Almost 4 years ago, when my wife and I had our second child, a baby girl, we were forced to practice stoicism every day.
You see, our daughter was born with a horrible disease that meant her survival would be a longshot of one in several hundred, at best.
For 3 months, we stayed with her 16 hours a day, but every day that we walked out of the NICU, we knew it was highly likely it would be the last time we saw her alive.
For my wife and I, the example that Epictetus brings up in his book, "Enchiridion", was all too real:
“In the very act of kissing the child, we should silently reflect on the possibility that she will die tomorrow.”
Fortunately, hope prevailed and now our daughter is our little living miracle.
Persevering through a personal challenge like this forced me to practice stoicism, although I didn't realize stoicism was an actual practice before that.
After the experience with my daughter I learned to apply stoicism and negative visualization to the rest of my life. Now I hope to help you apply these stoic practices too.
All so you can live a more satisfying life.
To do that, I'll walk you through how you can practice two negative visualization exercises: last-time meditation and prospective retrospection.
What is negative visualization?
First, don't confuse negative visualization with negative thinking. Negative thinking is the constant and uncontrolled stream of negative thoughts entering your mind. This is absolutely not what negative visualization means in the frame of stoicism.
(But if you are dwelling on negative thoughts all the time? Then this article has a good overview on how to stop it.)
Now that we got that out of the way, let's talk about what stoicism and negative visualization are before jumping into the two simple but effective negative visualization techniques:
"Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early 3rd century BC. It is a philosophy of personal ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to eudaimonia (happiness, or blessedness) is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or by the fear of pain, by using one's mind to understand the world and to do one's part in nature's plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly." - Wikipedia
The bolded sentence above is the core of stoicism: Accepting life as is.
Sounds simple, right? But in practice, it is very very difficult if you don't know how to do it. (But I'll help you with that.)
It could be that you've heard of stoicism and the ancient stoics before. If so, then names like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, and Zeno may sound familiar. Two of these stoic "philosopher kings" applied negative visualization a lot: Marcus Aurelius and Seneca.
So, what is negative visualization (or premeditatio malorum, which in Latin means, "pre-studying bad future")? And how does it tie into stoicism?
Well, the stoics, in particular Seneca, had the idea that if you visualize what could go wrong in life, you'll derive two benefits from it:
- Create psychological fitness, i.e., toughen up before a bad experience happens to you.
- Induce feelings of gratefulness for what you already have in life. (This is very much like "want what you already have," which is also a common Zen Buddhism way of thinking.)
These benefits help in feeling satisfied and happy, which is also talked about as achieving eudaimonia ("human flourishing" in Latin).
This negative visualization, thus, fits neatly into the idea of stoicism — accepting and being happy with what you have now. Though it is also argued that it may not do much for feelings of pleasure.
Now that you know what negative visualization is and how it fits within stoicism, let's get into how you can practice negative visualization yourself.
We'll jump into last-time meditation as the first of two techniques that can help you to pursue your life's goals.
Technique #1 — Last-time meditation
For everything you do in life, someday will be the last time you do it. For certain acts that’s fine — you won’t miss them. The last time you drew on a chalkboard may be many years ago and you may never do so again in life. But you’re probably OK with that.
But for other things, it can be devastating to know it will be the last time you experience it.
Imagine how you’d feel if the last time that you had a chat with your parents, kissed your spouse, or hugged your kids was yesterday.
You'd feel crushed, rightfully so.
What last-time meditation then helps you do is to make you appreciate the moment you are in now.
Say you leave home to go to work tomorrow and you hug your kids, kiss your spouse, and call your parents, recognizing that there is a chance this may be the last time you do so. You'll feel grateful that you can still enjoy this moment and experience.
This feeling of gratefulness can carry you all day.
How can you practically do last-time meditation?
Well, the exercise is actually really simple to achieve:
- One way you could do it, is to show the words "Is this the last time I'm doing this?" on your phone's home screen.
- Another way is to stick a sticky note on your laptop or PC with a similar question.
What this does is that you'll get reminded every day of asking yourself if it's the last time you will experience what you're currently experiencing.
Not unlike mindfulness.
An extra benefit of this exercise is that it helps you rid your thoughts of petty squabbles that might keep you from kissing your loved ones goodbye when leaving the house.
How does last-time meditation help you pursue your life goals?
When you appreciate what you have, knowing any day can be the last, your intrinsic motivation for those enjoyable experiences is (re)kindled. It will be easier for you to stop wasting time on frivolous and mindless habits
Instead of mindlessly going through your day, you'll be eager to put more effort into working towards goals that make you happy and fulfilled.
Technique #2 — Prospective retrospection
The second negative visualization technique of the stoics is prospective retrospection, which is as powerful as last-time meditation but perhaps a little less harsh.
How to do prospective retrospection
It works like this: visualize that you look back on your present moment as if you’re living (far) into the future.
It's similar to how you can look back at your past life experiences with nostalgia, “Oh wow, I had so much time to play cards with friends and travel places.” But in this instance, imagine yourself looking back as an older you to this very moment. Say, you’re doing the groceries, walking the dog, or mowing the lawn.
Pretty mundane, right?
But when you’re 85 it may not be as easy for you to do those things, and you can imagine looking back as an 85-year-old you to your current days: “Oh, how wonderful was it to walk the dog and smell the fresh air.”
This technique helps you to live in the moment and enjoy it fully. Maybe that project you’re working on now feels boring or difficult, but if you’d look back later to this very moment, you'll likely feel nostalgic you could work on it.
Thus prospective retrospection is a way of feeling nostalgia in the present moment. It enables feelings of gratitude towards what you are doing now.
How does prospective retrospection help you pursue your life goals?
Say, if during the exercise you're thinking, "I really won't look back in enjoyment at this moment" then it's a strong signal about the negative nature of your current actions and decisions.
And perhaps a moment to change things.
This practice then, helps you to (re)align your life goals with your actions by bringing to the forefront how you really feel about your actions and decisions.
Other resources on negative visualization
Video on negative visualization from Leo (Actualized.org)
Interesting Reddit discussions on negative visualization
Reddit has great discussions about stoicism and negative visualization. Here are a few that I liked reading:
How exactly do you practice negative visualization/praemeditatio malorum?
"I am a long-time student of philosophy, but a relatively new practitioner of Stoicism. Recently I've been listening to Irvine's A Guide to the Good Life on audiobook (I realize this book is controversial), reading and contemplating Epictetus (several translations), and reading Robertson's Stoicism and the Art of Happiness. I've also read Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, and much other philosophy."
How does negative visualization not lead to more anxiety?
"It seems counterintuitive to do this. I'm recently learning about Stoicism so maybe I'm being naive but it seems that visualizing negative thoughts would lead to more anxiety or depression. Any insight from someone more experienced would be appreciated."
Negative visualization in practice
"I’m curious how others actually practice negative visualization. While a lot has been written about it, I have not read much regarding its implementation. William Irvine says he practices in the car. Some of the ancients recommended doing this before sleep."
"Fellow stoics, I had a doubt regarding the concept of negative visualization. For those of you unaware of this concept, it entails imagining our worst fears come true. We imagine losing everything and everyone we have. This process makes us appreciate all that is good in our lives at the moment because we end up connecting how much things we currently to have men to us."
Tim Ferris' Fear Setting
Tim Ferris talks about the power of negative visualization. Here's the transcript of one of his earlier podcasts (episode 17) about this. Another post from Tim is about Fear Setting, which comes down to asking, "What's the worst that can happen?"
Ryan Holiday's Podcast episode on negative visualization
Ryan Holiday has some good takes about stoicism and negative visualization on his podcast, although he does have some legitimate criticism against his way of working and marketing. So interesting indeed, but take it with a grain of salt.