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:
- The questioner starts by asking the following question: “Are you willing to answer truthfully, in service of serenity?”
- 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.
- The answerer (with help of the questioner’s probing) provides a statement that has four components:
- A scene. Describe what factually happened
- A trigger. Describe when the emotional triggered occurred
- A negative emotion. Describe what the emotion is like.
- Optional: A initial interpretation of why the trigger is bothersome
- The questioner then asks forthright questions to determine what are the “controllables” and “non-controllables” within the scene provided.
- 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.