The Limits Of Visualisation: Why You Still Need Magic

Have you ever been in a conversation that has turned to magic and you have found yourself talking about it in terms of positive visualisation and other such toothless terms?

It only tends to happen when you're -for instance- chatting with the boss's wife and the conversation accidentally strays too close to home so that you're forced into a situation where you can't lie your way out of it but you similarly can't say "well, actually, I was having a lovely chat with a demon on this subject just last night."

Or have you ever been caught in a situation where you really need to do some enchanting but it's just not possible? So you wish really hard and hope that it constitutes an empty-handed gesture?

We are talking -of course- about visualisation.

Positive visualisation is a bit of a sacred cow in the practical magic world. But it might be time to give it a rethink. It might even be time to make some sacred hamburgers.

My suspicions always raise when I encounter a spell formula that veers too close to The Secret -that relies too much on picturing a happy outcome while you surround yourself with a little mood lighting.

Surely there is more to it than that or there would be no fat, lonely or poor people in the world.

Well, it turns out these suspicions are founded. Because students who visualised getting their dream job straight out of college, two years later, ended up with significantly lower salaries than those who didn't.

You see similar results with students who visualised how great it would feel topping their exams performed worse than those who didn't -even if the visualisation only lasted a few moments.

The same results are repeated over and over. Be it in studies on weight loss, the outcome of confessing romantic feelings or buying first homes.

So far, the psychological explanations for why this might be are pretty sound:

  • People who visualise a happy outcome tend to study or prepare less than someone with a more realistic assessment of their odds.
  • Over-emphasising happiness or being overly optimistic can indicate that someone is less prepared when negative or unexpected outcomes occur. (Note: This is a serious problem inside American businesses and a lot of resources are now being thrown at combatting Oprah-style group think. I bought that book by the way. It was all right. Now if someone would just do something about the unremitting negativity inside Western European businesses we might be onto something.)
  • They may also be indulging in escapism and are less willing to put in the work required to achieve their aim.

There are a couple of other conclusions that I'm sure you're all just dying to point out.

Sleight of mind

Visualisation keeps everything in the conscious mind. Nothing good comes of that, dammit!

If you picture your ideal situation as hard as you can then all you are doing is telling your unconscious just how far you are from that outcome. And what's it supposed to do with that??

The next time you slide a dollar bill under a green candle and picture all those extra zeroes on your bank statement stop a moment and think about the students in these studies. Consider whether this is the best use of your wizardly prowess.

Target selection

Just picturing the ultimate outcome doesn't do very much. Rather than fantasising about the end goal, consider instead, having positive expectations.

Positive expectations rely on you judging your preferred outcome as likely and then going after it. It doesn't rely on you thinking it's a forgone conclusion. You have to put the effort in. Boost your self efficacy expectations rather than think wishfully about a situation.

It's different to saying "oh, I'm sure everything will be fine." It's saying instead "I think these certain outcomes are within my reach. I'm going to go after them."

This, then, brings it back to magical target selection.

If you want to improve the probability of your desired outcome:

  • Set goals like 'high memory recall' and 'decent night's sleep' and 'reduced anxiety' whilst studying rather than 'aceing the exam.'
  • Go after 'excellent interview skills' and 'a couple of decent recruiters' rather than picturing your dream job.

And for frik's sake enchant. These results can only lead the horse to water -they can only tell you where to look. It's up to you to put in the sorcerous hard yards.

Picturing something really hard just won't do it. It might be time to take those magazine cut-outs of celebrities in bikinis off the fridge and break out the charcoal and the wand.



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  1. You had me from the beginning with veering away from “The Secret”, and grabbed me again with improving your probability.

    It seems too sad to say “Just go for what you think you can get.” Sounds so mediocre. Not quite the bar I want to shoot for personally.

    But you’re definitely on to something when you discuss improving your probability by defining what really gets you the job or the “A”. This has worked for me time and time again and has truly revived my love for “magic”.

  2. Excellent post. I liked the ideas presented in “The Secret” for a time but became more skeptical as I thought about it more critically. Then there were the too often times when I “manifested” desires despite having negative beliefs about expected outcomes.

    I think positive thinking can be helpful for making the effort in the first place, but developing a strategy, contingency planning and doing the work is indispensable. Adding magick at key points, as you and Jason suggest, creates a great “force multiplier” that can help get the job done.

    It is also interesting to note that “The Secret” debuted in 2006 and the Financial Crisis debuted two years later. I’m thinking that some of the reason for the financial meltdown in the US was do to an excessive amount of positive only thought in certain sectors which ignored those few who attempted to sound the alarm. This seemed to carry on with the overly optimistic belief that the economy would turn around quickly with the election of Obama. In early ’09, I was informed that this would be so by someone channeling some ascended master. I didn’t make any friends when I called that prediction BS. Oh well.

  3. You meant this to be provocative, didn’t you, you rascal! OK. I consider myself provoked, since I actually advocate learning visualization. The mistake in your criticism is to assume that all visualization and all visualizers are the same. You can explain to someone how you visualize in a few minutes, but that doesn’t mean they will instantly be able to turn the skill into successful manifestations right away. It’s a skill. It takes many years to perfect. I still haven’t, but I’m much better at it than I was all those years ago when I started practicing it. Would you expect that if you took ten minutes to “explain” to someone how one paints with oils, that they could pick them up and instantly produce a masterpiece? Of course not. It would take years of practice, and different people would achieve different levels of skill at it. And THAT’S just messing around with a brush and some pigments. Visualization is learning to work with the mind’s power to manipulate the fabric of the material world by fashioning, on the astral planes, the vessels through which the material world manifests. It’s far, far more than “wishful thinking” or “positive thinking”. And you have to do the supporting work on the material plane. You know what you call someone who visualizes passing an exam with flying colors without backing that up with plenty of studying? A lazy dumbshit! And if the people in the scientific study had never used visualization before, and if they were improperly instructed as to how one does it, (and if they didn’t study properly because they’d visualized acing it) I’m not surprised it didn’t work.

    I actually got the job I have now through visualization. It was awesome. I did a visualization campaign — combined with an intensive job search !!! — and a few weeks later, through a chance meeting with a man in a bar (who just happened to be looking for someone with my skills), found myself sitting in an office that was EXACTLY like the one I’d visualized, and my new colleagues were EXACTLY like the ones I’d visualized. I even had some of the same dialogues with people that I’d used in my visualization. That’s kind of funny and creepy, if you’ve ever experienced it. On several occasions the manifestation of my visualization has been so much like what I’d visualized that people were even dressed the way I’d visualized. With small requests, I’ve had things manifest inside of ten minutes, or people call me on the phone asking me if I was interested in doing/acquiring what I’d been visualizing.

    But, as I said, it’s a skill that requires lots of hard work to perfect. I first started using visualization… um… over thirty years ago. And I’m still learning.

    Sure, there are often times I feel a bit of hocus-pocus (or a lot of hocus pocus!) is called for.

    As far as visualization staying on the conscious level, there are methods for projecting visualizations into the subconscious. And anyone who doesn’t teach that, isn’t teaching visualization properly.

    So, in conclusion: if you are saying that people won’t get very far doing nothing but wishful thinking or positive thinking, I heartily agree. If you are saying that visualization never works, no matter how one goes about it, then I have to assert that my experience says otherwise.

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    @Scribs I wouldn’t call it provocation. 🙂

    But things have been quiet on our internets of late. Might as well chat about something.

    It’s your last paragraph that I was really aiming for. You can’t conjure without pictures in your head, however you also can’t just leave them in your head.

  5. I have always considered visualisation as part of the approach, rather than the whole effort – even Cunningham cautions that extra work is required, albiet he mainly talks about the mundane. You have covered this targeted approach in your excellent post on shoaling. I don’t know what Oprah is doing, but if she is only doing visualisation, she’s bloody good!
    Mrs BC

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    @MrsBC Bahahahaha!

    Hadn’t thought of it like that. Guess I was more referring to her minions.

  7. Thanks to Gordon for opening up the subject and to Scribbler for a insightful comment.

    Whether we visualize, write bulleted lists or just daydream, I think engaging with our goals and wishes is important.

    I journaled about my Perfect Day after reading Gordon’s post about it and found out some interesting things about what I want in life.

    E.g. I noticed how some areas of my life were mapped out in detail, right down to the colors and brands of clothes I’d be wearing. Others were more nebulous. I haven’t even decided if I want to work, and if so, with what. So a bit of remedial imagining is called for in that area.

    I also figured out that if I can get what I want by staying within the values and behaviors of mainstream society, I’ll go for that rather than anything that is more “alternative”, hippy-ish or anything that I’d have to explain to the mundanes. I didn’t know that about myself before I did the exercise. If I’d tried to manifest what I thought I wanted, the results could have been dire.

  8. As usual it’s nothing short of terrifying how much we’re on the same wave length. I was about to post my thoughts on this matter when I saw *your* thoughts on it! More about that in my post 🙂

    Wonder twin powers activate!

  9. Hmmm… As someone who is starting to tinker with Newcomb’s “New Hermetics” this gives me pause. I don’t think that system quite applies to that particular system though. Lots of visualization and doing NLP in the head, but a lot of emphasis on doing work on goals outside of head-space.

    Straight-up negative or positive thinking doesn’t do anything for me except change my mood around. Useful on many occasions, but not for getting things to happen directly.

  10. Great piece Gordon, always enjoy it.

    No one else has made this point so i will.

    “Visualisation” as put forward by the Abraham-Hicks material (the source material for The Secret)is NOT about wishful thinking and visual images.

    It is much more about the feelings,the emotions and the method acting, and a much more ‘sleight of mind. approach then the scoffers ever see.

    Your body feels it,lives it, experiences it NOW and the subconscious mind is sleighted…

    It is worth noting (and i’m sure you know this already) that the Hickses withdrew support from the film The Secret for making out that manifestation was a visual ‘wishing’ thing rather than something taking up the whole body and all senses which includes connecting to a non physical aspect of ourselves, i.e. something akin to a ‘spirit’.

    This is a simplification, forgive me.

    There seems to be a lot of skepticism about so called positive thinking and manifestation and the like amongst magical practitioners (and their blogs) but this seems to be based on a very superficial notion of what those hokey fluffy bunny New Agers are on about.

    But if it works for George Chevalier then maybe it needs a little more understanding and respect, as many of the techniques are straight from the chaote field manual. 🙂

    Keep up the awesomeness Gordon, i truly love it and thank you for your work.

  11. “students who visualised how great it would feel topping their exams performed worse than those who didn’t”

    I have an anecdote related to that. I return to college for some challenging courses after many years away. I decided to put self-hypnosis to use before the final exams, and part of that process included _visualizing_ the outcome — visualizing how great it would feel to see that “topping” grade.

    I aced one final exam, with the prof telling me I got the highest grade in the class. The other I got a good score.

    Note that in both cases, the good feeling was also tied into the reason behind why it was good: my longer-term goals for taking these courses, rather than the short-term goal of simply topping an exam. I also studied all semester and worked at those courses, which were upper-level and technical in nature.

    I believe my unconscious mind helped me greatly with my goals. But am I going beyond pure “visualization” because I’m bypassing the conscious mind?

    I have often wondered how magical types categorize hypnosis (self or hetero), because it sounds like something everybody does but nobody admits. 🙂 I think sigils are a good example of this. The goals may be a bit more “magical” than hypnosis is typically applied for, but the principles are much the same. Or ceremonial: how many times have we all read or heard that the point of all those visual, audio and kinesthetic components is to stimulate the subconscious mind in such a way that it agrees to the purpose of the ritual, and reaches a state where it is imprinted by a ritual’s visualization? (At least, that applies to Golden Dawn and related approaches.)

    Interestingly, Regardie said that no magician should ever undergo hypnosis, because it is the antithesis of gaining one’s Will (or something to that effect).

    As for “pure” visualization, I think the works of Ophiel are among the best and most reasonable in terms of explanations of the hows and whys. I believe he also coined the “Treasure Map” which has been utilized by at least one well-known modern author.

    Maybe you could write about this topic in future too… I’d love to see what you and your other readers think.

  12. I bet the visualisations the core group tried did not first take on the fundemental question of personal weaknesses… how to change them etc etc. Because if you visualise firstly about this and then go on to create a path along which you will find some startling results. The main fail of this article is two fold: you are measuring success in dollars. The timeline of 2 years just happens to span the worst financial crisis in our capitalist history.

    Buddy the whole point of visualising is proven over not just our bank balance but how life manifests and gives us the real meaning. Which may well knclude the realisation that for most of us success comes from the heart. Success is know thyself and give. Give energy, courage, faith and decency and the other obvious layers of success will thicken up nicely.

  13. This is a brilliant post and sums up a lot of what was missing for me in “new age” approaches. Have you talked about positive thinking yet? Because my experience has been that the “new age” approach – can’t generate enough power for me to work. “Positive thinking”?? If I’ve cast correctly – I’ll just KNOW it will work, I will FEEL it release (no other feeling like that) and I’ll probably have temporary amnesia about having cast at all. Which leads to the positive thinking. But my best work has been catharsis. My most powerful spells and prayers have been the ones where I was on my knees, screaming, begging, and crying. Where I was desperate for resolution of a problem, to the point of tears. “Visualizing happiness” didn’t work. Full blown catharsis, for me, does. And this is counter to every “positive thinking” manual out there.

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