Stoic Week 2017 Report Part 4: Feedback on Stoic Week and Overall Conclusions by Tim LeBon

This article is the fourth part of the report on Stoic Week 2017. The previously published parts of the report summarised the  demographics, the relationships between well-being and degree of Stoicism at the start of Stoic Week, the  impact of taking part in Stoic Week  and  the longer SMRT course on well-being and degree of Stoicism .[i]  This is a

The research on Stoicism is progressing well. To move to the next level, your help would be most welcome. If you are familiar with quantitative or qualitative research methods, and would like to be involved of some of the above research – or if you have your own ideas about how we could further research the effectiveness of Stoicism – we would to hear from you. Please contact  Tim LeBon  by email (tim@timlebon.com)

The report is divided into two sections. The first part provides representative samples of the qualitative feedback provided by participants after Stoic Week. The second part draws together findings from all the reports for 2017 Stoic Week and makes some recommendations for future work. The appendices summarise quantitative feedback on other aspects of Stoic Week, such as the audio recordings and daily exercises. You can download a full PDF of this report with all of the appendices here.

Participants’ Qualitative Feedback

 Appendix 1 contains quantitative feedback on how much Stoic Week helped in specific areas of life such as relationships, becoming a better person and becoming wiser. Below is a sample of the qualitative feedback.

Relationships

“Helped me realise that other people are out of my control, yet they are humans facing the struggles of life just like I am. And this made me feel a greater connection to others”

“[I am] not dwelling on hurts as much”

“I pass less judgment on people and contain my anger. It really changed my relationship with my mother-in-law.”

“Knowing that people’s thoughts about me are outside of my control and I shouldn’t worry about them, only care about my actions, helps reduce my anxiety/shyness. Now there have been times when I just said what I wanted to say sincerely and was satisfied with it regardless of what my friends might think. I just think “I said what I had to say and I didn’t say anything wrong; now what they think of me is outside of my control” and feel relieved. Also I’ve noticed I care more about what I really am than what I show off to others”

Becoming a Better Person

“Keeping a daily journal helped”

“Yes, because I become more virtuous.”

“Really felt that I was able to maintain an inner state of awareness of thoughts and emotions appearing through the day and able to step back and let them abate. This state of mindfulness also helped me to make better decisions through each day”

Wisdom

“Now for everything I do I think of Stoic virtues to check if I’m doing things according to my values instead of unconsciously doing whatever I feel like doing”

Other Ways in which Stoic Week helped

Some participants described other ways in which Stoic Week helped them as follows :-

“Dealing with grief”

“Being more just”

“Become less anxious”

“Stoic week helped me to be more focused on my priorities and produce better quality work.”

“Controlling anger; Stoic Week has had a huge impact in my ability to step outside of myself, so to speak, and view my thoughts as only thoughts and not what they pretend to be. I’ve been able to short-circuit anger many, many times using Stoic techniques.”

“Calmer, more patient, very much helps to keep anxiety and depression away.”

“Being more patient & content”

“Increased reflections”

“Much better prepared to stop negative thoughts and to focus on doing the right thing and thinking straight”

“Better understanding of the Meaning of Life”

“I find it easier to accept my death … it was indirectly because “On the Shortness of Life” wasn’t in the list, but Stoic week mentions Seneca a lot so I ended up reading this book and it’s really good. Now I’m always thinking of my time as a precious resource and I tend to not waste as much time as I used to.”

Further Comments

Participants were also given the opportunity to make other comments about  their experience of Stoic Week.  Below is a sample:

“This is really invaluable to me.”

“It’s been really helpful, much more than I had even hoped”

“I feel inspired to maintain the practice of Stoicism long term.”

“This is amazing that this is free! I think if everyone lived by applying stoicism to their everyday encounters with others then this world would be a much more peaceful place.  I hope to interest others in this website! Thanks a million!!”

“Thank you. A wonderful introduction to the application of this philosophy to daily life.”
“I got a lot of value from the course and materials. I will be repeating the course for weeks to come to help cement the habits and practices and gain a greater understanding of myself.”

“This was a great course, really helped change my perspective on life. I would be very interested in mini lessons (maybe once a week or fortnight) on Stoic topics as a consistent way to get wisdom and virtue. Thank you for building this, I will certainly be back for Stoic Week 2018!”

“Thank you for organizing this event!”

“Simply and honestly: thank you.”

“Thank you to the team for a wonderful program. I have recommended it to a number of people whom I felt would benefit from it.”

“I’m a university professor with a large number of postgraduate students who I think would all benefit from the Stoic Week experience. I will introduce them to Stoicism at our meeting next week”

“Thank you for organizing this. This is my second year, and I have to tell you that my introduction to Stoicism from last year’s course made a serious positive impact on my life. After that course I went on to read the M.A. Meditations, one each day. Then I read the Epictetus Enchiridion, about one section per day. I then ordered Seneca’s letters and read about one per day. This propelled me for several months of starting my day with a Stoic reflection. So, a wholehearted thank you for putting these materials and events together. I am grateful to have encountered the group and site, and will look forward to next year’s event!”

 

Overall Conclusions and Recommendations

Drawing together the above feedback with the findings report in the first 3 parts of these report, the most significant findings from Stoic Week 2017 are as follows:

Demographics

  • 79% of respondents were participating in Stoic Week for the first time.
  • The ratio of males to females was 65% to 34%
  • Over 43% of respondents were from USA

Analysis from initial set of questionnaires taken at the start of Stoic Week

  • Findings replicated previous research about the strong positive relationship between Stoicism, life satisfaction, flourishing and the emotions.
  • This analysis can also suggest various “active ingredients” in Stoicism in terms of promoting well-being
  • For the first time we can also say that there is evidence to support the view that Stoicism is associated with virtues and positive character traits, as measured on a validated contemporary scale, the CIVIC.
  • A less expected result is that zest turns out to be the character trait most associated with being Stoic.

Analysis from second set of questionnaires taken at the end of Stoic Week

  • Previous years findings regarding the significant increase in well-being on all measures on average for those who take part in Stoic week were replicated.
  • For the first time, a 3 month follow up (for the month long SMRT Stoic Resilience course) has found that the benefits reaped by participants are maintained after 3 months.
  • The 9%  change in Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours overall is significant in that it supports the view that it is changes in level of Stoicism that is mediating the change in well-being rather than other variables, such as the placebo effect.

Summary of Participant Feedback

  • Most participants gave a high rating to experience overall and the materials used, including the audio recordings and daily exercise.
  • Participants additionally reported Stoic Week to be helpful in helping them to be better people, to become wiser, with relationships and to become more knowledgeable about Stoicism.
  • Many participants were very grateful for the opportunity to take part in Stoic Week and described the ways in which they had benefited

Pulling these ideas together, and drawing on some specific suggestions given in feedback, here are some ideas about how to progress with Stoic Week

  • There was overwhelming support for repeating the experience
  • Some participants mooted the idea of a level 2 Stoic Week for people who had already done a Stoic Week before – perhaps with more advanced materials
  • Some participants were interested in doing these exercises for a longer time – perhaps a Stoic fortnight or month
  • There was a strong interest in the materials being made available earlier and being translated into as many languages as possible
  • The Stoic Week Handbook and the SMRT and other questionnaires could be made available all year.
  • We now have an iOS app, via Teachable, which is available for people to use to do Stoic Week and SMRT.  There is not an app available for Android, and that would be beneficial
  • Some participants would like to see more of different Stoics than Marcus and Epictetus e.g. Seneca.
  • It would be desirable for there to be more follow-up courses
  • It would be useful to capture some more specific demographic information e.g. specific country and possibly employment status
  • The SABS questionnaires should be further refined e.g. validating SABS as a scale, making the language simpler. It would also be good to split it into, for example, five Stoic themes, and give participants a rating for each theme.
  • It should be possible to do further qualitative research. For example, groups doing Stoic Week together could form a focus group to feed back their experience in some detail, perhaps responding to semi-structured interviews

In conclusion, the research on Stoicism is progressing well. To move to the next level, your help would be most welcome. If you are familiar with quantitative or qualitative research methods, and would like to be involved of some of the above research – or if you have your own ideas about how we could further research the effectiveness of Stoicism – we would to hear from you.  Please contact the current author by email.

[i] For a comparison with last year see the final part of the Stoic Week 2016 report.

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Activate Your Potential With Positive Psychology.  He can be contacted via email at tim@timlebon.com.  His website is  http://www.timlebon.com

The Toronto Stoic Circle by Peter Limberg

I was introduced to Stoicism while studying philosophy at the University of Toronto as an undergraduate and like most philosophy students my exposure to Stoic thought did not occur in the classroom. The likes of Seneca or Marcus Aurelius may have been briefly mentioned in a first-year survey course but they were not heard beyond that. It was only when a friend gifted me the Enchiridion by Epictetus for my birthday did I discovered the rich world of the Stoics. I quickly realized this is what I was looking for. This is what I originally went into philosophy for. Not only for answers but answers that were actionable. Answers with no pretensions, fluff, or bullshit. I found myself a home.

The main idea I took from reading Epictetus was the profound and elegantly simple Dichotomy of Control. Focus on what is in your control and do not worry about the rest. While surely one of the most intuitive principles within Stoicism, it is also one of the most difficult to practice. I noticed an unsettling pattern form. When I was reading the Stoics I experienced a profound sense of serenity, but how easily did this serenity become disrupted when I stepped away from the texts. This odd codependency with the Stoic text made me somewhat frustrated with Stoicism in general. While it is a philosophy that is wonderfully stacked with useful principles, it did not have a systemized approach to practice like Zen Buddhism, or some schools of western psychotherapy.

The organizer of the Vienna Stoics, Christian Walter, recently wrote me a similar sentiment – “I am very much surprised by the contrast that stoic principles seem to be so clearly and ‘ready to use’ but that it is so extremely challenging to consequently implement them into my daily life.” Extremely challenging indeed. To give credit where credit is due, the popularizers of Modern Stoicism, such as William Irvine, Donald Robertson, and Massimo Pigliucci, have done a wonderful job outlining a variety of Stoic practices for us to engage in.

Whether it be the View from Above, Negative Visualization, or Voluntary Discomfort (cold showers anyone?) we now have a slew of Stoic exercises to engage in thanks to these gentlemen. However, there still is much room for innovation. Moreover, the principle that resonated with me the most, the Dichotomy of Control, remained elusive when it came to practice. I wanted something I could do with consistent loyalty.

Like the philosopher Ken Wilber says, it is a practice that allows one to turn a state into a trait. This left me with the following question: How can we take the serene state which comes from knowing what is in your control and turn it into a trait? To put it another way, how could can we practice this core principle of Stoicism as if it were like brushing our teeth in the morning?

The Stoic Circle

On October 16, 2017, Stoicism Toronto held its first Stoic Circle, Toronto’s first and only practitioners group. We are treating the Stoic Circle as a sandbox for us to play in, with preexisting Stoic practices and to invent and test new ones. The benefits are two-fold, A) to embody Stoic principles through regular practice, and B) to create a living and breathing Stoa in Toronto.

We originally designed the Stoic Circle in hopes for it to be a modality that could be repeated by other Stoic groups. While its much too soon to say if we achieved this, I’d like to share our prototyping efforts with the wider Stoic community, in hopes to turn this project into an open dialogue with Stoic groups worldwide.

In the current iteration of the Stoic Circle, we are experimenting with a 3-Step technique designed to help ingrain the Dichotomy of Control. The three steps are:

  • Step 1 – Defuse (…from your thoughts)
  • Step 2 – Determine (…what is under your control)
  • Step 3 – Decide (…what to do when you know what is under your control)

Let’s examine each step in turn, with the particular techniques we have been utilizing.

Step 1 – Defuse with The Stoic Theatre

Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), considered one of the psychotherapeutic modalities of third-wave CBT, offers a powerful technique called Cognitive Defusion. Originally referred to as “deliteralization”, this is the process of creating emotional distance from your thoughts, which results in less emotional triggering. You still have thoughts, but you no longer identity as your thoughts.


There are multiple ways to achieve cognitive defusion, one technique recommended in ACT is a visualization called Leaves on a Stream. Simply put, you imagine yourself sitting in front of a moving stream of water, you see leaves from trees above the stream slowly dropping into the stream. When you have a thought, you imagine your thought sitting on top of the leave while it falls on the water and flows down the stream. A new thought comes, a new leave falls.

For the Stoic Circle, we borrowed a similar technique from Neuro-linguistic Programming and dubbed it the Stoic Theatre. The technique is quite simple and could be done individually or in a group setting. Imagine you enter a spacious movie theatre, you sit in the middle of the theatre and are staring at a blank screen. Now, every time a thought occurs, you see it represented on the screen. You allow a thought to come when it wants to come and you allow it to go if it wants to go.

Now, mental imagery is easy for some and hard for others. Creating rich visualizations is a skill-set that can be developed over time. Do not be discouraged if you have difficulty with the visualization process, it gets better with practice. The point of this exercise is to allow yourself some distance from your thoughts so you can begin the important work of determining what is in your control.

This exercise can be done in a group setting, with a facilitator guiding the group throughout he visualization. It also can be done solitude, whenever your serenity is disturbed.

Step 2 – Determine with The Socratic Circles

The second step of the Stoic Circle is what we are calling The Socratic Circles. This is the heart of the modality. This utilizes the Q&A approach of the Socratic Method but in service of determining what is under your control.

The group is split into pairs, with one questioner and answerer at a time. The roles switch after a designated time. We found it powerful if the answerer has their eyes closed, but that is optional. The exercise proceeds in 5 steps:

  1. The questioner starts by asking the following question: “Are you willing to answer truthfully, in service of serenity?”
  2. Once answered in the affirmative, the questioner then asks the prompting question: “What is disturbing your serenity?” Ideally, the answerer brings a recent situation that is bothersome and has not been fully worked out. Examples: A fight with their partner, deciding what to study in school, an important career decision they are wrestling with, etc.
  3. The answerer (with help of the questioner’s probing) provides a statement that has four components:
    1. A scene. Describe what factually happened
    2. A trigger. Describe when the emotional triggered occurred
    3. A negative emotion. Describe what the emotion is like.
    4. Optional: A initial interpretation of why the trigger is bothersome
  4. The questioner then asks forthright questions to determine what are the “controllables” and “non-controllables” within the scene provided.
  5. Once established the roles switch.

Now, it needs to be said that good listening and questioning is a skill-set. A principle for the questioner to hold is that of Unconditional Positive Regard. Carl Rogers developed this concept to describe the fundamental attitude a psychotherapist has towars their client. It recommends a conversational disposition where one accepts and respects others as they are without judgment. To see this in action you can watch Carl Rogers counseling a woman named “Gloria”, which can be found here.

Another good resource we recommend is the philosopher Andrew Taggarts short guide entitled The Art of Inquiry, which can be found here. Lastly, Jordan Petersons newly released 12 Rules for Life has excellent advice on listening and questioning in the chapter on Rule 9, “Assume That the Person You Are Listening to Might Know Something You Don’t.”

This exercise is not designed to be a panacea for all your ills, but a way to hone your “stoic muscle” while expressing care and philia towards your fellow Stoic. The hope is, the more you do this, the more you will be able to know what is within your control and what is not. Deciphering what is in your control can itself be viewed as a skill to be developed.

Step 3 – Decide with What Would Marcus Do? (WWMD?)

In a lot of cases, people know what they have to do when they clarify what is under their control. However, oftentimes the situation is complex enough to warrant additional tools to help make a decision. Luckily there is a wealth of decision-making heuristics that one can use to make a decision. What Would Marcus Do? is one that utilizes that technique that Modern Stoics refer to as the Contemplation of the Sage.

In Enchiridion, Epictetus advised us to consider “’what would Socrates or Zeno have done” in situations where we meet people of high stature. The same question can be asked in any situation you find yourself in. Once you understand what is under your control you can ask yourself what would Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic emperor, do in your situation (or Epictetus, or Seneca, or any other person you greatly respect). Trust your gut here. Engage in what Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow calls System 1 thinking, which is thinking that is fast and intuitive.

Now, this will not always be the perfect decision. You can always choose to engage further with what Kahneman calls System 2 thinking, which is slow and deliberate thinking, in order to stress test your intuitive System 1 decision. However at the very least you now have an option to go with. Oftentimes we do not have the opportunity to engage in lengthly thought, and having a clear direction can be better then not having any direction at all.

A Call to Action

We at Stoicism Toronto are not advocating this 3-Step approach to be adopted wholesale. We are moving forward with modesty and considering this in the testing phase. The reason I am sharing this is to encourage other Stoic groups around the world to start their own Stoic Circles and develop, experiment, and test with innovative exercises to help their member’s develop their stoic muscles.

Reading and discussing won’t be enough. Like anything worthwhile, consistent practice is needed. I think developing our stoic muscles is an important goal in today’s uncertain world. With political polarization, exponential technological growth, and economic anxieties, it is increasingly hard to confidently predict in good faith what the future will be like. Given this, I believe its incumbent on us Stoics to actually be Stoic and not just give mouth-service to our philosophy. For us to be a source of calm in the storm of uncertainty is a social good.

As the current head of the Activities Committee in the Stoic Fellowship, a world-wide community of Stoic groups, I welcome current organizers to share what their best practices are. If you are thinking of starting you own Stoic Circle, please feel free to reach out. I would be happy to have a conversation.

 

Peter Limberg is an entrepreneuer living in Toronto. He is the co-founder of Stoicism Toronto. You can follow him on twitter here.

Stoic and Buddhist Cognitive Behavioural Therapy by Patrick Ussher

The following is a modified extract from Patrick Ussher’s recent e-book Stoicism & Western Buddhism: A Reflection on Two Philosophies as a Way of Life.  Patrick is the founding editor of Stoicism Today, and one of the original members of the Modern Stoicism Team.

Stay with me a little while, sense-impression (phantasia). Allow me to see who you are and from where you come. Allow me to examine you.’- Epictetus [1]

Breathing in / I know that an unpleasant feeling has just arisen in me…Breathing out/ I can see the roots of this unpleasant feeling.’[2]

Hello, Fear. There you are again.’- Thich Nhat Hanh [3]

Both Stoicism and Buddhism encourage a healthy sense of doubt towards the thoughts and emotions we have each and every day. The aim of this doubt is to encourage us to take a step back when we have certain thoughts or feelings, examine them, and come up with a ‘wise response’ to them.

One such ‘wise response’ is simply to ensure that we have an accurate conception of what has occurred, and that we are not ‘clouded’ by, for example, erroneous thinking or overwhelming emotions. For, it is not, as Epictetus says, ‘…the things themselves that disturb men, but their judgements about these things’,[4] a psychological basis echoed by Thich Nhat Hanh, a leading contemporary Buddhist teacher, when he writes that ‘…wrong perceptions cause incorrect thinking and unnecessary suffering,’[5] encouraging his students instead to ask themselves continuously, ‘are you sure?’[6]

This focus on maintaining accuracy in our thoughts and emotions might seem rather similar to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (C.B.T.), a therapy designed for the removal of harmful beliefs which lead to, and perpetuate, various mental health problems, including anxiety disorders. C.B.T. in particular focuses on how accurate our thoughts and feelings may be.

Indeed, Stoicism and Buddhism are often regarded as being akin to C.B.T. in that both philosophies engage in actively replacing thoughts and behaviours, and, in that sense, both philosophies are, in a sense, forms of cognitive and behavioural therapy in their own right. Furthermore, it has been argued that both philosophies influenced the development of C.B.T. In the case of Stoicism, Albert Ellis, the founder of C.B.T., cited Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius as some of his main inspirations,[7] and Donald Robertson, a member of the Modern Stoicism project, has written a book on the Stoic origins of C.B.T.[8]

Meanwhile, in the case of Buddhism, Albert Ellis also cited the Buddha as one of his inspirations and, interestingly, Jack Kornfield considers that Buddhists were the ‘…first cognitive-behavioural therapists.’ [9] He cites the Buddha’s words from the Vitakkasanthana Sutta (Discourse on Removing Distracting Thoughts) from the Majhima Nikaya (The Middle Length Discourses) in support of this:

There is the case where evil, unskilful thoughts – imbued with desire, aversion, or delusion arise…(and then) he (the monk) should attend to another theme, apart from that one, connected with what is skilful….just as a skilled carpenter or his apprentice would use a small peg to knock out, drive out and pull out a large one…[10]

Such a ‘thought-replacement’ exercise is clearly a kind of cognitive therapy and we find something very similar in Stoicism with its emphasis on replacing ‘initial thoughts’ we have with wiser and more virtuous thoughts. However, while these general similarities do exist, it is very important, in my view, to separate both Buddhism and Stoicism from the more ‘clinical’ and overly rationalistic nature of C.B.T., even though there may be some similarities. For ultimately, Stoicism and Buddhism are philosophies which seek to offer coherent frameworks for life as a whole, something which C.B.T. does not, and cannot ever, do. C.B.T. focuses on removing specific problems, and it can be very helpful with this, but does not offer a ‘bigger picture’ approach for understanding life and how to live in general.

Let us consider instead the nature of Stoic and Buddhist behaviourism in their own right. If we were to categorise Buddhism or Stoicism as a form of C.B.T., how would we describe them? And what kind of practices in daily life would these philosophies encourage?

Buddhist “Behaviourism With Heart”

In the case of Buddhism, Jack Kornfield, a leading teacher of ‘Western Buddhism’, terms Buddhism’s equivalent to C.B.T. as ‘Behaviourism with Heart,’[11] writing that one changes thoughts out of compassion for oneself and others,[12] and that this is what is in ‘…our genuine interest,’[13] thereby divorcing the practice from a more clinical-therapeutic context. Rather than purely changing thoughts or emotions in order to make them more ‘accurate’, the Buddhist is also interested in cultivating a heart-felt response to our emotions and to those of others. Compassion is the ‘reference point’ to which the Buddhist so often refers in working with her thoughts and emotions. When we have feelings, particularly ones that we might otherwise try to avoid, the Buddhist instead aims to accept them, with a gentle and understanding love, and, in general, the Buddhist seeks solutions to larger life problems by considering them in the most compassionate light possible.

This encapsulates the heart of a Buddhist’s daily practice. The focus is on using mindfulness to accept the emotional flow of the day with a gentle love. This compassionate awareness allows the self to change gradually.

Stoic ‘Behaviourism Towards Virtue’

But what would the equivalent be in Stoicism? I would suggest that the Stoic equivalent is ‘Behaviourism towards Virtue’. By this I mean that the Stoic tries continuously to work out how to reframe their emotions and thoughts in light of virtue, which, according to Stoicism, is the most important thing in life.

Let us consider the following passage from Marcus Aurelius which essentially captures how this process works:

 …always make a sketch or plan of whatever presents itself to your mind, so as to see what sort of thing it is when stripped down to its essence, as a whole and in its separate parts; and tell yourself its proper name, and the names of the elements from which it has been put together and into which it will finally be resolved. For nothing is as effective in creating greatness of mind as being able to examine methodically and truthfully everything that presents itself in life, and always viewing things in such a way as to consider what kind of use each thing serves in what kind of universe, and what value it has to human beings as citizens of the highest of cities…and what this object is that presently makes an impression on me, and what it is composed of, and how long it will naturally persist, and what virtue is needed in the face of it, such as gentleness, courage, truthfulness, good faith, simplicity, self-sufficiency, and so forth.[14]

What Marcus suggests here is the cultivation of clear awareness of thoughts, and this involves taking a step back so as to delineate clearly what is on one’s mind. Marcus then tries to discern what place these thoughts and feelings might have in relation to his own ethical beliefs about what is most important in life. What kind of value-judgements are ‘packed into’ these impressions and are they ethically helpful? Then, he wishes to work out which ethical qualities will be of most help in approaching the situation to which the impressions relate: will it, for example, be gentleness, courage, or simplicity? This in particular is the point at which the Stoic tries to work out the ‘virtuous response’ to the impressions under consideration. Indeed, the entire purpose of the exercise is one of increasing ethical awareness. As Chris Gill, a scholar on Stoicism, writes of this passage:

Although this may seem at first to be a purely scientific or analytical procedure, what Marcus has in mind is getting to the ethical core of the situation.[15] 

By following these steps, Marcus takes the thoughts and feelings that arise in his mind and reframes them in the light of Stoic virtue. And, then, once he acts based upon his ‘virtuous response’, he will have successfully modified his behaviour ‘towards virtue’.

How can we sum up both approaches in the light of the C.B.T. analogy? The Buddhist continually moulds himself towards the compassionate mind. Indeed, Thich Nhat Hanh explains that the Chinese character for ‘mindfulness’ contains the signs for both ‘now’ and ‘heart.’[16] The Stoic, in contrast, consistently strives to mould her character towards virtue. If Stoic ‘prosoche/mindfulness had a Chinese character, it would probably be the signs for ‘now’ and ‘virtue’.

And if we were to seek to combine both kinds of mindfulness, the one which gives us an ethical compass by which to guide our life’s direction and the other to accompany us on that journey with heartfelt compassion, then we would be doing very well indeed.

[1] Discourses, 2.18.24.

[2] 2006a, 58ff. Text modified [original = ‘pleasant’ feeling, but this method is applicable to all feelings].

[3] 1995, 66.

[4] Handbook §5..

[5] 1998, 61.

[6] 1998, 60-61.

[7] In an interview with J. Evans (http://philosophyforlife.org/albert-ellis-on-philosophy-as-therapy/)

[8] The Philosophy of CBT: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, Karnac, 2010.

[9] 2008, 293.

[10] Majhima Nikaya, I.119.

[11] Kornfield (2008), 293.

[12] Kornfield (2008), 296

[13] Kornfield (2008), 299.

[14] Meditations, 3.11.

[15] 2011, xvii.

[16] 1998, 64f.

Patrick Ussher is a PhD student at the University of Exeter, working on Stoic ideas of ethical development. His MA dissertation compared Stoicism and ‘Western’ Buddhism. He managed the Stoicism Today blog from its inception in 2012 until March 2016 when he left the Modern Stoicism project to focus on other work commitments. He also edited the first two collections of writings of applying Stoicism to the modern world, Stoicism Today: Selected Writings volume 1, and volume 2

Get Over It: Reflections on Parkour as Stoic Exercise by Ryan Pasco

Always run the short route. And the short route is the natural, by which one says and does everything most soundly. For such an end delivers one from toils and warfare, and from all scheming and adornment (Marcus Aurelius Meditations 4.51).

I’ve trained Parkour for the past six years – about as long as I’ve been interested in Stoicism as practice. As I have made my journey as a practitioner of each, I have often felt a connection in the mindset each discipline cultivates, and the sorts of lessons each imparts.

I first encountered Parkour on a spring afternoon in 2012; I was walking home from a long day of classes and passed through a circular green partially girt by a moss-covered stone wall. On the other side, several students, took turns leaping over a low wall. An acquaintance – we were enrolled in beginning Greek together – spotted me as I walked by and tried to ask me to join

He described Parkour as a means to travel quickly from point A to B – a standard definition – and gave a laundry list of media representations. You may be familiar with some of them: in the opening minutes of Casino Royale (2006), Parkour co-founder Sébastian Foucan leaps, vaults, and climbs through a construction site with Daniel Craig in close pursuit; in the much-anticipated video game Mirror’s Edge (2007), the player-character, part of a resistance to an oppressive regime, uses Parkour skills to traverse a futuristic skyline; the popular video game franchise Assassin’s Creed has the player run, jump, climb, scale buildings, all to complete epic missions.

The superhuman images were enticing, yes, but I was more drawn in by the scene behind him. For the ten or so minutes we spoke, the practitioners behind drilled the same motion over and over; though they grew tired and fatigued, they never stopped, and gave off a preternatural aura of focus. It was their mindset that drew me in.

These immediately-familiar media representations effectively communicate what Parkour looks like, but provide little insight into Parkour as a discipline. Born in France in the 1980s, Parkour is a movement discipline in which the practitioner (called a traceuse f., traceur m.) uses their body to overcome obstacles in their environment with a view to mental and physical development.

Certainly, I’m not the first Parkour practitioner to notice a connection with Stoicism: in 2016, a major member of the community, Ryan Ford, listed “The Obstacle is the Way” as a must-read for Parkour athletes. Most traceurs and traceuses, I suspect, would see embodied in Stoic texts a mindset that accords well with their approach to training. But to someone who has not lived Parkour, the comparison is not readily apparent; it requires an examination of the traceuse’s thought processes, a glimpse into the act of training.

Last week, I decided to drill a rail precision. The goal is simple: while balancing on a handrail, leap, clear a six-foot gap and, landing softly on the opposite railing, maintain balance.  In the thirty minutes I practiced, I heard a lot of comments running the gamut from encouraging to openly hostile. But, as usual, the main response was second-hand fear: “what if you fall?”

Whenever I train Parkour, whether in a public park, university campus, alleyway, I hear this a lot. It’s no surprise that danger is on people’s mind. At a glance, many parkour movements look dangerous. Consequences for failure are high: most often, I train on hard surfaces, such as brick, metal, or concrete, rarely do I encounter anything softer than grass. Coupled with high consequences for failure are plenty of factors that raise the risk of failure. Since Parkour is often trained outside, the traceuse must adapt to an intrinsically chaotic environment.

This January day was bitter cold. The ground was wet from freshly-melted snow. Passers-by were curious what a twenty-something was up to, shivering on a cold railing on a gray weekday morning, and stopped to watch and comment. Plenty of distractions from a movement that requires focus, plenty of physical factors that raised the risk of slipping.

Though misfortune happens, a Stoic can ensure a proper response by preparing for the worst. In letter 99, Seneca advises us to consider the wide range of potential misfortunes that could await us:

[I wrote this letter] so that I should encourage you henceforth to raise your spirit against fortune and foresee all its weapons, not as if they could come, but as if they undoubtedly would (Seneca Letters 99.32).

Indeed, the practice of praemeditatio malorum – imagining misfortunes and visualizing the proper response – allows the Stoic to act properly even in a worst-case scenario.

Likewise, before I attempt a jump for the first time – sometimes called ‘breaking’ a jump – I visualize every potential mishap and how I will react. If I undershoot the jump, I’ll extend my arms and drop into a hang; if I overshoot, I’ll absorb initial landing, then jump down and disperse impact by rolling. What if my feet slip? What if the obstacle breaks under impact? This visualization is an essential part of building up to a difficult or risky movement; since a lot can go wrong, a practitioner, strives to be prepared.

Indeed, Parkour aims to create an individual ready for any circumstance. As Malik Diouf, one of the discipline’s founders, writes:

Even if it’s dangerous and we’re putting our life at risk, as long as you enjoy what you do, it isn’t a problem. You just need to be focused and ready, and to have trained enough to pass the obstacle. It’s a bit like life, when you have problems … Things happen, but it’s your ability to react to a problem that will allow you to overcome it or not (Breaking the Jump, 8).

Because I rarely train in environments designed for Parkour, I must adapt my movement to my training spot. For this reason, Parkour does not have a canon set of movements. While there are common named techniques, e.g. step vaults, arm jumps, climb-ups, variations on these movements cannot apply to every situation. Such techniques represent the highest-frequency ‘vocabulary’ of movement, but specialized situations call for specialized language. Since the goal of Parkour is to become proficient in overcoming obstacles, I do not focus on learning specific techniques so much as creating a self capable of reacting to whatever obstacles are set before you – a mission not dissimilar to the Stoics’ concern with development of the self.

But, when faced with unexpected circumstances, sometimes we act ably and decisively; other times, we stumble and fall. In Stoic practice, we reflect on the day’s deeds, whether done poorly or well:

Don’t let sleep await your gentle eyes,

Until you tally each of the day’s deeds:

‘How did I err? What did I do? What duty has not been fulfilled?’

Beginning from this point proceed: and thereafter

Rebuke yourself for doing ill deeds, but delight in your doing good deeds (Epictetus Discourses 3.10.2-3).

These reflections allow the Stoic to learn from successes and failures and, in the face of similar challenges, to repeat and correct his or her actions respectively. Likewise, as a traceur, I must learn from my mistakes.

My worst parkour injury, a severe wrist sprain, came from a relatively common fall. When performing a laché – a swinging dismount – from a girder, I lost my grip on the upswing and found myself hurtling forward, feet above my head. Though I had imagined such a mishap before the attempt, I had never experienced this fall before, and I was unprepared. I’ve spent a lot of time, since then, replaying that mistake, discussing it with other practitioners, and training performing the fall safely; swinging from a branch, I let my hands slip and execute a pre-planned redirection of momentum – a half-twist and quadrupedal landing. Drilled hundreds of times, these techniques have become instinct.

This focus on reflection and phyiscal preparation for falls is best exemplified by Parkour Ukemi, a project started in 2011 by traceur Amos Rendao. Students of Parkour Ukemi reflect on their own falls or videos of other practitioners and practice safe ‘bails’ for the most common sort of falls. Failure is inevitable, but we can reflect on our mistakes and train ourselves to react properly in the future.

Yet heretofore, I’ve discussed mostly physical mishaps and training; what would an ancient Stoic, so concerned with cultivation of the soul, think of this intense physical training? In letter 15, Seneca criticizes those who exercise excessively; regardless of how much effort one expends in physical training, nature has set a hard limit to our capacity for physical excellence: a human being, no matter how able, can never outwrestle a prize bull. While some exercise is beneficial, he argues, it is best to limit it as much as possible and focus on mental development:

There are quick and easy exercises which both wear out the body swiftly and save time, of which we must keep especial account: running and lifting weights and jumping, either the high-jump or the broad jump or the one called, I may say, the Priest’s dance or, in reproachful terms, the fuller’s jump. Pick from these a simple and easy one to use, whichever you want. Whatever you do, quickly return from the body to the mind (Seneca Letters 15.4-5).

A little physical exercise promotes health and gives the mind a much-needed rest, but too much tires the soul – the Stoic’s real target of training. Seneca couches his critique of immoderate physical training in terms of a failure to cultivate the soul; the value of exercise is a function of the extent to which it aids in the development of the soul. If faced, then, with a movement discipline that focuses on mental as well as physical development – and encourages the practitioner to internalize the lessons of Stoicism – I suspect Seneca would feel quite differently.

Parkour offers more than physical strength and readiness – it cultivates the mind. Describing a famous (to practitioners of Parkour, anyways) death-defying jump ‘the Manpower gap’, Parkour co-founder Malik Diouf says:

But this kind of jump – you can’t just go and think or hope you can do it. You must be ready in your head and your body (Breaking the Jump, 82).

As a practitioner of Parkour, strength of mind and body go hand-in-hand. When breaking a jump, I must assess not just my physical capability and ability to react but also my mental will. Faced with a dangerous situation, the body easily enters a state of panic. When this happens, I can seize up and find myself unable to attempt a jump or, even worse, lose my focus midway through a movement. Before I try to break a jump, I have to ask myself: “if I start this jump, do I have the will to finish?” A half-hearted attempt at a jump over a steep drop or with difficult landing conditions can be catastrophic – certainly worse than not trying the jump at all. For this reason, in my parkour training, I must develop my capacity to overcome mental obstacles as well as physical ones.

Yet there is a limit to our ability to overcome mental obstacles. In Letter 9, Seneca writes of blushing, a subconscious reaction that afflicts even the wise:

For the body’s natural faults cannot be removed by any wisdom. What is imprinted and innate is moderated by practice, but not defeated. Even the most unwavering speakers break out in a sweat when before the people, as if he is fatigued or overheated; some tremble at the knees just before they speak; for some, teeth chatter, tongues trip, lips tremble. Neither training nor experience ever get rid of this these tendancies, but nature wields its own power and, by their own weakness, chastises even the hardiest (Seneca Letters 9.1-2).

No matter our Stoic training, we cannot entirely conquer certain reactions. An accomplished orator may remain calm more ably than an amateur speaker, but still get jittery nonetheless.

Such involuntary reactions reflect the traceuse’s relationship with fear. Whenever I attempt to break a jump, I’m faced with the same familiar feelings: my stomach feels lighter than normal, the gap before me widens, my legs are heavy, unwilling. Certainly, I experience fearful reactions less forcefully than when I began; jumps that once terrified me barely cause hesitation, now. But I am still subject to the same somatic reminders of fear, when, for example, I stand on a high object; though reduced, they’re still present. As a traceur, I can – in Seneca’s words – ‘tone down’ these reactions, but I cannot overcome them. Likewise, with fear itself.

My approach to moderating fear is quite similar to the Stoic strategy. The key is to recognize these fearful reactions as warning signs that precede debilitating patterns of thought. So Epictetus writes about dangerous initial impressions:

But first, do not get snatched away by its sharpness, but say ‘imagination, wait for me a little while: permit that I see what you are, and what you’re concerned with. Permit me to scrutinize you’. And afterwards don’t permit it to lead you on by imagining what’s next. And if you do, it will take hold of you and lead you wherever it wants. But instead substitute some other fair and noble imagination and cast out this one, which is filthy (Epictetus, Discourses, 2.18.24-6).

When I’m standing at the edge of a tall gap, and I feel my body enter ‘fear mode’, it’s easy to let my mind to follow along, visualizing my failure and convincing myself of impending injury; if this thinking goes unmitigated, it naturally leads to inaction. But I try, as Epictetus suggests, to head these thoughts off at the pass and substitute more constructive thoughts. I assure myself that I am capable of performing the movement at hand and counteract my fear of injury by strategizing for potential falls – the praemeditatio malorum, discussed above.

Yet a traceur’s relationship with fear differs from the Stoics in their focus on the body and soul respectively. The Stoics need not fear that mishaps will harm the soul. As Marcus Aurelius writes:

Circumstances themselves do not in any way whatsoever affect the soul nor do they have any way into it nor can they change or move it. But the soul changes and moves itself alone and whatever judgments it deems worthy for itself, in such a way it does what’s submitted before it. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.19).

The immaterial soul cannot by external factors themselves; it is the soul’s reactions to outside circumstance that harms. Yet, the traceuse’s body can be damaged, and so I cannot entirely disregard fear as irrational disturbance. I have to dialogue with fear and determine whether it is rational. As Seneca writes in letter 13:

First, reflect upon whether your evidence for future trouble is certain … We do not refute the impressions which cause our fear, nor investigate them, but we tremble and turn tail in the manner of soldiers who vacate their camps because of a dust-cloud roused by fleeing cattle, or who are terrified by some story that spreads unattributed (Seneca Letters 13.8).

We ought not assume all fear is groundless. As I prepare for a movement, I must examine the causes of my fear. Do I hesitate because I am incapable of clearing a gap? Is the movement beyond my reach? Training Parkour presents frequent opportunity to practice rationally examining first impressions; through the discipline, the Stoic lesson becomes habitual.

Parkour has become, for me, more than a discipline that reflects Stoic values or teaches similar lesson; rather, Parkour is integrated into my own Stoic practice, and in times of disturbance, I turn to each simultaneously.

One spring evening, a couple of years ago, my father had an aortic dissection, a tear of the aorta, which is about as serious as it sounds. I found out about an hour afterwards, as he entered an eight-hour emergency surgery; his survival would remain unclear for at least that long. I was far away from home at the time; there was little I could do but await a telephone call.

I walked to the neighborhood park to get some air, and tried to imagine in vivid detail how I would react, if I should hear the worst. I repeated helpful maxims: “never say of something ‘I’ve been bereft of it’, but ‘I’ve given it up.’” And while I ran through maxims under my breath, I found a low wall at the edge of the park and practiced the same vault over and over, persisting through the fatigue, focusing on the movement at hand. In that moment – as in every session I train – repeating and refining a movement became a sort of physical maxim, a continual somatic reminder of my progress, my ability to reason, my readiness for whatever faced me.

Ryan M. Pasco is a Parkour practitioner and PhD student at Boston University’s Department of Classical Studies. Though he primarily studies Attic Old Comedy, Ryan maintains a personal interest in applying Stoic philosophy to everyday life

Stoic Camp New York 2018, Seneca edition by Massimo Pigliucci and Greg Lopez

 Stoic Camp New York is happening again, with the fourth edition scheduled for August 23-26 at Stony Point, in New York’s scenic Hudson Valley. We got the idea for Stoic Camp from the original one (so far as we know), which is organized regularly by the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Wyoming. In both cases the idea is to spend a few days fully immersed in Stoic philosophy and practice, to further our understanding of Stoicism and get us going on (or renew our commitment to) a path to a more virtuous and eudaimonic life.

The first two editions of Stoic Camp NY were focused on Epictetus’ Handbook and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, though we also used materials from Cicero’s De Finibus, Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, and even Plato (the Euthydemus, which accounts for why the Stoics thought virtue was the chief good).

 Last year we kept some of the basic introductory material, including discussions of why one may need a philosophy of life, as well as some background on the major Hellenistic philosophies, but revised the curriculum to shift the focus to Seneca. This is also what we’ll do this year, with readings divided into four major blocks: practical wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice – one each for the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism. 

Stoic Camp NY also includes practical components, for instance exercises in writing out mini-essays on how Stoicism applies to our personal life and situation, group discussions, as well as one-on-one “counseling” time with the organizers, during which participants may pose questions they do not feel comfortable to discuss in the group sessions.

The experience is also heightened by the setting: Stony Point is a retreat set near Bear Mountain, on the Hudson Valley north of New York City, easy to reach by car or bus. Camp hospitality is wonderful, and the food is locally grown and prepared on the premises, which adds a component of conviviality to the three-day retreat.

If you are interested in signing up for Stoic Camp NY 2018 you can go here for a single room (6 slots), or here for a double room (14 slots with a roommate). Registration opens at 6pm on Thursday 3/8, and is on a first-come-first-serve basis. The registration fee ($500 and $350 respectively) covers everything other than transportation, and is at cost (Greg and I do not make money out of this, though our own expenses are covered). 

The first three editions of the Camp were very successful, with participants providing enthusiastic (well, for Stoics…) feedback, as well as very useful suggestions for improvements, wich we keep taking into consideration and implementing every year. So come and join us for an immersive, spiritually and intellectually uplifting experience of practical Stoicism. As Epictetus aptly put it: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35) And should you not be able to join us in August, keep in mind that Massimo is doing a similar thing in Rome, right around the corner from the Colosseum, in July (details here). Fate permitting, of course.

Living the Best Possible Life – Epictetus’ Prescriptions by Sharon Lebell

This post is the transcript from Sharon LeBell’s talk at the 2017 Stoicon conference.  You can watch a video of the talk here.

 

Over 20 years ago when my book The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness was published I didn’t know anyone who was interested in Stoicism, much less Epictetus. Even the New York Times couldn’t pronounceEpictetus’ name when they interviewed me.

But Epictetus loomed large in my world, because in a very real way he saved my life. I have since learned with humility and gratitude that Epictetus’ key ideas, accessibly expressed, have literally saved other people’s lives. Over the years I’ve received letters from readers from every walk of life, especially from those who have traversed dire circumstances that exceed anything I could ever imagine or bear up under.

Because what is Epictetus’ Stoicism any more than it is adversity management? I mean adversity spanning the challenges of every day life as well as acute, life-threatening adversity, such as that borne by soldiers in the throes of war. I’ve received many letters from soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan who somehow came upon Epictetus’ teachings in The Art of Living and were pulled back from the brink of despair and even suicide. This has lead me to fiercely believe in vernacular philosophy and the value of popularizers. Of course we need primary sources and exacting scholars, but we also need useable, applicable, and transformative philosophical texts that can immediately comfort and help readers productively move forward. Reading vernacular philosophy can invite readers who would otherwise be repelled by primary philosophical texts to eventually turn to those sources when they have experienced the value that Stoic philosophy in particular has to offer.

So what is so compelling about Epictetus’ Prescriptions for the Best Possible Life? Even before I understood Epictetus’ teachings, his noble themes and values were, for me, magnetic: particularly his emphasis on discernment, morality, and character building. I had never felt in tune with the summer of love generation, even though they are supposedly my cohort. This mentality seemed vapidly thrill-seeking, narcissistic, and feelings-driven. Epictetus drew me in because he offered an unapologetic moral teaching refreshingly free of sanctimony, dogma, or divine punishment.

Before we fly dive in to Epictetus’ teachings, I want to pull back to address what I consider to be the most crucial question embedded in Epictetus’ teachings. It is:

WHAT CAN YOU DO WITH A MOMENT?

Please pause and consider this, because it’s probably one of the most important questions you could ever ponder. There’s a lot you can do with a moment: you can reach out and hug someone, you can apologize, you can pull the gun’s trigger, you can put that drink down and have it be your last, you can make the difficult phone call…..well you fill in the blank. The other thing we can do with a moment is waste it by underestimating its power to change everything. The possibilities are endless AND infinitely consequential.

The moral spirit of Epictetus’ teachings is always concerned with the decisional instant. This is our point of power. It is the locus of the only power we have. For all said and done, Epictetus would ask us: Over what do we have control? Where does your sovereignty lie? Certainly not in what he calls externals: other people’s opinions, the temperature outside, physical laws, etc. We are sovereign over one thing only and that is what we think/say/or DO with this moment right here. That’s powerful, because everything, and I mean everything, emanates from this moment and radiates and ramifies out into the future.

Epictetus’ Stoicism is a therapeutic tradition. His teachings are meant to be corrective medicine for disaffected or lost souls. I want to describe three soul afflictions that are embedded the human condition and Epictetus’ Prescriptions or tonics for these diseases.

FIRST: The first common malaise for which Epictetus offers a tonic is our disordered thinking which causes us to mistakenly try to control or manage what Epictetus would call externals, and the consequent suffering we heap on others from our vain efforts to do so.

Epictetus (as well as our other esteemed Stoics) tutor us in a deep acceptance of what really is, the is-ness of any given situation; not lazy acquiescence, but an acceptance of reality so radical that it can only give rise to what I call BIG GRATITUDE.

Here are some personal reflections on Stoic radical acceptance and Big Gratitude.

A Story:

It isn’t always easy to accept the way things really are, and it certainly isn’t always easy to feel gratitude.

Perhaps someone has said to you, “Hey it’s all good….”

It. is. not. all. good.—

C’mon: it was not all good when one of my kids came home in the middle of college with sorrowful eyes and an eating disorder. It was not all good when my husband lost his first born son or when his former wife, my dear friend Tina, discovered she had breast cancer and died very soon after, or when Terry and I lost our own baby. It was not all good when I was living on tortillas, peanut butter, and spare change scavenged in between couch cushions after falling from being the Ivy League wunderkind into abject squalor, lying in fetal position felled by depression and addiction.

It is indeed not “all good,” but as Epictetus would remind us, it’s not all bad either.

To encapsulate the human experience I have a pet expression: Many. Meanings. All. Happening. At. Once. (MMAHAO)

Each moment our senses imbibe a riot of information while our minds clamor with observations, insights, emotions, memories, ideas, and the further ramifying connections they spawn. Love and pain, joy and sorrow, wonder and devastation. So very many meanings all happening at once.

Last summer my daughter Misha got married. The bucolic scene from her waterside ceremony was breathtaking. The food smelled great. Misha was a radiant bride and she was marrying a man who cherishes her. The past year had brought an embarrassment of riches for me, my husband Terry, our six children, their spouses and partners, and our four precious grandchildren.

We have so much, on the face of it, to be grateful for.

Yet, acceptance and simple gratitude were not what this mother-of-the-bride was feeling, but rather a farrago of joy, pride, grief over the recent tragic death of a much-too-young friend, tenderness, despair over the world’s violent chaos, optimism inspired by the capable, idealistic young adults in attendance. As my daughter said “I do,” and I thought my head and heart would explode. I held the fragility of everything, along with an inexpressible mighty thankfulness. I was overcome by confusing pathos AND, thanks to Epictetus, gratitude for the ALL of it: the past losses and mistakes we thought would freeze and define the rest of our lives, but didn’t; the wrongs that await righting; the unexpected altruisms, the stranger’s smile, the tear drop.

Aren’t we all holding our MANY MEANINGS ALL HAPPENING AT ONCE?

Aren’t you?

Is it possible to feel true acceptance and gratitude without qualification?

I think our Stoics would tell us we don’t need to worry about that. I believe Epictetus would urge us to climb up a rung on the gratitude hierarchy to a gratefulness more encompassing, whose embrace is wider than “I am grateful for x. Or, I am grateful that y didn’t happen.

Norman Lear had ninety-three years of lucky breaks, triumphs, and the chance he had to introduce crucial questions of social justice into North American public conversation through his trenchant sitcoms. He also described titanic failures, terrifying financial reversals, and withering mental illness. However, when Mr. Lear considers each of his life events, here’s what this unwitting Stoic says,

“Even this I get to Experience!”

This is Big Gratitude, that stems from Epictetus’ teaching that our acceptance of life as it really is with an attendant gratefulness that transcends personal or proximate circumstance and affirms that Life itself (with all its as yet undisclosed Great Meanings) has absolute value. Epictetus teaches us that we can be grateful simply for our chance to play our part in the human story and to honor with dignity the incomprehensible great mystery we inhabit together.

Because Life is miraculous:

For example, here we are together—this motley group of Stoicism enthusiasts with our private joys, anxieties, sorrows, regrets, hopes, fears, losses and aspirations.

Together.

With ALL our Many Meanings All Happening at Once.

And……Even this we get to experience!

SECOND: Our next Ailment of the soul is disordered self-defended thinking. I call this malady the disease of Irony. The antidote for this disease is self-scrutiny applied with kindness.

Another Personal Story I trust you can relate to:

A couple years ago I had an extraordinary experience in an ordinary place. I flew with one of my daughters to what was for me an exotic place: a dinky one horse town in the middle of the middle of the Midwest. I was handing my daughter off to her freshman year of college at a small liberal arts school. It was in this unprepossessing town in Iowa that I learned one of

Epictetus’ most important lessons about thinking straight and seeking to organize my thoughts, words, and deeds toward arete, virtue in service of eudaimonia, a flourishing life.

The thing I noticed about the people in this Iowa town was that they were absolutely not cool….and they did not care that they were not cool, which actually made them really cool, but that’s another conversation.

This itty bitty town was extraordinary because IT IS AN IRONY-FREE ZONE.

Notwithstanding the cosmopolitan character of my daughter’s brainy small college, the people I met in Iowa were refreshingly plain spoken. No glibness. No guile. No calculated casualness. No irony.

The irony of which I speak is not the literary device, but irony the attitude: a toxic posture towards life where human interaction and conversation are carried out giving sincerity and earnestness no breathing room. Wit must be acerbic. Observation must be mordant. Otherwise simple meanings must be wrapped in a ponderous insulation of impatient, righteously indignant (though not necessarily informed) aspirational sophistication.

Irony favors cleverness over kindness. Epictetus busts us for this all the time. Irony is behavior and speech that convey meanings opposite to their power-signifying literal meanings. Irony animates messages that project foregrounded ostensible meetings, erecting a screen in front of and granting immunity to other unavowed, often mean-spirited actual meanings. It’s not saying outright what you mean nor taking responsibility for it.

Some of us were weaned on this stuff. And we get plenty of reinforcement. I remember the conversations I had while living among uber-educated urban East Coast amused cynics whose structure was:

  • Clever Utterance: Touché;
  • Riposte: Touché;
  • Counter-Riposte: Touché,
  • Repeat as necessary.

The structure of these exchanges is a perfect example of “mis-meeting,” a term Martin Buber coined to describe a meeting with another person that tragically could have been an authentic encounter, but instead devolved into mere transaction: I use you. You use me. Bye for now. See ya next time.

Irony is necessary for the irreverence of, say, the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, but I’m talking about the irony on the streets, the moral environment we inhabit and casually, ratify through our speech and action. Here’s the deal with irony: its self-flattering subtext is “I am so wise and weary; I know so much about the world’s sad little ways.” But, what it really means is “I am terrified and don’t want you to know it, and I don’t know anything for sure.”

Epictetus would counsel us that irony is the currency of the arrogantly ignorant.

Complacency is its game. Because irony is infatuated with its barbed criticisms of everything, it fails to offer any solutions to the imperfections and problems it gleefully hints at. It is defeatism, cheap thrill, and dead end, reveling in everything being all messed up and there’s nothing we can do about it. It disguises itself as light social lubricant (hey, can’t you take a joke?) while ignoring actual human suffering or derisively chuckling at the absurd and comic, rather than caring for the pitiable or having a go at the fixable.

Epictetus would say irony is the lazy go-to stance of the coward. While hiding out in a husk of apparent levity, it tries to conceal what it doesn’t know, which is practically everything. It crouches behind a hail-fellow-well-met bush, lest it be caught in a moment of vulnerable sincerity. It thrives on the axiom that things are going from bad to worse; everyone knows it, and there is not a darn thing we can do about it except ruefully laugh. (“Can I top that drink off for you?”)

Irony is a deadly roadblock to the Stoic notion of the flourishing life as it is the obverse of shame.

It’s a poison deployed to hurt others first, before they hurt us, or to deprecate ourselves. It is a boring two-switch setting: defense or offense. Irony’s number one job is to negate the significance of this moment. It punishes the very impulse to confer significance on anything or anybody. It militates against caring and sucker punches honest conviction. It bullies the innocent who ventures a simple question. Irony regards our lives and our hopes as a pathetic, trivial joke. It corrodes the soul, pollutes the spiritual ecology by undermining trust in others and in ourselves. It’s the monstrous expression of our failed attempt at burying our fears and self-loathing.

The really stinky thing about irony is how coercive and contagious it is. In order for any conversation to advance there has to be implied, accepted common ground, however unspoken. When irony is introduced into the social milieu, it tugs at others to respond in kind, recruiting confederates.

My visit to Iowa’s irony-free zone made me realize how sick my own trigger-happy ironic impulses were making me. I turned to Epictetus who reminded me to undergo disciplined introspection and a reorientation in the direction of virtue. As a result

I am against unbridled irony and I am for the things it attempts to subdue, humiliate, and kill: gentleness, sincerity, exuberant thought, and a tremulous faith in human goodness with the possibility of improving conditions and people.

The people in Iowa were whip smart, curious, community-minded, and empathetic.

They were aware of other people’s feelings and went to pains not to hurt or insult them. When they said something, they meant it. Their Stoic humility reminded me of the best of Epictetus’ and since that experience I have gone on an irony-free diet and enjoyed a serenity that continues to sustain me.

I wish this serenity for all of you. Let’s just drop that junk!

THREE: SOUL AFFLICTION #3 Elevating the tug of feelings over logos, clear thinking.

Epictetus’ tonic is to articulate your personal code and navigate your life in accordance with it.

Why do we need a code?

The Stoic answer is to save us from our feelings. So many people and traditions extol the idea of listening to our feelings as a guide to our behavior. “Isn’t it better to just love one another?” Or to “feel compassion?” When I was younger I sampled many different spiritual traditions and learned to meditate, which I loved and still do. When I meditated I felt welcome feelings of peace and compassion. Great. But, I bet you know what’s coming. As tranquil as I felt, as at-one with everyone I felt, those feelings didn’t make me do anything, nor did they compel me to refrain from doing self-serving or foolish things. Ecstatic feelings or feelings of at-oneness are swell, but they don’t in and of themselves lead to right action nor prevent us from taking immoral action.

During the Holocaust, some Nazi prison guards wept as they mowed down women and children, but they still mowed down women and children. Feeling compassion for others can point toward right action, but it doesn’t help when doing the right thing comes at personal cost. Who hasn’t felt that pang for the homeless guy across the street, but did you cross the street to talk to him or give him money?

Epictetus repeatedly cautions us: feelings, even transcendent ones, fall short at best, and can misguide. Existential philosopher Martin Buber, who had been an ardent student of mysticism, was once visited by a young troubled student when Buber happened to be in the throes of feelings of mystical ecstasy. Because Buber was full of his private feelings of divine illumination, he was blind to recognizing the student’s immediate\ need born of pain and confusion. Buber later learned that the student had committed suicide. From that time forward Buber swore off the pursuit of rapture and espoused the value of a reason- and code-driven life. A code insures we don’t depend on the vagaries of feeling or merely improvised ad hoc self-styled virtue.

I’ve battled debilitating depression since I was 15 years old. When this beast comes knocking, its favorite motif is a grotesque magnification of the regenerative cycle of life.

Not unlike those bugs you see in the summer pathetically conjoined on screen doors, we are born; we eat; we defecate; we reproduce; we die. Then it starts all over again.

This feeling of futility is poison. It leads to self-righteous or helpless torpor. It solves nothing and can spread a lot of hurt to other people.

Epictetus taught me that such misplaced attention corrodes our souls. Stoicism reminds us to put our attention on ideas and actions that affirm the essential goodness and significance of life, that promote harmony among its constituent parts. Stoicism challenges, and I like to think vanquishes, misplaced attention: our numbness, pettiness, and the puny repetitive dramas that make us look like kissing cousins to those sadly stuck-together bugs.

Stoicism’s counsel to point ourselves toward a virtuous life ennobles us by shifting attention from the usual crud: courting other people’s good opinion, heedless acquisition of stuff, wanting to be better than everyone else, or merely longing to be thin, rich, and awesome. Stoicism compels us to make order, beauty, kindness, and harmony; to perform actions and use words that elevate our current situation, rather than debase it.

Most importantly, Stoicism asks us to place our bets on meaning.

Epictetus’ Stoicism taught me that the value in life lies in the meaning that happens in spite of us and because of our daring to care right here, right now. Stoicism asks us to give meaning the benefit of the doubt, by adopting a wild faith that this moment matters; our particular lives matter; our decisions matter; our actions matter. Our words matter. Our love matters. Our grief matters. Our searing pain matters. Our hopes matter.

Our clumsy, foot-in-our- mouth efforts matter. I matter and YOU matter and because ALL of this matters, we need to tenderly act accordingly.

Epictetus and his fellow Stoics wildly differed from one another, but they spoke as one emphatic voice in pointing out the true enemy of the best possible life: what might be called living with a shrug, barreling through one’s moments powered by half-decisions, willy nilly. Blatantly calculated evil is usually unmistakably identifiable and therefore uprootable, but the more commonplace mediocrities of thought, word, and deed are what undo a life by destabilizing our ideals and, in the aggregate, ultimately poisoning our collective moral, aesthetic, practical, and civic life. This pervasive stinginess of the spirit, which routinely passes itself off as plausible, acceptable, even welcome social behavior, not only insidiously poisons individual lives but quietly infects and degrades the social ecology as well.

Epictetus exhorts us to the discipline and self-awareness that staves off that dangerous shrug. Stoics advise that the opposite of putting logos at the center of our lives or purpose (telos) is gradual drift from our ideals in all of its guises: postponement of purposeful living, spiritual aloofness, not committing, half-measures, trivializing, or altogether ignoring what is truly important. Through culturing ourselves we fortify our character, our choices, and our commitment to the best possible life and our work within ourselves in turn upgrades the quality of life for all whom we encounter.

Epictetus summons us away from that insidious shrug to a life of earnest meaningmaking.

He reminds us that the flourishing life is our birthright, but we must speak up for it and act in its behalf. The flourishing life must be insisted upon, earned, fought for.

We do this by deciding in an apparently indifferent world that our own small life and what we do with it matters. And we act accordingly so shame is sent packing, logos is made welcome, and meaning can make a home in us.

I’m going to close now with a brief summary of everything I learned from Epictetus that I hope you will take to heart. People ask me “what have you learned from

Epictetus’ Stoicism that really changed your life?” It’s really simple, but it’s the most important thing I know.

This. One. Brief. Moment. IS. Everything: Everything.

Thank you.

Sharon Lebell is a speaker, writer, composer and musician.  She is the the author of  The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness., and the co-author of  Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey through the Hours of the Day.