Stoic Life Tips #1: Negative Visualisation

Back in early 90s when I was in university, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing ‘Creative Visualisation’ by Shakti Gawain. It was everywhere—sitting about in cafes, in bookshops, in student flats, in the libraries…It was one of the first in a long line of ‘new age’ books, promoting different types of supernatural self-help and wishful thinking. While I read and experimented with some of these books I never found them to be of practical use.

Now many years later, in William Irvine’s ‘A Guide to the Good Life’, I’ve encountered an altogether together type of visualisation — one that produces immediate and measurable effects. It’s called ‘negative visualisation’ and it’s a technique that was developed by the Roman Stoics.

The Stoics identified the idea of ‘Hedonic adaptation’ (the treadmill of desire where we constantly strive for the next new thing) and recommended ‘negative visualisation to deal with it.

Negative visualisation trains us to focus not on what we don’t have but what we do. The practise circumvents ‘hedonic adaptation’ by forcing us to focus on loosing the things we have and love. In doing this we remember to appreciate these things while we still have them, at the same time as developing an awareness of the transitory quality all things share.

Next time you find yourself taking people for granted for example, imagine them gone forever. For every single person in our lives, there will be a ‘last time’ we see them — just noticing this fact on occasion can be quite transformative. This works for anything really — that small apartment you have with that ridiculously tiny kitchen getting you down? Imagine, just for the moment, being destitute on the street. Miraculously, both the kitchen and apartment start to look pretty good!

9 thoughts on “Stoic Life Tips #1: Negative Visualisation

  1. For the life of me I cannot think of who sang it… “It’s not having what you want. It’s wanting what you’ve got”…just googled it…Sheryl Crow….or appreciating what you got.
    It’s a great philosophy.

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  2. Great post! I agree that appreciating what you have is better than trying to get something more. I knew this guy who was very eccentric. He would tie up his legs so that he couldn’t walk easily so that he would appreciate that he could walk when he took the brace away! He was HIV positive and in recovery for additions, so he was very conscious about gratitude.

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  3. In a way, I’d say I learned this under bad circumstances. Everyone in the family was healthy, at least not too big issues… until my uncle got a brain tumor and died. He was my uncle, but also a best friend. It was hard but I’m over his death now…

    But it influenced me in a positive and negative way. I am now a bit more anxious about losing more people I love. On the other side, this prevents that we argue over trivialities. We always had an intact and peaceful family but even in families like this one, there can be disputes sometimes. Even me and my mom had them once in a while and ignored each other for some days when we’ve been angry. But now when we argue about trivialities, I always tell myself that it could be the last talk I have with the person… and that makes me understand how stupid it is to argue about trivialities or being sour for several days. It makes me less angry and now I focus on finding solutions to solve issues with people. And I also learned that you sometimes can’t solve issues, that you sometimes just need to respect that there are different views on things.

    It’s subconscious now. I don’t have to practice it, it’s just how I am wired now after the death of my uncle. I talked with friends who made similar experiences. One friend said “Isn’t it strange that we needed to lose someone to learn this?” and I said “Yeah, but that’s life, you learn from experiences”.

    Going with the small kitchen example you thought out…. no, there I am still different. For the most part, I accept that I have what I have as I somehow turned into a minimalist over the years and don’t need too much. But I still want to stay fully aware of the fact that we all could have more if wealth would be distributed differently and if our system wouldn’t be designed in a way that only a few profit from it as extremely large amount of wealth is funneled to the top and grows even further there, while there are actually still places on this planet where people starve, or other places like ours where people barely get more than minimum wage. I prefer to stay a bit socio-critical and don’t fully want to accept the way things are because it would make me feel like accepting inequity. I’d like to stay critical. But I still agree with you… having a bit less than someone else, shouldn’t get us down. I think I learned to be happy with what I have, while still being able to ponder over inequity and wealth distribution.

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    1. I understand your point about inequity…I suppose the stoics would be unaffected by their own circumstances in this instance but willing to fight for the greater good of all — socially active but personally content — if that makes sense.
      It’s one of life’s ironies that tragedy can end up improving or even transforming our lives but I think it’s probably true. So hard to have to learn that way though.

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