Books like The Secret and law-of-attraction teachings fill me with anxiety. My body seems to carry the intrinsic wisdom that it can’t control outcomes so it instantly rebels upon hearing gospel-like insistence to the contrary. Both the New Thought movement and the prosperity Gospel encourage us to create outcomes by thinking and praying them into being. Most mystics inside religious traditions sing a different tune, from Buddhist non-attachment to the apophatic mysticism of Meister Eckhart, who said that detachment was the greatest virtue. Sure, one’s thoughts may be one variable out of hundreds of variables that consequently lead to success or failure. But living under the illusion that outside events can be controlled is a textbook recipe for neurosis. The Stoics offer a unique medicine that counteracts 21st century anxiety directly.
Stoicism involves looking reality dead in the eye and, in short, knowing the difference between what you can control and what you can’t, a sort of rational philosophy of the Serenity Prayer.
The serenity to accept the things we cannot change
The courage to change the things we can
And the wisdom to know the difference
The Stoics are often confused with the Spartan stereotype of an unemotional soldier. The word itself carries an almost cemented connotation in the modern vernacular with a grin-and-bear-it emotional repression. This is rather inaccurate. Stoicism maintains that emotional disturbance comes from our perspective towards events, not events themselves. It played an instrumental role in forming the basis of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy.
One Stoic practice involves Negative Visualization, the very opposite of imagining a Ferrari in the driveway and pasting magazine pics of mansions on a dreamboard. Instead, one imagines worst case scenarios in order to build up pain-tolerance and fear-tolerance, leading to deeper tranquility.
Stoicism seems exceptionally relevant now. An attachment to things being a certain a way seems have poisoned our cultural DNA, leading to a perpetual feeling of incompleteness in the now and constant anxiety for the future, an obsessive looking towards future events to provide happiness. As Eckhart Tolle notes, most of our lives are lived in our head, as if the present moment is not our real life and our real life is in the future when, one day, we will finally have things the way we really want them. Negative visualization swings towards the opposite pole, encouraging all the things that could go wrong to take root in your mind.
It’s quite simple. Spend some time each day imagining all the things that could go horribly wrong. Imagine losing all your money. Losing your house. Your car. Losing a loved one. Getting cancer. Dying.
It makes the smaller struggles day to day seem easier and inevitably makes us grateful for what we do have. But it goes deeper than that, balancing out our entire perspectival lens, loosening the cognitive structures that tense muscles and twinge nerves.
Western culture has plenty of reminders of the good life, the good life everybody on the magazines and commercials have but you don’t have. What our culture lacks is more daily reminders of the shadow, of death and loss. Sure, we see the national stories everywhere, but what about the less newsworthy elements? People are shut away in jails, hospitals, institutions, and live daily in all sorts of horrifying conditions. As we read this. People like you and me.
Stoicism, then, is all in the perspective we take, not what actually happens. Letting go of expectations completely feels unattainable. What about balancing out expectations, maintaining an awareness of the full spectrum of possibilities? Stoicism encourages us to think rationally, realizing that we face the same innumerable vulnerabilities that everyone does and that everything could be taken away at any time. So why not pull the blinders off now, daily, with a negative visualization routine.
One could have all sorts of fears and resistances about doing negative visualization. In a sense, one might not think they are equipped to handle such a horrid glimpse into the abyss, like it could be mental overload, obliterating the conscious mind into dust with a flood of painful emotions. But are these fears not already somewhere in us anyway? Besides, life has a way of giving us events and circumstances we don’t want anyway. Would it not be better to be mentally prepared for when or if these circumstances come? And what if it led to a peace that was entirely unphased when painful outcomes came?
Another fear might be that imagining negative events happening could actually cause them to happen, a sort of negative extension of the law-of-attraction. But in Jungian dynamics, the opposite is probably closer to the truth: these fears exist inside our minds already and making them conscious and even at the forefront, purges them from the deep recesses so they don’t unconsciously control us.
Of course, the thoughts-produce-events mentality is good to purge, too. Anyone who has ever practiced the Buddhist meditation on death, where you imagine yourself to be a corpse realizes something key. Wow, I can’t think myself dead. You imagine yourself as a corpse, letting the whole body feel dead, even imagining your body buried in the ground. Doing this, when it can be carried through completely, usually imbues a deeper sense of the eternal, or at least that deeper space that mysteriously remains unaffected by the flow of life. Negative visualizations of life events work the same way.
Of course, Stoicism is not a philosophy of laziness, as Nietzche once accused it of being. Rather, the focus becomes your effort, your actions, not the outcome. In this sense it springs from similar principles as karma yoga, and even takes it a step further.
To arrive at the ‘non-attached action’ ideal of the mystic, though, may be too difficult for the modern person. Our culture has ingrained such a preoccupation with circumstances, things, and materials that a kind of deprogramming may be necessary for us. We have more blinder against seeing adversity, and for this reason we aren’t always prepared for it.
Indifference becomes the keyword. Whereas mystics talk of detachment, or non-attachment, stoics laud indifference. Somehow, it seems to drive the point home that much further. Maybe too far. Indifference. It can strike many as harsh. But perhaps it sound harsh only because there are so many attachments still in place. Indifference. The word itself is almost designed to break our attachments to the things we can’t control.
But to clarify, this isn’t mean-spirited apathy. If anything, it induces more compassion.The Daily Stoic notes:
“Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus each tell us that the Stoic is indifferent to external things, indifferent to wealth, indifferent to pain, indifferent to winning, indifferent to hope and dreams and everything else.”
But it goes on:
“The Stoics were not indifferent in that sense at all, it’s that they were good either way. It’s not that they didn’t care, it’s that they were good either way…The point was to be strong enough that there wasn’t a need to need things to go in a particular direction.”
It’s a lofty goal, but using it as a guidepost can’t hurt.