Stoic Reflections From The Gym (part 1) by Greg Sadler

In recent years, we have had a number of well-written and informative pieces discussing Stoicism and physical exercise or sport here in Stoicism Today.  These include pieces like:

One might wonder then:  Why another piece on the topic.  Hasn’t everything relevant already been said about the application of Stoic philosophy to matters athletic, sporty, or exercise-related in those excellent pieces here, as well as in myriad other pieces (ranging much more widely in quality) elsewhere? After all, once Stoicism became a hot topic – guaranteed to garner eyeballs on the internet – posts applying Stoicism to these matters of the body have practically exploded in number, popularity, and readership. Why write more of that sort of stuff, given how much of it is out there already?

Then again, perhaps a different sort of post would be better.  There’s always room for pieces narrating and sharing one’s own story, by way of inspiration and personal example.  After all, Stoicism is a philosophy of practice and that means that it applies to particular individuals, who live out and experiment with Stoicism’s general teachings.  Or maybe a more exegetical post tallying up and interpreting the many references to training, working out, and athletic contests could be of interest?

This post will be something a bit different. While it includes some brief discussion about what classic Stoics had to say about exercise, athletics, and the body, and a good bit of personal narrative, the goal is to provide something more broadly useful.  The audience I have in mind is less a high-performance athlete engaging and perhaps even competing in physical skills or sports.  It’s not even the person who already has exercise as a central component of his or her lifestyle.  It’s directed less towards readers in their teens and twenties – those years many of us look back on as ages of better bodily health which we may have taken for granted – and more aimed at an audience either approaching, solidly within, or past middle age.  That’s not to say that it might not be useful or of interest for the types of readers I’ve mentioned.

The reflections that follow stem from my own experiences, insights, and reflections having to do with exercise.  These are filtered  through Stoic philosophy and practices, which I have relied upon over roughly the last year-and-a half of workouts at the gym we belong to (the Wisconsin Athletic Club, with a number of locations here in the Milwaukee area).  My wife and I struggled for years to reincorporate consistent exercise into our busy lives.  When dealing with heavy workloads, health challenges, and a slew of family matters, it becomes easy to sketch out plans for getting back into shape. It is equally easy to sign up for a gym membership, and perhaps even to go a few times.  To stick with exercise, week after week, that’s considerably tougher.  For me, reincorporating exercise in middle age turned out to be much more difficult and demanding than it was in my youth.

My workouts at the gym are pretty straightforward and unambitious.  Some days, I make a circuit of 14-16 exercises using weights machines, generally doing three sets of 12-15 repetitions on each.  That takes me anywhere from 1 hour, if I’m really moving, to 90 minutes.  Other days, I put in an hour of cardiovascular exercise – 20 minutes on an elliptical, 20 minutes on a rowing machine, 10 minutes on a side-stepper, and 10 minutes on an inclined treadmill.  Those workouts, supplemented by daily walking and occasional hikes, are as much as I can fit in, and I find them sufficiently challenging to be entirely uninterested in adding anything along lines of advice well-meaning people frequently suggest.

During those workouts, I find myself with plenty of time to reflect and ruminate. Since I study, teach, and produce content about Stoicism, ideas and issues from that discipline are often in my thought.  Being at the gym also provides me with a lot of occasions to put Stoic philosophy into practice. I find myself having to deal with impressions, judgements, lines of thinking, emotions, desires, aversions, and my own habits. The fact that I have classic Stoic passages, principles, and practices ready at hand when I face these matters is, on the one hand, a sign that I am indeed making progress.  The fact that I still routinely need to use those is, on the other hand, a sign that I have a lot more progress to make.  

The reflections that follow may be useful for others who would like to bring Stoicism to bear on their own challenges in starting and sticking with regular physical exercise.  I suspect that, given the challenges they stem from these reflections may be pertinent to other domains of life as well.  In order to keep this piece to a reasonable length, I’ll discuss two of those sets of reflections today.  In the coming week, I will add a few shorter follow-up pieces about yet other reflections.

Considering the Body As Indifferent

Classical Stoic thinkers employ many analogies likening the training of the mind with that of physical exercise and discipline.  What did they think about training the body itself?  One might think that they are of two minds about this.  For example, you notice Epictetus asserting in Enchiridion 41 that one sign of an poorly developed person is spending much time on matters of the body.  These include eating and drinking, but also engaging in exercise (gumnazesthai). 

Seneca cautions Lucilius along these lines in Letter 15.

It is foolish. . . and unbefitting an educated man to busy oneself with exercising the muscles, broadening the shoulders, and strengthening the torso. . . . .Those who are obsessed with such a regimen incur many discomforts.

He does not suggest ignoring physical exercise, but rather placing it within a proper framework.

There are ways of exercising that are easy and quick, that give the body a workout without taking up too much time. . .  running, and arm movements with various weights, and jumping. . . Choose whatever you like and make it easy by practice.  But whatever you do, return quickly from the body to the mind and exercise that, night and day.

Within classical Stoic philosophy, there is a clear, consistent, and uncompromising viewpoint on the human body.  Those who focus upon it exclusively or even primarily are deeply mistaken, and whatever they may temporarily achieve or attain through the body, they are inevitably passing up any chance at real happiness, because they are closing themselves off to developing what really matters, and what we really do have some measure of control over.  This is our mind, and in particular the nexus at its core that Stoics call by various names (picking out distinctive functions):  the governing faculty, the rational faculty, the faculty of choice or will (prohairesis).  Prioritizing and valuing physical exercise for its own sake, or for the sake of ends it leads to as a means (being strong and tough, attaining a certain look or body type, becoming more physically attractive, competing with others, etc.) is not inherently or absolutely incompatible with developing and exercising one’s mental and moral capacities, but for many people it turns out to be so in their specific cases.

Strictly speaking, the body is what the Stoics classify as an “indifferent,” something that lacks intrinsic moral value, for good or for bad.  This is not to say that as an indifferent it lacks value altogether, but it does not have the same sort of positive or negative value as things that are genuine goods or bads.  In their teachings and advice, Stoics provided numerous examples of things that fit under this umbrella term of the indifferent.  Wealth and poverty, honor and disgrace, positions and powers or being a “nobody” – these are all commonplace examples.

Interestingly, if you look at many of the things that Stoics call “indifferents,” they pertain to the body in one way or another.  Life or death, sickness or health, pleasure or pain, strength or weakness, attractiveness or ugliness – the body is not just one thing that is an indifferent, but rather a nexus of all sorts of indifferents. Quite a few of these are interconnected with each other.  If we look at matters of the body along these Stoic lines, what do we make of hitting the gym then?  Doesn’t whether we go or don’t go – or whether we exercise hard or slack off – also become just a set of choices that bear upon indifferents, so that really, they don’t matter very much (or perhaps at all)?  In the grand scheme of things, does it matter at all if I do all of the repetitions in a set?  Does it matter if I skip one of the weights exercises on any given day, or just row for 15 minutes rather than 20? 

For Stoics, recognizing that things concerning the body are indifferents doesn’t lead them to think that how we approach them, how we deal with them, the decisions me make about them is itself something indifferent.  There is the entire dimension of “use” (khresis), about which Epictetus tells us:

Materials are indifferent, but the use that we make of them is not a matter of indifference.  . . . Are externals to be used carelessly?  Not at all.  This is again to the moral purpose an evil and thus unnatural to it.  They must be used carefully, because their use is not a matter of indifference, and at the same time with steadfastness and peace of mind, because the matter is indifferent

Discourses 2.5

In this discourse, Epictetus likens the conduct of one’s life to playing a game with a ball.  The ball itself is an indifferent, but the way one choses to play is up to one, and does have positive or negative moral significance.  One might look at one’s body in a similar light.  Whether one chooses to exercise or not, one can experience pain, bad health, weakness, obesity, and ultimately death.  In fact, as I often remind my students, you can get and maintain yourself in peak physical shape and get hit by a stray bus as you cross the street, or succumb to some unexpected pandemic.  In many ways the body and its many connected indifferents is really outside the scope of our control.  And yet, we can make prudent use of our bodies by engaging in regular physical exercise. We are responsible to some extent for the shape our bodies are in, and what we choose to do about that.

As a middle aged man, for whom physical exercise never comes as easily or effortlessly as I remember it did in my earlier decades, I have to remind myself that it is up to me what I do with this rather out of condition meat-machine I have been assigned.  In my own case, I also have to keep in mind that the current state of my body is a result of not making the right uses of it in terms of exercise in the past, but that it is possible in the present to choose, to commit, to “use” better.  Whether or not the parts of some  machine of metal, plastic, and rubber get moved in this way or that by my bodily effort – that is definitely something indifferent.  Whether or not my muscles, bones, circulatory system benefit in minor incremental manners from the physical activity I devote time to – that’s also indifferent.  But what I decide to do with this body that I have – that is something up to me, something that is not indifferent. 

Recognizing The Gym As Shared Space

One main way in which I make use of Stoic philosophy at the gym stems from a tendency that I have, and admit with some embarrassment, but which I suspect many people can easily relate to.  Nearly all of the exercises that I do at the gym are on machines.  Either they are weights machines or they are machines set up for cardio.  Like many gym-goers, I have my established routines for how I cycle through using each machine in turn.  I like to start my weight circuit with the rowing machine, then the pulldown, then the shoulder press, and so on.  I start my cardio workout on one of the elliptical machines, and then move on to a rowing machine.  There is no reason that the exercises that I do need to go in any particular order.  It’s just a matter of habits that I have generated for myself over time.

Here’s what I find myself experiencing, still far too often, but also find some remedies for in Stoic philosophy.  It is a set of needless and unproductive thoughts and associated emotions that arise within a particular context. These reveal some of my own assumptions as well, judgements that I am working to erode over time, because they are selfish, irrational, and harmful.  In a strict sense, considered in light of Stoic philosophy, they are also vicious – specifically foolish and unjust – and setting them down in print makes this pretty clear.  I have to go through a similar evaluative process when I identify them and bring them up for review in my own mind, usually as I’m laboring away at a physical exercise.

I will be on the machine that I’m currently using, laboring away at whatever exercise that machine is set up for, and I already have my eye on another machine – the one that comes next in my usual sequence.  If someone else is using it, and I am getting close to finishing with my current machine, I find myself feeling emotions like annoyance, anxiousness, and impatience, often directed at that person on the other machine.  It’s worse if there is some seeming legitimacy to those feelings – for example, when you see a person taking what appears to be an inordinately long time to knock out their sets, spending the intervals between dawdling on their phone.

Notice what I did just there, by using the term “dawdling”.  In Stoic terms, that’s a judgement or opinion (doxa or dogma, to use Epictetus’ terms) which might indeed be quite true, but which could also be false.  I’m assuming something, or most likely, quite a lot of things, in making that judgement.  It’s also a way in which I’m giving assent to what Stoics call an appearance or impression (phantasia), namely the impression that the person on the other machine is wasting time doing something unimportant on their phone, rather than getting on with the workout they ought to be engaging in, if they’re on that machine.  Practicing Stoicism means identifying when one is engaging in this sort of unfounded judgement-making, when one is reacting automatically or unconsciously to appearances, rather than taking a pause to test them.  It could be that the person is on their phone for good reason.  Perhaps they got an important text, or an email came through that has to be attended to.  Maybe they use an app to track their exercises. 

Let’s say that the person in question really is wasting time, watching videos on YouTube about something trivial and totally unconnected with exercise.  Let’s say that he or she is caught up in that, losing track of how much time is passing in between their sets.  Why should that be upsetting to me?  I rarely know any of the people I am sharing the gym space with. Nearly all of us have headphones in.  How is it any of my business whether that other person gets a good workout in?  It brings to mind Epictetus’ warning:

Somebody is hasty about bathing; do not say he bathes badly, but that he is hasty about bathing.  Someone drinks a great deal of wine; do not say that he drinks badly, but that he drinks a great deal.  For until you have decided what judgement prompts him, how do you know what he is doing is bad?  And thus the final result will not be that you receive convincing impressions of some things, but give your assent to other things.

Enchiridion 45  

What other people do at the gym is really their own business.  So why then do I find myself having these responses – before I am even finished with my own exercise – to another person using the machine I intend to use next?  My desire is already stretching out into the near future to the thing I plan to use next.  It’s not unlike a person who already has a plate in front of him, with a dish he hasn’t finished yet, looking over at the next dish he wants to eat, and getting upset seeing other people eating it.  There’s something profoundly foolish about that, and even more so in the gym.  Someone else might eat all the deserts while I’m polishing off my main course.  But nobody is taking away my possibility of using an exercise machine by sitting on it.  I just have to be patient, and sooner or later the machine will be free.

When I examine my own thoughts about these matters, in the situation, what I realize is going on is that I have desires, emotions, and thoughts that from a Stoic perspective could use some serious work.  Human beings do tend to have a natural self-centeredness, not just in terms of what we desire and what we value, but also in the assumptions we make and the lines of reasoning we follow out, and I am no exception.  I have to remind myself in these situations that I am the one who is allowing myself to become upset by assenting to impressions I have of the situation, by failing to reflect upon what might or might not be the case, by investing my desires into things I have no control over, by making faulty assumptions about what ought to be the case, and by inconsistently acting as if I am – if not the center of the universe – at least the center of the gym.

Whether or not I do my exercises in the more or less arbitrary sequence that I have settled into is really unimportant.  The only thing that gives it some glamour of significance is my own desire to do my exercises in that order.  They can be shuffled around and no real harm will come to me.  The weights aren’t going to be less heavy if I do the leg press last instead of in the middle of my workout.  The rowing machine will function the same if I get on it at the end as well.  Nobody is hindering or preventing me from exercising by doing their own workout.

Marcus Aurelius constantly reminds himself – and Epictetus and Seneca frequently teach – that we are all parts of greater wholes, systems whose components can cooperate and harmonize with each other in productive ways, or oppose each other and create conflicts.  I’m not claiming that somehow the Wisconsin Athletic Club is an organization in which all of us members are working together for some common goal.  But what it does provide is indeed a space that we all share and have to take turns in.  It may sound quite silly, but I have to remind myself of the fact that I’m definitely not the only person there to get a workout, and that it’s irrational for me to be mentally laying claim on a machine that someone else is using, when I’m still using another machine – one that yet another person might also be waiting to use.

Through catching my own thought and emotional processes, recalling relevant Stoic teachings, and deliberately steering myself onto a path informed by those, I’ve noticed a difference over time.  I still do find myself falling into this dynamic of worry over being able to move right from the machine I’m currently using to the one that comes next in my workout routine – and I’m not happy to admit a foible like that – but it does happen less often.  And when it does arise, the emotional responses feel less intense and do not last as long.  The thought processes are more tractable to being brought in line with better practical reasoning.  And that is a sign that I’m making progress in developing what the Stoics call the ruling faculty of my mind, getting it too into better condition through appropriate and consistent exercise.

 Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects

Modern Stoicism Expert Panel Posts – Stoicism, Pain, and Illness

Over the last several months, we here in the Modern Stoicism organization have published several posts about one of the perks for our Patreon supporters – discussions by our panel of experts on Stoicism on selected topics. We’ve been publishing the full set of contributions to the panel in the Patreon site, and one of the experts’ contribution in a short mid-week post here. This time around, we’re doing something a little different. Down below, you’ll find the full panel discussion on the topic of “Stoicism, Pain, and Illness”

Before that, there’s two other matters to bring to your attention – just in case you missed them when we posted about them earlier this year.

First, here are the two earlier posts on other important topics

Second, if you’d like to suggest a passage or topic for our expert panel to consider, we now have a link set up for that – Suggest a Quote or Topic for Discussion

And now, with no further ado, on to the expert panel for May. Here’s the question: What insights does Stoicism provide to help us cope with Pain and Illness?

Chuck Chakrapani

Stoicism treats pain and illness as something that relates to your body. Your body nothing to do with the ‘true you’ which is your rational mind, your will. The mind is temporarily housed in the body, like a traveller in a hotel room. Pain and illness that affect the body have little to do with your mind which is forever unfettered and free.

Sickness is an impediment to the body, but not to the will, unless itself pleases. Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will; and say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens. For you will find it to be an impediment to something else, but not truly to yourself.

Epictetus, Enchiridion 9

Pain and illness affect you only when you identify yourself with your body rather than your rational mind or will. While Epicurus argued all pain is bearable, the Stoics believed that the real you never suffer pain or illness. It is this lack of identification with the body that made them immune – not only to pain and illness but to death itself.

Massimo Pigliucci

There is, I assure you, a place for virtue even upon a bed of sickness. It is not only the sword and the battle-line that prove the soul alert and unconquered by fear; a man can display bravery even when wrapped in his bed-clothes.

Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, LXXVIII.21

Stoicism is a philosophy of life, not a magic wand. So if someone thinks that adopting a Stoic outlook means that he will suddenly be free of pain and illness, they should think again. And of course the same could be said for someone embracing Buddhism, or Christianity, or any other framework to live one’s life.

The fact is that it is not in our power to avoid pain and illness. But as Seneca says in the quote above, it very much is in our power to react virtuously to such circumstances. Indeed, the entire 72nd letter to Lucilius is concerned with this topic, and is excellent reading for any student of Stoicism.

Most importantly, I think, we need not to allow ourselves to use our illness as an excuse to be rude or unkind toward others, particularly those who are actually taking care of us. It’s more common than you think: a friend of mine has worked in a clinic for the terminally ill, and told me that they have a chronic staff shortage due to high turnover, which is caused in part by the fact that the caretakers are subjected to constant abuse by the people they assist. Even dying is an opportunity to show kindness to our fellow human beings. As Seneca puts it in the same letter:

There are times when just continuing to live is a courageous action.

Letters, LXXVIII.2

Greg Sadler

Many of us suffer from pain and illness, some more often than others, and Stoicism can help us not only to endure these conditions, but also to reframe our approaches to them, so that we can realize them not to be the catastrophes that they readily appear to us.  Of course, it isn’t so simple as just reading some Stoic texts, or repeating “bear and forbear” like a mantra – there are no quick fixes.  But Stoicism offers us powerful tools for analysis of what really troubles us, and for changing the ways we look at those matters.

One aspect that adds additional suffering to those enduring pain and illness is a set of evaluative assumptions that often accompany those conditions.  These have to do with one’s value as a person.  And this dynamic extends much more broadly to other circumstances that we typically view as negative, for example, poverty, as Epictetus points out in Discourses 3.26. He asks the person who fears poverty what it is that they really feel fear over.  One of the answers that his probing analysis reveals has to do with a loss or lessening of social status.

Is that shameful to you which is not your own act? Of which you are not the cause? Which has happened to you by accident, like a fever or the head-ache? If your parents were poor, or left others their heirs, or though living, do not assist you, are these things shameful for you?

It is quite common for those who suffer from pain, or illness, or poverty to get an additional troubling condition foisted upon them by society and its members.  It’s very easy for people who are dealing with these sorts of matters to be looked down up, treated as less than a person, even by their own caregivers.  In this Discourse, Epictetus not only suggests that we ought to determine what really is shameful – which has to do only with what we choose and do, not with what happens to us – but that we even push back against other people’s judgements about our value and what it derives from.  

All too often, those who suffer from chronic pain or illness get the message that there is not only something wrong with their body – and that’s true – but that, because of that, there is something wrong with them – and that inference is false.  It is easy and understandable for a person who is suffering, and consistently getting those sorts of messages, to internalize them, and then create more suffering for themselves by repeating them to themselves.  Stoic philosophy and practice can help undo the damage caused by that dynamic, and restore some measure of psychological health in the process.

Tim LeBon

Stoicism can be a great help to those suffering from illness and pain.  As a CBT-therapist working in the NHS in the UK with people suffering from “long-term conditions” I regularly incorporate what I call “Serenity Prayer Stoicism” into my work.
When people have long-term illnesses or pain, they can be helped by thinking carefully about what they can and  what they cant control.  For instance, 

  • “I can’t control the fact that I have this condition but I can control how I respond to it”
  • “I can no longer gain pleasure and meaning in the way that I did, but that doesnt mean I can’t do so in other ways”
  • “I can’t control the fact that I will experience some pain. but by “pacing” my activities to the right level I can influence how much pain I am in”

These can all be incredibly helpful Stoic ideas which  can be incorporated into standard CBT.  Working as a therapist, it is ethically problematic to try to persuade people to change their value system, which is what one would need to do if one were to ask people to fully embrace Stoicism fully.

In other contexts than therapy, if   people do agree that virtue  is what matters most in life, then clearly this can help enormously in coping with illness and pain, Feeling good now becomes at best a preferred indifferent, and so pain and illness are not an obstacle to eudaimonia. Indeed, being ill and in painprovide new opportunities to exhibit the virtues. One can show courage in how one deals with pain, self-control in not complaining or not over-doing things, justice in being a good role model for people with your condition and wisdom in prioritising the virtues and in focussing on what you can control.

When about to be captured by enemy forces, James Stockdale, author of Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, and Courage under Fire  famously whispered to himself “I’m entering the world of Epictetus”.. When ill or in pain, we could all benefit from engaging whole-heartedly with Stoicism.

Again, if you’d like to support all the work we do, as the Modern Stoicism organization, consider becoming a monthly Patreon supporter!

Gratitude in my Attitude: How I Found my Way Into the Rooms of AA and the Stoics

My name is Frank and this is my experience with Alcoholic Anonymous and my recovery from alcoholism. I am not a spokesperson for AA nor do I hold a position in AA.

My last drunk was October 7, 2013, it was a boys’ night out. I was attempting to prove that I could handle my drinking like the other guys, so I took a cab so I didn’t have to worry about driving. I’d made it home with no consequences and was sitting in my La-Z-Boy in my tighty-whiteys, when the phone rang. It was the woman I was dating at the time. Apparently, I’d thought it would be a good idea to get into my car and drive over to her place, except that she lived 20 miles away, her exit was a cloverleaf and I could not get off the highway. I just kept getting on and off, on and off, until I ran out of gas.

The last thing I remember was sitting at home. When I woke up the next morning, she told me she’d found me on the side of the road and had brought me back to her place. We went to the gas station to fill up a gas can and when we got to my car, I saw that the driver’s side mirror had been sheared off. I must have hit something. Back home, I assumed the “Oh shit” position – my head in my hands, staring at the ground. I knew I had a problem but I didn’t know what to do.

I come from an Italian background and had grown up in the 1970s, in an average NYC household. Money was tight, religion was there but not forced, and drinking was the way I saw adults being happy and having fun. Making wine was a yearly event, and my first and fondest memory of alcohol and its effects were when I was around 10 or 11. My grandparents would come over and we would start by crushing the grapes, laughing and having fun. In 3-4 days, the aroma would waft up from the barrels in the garage. One of my chores was to churn the crushing, and when I did, the aroma would hit my lungs and I’d get lightheaded. I was never late for this chore. After 7-10 days, the sugar converted to alcohol and it was my job to scrape the crushing from the barrel after we took out the juice. My father and grandfather would put the barrel on its side so I could reach inside and scoop. The alcohol fumes were much stronger now, and I would be in the barrel up to my waist. It was beyond lightheadedness. The effervescence would fill my lungs and I would get the same feeling/sensation that I would chase until I made it into the rooms of AA.

There was plenty of debauchery, fear, pain, misery, shame, and guilt. Drinking cost me my marriage. I knew nothing about AA, or recovery but a couple of months before, a friend had given me a book called The Golden Book of Resentments. I’d never looked at it, until that day. I read Step One and said, “That will do it.”

I white-knuckled it for 3 months, but nothing got better. There was still plenty of fear and shame, and the thought of a drink ran through my head constantly. One day, I was talking to a friend and said, “I don’t drink anymore.” “I don’t drink, either,” she said. “What meetings do you go to?” “What do you mean, meetings?” “You don’t go to meetings?” she said. “Do you think you might want to go to one?” “Okay.” At this point I would try anything to feel better.

Funny, how the cosmos work. I hadn’t even known she was in AA. So, I called the friend who’d giving me the book, and said it was suggested that I go to a meeting. He said, “I think that’s a good idea,” and took me. At my first meeting I raised my hand and said, “My name is Frank. I’m an alcoholic.” Something shifted; I cried and felt a sense of relief. The obsession to drink lifted. I went to meetings and got a sponsor, who took me through the steps using the BB, and the 12 & 12. (BB is short for Big Book which is the basic text used by Alcoholics Anonymous.)

In the rooms of AA with the Twelve Steps and my sponsor I built the archway that I walked through a free man, and which led me to the Stoics. On my journey I was searching for anything that might help me spiritually because my childhood faith did not help nor did I want it. Then I found some old quotes and everything changed. They fell in line with what I was learning from going through the Twelve Steps. I read in The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: “Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.” I identified with these sayings and realized that they were along the same lines as the principles I was learning in AA. So I looked up Marcus Aurelius and discovered he was an emperor of Rome. The words “Stoic philosopher” appeared next to his name. So I began reading up on the Stoics.

I’d found out later in life that I was born with only one kidney, which led me to believe I was inadequate and not the same as everyone else. I felt abandoned by everyone, including the god of my childhood. When the doctor informed me about my kidney, he explained to me the importance of taking care of it. So, what did I do? Just what the BB describes as the alcoholic. I could not moderate or stop my drinking, even for a good reason. I made this realization early in my sobriety. It gave me the acceptance of being an Alcoholic, and the drive I needed to dive into AA.

As I looked to enhance my spirituality, I found the Stoics. The foreword of the 12 & 12 states that the basic AA principles were borrowed from religion and medicine. With that, I found some old quotes and everything changed. They fell in line with the basic principles of AA, and they also mentioned God, a God of my understanding.

This one got me: “Resentment, bitterness, and holding a grudge prevent us from seeing and hearing and tasting and delighting” (Marcus Aurelius). So, I looked up the Marcus Aurelius, learned he was Emperor of Rome and the words Stoic Philosopher appeared next to his name. I then looked up the Stoic Philosophy and found the stoics are pantheist, which is:

  1. A doctrine that identifies God as part of the universe or the universe is a manifestation of God.
  2. Worship that admits or tolerate all gods.

That hit me. I was reminded of when Ebby told Bill in the kitchen “Why not choose your own conception of God?” or when Bill uses the word cosmos or universe throughout the book.

When I read the quote from Marcus Aurelius on resentment, I realized the BB has a whole chapter on them and on pg. 64 is the statement, “Resentment is the “number one” offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.” I had plenty of Resentments and realized they were holding me back.

Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.

Marcus Aurelius

Brought me right to the BB pg. 23, There is a Solution. “Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body.” I now understood that my mind & body were very sick.

Stoicism and the Art of Happiness by Donald Robertson explained Stoicism in the way the BB explained how to recover from Alcoholism, so I kept going forward with my AA and Stoic schooling. In they are my defects and my assets of character so I read books, took courses and learned more about the Stoics and the 12 steps. I use some Stoic principals in my AA program, first and foremost Gratitude.

I look for gratitude in everything that happens, good or bad. Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics have many different views on gratitude, including amor fati translated “Love of one’s fate”, or the Stoic “Reserve Clause” meaning Fate Permitting. The BB pg. 53 tells me the gratitude I have for my new found belief is correct, and this quote reminds me to keep gratitude in my attitude: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of all virtues, but the parent of all the others” (Cicero).

AA has keeping your side of the street clean or doing the next right thing. The Stoics have what is called the “reasoned thought or mind” and makes huge emphasis on humility. Marcus Aurelius wrote a journal to himself called The Meditations while he was emperor of Rome and they speak to his humility.

Persuade me or prove to me that I am mistaken in thought or deed, and I will gladly change-for it is the truth I seek , and the truth never harmed anyone. Harm comes from persisting in error and clinging to ignorance.

Marcus Aurelius

In the mind of a disciplined and pure man, you will find no sign of infection, no running sores, no wounds that have not healed. It will not be this man fate quit life unfulfilled like the actor who fails to complete his lines and walks offstage before the play is ended. What is more, there is nothing obsequious or conceited about him; he neither depends on others nor is afraid to ask for help; he answers to no man for who he is and for what he does, yet he hides nothing.

Marcus Aurelius

Let your face shine with simplicity, modesty and indifference to whatever is neither virtue nor vice. Love your fellow man. Walk with God. All things are governed by laws, said Democritus.

It is enough to remember that there are but two laws: the moral laws of the gods and the physical laws of the atoms. These two are sufficient.

Marcus Aurelius

I had no idea what gratitude was, let alone how it worked. I’d actually never heard the words gratitude or grateful until I came in the rooms of AA. AA brought me gratitude, restored my relationship with my higher-power and put me on the path of being happy, joyous and free!

Frank, a very grateful alcoholic.

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Freelancing, Stress and Stoicism by Andrew Munro

The gig economy, talent economy, independent professionals, interims, locums  and freelancers – the media seems obsessed with the supposed evils and potential advantages of this brave new world. But, is it real, is it happier and what lessons could Stoicism have for adventurers in this new land?

Freelancing – The Figures

Freelancing, as a model of work, is growing. Of course, there have always been independent workers, from casual bar staff to your local, independent plumber, but a decade of empowering technology has made it much simpler for would-be independents and clients to connect.

In the US, there are now between 40 and 48 million independent workers (between 25 and 30 per cent of the US workforce, depending on the survey).

In the UK (calculated on a different basis), there are around 4 million self-employed solo workers, around 13 per cent of the workforce.

Those are substantial figures and on the increase all across the world.

Is it a happier life? For most, freelancing is a positive career choice (not employment of last resort). Research, like this recent report from FlexJobs, regularly reflects freelancers’ positive outlook.

The report found that:

  • 92% of freelancers said the freelance lifestyle was important to them
  • 63% said freelancing had a “positive impact” [on their lifestyle]
  • 60% said freelancing has helped them become healthier
  • 66% said they are less stressed as a freelancer.

In general, then, we independents are a happy bunch.Sometimes though, it doesn’t feel less stressed. There always seems to be some time-money tension; inevitably you’re worrying about one or the other.

Training? You won’t take the time when you’re busy, but you won’t spend the money when you’re quiet. Holidays? You can’t get free when there’s work to do, but you feel guilty when your project pipeline’s a bit limp and saggy. And then there are sales calls to make, debts to manage and bills to pay. Oh, and difficult client to manage, too.

Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus are two of the most popular Stoic philosophers. Marcus was an emperor, Epictetus a slave. As a freelancer, you can feel like either or both … often on the same day.

What, then, can a 2,000-year old philosophy offer this new world of work?Stoicism emphasizes personal responsibility and self-discipline. In many ways, it’s perfectly aligned to those on an independent journey as “Me Inc.”

Here are five areas where applying a little Stoic perspective can lighten your daily burden.

1.  Don’t stress about what you can’t control

As an independent, it’s all down to you. There’s no corporate comfort-blanket of admin, finance or marketing support; no holiday pay, sick pay or health insurance. You’re on your own. But that doesn’t mean you have to own everything. Some things, simply, are beyond your control.

One of the core tenets of Stoic thinking is the observation that, as Epictetus says, “some things are within our power, while others are not.”[i]

And he warns:

If you regard that which … is not your own as being your own, you’ll have cause to lament, you’ll have a troubled mind and you’ll find fault with both gods and human beings[ii]

Worrying about things you can’t change just increases your overall stress levels. Let them go.

If you’re prone to worry, like a dog with a bone, try listing all your concerns on paper, then mark each as within or outwith your control. Make a positive decision to let go of the things you can’t control. Put your mental energies towards the things you can: the quality of your work, meeting deadlines etc.

2.  Choose how you respond to events

Email, phone, SMS and social media. Someone always wants an answer. And, everything is always changing. The ground moves, the unexpected happens.

Often, as a freelancer, you feel the need to respond to everything, immediately. The customer, after all, is king. You don’t want anyone to think you can’t cope or that you’re not interested.

When something happens unexpectedly, there is a tendency to respond immediately. But, the knee-jerk reaction isn’t always the right reaction. When we react instinctively, we can manufacture our own outrage and offence.

As Epictetus tell us:

It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgements that they form about them [iii]

In other words, mind the gap between any stimulus and your response to it.

Without realising, we too often “choose” to get stressed by an unanswered email, a late purchase order, an ill-informed comment or off-the-cuff feedback. Take a moment. Pause. Choose a better response. Realise that the client’s slow reply is not likely to be a personal insult. A delayed purchase order is more often down to bureaucracy than a change of heart. After all your big-company client isn’t as agile as a freelancer. That’s one of the reasons they hired you.

Agility is valuable, but stubborn independence is not. Being freelance doesn’t need to mean being alone. You can respond with time and with help:

Think it no shame to be helped. Your business is to do your appointed duty, like a soldier in the breach. How, then, if you are lame, and unable to scale the battlements yourself, but could do it if you had the aid of a comrade?[iv]

3.  Keep a sense of perspective

When you work on your own, wholly responsible for your success or failure, events can become magnified in your mind. Everything can seem of monumental significance. It can be difficult to keep some headspace, to keep things in their proper proportions.

But remember, even a missed deadline is seldom cataclysmic.

As the most powerful man on earth, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius,  observed:

In the universe Asia and Europe are but two small corners, all oceans’ water a drop, [Mount] Athos a puny lump of earth, the vastness of time a pin’s point in eternity.[v]

Stoic philosophy can be very grounding. Marcus returns time and time again to humanity’s minute and fleeting spot in time and space.

The first rule,” he writes, “is to keep an untroubled spirit; for all things must bow to Nature’s law, and soon enough you must vanish into nothingness, like Hadrian and Augustus.[vi]

In other words, get over yourself. What can seem calamitous in the wee, small, sleepless hours is often somewhat less significant in the cool, morning air.

Remember the Steely Dan song:

When the demon is at your door
In the morning it won’t be there no more.[vii]

Step outside for some oxygen, some sunlight, some space and some coffee.

4.  Enjoy the moment

Enjoy the moment, enjoy the ride. It’s much too easy to dwell on what we should have done yesterday and what we need to do tomorrow. It’s very much a human failing, as Roman philosopher Seneca observes,

Animals in the wild flee the dangers they see and are tranquil once they have escaped; we, though, are tormented both by what is to come and what has been. Often, our goods do us harm: memory recalls the stab of fear; foresight anticipates it. No one is made wretched merely by the present.[viii]

It can easily be a freelancer’s failing, too: How did I do? Did I do enough? Will they like what I sent? How do I get more business? What happens when this project is over? Planning is good, but fretting is pointless.“If you lay hands on today,” Seneca tells us, “you will find you are less dependent on tomorrow. While you delay, life speeds on by.”[ix]

Marcus agrees:

“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”[x]

Stoic thinking isn’t fatalistic, but it is deeply pragmatic.

And, nature too

Stoics are very aware of humanity’s integral place in Nature and of its beauty. It’s a perspective that feels perfectly aligned with our current eco-aware times.

I love this passage from Marcus:

“When a loaf of bread, for instance, is in the oven, cracks appear in it here and there; and these flaws, though not intended in the baking, have a rightness of their own, and sharpen the appetite. Figs, again, at their ripest will also crack open. When olives are on the verge of falling, the very imminence of decay adds its peculiar beauty to the fruit.”[xi]

Very wabi-sabi.

Remember that the freedom and flexibility of the freelance lifestyle entitles you to walk bare-foot on the grass, or wander among the trees, and appreciate nature’s ever-changing beauty. Don’t forget to use your freedom to enjoy your surroundings. Live the freelance dream a little.

5.  Live with integrity

For Stoics, life’s goal is to live “in agreement with Nature”, which translates as living a virtuous life where the four cardinal virtues are: Wisdom, Courage, Justice and Temperance.  In many ways, it’s the flip-side of our first observation. You can’t control everything . . . but you can, and should, control your self: your responses, behaviours, and thoughts.

In Meditations, Marcus returns frequently to the concept of duty. That may not be surprising for a Roman emperor (and history remembers Marcus Aurelius as one of – often, the last of – the “good emperors”). His thoughts are relevant for freelancers. We stand or fall by our last project and the reputation that follows us. Therefore:

“Give your heart to the trade you have learnt, and draw refreshment from it.”[xii]

He also counsels himself:

“Hour by hour resolve firmly, like a Roman and a man, to do what comes to hand with correct and natural dignity, and with humanity, independence, and justice.”[xiii]

And, especially for stressed-out sleepyheads:

“At day’s first light have in readiness against disinclination to leave your bed, the thought that ‘I am rising for the work of man.’”[xiv]

As a freelancer, reputation is all you have. Never be tempted to compromise or surrender it for the expediency of a project.

It’s also worth noting, in these virtue-signalling times, that “integrity” doesn’t need grim-faced declarations of self-denial. Seneca had little patience with the hair-shirt brigade.“Philosophy,” he said, “demands self-restraint, not self-abnegation – and even self-restraint can comb its hair.”

Finishing Thoughts: A Stoic Guide for the Stressed?

I came to Stoicism by accident.I was browsing in the beautiful, art deco, Waterstones bookshop on Piccadilly, when I came across a table display of Penguin’s Great Ideas series. Series 1, Book 2 was Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I started to flick through and I was hooked by its easily accessible, mostly “snackable” aphorisms. For an 1,800-year old text, it felt strikingly familiar and contemporary.

Meditations – which is many people’s first encounter with Stoic texts – has, for me, a real sense of authenticity. It was written as a note-book, not a text book. It was Marcus’ notes-to-self, never intended for publication. In it, you read him berating himself for his failures, struggling with the frustrations of his office and contemplating the nature of the world and society around him. It is intimate and applicable.

I’m no expert on Stoicism, but it’s a philosophy that sits well with me. I find it relevant and I draw on it increasingly in every day life as an independent professional. Often, the simple realisation that “this is not new, I’m not the only one” is valuable. For that alone, I think every freelancer should have a copy of Meditations ready at hand. Stick a copy in your bag or on your desk and dip into it wherever you feel the spider of stress crawl across your skin.


[i] Epictetus, Handbook / Enchiridion (1.1)

[ii] Epictetus, Handbook / Enchiridion (1.3)

[iii] Epictetus, Handbook / Enchiridion (5)

[iv] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (7.7)

[v] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (6.36)

[vi] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (8.5)

[vii] Walter Becker and Donald Fagen (1974), “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”

[viii] Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius (5.9)

[ix] Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius (1.1)

[x] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (7.8)

[xi] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (3.1)

[xii] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (4.31)

[xiii] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (2.5)

[xiv] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (5.1)

Andrew Munro is a writer and independent professional. Through Burning Pine, he helps businesses to grow by telling their stories. He blogs on topics related to work and the freelance life at The Sovereign Professional.


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Stoic Therapy for Anger by Tim LeBon (part 2)

Meeting 3.    How to  Manage Anger

Lucas: Good to see you again Anthony. How did you get on?

Anthony: Good.  Here’s my reconstruction of what happened on Father’s Day.

Event/Trigger:

Robbie spilt coffee over the computer

Stage 1 – first movements towards anger (including fight or flight response and first thoughts)

Shock. Adrenalin rush, Fight response. First angry thoughts “What the ..” “What a clumsy child!.

Stage 2 – My  further thoughts and whether they resisted or intensified  anger

Definitely intensified anger. Thoughts like  “Look what he’s done to my laptop!” , “He needs to learn not to be so clumsy” and  “He should have been more careful” . I had a sense – I wouldn’t say it was a conscious thought-  that it was appropriate for me to get angry, that it was be wrong not to get angry.

Stage 3 – What happened as a result

I guess I fell over the edge of the precipice, as your Seneca puts it. Yes, I shouted at him, my wife says I looked very angry.  

Robbie was petrified, my wife was horrified, and I am mortified.

Lucas: Well done. Today we are going to look at what you could have done differently – as Stoics do in their evening review. If you get into the habit of analysing angry outburst in the evening and rehearsing how you can avoid them in the morning then you will be able to overcome your anger problem.

Anthony:  Like  a golfer practising his putting on a carpet at home, right?

Lucas: Let’s begin with the trigger, Robbie spilling coffee. Do you remember what we said about non-Stoics being too idealistic?

Anthony: Was it that I need to lower my expectations and to remember that the universe doesn’t always behave how I would like it to?

Lucas: Absolutely.  You haven’t got control over other people or the past, so its best to accept these things – even if you don’t approve of them!

Anthony: It reminds me of a song from an old Mel Brooks movie. “Hope for the Best. Expect the worst. Life is a play. We’re unrehearsed.”. I wonder if he was a Stoic!

Lucas:  There’s a lot of Stoic wisdom in a number of traditions and common sayings, like the Serenity Prayer. Actually learning helpful quotations could be really useful. “Hope for the best. Expect the worst” could be a good one to include.  You might also have a look at a famous passage from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

Anthony: Sure.

Lucas:  Moving on to stage 1 of anger, what were your first movements towards anger when Robbie split the coffee?

Anthony: Shock. Adrenalin rush,  the Fight response. My first angry thoughts were something like  “What the ..” “What a clumsy child!.

Lucas: Seneca says you haven’t much direct control over these, so you shouldn’t try to stop them but you do need to notice them and put yourself on red alert for the next phase of anger.

Anthony: I think you said last time I need to be like a sentry on guard duty

Lucas: Exactly. Then at stage 2 we have your window of opportunity. One of your thoughts was “Look what he has done to my laptop?”  You need to question whether you have  really been harmed. Seneca points out that “The things which cause us such great heat are really  trifles, the sort of things that children fight and squabble over.”

Anthony: But my computer was broken!

Lucas: Your new shiny toy!

Anthony : Are you saying that I exaggerated the harm done?

Lucas: Well,  did you?

Anthony: Well, the keyboard was ruined – but I took it into work and got a replacement the next day.

Lucas: So the actual harm done was …

Anthony: Ultimately, very little.  I see what you mean.

Lucas: And even if the laptop had been ruined, how much does a laptop matter compared to the well-being of your son and your being a good parent?

Anthony: Are you  saying I need to get things into perspective?

Lucas:  Exactly – and things don’t matter as much as how we conduct ourselves in life. Seneca’s next point is that  it’s vital to judge others accurately and fairly. You intensify anger by acting as the prosecution, you resist it by making the case for the defence. Were you acting as the prosecutor or the defence attorney for Robbie?

Anthony: Definitely the prosecutor.

Lucas: What might you have said  had you been defending him?

Anthony:  “He did not intend to damage my computer. He meant well”.

Lucas: “Brilliant. Seneca also says something that is really appropriate to your case. “If is a child, let us pardon his youth.”.

Anthony: That’s true, I was forgetting he is only six. What’s Seneca’s next piece of advice?

Lucas: We must also remind ourselves that we are all hasty and careless, we all are untrustworthy, we all have many faults. Seneca says “What room is there for anger? Everything ought either to move us to tears or to laughter. There is only one route to peace of mind  and that is to agree to forgive one another.”

Anthony: Yes. I suppose it would help me to remember that I am not so perfect either.

Lucas:  Once again Seneca has a good line “We have other people’s faults right before our eyes,  and  our own behind our backs.”

Anthony: I need to remember that. It would make thing to have on the front and back of a T Shirt!

Lucas:  Here’s another idea that would have helped on Father’s Day.  Are we here to help or harm each other?  As a father, how do you see your role, to help or harm?

Anthony: Definitely to help.

Lucas:  Seneca says in it’s useful to imagine your whole family as being an extension of yourself – like your own hands and feet. Would you want to harm your own limbs or help them?

Anthony: Help them

Lucas: So do the same to your family and indeed the whole of mankind. Treat them with the same care you would parts of your own body.

Anthony: So I need to imagine that when I shout at them I feel the pain that they do?

Lucas: Yes, that’s  a good way of putting it. The final idea you might find helpful – and I’ve left it till last because it’s rather left-field – is best introduced by telling you about a story about Socrates.

Anthony: Sounds intriguing…

Lucas: One day Socrates was going for  a walk and was suddenly struck by someone he had offended. Do you know how he responded?

Anthony: I’m assuming he didn’t get angry. But how did he manage that, surely his Fight and Flight response would have kicked in?

Lucas: I’m sure it did, but Socrates was famous behaving in an exemplary manner even under provocation. Socrates just laughed off the whole thing, saying that it was a pity a man could not tell when he ought to wear his helmet when out walking!

Anthony: That’s not the first response that would have come to me…

Lucas:  But with practice most things can be turned into jest, and then anger is diffused into something more gentle. How could you have made light of your computer being incapacitated?

Anthony (after a moment’s thought):  I could have said “That’s one way of stopping me from working today!”

Lucas: And if you had, what would have been the impact?

Anthony: Everyone would have had a much better day.

Lucas:  Exactly. So your task this work  is to learn all these Stoic rebuttals to angry thoughts so they can be ready to hand next time you need them

Anthony: Does Seneca have any tips about what to do when I get to stage 3 of anger?

Lucas: Seneca says that the greatest remedy for full-blown, stage 3 anger is delay. There’s not much reasoning with yourself when in a rage – the best you can hope to do postpone doing anything too harmful.

Anthony: So I should have bit my tongue, counted to 10 before saying anything and then damage limitation …

Lucas: Yes. But remember the best answer is to make sure you don’t get to stage 3. That’s the priority. I’m going to give you a list of unhelpful thoughts and their rebuttals. I’d like you to learn them – there may a short test!

Secondly, keep a log of when there has been an anger trigger and note down how you reacted, using our framework about the 3 stages.

Anthony: OK, is there a particular way you want me to record things.?

Lucas: Yes, here’s a template:-

Lucas: Now let’s fill it in together  for Father’s Day.

(10 minutes later, they have produced the following by Lucas asking Anthony a series of questions)

Stage What Happened What I would do differently next time (if anything)
Trigger: Event that triggers anger Father’s Day, Robbie spilt coffee over my computer Accept that I don’t have control over events. Lower my expectations about things going my way.
Stage 1 of anger First movements towards anger Fight or flight reaction and starting to think angry thoughts I felt surprised, an adrenalin rush, an urge to hit him Be on guard for these signs and put myself on red alert for further angry thoughts
Stage 2 of anger: Response to the first movements. Can resist or intensify initial angry thoughts I intensified anger by labelling Robbie as stupid and clumsy. Assumed that anger was appropriate so I could teach him a lesson and he wouldn’t do it again Remind myself that anger is not the answer. He didn’t intend to damage my computer. He isn’t stupid. We all do silly things sometimes. Try to act more like a loving father than Caligula or Vedius Pollio!   Say to myself “At least I wont have to work today!”
Stage 3 of anger Thinking and behaving and feeling, depending on what happened at stage 2 Shouted and him, ruined the day Hopefully don’t get to this stage, but if I do count to 10 (or more) and delay my response. Probably best to leave the room.

Lucas: What do you think about that?

Anthony: Great – but it’s going to be harder to put it into practice.

Lucas: Indeed. Do you ski?

Anthony: Yes, I go down black runs, the rest of the family usually take the easier blue runs ….

Lucas: Right, well what we have done is like going on a blue run. It takes skill, but it’s not the hardest challenge.

Anthony: And I suppose doing it in real time is more like a red or black run?

Lucas: Precisely.  So for now, you need more blue run practice. Read the list of rebuttals every day and keep a log of when you’ve got angry and how you could have resisted anger better, in the same format as the table above.

Anthony: OK, see you next week, coach!

Meeting 4.  Becoming a virtuoso in the Art of Living

Lucas: Good to see you again, Anthony. How did you get on with the anger log?

Anthony: Good, only one instance to report, and I think I handled that fairly well.

Anthony gets out his anger log

Stage What Happened Stoic Advice (and whether I took it!)
Trigger: Event that triggers anger Very busy at work.  People kept interrupting me.  My wife rang me saying that the internet at home wasn’t working Accept that I don’t have control over events. Lower my expectations about things going my way. Not sure I have quite internalised this yet.
Stage 1 of anger First movements towards anger Fight or flight reaction and starting to think angry thoughts I felt irritated and tense First thoughts “Why is she ringing me now?” Be on guard for these signs and put myself on red alert for further angry thoughts I think I probably need to develop more Stoic Mindfulness as I didn’t catch this very early  
Stage 2 of anger: Response to the first movements. Can resist or intensify initial angry thoughts Intensifying anger thoughts 1)I shouldn’t be interrupted         2)She should know I’m busy       3)She should know these things herself         4) I need to get angry to stop her doing this       Alternatives that resist anger 1)Remind myself to lower my expectations – the universe doesn’t always behave as I want it to! 2) Case for the defence! How can she know I am particularly busy now?   3) I remembered the talk about other people being like parts of our body. We are here to help each other. Why not help her?     4) If I get angry she will get angry back. I need to rise above being angry.   I managed some of these at the time, enough for me to end up resisting angry.
Stage 3 of anger Thinking and behaving and feeling, depending on what happened at stage 2 I didn’t fall off the precipice. I talked my anger down, realising that although I couldn’t control people interrupting me, I could control my reaction. I helped her – turned out she had to reboot the wifi router at home – and was proud I did it calmly. At other times I would still have ended up giving the same advice, but we would both have got upset.  

Lucas: Great work, Anthony. So what do you think we can learn from that?

Anthony: That I can control my anger if I try. That I still have work to do to lower my expectations and notice that I am starting to get angry. That if I do rise above anger then things work out better.

Lucas: Excellent. I think you are ready for the next lesson, which is  the long-awaited, much heralded  “How to be a virtuoso at living, how to develop the virtues”

Anthony: Becoming a virtuoso at living, I like the sound of that.

Lucas: The basic idea is the virtues are qualities we need to live well, given the human condition. We have desires, which can sometimes lead us  into temptation. We have fears, which can sometimes lead us to cowardice and we live in communities which means that we have to decide how to treat others well. But we also have reason, our ability to think and act rationally  – and also to think and act foolishly. The qualities we need to cultivate to live well given our capacity for temptation, fear, selfishness and folly are self-control, courage, justice and wisdom respectively. There are the four main or cardinal virtues – there are also many other important virtues all of which are related to these main four virtues – for example compassion is part of justice, patience part of self-control and discretion is part of wisdom. Does that make sense?

Anthony: Yes, but what has all this got to do with anger?

Lucas:  The virtues provide a much better alternative to anger. The more you cultivate the virtues, the less you will need anger and the less attractive it will be as an option.

Anthony: How?

Lucas: You recall  saying  that you  didn’t want to be a doormat? Well, if you develop virtues, you certainly won’t be  a doormat. What virtues can help you stand up for yourself?

Anthony: Courage? Wisdom?

Lucas: And you want to fight  injustices – what virtues do you need there?

Anthony: Justice of course. Courage and wisdom as well.

Lucas: And if you need to overcome first movements towards anger and a wish to punish others, what virtues do you need then?

Anthony: Self-control, justice and wisdom again.

Lucas: Finally we spoke about  how we set ourselves up for anger by failing to realise that we can’t control other people or events, by having too idealistic expectations. What virtue do we call this understanding?

Anthony: Wisdom?

Lucas: Spot on. You may have noticed that wisdom was required in every single example. For Stoics, wisdom is the most important virtue. Some Stoics even argued that wisdom and virtue were the same thing.

Anthony: So was I being fully virtuous in the office when my wife rang me this week?

Lucas: Let’s think about it together. Did you have the wisdom to lower your expectations and not expect everything to go your way?

Anthony: No, that’s something I need to work on.

Lucas: Did you have the self-control to manage your first movements towards anger?

Anthony: Yes, just about.

Lucas: So I will ask you to develop Stoic Mindfulness by being on the look-out for feeling tense and starting to think angry thoughts. Did you show justice?

Anthony: Yes, I helped her.

Lucas: How did you manage that?

Anthony: I think by putting myself in her shoes and asking how I would like to be treated – a bit like you were saying about imagining my family as part of my own body.

Lucas: Good  – and was courage relevant in this case?

Anthony: Not in this case – but I would have needed it to apologise if I had lost my temper!

Lucas: Fantastic. Here’s this week’s crib sheet summarising the Stoic VirtuesA

Lucas:  So here’s what I would like you to do this week.  As well as looking at the crib sheet,  every morning, carry out a rehearsal of how you might deal with potential adversities. Think of what might go wrong, what might be the early signs of anger, and how you might refute the angry thoughts and then apply the virtues. For example,  next time you could imagine yourself starting to get angry when someone disagrees with you, remember which rebuttals apply and then think about how to practice self-control. wisdom, courage and  justice. You might glance in your diary before you start and envisage potential problems, such as trains being late or encountering difficult people.

Anthony: So I need to approach life like boxers sparring before a  fight.

Lucas: Yes, and  if you feel that it’s unnecessary, remember that even emperor’s did exactly this. This is the passage from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations  I was telling you about.

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”

Anthony: That will raise a smile on my morning commute.

Lucas: Good. Then during the day time look out for first movements to anger – developing Stoic Mindfulness and logging any examples of you getting  angry or overcoming anger in the anger log like you did this week. Actually, please you add to the log ideas about how you would exhibit the virtues in each situation as well?

Anthony: OK

Lucas: Then in the  evening meditation, review your day and think about how you have responded to possible anger triggers, again thinking about whether you responded with wisdom, self-control, courage and justice.  Praise yourself when you have done well. If you have done less well, then reflect on what you can learn to help you do better next time

Anthony: Just like chess-player analyse their games afterwards.

Lucas: Exactly. We are approaching this enterprise as if you were entering the Olympic Games for anger management.

Anthony: Let’s see if I win a gold medal! See you next week.

Meeting 5  A Stoic Daily Regimen

Lucas: Good afternoon, Anthony, how has your week been?

Anthony: Great – no angry outbursts and my wife told me that I am a changed man. I even shared my joke about being a reformed Caligula with her. So I think this may be our last meeting.

Lucas: That’s fantastic news. We will conclude today then with a Stoic Daily Regimen – what you need to do to keep up the progress and become a gold medallist at beating anger. But there’s one important part of Seneca’s On Anger that we haven’t covered -what we might call lifestyle advice. Interested?

Anthony: Most of what Seneca  said has proved useful, so let’s hear it.

Lucas: Seneca’s first lifestyle tip is to make sure you don’t take on too much. These days we would talk about a good life-work balance and about the importance of delegating tasks. Seneca says “In order, therefore, that the mind may be at peace, it ought not to be hurried hither and thither, nor, as I said before, wearied by labour at great matters, or matters whose attainment is beyond its strength.”

Anthony: I could probably do with more holidays and less late nights at the office. Oh, and my wife is always telling me to stop using my phone for work in the evening and weekends.

Lucas: So what can you change?

Anthony: No phone on Sundays or after 1000pm.

Lucas:  Seneca also advises us to find ways to relax and to pay attention to our diet. He says. “Pythagoras used to calm his troubled spirit by playing upon the lyre … Green is good for wearied eyes.”

Anthony: I’m not sure about the lyre, but I find going for a run in the evening relaxes me

Lucas: How often could you go for a run each week?

Anthony: Maybe 3 times – better than the once every 2 weeks I do now.

Lucas:  Seneca also advises us to choose our company wisely. He says “We should live with the quietest and easiest-tempered persons, not with anxious or with sullen ones: for our own habits are copied from those with whom we associate”

Anthony: Sounds like we should have had him on the panel when we were recruiting!

Lucas: These days many people find social media very unrelaxing too.

Anthony: You are right but in my case its more reading the news that stresses me out . I think I will limit my reading the news to early in the morning and when I come home.

Lucas:  Great.  Let’s finish our work by producing a Stoic Daily Regimen for anger management

Stoic Anger Management                        Meeting 5            A Stoic Daily Regimen

  • 5 minutes reading of Stoic material for example
    • Reasons for not getting angry  (crib sheet 1)
    • The three stages of anger (crib sheet 2)
    • Unhelpful Thoughts and their Rebuttals  (crib sheet 3)
    • How to be a Virtuoso at living (crib sheet 4)
    • The Daily Stoic Regimen (this list)
    • You might like to write up a list of relevant maxims such as:-

“We are affected not by events but our interpretation of them”

 “Remember that you can’t control other people or the past”

“Expect the worst, hope for the best”

 “The sword of justice is ill-placed in the hands of the angry person”

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly”

  • Morning Meditation –Rehearsal of dealing with potential triggers for anger with wisdom, courage, self-control and justice
  • During the day
    • Stoic Mindfulness of first movements towards anger
    • Ask yourself “What would the ideal Stoic person approach this situation”? (such as Socrates)
    • Think about what virtues are called for in this situation.
    • Find some time for relaxation, especially when stressed
    • Choose your company wisely, including social media and the internet
    • Don’t take on too much
    • Write your Stoic anger log for the day
  • Evening review. Reviewing your day, with an emphasis on any how you have dealt with triggers of potential anger.  Reflect on what you have done well, what you could have done better. 

Anthony: Can you email me that?

Lucas: Sure. Shall we set a date for a follow-up in a month?

Anthony: Yes – but if I’m doing well, can we cancel it? I will drop you an email telling you of my progress. Thank you very much, it’s been really helpful – and interesting too.

Lucas: Thank you for all your work – the gold medal will be in the post!

Postscript:                                                         

There was no need for a final session.  Anthony sent Lucas this email.

Dear Lucas.

I am writing to cancel our final planned session next week, because I really don’t think I need it. I’ve adopted the lifestyle changes and haven’t got angry for 3 weeks. I’ve made the 4 crib sheets and the daily regimen into acetates and put them in the bathroom for me to read every day.  I’d really like to thank you  for helping me and so would my wife!  You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve even bought a copy of On Anger and have started to go through it. I hope that you are paying Seneca some royalties – I now see that  you stole all of your best lines directly from him! Seriously though, many thanks and if we meet again it may be to discuss how I can apply Seneca and  Stoicism  to other aspects of my life. I’ll be in touch if and when I need your help again.

With thanks,

Anthony

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology. He is a philosophical life coach with a private practice in London and also an accredited CBT psychotherapist working in the NHS. He is a founder member of the Modern Stoicism team.

Stoic Therapy for Anger by Tim LeBon (part 1)

Seneca’s On Anger contains powerful arguments about both why we should be less angry and how we can curtail anger. At the London Stoicon in 2018 I presented a workshop outlining a 6 step Stoic anger management programme based on Seneca’s On Anger. You can find a pdf of the entire presentation here. Seneca was not, of course a therapist, but,  as someone who has written a book about philosophical counselling and also practices as a CBT therapist and as a philosophical life coach, the obvious question was –  what would Stoic therapy for anger look like?  What parts of On Anger would need to be emphasised?  What objections and difficulties would be most likely need to be overcome for the therapy to succeed?  How can one learn the wisdom of On Anger?

 This article describes  how I imagine such a therapy unfolding. I hope it will be useful for those who wish to work on their own anger issues and also for budding therapists or coaches who wish are interested in this approach.  

The year is 2019. Lucas, a  Stoic philosophical life coach/philosophical counsellor is about to have his first session with Anthony, who has emailed him asking him for a set of sessions on Stoic anger management.

Meeting 1:  Why  Manage Anger?

“Lucas”  is a philosophical life coach who  is trained in contemporary therapy methods such as CBT and knows about Modern Stoicism as well as ancient Stoicism.  All the details about “Anthony”  are fictional, but like many people who come for anger management he is somewhat in denial and ambivalent about change.

Lucas: Good to meet you, Anthony.  I understand from your email that you would like to work on anger management.

Anthony:  Not me, my wife!

Lucas: Your wife has an anger management problem?

Anthony: No, she says I have.  She says she will leave me if I don’t change.

Lucas:  And what do you think?

Anthony:  I think she’s exaggerating. But I’m here now, so can you help me?

Lucas:   I hope so.  The Stoics, especially Seneca in his essay On Anger, offer a lot of pertinent advice.

Anthony: That’s good news.

Lucas:  But it will take work on your side too. I envisage it will take us about 6 weekly meetings.  I’d like you to set aside time for our work, including reading relevant Stoic books, especially Seneca’s On Anger

Anthony. I’m not much of  a reader. I’m a busy man, with a company to run and a family to feed …

Lucas: A family you might lose if you don’t do something about your anger.

Anthony: You have me there.  Look, I’m not going to pretend to you that  I’m likely to be read ancient texts . But I will agree to do something between session. I have a daily  train commute. Can we find a compromise?

Lucas: Very well. After each session I will email you  some written summaries of key Stoic ideas we have discussed for you to read and digest as well as other between-session assignments. I would like you to commit to  spending at least 10 minutes every  morning working on these.

Anthony:  It’s a deal, Prof.

Lucas:  Good. To clarify, Anthony, I see my role not so much as a professor who  lectures you about Stoicism  but more like  a sports coach who helps you to change. Does that make sense?

Anthony: Sure, fire away, Prof!

Lucas: Seneca believes that anger is one of the greatest ills of humanity. He goes so far as to say that anger is temporary madness.  When angry, you  lose self-control, forget affection and friendship  and become  deaf to reason and advice. Anger conquers the warmest love. People have killed those they have loved and who would love again were they not in the midst of rage. Worse still, we injure ourselves. Angry people are like  rocks which smash on what they fall. Managing anger should be a top priority for everyone.

Anthony: Wow! Is anger really all that bad?

Lucas: Seneca gives many examples of how anger ruins lives. Perhaps the most memorable is how anger led  one Vedius Pollio to order a slave  be thrown into a pool of man-eating lampreys just because  the unfortunate slave had dropped a valuable crystal cup.  He also recounts about how many powerful men like  the Emperor Caligula murdered anyone who irritated them.

Anthony: But do you really believe that anger is such a problem for normal people in the twenty-first century?

Lucas: Anger  can transform us all into mini-Caligulas, it is a temporary madness You can read about it happening every day. The other day I saw a a story  about an ordinary Joe who was at the English seaside eating his fish and chips lunch by the beach.

Anthony: Sounds nice.

Lucas:  A cheeky seagull had the gall to try to steal a chip! Do you know happened next?

Anthony: He  tried to shoo  the bird away?

Lucas: No,  Anthony, he became so angry he battered the gull to death against a wall. The man was prosecuted for animal cruelty.  Think about it. One minute you are eating your lunch, a  minute later you are in a violent rage leading to death and disgrace.  Temporary insanity, don’t you agree?

Anthony:  In that case, for sure. But surely anger can  be a good thing, in moderation.

Lucas: That’s what Aristotle thought too. But Seneca believes that both you and he are making a big mistake. Anthony,  close your eyes for a moment and brainstorm all the reasons you can think of in favour of  anger being a good thing. All the reasons why you don’t want to give up anger.

Anthony (after a few moments thought) Anger gains me respect.  I don’t want to be a doormat. Anger gives me the energy to get off my backside.  I  want to fight injustices. I want to change people for the better. Anger gives me power. People take notice of me when I’m angry. That’s it– my anger motivates me to act and it makes other people take notice!

Lucas: Thank you, Anthony, for giving such a full answer. As it happens, Seneca gives strong arguments against each of these points. Do you want to hear what he says?

Anthony: Of course.

Lucas: Justice is important but, in one of Seneca’s most memorable phrases,  the sword of justice is ill-placed in the hands of an angry person.  Anger is in a hurry and does not give people (or seagulls) a fair trial. The type of justice provided by anger is that  of a vigilante squad – hurried, biased and extreme. We need  reason, not anger, to give each side time to plead so that the truth can be discovered.

Anthony: But something needs to be done! Should this ordinary Joe just have  smiled and  let the bird eat all his lunch? Should the slave have been allowed to break everything until there were no cups left?

Lucas: But, if we are after justice, is anger the answer? When we are angry we want to punish people, not help them. Seneca and the Stoics would say that we need to cultivate the virtues – wisdom, justice, courage and self-control – and have these to hand  when faced with life’s challenges. 

Anthony: So what would a Stoic have done with the bird?

Lucas: That’s quite a big question. I was planning us talking more about how to develop the virtues in a later conversation. Maybe he could have shown kindness, and thrown  a few chips for the bird before he used his wisdom to move elsewhere. He could certainly have benefitted from learning self-control ….

Anthony: And Vidius Pollo could have sent his slave on a  “how not to be so  clumsy course”? This Stoicism is beginning to sound a bit too idealistic. In the real world, people get angry and you just have to accept that.

Lucas: What would your wife say about that attitude?

Anthony: She wouldn’t agree.

Lucas: So business as usual isn’t an option for you. I  heard what you just said, though, Anthony, about Stoicism being too idealistic. The Stoics would  argue that in fact it is  the angry person who is being too idealistic.

Anthony: Really?

Lucas: Indeed. We get angry because we have too idealistic notions  about how the world operates. We over-optimistically think that people won’t break things and that animals won’t try to eat our lunch. If we had a more realistic view of how the world works, in particular about what we can and what we cannot control, then we would be much less prone to anger.

Anthony: But anger gives me energy, it motivates me, it makes me courageous.  Anger gives me the courage to do things I wouldn’t usually do, like standing up more for  myself and for what is right.

 Lucas:  Just like people need a drink so they can do courageous things like go to parties or ask someone out?

Anthony: Exactly.

Lucas: But have you known people who after a drink or two  do things that aren’t really wise at all, things they later regret?

Antony: Of course.

Lucas:  And isn’t the same thing true of anger. What you  need  to motivate you is  actual courage, not anger or alcohol. As Seneca says, anger does not come to assist courage, but to take its place. Put yourself in the hands of anger and you are on a precipice, a step away from catastrophe.

Anthony:  So  how do Stoics think  I gain true courage? I know!  “We will address that later ….”

Lucas: We will indeed. I sense your frustration, so let me give you a l sneak preview. Modern Stoics build into their routine a period of early morning and late evening meditation. In the morning they envisage difficulties and how they can respond virtuously to them – rehearsing wise living. In the evening they review how they have done that day in terms of acting virtuously.  In between times, they would be aware of what virtues were called for in a particular situation, perhaps by ask themselves “how would the ideal Stoic person approach this situation”?

Anthony: That sounds like a fair bit of work.

Lucas:  Think about how much time people spend working out or practising golf. Is how to be an excellent human being any less important?

Anthony: I f you are right about anger being bad, and if Stoic methods work, then it’s going to be worth the time.  But I’m not convinced yet about anger being all bad. If I give up anger, people might no longer respect me. When I walk in a room, I notice people look up with respect.

Lucas: Are you sure it’s respect?

Anthony: What do you mean?

Lucas: Everyone looked up when Caligula entered a room. But  was that respect or was it fear?

Anthony: In Caligula’s case, fear.

Lucas:  I’m sure you are right.  You fear people because they might punish you. You respect people when you admire them.  So could it be that  people fear you rather than respect you?

Anthony: I’d like to think they admire me. But is it such a bad thing if people fear you a little bit too?

Lucas: Not if you don’t mind being a mini-Caligula.

Anthony: OK, it’s respect I want, not fear.

Lucas:   And does anger really lead to respect?

Anthony: Why shouldn’t it?

Lucas: Well,  how do you feel someone is angry with you? When a driver has road rage at you?

Anthony: I think they are  being a dickhead.

Lucas:  So  you don’t respect people for being angry with you. Why should other people respect you for being angry?

Anthony:  Hmmm

There follows a period of silence …

Lucas: Anthony, you are looking very thoughtful. What’s running through your mind?

Anthony:  I’m still thinking about whether I’m a  mini-Caligula. I don’t like that idea at all.

Lucas:  No, I can see that. How can we find out whether you are like that at all?

Anthony (smiling): I don’t know, unless you follow me around all week.

Lucas: Well, it was your wife who said you needed to come here. How about asking her?

Anthony: Could do, I suppose.

Lucas:  I can understand your reluctance. No-one wants to hear uncomfortable truths. But I wonder whether we might be wasting our time here unless we hear her side of things. Can you ask her to write down for us why she insisted on you coming here and tell us both what you are like when you get angry?

Anthony: Is that really necessary?

Lucas: If I was your golf coach, would we get very far  without seeing how you actually played?

Anthony: No, you would have to see the true horror of my putting …. OK I will ask her.

Lucas: We have 5 more minutes today. Any more doubts about giving up anger?

Anthony: You are very good with words, Prof. I I will need some time to reflect on whether these arguments apply in the real world.

Lucas: Of course.  Here’s my summary for you to reflect on. I can email it to you if you like.

Anthony: Sure, that would help.

Lucas:   Here is a summary sheet for you to read on the train.

Anthony: Thanks, Prof, it’s been interesting,  I will look forward to seeing you again next week.

Meeting 2: The Three Stages of Anger

Lucas: Greetings, Anthony, good to see you.  How have you got on with your assignments?

Anthony: Well, Prof, as the football commentators say, it was a game of two halves.

Lucas: Meaning?

Anthony: Well over the first few days I did as you asked, and read over your email crib sheet about anger being a great ill, the sword of justice being unsafe in the hands of an angry person etc.

Lucas: What did you make of it?

Anthony: It all makes sense…

Lucas: But …

Anthony: But I still wasn’t convinced that anger in moderation isn’t a possibility Sure, don’t give me a sword – or a gun! – when I’m in a rage – but what if I’m just a bit angry?  Before yesterday, I was  planning to ask you how I could cultivate anger in moderation.

Lucas: What happened yesterday?

Anthony (sighing): Well, I wasn’t looking forward to asking my wife for feedback, so I left it to the last minute. When I did ask her, I got a bit of a shock.

Lucas:  What did she say?

Anthony (gets out letter)

Dear Anthony

I am so glad that you asked me  about why I insisted you sought help for your anger problem. I’m a bit surprised you haven’t asked before. That’s part of the problem. That you don’t think you have a problem. And nobody tells you about the extent of the problem because they are all so frightened of you. Even I wasn’t brave enough to confront you before Father’s Day.

Do you remember Father’s Day? You should, it was only a month ago. How the children were so excited, that they helped to make breakfast. How Robbie insisted on helping make your toast, then taking the tray to your bedside for your breakfast in bed, even though he is only 6. Do you remember what happened next?

I did talk to you about it that evening, and what you said was  was “Robbie was clumsy like he always is and spilt coffee over my new laptop causing untold damage”. Shall I tell you your 6 year old son’s version of events?

What happened was that, on the day that Robbie was showing so much love for you, you roared and raged at him like an angry lion shouting and calling him name like  “Clumsy” “An idiot and saying “How could you be so stupid”. Do you know what he did? He went to his bedroom, sobbing – and he actually peed himself! He hasn’t done that for years. Is that the father you want to be?  Terrifying and humiliating your children? Well its not the father I want for my children. That night that I decided something needed to be done. Its one thing to hear you shout at waiters or your work subordinates, another to do it to your child. You’d crossed a red line .

So that’s why I demanded that you seek a remedy for your anger problem. I hope that you get a remedy, because if this happens again, I will make sure it does not happen a third time.

Your ever-loving wife”

Lucas: Strong words.

Anthony: Yes, but at least she is being honest. Better than her packing her bags without giving me a chance. Maybe I do turn into a mini-Caligula after all!  So today I’m thinking that I do have a problem. I do need to change. But how?

Lucas (after a moment’s reflection): You know what, Anthony, I think that Seneca’s theory about the 3 stages of anger can help  us with both your questions. It will help us understand further why the goal of moderate anger is a treacherous one, and it will also will give us a framework to start working on managing your anger. Do you want to hear about it?

Anthony: Definitely.

Lucas: Seneca believes that there are three stages of anger. In the first instance, something triggers your initial reactions.  To go back to the ordinary Joe angry seagull-killer, the seagull swooping down triggered an initial reaction of surprise and an impulse to attack the gull.

Anthony: Sounds like the fight or flight reaction.

Lucas: Exactly. But this is just the beginnings of anger –  what Seneca calls the first movements towards anger. It’s not anger proper. Animals go directly to aggressive  fight behaviour (Seneca’s third stage), but we humans have a unique capacity, the ability to reason. That operates in  stage 2 of anger. That’s when  we can choose how to respond. When we are in stage 1, Seneca likens us to  someone on the edge of a cliff.

Anthony: Doesn’t sound good.

Lucas:  Indeed not. If we intensify anger by thinking irrational angry thoughts, we will  fall off the precipice and there is little or no chance of us returning to safe ground.

Anthony:  So Seneca would say that  Caligula, Vedius Pollo and the seagull-killer all got to this third stage of anger.  What happens then?

Lucas:  The red mist has descended, we see things totally in a different light. We use reason to plan wicked actions and justify them. We still reason, but in the service of anger.

Anthony: How exactly can understanding these 3 stages help us control anger?

Lucas: Would you agree that there are some things we can control and some things we can’t control.

Anthony: I guess so.

Lucas: And which category of things is it wise to focus on, what we can control, or what we can’t control?

Anthony: We need to focus only on what we can control.

Lucas: Yet when we are angry we often try to control things over which  we have little control. In fact there’s only a short time-window in the whole anger melodrama where we have much control.

Anthony: Really?

Lucas: Well that’s go through it.  Do we have control over the trigger, the prequel to the 3 stages. For example, the bird swooping down or the slave breaking the cup. Do we have control over that?

Anthony: Not once it’s happened.

Lucas: Exactly, we have no control over the past.  As we said at our first meeting,  there are a lot of things outside of our control and many people are too optimistic in this respect. Stoics believe that the roots of anger lie in  unrealistic expectations that the world behaves as we would like it to. So we need in general to lower our expectations about the world, we need to accept that a lot of events are outside our control.

Anthony: OK.

Lucas:  What about the first stage of anger, the Fight or Flight response, how much control do we have over that?

Anthony: Not much, because it’s like a reflex, right?

Lucas: Absolutely. Modern neuroscience backs up Seneca. The first movements towards anger correspond approximately to the automatic, non-conscious workings of the amygdala We have very little, if any, direct control over it.  What about stage 3 of anger, when the red mist has descended and we have fallen off the cliff edge?

Anthony: Not much control there either.

Lucas: You are right. What about stage 2?

Anthony: Remind me – that’s when the Fight or Flight reaction has kicked in but before we get to stage 3, full-on anger?

Lucas: Yes. Seneca asserts that there exists a  brief time-window when we can and should exert control through our ability to reason well. We have a choice of whether to resist or intensify anger. Does that make sense?

Anthony: Sounds like that might be quite tricky if we are already starting to get angry …

Lucas: Yes, so we need to develop what modern Stoics call Stoic Mindfulness so we are acutely aware of the dangerous territory we are in at that moment. So if you want to beat anger, where do you need to focus your efforts?

Anthony: It must be at stage 2!

Lucas: Yes, stage 2 is where you need to be like a sentry, on guard looking out for angry thoughts and challenging them. It will also help if  at all times  – we could call this stage 0 -you cultivate a general attitude of lowering your expectations about how the world fits in with your wishes.  Any questions?

Anthony: But is it really just my angry thoughts that make me angry? Aren’t some things bound to make anyone angry?

Lucas: Suppose our ordinary Joe had said to himself “That seagull must be hungry, let’s share my lunch with him”, how do you think he would have felt then?

Anthony: Much happier!

Lucas:  Exactly. How you think affects how you feel. As  another leading Stoic, Epictetus, put it “It is not events that affect us but our interpretations of events”.  

Anthony: It seems like we have covered a lot. Can you give me a crib sheet again  for me to look at on my commute

Lucas. Sure.

Again I would like you to agree to read this summary for 10 minutes every morning and memorise it. Any questions?

Anthony: I don’t think you’ve answered my  question about anger in moderation yet.

Lucas:  Fair point. Are we  agreed that the first movements make us strongly disposed towards anger – just like a snowball falling down a mountain will gather speed so the first movements are likely to make us angry?

Anthony: Yes

Lucas: So anger by its very nature will gain momentum unless we do something to stop it.

Anthony: Are you saying that unless we put a brake on anger, it inevitably grows into immoderate anger

Lucas: Precisely. How we think affects how we feel. We will think tell ourselves things that intensifies our anger by unless we resist it. Furthermore, the Stoics have a much better option than moderate anger, namely virtue. It is through virtuous action not anger that we can truly and reliably gain respect, change people and right injustices.

Anthony: OK.

Lucas: However, Seneca does make one allowance. He says that although we shouldn’t get angry, as it’s far too risky, some people do indeed seem  only to take notice when they think someone is angry with them.

Anthony: So I wasn’t completely wrong after all!

Lucas: Seneca says that in such instances its OK to pretend to be angry. But that’s very different from getting angry in moderation.

Anthony: Well, pretending to be angry is  an interesting idea but perhaps not one that will do me much good in front of my wife at the moment!

Lucas: I am sure you are right there. I have one more piece of home practice I would like you to do. To build on the work we have started today on the 3 stages and to make it much more real and concrete for us, please can you reconstruct what happened on Father’s Day for us in this format:

Event/Trigger:

  • Stage 1 – first movements towards anger (including fight or flight response and first thoughts)
  • Stage 2 – My  further thoughts and whether they resisted or intensified  anger
  • Stage 3 – What happened as a result

Anthony: Yes, that makes sense.  Email me your crib sheet as well so I can read it on the train. See you next week!

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology. He is a philosophical life coach with a private practice in London and also an accredited CBT psychotherapist working in the NHS. He is a founder member of the Modern Stoicism team.

The Stoic Heart – Stoicism and Partnered Relationships

Each year, after the Stoicon conference, we ask the speakers and workshop leaders to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations, so that our readership can enjoy some of the same opportunities for learning as the conference attendees.  We continue that series now with this piece by myself, discussing the workshop that Andi Sciacca and I were scheduled to provide at Stoicon 2018.

My wife and partner, Andi Sciacca, and I were invited again to provide a workshop for participants at last year’s Stoicon in London. I had given workshops at the two preceding Stoicons – one on Stoicism and managing anger in 2016, and another on using Stoicism to deal with difficult people at work in 2017. That last workshop had originally been intended to have Andi and I as co-presenters, but health issues ruled out flying to Toronto for Andi, and my teaching schedule that term ruled out taking a leisurely drive up north.

Andi’s absence was unfortunate not just for me (and for her, of course – she missed the conference, and London) but also for the workshop attendees. We had designed the workshop together, drawing upon our experience and expertise in the subjects we were covering – and in some of those, putting Andi in the room more than doubles what I bring to the proverbial table. As a married couple who live, work, and study alongside each other, when we do any sort of event or presentation, there’s an interactive chemistry involved in everything we do. If you’ve seen me speak previously, and got something out of that or enjoyed it, imagine me paired up with an even more dynamic partner, and you can imagine what we anticipated that workshop to be like.

We gave co-presenting another shot in 2018, and decided to focus our workshop this time on something that we have drawn upon quite a lot in our own lives – what Stoic philosophy and practices can contribute to understanding and improving (or maybe even, if things are bad enough, saving) one’s personal relationships. About a month before Stoicon 2018, it became clear that Andi would not be able to join me in London, this time both for medical reasons and because one of us had to stay to care for an aged and well-loved family pet who was quite literally on his last legs (and for that reason, we actually gave thought and discussion to whether it might be best for me to cancel as well).

I flew out to London and gave our workshop, reading a brief note from Andi at the beginning, running along these lines:

I am glad that you are able to present the workshops and represent us both, given that I was unable to fly with you and be there myself.  You can also say that I am finding the lessons learned from studying Stoicism to be very useful in our marriage, in my ability to grow our business and develop my professional life, in my management of chronic illnesses, and in my ability to navigate daily life.

Since I recorded fairly decent video footage from the workshop – which you can watch in full by clicking here – and since the workshop is far too long to provide a transcript of, I thought that it might be interesting to provide a short summary of the workshop that I did provide, and then to include some discussion of what Andi and I had originally intended that workshop to include (as well as some additional insights on her part)

The Structure of The Workshop

Given that we were to give the workshop twice, in one-hour breakout session blocks, we set it up to start with delving into the desires, ideas, assumptions about partnered relationships – marriages, romantic relationships, dating, and the like – by spurring some short discussion between us and the audience.

Then the plan was for me to discuss two topics

  • Classic Stoic Perspectives on Partnered Relationships
  • The Expanded Scope of Modern Partnered Relationships

After that, the bulk of the workshop was devoted to Stoic Practices and Perspectives and their application to partnered relationships.

  • #1 – Dealing With Appearances
  • #2 – Applying The Dichotomy of Control
  • #3 – Determining Roles and Duties
  • #4 – Understanding Emotions
  • #5 – Virtues and Vices

We then reserved a bit of time for Q&A and Discussion. Since both of our “lecture” styles are highly dialogical, taking questions and responding to comments throughout – and occasionally riffing off into digressions or jokes before coming back on point – we anticipated that we might not have as much time for the final official “Q&A” at the end, but that we could stick around between the two sessions and after the second session for individual discussions.

This is the sort of workshop that we can – and sometimes – do in shorter (30-45 minutes) and longer (2-3 hour) formats. When it’s shorter, I spend less time on the classic Stoic perspectives and strategies to thoughtfully adapt them to our contemporary culture. And we might do just two or three of the Stoic practices and perspectives applications. Longer presentations include more of those applications, more in-depth examination of Stoic discussions of partnered relationships, and also additional elements of the workshop that Andi brings in.

So this post is a bit of a departure from the series that we usually run after each Stoicon. I’m writing not only about the workshop that I did give, but also about the workshop that I didn’t give, but Andi and I would have liked – and had intended – to provide.

What Andi Would Have Added To The Workshop

One of the aspects of the workshop that I was particularly looking forward to, but which became unfeasible in Andi’s absence was the role-playing and modeling that we had intended to incorporate into each of the Stoic practices and perspectives parts of the workshop (which would have meant reducing the number of those application parts to four). In longer versions of the workshop, we have the participants themselves engage in some structured roleplaying.

Another warm-up exercise Andi had wanted to weave into our Stoicon workshop (and which we’ve done elsewhere) involved asking the audience about common relationship pitfalls they had encountered or experienced. This would then lead in to talking about ways in which Stoicism can help us rethink the common traps and tropes that lead us right into those relationship problems. Stoic philosophy and practice not only help us understand and work on problematic dynamics in our personal relationships, Stoicism also helps us to identify and recognize these when they occur and arise.

There were several other aspects of Stoicism that Andi tends to focus upon and highlight consistently. One of these is the emphasis that Epictetus places not only upon playing one’s own part – taking on one’s roles and associated duties – but also in understanding that others have their different, often complementary parts to play. A key aspect to good – or at least improving – relationships is allowing others to take on their own roles, without attempting to control that.

Another key idea that Andi and I have discussed quite a lot together, and which takes shape in another Stoic Practices and Perspectives portion of the workshop (we were debating substituting this one for one that made it into the Stoicon 2018 format) is reminding oneself of the transiency of the life one gets to share with one’s partner. This theme comes across most starkly in Epictetus’ Enchiridion 3, a passage in which he tells us that when we kiss our spouse, we should remind ourselves that they will one day die. This point, developed also by Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, doesn’t have to be viewed as a sign of morbidity or coldness, but rather as a suggestion that we value the time we get with our partners, and the imperfect persons they (and we) remain, during that time. We’re not entitled to infinite time, even if we mistakenly assume we’re going to have it, and if we realize that the partner we expect to have years or decades with could be taken back from us at any moment, we might look at them in a different and better light.

Another insight that we often close with – and we’re still teasing this one out – is that, if a partnered relationship is going to incorporate Stoic notions of justice, friendship, oikeiosis, and human rationality as social nature, one of the things that is called for is learning how to share space respectfully. Space not only in terms of physical space, but also the space of the relationship itself. This space includes dimensions such as conversation, chores and responsibilities, decision-making, joys and sorrows, short and long-term planning, and how time spent, just to name a few. It is all too easy for couples to divvy out the domains of “yours” and “mine”, when what is needed is a sense of “ours”.

As I sat down to write this piece, I thought I’d ask Andi as well what else – beyond the note she gave me to read to the Stoicon workshop participants – she might have wanted to say to them. In the short conversation that ensued, she stressed two main points. Both were personal, but also realization I expect many readers of Stoic philosophy can relate to, and parts of these connect up to what we did discuss in the workshop as I provided it.

The first was that lessons learned from Stoicism provided her with extra tools that positively augmented the value of other modalities of self-reflection. Stoicism coupled with elements from cognitive and dialectical therapeutic approaches help one deal with long term issues that impact one’s ability to have and maintain fulfilling relationships

The second was that Stoicism provides a very useful framework for examining, understanding, and managing one’s expectations. This is critical in every domain of life, but particularly so in that intense one of partnered relationships. Stoicism provides strategies to manage everyday stressors that put at risk one’s ability to listen effectively, be empathetic, and consider the needs of others (especially one’s partner).

As a last point, opportunities afforded to discuss, reflect, and engage Stoicism do benefit us as partners, not only because we are able to participate more fully in relationships through our shared interests and the work we do, but also because they create space for conversations important potentially for the entire web of all of our relationships.

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects

Andi Sciacca is relatively new to Stoic practice and is pleased to be part of the Modern Stoicism movement.  She is an ABD doctoral candidate with European Graduate School’s program in Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought.  She has served as the director of curriculum and program design for The Food Business School and the founding director of The Culinary Institute of America’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.  Andi also taught for The City University of New York, The State University of New York, Marist College, and the Bard College Prison Initiative.  She now owns an educational consulting company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.