This week, a circular story, a philosophical exercise and a few comments that all connect to the stoic practice of negative visualisation, which is a much more positive thing than it sounds!

The Story

A homeless man sat on the street with his dog. He saw a woman leaving her house and thought, “I wish I had a place like that.”

A sports car with an open roof drove past, and the woman glanced round. “I wish I had a car like that,” she thought.

The car stopped in traffic next to a pair of lovers holding hands at a jeweller’s shop window. “I wish I was in love,” thought the driver.

One of two lovers, looking at an expensive ring in the jeweller’s window, thought, “I wish we had the money.”

The jeweller, busy with his accounts, looked outside and saw two people chatting at a café table. He thought, “I wish I had more time.”

At the café, a woman was telling her brother a funny thing her daughter had said. “I wish I had kids,” the brother thought.

The homeless man’s dog barked. The sister looked round and thought, “I wish I had a dog.”

The Exercise

Imagine, for a moment, that each of the characters in this had said their thoughts out loud, and that the person they envied had heard. Could knowing that someone else envied something they had make each person happier with their situation, and less frustrated about not having what they want?

You can do this yourself.

1. Think of something you sometimes wish you had, or that you would like to change about your life.

2. Think of something you have, or a part of your life that someone else might envy.

3. Imagine being that person, looking at your life and wishing you had that too. What about it would you be envious of?

4. Return to being yourself. Is it possible to be more grateful now for what you have, and less troubled by what you don’t?

Did this work for you?

Do you think that people are always dissatisfied with what they have?

Is it possible to be content with what you have?

Philosophical Commentary

This is one form of “negative visualisation”, a practice from the philosophy of stoicism. Rather than envisioning success (as Jonny Wilkinson used to do before he kicked at the posts in rugby), you envision things going badly. The aims are to help with tranquility of mind: to lower our expectations, enjoy our good fortune more, and to avoid being surprised by negative emotions, such as frustration and anger, if and when they do arrive.

There are various other ways to practise it, the most famous (but rather more demanding) is to imagine yourself without the possessions and abilities you enjoy, or the people you love.

By reminding yourself that you might at any time lose any of these things or people, you can both fortify yourself against such a loss, and be more grateful for the experiences you have while fortune allows you to keep them. It acts as a sort of mental vaccination, giving you a weakened version of such a loss so that you are better able to endure the real loss if and when it arises.

I’m not advocating doing that with Year 3, but you might find it useful yourself: I’ve done my own negative visualisation of 2021, and have already found it helpful in keeping a more even temper in the face of the smaller reversals that are part of daily life, and the uncertainties that go with pandemic life.

Of course, concepts like this that focus on changing your attitude to events rather than changing the situation (including perhaps “grit” and “resilience”) are open to the accusation that they are individualistic and don’t account for collective, political issues of fairness and justice. The homeless man needs a home, not to be asked to think himself lucky he has a dog. But there’s no reason why taking the personal sting out of something for ourselves should stop us wanting to change it for everyone.

Creative Task

A great challenge for your class might to write their own circular story. There is a tradition of such tales in Taoism, which like Buddhism has some similarities to stoicism. Here’s one on the theme of power.

It could be some other cycle – the circle of life or a series of animals wishing they were like another animal (I’m working on a picture book on that theme). 

Best wishes,

Jason and Tom

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