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Negative Visualization

by DT Strain


This is a practice inspired by the Stoics, and some people resort to it with little Stoic training, or because it is already in their nature. Negative visualization is not to be confused with worrying, but can often lead to worry and stress if misunderstood.

For this reason, negative visualization should be considered an advanced practice – only to be taken carefully, after a solid foundation of understanding of impermanence, a healthy outlook on what we control and what we don’t, seeing beyond the ego, and so on. If, at any time, you begin to feel highly distracting levels of stress or anguish, or if intentional times of engagement in the practice turn into frequent unintentional ruminations, then you should back off from negative visualization. Instead, return to deeper study, understanding, and internalization of the foundational teachings mentioned above. Trying to conduct negative visualization when you are not ready, may lead to despair, depression, anxiety, or more – especially if you are already suffering from depression. But, if a person is ready for it, negative visualization can provide powerful fortitude and preparation for the inevitable difficulties of life.


How to Practice Negative Visualization

With the above important caveats in mind, we can proceed to explain. Negative visualization is the process of imagining some of our worst fears coming to pass, and what that would be like. This is a deep form of imagination in which we take ourselves through the details of the grimmest of possibilities.

It is best to start with small things like, “What would I do if my new car received a large scratch on the side? What would that be like? How would I feel? What would life be like going forward?” If having a scratch is enough to generate unbearable feelings of distress, then you really need to return to basic teaching on non-attachment and practice them more thoroughly.

But, from this point, over time as you occasionally conduct this exercise, you can widen the possibilities, imagining even worse events. You can also slowly increase the intensity of the imagination – from a simple pondering over the question, to an immersive imagination similar to a waking dream, where you try to place yourself in that position mentally and imagine what it would really be like. This level of imagination can perhaps be facilitated as a form of contemplation. This may be easier for material possessions, but then (if we are ready) we can begin to consider loss of even more deeply attached externals, such as our health, loved ones, and so on.

The reason for this practice is first to get a sense of how well we are internalizing spiritual wisdom designed to help us come to terms with impermanence, expand the ego, and detach our happiness from external conditions. Like walking into a fire, we will at some point begin to really ‘feel the heat’ and it is here that we should not push too far. Here is an important point: the purpose of negative visualization is not to learn how to endure these distressing feelings. Rather, we are trying to discover when and where they are arising. Once we know that, we can back off and return to the study and practice of philosophies which prevents their arising in the first place.

Here we can learn about ourselves, finding where our deepest attachments lie. We do not improve in negative visualization practice by doing it more. We improve by improving in the foundational philosophies mentioned earlier – and ability to engage in greater negative visualization practice while maintaining equanimity will be the natural result of that improvement.

A fully enlightened epitome of naturalistic wisdom would be so at peace and in tune with the nature of the world, that they could entertain all possibilities without disturbance. They would appreciate and love all of the same things they had before, but they would love them as they truly are, not as an imagined static and unchanging version of themselves.

A second function of negative visualization is the preparedness it offers should those tragedies ever come to pass. Those who have not kept such possibilities in mind are susceptible to surprising devastation. Normally when tragedy strikes, we go through a process of grief before coming to terms with it. Negative visualization offers us the possibility to do this ahead of time, under easier circumstances.

But negative visualization should not, therefore, be confused with ‘planning for the worst’ in the sense of logistics and external preparations. While we might find ourselves planning in our imaginations, this is an exploration of your feelings about the worst coming to pass, not so much about minimizing its chances of happening or building response plans in terms of outward action.

Another benefit of negative visualization is its helpfulness in giving us greater appreciation for what we already have. Human beings tend to ‘recalibrate’ their pleasure to their mean conditions, taking what they have for granted and thus seeking out more and more things to add to it, in an endless cycle. Negative visualization recalibrates our scale back to something outside ourselves, such that we do not forget or take for granted the externals we have to be thankful for, and this is a very healthy and positive thing.

While it’s true that a healthy spirituality will teach us to reject the nagging cases of the ‘what if’s’, as well as distracting ruminations about the past or future – instead opting for mindfulness on the present, and acceptance of our one reality as it is. This is why negative visualization is not a practice that you should haphazardly enter into at random times and places without mindful intention. Rather, you should enter into it with an intentional focus that this is what you are doing, and for a specific period. Otherwise, it could become a gateway to unproductive worrisome ruminations. Yet, during this special time, your exploration of the future and of the possibilities will tell you something about how in-tune you are with the ever-changing flow of the natural universe, as it is.

If this practice becomes too tasking, simply think about those less fortunate, and remember to be appreciative of what you have, aware that you may not always have it. That will be enough until you are ready.