Stoicism: Day 2 – Contemplating the Impermanence of Everything

My second ice bath was, for the most part, uneventful. I extended the immersion period from 15 minutes to 20 minutes, did not take any pictures today (sorry), and did not have to plug the bath with my foot.

Again, the anxiety before getting into the ice bath was worse than the ice bath itself. However, I did induce a bit of shivering in the last 5-7 minutes of the bath, and I was shivering for a good 40 minutes afterwards.

I tried negative visualization again during the bath, but it was ineffective. I could only really focus on the timer.

What was somewhat more effective was practicing negative visualization during my drive to work.

What the Heck is Negative Visualization?

The Stoics did not invent the term negative visualization, however, they did describe the practice quite a bit. William Irvine, a modern-day Stoic and philosopher who wrote A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, coined the term to describe the Stoic practice of thinking about all the ways your life could be worse.

The practice has the benefit of forestalling the hedonic adaptation process. If you’ve ever bought a new iPhone, you’ll understand. You’re excited about the updated features and then a few weeks later, you get used to it.

In modern, Western society, we’re encouraged to buy more and more stuff in order to get that initial rush of satisfaction. Marketers and bloggers are becoming a bit more savvy in this area. I noticed a trend in which companies are advocating “experiences” instead of just the products. This may come in the form of luxury travel or some extreme sport or a nice apartment, but it’s still just another form of consumerism. You will still get used to it and it will eventually end and you’ll revert back to your base-line happiness level. This type of experience may even be worse for your happiness because you keep fantasizing about the next time you can take that luxury vacation. At least with a product you own the product. The experience becomes a memory that encourages escapism from your normal life.

Negative visualization teaches you to visualize all the possible things that can make your life worse, so that you may build an appreciation for what you have, whether its your stuff or your relationships.

The Impermanence of Everything

There is something bittersweet about moving on. When I graduated college, I lost touch with some friends that I was pretty close to. When I left San Diego, I was excited about my next adventure (moving to Egypt) but sad that I would be leaving the phenomenal weather and beaches. When my girlfriend moved to Israel for a year for grad school, I was sad for a while (and my eyes even got a bit watery at the airport).

I got over these things, mostly because they were expected and eventually time lessens the emotional sting. But what about the unexpected life events that can happen?

Seneca, in a letter to a friend who is mourning another friend’s death, writes about how we should contemplate the potential death and passing of those closest to us

 Therefore let us continually think as much about our own mortality as about that of all those we love. In former days I ought to have said: “My friend Serenus is younger than I; but what does that matter? He would naturally die after me, but he may precede me.” It was just because I did not do this that I was unprepared when Fortune dealt me the sudden blow. Now is the time for you to reflect, not only that all things are mortal, but also that their mortality is subject to no fixed law. Whatever can happen at any time can happen to-day. Let us therefore reflect, my beloved Lucilius, that we shall soon come to the goal which this friend, to our own sorrow, has reached. And perhaps, if only the tale told by wise men is true6 and there is a bourne to welcome us, then he whom we think we have lost has only been sent on ahead.

My girlfriend’s grandfather passed away a week or so ago. He was old (90-something) so it was not completely unexpected. At the burial I thought of how my parents, though still young, will eventually pass away, whether through old age or some other cause, and I became very sad. Shouldn’t I be maximizing the time I spend with them? Should I move back to Boston so I can hang out with them more often?

I imagine that is one of the goals of funerals: to force you to think about transient and short are lives are. But if you only go to funerals infrequently (which I hope is the case), it is very easy to slip back into your routine and get annoyed with your parents and screen their phone calls. Recently my mom figured out how to use gChat and now I just ignore her! What if she were to die tomorrow? I’d most certainly be filled with regret.

Negative visualization is like participating in a funeral for the people and circumstances in your life that could easily be taken away from you.

Next steps

Because the negative visualization exercises aren’t working out during my ice bath, I’m going to attempt to continue performing it on my commute, and perhaps take a solo walk post ice-bath to further meditate on the impermanence of everything.