Premeditatio Malorum: The Surprising Stoic Way of Meditation
Ever had that moment when you know you have to do something, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it? So you talk to yourself like you’re talking to a 3-year-old — reminding them in vivid detail of the consequences of not wearing knee-pads for a bike ride.
Surely enough, just like a 3-year-old who becomes certain that a scraped knee will start a series of Tetanus shots they could live without — once you scare yourself enough by what might happen, you always jump out of bed and complete the task.
Well, this is a prime example of a Stoic meditative practice that we use in our daily lives without knowing.
We rarely think of “Negative Thinking” or anticipating the worst when we think of Seneca, Epictus or Marcus Aurelius. In fact, we might even think such hacks are only exclusive to people like us with loud minds. But in reality, the premeditation of evil or Premeditatio Malorum was first the meditative practice of Stoics.
The Double-Edged Sword of Stoic Wisdom
There are two ways Premeditatio Malorum benefits us in the long-term:
Motivation to take action:
- Premeditatio Malorum launches us into action by keeping our sight on what happens if we don’t take action.
- To break our daily inertia, we need to frighten ourselves with the prospect of what will inevitably come our way. This is how we check ourselves and fight against mediocrity.
Always have a game plan:
- Your skills and sense of security will become obsolete. You could wake up one day, and nothing would be the way you know it.
- Anticipating adversity means we will have a game plan ready for when and if adversity hits us.
Here are the reasons you need this practice in your life and how you can cultivate it.
External factors rule over our lives at every moment.
I am the least spontaneous person you will ever meet. I used to micromanage and plan things down to the nearest minute. Naturally, killing the vibe of any trip with a minute by minute itinerary and my excessive controlling behaviors. Psychology calls this having “an internal locus of control.”
Which means people can have a somewhat overblown sense of “personal agency” and blame themselves, even if things go wrong because of external factors. Everyone does this to a certain degree in their lives.
But no matter how sure you are, various factors not under your control can derail plans. People act in unpredictable ways and things turn out differently from what we expect.
We can prevent being miserable when this happens in 3 simple ways:
- Add flexibility to your plans — leave room for the uncertain to happen so you’re not caught off-guard.
- List down the factors out of your control — for e.g. weather, car breakdowns, medical emergencies, decisions other people take, natural disasters, etc.
- Plan how you could decrease stress caused by unseen circumstances — have a security deposit and plan the “but-if” way.
Prepare for the worst so you can rise to the occasion, but hope for the best.
“Nothing happens to a wise man against his expectation.”
This doesn’t mean wise men look into the future and obsessively pick out every possible way things could fail. That would drive them over the edge of insanity.
What Seneca means is, if we allow ourselves to meditate over potential setbacks — we can rise to the occasion and prevent some of them. And when there are events we simply can’t escape, we learn to reconcile with the fact that life rarely goes as we plan.
What you need to remember in trying times:
- A good life means that there are always things we will fear losing — and this can bring us to our knees. But awareness of our own vulnerability can blunt the blows of life.
- Our control over life is limited — but that doesn’t restrict life’s potential to turn into something beautiful.
- We must remember failure — so we have a security net but keep taking chances that may increase the quality of our life exponentially.
Take the weaponry of uncertainty from the future and disarm it.
The worst way to live is to live in fear of the impending doom. Yet most of us have crippling anxiety which paralyzes us from taking any action.
It holds us hostage; unable to take the next step towards what might be a life-changing decision. After all, the most daunting thing about the future is the uncertainty it brings with it.
“What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events…
Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.” — Seneca, Letter from a Stoic.
I urge you to plan and see which disasters you can revert. Facing uncertainty head-on and giving your worst fear a name might be the first step towards dismissing it. This will propel you towards action and help build momentum.
Be more present and mindful of where you are.
The knowledge that every moment is transient and can disintegrate like a grain of salt on the tip of your tongue will jolt you into paying attention.
Act as if every moment you are with a loved one could be your last together. Do everything you do with presence of mind. As if there’s no place to be other than the present. Let your words and the time spent be an accurate reflection of who you are.
If your worst fears are real, then there is no guarantee of the next moment.
“What you throw on top of the fire becomes the fuel for the fire.” — Marcus Aurelius.
Make most of what you are given because there are no promises that it will forever be yours. Once you reconcile with the possibility of your worst fear becoming a reality — it drives you. And you are free.
Like Erin Hanson writes;
“There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask “What if I fall?”
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?”
In a nutshell
- External forces rule over our life at every moment — But we can accommodate them without surrendering or being miserable.
- Hope for the best but prepare for the worst — Striking the right balance between being safe and pushing for success takes us far.
- Take the weaponry of uncertainty from the future and disarm it — Give your worst fears a name, call them out and dismiss them.
- Be more present and mindful of where you are now — All you have exists in the present, so make it count!