Stoic Week 2015: Day 3: Mindfulness

Stoic Mindfulness and Examining your Impressions

Morning Reflection:

People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills… And you too are especially inclined to feel this desire. But this is altogether unphilosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself at any time you wish. Nowhere can a person find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind; especially if he has within himself the kind of thoughts that let him dip into them and so at once gain complete ease of mind—and by ease of mind, I mean nothing but having one’s own mind in good order. Therefore, constantly give yourself this retreat and renew yourself. You should have concise and fundamental principles at hand. These will be enough, as soon as you encounter disturbances, to cleanse you from all distress and send you back without resentment at the activities to which you return.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 1.3.1-3)

“Unphilosophical.” That’s some pretty strong language. Is it wrong for me to dream of staying in a Tiny House retreat for a weekend? Or for my family to drive several hours to a beach just to “get away?”

I don’t think these things are wrong. At some point, especially as beginners in Stoicism or meditation, we might not have built ourselves up to a point yet where we can withstand forceful blows from the world around us while peacefully retreating within ourselves. Sometimes we have to escape just to keep ourselves on a normal level, without even considering a “peaceful” level! What I take from this text is that having to take a physical retreat is cumbersome and unnecessary. Want a weekend getaway? Go for it. But there’s another resource always at your disposal—that is, the power of your own mind. If you equip yourself with the “concise and fundamental principles,” with enough practice, any potential disturbing event in life will send you inward and you will be rewarded with an instant peaceful retreat. Is this not more efficient than having to go through the stress of spending money, booking a reservation, packing the car, and traveling for several hours before arriving at your “peaceful getaway”? Reaching this level Marcus talks about intimidates me a bit, but I suppose with steady practice, some considerable progress could be achieved.

Lunchtime: Stoic Mindfulness and Examining your Impressions

What is “Stoic Mindfulness?” Stoic Mindfulness is one method of developing a more Stoic approach in life. Stoicism shares a similar focus with Buddhism on the concept of “mindfulness,” by focusing on living in the present, the here and now, and paying close attention to personal thoughts and feelings. Clearly, Marcus’ morning meditation pointed at mindfulness as a way of keeping ourselves in order and preparing for challenges we might encounter in daily life. Epictetus also was an advocate for mindfulness:

Practice to say to every rough impression at the very beginning: “You are only an impression and not at all what you appear to be.” Then examine it and test it by the standards that you have, and first and foremost by this one: whether the impression relates to those things which are within our power or those which aren’t up to us. And if it relates to those things which aren’t within our power, be ready to reply, “It’s nothing to me.”

(Epictetus, Handbook 1.5)

We should ultimately keep our focus on the only thing that is intrinsically good: Virtue. When we become angry or disturbed about anything besides that which relates to Virtue, we have actually stumbled in our judgement. Epictetus’ advice for not being swept away by irrational emotions was this: before we even begin to challenge our thoughts, we must step back from them temporarily. This is what “examining your impressions” means.

The Stoic Week Handbook talks about “cognitive distancing.” It says that before we can challenge our negative patterns of thinking, we have to identify the patterns first, and then we must question our own thoughts. Stoicism works similarly, in which the first thing we must do after encountering a troubling emotion is that we must “gain psychological distance” from them and remind ourselves that they are only impressions, that is, thoughts—they are basically judgements that we created concerning an actual objective reality.

It is not the things themselves that disturb people, but rather their judgements about those things.

(Epictetus, Handbook 5)

Consider this quote attributed to American professional soccer player Mia Hamm:


The scenario is this:

  • The coach has said to you, “You run like a girl!”
  • You hear the coach’s words and think one of these two things:
    • How dare he insult me!
    • What a compliment!
  • Your reaction to the coach’s words are based entirely on your own judgement of the events. The reality is that the coach said you run like a girl. How you respond to that event is up to you, and under your control.

This method has worked its way into modern methods of dealing with anxiety. The Stoic Week Handbook states that anxiety is caused by a thought similar to “Something bad is going to happen and I won’t be able to cope with it.” Cognitive distancing involves saying, “I notice I’m having the thought that something bad is going to happen, and that’s upsetting me.” It’s taking a step outside of the thought to evaluate it on a more objective scale.

One of the best things we can do when in the face of disturbing thoughts or events is to postpone our reaction to them. Modern research supports this method and Epictetus gave these words of advice millennia ago.

Our assignment is this: for the remainder of Stoic Week, try to catch the early signs of disturbing emotions. Take a minute for a “time out”, to enable yourself to gain psychological distance from the event. Then ask yourself three questions:

  1. Is this disturbing event within my power or not within my power? If it’s not, remember that these types of things are not anywhere near as important as Virtue.
  2. What would a perfectly Virtuous, good person do if they were in this situation? (From this stems the Stoic idea of the “sage.” Christians could possibly relate this to something similar along the lines of “What would Jesus do?” or “WWJD?”)
  3. What strengths has nature given me to deal with this situation? How can I use those strengths to help me deal with this problem?

I attended a lecture this evening by Bob Zellner, an American Civil Rights activist. His story led me to think about the power of the mind, and therefore the danger of failing to use the mind objectively. The human mind is absolutely amazing… We can plan ahead, worry about things on the other side of the world, we can try to think of things objectively, and we can put our own spin onto every single thing that we encounter. How powerful! And how absolutely vital it is that we learn to tame our minds…

Evening Reflection:

Get rid of the judgement and you will thus be rid of the belief. Get rid of the belief that you have been harmed, and you will thus be rid of the harm itself.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.7)

All turns on judgement, and that is up to you. So when you wish, pluck out the judgement, and then, as though you had passed the headland, the sea is calm, and all is still, and there is not a single wave in the bay.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 12.22)

I’m officially fighting off a cold. The nighttime medicine is kicking in, so I should probably finish here before I start writing craziness and/or fall out of my chair. But I’m headed off to sleep with a mental note to:

  1. Stay cheerful under all circumstances, including illness.
  2. Be ready to end today as though it might be the end of my life. (It might be, I just don’t know!) But if I wake up in the morning, what a bonus that will be. 🙂

Good night everyone, and live well.

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