Memento Mori – Using the Stoic Art of Negative Visualization

I laughed out loud recently when a person, in my “like-minded circle”, brought up Stoic philosophy and the concept of negative visualization.

Memento mori – remembering death – makes us grateful for everything we have.

I wasn’t laughing at the concept. I laughed because for many years, my brother would jokingly call his style of thinking “the power of positive-negative thinking” – a term, that he will tell you, he coined.  Little did I know, he was drawing on his knowledge of ancient Greek stoic philosophers.

The stoic art of negative visualization is a belief that nurturing the perspective of loss leads to strength, resilience and thus a good life.

I learned from my brother that this unusual attitude creates a brilliantly clever way of looking at life.

Negative visualization is an anticipatory way of thinking.  

It is a strategic practice of  “worst-case” scenario view.

This perspective allows us to foresee consequences. It helps us put everything in order of importance. 

Foresight prevents surprises. Potential outcomes are identified and the paths to those outcomes are deconstructed.

Problems are illuminated. Risks are managed or mitigated with calm efficiency.

 “The unexpected” does not happen because it has already been anticipated.

Being a person who can see “the negative”

is not the same as

being a person who thinks negatively.

Negative visualization is different than emotionally charged, unproductive, catastrophic thinking.

In fact, highly effective and boldly optimistic people use negative visualization as a strategy.

It is simply a way to shift perspective to see different possibilities and their pitfalls.

It’s a way to prepare for failure in order to succeed.

“Misfortune weighs most heavily on

those who expect nothing but good fortune.”

Seneca

Seneca; c. 4 BCE – CE 65) was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman,dramatist, and in one work humorist, of the Silver Age of Latin literature. Stoic art of negative visualization

These days, we hear a constant stream of advice telling us we should visualize our dreams and maintain a positive attitude.

Indeed, positive thinking can lead to great things.  However, that does not mean that we need to purge negative thoughts from our brains.

The Stoics believe that unrealistic expectations and a naively “positive attitude” will more likely lead to disappointment and cause problems with resilience.

In fact, we are wired to think negatively. It has been one of the keys to our human survival, thus far.

Buddhists advocate treating thoughts – negative or positive – as simply things that come and go in our awareness.

 Thoughts are not inherently good or bad.  Their utility is determined by the way we use them.

Negative thoughts are very powerful decision-making tools when used constructively.

Thoughts can indeed influence attitude – positive or negative.

However,  a particular attitude has no value if it does nothing to enhance perspective.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“When you change the way you look at things,

the things you look at change.”  (Wayne Dyer)

Young woman/Old woman Perspective Using Negative visualization

Attitude

(the way we orient our minds)

Determines Perspective

(what we get to see)

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Attitude of Gratitude and Memento Mori

Death is a unifying “worst-case-scenario”.

Remembering that  we all die  is of tremendous value.

When we employ negative visualization to include the outcome of death, most other outcomes are put into their proper perspectives.

Think with the endgame in mind. What does the next week, next year, 10 years or the end of life look like?

What are the various paths to get there?

When I imagine my own mortality or someone close to me, I am encouraged to say what needs to be said, do what needs to be done, be grateful and squeeze out every bit of life out of every day that I have.

I am sure that a lot of what I do is motivated by some subconscious pre-revenge toward Death.

Until it comes, I’ll be brilliantly clever and show Death how well I can live.

Thinking skeleton. Negative Visualization. Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

I’m not a negative-nellie…  really.

  

For me, negative visualization looks like this:

Rather than stewing in a general state of anxiety about any situation, I take a moment to step back and focus my thoughts on the absolute worst things that could happen.     Then, I analyze them.

What is the worst thing that could happen – is it really that bad?

What are the other potential horrible things – are they recoverable?

Are any of these things deal breakers?

How negative visualization works for me…

  1. Nothing is a surprise. By doing more than simply “facing a situation” and “hoping for the best”, I am able visualize potential pitfalls and mentally prepare for various failure scenarios.  I am not blind-sided.
  2. No wasted energy. My anxieties and fears are given a constructive purpose.
  3. Greater resilience. When failure happens – and it does! – I have the strength to try again. I am mentally prepared for failure, but working hard and ready for success.
  4. More efficiency. When I find myself drifting off course, I can get back on track faster because I’ve mapped a back-up plan already. When a plan doesn’t go the way it is intended, there are minimal delays while I shift gears.  I’ll put another plan into effect so I don’t end up stunned or scrambling.
  5. Unlimited motivation. When success happens, I am grateful.  I am always motivated to reach higher though. Why limit myself with “best-case-scenario” thinking.  If there’s ever going to be a surprise, I’d rather it be a good one – something beyond my expectation!!

Final thoughts….   

Flying continues to reinforce many life lessons.

I know that my ability to visualize anything is dependent on my attitude.

Nose up, nose down or straight and level – my attitude determines what I get to see.

My perspective determines my perceived options.

The hard part of visualization is that without a proper attitude, we sometimes cannot see what is “out there”.

It’s not that we don’t want to make a good choice, we simply lack the perspective to see it.

Thus far, my work is to remind myself to breathe, take care of my mind and body, and be in an attitude that allows me to see the big picture.

Beyond everything, I trust in that which is bigger than me, to show me what I need to see.

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