Today I feel great! Hooray for me!
Ok... now that you know how I'm feeling right now, what about you?
Do you have days when you feel awesome?
These are the days in which you should spend a little bit of time doing something that might, at first, seem not-so-awesome.
This is what you should do on one of these awesome days (like the day I'm having right now): you should think about losing everything, including your life.
What the hell?
Today, on this above-average day of awesomeness, I'm going to imagine my death and everything that comes along with it. I'm going to visualize it and think hard about it. I'm going to try to recognize the feelings that well up and let them come to the surface (to a point).
I might even think about losing loved ones and friends. And usually, when I practice this technique, I think about a giant asteroid striking the earth and obliterating all signs of life as we know it.
As I bring these thoughts to my consciousness, I'll think things like: How will my family and friends feel and what pain are they likely to endure? or How would I feel if this happened tomorrow and I wasn't able to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish?
And so on.
This isn't a joke, in fact, I'm dead serious. (Did you know Punster is actually a word?)
Perhaps you think I'm just a huckster trying to cast rain clouds on your sunny day.
You'd be wrong if you thought that.
In fact, this thought exercise is going to allow me to more happy and more grateful during this already awesome day.
This technique is called Negative Visualization and it was practiced and recommended by the Stoics.
Let's get into it a bit.
When you visualize the worst thing that could happen—or how your current situation could be much worse than it is—you force your mind to move to a place of gratitude by realizing just how lucky you are by the fact that you are alive, healthy and have the things that really matter—like being alive and breathing and healthy.
The thing is, we all need to do this because our minds are really bad at being good to us. They want things, they kick and scream, and basically, they do all kinds of things that move us to a place of being wrapped up in ingratitude, regret or other negative emotions.
And while Negative visualization is great when you are neck-deep in "bad" situations that could always be much worse, it’s also powerful to use during the good times as I'm suggesting today.
The basic goal of negative visualization is to move your mind to a place of gratitude. Remember that.
Through negative visualization, you can appreciate the moment while training yourself for the future when you are A) going to lose this great moment and B) when you are faced with other hard times.
Gratitude is a Skill
Negative Visualization is a skill but so is the thing we are after by practicing it; gratitude.
Gratitude is a muscle that needs to be conditioned. Yet most people don't know that about gratitude, or no one ever told them how to be grateful and why they should try to be.
Building the skill (the habit) of gratitude is another reason why I use negative visualization during the good times and the bad.
Most people like it for the bad because it helps them get out of the bad, but that's shortsighted and based on instant gratification.
Of course, the majority of people that you propose something like this to will be resistant to doing anything other than enjoying their good times. After all, the good times are bliss, and why the hell would we risk ruining the moment when we are so enamored by pure joy?
Listen, I'm not going to pretend this isn't hard.
And I'll admit that I'm not that great at always following this advice when I'm caught up in the joys of being caught up in joy.
Lastly, the good times are just too damn useful to ignore because they give us fodder for improving the bad as well as a means for flexing our gratitude muscle.
To not take advantage of all the good has to offer would be... erm... tragic.
Another thing is to consider that 1) life is crazy short and 2) this current awesome time (or miserable time) is going to pass.
And when it passes, are you going to be prepared for its absence or are you going to kick and scream and cause yourself mountains of suffering the way most people do?
The point of negative visualization is to realign our expectations and remind us to stay rooted in reality instead of some self-imposed worldview based on our artificial expectations and desires.
Let's say you start a business and every month that goes by that doesn't meet your initial projections is another month that makes you frustrated. You might grow by 500% in a short period of time, but because you projected growth of 1000% or 10,000%, you start becoming jaded by your "failure."
Because you set unreasonable expectations based on your idea that you'll be the next Zuckerberg, you unwittingly turned success into a failure.
This is the expectation trap.
This expectation trap sabotages us in so many parts of our lives, from our relationships to our careers to everything in between.
Expectations are one-sided and usually dumb.
This is one more way that negative visualization is useful; it helps control expectation.
Negative visualization is something you have to try to understand.
Just try it. You might be surprised.
It's important to be grateful during the worst times of your life so you can grow stronger and overcome, and it’s equally important to be grateful during the good times so you can better appreciate them while preparing yourself for the fact that they will eventually leave you.
The good times always fade, and sometimes, they fade in an instant.
If you are too attached to the good—the way most are—you probably spend a lot of time worrying about losing the good times to the point that you don't fully enjoy them in the first place.
“Man surprised me most about humanity. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”-Dalai Lama
A minute or two considering how it could be worse can help combat the fear of loss because gratitude is more powerful than fear. This is why gratitude forms the basis of a healthy mindset; gratitude over fear; abundance over scarcity; positive over negative.
This is how you practice negative visualization:
- First, imagine how you would feel if everything was taken away from you.
- Second, imagine all the things that are making you happy are gone, stolen from you.
- Finally, imagine your life is taken away. Imagine you are dead.
Of course, you might think this will ruin the moment, but it won’t. It’s actually going to make it better.
Your mind is going to use these thoughts to remind you just how lucky you are. It will prompt you to be grateful.
Here’s the thing about life for us all: No matter where we are, we are always fortune to be alive. We could always be gone, like so many that have lived and perished.
(Those of you that have lost loved ones will understand what it means to appreciate the moment regardless of how good or bad that moment is.)
The Duality Of Life
We all know that life is a series of ups and downs, and since we’ve all dealt with this ebb and flow in our lives, you’d think we were better prepared to deal with life.
But we aren’t.
If fact, we’re pretty bad.... all of us.
We kick and scream and feel sorry for ourselves the second something doesn’t go our way because we get so used to our “comfortable” lives. This comfort skews our perception of reality and, as a result, we find ourselves pursuing pleasure while doing everything we can to avoid pain in an effort to maintain our comfort.
We get addicted to comfort.
Most of us are used to doing what we want and controlling our world. We are not held against our will. We can do what we want, buy what we want, and live how we want.
As a whole, most of us feel in control most of the time. ("Us" as in people living in Western developed world.)
But it’s this perception of control that ruins our perception of reality. Because we get used to comfort and the ability to say "Yes" or "No" to the majority of things in our lives, we slip into a slew of cognitive biases that sap our happiness and promote feelings of fear and scarcity and unhealthy desire.
So when the good comes our way—which the good can also be defined as “comfortable” or “status quo”—we cling to it while subconsciously fearing that it might leave us or that someone might come threaten it.
This fear manifests itself in all kinds of disastrous human emotions—jealously, greed, theft, racism, etc.
We fight change because we know with change comes uncertainty, and we don’t want to be uncertain with our comfort.
Ultimately, though, all the effort we put into trying to make life appease us just ends up causing us more suffering because of the unhealthy attachment we form with these externals. And since nothing is permanent, these things are all going to leave us eventually, you can see how we are setting ourselves up for massive failure in the future.
So what do we do?
We live distracted and lost. We fight the current of life, clinging like a barnacle to whatever reality we think we can best control.
As any sailor or surfer will tell you, the ocean always wins.
Instead of fighting the current, we should—also as any sailor or surfer will tell you—ride the waves.
Embrace It All
You have to embrace the good and the bad equally instead of just embracing the good and trying to run as fast as you can away from the bad, like most people do.
The good is going to pass just like the bad always does. We know this. We've been through it. We've felt it on more than one occasion.
But we are still so stupidly blind when these two inevitable facts of live come to fruition in our lives. We cling so desperately to the good and pretend the bad is just some bad dream.
But obviously the bad isn't a dream and so we need to embrace it and at least make it useful. What's cool about making the bad useful is you get better at dealing with the bad and ending it.
It's a bit paradoxical; embrace the bad and it'll actually go away faster instead of fighting it (like most do).
Sure, the good feels great, but it's more than just good feelings. It's also how we are motivated for working and fighting through the inevitable bad.
Think about it... if we didn't like the good, we wouldn't care much if we only got the bad. On the flip side, if the bad didn't suck so bad, we wouldn't be as motivated to get through it as fast as possible.
Gratitude and negative visualization are two techniques that will promote feelings of good while grounding your mind in the reality that whatever you are experiencing at the moment, good or bad, won’t last forever.
Embrace the bad as a motivation for learning and evolving and as the "price" for the good. Think of the bad is just a pitstop on the road toward the good. It's also a reminder of just how good the good is.
Embrace the good as awesome yet fleeting. This will remind you to be more in the moment and it will prepare you for when the good inevitably leaves you.
Good is necessary for bad and bad is necessary for good. Embrace them each when they come and each will be better (or less worse) as a result.
This duality of life is why negative visualization is so useful: It prepares us for change while promoting more appreciation of the present.
The thing is, if you tell the average person to imagine losing their good moment—or a person or thing they value—they won’t want to do it because they are so used to distancing themselves from bad things every chance they get. So when you to come along and tell them to purposely invite bad things into their head, they're first instinct is probably to tell you to go &$#&$*#($(*#$ ($#($#($.
After all, most people blindly pursue the good as much as they can and are completing oblivious to the inner workings of their mind.
Don’t be the average person. Be the self-aware, enlightened person.
Change in life is necessary and inevitable. Your good times are only good because you have the bad to compare them to. And vice versa. So embrace them all for what they are.
What's cool is your good times will get better and your bad times will get better.
Be fluid, like water, and don't fight change.
Surf the wave.
Life is a series of destinations and journeys, ups and downs, nights and days, good and bad. Remember this during the good and the bad times and you’ll be grateful you did.