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Is Guided Imagery and Visualization New Age?

JB asks: "I would like to know if relaxation exercises such as visualization and abdominal breathing who have proven to relieve anxiety are accepted by our Faith. I'm not talking about visualizations where one's soul supposedly "leaves the body" or anything weird like that but those where one thinks about a scenery and after a while releases fears and stress somewhere (perhaps a cloud, a hole in the ground, etc.) or sees them fade or disintegrate."

This is a great question because there are important distinctions between New Age and normal visualization and guided imagery practices that can help Christians to discern what practices which practices can be used safely and which should be avoided.

From what JB is describing, the visualization exercises he is participating in do not appear to be New Age, nor are the breathing exercises he is employing.

As for the visualization, the kind JB is describing uses the natural imagination that accompanies the normal creative process. For example, visualizing one’s fear disappearing into the ground is simply a way to help a person imagine themselves as being free of fear. This may also help them to get an idea of what it might feel like to be rid of a particular fear. If this were a New Age practice, it would claim that the thought itself had some kind of power that would make the fear disappear.

New Age versions of guided imagery and visualization usually consist of mental concentration and directed mental imagery exercises to manipulate reality by inducing an altered state that bypasses rational thinking. It supposedly works by using the powers of the mind to influence one’s perception and personal reality. New Age visualization attempts to program the mind to discover inner power and guidance.

“Proponents claim that by properly controlling each person’s alleged mental power, they can influence and change a person’s ideas, consciousness, and even his or her physical and spiritual environment,” writes the Christian Research Institute (CRI).

“By creating the proper mental image and environment and then holding it or projecting it outward, practitioners claim they can exercise mental power over every aspect of their lives,” the CRI writes. “Related practices are also used in magic ritual to call on spirits in order to secure such goals.”

Guided visualization, or guided imagery, is very popular in retreat houses and occurs when someone leads a person or group and guides them on what they should be visualizing. This is fine when it’s relying upon normal imaginative faculties to conjure images of Christ, scenes from the Bible, etc. in order to lead one into prayer.

However, when it’s preceded by a series of prolonged relaxation/breathing exercises that go beyond just taking a few deep breaths to settle down, one should be wary. Prolonged breathing exercises are designed to induce a mild trance state. This is different from the abdominal breathing JB mentions above. Abdominal breathing is also known as diaphragmatic or “belly breathing” and is used to improve oxygen exchange in the body, not to induce the altered states that many New Age breathing techniques encourage.

It’s important to note that guided imagery and visualization is commonly used by shamans, spiritists, magicians and witches, as well as in psychic healing. Numerous occult religions employ this practice, such as Rosicrucianism, Tantrism, and the various mind sciences such as New Thought, Divine Science, Unity School of Christianity, etc. It can also be found in personal transformation programs such as Landmark, Silva Mind Control, Access Consciousness, and others.

Believe it or not, the New Age version of visualization has moved into the field of education where it is being used in counseling, creative writing and problem-solving courses. It is also widely used in psychotherapy.

The discerning Christian needs to be vigilant when being introduced to any kind of guided imagery or visualization at retreat centers, in the class room, or their doctor’s office, and refuse to participate in any practice that ventures beyond the normal creative capacity of the human mind.

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