I’ve died many times. It’s a strange thing about depression. At least, a strange thing about how my mind works: from a young age, I’ve been presented with worst-case-scenarios in technicolor, painting a picture of catastrophic what ifs. More than once, I’ve lost everything I’ve loved. My world has fallen apart without a brick crumbling in real life.
There are similarities between depression, philosophy and spirituality. Each seeks to understand the existential. I’m fortunate I discovered a spiritual practice which offers refuge from existential anxiety. Thanks to my practice, the context of these mini deaths has shifted — I don’t see them as depressive dysfunction but powerful markers of growth.
The Sufi poet, Rumi, encouraged seekers to “die before you die.” Imagine that. My depression was teaching the same lesson as one of history’s most remarkable spiritual teachers. I believe the current coronavirus pandemic is teaching us a similar lesson. To understand, let’s leave Rumi and my depressive mind behind, and take a brief sojourn into the philosophy of Stoicism.
In Stoicism, a 2,000 year-old Ancient Greek philosophy, adversity is valued for its potential for growth. Tough times are a training ground for self-development. “The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s,” writes Marcus Aurelius, “in the respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.”
One way Stoic philosophers — including Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca — practiced to wrestle with life was premeditatio malorum, or “foreseeing bad stuff.” Modern Stoics have referred to this as negative visualisation or philosophical premeditation. Either way, the exercise is the same. Picture worst-case-scenarios before they happen, be prepared.
“If you would not have a man flinch when the crises comes, train him before it comes.” — Seneca
Negative visualisation is the polar opposite of positive thinking, yet its results are profound. It makes us prepared for any eventuality, reduces fear of outcomes usually are pushed away from consciousness, and improves resilience in handling setbacks. But it’s not just a preparation tool — negative visualisation also boosts gratitude for what we have.
Imagine Losing Everything
Negative visualisation has a few applications. You may imagine daily inconveniences, or spend the morning considering what could go wrong. Many writers have covered these topics in-depth, so I won’t divulge now. However, I’d like to focus on the practice of visualising loss. It’s one of the hardest practices of negative visualisation, but as my depression taught me, it offers immense value.
While hosting a recent meditation on gratitude, I found myself talking about grief. It’s difficult to separate gratitude from grief. It makes sense. Gratitude is ground zero appreciation of all we have, blessings we are often blind to. Grief is the loss of things we value. It stands to reason, then, that grief can direct us towards gratitude, gratitude to grief.
Negative visualisation provides the opportunity to imagine the grief of losing the things we love: and really, truly feeling it. It’s painful, it’s raw, but the gem hidden inside the discomfort is that we return to these parts of our lives with renewed appreciation. Having the courage to feel the pain of absence makes the appreciation of presence greater.
Depression’s Unlikely Gift
It might sound strange for you to read this, but a blessings of depression is that it can occasionally convince me, through the illusion of the imagination, I’ve lost everything. In these moments of despair I am humbled, on my knees, surrendered. When I return to normality and this illusion evaporates as the depression settles, I return to the world changed.
See, it’s in this imagined loss that I remind myself of value. Experiencing this involuntarily is why I now regularly reflect on death as part of my spiritual practice. As I remarked to a friend in a recent call, I wear death as a cloak. It’s not morbid but invigorating to accept the things we love dearly are impermanent and they will one day die; physically, spiritually, or metaphorically.
Like a Stoic bracing to wrestle with life, this simple truth keeps us on our toes, reminds us not to become complacent and take things for granted for too long.
This process is beautifully captured in It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1946 movie about a man contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve. Visited by his guardian angel, he’s shown all the lives he has touched and what life would be like had he not been born. (Take a moment to reflect on the fact one of society’s most loved Christmas movies is a reflection on suicide: if that’s not an indication this Stoic principle is inherent, I don’t know what is.)
Throughout the movie, George Bailey (James Stewart) begins to see, clearly, the value of his life. The life he’s preparing to leave behind. And that brings me back to the current coronavirus pandemic. How many of us are now seeing the value in the things we’ve taken for granted? How many of us would give everything for a hug, a visit to our local cafe, a cinema trip with friends?
Not many of us were expecting the current situation of lockdowns, self-isolation, social distancing. Our basic freedoms have been removed. But blessings always come in disguise. Our reality is now a manifestation of negative visualisation, we’ve no choice but to engage with the exercise, not in our imagination, but here and now. The material world is a mirror showing us what we’ve taken for granted.
The Lesson Of Loss
There’s no hiding from the very real loss unfolding right now, through death, financial difficulty, or a multitude of collateral damage. But there are losses we are collectively grieving that will return. And that leads me to the most important point: to die before you die is to experience the loss of what we love — before it’s lost, forever.
We can’t tell the difference between imagination and reality. Negative visualisation has become a lived reality. We can fear it, wish it away, turn away from adversity, or see the lesson, the gem residing within.
One day this’ll be over. We don’t know the new normal. But one day, soon, we will return to the world of things we love. Many of the things we love are on pause; they haven’t gone forever.
And what better way to honour loss, to dedicate ourselves to develop lasting gratitude for the things we take for granted, to alchemise grief into appreciation, to see clearly the gifts bestowed? What happens if this becomes our new normal?