Mount Kailash


Initial Observations on Role Modeling Imagery Practice

Not long ago I finished up a semester on role modeling imagery and practice as part of the contemplative psychotherapy program at the Nalanda Institute. These next few posts will explain this type of imagery practice and its therapeutic use in non-Buddhist communities. I am using the Tantric Buddhist visualization practices of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism as a model. I have practiced this meditation over the years and am familiar with its form. I will provide some audio guided instructions for this type of meditation in future posts.

What is Role Modeling Imagery Practice?

Role modeling (known as deity practice) in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition involves borrowing and ultimately integrating the desirable qualities of a realized being (real or imagined), in order to act more as they would in response to their internal stimuli and engagement with the world. A realized being may be simply defined as someone or some being who possesses openness and inner strength to a high degree. The role model also provides support that ultimately translates to your own inner support. In essence, you are borrowing the fortified and developed nervous system of a hero-like figure to fortify your own nervous system. As Loizzo would say, this practice is a multifaceted approach involving breath, body, imagery and sound or the content of the nervous system, in order to heal the nervous system.

The practice involves sitting in meditation and calling on the role model to support you with your struggles or unsatisfying ways of being in the world. Initially, you dissolve your concept of the universe, world and ordinary self and re-emerge in a permeable or less defined body.  You may do this by dissolving these ordinary conceptions into a point at the forhead, heart or allow them to melt away.  You may then see yourself re-emerging as a transluscent human-like bubble a bit like a large soap bubble. Then, you imagine the role model into being by requesting their presence (“please hear my request”) and visualize them sitting before you. The more you engage in the visual details and feeling the presence of the role model the better your attention is held. If available, a picture of the role model may help stimulate a more detailed visual image. Next, you present the mentor with an imagined gift or offering of something important. This gift represents your motivation and sincerity to change. You may imagine giving a family heirloom, important book, beloved pet or favorite food. This is followed by showing the mentor the struggles, fears and issues (inner content) for which you need support and assistance. Showing the mentor your struggles may involve the sensations and visualizations of opening up your mind / heart stream to them in whatever way you are able. For example, you may show the role model a scene from your life when you acted in a way you are not proud of, or visualize showing them a moment or representation of feeling fearful and alone. Next, you imagine that the mentor unconditionally accepts these struggles and sees through them to your true capabilities and strengths. This serves to create a bond and trust between the imagined role model and the practitioner. This visualization practice may be elaborate or simple as required. In practices I do with at-promise youth, I sometimes guide them to see the role model at their side and have the role model place a hand on their shoulder. This is an egalitarian approach that is not part of traditional Tibetan Tantric visualization, where the deity or guru is often imagined above the practitioner. Otherwise, I have them visualize the mentor directly facing them. I believe that when working with certain people bringing the mentor alongside may create a better power balance and greater confidence in the practitioner’s own abilities. When guiding them, I also bring the mentor in as they visualize something with which they are struggling. This demonstrates the role model as providing direct and practical support. At other times, the mentor sits directly in front of them so they may gain familiarity with the visualization. The role model then transmits their power in the form of warmth and light to the body of the practitioner, filling them with support, confidence and desired qualities. At the end, you dissolve the image of the role model and reappear in the ordinary world (waking life).

Continue to part 2 on how to choose a role model >>


Sustainable Happiness: The Mind Science of Well-Being, Altruism, and Inspiration – Joe Loizzo

Re-Visioning Psychology – James Hillman

Self-object Needs in Kohut’s Self-Psychology. Psychoanalytic Psychology – Banai, E., Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. (2006)

Additional resources:

C.G. Jung

Lee, D. (2005). “The Perfect Nurturer” in Gilbert, P. (Ed.) Compassion Conceptualizations, Research and Use in Psychotherapy, New York: Routledge.

Coates, S. W. (1998). Having a mind of one’s own and holding the other in mind: Discussion of “Mentalization and the changing aims of child psychoanalysis” by Peter Fonagy and Mary Target.


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