An Evening of Stoic Meditation

N.B. This is reposted from our Ancient Healthcare: Modern Wellbeing blog.
“MA Student Patrick Ussher reports on the recent Medication event held at the University of Exeter: On the 22nd February, 2012, the University of Exeter’s Meditation Society held an exploratory session with the theme

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius ‘Stoic Meditation: Learning from the Wisdom of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.’ The session was led by Prof. Christopher Gill, professor of Ancient Thought in the Classics department, and by Patrick Ussher, MA Classics student. It was  part of the University’s mental wellbeing day.

The session began with Prof. Gill outlining the core principles within Stoic psychology as well as a discussion on what Stoicism can offer today. On this, Prof. Gill put forward that Stoicism has ‘…a coherent and powerful philosophy of life, based on a connected framework for correlating ethics with psychology and our study of the natural universe.’ We then turned our attention to Marcus Aurelius and the meditative nature of his ongoing philosophical dialogue with himself, as well as the specific principles within those dialogues. As an example,  4.3.1-3 was used:
‘People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills. But this is altogether un-philosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself at any time you want. There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind, especially if he has within himself the kind of thoughts that let him dip into them and so gain ease of mind; and by ease of mind, I mean nothing but having one’s own mind in good order. So constantly give yourself this retreat and renew yourself. You should have to hand concise and fundamental principles, which will be enough, as soon as you encounter them, to cleanse you from all distress and send you back without resentment at the activities to which you return.’
On the basis of this passage, Patrick led the sort of ‘self-retreat’ one would imagine Marcus to have given himself regularly. This meditation lasted about 20 minutes, and was focussed on four central Stoic principles or ‘truths’ which the audience was invited to reflect upon. They were:

1)    May I remember that which is in my power and that which is not in my power.
2)    We are not disturbed by events but by our opinions about event.
3)    The Universe is change. Life is opinion (‘Life is what you make of it’).
4)    Do not act as if you had ten thousand years still to live…rather while you still can, while there is still time, make yourself good.


This meditation was also informed by mindfulness practice with the meditators encouraged to become aware of their body and breathing before and after the main reflections. Feedback from this first session was positive with one student commenting that it was ‘all good common sense’ and another that the ‘bigger picture’ these phrases offered would complement well mindfulness meditation which is more explicitly focussed on calming the mind than with larger questions of how to conduct life in general.

The session then turned to another passage (3.11), an example of what is known as the ‘stripping method’. This is essentially a process of seeing events in life clearly: ‘…always make a sketch or plan of whatever presents itself to your mind, so that can see distinctly what sort of thing it is when stripped down to its essence as a whole and in all its parts.’Prof. Gill discussed this passage and gave relevant, and moving, examples of how it could be applied.

Then, we turned to the Stoic ‘View from Above’, or seeing your place vis à vis the rest of the universe. After reading a passage (7.48) in which Marcus advocates this approach to himself, Patrick played a pre-recorded ‘View from Above’ meditation. The text for this meditation was adapted slightly from D. Robertson’s The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy. The recording lasted 20 minutes, during which time the participants lay down on the floor and followed a visualization which explored one’s place in the universe. It should be mentioned that the scientific understanding of the universe used in this recording was up-to-date and not based on 2nd Century AD understandings of the universe. This visualization was well-received and followed by lively discussion. The session finished with a short ‘Headland’ Meditation based on MA 4.48:

felsinderbrandung_BLOG‘Be like the headland on which the waves continuously crash. And it just stands firm and gathers the waters around it to rest.’

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Prof. Gill for his time and energy, and also to all those who came to this unique experiment. From the feedback received, it seems clear that Stoicism could offer a viable form of advice for modern-day living or that it could, at the least, be a very useful supplement for those already practicing forms of mind-training, such as meditation.  May this be the first ‘Stoic-Meditation’ session of many!
You can listen to the ‘View from Above’ Meditation here. It is slightly adapted from Donald Robertson’s Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

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