Best Self Visualization: Moving toward a Science of Love
Best Self Visualization: Moving toward a Science of Love
By Lorne Schussel
Meditative and visualization techniques developed by Columbia psychologists may be helping young men with fractured sense of self to become whole again.
When Randy entered into group therapy in a shelter in downtown Manhattan, he described his world as a house where every door he opened was filled with fire. Burning with anger, he experienced the emotional agony of being abandoned by his father, unloved by his mother, and homeless. During sixteen weeks of group therapy that took place at a transitional living shelter for young homeless men, we sought to find water to extinguish the flames of Randy’s rage.
As a member of a team of doctoral students researching mental health adaptions for homeless youth, I created a novel combination of meditation, visualization, and traditional psychotherapy, which was called the Best Self Visualization Method (BSM).
The therapeutic technique consists of deep rhythmic breathing, meditation, visualization of an ideal self, and the sending and receiving loving-kindness. Using a Tibetan Buddhist sound bowl, we also engaged the participants in sound entrainment, a state of synchronization, similar to two tuning forks vibrating at the same frequency after touching, or two pendulums swinging at the same tempo over time.
The basic idea behind the BSM is that after experiencing a life of trauma, it is often very difficult to receive love and give love. This is partially because our sense of self is formed in early childhood and adolescence, and those who experienced a very tumultuous upbringing have a very fragmented sense of who they are. The Best Self is an attempt to bypass the remnants of this difficult interpersonal past.
Our sense of self is usually formed around the positive, loving, and empathetic reinforcement that we experience in early childhood from our parents. People who grew up without this kind of loving environment to support their developing selves are more likely to have emotional turmoil or mental disorders later in life. Some individuals without this parental care may violently lash out, seeking to fill the void of parental empathy in a destructive way.
During the Best Self Visualization Method, the young men are asked to project loving-kindness to each other, alternating between giving and receiving. As they enter into a peaceful state of meditation akin to early sleep stages, they foster the development of their Best Self through the projection of loving-kindness to one another. Numerous studies of visualization and neuroscience illustrate that imagined activity can evoke the same neural activation as actual activity. For example, imagined piano playing exhibited the same activation of parts of the brain during the actual practice. Other research has shown that during imagined activity, neural activations with even more robust effects happened during meditative states. The theory behind BSM is that that forming an image of one’s Best Self during a meditative state leads to the adaption of a Best Self through this neural activation.
External love crystallizes the Best Self. For example, loved babies form more neural connections and have healthier outcomes than neglected babies, who have a large array of physical, social, and mental problems. There is also research to suggest that the influences of love on the brain extend beyond infancy. Research studies in adults illustrate a number of interesting effects of receiving loving-kindness, spanning from the reduction of anxiety, negative affect, anger, psychological stress, social connectedness, and even the reduction of back pain. Intriguingly, projecting loving-kindness and loving healing intention (also known as energy healing) may also induce biophysical changes. These include increases of neutrophil superoxide formation, which is a function of the immune system; tumor cell inhibition in vitro; increases in natural killer cytotoxicity; and many other effects across hundred of studies.
After four months of forming an image of the Best Self in deep meditation and sending and receiving loving-kindness with his peers, Randy went from sleeping in stairwells to becoming the manager of a store. His anger, anxiety, and depression had all diminished. He reported many changes in his life: “It helped me notice the way my anger works. It helped me notice that some of the things I used to get angry about weren’t even worth being angry over…I’ve never really had something like that…My anger went from like here to here. It went from the ceiling to the floor. It pummeled downwards…”
Randy’s roommate, Luke, also made major changes in his life. He filmed a documentary in Cameroon, organized programs for other troubled youth in the city, and even taught his mother meditation. The other youth in our group also reported many meaningful changes and significant reductions in anxiety, and depression.
Some also reported a sense of euphoria and described deeper spiritual processes and mystical experiences. This may not be that uncommon. During experiences of projected loving intention, individuals often describe mystical experiences and identify a unity or a connection with the universe.
This idea of experiencing a universal connection during a healing experience could be the product of an entrainment between the brain waves of a meditative state and that of the electrical activity of all life on earth. The pulse of the planet known as the Schumann resonance is in the same window of frequencies that occur in meditation (7.53hz). Perhaps, at the optimal frequency we tune our mind and body to receive energy from the earth and the greater universe. Perhaps science and spirituality will continue to evolve together merging our separate selves into a universal “Best Self.”
Best Self Visualization Method(BSM) in the Journal of Clinical Psychology