Visual meditation is great for brain/mind training!

Welcome back to the discussion on visual meditation and mandalas!

Within major wisdom traditions of meditation, be they spiritual, religious or scientific brain and health training programs, there is typically the path of education or entrainment. Meditation or mental practice, after all, is not the default mode of a mature human central nervous system that is wired for turbo”different detecting” in space/time! Remember, difference detecting is that old survival mechanism that helps all mammals determine: Will that eat me or will I eat that? Is it safe to sleep here or is it not? And now in our modern jungle version where we communicate and travel at the speed of light, our human brains and central nervous systems race faster and faster to keep up with the deluge of information, images, and experiences we encounter day after day!

It makes sense that in response to or retreat from cultures drunk on speed, we would turn to “best practices” of earlier times, namely the ancient art and science of meditation, to help us slow down, to assist us in creating equilibrium in our bodies and in our lives. The good news is that at the dawn of the 21st century, meditation traditions practiced around the globe are finding their way into translation in order to prevent suffering and benefit all humankind. A grand project indeed!

So how does visual meditation figure into all of the hoopla about meditation as being great for creating inner peace. lowering stress and brain training?

Drawing upon both Buddhist and Hatha Yogic traditions, we find two key lessons to enable the learner: Turning Inward and Consciousness of Abstracting.

Turning inward allows us to find the most important radar signaling systems of the human body: Breathing and Paying Attention, both made possible by a “conscious” brain. [I’m using the term “conscious” in the here and now, scientific sense of brain activation.]

Paying attention enables us to “consciously abstract” or selectively focus upon a sign, an feeling, a sensation, a process of movement out of all that we might experience at any given moment.

Now, suggesting that someone turn inward seems to be completely counter intuitive to surviving in a culture that demands external focus for reading signs for survival! In gung ho American culture, think of the mockery we make of the quiet, reflective types — the teen who hides in in fantasy novels, the poet who sits and reflects on life, the college student who prefers to study Art, Sufi Dancing or Zen practice rather than ice hockey!

The irony of course is that in today’s sports training, “turning in” is one of the key training tools of Olympic training practice! (Think of Michael Phelp’s incredible ability to turn inward and “focus.”!!!). So turning inward, drawing one’s attention away from the noise of the outside world and turning it toward the space of one’s own inner life is a key step of Hatha Yoga, Zen, T.M. and Vipassana or Mindfulness traditions.

You might be saying at this point, “O.K., turn inward. And consciousness of what? How exactly do I use a visual image placed outside my own body?

Good question: Here’s the neuro-scoop and poop on using visual mandalas:First, let’s understand that mandalas, such as those found in Buddhist cultures, are used to inspire, to provide a model of and model for the cosmos. They present, if you will, archetypal realities or paradigms of human experience that transcend the specifics of the cultural practice. In the case of Buddhist mandalas, repeated patterns and images illustrate the Buddhist universe, rendering different aspects of reality as interconnected — all engaged in creating the whole cosmos. Mandalas are often created out of sand, as seen in the Tibetan Buddhist practice seen below, or are reproduced on fabric or parchment to adorn the walls of a temple, much like images of saints adorn the stained-glass windows of church.images-21

For the secular viewer, however, visual mandalas beg input from the field known as neuro-aesthetics or the neurology of art, as here, we find both the science of visuality and the annals of world art useful in decifering how we pay attention to visual imagery. (Art after all, is the perfect “whole brain” activity!) With a passionate interest in art, University of California neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran offers up his theory of the 10 universal laws of [perceiving] art , drawing from neurological studies of visual perception (Weird that a rigorous, world reknown scientist would talk about “laws” of art, but whatever…):*

1. Peak shift
2. Grouping
3. Contrast
4. Isolation
5. Perception problem solving
6. Symmetry
7. Abhorrence of coincidence/generic viewpoint
8. Repetition, rhythm and orderliness
9. Balance
10. Metaphor

*The 10 “laws” are noted in Ramachandran’s 2003 BBC Reith Lecture on the Emerging Mind,

With respect to visual mandalas, let’s tackle meditation upon “grouping” and “repetition, rhythm and orderliness.” And let’s compare one of Phil George’s stunning new, Islamic patterned surfboards,”BIG MIX,” and Piet Mondrain’s famous “BROADWAY BOOGIE.” (For the art lovers out there, I picked George’s work as the imagery is sourced directly from mosques researched throughout the Middle East. Likewise, I chose Mondrian’s famous painting as the Dutch modern artist was known for his interest in turn of the century theories of spirituality and mysticism, as well as for his great interest in approaching the act of looking at painting from the standpoint of immersive meditation.



Let’s turn our attention, supported by conscious breathing (that’s the key action here) to noticing grouping, repetition, rhythm and orderliness. Now let’s close our eyes and see if we can bring the image we’ve just seen into the foreground of our mind’s eye. The primary directive or intention here is not to analyze, judge, criticize or run off into fantasy, i.e., lapsing into old habits of aesthetic difference detecting. Rather the intention here is to “experience” seeing and to experience the construction of visual memory. Period.

Were we to sit together for say 5 minutes, paying attention to these images, keeping experiential track of our attention, how it’s supported by breathing, when it wanders away from looking, how it wanders back to looking, we might begin to notice changes in our central nervous system habits of breathing, attending and seeing. We might recognize meditation as a “conductor” of attention, offering a special kind of difference detecting, a kind that deviates from our typical mind wandering and moves toward redirecting attention to more subtle shifts in experiential awareness.

Teachers in Buddhism often call the wandering, difference detecting mind, the “Monkey Mind!” — the mind that leaps from image to idea, sensation back to image. The more one practices visual meditation, the more it seems humans like their simian ancestors, just swing off of different trees!

So the take home message? To practice visual meditation,

1. Pick an image that inspires you.

2. Turn attention inward.

3. Remember to breath and bring awareness to the experience of breathing.

4. Practice consciousness of abstracting: Become interested in how attention moves, shifts and wanders and how it returns to primary support system, namely respiration, i.e. Breathing.

Interested in more?

Come January, I will be hosting teleseminars for those who wish to learn how to meditate for stress reduction as well as for powering up brain fitness training! In the meantime, please feel free to write with questions or comments here at

Synaptically yours,

Dr. G.

For more information on the artwork of Phillip George, go to

Piet Mondrian’s BROADWAY BOOGIE (1942-9143 is in the Modern Museum of Art, New York City collection.


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2 Responses to “Visual meditation is great for brain/mind training!”

  1. Learn To Surf Says:

    THis is great information. Many athletes forget about the mental aspects of being prepared for competition.

  2. spacesuityoga Says:

    Yes, competition, which surfing like any other sport requires a steady brain/mind/body.

    I know some surfers who use surfing precisely to hone their mental attitude. But a little training on the side never hurt.

    Thanks for your comment and do look for our January offers of meditation training for athletes, artists, corporate leaders and anyone else interested in improving health and performance.

    Synaptically yours,

    Dr. G.

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