Stoic Mindfulness

Stoic Mindfulness

What follows are thoughts and instructions regarding the practice of Stoic Mindfulness from the most recent Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) course, taught by Donald Robertson.

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The Stoics believed that we must train ourselves to make a clear distinction between things “up to us” and things not. When we do the things up to us well, and act wisely, that’s “virtue”, which the Stoics considered the most important thing in life. In fact, they believed that “virtue is the only true good” and that external events, including the outcome of our actions, should, at most, be “preferred”, or sought lightly and in a somewhat detached manner, because they’re not entirely under our control.

Stoics naturally focus their attention on the “here and now” because only our actions in the present moment are “up to us” – it’s too late to change the past and the future hasn’t happened yet. The most important thing in life, our ability to act with virtue, resides squarely in the present moment, in other words. However, if we try to remain grounded in the present moment, it’s soon apparent that our thoughts and feelings can easily sweep us away from it into the past, into the future, or into the realm of fantasy. When we spot this and bring our attention back to the present moment, something strange happens… We shift from thinking “What if xyz happens?” to thinking “Right now I notice I’m having the thought ‘What if xyz happens?’” That’s a subtle but incredibly important difference. In other words, we shift from looking at the world through the lens of our thoughts to looking at our thoughts, as if they were objects. Epictetus appears to take this distinction for granted. For example, he says:

Therefore train yourself without hesitation to say in response to every harsh appearance that “you are [merely] an appearance and in no way the thing appearing.”             Epictetus,Handbook, 1

Thoughts are not facts. This ability to take a step back from our thoughts and view them objectively is called “cognitive distancing” in modern psychology and there’s a very large volume of evidence now showing its value for mental health. Consider the difference between being completely “lost in a story” and pausing to notice instead how the story is being told: the tone of voice, the words, the pace, etc., of the storytelling. What if worry, for instance, were like a story we tell ourselves? We can choose whether to lose ourselves in the story of worry or whether to pay attention instead of the way in which we’re worrying, as it’s happening, how long we’re spending on it, the language we’re using, etc. When we gain distance from thoughts in this way, they generally have far less hold over our feelings.

Thoughts are just “impressions” as Epictetus puts it, and not to be confused with things themselves. For the Stoics, this is especially important when it comes to thoughts containing value judgements and associated feelings. This is particularly a concern for Stoics when we get the automatic impression that something not “up to us”, or under our direct control, is supremely important in life, and we allow our emotions and desires to be swept along with that initial impression rather than questioning it from a philosophical perspective. Hence, the most famous passage in the Stoic Handbook says:

It is not things themselves that upset us but our judgements about these things.               Epictetus,Handbook, 5

Epictetus said that it’s not (external) things that upset us, but our (value) judgments about things, i.e., our judgement that what befalls us is more important than how we respond. The Stoics would say that external events that befall us are, by contrast, “indifferent”, or trivial, and that what really matters is the way we cope and the type of person we become. This strategy of gaining distance from our initial impressions rather than being swept along by them is recommended to Stoic students quite frequently throughout Epictetus’ Discourses and Handbook. Here are a few more examples:

  • Do not be carried away by the impression of someone else’s good fortune, if they achieve wealth or status; instead remind yourself that the only good that can befall you is inner freedom and that is within your own power to achieve, if you can look down on external things with indifference. (Handbook, 19)
  • Even if you witness a bad omen, like a raven croaking, do not be swept away by the appearance of prophesied misfortunes; remind yourself that misfortunes can only be predicted for your body or your property but your mind is always available to turn it into good fortune, internally, by responding with wisdom and virtue. (Handbook, 18)
  • When you see someone else in misery do not be swept along by the impression that some catastrophe has befallen him; remind yourself that it is not the thing itself but his judgement that upsets him otherwise other people, in the same situation, would all be affected in exactly the same way. (Handbook, 16)

In other words, don’t be carried away by your initial impressions but pause, take a step back, and realise that you’re projecting values onto something that, in itself, is merely a fact. Try to separate your value-judgements and emotions from the things they refer to. Try to distinguish between your judgments and external events, to view your thoughts in a more detached and objective way, almost as if you were a psychologist observing the thought processes of another person, a subject in a research study, and noticing how their thoughts, feelings and actions might be interacting and influencing one another, etc. This is not unlike the attitude people experience during certain forms of meditation and you can refer to it as another aspect of the Stoic “mindfulness” you’re cultivating.

Epictetus says the first question to ask yourself is: “Do these feelings concern something that’s under my direct control or not?” Next, as he advises, you should consider the most “virtuous” way to respond, in accord with your own core values. Again, Epictetus mentions that it can be helpful when doing this to ask yourself what the ideal Stoic wise man or woman would do in the same situation or, as he puts it, what Socrates or Zeno would do, to provide yourself with a role-model. It’s important that you …pick up or put down thoughts, and not…avoid thinking about problems or dwell on them morbidly. Your aim is to pick the right time, when you’re in the best frame of mind, and then tackle problems with greater patience and self-awareness, so that you can think them through rationally, and perhaps arrive at [the most virtuous] decision.