazing results without using any visualization whatsoever.
“Impossible!” some will say.
But it’s not. The fact is that my students get amazing results without visualization.
So what’s going on here? Before I answer that question, let’s deal with another question: What is visualization?
What is Visualization?
Probably the easiest way to understand visualization is to try it.
Close your eyes (not yet, silly!) and imagine entering your kitchen, walking to the refrigerator, and opening the door with your hand. Can you feel the exact amount of pressure needed to open it? What about closing the door? What does that feel like?
Congratulations! You just used visualization.
This exercise illustrates the first problem with visualization — the word itself.
Visualization isn’t really a visual thing. It’s more of a visceral feeling, similar to the feeling of opening your fridge. If you simply see yourself opening your refrigerator door in your mind’s eye, then you’re not using visualization.
When practicing visualization, many students — and also many teachers — make the mistake of trying to see something.
They try to see the energy coming in from the cosmos, or they try to see the energy flowing along a meridian.
In the end, they’re not really doing visualization. They’re just thinking with their eyes closed.
Don’t Make This Mistake
This kind of incorrect visualization creates mental tension, which is completely counterproductive.
You need to understand the difference between the Monkey Mind and the Zen Mind.
The Monkey mind is familiar to all of us — it’s the constant stream of thoughts that we can’t seem to shut off.
In order to get results from energy arts like qigong, tai chi, meditation, and even yoga, you must learn to quiet the Monkey Mind.
That’s when the Zen Mind starts to blossom.
When you visualize incorrectly, you end up thinking — which is exactly the opposite of what we’re trying to accomplish.
In other words, you are feeding tasty fruit to your Monkey Mind rather than nurturing your Zen Mind. And if you’re not nurturing your Zen Mind, then you’re not getting the results that you deserve.
(If you want to experience the Zen Mind for yourself, then try my free audio lesson here.)
If you’re a beginner, or even and intermediate student, then you will get much better results by leaving visualization aside, and simply nurturing your Zen Mind. Later, once you’ve built up some skill, then you can add visualization if you like.
Or not. You can go the rest of your life without ever using visualization and still get amazing results that will wow your friends and frustrate your enemies.
Don’t let anyone convince you that you need visualization. You don’t.
Gently, Gently, Gently!
There’s another problem with visualization — it must be done gently. Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done.
Even talented, well-trained students make the mistake of visualizing too forcefully. And if you visualize too forcefully, you actually create energy blockages in your body (yikes!).
The truth is that you’re going to make mistakes when first learning how to visualize. No matter how many times I say “gently, gently, gently,” you’re going to force it anyway. It’s part of the learning process.
Students desperately want to experience the technique, so they try too hard, even when they’re told not to.
Thankfully, we have a built-in safety net in my school. It’s called Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow.
If we accidentally create a blockage through forced visualization, this wonderful technique will automatically and quickly clear it.
But if you don’t know this technique, then you won’t clear the blockage. If you do visualization daily, but you don’t know Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow, then you may be creating blockages faster than you’re eliminating them. In case it isn’t obvious, that’s a bad thing.
Is Visualization Useless?
Don’t get me wrong. I love the art of visualization, and I use it regularly. But then again, I’ve been doing this stuff for decades, I’ve already gotten great results, and I’m fit as a fiddle.
I use visualization because it enhances my practice, not because I need it. Meanwhile, most of my students do great without it.
If you’ve been practicing for a while and getting great results, then you may be ready to add visualization.
Look at the 12 Skills of Qi Cultivation. If you’ve practice the first 4 skills well enough, then you’re probably ready.
Visualization is necessary for advanced techniques like Bone Marrow Cleansing and the Small Universe.
If you’re using visualization, just remember: keep it visceral, and keep it gentle. If you’re not thoroughly enjoying the exercise, you’re doing something wrong.
If you have any questions about visualization in general, or specific visualizations that you’ve heard about, please feel free to post them below. Best regards, Sifu Anthony I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong (pronounced "chee gung") to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. Today, I'm the director of Flowing Zen, an international organization with students in 48 counties. I've been teaching qigong since 2005, I've served on the board for the National Qigong Association, and I’ve helped thousands of people to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. If you're ready to get started with qigong, there's no better way than my best selling book, which comes with free videos and meditations. The sooner you read my book, the sooner you can start healing! Click here to see my book on Amazon.
Fred Chu says
Yikes, I’ve heard about the dangerous visualization you mentioned. In fact, that method appears in all manner of New Age books that were popular when I was in high school about turn years ago. A book belonging to a pal of mine, written by someone claiming to be a sorceress descended from European circles, and aimed at “New Age Wiccans,” advised sitting in the lotus position and visualizing earth energy entering from the ground, through the perineum, and up the spine through the Indian chakras. I was confused about the mish-mash, to say the least!
There is an instructor here in the area who claims descent from the Cheng Man Ching lineage of Taijiquan. I chatted with an acquaintance of mine just yesterday and noticed that her “lazy eye,” which was quite severe about three years ago, is almost completely resolved now, and I know for a fact that the instructor does not tell his students to visualize (they don’t formally go into chi flow after their hour-long qigong sessions, but I guess some benefits did accumulate over three years). Rather interesting!
I have only rarely forced myself to visualize, however in some of my meditations visualizations just come to me. I have found that during these times if I start to focus on the visualizations or get distracted by them I am almost forced out of them feels kind of like a rubber band being released. When meditating I find myself getting caught up in the visualizations wanting them to be there and thus not allowing myself to fully enter what you would call the zen mind, but as soon as I realize that I am doing this I retreat and try again to relax and center.
Quinn C. MacKenzie Hale says
Great article. I enjoyed it very much.
Xavier Espinosa student of shaolin wahnam ecuador says
Dear Sifu Anthony,
Your post is very enlightning and the points you make are clear and simple like feel it, don’t think you feel it and do it gently. It would be a perfect illustration of “simple but not easy” 🙂
I’m grateful of this incredible post because as a shaolin whanam student, this topic comes naturally along at some point.
Would i be correct if a resume your post in an analogy : before running, learn walking, enjoy it, enjoy the countryside and if you want it, run time to time as to enjoy a diferent and stronger way of walking (or maybe go quicker? ) But if you didn’t learn how to walk, the running will be too strong for your body and you will have a health problem due to your runnning.
It seems a bit easy but if we are talking of pure energy, it would be working i believe.
I’m just a simple student 🙂
Just many thanks for your great post!
Mary Bast says
This blog post is so true for me, that I have to embody “visualization” and not just “see” it. While I’ve many times, with many qigong practices, experienced viscerally the beautiful presence of chi, for more than 2-1/2 years I had been dutifully practicing but not enjoying Plucking Stars — staying in my head with it (“Yeah, yeah, this is supposed to cure my digestive problems”). Then one night last week, You said, “FEEL the ball of chi” and I FELT so much energy between my hands it nearly knocked me over. That has continued for a week. Thank you, Sifu.
Great Post Sifu Anthony
I agree with you on the idea of visualizations, at least for a beginner and while visualizations may be true, the visualzation itself is what the meditation masters of chikung have found through hardwork and in order for us newcomers to profoundly appreciate these visualizations in our chikung routines we really aught to work hard for it and not through meditation otherwise, as you say, it will end up exacerbating our monkey minds even further.
However having said that I read in one of Sifu Wong’s books, the art of chikung, one of his very first chi-kung routines but more of a breathing exercise. He says to place palms on tantien area and breath in chi to a golden chi ball, at our lower tantien, and exhale anything bad (grey, cloudy) in abdominal breathing. Sifu ANthony I believe you also refer to this ‘dantien’ Breathing’ as one of the first exercises to start with before progressing to more advanced chi-kung’s.
I’m just wondering how you would reconcile the visualizations mentioned above, mentioned in Sifu Wong’s books, with this article especially considering this is what a beginner would be starting of with.
I’m not trying to be picky here but rather looking for clarification and rather can and should this fundamental beginner exercise in ‘dantien breathing’ be performed without the visualizations so that eventually the student should be able to see the golden ball at dantien and breathing out negative emotions and toxins in the form of grey/cloudy colours, once they have sufficiently learned to let go?
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Hi George. My Sifu’s books were written almost 2 decades ago. The teaching methodology has changed considerably since that time. The technique called “Abdominal Breathing” is no longer taught to beginners — neither by him, nor by me. The new teaching methodology, which doesn’t involve visualization, gets better results in less time.
stephen potter says
good to know, i had just got the book and was confused by the instruction on the abdominal breathing, now i think i can leave it out
however been doing lifitng the sky and carry the moon for a few weeks now and am amazed at how good they make my Qi feel
thank you so much
This is actually fairly motivating to me as I have never been able to visualize anything. Not a single image can be produced in my mind, not my parents nor something that I’ve stared for an hour before closing my eyes and concentrating on it. I’ve been working around visualizing, but have been worried that it may be to important to possibly ignore.
PETER LEVINE says
Hi Sifu! It’s me, the guy who thinks too much. You seem to be making a dichotomy between visualizing and entering zen. But I know that there are many teachers who teach the path of descending into Zen followed by various kinds of visual meditation.
You also say, that the experience should be visceral, not a picture in the mind. My thought is that the picture is simply to give an idea of what kind of visceral experience one could be open to. One could still say, “If you don’t feel it, don’t be disturbed, just remain open and soft, and maybe it will come”
Then again, you have taught so many people, and you base your conclusions on what works for most people. So who can argue with that? .
Hey Anthony! I got into Kung Fu because of a Wong Kiew Kit book I bought over 20 years ago. So you can imagine Why I run into your blogs quite often. Well, I think it’s quite a calling and that it’s time we meet. It’s amazing that visualization is reason. I am pretty good with it but I disagree with what others keep saying about it. Your article seemed to say EVERYTHING that I was thinking. So here I am. Ready to empty my cup.
PS I’ve always loved lifting the sky!
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Hi Keith. Glad you enjoyed the article.
As I said in our email exchange, it’s important to understand that I’m no longer associated with Wong Kiew Kit. I broke with him because of a sexual abuse scandal perpetrated by one of his instructors and tacitly condoned by the organization. I wrote about it here: https://flowingzen.com/14351/why-i-left-sifu-wong-after-17-years
I look forward to working with you and/or meeting you at one of my workshops or retreats.
I would like to have a question.
I have done “visualization” by practising Lifting the sky. When I stretch with my hands towards the sky, usually I have the thought that I am strecthing towards the sky, and in my mind the picture of the night sky with stars appears for a brief moment (I am quite a visual type, so for me thoughts are usually followed by visual pictures).
Is this a bad or problematic way of practice?
Thank you in advance for your help.
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
What kind of results are you getting with this practice?
Thank you for your answer. Well, never compared LTS with no visualization and LTS with visualization. I guess I should.
Thank you for this article! I figured just the intention of moving your qi along with knowing where the meridians are and having some knowledge of how they tend to flow would be sufficient, but I was wondering if good visualization could enhance things like the way psychics talk about white light bubbles and stuff. Your site has been a godsend to me. My intentions are primarily to bolster my health and maybe to use qi to make my metabolism faster at times for fat burning or energy. Your site has helped me to understand how I might have some success at those things (also, learning about this is fun) so I am very grateful!
Pauline Irving says
Thanks for this article. In yoga, we used to see the asana in our mind’s eye before approaching it. I observe what is going on internally and I guess that might be a form of visualisation.
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
That’s more in line with Western visualization the way Olympians do it. In qigong, a visualization is meant to lead the qi, sometimes by tricking it. For example, visualizing a pearl at dantian tricks the qi into consolidating there. Obviously, there’s no actual pearl.
On the other hand, visualizing qigong patterns can also get the qi flowing if you’re already skillful with that pattern. It’s an interesting phenomenon really.