Negative Visualization - How to Cultivate More Joy

Yesterday I received news that my father’s health is declining. As many of you can imagine, this sent me into a pit of despair. It’s never easy being faced with the mortality of our loved ones. Who would I be, and what would my life be like, without him?

But then I remembered one of the practices of the Greek Stoic philosophers, one they believed was the secret to joy. This practice is called negative visualization, and it entails imagining that someone you love has died, or that your beloved home, possessions, or career has been lost or destroyed. Now I know some of you are thinking, “I do this all the time! I often fear the worst.” This is true, many of us do this on a regular basis. We visualize the worse case scenario, which leads to anxiety as we imagine how we can prevent this terrible event from ever happening.

However, the Stoics are on to something here, because their practice has a different aim. Part of their core philosophy was the recognition that life is a precious gift, and in order to experience it to the fullest, we must live in a state of constant gratitude. The Stoics practiced negative visualization not with the intention of trying to prevent catastrophic events, but rather to accept them as an inevitability---something outside our control. In doing so, we can be grateful for the present moment, and for all that we have. This is the path to true joy. Let’s give it a quick try:

Visualize someone that you love very much. Now imagine that today is the last day you will ever see them. How might you treat them differently? What would you say to them? The little things about them that annoy you, would they still bother you? Would they even matter?

By practicing negative visualization, we allow ourselves to savor every precious moment of life. It means we take nothing for granted. Through allowing and accepting the inevitability of change, chaos, and death, we are able to experience greater joy in the present moment, knowing that nothing meaningful has been left unsaid or undone. The deep sense of peace that comes with this is significant.

My relationship with my father is a precious one. I don’t want to poison that relationship by living in the future, by living in fear. I’d rather live in the present, in a state of joy and deep appreciation for all the love we have shared, and continue to share.

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