What is negative visualization?

We always hear about the power of visualization, and how we should imagine our dream house and job to somehow attract it. That has nothing to do with it; in fact it is its polar opposite. Positive visualization has the objective of attracting those things into our life, but negative visualization is not about attraction, it is about developing gratitude. In order to better appreciate what we have, stoics propose we imagine our life without cherished things or people. 

Developing gratitude

I have kids and they are loud and messy, and when I am about to lose myself in despair, I stop and think what if they were no longer here? That quick perception of the void they would leave in my heart makes me more patient. Sometimes I even stop what I am doing and go play with them. 

It has to be a constant feeling. We must remind ourselves about the value of things and people time and time again. Then, we would also be grateful even for the old car we’re driving around. What if we didn’t have it ?

‘People don’t value what they have until they lose it’ is a very known cliché, but it is also very true. We don’t usually remember to be grateful for our good health until we get sick. I must confess, for some aspects of my life, unfortunately, it is true. It’s something we all need to work on..

My favorite time to practice negative visualization is when we are eating Christmas leftovers and it is already January. As we’re all aware there are many people that have no food at all, so I imagine myself without food to be grateful for the leftovers I have. 

Or even  worse, I imagine I’m like many people  in hospitals who cannot eat, and who must be fed by tubes or are too weak to feed themselves.

Don’t miss the bull’s eye

The object of this exercise is not to develop guilt or sadness, but gratitude. You will have whichever food you have access to and should enjoy its flavor and how stronger and better it makes you feel. 

You may realize there is something you can do about it, some form of help you can give to others with less, but that’s another exercise (the one about developing virtue).

With the current Covid-19 situation, let’s stop and feel grateful for being able to breathe. There are people in critical stages of dying who are no longer able to do it, and machines are needed to keep them alive. Imagine yourself in that situation and you will truly value the simple yet vital act of breathing.

It’s ultimately about finding and maintaining your inner balance

Take some time to think about situations that compromise your inner balance by bringing low feelings and sensations. Question yourself: why do I feel this way? What is actually bothering me? What are the beliefs I carry inside that feed these feelings? 

Are you angry your computer is taking too long to get started? What if you didn’t have a computer? You would have to find someone to lend you a PC or, do whatever you need to by hand. 

In a little bit you will be thinking you need a new computer, a better one. Is it really so? While the computer gets started, can´t you go get a cup of coffee or make that phone call? 

Just realize if you let that anger over your computer grow, you will be going in the exact opposite direction stoics propose, which is to have inner peace by always being grateful for what you have.

It’s important to distinguish negative visualisation with meditation on death. Negative Visualization is not about how you would feel if your dog died. It is about remembering how important he is to you, so that when he destroys your new pair of shoes you wouldn’t be tormented by rage or any other bad feeling. 

Yes, you will be upset, which is only natural, but you should also be able to control it and eventually drop it. Remember all the other times when you were sad, and that creature came closer and reminded you were not alone.

The exercise

Choose something important for you, your job, for example. Remember all those people that make it difficult for you, or that boss that can be so annoying sometimes. Or even the activity itself, which you actually don’t like.

Now picture all that job has provided you. The bills, the trips, the things you are able to buy, the people you have met, the things you have learned. There is always something good to focus on.

Now. Imagine you get fired. 

Silence. How would you react? What would you do about the trips you wouldn’t be able to do for a while, the bills piling up for some months, until you get another job. Can you notice gratitude taking over? 

This is not meant to make you transform your present situation into your comfort zone. There’s nothing wrong with wanting something new or better, just remember being thankful for what you already have. It is amazing. When that feeling takes over, you feel like you need much less, and you learn to appreciate much more.