How to become virtuous – Lessons from Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT)
by Tim LeBon
“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.21
Many people are attracted to Stoicism because it seems to offer something more profound than the usual self-help palliatives. Stoicism proposes philosophy as a foundation for wise living. One aim of the Stoicism Today project has always been to increase awareness of Stoic ideas and practices. The Stoicism Today team has written booklets, recorded guided meditations, started Facebook groups and given workshops at annual conferences to help spread Stoicism. At the same time it has aimed not merely to disseminate information about Stoicism but also to test Stoicism out and develop it into a modern Stoicism. To this end the Stoicism Today team has designed and administered questionnaires, emphasised some elements of Stoicism more than others and incorporated a number of ideas from contemporary psychology. Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, 6.21) alludes to one way to achieve personal and philosophical growth, namely to treat criticism as useful feedback. In this article I want to tackle two criticisms of Stoicism. By addressing them I hope to work towards making Modern Stoicism even more wise and helpful.
Two comments about Stoicism have given me particular cause for reflection. One came from participants at the London Stoic Conference of 2014. They pointed out that whilst many speakers had talked the importance of virtue, they hadn’t fully explained what virtue was or how we could become more virtuous. My Stoicism Today colleague Christopher Gill has since responded to the question What is Stoic virtue?.[i] He points out that the cardinal virtues are not plucked out of thin air.
“Taken together they [the virtues] make up the qualities essential to leading a full human life. The four are: (wisdom) understanding how to act and feel correctly; (courage) knowing how to act and feel correctly in situations of danger, in facing things seen as fearful (above all, death and other ‘disasters’); (self-control) knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing other emotions such as desire, appetite, lust; (justice) knowing how to act and feel well in our relationships with other people, at individual, family or communal level, knowing how to act generously and with positive benevolence, with friendship and affection”
The Stoic cardinal virtues then are key qualities required to flourish as a human being. Here I will look at the second part of the question – how to become more virtuous. To be sure there is already much in Stoicism and the Stoic Week handbook about developing virtue. This is not the place to rehearse the plentiful advice contained in the handbook. On careful examination, though, it could be argued that much of this (for example counsel such as “control the controllables” and “only virtue really matters”) relates more to to Stoic wisdom than the other specific virtues. One approach would be to collect all the Stoic maxims we can find about specific virtues – and this would actually be a very useful thing to do – the question is – what else can we do?
How to best build justice, self-control, courage, wisdom and other virtues is essentially an empirical question. One of the key take-home points from contemporary psychology is this:- Whilst some plausible methods turn out to work well, other, equally plausible ideas do not.[ii] Thinking about how to develop virtue in our armchairs will only get us so far. A promising idea is to look at modern evidence-based psychologies to see if they can tell us anything about how to develop virtue.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness
Two obvious candidates are Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness. Perhaps they could help us be more virtuous. Although the focus of CBT is traditionally on reducing emotional distress rather than building virtue, CBT has a huge evidence base and should not be dismissed too lightly. We can certainly use CBT to help us develop the habit of thinking more realistically and constructively, which is definitely part of wisdom. Furthermore CBT practitioners have developed a large toolkit of techniques that can be adapted to build individual virtues. Behavioural experiments, guided discovery, exposure to feared situations, thought records and formulation – to name but a few CBT tools – could all be adapted to help develop virtue. [iii] For example, to build courage you could challenge unhelpful negative thinking (“great harm will come to me if I tell the truth”) and develop behavioural experiments – for example “plan to do one act of courage today, record your predictions as to negative and most likely outcomes, note what happens and decide what you can learn from the experiment”. To build self-control you could learn to challenge thinking biases that contribute towards a lack of self-control. For example, you could challenge the short-term bias of the thought “What I gain in the short-term is more important than what I lose in the long-term”. CBT could also help you environments more conducive to virtue. For example “In order to go out for a run every day I will put my running clothes next to my bed so I put them on when I get up.” Donald Robertson’s Stoic self-monitoring record sheet is an excellent example of how drawing on CBT has already helped modern Stoicism teach us how to build the virtue of wisdom – see also my Stoic worry tree.
A second candidate is Mindfulness. Mindfulness has become part of the Zeitgeist, there is proven benefits that it can help [iv], and there is a good argument for incorporating mindfulness into Stoic Practice.[v] Learning mindfulness – the capacity to take a step back and respond rather than react – could certainly be a useful part of virtue training. However, there is reason to doubt whether learning mindfulness is there is to learning to be virtuous.
One problem is that mindfulness without the rest of virtue mindfulness could actually do harm. As Mathieu Ricard – a veteran of thousands of hours of mindfulness and a well-known exponent of mindfulness – points out – “a sniper waiting for his victim: … To succeed in his ominous goal, he has to ward off distraction and laxity, the two major obstacles to attention. The practice of mindfulness thus needs to be guided by right view and insight …and motivated by the right intention”. In other words, mindfulness needs to be guided by virtue and wisdom –otherwise it can be used in the service of morally indifferent of even evil ends – such as becoming a more skilled sniper.
So far we have found two evidence-based psychologies that can help us provide tools to develop virtue – CBT and mindfulness. We can and should incorporate these ideas into our approach – but it would be even better if we could find an evidence-based approach already uses these ideas and is more focussed on building virtue rather than part of virtue. We will return to this quest, after considering the second criticism of Stoicism that has given me much food for thought.
This objection will already be familiar to many readers. Some critics say that Stoicism comes across as a cold, unemotional philosophy, perhaps thinking of Star Trek’s Mr Spock. Unfortunately, this impression isn’t restricted to those who are ignorant of Stoicism. No less a philosopher than Martha Nussbaum has gone on record as saying that ”Stoicism is an anti-compassion tradition“. Of course, Nussbaum’s view is highly contentious. Unlike Epicureanism, its ancient rival, Stoicism has always had a strong political dimension. Hierocles’s concentric circles provides ample illustration of Stoicism’s benevolent concern for the whole of mankind. Perhaps the issue isn’t so much about Stoicism not really being compassionate, but about how Stoicism presents itself. Maybe Stoicism needs to put its most compassionate foot forwards.
However it isn’t just compassion to others that’s an issue, it’s also compassion to oneself. A couple of years ago, after I gave a workshop which included the Evening Meditation exercise, someone came up to me and said “This is all very interesting, Tim, but I’ve got a bit of a history about being hard on myself, and my worry is that this material will make it worse”. It has to be agreed that the language of Marcus and Epictetus does not always appear very self-compassionate. To take a few examples from Marcus’s Meditations
“Yes, keep on degrading yourself, soul.” (2:6)
“Stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one” (10:16)
“Enough of this wretched, whining monkey life”. (9.37)
It could very reasonably be argued that Marcus knew this was the best way of giving himself a good pep talk, and that he wasn’t suggesting that everyone else would be motivated by the same language. Marcus was, as far as we know, writing his Meditations purely for himself. However unlike Marcus, we are writing for a broader audience, including those who already have a tendency to be too self-critical. So perhaps we need to be mindful of the dangers of using compassionate language which isn’t compassionate.
So far we have looked at two apparently separate topics. First, how to help people become more virtuous. Second, how Stoicism might benefit from presenting itself in a more compassionate and self-compassionate manner. It would be very good news indeed if there was an evidence-based therapy that addresses both of these concerns.
Compassion-Focussed Therapy and Compassionate Mind Training
It’s entirely possible that there is such a therapy, and it’s name is Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT) and its related set of practices Compassionate Mind Training(CMT).[vi] CFT is an integrative, evidence-based, third-wave CBT therapy developed largely in the UK by psychologist Paul Gilbert and colleagues. CFT draws on ideas from CBT and mindfulness as well as neuroscience (e.g. Porges’s polyvagal theory.), developmental psychology (e.g. attachment theory) and philosophy, especially Buddhist ideas relating to compassion.
A key idea is that we have three emotional regulation systems. These are
- The threat system, associated with negative emotions such as fear and anger, which motivates us to deal with threats
- The drive system, associated with dynamic positive emotions such as excitement and achievement which motivates us to move towards pleasure and success and
- The soothing and affiliative system which is associated with calm positive emotions such as contentment and trust, which manages distress and promotes bonding. [vii]
Each state has typical emotions, motivations and neurochemistry. The ultimate aim of CFT/CMT is to develop a compassionate self which is strong enough to achieve optimal emotional balance between these three emotional systems.
In order to do this, CFT/CMT takes people through a number of stages, as follows:-
1) Clearing up misconceptions about what is meant by compassion. A key point is that there is much more to compassion than just being kind and warm. CFT/CMT follows the Dalia Lama in defining compassion as
“a sensitivity to the suffering of self and others, with a deep commitment to try to relieve it”.
To do this, you need much more than just sentimental warmth and kindness. If you ask people for examples of compassionate people, they will give you names like the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jesus, Mother Teresa, Florence Nightingale and Gandhi. These people may be are warm and kind, but they are also courageous, strong, wise and responsible. When CFT/CMT tries to build compassion, it also tries to build these other qualities.
It was when reading this that I had one of those “Aha” moments. Virtue in ancient philosophy means justice, courage, wisdom and self-control. Compassion in CFT/CMT is sounding a lot like like virtue in Stoicism and ancient philosophy. If CFT/CMT provides an evidence-based route to building “compassion”, could this help us with building virtue?
2) The second stage of CFT/CMT is psychoeducation about the brain, including the new brain and old brain, the amygdala and the three emotional regulations systems. An important message here is that we all have “tricky brains” and many of us have difficult pasts. The behaviours that cause you problems are not your fault. However learning to deal skilfully with your reactions and tricky brain is your responsibility. Note that CFT/CMT uses truly compassionate language – combining warmth and non-judgement with the need for courage and responsibility.
3) The next [viii] stage of CFT/CMT involves building up and strengthening the compassionate self. These include:-
- Soothing Compassionate Breathing. Breathing more slowly and deeply than usual for a few minutes to get into the habit of getting the soothing and affiliative system on line
- Safe Place Guided Meditation. Imagining a safe, welcoming place to help get the soothing and affiliative system on line.
- Mindfulness Learning how to choose a response rather than merely react
- Ideal Compassionate Self Guided Meditation. Having got the soothing system on line first with soothing breathing, imagining yourself having the qualities of compassion –kindness, confidence, maturity, strength and authority, wisdom and insight– and imagining acting in a compassionate way.
- Ideal Compassionate Other Guided Meditation. Imagining compassion flowing to you from another ideally compassionate being, imagining what advice they would give you – to help you build up the feeling of what it is like to feel compassion.
- Compassionate Letter Writing, Using expressive writing to understand your problems compassionately and planning how to deal with them more skilfully.
- Behavioural experiments Testing out more helpful strategies that cultivate compassion and self-compassion.
Can CFT/CMT help Modern Stoicism?
We are now in a position to explore whether CFT/CMT can help. Modern Stoicism and CFT/CFT have many similarities but there are also important differences.
- Stoicism is routed in philosophy, so we can expect from Stoicism more insight into the nature of wisdom as well as the many ancient practices and readings to develop it to draw on
- CFT/CMT is routed in modern science, so we can anticipate that it is based on a contemporary understanding of the brain (“in accordance with nature”) and will include many evidence-based techniques
Table 1 below gives a more complete comparison of some of the similarities and differences between Stoicism and CFT/CMT
|Aims to build Stoic Wisdom and Virtue
||Aims to build Compassion (which it turns out means building other virtues)
|Early morning meditation & Negative visualisation to help prepare for the day and build wisdom & virtue
||Ideal Compassionate Self meditation to help prepare for difficult situations and build compassion and other positive qualities
|Evening meditation & “sage on your shoulder” to help review the day and build wisdom & virtue
||Ideal Compassionate Other meditation to help get a sense of compassion and reflect on how to deal well with difficult situations
|Marucs Aurelius’s Meditations – his own personal diary to help him develop Stoic virtue
||Compassionate Letter Writing – expressive writing to help people develop a compassionate stance to themselves
|Recognises the need to be vigilant so “first movements” so they don’t turn into full-blown negative emotions
||Developing Soothing Compassionate Breathing & Mindfulness, first as exercises, then in difficult situations, to calm down the threat and drive systems and bring the soothing and affiliative system on-line so the compassionate self gets a chance to respond
|To some extent, a reputation for being cold and unemotional
||Whole focus is on being more compassionate and self-compassionate
|Based on ancient philosophy
||Based on science including neuroscience and psychology
Table 1: Stoicism and CFT/CMT – a comparison
5 Practical Ideas for Modern Stoicism
I believe that there is the potential for a powerful synergy between Stoicism and CFT/CMT. To conclude, here are five practical ideas which address the two concerns raised and could help Modern Stoicism be wiser and more helpful.
1) Use the language of compassion and self-compassion
If we start to use more compassionate language, then there is less risk Stoicism will be confused with a non-compassionate or even anti-compassionate practice. Here are some good sayings to try out
- “We are all fallible human beings.”
- “It’s not your fault.”
- “You can’t choose what’s happened to you so far – your genes, your upbringing – but you can choose how you respond to it.”
- “Work towards being the best possible version of yourself.”
All of these are often used in CFT/CMT and would l I believe would sit well in Stoic Training.
2) Learn soothing breathing and mindfulness so you have a better chance to notice the “first movements” and bring the green soothing system on line. Here are some links to recordings:- http://www.compassionatemind.co.uk/resources/audio.htm
3) Use CFT-informed Compassionate Self meditations as rehearsals for the day ahead and for challenges you face in general. These are eyes closed exercise, starting with soothing breathing. Like an actor, you imagine yourself with all the elements of virtue – wisdom, courage, persistence, justice, compassion, self-control, moderation. You imagine yourself behaving in a virtuous way, even when difficulties arises. This is obviously similar to the morning meditation and negative visualisation – the value added is in incorporating ways to bring the soothing and affiliative system on-line and to rehearse using specific virtues.
4) Use CFT-informed ideal compassionate-other meditations to review how you’ve done in the day in facing life’s challenges. Again, this is an eyes closed exercising starting with soothing breathing. You Imagine an ideal virtuous other – someone who fully embodies the virtues – wisdom (including Stoic wisdom), courage, persistence, justice, compassion, self-control, moderation. You imagine yourself interacting with this being – and that they are encouraging you, being warm to you, and also helping you become the best version of yourself. [ix]
5) Blending CMT/CFT/CBT/Mindfulness & Modern Stoicism
The Idea is to blend Stoic ideas about wisdom and other specific virtues using compassionate language and evidence-based methods like soothing breathing, mindfulness and compassionate self meditations. Over Stoic week 2015 I wrote a script for several of these, on self-control, the serenity prayer (Stoic Wisdom) and Stoic compassion . Here I will give the full script and a recording on persistence, an important quality modern psychologists call “grit”.
Modern Stoic Meditation on the Virtue of Persistence
Epictetus would say that there were two vices much blacker and more serious than the rest: lack of persistence and lack of self-control. Lack of persistence stops us from enduring hardships that we need to tolerate, lack of self-control stops us from resisting pleasures or other things we ought to resist.
‘Two words,’ he says, ‘should be committed to memory and obeyed by alternately exhorting and restraining ourselves, words that will ensure we lead a mainly blameless and untroubled life.’ These two words, he used to say, were ‘persist and resist’.”
– Epictetus, Fragment 10, “Discourses and Selected Writings”
Anyone who says that philosophers are too obscure or complicated should be made to read that quote. Stoicism couldn’t be simpler. We must commit the words “Persist and Resist” to memory and keep saying them to ourselves. Move over mindfulness, recite the “persist and resist” mantra instead.
- At the time when we feel like giving up, we can train ourselves to become aware of the negative thoughts that make us feel that way. We can then remind ourselves “This thought is just an impression in my mind and not an objective fact like it claims to be.”
- For example, if you are running a marathon and thinking “I won’t be able to finish” remind yourself
“This is just a thought, not a fact.”
- As well as negative thoughts, people often give up because of a setback or an obstacle . Here the Stoic advice to think of what the sage would do in this situation is valuable. When it comes to dealing with setbacks, I really admire the attitudes of Winston Churchill and Thomas Edison.
- Churchill said “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
- Thomas Edison suggested “Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.” When asked by a journalist how he had coped with failing in his first 10000 attempts to invent the lightbulb he responded “I had not failed. I had just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
- The Stoics give us one more relevant piece of wisdom in the analogy of the archer. An archer should take accurate aim, and then accept fate if the arrow gets blown off course. In the same way we should focus on what is under our control and not get discouraged if fate prevents success. We should control the controllables.
- So the Stoics give us four excellent pieces of advice when it comes to persisting and developing grit. We can use the mantra “persist”, we can challenge the validity of discouraging thoughts, we can reframe failure in the same way as the sages on success and failure do, and we can focus on what we can control and leave the rest to fate.
- Let’s spend a few moments using a visualisation informed by Stoicism and Compassionate Mind Training to help us build up the virtue of persistence.
- So think of something you want to achieve – it could be developing Stoicism into daily rituals, or changing career, or getting fitter – or something else that is important to you.
- If you are comfortable doing so, now close your eyes and prepare for this modern Stoic meditation.
- First to help your mind be in a calm state, let’s try a few moments slow soothing compassionate breathing.
- Imagine trying to achieve this and then something getting in the way. Now in your mind’s eye imagine saying to yourself “Persist, Persist”. Next imagine a negative thought getting in the way – perhaps “I’ll try again next year when circumstances are better”. Remind yourself that this thought is just an opinion, it’s not an objective fact. Reflect, like Thomas Edison did, on what you can learn from this setback. Perhaps you’ve learnt another way not to do it!
- Next think of something you can do that is under your control to take you in the right direction. Imagine doing it, whilst repeating to yourself–persist, persist, persist. Then imagining yourself persisting until you succeed.
- Finally imagine feeling satisfied for having persisted, despite the temptation to give up, putting into practice the virtue of persistence.
To conclude, in this article I have taken Marcus Aurelius’s advice to learn from criticisms of Stoicism to heart and explored how CFT/CMT can help develop modern Stoicism into a more compassionate practice that can develop specific virtues. We can now see that Marcus’s advice is itself an example of true self-compassion, meaning not sentimental warmth but a wise, responsible, courageous commitment to improving the well-being of oneself and others.
Tim LeBon is a BABCP accredited CBT therapist and UKCP registered existential therapist, an APPA and SPP registered philosophical counsellor and is also trained as a life coach and integrative counsellor.He is a past Chair of the Society for Philosophy in Practice (SPP) and the founding editor of Practical Philosophy. He is the author of Wise Therapy (Sage, 2001) and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology (Hodder, 2014) . You can read more about Tim’s work on his blog, Socrates Satisfied, and his website.
[i] See Gill, G. (2015) What is Stoic Virtue? http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stoicismtoday/2015/11/21/what-is-stoic-virtue-by-chris-gill/
[ii] See LeBon, T. Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology pp xi-xvi (Hodder Teach Yourself Series, 2014) for some examples of how some very plausible ideas about personal development don’t actually work so well in practice.
[iii] See LeBon, T. (2014) chapter 9 for more on the CBT toolbox.
[iv] See LeBon, T. (2014) chapter 10 for more on mindfulness.
[v] Though as Patrick Ussher has argued, Stoic mindfulness (prosoche) has a bigger part of Stoic virtue, and is a bit different from mindfulness.
[vi] CFT was originally developed to help people who have particularly high degrees of shame and self-criticism, who often didn’t respond particularly well to standard CBT. Of particular interest to us though is that is how CFT is now being extended to include broader populations. The training that is aimed at the general population as well as a clinical one is called Compassionate Mind Training (CMT) and it is this part of CFT that is particularly relevant to us here. For the rest of this article I will refer to this approach as CFT/CMT, because our focus is more on helping the general population than on psychotherapy.
[vii] See http://media.psychology.tools/worksheets/english_us/emotional_regulation_systems_en-us.pdf
[viii] In CFT (as opposed to CMT) there would be aim important third stage – understanding your problems in terms of unhelpful – but understandable – strategies developed- often sub-consciously – to deal with threats your “tricky brain” didn’t have a better way to deal with. For example, someone who fears overwhelming emotions such as sadness and loneliness may have developed drinking as a means of avoiding these emotions This understanding of problems in a new way is called a compassion-focussed formulation
[ix] See http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stoicismtoday/2015/06/14/how-to-become-more-virtuous-and-less-like-basil-fawlty-tim-lebon/ for my 2014 workshop which was aimed at developing an Ideal Stoic Advisor.