Pursuing the Excellent Life
April 5, 2023

Using negative visualization to accept impermanence

In this episode, Craig discusses the concept of impermanence and how to accept and embrace it as a natural part of life. Through his own personal experiences, he delves into the role of impermanence in various religious and philosophical beliefs, including Buddhism, Christianity, Stoicism, Hinduism, and Epicureanism. He also explores the benefits of the Stoic practice of negative visualization and shares how it has helped him appreciate life and those around him. Join Craig on this thought-provoking journey as he navigates the uncertain and fleeting nature of life.

Live Well and Flourish website: https://www.livewellandflourish.com/

The theme music for Live Well and Flourish was written by Hazel Crossler, hazel.crossler@gmail.com.

Production assistant - Paul Robert


Craig 00:01 

Welcome to Live Well & Flourish. I'm your host, Craig Van Slyke.

In this brief episode, I talk about impermanence … its inevitability and how to accept and embrace impermanence as a natural part of life.


Not long before recording this, I was shocked and saddened to learn that a friend of mine had died suddenly. My friend, Kathi, apparently went in for a routine test or procedure (the details are a bit fuzzy), suffered a heart attack and passed away. She was in relatively good health and to my knowledge had no heart problems or other warnings. She left behind a daughter in college and many, many friends. As I said, this was a complete shock. In the same week, another old friend from back in the day also passed away. I was telling my brother about this and he mentioned that he recently lost an old college roommate and a golfing buddy. Unfortunately, these sorts of experiences seem to happen with increasing frequency as you age.


Craig 01:01 

These events led me to ponder impermanence and the role it plays in our lives. So, I’m gonna do two episodes on impermanence; this one and one about the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which is kind of fun to say and has nothing to do with the spicy green stuff I avoid when having sushi. That episode will come out next week.


Impermanence is an inescapable part of life. Everything, and I mean everything, is in a constant state of flux and decay. In this mortal realm, nothing lasts forever. (That’s why it’s mortal.) The idea of impermanence is important in many religions and philosophies. It’s one of the three marks of existence in Buddhism. Christianity teaches that earthly life is a temporary stage before eternal life. Stoics believe in acceptance of the inevitability of change, Hinduism has samsara (I'm not sure if I'm pronouncing that right), the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Even epicureanism (epicureanism? I always had trouble with that one) teaches that understanding the natural process of death can help you focus on living a life of pleasure, friendship, and tranquility.


Craig 02:15 

The fact of impermanence can seem a little depressing, right? Maybe, it depends on how you think about impermanence. The first step in dealing with impermanence is accepting it. Impermanence is simply part of the natural order. You can’t change that fact, so fighting it is pointless, it's like shouting at the tide. The second step is to use your acceptance of impermanence as a trigger for an odd sounding practice called negative visualization.


The Stoics practice of negative visualization can help you embrace impermanence and benefit from accepting the inevitability that all things are ephemeral. Yeah, I know, “Negative visualization” sounds counter intuitive, and we've been taught all our lives to think positively, but it’s a great practice. Let me help you understand this by giving you an example of how I used it to reduce quite a bit of anxiety and to accept impermanence.


Craig 03:13 

A number of years ago, Maggie, our little border collie mix, who has been called my “mini-me”, because of our similar personalities, became lethargic. Normally Maggie is all Border Collie, so clearly something was wrong. Eventually we learned that she had a potentially life-threatening heart condition. It was bad, it was really bad. Fortunately medication took care of the problem and it wasn't too long before she was back to her normal rambunctious self. When we learned of Maggie’s condition, though, I was pretty worried, I didn't wanna lose her. She was my constant companion. We would spend hours and hours and hours hiking together, walks every morning, I mean, she was my little dog. So I decided to practice negative visualization. I tried to imagine what it would be like if Maggie wasn’t there. Negative visualization involves creating a picture of the world that you wouldn’t like to see, that you would NOT like to see, and then you come to terms with that possibility. It has benefits no matter what happens. If the negative picture does not emerge, you’re grateful that the worst hasn’t come to pass. If it does, you’re prepared.


Craig 04:32 

I imagined coming home without Maggie’s enthusiastic greeting, hiking by myself, not laughing at her antics, not having her come out and roll around on the ground. Basically I thought about what life would be without her. Fortunately that life hasn’t come to pass (and it’s been close to a decade since her illness), but thinking about life without Maggie has made me appreciate her all the more. Her greetings bring new meaning and pleasure (and of course, dog hair on my slacks). Even her less desirable habits, such as waking me at 3AM are amusing and not irritating (alright, every once in a while they're irritating). Thinking about life without her made me realize that a little dog hair on a pair of pants or an early wake-up call is a small price to pay for the joy and companionship she brings to my life. Thinking about life without Maggie made me appreciate her more.


Craig 05:26 

Negative visualization also helps me accept that all things are impermanent, even Maggie (although she’s still going really strong at 16). We just never know what life might throw our way. You can lose anyone or anything in your life at almost any moment. Fate gives and fate takes away. The uncertainty associated with this shouldn't fill us with fear and worry. Negative visualization gives us the means to turn this uncertainty and the inevitability of impermanence into a life filled with more joy and appreciation. Negative visualization sounds odd, but it’s a key to appreciating your life and not only accepting, but embracing the impermanence of all things, even you.

Well, that's it for this time. Talk to you next week. Thank you!