Negative visualisation - The Stoic trick to an unshakeable mind

Negative visualisation is a meditative practise, a practise made popular by philosopher Seneca the Younger. Seneca was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, playwright, he was also the tutor to emperor Nero. Seneca is known, prominently, for his philosophical works, his plays and a significant individual in the material of ancient Stoicism. Negative visualisation is portrayed in his ‘Letters From A Stoic’, the nature of this practise focuses on training the practitioner on the negative outcomes of realistic scenarios. The premise is never to cause unnecessary pain or hurt, the focus is to make you grateful for the things you have in life. The seriousness of this exercise is dictated by the individual practising, it can range from a mild inconvenience like abandoning minor pleasures, to major losses.


There’s a connection to CBT within this practise, both aim to improve mental wellbeing, through discarding the false beliefs that feed destruction emotions. William Irvine, the author of ‘A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy’ explores this connection explaining the benefits of negative visualisation. He explores the concept of ‘hedonistic adaptation’, which refers to the idea that after an event, positive or negative, we are met with a positive or negative response. A response that doesn’t alter our mindset at all, returning to the same feeling as before, warranting the event as useless in our mind. Irvine refers to this in an example of materialistic pleasure, consuming and buying things and then hoping for happiness but being met with disappointment. Returning to the same level brings us nothing but disappointment. Irvine suggests a technique that may ease us out of this mindset, which is through negative visualisation. By imagining the things we value taken from us we can overcome hedonistic adaptation, we value the little things in life, we begin to value the things we typically ignore. “Negative visualization, in other words, teaches us to embrace whatever life we happen to be living and to extract every bit of delight we can from it.” Irvine describes.


“When you are going to perform an act, remind yourself what kind of things the act may involve. When going to the swimming pool, reflect on what may happen at the pool: some will splash the water, some will push against one another, others will abuse one another, and others will steal.” Epictetus argues that he is “prepared to maintain my will in a virtuous manner, having warned myself of what may occur.” Epictetus summarises that by preparing yourself for the inevitable obstacles of life you give yourself the opportunity to think and act in a more virtuous manner, raising our defences and ensuring we are never caught off guard. 


The focus of negative visualisation is on mental strength and mindfulness, that’s what we can achieve. Aurelius, alongside Seneca advocated for mental strength, in his journal, Meditations, the focus on adopting the right state of mind and framing yourself in the right place to control the emotions that are causing you pain. “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly.” Aurelius explains. The stoics argued primarily for looking at the judgements we make to unfortunate situations that cause your suffering. Any thoughts we have are almost always fragmented, fragments that can be changed. Once you’ve come to understand the nature and purpose of the emotions you can begin to comprehend the underlying emotions of your state of mind. Stoic mindfulness trains detachment from techniques that embrace the emotions rather than teaching yourself to suppress them. The more you practise, the more you’re aware of your thoughts. Once you’ve mastered this you can see what negative visualisation does for the mind, detaching yourself, preparing yourself, allowing your mind to be clear, balanced and tranquil. When you feel yourself being lost by the waves of destructive emotions, negative visualisation offers you a guide, a safe haven, all to help in your journey to self improvement.


This lesson of loss can benefit us massively in a time fueled by uncertainty. Loss acts as a piece of potential obliging us to value the things we have in life. Through negative visualisation you can train your mind through this imagined reality looking at the lesson beyond the initial bad feeling. Why not dedicate ourselves to wellbeing, to gratitude becoming truly grateful for the things in life we’ve already got. In practicality, this visualisation can be done through journaling. Aurelius himself advocates for journaling, writing and pondering what life would be like if the events in his life had been navigated differently. Through the process of appreciating what you have and what you’ve worked for, it obliges you to put gratitude forward. In this world it’s important to remember that life is hard, and sometimes negative visualisation may not be the best course of action. The right way to practise this exercise is as stoics recommended... practising periodically. Ensuring not to bombard yourself with anxiety and ultimately cause unnecessary pain. One must learn to contemplate rather than overthink, using this practise as an act of mental training.


To begin your journey, train yourself with a more subtle technique. Journaling can begin with one line. That line may be a feeling, a thought, or even a question. The art of journaling holds the potential to become a daily practise. Use this outlet to reflect on the day that has passed, instead of making the judgement in the moment, manifest it into your words, and process them with consideration. Slowly begin to see the formula of the events that cause pain, use this formula to then carefully direct your response. Negative visualisation is a journey worth taking, a journey that aids us in our self-improvement. 

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