Premeditatio Malorum

The Stoic philosophers of the ancient Greco-Roman world had a meditative practice called Premeditatio Malorum, or “premeditation of evils”, which consists of imagining and thus preparing ourselves for the misfortunes, obstacles, and suffering we can encounter every day or while pursuing a goal.

This technique of “negative visualization” forces us to confront undesirable things we would rather not think about, even though they are entirely possible, if not inevitable. Losing your job, being the victim of a crime, falling gravely ill, getting injured or killed in an accident, or getting that dreaded phone call about these things happening to someone you love. We all know these things happen—thousands of people fall victim to at least one of them every day.

It seems depressing and counterproductive for one’s mental health to dwell on these things. But for the Stoics—and for that matter, other practitioners of this idea worldwide, from Muslim Sufis to Buddhists—this mentality guarantees a healthier and happier life. It keeps you vigilant and as ready as possible for the bad things that come your way. It makes you appreciate every second you and your loved ones are alive. It challenges you to not sweat the small stuff, and to try to build healthier relations or interactions while they last.

Making it home safe from work is something to be grateful for, as thousands of Americans are not so lucky. Being able to call a loved one and hear their voice is something to cherish. Even waking up to see another day is something too easy to take for granted, even though millions worldwide wish they could have done the same. In short, it really is the little things that are, well, the big things, if you think about it.

Of course, like most efforts to improve one’s attitude and behavior, all this is easier said than done. But that is why it is called a practice.

How Mindfulness Can Help Depression

Mindfulness meditation is one of the biggest trends in both medical and New Age circles. It broadly describes a form of mental training in which one deliberately focuses on emotions, thoughts, and sensory experiences of the present moment. Though it has roots in various religious traditions both Western and Eastern (especially Buddhism), it has long been observed to have secular applications as well, and the practice itself does not require any particular religious ritual or component.

There has been a lot of research showing that mindfulness, like meditation as a whole, has tangible mental and physical health benefits. The most recent study to confirm the benefits of “mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)”, as it is known in medical parlance, was published in The Lancet, a leading medical journal. As Al Jazeera reported:

In this study, 424 adults in England with recurrent major depression, who were on maintenance antidepressant drugs, were randomly assigned to go off their antidepressants slowly and receive MBCT or to stay on their medication.

Study results published showed that after two years, relapse rates were similar in both groups — 44 percent in the therapy group versus 47 percent in the antidepressant drug group.

“Mindfulness gives me a set of skills which I use to keep well in the long term”, Nigel Reed, a participant in the study, said in a statement. “Rather than relying on the continuing use of antidepressants, mindfulness puts me in charge, allowing me to take control of my own future, to spot when I am at risk and to make the changes I need to stay well”.

The researchers said that while they found no evidence that [mindfulness] was superior to the use of antidepressants in preventing relapse, they said “both treatments were associated with enduring positive outcomes in terms of relapse or recurrence, residual depressive symptoms and quality of life”.

“We believe these results suggest a new choice for the millions of people with recurrent depression on repeat prescriptions”, Kuyken said.

I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of this approach, although it is worth reiterating that this is just one of several ways to combat depression, and by no means is it a wholesale replacement of other therapies (indeed, it is usually complementary).

Solutions will always vary from individual to individual, but with the rate of depression growing across the world, any new options on the table will certainly help; moreover, mindfulness techniques are beneficial to overall wellness, not just as a therapy for depression.

Mindfulness and Fitness

The practice of mindfulness is all the rage these days, helping to improve focus, productivity, and overall mental health. But could something associated with meditation and tranquility also give a boost to workouts and other rigorous activity?

According to the New York Times, the benefits of mindfulness can extend to just about every healthy endeavor, helping to boost performance in more ways than one. Consider a recent Dutch study cited in the article:

In essence, the scientists were trying to determine how much their volunteers exercised, how satisfied they were with that exercise, how mindful they were during exercise, and how those variables affected each other.

It turned out, unsurprisingly, that the people who reported being most satisfied with exercise were also the people who exercised the most, and vice versa.

But mindfulness also played a pronounced role in making exercise feel satisfying, the data showed. People who reported being mindful during exercise also generally reported satisfaction with exercise.

“The message is that mindfulness may amplify satisfaction, because one is satisfied when positive experiences with physical activity become prominent,” says Kalliopi-Eleni Tsafou, a Marie Curie Research Fellow at Utrecht University who led the study. “For those experiences to be noticed,” she continued, “one must become aware of them. We would argue that this can be achieved by being mindful.”

In other words, if you focus on the small but important details: your body’s motions – the environment in which you are working out, your breathing – you gain a better appreciate of what you are doing, and with that derive more pleasure and thus motivation.

This helps explain why some people take to exercise better than others. They make fitness a lifestyle, and genuinely enjoy getting up early in the morning for a jog, or pushing through that daunting weight set. You will never find an athlete or fitness buff who doesn’t love what they do.

Of course, mindfulness takes time and practice to master, but that is why being patient and making healthiness a long-term, continual go is so vital. It may not be easy at first, but with enough attention on the important but neglected aspects of exercise, you will better find the joys and benefits that will keep you coming for more – to the benefit of your mind, body, and spirit.

As someone who is trying to boost his mental and physical health, I definitely see the merit of this approach. I often have difficulty sticking to workout regimens longer than a week or so, and at this point I am all out of ideas besides just training my mind to overcome a lifetime of sedentary habits (I only got into exercise and active living about three or four years ago).

What are your thoughts?