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.

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.

Wyoming Stoic Camp Coming Up May 14-18

The University of Wyoming Department of Philosophy is once again hosting their Stoic Camp, running from May 14 to May 18, 2018 – an excellent opportunity not only to study and apply Stoic philosophy, but to do so in a setting of considerable natural beauty – Table in the Wilderness camp, in Centennial, Wyoming.

Activities for the event include intensive small and large group studies of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, talks by invited speakers, early morning and evening hikes, partaking in good food, as well as unstructured down time.  Other outdoor activities participants have the opportunity to engage in include hiking, bonfires, and waking up to the sunrise on the final morning (a direct response to one of the Roman Emperor’s recommended meditations).

The goals of the Stoic Camp are to experiment with living in a thoroughly philosophical way, using the Stoics as models, and to explore what it means to live intentionally.  Registration for the camp is US$300.00, and includes lodging, meals and books.  Students may inquire about discounted prices for students.

For more information about the Wyoming Stoic Camp, you can check out their Camp Information flyer, or go directly to their website. The application form can be found here: Application.  Enquiries can also be sent to: UWYOStoicCamp@gmail.com