Martin Rue

I build things on the internet.

Tune In

A familiar story among several of my pensive friends is that they discovered they were stoics long before they heard the word stoicism. In other words, they already thought that way – that life is short, that moderation is a virtue, that you must live in the here and now.

It was the same story for me. I held many of the same beliefs way before I realised people many centuries before me had already deeply explored such ways of thinking and given them names.

Earlier today I was having my hair cut.

Short of small talk with the barber, such situations are unique chances to be with your thoughts and acknowledge their existence. Terrifying, I know.

In the background there was a song playing. It stood out to me how much I was enjoying it, and how I was so easily allowing the song's happy energy to flow into me and make me happy.

The song was nothing special, but it occurred to me afterwards that in other contexts the same song would have had no effect on me whatsoever. It was only having an effect now because, short of other options, I was actually paying attention to it. I had tuned in to it.

It was easier to tune into it because there were so few other options to distract me. However, in the end, that's all I did.

I felt happier and positively different through my own simple act of focus, where otherwise I probably would have not even remembered it.

The stoics practised what they called "negative visualisation", or futurorum malorum præmeditatio if you want to be that guy.

Negative visualisation is a thought process whereby you imagine the negative outcomes of things (in contrast to the happy, positive versions). The goal is to normalise the worst-case, or sometimes the inevitable, and at the same time to induce feelings of appreciation and happiness for the present (which does not yet reflect the negative outcome).

When my grandmother (to whom I was very close) passed away in the pandemic, I wasn't sad. I was really happy for all the time I'd spent with her over the preceding years.

I had started to prioritise spending time with her due to negatively visualising the fact that (due to her age) she would soon enough be gone. Every day I did that, I felt closer to her and happier for what I had. When the inevitable happened, as much as I was sad, I was already at peace with it. The important thing is that every day I spent with her was meaningful because it acknowledged the reality that it was never going to be forever.

While negative visualisation is a profoundly useful mental tool to bring you back into the present, sometimes you just need to tune in.

While having my hair cut, I didn't need to imagine that after my death, my capacity to feel joy from music would also cease to exist. I did something much simpler. I just focused on it and tuned in.

Giving something your time, energy and focus is another tool that is increasingly hard in a world full of always-on distractions, but those moments are there waiting for your attention nonetheless.

What didn't you tune into today?