Last September, I made a number of key changes in my life. I changed my eating habits greatly, I changed my running regimen greatly compared to previous years (running style, posture etc) and I also chose to stop just paying lip service to the notion of having a life philosophy and properly adopt one.
Some of my biggest influences in the past decade have been cognitive behavioural therapy pioneers who were heavily influenced by the philosophy of Stoicism. When an influential tutor and a professional colleague, Donald Robertson, also then wrote a book about the philosophy behind cognitive behavioural therapy and then a book on getting started with Stoicism, I started to think more seriously about it. I read a few books after that, but it was a book entitled “A Guide to The Good Life” by William B Irvine that I read for the first time a while ago and have since read a couple of other times, that has really got me to a point whereby I am actually applying a philosophy to my life.
There is a slight conflict that I have in writing this at all. The reason being that Stoics do not really tell others that they live a stoic philosophy, rather, they simply live it as best as they can without advertising the fact unnecessarily. However, I am not going to be writing about stoicism itself in depth today, just one small element of it that I have been using in combination with self-hypnosis for some months that has really had an incredible effect on me and my life that I thought I would share here today.
In his book, William Irvine writes about a Stoic practice referred to as negative visualisation. The Romans called it premeditatio malorum which I really rather like, not least because it sounds like something Harry Potter would say while pointing his wand at something or someone. I have written about similar concepts from the field of CBT, and I also teach similar concepts to negative visualisation (you can read this article, for example, on using the worst case scenario for self-improvement) however, I wanted to share a couple of excerpts from chapter 4 of “A Guide to the Good Life” first of all to give you an idea of what it is all about.
Irvine introduces the reader to a common problem known as hedonic adaptation, which is the fact that people get used to what they have and as a result, they start to appreciate it less. This is not just limited to physical ‘things’ but also applies to our desires, which are seen by many as being insatiable. If we examine self-help literature of the last century, most of it would suggest that we all create our reality and our world with our thoughts, so we must have positive thoughts to create a positive world for ourselves. They often go on to encourage us to achieve more by believing that we are capable – and with that belief in ourselves and our ability to achieve, we go on to accomplish more of that which we desire.
Even going on to achieve our goals does not necessarily lead to a lifetime of satisfaction though, does it? Many people continue to plod upon what psychologists often refer to as the hedonic treadmill, which goes something like this:
1. We work to achieve what it is that we desire.
2. Those desires are subsequently fulfilled for a short while, but we soon adapt to them and we become dissatisfied.
3. We now raise the bar and want more or ‘better’.
Life can become littered with unfulfilled desires. How many people you know want more than they have? A bigger house, a more modern car, a better-paying job, more recognition from peers, a leaner physique, a younger spouse even!
A healthy level of desire can inspire us to take action and have more good things in our lives, but an ongoing sense of lack creates anxiety. It undermines our satisfaction with our life. As William Irvine states;
“The psychologists Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein have studied this phenomenon and given it a name: hedonic adaptation. To illustrate the adaptation process, they point to studies of lottery winners. Winning a lottery typically allows someone to live the life of his dreams. It turns out, though, that after an initial period of exhilaration, lottery winners end up about as happy as they previously were. … Another, less dramatic form of hedonic adaptation takes place when we make consumer purchases. Initially, we delight in the wide-screen television or fine leather handbag we bought. After a time, though, we come to despise them and find ourselves longing for an even wider-screen television or an even more extravagant handbag. Likewise, we experience hedonic adaptation in our career.” (p. 66)
He then offers up the Stoic solution to the problem:
“The stoics thought they had an answer to this question. They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value— that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would. This technique— let us refer to it as negative visualization—was employed by the Stoics at least as far back as Chrysippus. It is, I think, the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological tool kit.” (p. 68)
There have been objections to this, in particular from those who believe that self-improvement should be positive psychology only. Irvine addresses this too:
“This sounds like no fun at all. But more to the point, it seems unlikely that a Stoic will gain tranquility as a result of entertaining such thoughts. To the contrary, he is likely to end up glum and anxiety -ridden. In response to this objection, let me point out that it is a mistake to think Stoics will spend all their time contemplating potential catastrophes. It is instead something they will do periodically: A few times each day or a few times each week a Stoic will pause in his enjoyment of life to think about how all this, all these things he enjoys, could be taken from him. Furthermore, there is a difference between contemplating something bad happening and worrying about it. Contemplation is an intellectual exercise, and it is possible for us to conduct such exercises without its affecting our emotions. It is possible, for example, for a meteorologist to spend her days contemplating tornadoes without subsequently living in dread of being killed by one. In similar fashion, it is possible for a Stoic to contemplate bad things that can happen without becoming anxiety-ridden as a result.”
So the strategy requires us to spend some time on a daily basis imagining that you no longer have the things you value most. I have vividly imagined, for example, what my life would be like without my children and it has made me be incredibly present when I am with them and enjoy every moment that we have together – even when they are being ‘challenging.’ Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher (and one of the four major Stoic philosophers) reminds us that our children have been given to us “for the present, not inseparably nor forever.” This possibly sounds a bit morbid at first, but in reality it becomes very useful and valuable when we think of the actual impermanence of life and how anything and everything could be taken from us any moment; we therefore learn to enjoy each moment we do have. Additionally, we start to become more mentally prepared in case anything should ever happen – something that the well known psychotherapist Arnold Lazarus refers to as an ‘anti future shock’ visualisation in his book “The Mind’s Eye.”
If you read about people who have survived natural disasters or life-threatening scenarios where they may even have suffered in one way or another, their accounts afterwards suggest that they feel they were not fully living before. Now though, they are thankfully, happily and beautifully alive. People ought not and should not need to go through a life-threatening scenario or endure a natural disaster to appreciate life in that way – especially when the same effect can be attained by engaging in negative visualisation.
Some people may well be already living the dreams they once had for themselves. Since achieving those dreams, they may have become bored and immune to the joys that surround them in reality. The goal of this Stoic negative visualisation process is about waking people up, and helping them to appreciate what they have. Spending time on the hedonic treadmill gradually lowers our enjoyment of life. Negative visualisation raises that enjoyment again.
Follow the basic steps I offer up today and you’ll see for yourself.
The evidence for self-hypnosis states that it advances vividness of mental imagery (Fromm et al, 1981) and it also enhances our focus and absorption when we adopt a good quality hypnotic mindset. Therefore, to me and in my highly biased opinion, it makes sense to practice negative visualisation in conjunction with self-hypnosis. Prior to starting, consider an area of your life that you currently believe you would benefit from appreciating more, this could be your family, your work, your relationships, friendships, possessions, health, or absolutely anything else. Then follow these simple steps….
Step One: Induce hypnosis.
You can do so by any means you desire or know of. You can use the process in my ‘Science of self-hypnosis’ book, use the free audio we give away on this website to practice or have a look at the following articles as and when you need them; they are basic processes to help you simply open the door of your mind:
Once you have induced hypnosis, move on to step two.
Step Two: Recall the area of your life that you considered prior to starting this process. Imagine your life without the central aspect of it in your life. That is, imagine how your life would be if you did not have what you currently have. Imagine a void in contrast to what you have. Be without it.
Imagine your life without it as vividly as possible. Notice how it makes you feel, notice how different things are and spend as much time as is necessary to truly engage and imagine your life without the things you have currently. When you have done that and made it as believable as possible, then move on to the next step.
Step Three: Spend some time reflecting. Reflect upon what you just imagined. Be aware of differences, things you overlooked, and quietly reflect before moving on to the next step.
Step Four: Spend some time mentally rehearsing how you’ll start to behave, think and feel in relation to this aspect of your life now and in the future. Think of how you’ll do things differently from now on. Even take some time to mentally rehearse how you’ll do things in the future. Once you have spent enough time enjoying this step, move on to the final step.
Step Five: Exit hypnosis. If you follow the process in my own science of self-hypnosis book, then count from one through to five to bring yourself up and out of hypnosis. Otherwise, take some deep breaths, wiggle your fingers and toes and open your eyes to reorient yourself with your surroundings.
There you have it. Be sure to take adequate time to do each step patiently and thoroughly. You want to get a full sense of how things will be in your life without the things you currently have.
When you’ve practice this in hypnosis a few times, it becomes very transportable and useable anywhere as you go about your day; use it in waiting rooms, in queues, when in traffic jams, when lying in bed about to get up in the mornings or at any other time when you can be using time more productively and less idly. You can practice it casually in those circumstances. However, if you want to ponder things with even more depth, then you can use negative visualisation in conjunction with self-hypnosis.
By engaging in negative visualisation and recognising the real impermanence of life, you can approach all your activities with a greater level of love, intensity, significance, and with a greater level of awareness and connectedness.
I think the century of self-help literature I referred to previously got it partially correct. Positive visualisation helps you to get what you want. The stoic practice of negative visualisation though, helps you want what you get. I like that. When you want what you get, there is no dissatisfying chasm between what you want and have got. Of course, we don’t start spending all our time thinking about negative possibilities, that could lead to us becoming Neil from the Young Ones (if you do not know that reference, follow this link, a photo of Neil follows…) but practice the process for a few minutes daily or a few times a week and I think you’ll benefit greatly. I certainly have.