The Stoic Professional by Dan Greller

The ancient philosophy of Stoicism was developed in a vastly different era. The world of antiquity lacked the skyscrapers, smart phones and email that characterize the world of the modern professional. In this post, I’ll attempt to draw a line between the challenges of that ancient world and those of the modern workplace. I’ll make the case that Stoic philosophy has aged gracefully and applies equally to a technically advanced world that the ancients could never have envisioned.

The world of the modern professional has vast differences from those of ancient Greece or Rome. Most notably, advances in transportation and communication technologies have created a world that would be unimaginable to Marcus Aurelius. These advances have led to some marked differences in how work is conducted as well as to the pace of activities. The most significant difference would involve interconnectedness. The development of modern communication capabilities such as email, smart phones and collaboration software make us accessible in real-time, around the clock. The next major difference involves the pace of activity. In many professional settings, there is an increased expectation of rapid results, instant responses and, in general, a reduced time-to-market. In the competitive world of modern business, this pressure is relentless, with increasingly short “cycle times”.

Despite these new developments, many of the same challenges existed in the ancient Stoic world. The ancients needed to deal with difficult and petty people, political rivals, and highly stressful situations – including near constant warfare. Marcus, as emperor of Rome, would seem to be in an enviable position of power, immune to the vicissitudes of life. Instead, he faced the constant weight of high office. He dealt with a variety of ominous matters. These included such existential threats as wars, assassinations threats, and mutinous rivals. He also dealt with the mundane yet disturbing matters of adjudicating disputes, granting approvals and interacting with coarse ungrateful people.

Let’s consider some challenges of the modern work world and how we can apply Stoic wisdom as a practical tool.

Starting the Day

Our workday struggles often start with the simple sounding of our morning alarm. Often, we fight to simply get out of bed and face the harsh realities ahead. This is further exacerbated by dreary weather, the fact that it’s a Monday or by the realization that you have a high pressure deliverable in the upcoming workweek. Marcus experienced that same sense of dread and recognized the natural comfort of simply staying in bed. But the Stoics were keen on the idea of playing a role that had been assigned to them by nature. They believed that it was critical to perform this role with excellence, enthusiasm and acceptance. Marcus exhorted himself as follows:

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm? —But it’s nicer here. . . . So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?

Although you are not the ruler of an empire, you too have a critical role to play professionally. By embracing that role and understanding its importance to your organization, you establish purpose and motivation to move forward with your day.

Getting out of bed is simply the first of many challenges that we will face across the work day. Our next challenge can simply be our trip to work. Our frustrations can range from being cut off in traffic to that ‘jerk’ that holds up the line by taking too long to order their latte. Marcus also understood that he would likely have to deal with a series of jerks over the course of the day,

“Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil”

Don’t allow the anticipation of morning stresses to damper the enthusiasm and energy needed to start your workday. As a source of comfort, recognize that people have been dealing with these same issues since ancient times. Leverage Marcus’ quotes as fuel to power you forward.

Arriving at Work

Upon arriving at work, we are often met with a series of immediate stressors. Our inbox may be full, with new requests from co-workers in other time zones or from those who simply get in earlier. A glance at your calendar may show a day packed with meetings, with some requiring critical advance work.

While Marcus may have faced numerous challenges as the Emperor of Rome, he probably didn’t face the barrage of real-time issues confronting today’s professional. Nevertheless, an excellent Stoic thought is that of limiting one’s scope of focus to not be overwhelmed by a difficult and pressing situation. Marcus counsels us:

“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?”.

Often, we let the enormity of a situation paralyze us, keeping us from immediate, constructive action. For example, we may have an assignment to produce a critical presentation for senior management. Our mind instantly shifts into overdrive, ruminating over a series of rapidly changing fears. “Will I be able to source the appropriate data for this presentation?” Do I have the latest corporate standard template to use for my slides?” “Will I be able to finish all of this in time?” Our natural tendency is to allow these thoughts to overwhelm us leading to unhelpful actions such as procrastination. Marcus’ suggestion is as follows –

“Concentrate every minute like a Roman— like a man— on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice.”

His message here is to focus your energy on a single item, completing that task with excellence. You can break down a large, complex “crisis” into a series of manageable tasks. Focus on each one, without allowing the overall issue or subsequent tasks to distract or disquiet you. In the case of the aforementioned presentation, turn your “fears” into a checklist. Attack each item with unwavering focus and confidence. By “zooming in”, we can approach our challenges with greater clarity, effectiveness and equanimity.

Rightsizing our Concerns

Another way to put difficult challenges into perspective is through a Stoic exercise that modern Stoics have named the View from Above. It is derived from Meditations 7.48 where Marcus states:

“That he who is discoursing about men should look also at earthly things as if he viewed them from some higher place; should look at them in their assemblies, armies, agricultural labours, marriages, treaties, births, deaths, noise of the courts of justice, desert places, various nations of barbarians, feasts, lamentations, markets, a mixture of all things and an orderly combination of contraries”.

Marcus is again describing how trivial human drama can appear when imagined from afar. In the modern world we can go beyond mere imagination. Most folks today have traveled on an airplane, with many professionals doing this routinely. Viewing the world from 35,000 feet can create an amazing sense of perspective. Flying over a major metropolitan area, one is technically viewing millions of lives, with all of their attendant drama and intrigue. But at that height, they are all reduced to indistinguishable dots. Any one person, structure or geologic feature is inconsequential relative to the enormity of the landscape. The world you are viewing has existed for billions of years. The troubles that anyone on that “view below” is experiencing are tiny and ephemeral – and so are yours.

 Many times at work, we will lament our situation. Perhaps we have a demanding and unsympathetic boss. We may feel under appreciated, having been passed up for a recent promotion. Perhaps our teammates are unhelpful, competitive and snarky.

It’s easy to take a “woe is me” perspective, bemoaning our fate and fantasizing about a more ideal work life. The Stoics had a valuable approach to dealing with this situation. They advised that one imagine that they are an actor in a play. One has been assigned a particular role. Now it’s your duty to perform your role with excellence and professionalism. As Epictetus counsels:

Remember that you are an actor in a play determined by the author: if short, then short; if long, then long. If he wants you to act as a beggar, then act even that with excellence, just as a cripple, a ruler or a citizen. Because that is your objective: to act the role that is given to you well. To select the role is up to someone else.

Focusing on what you can control

On a similar note, the Stoics looked, in general, to accept a fate driven world. They counseled that a peaceful person would accept things as they are. As Marcus describes –

that which is peculiar to the good man, to be pleased and content with what happens, and with the thread which is spun for him

A normal reaction at this point, would be for readers to challenge the notion of fate, misunderstanding it as cynical and unhelpful. It seems to contradict the conventional notion of taking control of your career and directing your own success and satisfaction. Here it is helpful to understand what may be the most fundamental Stoic principle – control.

The Stoics believed much of what disturbed people stemmed from agonizing over things that were outside of their control.

In his opening passage in The Enchiridion, Epictetus advises –

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

The Stoics used the example of an archer to demonstrate this concept and separate our intentions and actions from the ultimate outcomes. An archer should do everything possible to hit the target. This could include training, using proper technique and focused attention. But ultimately, there is no guarantee of a bullseye every time. Something as simple, and uncontrollable as a wind gust, could blow your shot off course.

In much the same way, as committed professionals, we should practice our craft with seriousness and care. But we should understand that there are always many factors outside our control that can impact an outcome. While we may strive to complete a task with excellence, and truly believe we have met our objectives, we can’t control the opinions of others. A boss or peer may take a negative view of our work through ignorance, competitiveness or by simply having a different perspective. We may work earnestly for years, marching on a path of career progression and have our advance abruptly halted by corporate event such as a bankruptcy, acquisition or office relocation.

The Stoics would counsel that we should simply focus on our own professional excellence, measuring ourselves by how true we remain to our committed ethical values. The rest is up to fate, not within our control and not worth our worry.

Anxiety Over the Thoughts of Others

Another area of stress in the modern workplace involves reputation. Often, we are highly concerned about the views that others have of us. One particular way we see this involves public speaking or formal presentation work. Many professionals find this extremely stressful. Epictetus breaks down the anxiety of public performance through the lens of a concert musician:

Take a lyre player: he’s relaxed when he performs alone, but put him in front of an audience, and it’s a different story, no matter how beautiful his voice or how well he plays the instrument. Why? Because he not only wants to perform well, he wants to be well received — and the latter lies outside his control

Epictetus notes that the fear of being poorly received, and having a diminished reputation, creates the performer’s (or speaker’s) anxiety. But ultimately that audience reception is outside your control. All you can do is simply prepare and perform to your best ability. If you can adopt that mindset, than your next public presentation should be no more stressful than your rehearsal in front of a mirror.

In addition to concerns about our performance, we have a general tendency to obsess about the thoughts and actions of others. A particular driver of disquietude in the modern workplace is social media. Many professionals follow their colleagues on Facebook and other popular platforms. Many firms also have their own internal social media platforms. While the ancients didn’t have these modern tools in place, the notions of gossip, bragging and social envy were equally prevalent. As Marcus advises:

Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people—unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, and what they’re saying, and what they’re thinking, and what they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind.

 Our takeaway here is consistent with other Stoic principles. We don’t control the thoughts and reactions of others. We should simply focus on our own excellence and tune out the bleating of the herd.

Dealing with change

Perhaps we are able to put some Stoic wisdom to work, getting through our typical workday with composure and effectiveness. In today’s fast paced world, as soon as we’ve adjusted to our circumstances, we’re faced with a new set of challenges. As mentioned earlier, another hallmark of the modern world is an accelerating pace of change. This creates great uncertainty for people as firms, professions and job roles move rapidly in and out of favor. It’s hard to scan the news without seeing another dystopian story about the elimination of a class of jobs or an entire industry. The Stoics also viewed the world as being in constant flux. They saw this as natural, understandable and to be fully accepted. Marcus notes:

Often think of the rapidity with which things pass by and disappear, both the things which are and the things which are produced. For substance is like a river in a continual flow, and the activities of things are in constant change, and the causes work in infinite varieties; and there is hardly anything which stands still. And consider this which is near to thee, this boundless abyss of the past and of the future in which all things disappear. How then is he not a fool who is puffed up with such things or plagued about them and makes himself miserable? for they vex him only for a time, and a short time.

When you’re confronted with uncomfortable changes, view them as necessary and natural. Don’t resist changes and ruminate over them. Instead, embrace the Stoic metaphor of life as a flowing river, with constant, inevitable transitions.

Benevolent Leadership

For those professionals who rise to a level of leadership, a different challenge emerges. Now, you can be that same uncaring boss that you complained about earlier in your career. One needs to look no further than the latest news story to see disturbing examples of successful leaders in government or in the corporate world acting arrogantly or abusing their power. In his time Marcus was as powerful as any leader alive today. He understood the grave responsibilities that came with that power. He recognized the temptation to act corruptly and selfishly that came with virtually unchecked authority. He thus counseled himself as follows:

“Make sure you’re not made ‘Emperor’, avoid that imperial stain. It can happen to you, so keep yourself simple, good, pure, saintly, plain, a friend of justice, god-fearing, gracious, affectionate, and strong for your proper work….the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.”

Marcus is reminding himself to maintain his character, continue to embrace important virtues, especially the Stoic cardinal virtue of justice. We too can embrace these ideals, remembering our own roots and never allowing our values to be perverted by our own success or power.

Putting it all Together

The present world can feel like a daunting place, with new, unique challenges. Our work lives have been transformed by technology and the social pressures of modern culture. Studying and applying Stoic philosophy can act as a comforting counterbalance. The ancients faced similar problems, even if they were embodied in different forms. Stoic wisdom is valued today because it is has a universal and timeless essence. As you are confronted with an issue at work, ask yourself “how would the Stoics have handled this?” This will lead you back to a powerful toolkit that will serve you well.

 

 Dan Greller is an information technology professional who has worked in a number of corporate settings over the last 35 years. He takes an interdisciplinary approach to work, drawing inspiration from economics, psychology and philosophy. He views Stoicism as a helpful framework for establishing greater professional effectiveness and for maintaining personal equanimity.

Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy by Walter J. Matweychuk

This post is the transcript of Dr. Walter J. Matweychuk’s presentation at the STOICON 2017 conference in Toronto, Canada. Video recording of this talk and others are available in the Stoicon 2017 Resources site.

I am a clinical psychologist who was drawn to begin to study Stoic philosophy a few years ago to better understand the pioneering form of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). That distinct and pioneering approach to CBT is named Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). REBT’s creator was Dr. Albert Ellis, a very well-known American clinical psychologist who parted company with the Freudian approach to psychotherapy way back in 1955. Dismayed by the inefficiency of psychoanalytical psychotherapy, which he had been formally trained in, Ellis turned to his lifelong passion for philosophy to create a more effective psychotherapy. Albert always said that his brainchild was an amalgamation of ancient and modern philosophy which heavily borrows from Stoic philosophy.

I had the pleasure of being formally trained by Ellis, and I practice REBT in an outpatient clinic at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Every day I use this philosophical approach to psychotherapy on a wide range of clinical problems with people of various backgrounds, educational levels, and degrees of functional impairment. Over the course of my 27-year career, I have witnessed the way clients and patients come to help themselves using REBT. I have seen how people who diligently work at understanding and implementing the core principles of REBT come to liberate themselves. These people learn how not to disturb themselves when they encounter various types of adversity which renders them more effective at changing whatever they can change when facing difficult problems common to the human condition. I assume that anyone who is interested in Stoic philosophy, who uses Stoic philosophy to help themselves through the journey of life, will also very much like and benefit from learning REBT. REBT largely overlaps with Stoic philosophy and can be a very useful compliment to the practicing Stoic. My goal today is to introduce to the core principles of REBT using the words and quotations of Epictetus.

When Ellis departed from psychoanalysis in 1955, his new practical approach to psychotherapy was game-changing. Unlike other cognitive behavioral therapies that followed in its wake and were primarily developed in the confines of academia, REBT was established in the rough and tumble streets of Manhattan in New York. Ellis was a private practitioner who worked from dawn to dust helping people with multiple problems that were often quite challenging. Over his long life, it is estimated that Ellis had over 180,000 hours of face to face clinical contact helping people and he wisely turned to philosophy to find answers to their problems and for his personal strength, meaning, and happiness.

Epictetus taught that:

“It is not events that disturb people, but it is their judgments concerning them.” Enchiridion 5. He then goes on to add “So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’” Enchiridion 1(5).

Consistent with Stoic philosophy REBT argues that adversity in and of itself is insufficient to produce maladaptive, self-defeating emotional disturbance. In REBT emotional disturbance is defined as emotional and behavioral reactions that are self-defeating, unhealthy, and undermine our primary goals of survival and happiness. Ellis argued that all other goals and values were subsumed under these two overarching goals.

Ellis presented the relationship between our tacit attitudes and the subsequent emotional and behavioral reactions we display when we encounter adversity using what came to be known as the ABC theory of emotional disturbance.

Before introduction to REBT theory, people will often wrongly believe that their emotional upset is a result of encountering adversity. People will attribute adversity, assigned the letter (A), as the direct cause of their Consequential Emotional and Behavioral Reactions which I will here assign the letter (C). Ellis in keeping with Stoic Philosophy showed people that is not adversity (A), but our Basic Attitudes at point (B), in the ABC model which largely produce our consequential emotional and behavioral reactions (C).

REBT distinguishes between healthy and unhealthy negative emotions. It is important to note that healthy negative emotions are not to be erased or eliminated. The experiencing of healthy negative emotions in the face of adversity is good and self-helping and result when our desires, wishes, wants, and preferences are undermined by the presence of adversity. Healthy negative emotions result in motivation that leads to productive action to change what can be changed.

There are essentially eight healthy negative emotions which include concern, sadness, remorse, disappointment, sorrow, productive anger, relationship preserving jealousy, and productive, motivating envy. In contrast to these healthy negative emotions are eight unhealthy and self-defeating negative emotions which are anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, hurt, unproductive anger, relationship interfering jealousy, and unproductive, self-disturbing envy.

The primary characteristic of unhealthy negative emotions is that they are self-defeating. These negative feelings interfere with a person’s ability to live well with that which cannot be changed. They also undermine effort to improve things. Unhealthy negative emotions often lead to excessive behavior (e.g., aggressive behavior) or lead to self-defeating avoidance and escape behavior that is unhealthy such as excessive use of alcohol, sex, exercise, or procrastination. Most importantly unhealthy negative emotions are likely to interfere with a person experiencing some degree of happiness in the presence of unchangeable adversity.

By contrast, the essential characteristics of healthy negative emotions are that they provide us important feedback that what we value, want, desire, and prefer is not occurring. These feelings motivate us to change what can be changed and to get more of what we want and less of what we do not want. Healthy negative emotions do not undermine our efforts to achieve our goals and allow us to live well with adversity when it cannot be changed. Essentially despite the presence of negative emotion which is associated with being blocked or obstructed by adversity the individual can still have some degree of happiness despite the presence of adversity. Learning how to experience some degree of happiness despite the presence of adversity is an important skill to cultivate because the human condition is such that new problems manifest themselves throughout our lifespan. If we do not learn how to have some degree of equanimity or happiness despite the never-ending parade of problems that occur in life we are likely to have a pretty dismal existence.

Epictetus said:

 “Remember that you are an actor in a play, the nature of which is up to the director to decide. If he wants the play to be short, it will be short, if he wants it long, it will be long. And if he casts you as one of the poor, or as a cripple, as a king or a commoner – whatever the role assigned, the accomplished actor will accept and perform it with impartial skill. But the assignment of roles belongs to another. (Enchiridion 17)

Epictetus also said,

“Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.” Enchiridion 8

Inspired by Epictetus, REBT also encourages acceptance. We are very precise in our definition of what it means to accept things. In our view, acceptance means to acknowledge that something exists which is against our goals & values and that it would be preferable for this particular reality not to exist. However, in REBT we acknowledge that it does not logically follow to conclude that the negative reality must not exist. Furthermore we in REBT encourage firm determination to change the existing negative conditions if they can be changed and to have determination to adjust constructively with conditions that cannot be changed.

Epictetus taught:

 “It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them. Death, for example, is nothing frightening, otherwise it would have frightened Socrates. But the judgment that death is frightening now that is something to be afraid of. So when we are frustrated, angry or unhappy, never hold anyone except ourselves that is, our judgments accountable.

In REBT we emphasize what is called the Principle of Emotional Responsibility. Like Epictetus quoted above, we teach that humans largely disturb themselves about adversity. Emotional disturbance does not happen to us. We are not victims of misfortune so much as victims of our rigid and extreme attitudes we hold towards what other people do to us and what fate throws our way. In REBT we argue the individual nearly always has some degree of emotional choice in how he reacts to adversity.

As a result of this view the REBT psychotherapist will challenge the person experiencing emotional disturbance with questions such as “How are you angering yourself about your colleague’s misbehavior?” or “What attitude could you adopt to help you respond productively to this adversity and to live well despite its continued existence in your life?”. Leading REBT psychotherapist Dr. Windy Dryden restates Epictetus’s famous dictum this way, “It is not events that disturb people, it is their rigid and extreme attitudes concerning them.”

Epictetus taught:

“Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation…” Enchiridion 20

In REBT we teach this idea of complicity in our self-defeating emotional reactions by introducing to the client the ABC model of emotional disturbance. This framework helps the client see that their rigid and extreme attitudes, assigned the letter B, come between adversity, assigned the letter A, and their emotional and behavioral reactions, assigned the letter C. Prior to REBT therapy clients will think “My colleague made me angry because he absolutely should cooperate with me on this project!” This statement shows that the client’s model of emotion is that A (adversity) directly leads to C (emotional and behavioral consequence). The client sees himself as a victim of misfortune.

In REBT therapy we teach that healthy emotional reactions are the consequence of relinquishing rigid and extreme attitudes towards adversity and replacing them with flexible and non-extreme, healthy attitudes towards it. So the individual is encouraged to adopt a position such as “I wish my colleague would cooperate with me on this project, but he does NOT HAVE to cooperate with me. I will choose a healthy attitude towards his uncooperative behavior and then take steps to influence him to cooperate to whatever extent I can.” As a result of this flexible attitude towards a negative state of affairs, the individual will lead to healthy, productive negative feelings of disappointment, sorrow, concern and\or productive anger.

Ellis held that all humans are born and reared to hold, to greater or lesser extent, rigid and extreme attitudes. Fortunately, Ellis taught that humans also were born and reared to hold flexible and non-extreme attitudes. In his view irrational, self-defeating attitudes and rational, self-helping attitudes are part of the human condition and both are rooted in our biology. This view, therefore, implies that we will never eliminate the irrationality that lurks within us. We can greatly reduce the intensity, frequency, and duration of its expression in our lives but we will always remain fallible, humans despite having the potential for significant growth and self-actualization.

Epictetus emphasized that

“We must undergo a hard winter training and not rush into things for which we haven’t prepared.” Discourses 1.2.32

Like Epictetus, Ellis argued that humans can train themselves, through much work and practice, to detect, challenge, and relinquish rigid and extreme attitudes that underpin emotional disturbance. He emphasized deliberate effort at adopting healthy, self-helping flexible and non-extreme attitudes. He also warned that because our self-defeating rigid thinking was biologically rooted we need to guard against backsliding as we can easily return to previous counterproductive ways of thinking, emoting, and behaving. Here again the way to prevent backsliding through work and practice of rational thinking, emoting and behaving, much like Epictetus advocated.

Unlike other modern cognitive-behavioral psychotherapies that have followed REBT, I argue that REBT is both a philosophy and a system of psychotherapy. As psychotherapy, it teaches people to question and relinquish their rigid and extreme attitudes and to adopt flexible and non-extreme attitudes. As a philosophy, it suggests values to live by which I will cover towards the end of today’s presentation.

Epictetus taught that “Learning that does not lead to action is useless.” Discourses 1.29.35 REBT also encourages the active study and use of the rational attitudes discussed in the psychotherapy session. To this end, clients are encouraged to reflect on their rigid and extreme attitudes when they are in their home environment to help themselves when they disturb themselves between sessions. We encourage clients to study REBT and to gain a firm understanding of its core ideas through home study that can take the form of reading self-help books on REBT or listening to instructional audio on REBT like those found at my website REBTDoctor.com. Like Epictetus we want the client to live and act in a way consistent with REBT philosophy and to forcefully dispute their rigid attitudes when disturbed, to practice through repetition healthy, rational attitudes, and to strive to live in harmony with them when the going of life gets rough!

The theory of REBT holds that four attitudes are responsible for nearly all non-psychotic emotional disturbance. One attitude is primary, and three derive from it and are secondary. Ellis humorously named the core attitude “musturbation” but also referred to it as “Demandingness.” He argued that absolutistic, rigid, dogmatic, anti-scientific attitudes were at the core of emotional disturbance. These attitudes can be expressed in different ways with words like (absolutely) must, (absolutely) should, (absolutely) have to, and (absolutely) need to. Ellis taught clients to assume that just about all their dogmatic musts fell under three major headings as follows:

  1. “I absolutely must perform well on important projects and be approved of by significant people or else I am an inadequate and unlovable person!”
  2. “Other people, particularly those I have cared for and treated well, absolutely must treat me kindly and fairly, or else they are rotten individuals who deserve to suffer!”
  3. “The conditions under which I live absolutely must be easy, unfrustrating, predictable, secure, and enjoyable or else the world’s an awful place, I can’t stand it, and I’ll never be happy!”

From these three musts at the core of emotional disturbance, three extreme secondary attitudes arise. These derivative attitudes are:

  1. It is awful, terrible, the end of the world (Awfulizing)
  2. It is intolerable, unbearable, I cannot stand it (Discomfort Disturbance)
  3. The Devaluation of self, others, life (Disturbance related to Human Worth

REBT teaches that if rigid attitudes are the core of disturbance, then flexible attitudes are at the center of emotional health. The characteristics of these healthy flexible attitudes are that they are empirically valid, logical and promote adaptation to the circumstances of life. They are typically expressed with words like want, wish, prefer, and desire. For example, in reference to the previously mentioned individual who has been angering himself over a colleague’s uncooperative behavior in the workplace, this man could move towards greater tolerance and emotional equanimity by holding the attitude “I want and strongly prefer that my colleague cooperate with me on this project, but it does not follow that he absolutely must cooperate with me on this project.”

As for the three derivatives non-extreme attitudes that derive from this healthy attitude of desiring and preferring cooperation from one’s colleague, those attitudes would be:

  1. It is bad, undesirable, inconvenient, etc. but not awful, terrible or the end of the world that I do not have his cooperation on this project.
  2. My colleague’s lack of cooperation is uncomfortable but not unbearable, intolerable, or something I cannot survive and live with as I do this project.
  3. My colleague is doing a bad deed by not cooperating with me but is not a bad person. His bad behavior is proof he is a fallible human, not proof he is a bad human. I can unconditionally accept him as a person while strongly condemning and never liking his bad, uncooperative behavior.

An alternative way of understanding the philosophy of REBT is that through the adaptation of flexible and non-extreme attitudes the individual to adopt a philosophy of unconditional self-acceptance (USA), unconditional other acceptance (UOA), and unconditional life acceptance (ULA).

Epictetus taught:

 “If you are ever tempted to look for outside approval, realize that you have compromised your integrity. So be satisfied just being a philosopher, and if you need a witness in addition, be your own; and you will be all the witness you could desire.” Enchiridion 23

In my view this quotation is similar to REBT’s view of unconditional self-acceptance.

Epictetus goes on to say:

“We use labels like ‘thief’ and ‘robber’ in connection with them, but what do these words mean? They merely signify that people are confused about what is good and what is bad. So should we be angry with them, or should we pity them instead?” Discourses I.18.13

In this quote I think we see Epictetus teaching a view of others that is highly consistent with REBT’s view of unconditional other-acceptance.

Epictetus also teaches:

Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: This is the path to peace.”Enchiridion 8

I think this view by Epictetus is very close to REBT’s concept of unconditional life-acceptance.

Earlier I pointed out that unlike other cognitive behavioral therapies which followed it, REBT has and articulates specific philosophical values. Ellis argued that by striving to adopt these values a human would be moving towards emotional well-being and self-actualization. Here you see REBT going beyond the treatment of emotional disturbance and pointing the way towards emotional health and life satisfaction. Depending on your definition of what constitutes a philosophy, one could argue that it is the articulation of these guidelines that makes REBT more than a psychotherapy and perhaps a philosophy. These values include:

  1. Self-interest (enlightened self-interest)
  2. Social interest
  3. Self-direction
  4. High frustration and discomfort tolerance
  5. Flexibility in thinking, open to change, unbigoted
  6. Acceptance of Uncertainty
  7. Commitment to creative and meaningful pursuits
  8. Scientific thinking
  9. Self, Other and Life Acceptance
  10. Calculated Risk-taking
  11. Long-range hedonism (hedonic calculus)
  12. Nonutopianism & nonperfectionism related to self, others, and life
  13. Self-responsibility for own emotional disturbance

(REBT’s Principle of Emotional Responsibility)

Time does not allow me to point out the overlap between most REBT’s values for emotional well-being and those found within Stoic philosophy. I have already attempted to point out how discomfort tolerance, self/other/life acceptance, and the Principle of Emotional Responsibility can be seen in the quotations of Epictetus. I would show how REBT’s value for long-range hedonism is consistent with the words of Epictetus as shown in this quote:

 “As with impressions generally, if you get an impression of something pleasurable, watch yourself so that you are not carried away with it. Take a minute and let the matter wait on you. Then reflect on both intervals of time: the time you will have to experience the pleasure, and the time after its enjoyment that you will beat yourself up over it. Contrast that with how happy and pleased you’ll be if you abstain. If the chance to do the deed presents itself, take extra care that you are not overcome by its seductiveness, pleasure, and allure. Counter temptation by remembering how much better will be the knowledge that you resisted.” Enchiridion 34

I would like to close my presentation today by asserting that you consider adding REBT to your study of Stoicism. I believe that REBT is very consistent with many of the teachings of Stoic philosophy. I attempted to use Epictetus’s own words to support my view. I will add that like Stoicism, REBT is a tough-minded philosophy that holds up well when your worst nightmare or adversity occurs. I think REBT can help you as you strive to live virtuously as a fallible human in a challenging world.

For those of you who are mental health professionals or involved in philosophical coaching my recently published book, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy – A Newcomer’s Guide may be useful to you if you wish to go beyond today’s presentation. For those of you who are not mental health professionals but wish to learn more about how you can use REBT in your life you may want to go to my website REBTDoctor.com. There you will find a number of audios and videos you can listen to at no charge. Finally, Ellis was a prolific writer of self-help literature and here a couple of three of the many titles that might be useful to you in learning to apply REBT to your problems of everyday living include:

  1. How to Make Yourself Happy and Remarkably Less Disturbable (A. Ellis)
  2. How to Stubbornly Refuse to Miserable About Anything, Yes Anything! (A. Ellis)
  3. How to Control Your Anger Before It Controls You(A. Ellis)

Thank you for your attention.

Walter Matweychuk is a clinical psychologist and REBT practitioner.  He teaches for New York University, maintains the website, REBTDoctor.com and is the co-author of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide.

Stoic Echoes in the Upanishads by Eric O. Scott

What is the cause of the cosmos? Is it Brahman?
From where do we come? By what live?
Where shall we find peace at last?
What power governs the duality
Of pleasure and pain by which we are driven?
—The Shvetashvatara Upanishad, 1.1

When you subscribe to a tradition as rich and universally relatable as Stoicism, it’s almost impossible not to see parallels to Stoic doctrines in other philosophies, books, movies, and poems.  If we were keeping score, I would probably nominate Rudyard Kipling’s “If—” to take top points for the most “Stoic-non-Stoic” writing ever to impact a culture, and whole books could be (and have been) written on the intersection between Stoic and Christian ethics.  We all like to compare and contrast new ideas against what we know and understand, and—as any moderator of a modern Stoic social media group knows—the list of objects we could substitute into the formula “How is Stoicism like X?” is effectively endless.

When it comes to Eastern traditions, Buddhism certainly takes the cake as far as being the most-discussed philosophy in the modern Stoic community (I count at least eight articles on Buddhist links in the Stoicism Today blog alone, and our Western Buddhist brothers and sisters, for their part, have also noticed the common ground).  Taoism is a close second, thanks to the (at least superficial) similarity between Laozi’s ziran/wuwei and Zeno’s injunction to “follow nature.”  Confucianism gets mentioned occasionally (though not often enough, in my opinion) for the close common ground it shares with Greco-Roman virtue ethics.

Amidst all this bustling conversation in today’s “Fifth Stoa,” Hindu philosophy often goes under-appreciated, I think.  A few months ago, inspired in no small part by Peter Adamson’s spectacular History of Philosophy without Any Gaps podcast and book series, I undertook to read the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita (which is sometimes known as the “Upanishad of the Upanishads”)—the famously beautiful texts that form the cornerstone of Indian philosophy—and what I found there pretty much knocked my socks off.

Reading the Upanishads is an amazing and sublime experience for anyone, whether you are an expert or a novice on Indian thought, and whether you are a theist, are sympathetic to mysticism, or are a secular atheist like myself.  As a practicing Stoic, moreover, I can’t help but notice substantial similarities in the questions, solutions, arguments, and metaphors that both traditions share in common.

Granted, traditions as distant divergent as Hinduism and Roman Stoicism no doubt have more differences than similarities, and it is extremely difficult (some say impossible) to really compare two lived traditions of life practice in a remotely comprehensive way.  It’s not that I put a very great or profound weight on the similarities between these two different traditions, or that I believe they are more similar than any other pair of philosophies.  We must always be cautious, I hasten to add, about the misconceptions we might get by trying to fit distant square pegs into familiar round holes.  But I do find it exhilarating to point out the shared problems and values that humans come to emphasize, even across vast geographical and cultural distances.   Collecting the “seeds of virtue,” as the ancients would say, that humans exhibit all across the world is an excellent way to go about learning about new cultures—and, I would add, to learn about ourselves in the process.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let me share a number of significant (if arbitrary and unsystematic) correspondences to the Upanishads that struck me—a practicing modern Stoic born and raised in the American Midwest—as eerily familiar, even profound during my amateur tour of the Indian classics.  As I read, the sheer number of connections grew at a much faster rate than I anticipated, and when I started to haphazardly jot them down, I realized that the common ground between the Stoic and Hindu classics is much weightier than I anticipated.

Summary

Overall, I’ve noticed correspondences in three broad areas: resilience and happiness, ethical action, and theory versus practice.

Under resilience and happiness, I noticed that both traditions recognize right out the door that their value system will need to be defended against skeptical readers who ask challenging questions.  Like Stoicism, the Upanishads deny that externals have genuine value, and they insist that happiness comes from some unassailable place within ourselves.  They even invent some of the same metaphors that the Stoics used later to drive home this point: where the Stoics have an “inner citadel,” the Upanishads give us the “city of Brahman,” and where Stoic determinism gives us a “dog tied to a cart,” the Upanishadic view of the body gives us an “ox tied to a cart.”

When it comes to ethical action, both traditions position themselves as a “middle way” that balances unhealthy (and amoral) detachment from the world against irrational and destructive passions.  The Upanishads present an idea of socially-engaged, “detached action” that inspired no less than the likes of Ghandi.  Like the Stoics, moreover, they suggest that our natural human emotions and senses—while not ultimate goods in themselves—are meant to help inform and motivate our actions toward moral excellence.  The Upanishadic of view of Karma also turns out (unexpectedly, in my perhaps naïve view) to have a strong parallel to the role that moral habituation plays in the Greek view of ethical development.  And the Stoic ethic of cosmopolitan love, with its basis in the universal Logos shared by all humankind, turns out to have a startling similarity to the Hindu-Buddhist-Jain notion of ahimsa, which the Upanishads attribute to humankind’s universal share in the Self (Atman).

Finally, the famous Stoic emphasis on the primacy of practice over theory is strongly mirrored in the Upanishads.  And while their metaphysics and epistemology appear very different on the surface—with the Stoics emphasizing reason, argument, and materialism, in contrast to the Upanishads‘ meditation, non-cognition, and universal Self—I found that the mystic emphasis on consciousness as the fundamental property of the universe feels quite similar, on some level, to the Stoic fascination with the Logos that structures the cosmos and underlies our human capacity for thought.

That summarizes the story I want to tell.  The rest of this essay will go through and explain each of these purported correspondences in more detail.

Resilience and Happiness

Preempting Skeptics

Both the Upanishadic and Stoic traditions advocate for the extirpation of emotions and values that many people normally associate with happiness and flourishing.  This means that, at their core, texts in both traditions tend to be aware that readers may very well be skeptical of the values they present.

For instance, in one of the longest and most famous of the Upanishads—the Chandogya Upanishad—no less than the god Indra himself gives voice to such skeptical concerns. Each time Indra repeatedly approaches the god Prajapati to become enlightened, he comes away dissatisfied by Prajapati’s answers.  Finally, when Prajapati tries to tell him that realizing Brahman is like “sleeping soundly, free from dreams, with a still mind,” Indra has had enough (8.11.1):

The state of dreamless sleep is very close to extinction.  In this knowledge I see no value.

This exchange struck me as closely related to the initial objections that people often have (starting with Crantor’s famous objection to Stoicism in the 3rd century B.C.E.)  to the Greek doctrine of apatheia.  If pursuing philosophy means suppressing our natural human emotions and instincts, then that sounds like the opposite of healthy flourishing!   Both traditions handle this objection in part by agreeing with it:  suppression of human nature is indeed unhealthy, but that is not what we advocate.  Whatever you may need to sacrifice to follow our path, great, genuine happiness and flourishing is nonetheless to be found without the attachments and passions that we have rejected (via, say, the eupatheia, or the lasting joy found in moksha).

Externals Aren’t the Point

Both traditions share a de-emphasis on the inherent value of pleasure and external things.  Both see externals as natural and worth enjoying, but teach that there is something more important and deeply joyful than pleasure.  See especially the remarks that Yama (the god of death) makes after testing Nachiketa in the Katha Upanishad:

Perennial joy or passing pleasure?
This is the choice one is to make always.
Those who are wise recognize this, but not
The ignorant.  The first welcome what leads
To abiding joy, though painful at the time.
The latter run, goaded by their senses,
After what seems immediate pleasure.
Well have you renounced these passing pleasures
So dear to the senses, Nachiketa,
And turned your back on the way of the world
That makes mankind forget the goal of life.

We can easily see connections here to the way the Greeks discuss joy, flourishing, and the human telos.  Both traditions also emphasize the control of the passions, and the existence of a form of consciousness that can rise above sense impressions.  Both teach that this higher part of our existence is part of our fundamental nature.

Happiness is Invulnerable

Along a similar vein, both teach that we can find true happiness by seeking something that we carry within us already.  “Seek and realize the Self!” says the Chandogya Upanishad  (8.7.1):

Those who seek and realize the Self fulfill all their desires and attain the goal supreme.

Moreover, in the ensuing interaction between the gods Indra and Prajapati, we see the same insistence as in the Greeks that the answer to our life’s fulfillment ought to be something that is preserved in the face of any misfortune.  Much like in Stoic syllogisms, Indra rejects the body as the ultimate Self, because it can be injured and become blind or lame; he rejects dreams, because we can experience pain and injury even in dreams, etc.  At each step, he repeats “in such knowledge, I can see no value.”  Like the philosophers of ancient Greece, he is looking for a source of consolation that is utterly invulnerable to misfortune.

Citadels, Dogs, and Carts

Interestingly, I noticed two key metaphors that the two traditions seem to have independently invented: the citadel and the cart.

The Stoic image of the inner citadel is comparable to the comforting role that the “city of Brahman” plays in the Chandogya Upanishad (8.1.5).  Just like the Stoics use the ultimate value and invulnerability of virtue as the basis of their consolations, the Upanishads emphasize the permanence and supreme value of the Self (Atman):

Never fear that old age will invade that city; never fear that this inner treasure of all reality will wither and decay.  This knows no age when the body ages; this know no dying when the body dies.  This is the real city of Brahman; this is the Self, free from old age, free from death and grief, hunger and thirst.

Something very similar to the Stoic “dog and cart” metaphor appears in the Chandogya Upanishad (8.12.2):

In that state, free from attachment, they move at will, laughing, playing, and rejoicing.  They know the Self is not this body, but only tied to it for a time as an ox is tied to its cart.

The Katha Upanishad also uses a vivid depiction of a chariot and horses to describe the parts of the Self.  This is awfully similar to Plato’s famous chariot allegory, though used to different effect.  Granted, the Stoic and Platonic views of human nature differ substantially, but it’s an interesting parallel nonetheless.

Death

Finally, both traditions share an interest in death meditation.  Notably in the Katha Upanishad (1.6):

like corn mortals ripen and fall; like corn they come up again .

Ethical Action

The Middle Way

A second critical objection that both traditions must fend off is the question of how, once we accept the claim that what is really valuable comes from within, can we motivate a life of action and ethical engagement with the external world?

The Upanishads and the Baghavad Gita respond to this challenge by emphasizing the need for a combination of detachment and action.  The basic argument is that we are wretched if we neglect either one.

An especially stirring statement of this principle is found in the Isha Upanishad.  Mahatma Gandhi famously considered the Isha, which is one of the shortest of the Upanishads, to be the most important summary of Hindu philosophy.  Here is what it has to say about action:

In the dark live those for whom
The world without alone is real; in night
Darker still, for whom the world within
Alone is real.  The first leads to a life
Of action, the second to a life of meditation.
But those who combine action with meditation
Cross the sea of death through action
And enter into immortality
Through the practice of meditation.
So we have heard from the wise.

This suggests that the life of an enlightened Sage assumes the form of a middle way between total detachment and totally attached action.  For me, this passage in the Isha evokes Epictetus’ remarks about the similar balance Stoicism aims to strike (Discourses, 2.5.9):

It is difficult, to be sure, to unite and combine these two states of mind, the vigilance of one who feels attracted by outside objects, and the composure of one who feels indifferent to them; but all the same it is not impossible.  For otherwise it would be impossible for us to be happy.

Stoicism too, of course, positioned itself as a middle way between Cynicism (which they considered overly detached, sometimes to the point of amorality) and the Aristotelians, Epicureans, and Cyrenaics, who they viewed as falling into the opposite extreme.

Detached Action

The notion of “detached action” also plays a key role at the beginning of the Gita.  This component of Indian tradition established very early on that we should do good for its own sake, not out of concern for external reward or even Karma.  The parallel here to Greco-Roman virtue ethics is strong and obvious.

On that note, the god Yama briefly mentions that our emotions toward external things help “prompt us to action” (Kata Upanishad, 2.1).   This is also a popular interpretation of Stoic proto-passions—the idea being that our natural human emotions serve as information processors or warning signals that may help focus our attention and prompt us toward our duty.

Moral Habituation and Karma

The concept of moral habituation, which is absolutely fundamental to much of Greek ethics (from Socrates and Aristotle to the Stoics), makes an appearance in the Upanishads as part of the explanation for how the law of Karma operates (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.5):

As a person acts, so he becomes in life.  Those who do good become good; those who do harm become bad.

This argument did a great deal to demystify Karma for me.  Rather than a cosmic “scorekeeper” that somehow tracks our actions and pays out rewards, the Upanishads describe Karma as the natural results of a process of moral habituation:

We live in accordance with our deep, driving desire.  It is this desire at the time of death that determines what our next life will be.  We will come back to earth to work out the satisfaction of that desire.

While the Stoics weren’t generally sympathetic to the Pythagorean theory of a cycle of rebirths, this view of Karma nonetheless resonates with the Stoic focus on training our desires and aversions to be directed at what is truly valuable in life.

Cosmopolitanism and Ahimsa

The Upanishadic case for universal love is based on the idea that we love others because the universal Self (Atman) lives in all of us (the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 2.4.5):

Everything is loved not for its own sake, but because the Self lives in it.

And again in the Chandogya Upanishad (8.7.4):

When you look into another’s eyes, what you see is the self, fearless and deathless.  That is Brahman, the supreme.

This tradition is what gave rise to the famous concept of ahimsa (nonviolence), so prevalent across Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

Both ahimsa and the rationale behind it strike me as remarkably similar to the Stoic notion that humanity belongs to one family because of our mutual share in the Divine Reason (Logos).  The analog to ahimsa, then, is the cosmopolis.

Unlike ahimsa, however, classical Stoic cosmopolitanism (like Western tradition more broadly) excludes concern for animals (since animals do not share in Reason).  Most contemporary Stoics, I think, consider this a clear shortcoming of our tradition: we are very much interested in expanding the sphere of Stoic Justice to explicitly include concern for animals (see for instance Leonidas Konstantakos’ essay, “Would a Stoic Save the Elephants?“).  Whether we can do that by appealing to a more general notion of the Logos that includes animals, or whether we need to rely on additional moral arguments, is a question I hope today’s Stoics will work on and flesh out.

Theory versus Practice

Going Beyond Books

Wisdom is found in practice and self-understanding, not in book smarts.  Epictetus’ remarks about the inadequacy of simply mastering Chrysippus’ logic (as impressive a feat as that may be) find a parallel in the incomplete education of Shvetaketu in the Chandogya Upanishad (chapter 6), and to the impressive resumé of Narada, who has, it seems, learned absolutely everything except how to live a good life (7.1.2–3):

I know the four Vedas—Rig, Yajur, Sama, Atharva—and the epics, called the fifth.  I have studied grammar, rituals, mathematics, astronomy, logic, economics, physics, psychology, the fine arts, and even snake-charming.  But all this knowledge has not helped me to know the Self.  I have heard from spiritual teachers like you that one who realizes the Self goes beyond sorrow.  I am lost in sorrow.  Please teach me how to go beyond.

Along these lines, the Mundaka Upanishad also draws an interesting distinction between “higher” and “lower” knowledge (1.4–5).

The illumined sages say
Knowledge is twofold, higher and lower.
The study of the Vedas, linguistics,
Rituals, astronomy, and all the arts
Can be called lower knowledge.  The higher
Is that which leads to Self-realization.

Consciousness and Logos

The tradition of Stoic physics is one that brings us right up to the edge of mystic territory, even if it stops short of entering into the same sorts of meditations or conclusions that we associate with mystic tradition proper.  As such, Stoicism shares with the Upanishads (and other mystic traditions) a fascination with consciousness, and a belief that consciousness (or something closely related to it) is a fundamental aspect of the universe.

“All reality is consciousness,” says the Aitareya Upanishad, in one of the four great utterances that are considered to sum up Upanishadic philosophy.

Conclusion

The ecumenical view I have presented here notwithstanding, in the last analysis it may very well be that the differences between Stoic and Hindu traditions dramatically outweigh their similarities.  The cultural context, metaphysical assumptions, and matrix of background models and questions that each of these literatures arose in were entirely different.  Here I haven’t attempted anything resembling a proper introduction to the traditions inspired by the Upanishads and how their special characteristics differentiate them from Greek and Western thought.  But to highlight one fundamental difference, the Upanishadic approach to knowledge and to ultimate human flourishing places heavy emphasis on using meditation to look into ourselves to discover the essence of both our nature and cosmic reality.  Take for instance, the Shvetashvatara Upanishad (1.2,11):

In the depths of meditation, sages
Saw within themselves the Lord of Love,
Who dwells in the heart of every creature…

In deep meditation aspirants may
See forms like snow or smoke.  They feel
A strong wind blowing or a wave of heat.
They may see within them more and more light:
Fireflies, lightning, sun, or moon.  These are signs
That they are well on their way to Brahman.

This idea is of meditation and self-realization is a (if not the) major unifying theme of the Upanishads, and it does not strike me as at all equivalent to the Stoic aspiration toward virtue, or toward using scientific inquiry to understand the cosmic Logos.  It thus seems to represent a fundamental difference between the two traditions’ methods and aim.

Nevertheless, by taking the time to think about the common ground between a few of these foundational books from human history, I’d like to think that I’ve learned more, not just about Indian philosophy and what it considers important for human life, but about Stoicism too, and what makes the path of the prokopton valuable and meaningful.  If resilience and happiness, ethical action, and a practical approach to theory are what jump out to me as salient when I compare the Stoics to the Upanishads, it suggests that those three kinds of activity are the pillars of what really matters in Stoic practice.  All the other details—whether it is the logic of Chrysippus, or the “Vedas and linguistics,” or “even snake-charming”—is secondary.

 

Eric “Siggy” Scott manages the Stoics for Justice group on Facebook and writes the blog Euthyphroria. He is especially interested in the interactions among Stoic practice, personal social engagement, and social justice advocacy. In real life, he is a PhD student in computer science at George Mason University, where he does research on machine learning and evolutionary algorithms.

Stoic Parenting in the Age of Distraction by Meredith Kunz

Growing up, I watched my dad concentrate on his work. When I was very small, he had a desk in the attic of our three-story house where he’d intensely study his complex math problems in peace. Later, he used to sit and think on the screened-in front porch as the world went by in good weather, or bend over his clipboard on a chair in the living room when it was too cold outside. No matter who was passing through the room or what noises were blaring from TVs or radios, he kept working. He could concentrate deeply no matter what the circumstance, pursuing research in his head and making notes on his page.  

It’s something I’ve always found intuitive: You need to tune out the rest of the world to get something truly good accomplished. But it’s much easier said than done.

Cutting through the noise is a key focus of Stoic thinking. Distractions, when not about entertainment, are often about status, reputation, wealth, attire, food, drink, or other things that don’t really contribute to our real accomplishments in life. They are the trappings of what we want, the side effects of outward success—a mere distraction from what our minds and “inner geniuses” (a favorite term of mine from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations) truly need.

Sorting this out, though, is more complicated than ever these days. When I watch my older daughter deal with the stresses of middle school social life, I remember my own experiences growing up. I think back to just how difficult it was to try to rise above petty fights or pulls of peer pressure, the distractions of crushes and desires to impress everyone, to win attention or respect. But it’s worse now. Social distractions are writ large in social media. What used to be a minor moment of embarrassment can turn into a major debacle online, maybe even cyberbullying.

And screens keep popping up everywhere we look. We are surrounded by distractions, in the form of games, shows, videos, popups, podcasts, movies, news flashes, tweets, status updates, and much more.

Today’s online networks are designed to tap into reward systems in our brains, pumping us with dopamine when we get a positive response, keeping us coming back for more “likes” and “shares” until whole hours are consumed. Even reading news online—a favorite activity of mine—is perhaps just another form of distraction. From a Stoic point of view, I can’t control 1) how people respond to me and my posts and 2) how the news, politics, and external issues outside my direct circle develop. So why devote so much time and energy to focusing on both of these things?

Here’s the real question: how can we keep our attention on what really matters? Somehow, we have to become stronger in our efforts to fight distractions, big and small.  

For me, Stoic thinking is about working on the self first. By doing so, we can free our minds and bodies to do the real work, aiming for achievements that make us better people and the world a better place.

The exact nature of that work is less important than the ability to turn our own virtues into something good—whether through raising a healthy and (relatively) well-adjusted child, creating beautiful works of art (especially functional ones, like the quilts I enjoy making), leading a battalion, developing a new technology, building a house, teaching someone a fresh skill, writing a blog, or just about anything that you and others can find value in. For me, the work is about first, raising my daughters, and second, exploring how Stoic thinking and a mindful approach can help me and those I love create a good life.

The ancient Stoics worried about distraction from good work, too. Marcus Aurelius offers these thoughts in his Meditations, which we must recall were his notes to himself:

Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man—on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can—if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable.

I am not a man, nor a Roman, but I do long to concentrate with “genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice.”  And I am intent on becoming less “aimless” and “irritable”—especially as a mother and as a wife.

But to me, Marcus’ words read like a rather harsh pep talk. For today’s world, I’d like to try shifting the emphasis to address an encouragement for modern people, and, in particular, parents. Let’s stop and consider how to bolster parents’ ability to concentrate on their task, and to do it “tenderly, willingly, with justice.”

Everyone agrees that distracted parenting is a rising problem, at least in the US where I live. It’s obvious from even a casual observation: Go to any school pickup area or any local park and you’ll see dozens of parents or caregivers intently studying their phones.

Our devices not only offer entertainment for us as adults, which in many ways is more appealing than talking with or interacting with our own children. Let’s face it, sometimes hanging out with kids can be dull, so it’s hardly a moral failing to want stimulation—but we should be aware of the impact. (Dull might be an understatement. I remember my daughters going to the park as preschoolers and covering and uncovering their feet and legs with sand umpteen times. It only got “interesting” when another girl decided to throw sand in my kids’ eyes and we considered a trip to urgent care.)

Our phones also pull us away from other parents, robbing us of a community of people who could share in our challenges and give us some much-needed support. In fact, I’m quite embarrassed to recall the time when I acquired my first smartphone. My older daughter was entering school at a local elementary program where I knew almost no one. Sadly, I used the iPhone to shield my face from some parents who seemed scornful of me. It’s hardly an excuse, but I felt terribly awkward after trying to start a conversation a few times at class pickup, and being ignored or answered tersely. So the phone “rescued” me from facing other adults.

Now I try harder. When I have to wait to pick up my kids, I attempt to avoid automatically going onto my phone. I look for some other parents to connect with. And when I take the kids to the park, instead of gluing my face to the latest FB posts, I either talk with the kids or other people there, or I take a brisk circular walk around the perimeter, observing not just the children but the trees, birds, plants.

There is one fundamental problem, though, something that I doubt Marcus experienced as a man and a Roman. It’s this: the act of parenting itself is not only dull at times, it is really an exercise in constant distraction.

From the moment they are born, children are unpredictable beings with many needs. You never know in advance how to plan for all feedings, playtime, lessons, bedtime. I recall being told that babies are on their own schedule, and mothers (and fathers) are simply living according to their needs (for food, sleep, etc.). Parents who attempt to strictly enforce timed boundaries and pre-planned events quickly learn that the struggle to maintain a tight schedule is nearly impossible.

Many, many, many times my children have interrupted my work. For years I was their primary caretaker, always on call when they were at home, which was the bulk of the time. Even now, as a grade-schooler and middle-schooler, they still turn to me and their dad for help.

That presents a tough problem for parents: How do we find a sense of concentration and a freedom from unhelpful distractions as moms and dads?

I’ll propose a few key thoughts here. They may seem obvious, but helping to recall these and validate them as modern Stoics can make the fight against distraction more real and more serious.

First, when we turn to our devices, we can remember the real purpose of why we use technology. Is it to gather likes and friends? To get retweets? An online popularity contest leaves me cold. I’ve never been a joiner or a follower, in fact, and I find it odd to see the numerically huge networks some old acquaintances have built online.

I don’t love interacting solely online, because I crave a real connection with people, both in my personal life and in my professional career. The best way to do this is in person, where I can focus on an individual’s face, voice, expressions, and have a real face-to-face conversation and back-and-forth exchange. If that’s not possible, I’m still glad to connect and share, but I try hard to do that authentically, with passion and purpose, to share news or to forge a genuine link or to spread information or to teach/learn something, to make connections I’m not able to do in person because of some logistical limitation. I try to avoid what I perceive as bragging and attempt to measure my words so they don’t make someone else feel small.

Technology is a tool. It can bring us great learning and ability to remotely work and spread ideas far and wide. But to me, it’s not an end in itself.

Second, while with our children, we can strive to be present and mindful. Parents can do their best to bring a sense of focus and concentration to time with our children, though we must be willing to suffer countless interruptions. I have worked on this, and often failed, but I still continue to do so.

As kids get older, their needs drastically change. They are more able to do much more, and we should not be afraid to expose them to new things that separate us from our typical distractions. I recently took my older daughter to a “sound healing,” an unusual combination of Tibetan singing bowls, meditation, and silent visualization. We shared this rather incredible experience, both learning a new way to focus on internal thoughts.

Kids can learn to be more present, too, and to be less encumbered by distractions, if they are not constantly amused and entertained. When I noticed parents at the table next to me setting up an iPad with an animated movie in front of their toddler child while eating at a restaurant, I felt intensely sad. (I was glad when my daughters agreed.) And hiking on a hillside trail in Yosemite, we came across a man with a toddler in his backpack, watching a video on an iPhone while he hiked through an incredible wilderness. My family was rather horrified.

This approach teaches that children have a constant need/right to be entertained and distracted by fun, stimulating movies, and that parents do not need to work on being present for their kids while eating or hiking or doing just about anything. As much as we all love movies and shows, we have to agree on some limits.

Third, even though we generally feel our kids come first—and that’s a very good thing—we can still consider blocking out time for “deep work.” I liked Cal Newport’s 2016 book Deep Work—he reminds readers of what my dad instinctively knew. We need to allow time and energy for doing more difficult tasks if we want to achieve something, and we must commit to really putting in the effort.

Epictetus spoke of this in his handbook. He pointed to an Olympic athlete, saying that everyone would like to be so strong and fit. But people do not realize that in reality, it takes enormous work, sacrifice, and dedication to get to that level of competition. It means missing out on the rest, comfort, food, and pleasures of regular life, and training long and hard. Are you willing to make tough choices to do what you feel called to accomplish?

If so, the first step is to work towards gaining the most precious resource: Time. As parents, we have to pay for time from sitters or daycare, but it’s often worth it to have the opportunity to get some time to focus. (If you can’t afford it, you may be able to swap babysitting time with other parents.)

It may not be easy. To concentrated deep work, you won’t only miss time with the kids. You will have to turn down the fun downtime distractions you enjoy. We can’t stream the latest Netflix series while we work on a passion project. To make the time, we have to be willing to give up something else.

But at the end of it, you will have done far more than consume someone else’s entertaining work—you’ll have created something of value, for you and for others. And that goes far beyond the fleeting pleasure of the endless parade of distractions.

Meredith Kunz is The Stoic Mom. She is a professional writer, editor, wife, and mother to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoicism and mindfulness can change a parent’s (or any person’s) life. Her passion project: a book-length version of The Stoic Mom, focusing on modern women, motherhood, and Stoicism. Follow her blog at www.thestoicmom.com.