Notes from Stoicon Talk and Workshop

Notes from my talk and workshop at Stoicon 2015 in London.

Courtesy of Alejandro ed Valcarcel.Notes from Talk in Morning

  1. What I’m actually supposed to be talking about is “Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Stoicism” – So first of all: they’re two different things.  I said this last year: Weirdly, one of the most common criticisms people seem to make is that modern Stoics say they’re the same thing but I’ve never actually met anyone who does say that: so it’s a straw man.
  2. The clue’s in the name anyway: Stoic philosophy is a philosophy; cognitive-behavioural therapy is a therapy.
  3. My first book on Stoicism – The Philosophy of CBT – was all about the relationship between Stoicism and CBT.  In it, I said that philosophy is bigger and deeper than just therapy.  However, Stoic philosophy contains many therapeutic concepts and techniques.  (I listed lots of them in that book, which I’ll be giving an overview of in my workshop.)  All the schools of Hellenistic philosophy incorporated therapeutic elements, but Stoicism more so than the others.
  4. In modern times, Aaron T. Beck and Albert Ellis the two main founders of CBT both claimed that their therapy had its philosophical origins in ancient Stoic philosophy.  
  5. Ellis in particular drew very heavily on Stoic concepts and techniques.  Sometimes mentioning the Stoic heritage, sometimes not.  Ellis was originally a psychoanalyst who became disillusioned with Freud and decided in the 1950s to develop a more rational or philosophical approach to therapy.  He’d read Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus years earlier and saw them as an obvious inspiration.
  6. (Incidentally, in the first half of the twentieth century, decades earlier, there was a rival to psychoanalysis called rational persuasion therapy, which was even more explicitly influenced by Stoicism, and it was a major precursor to Ellis, and subsequent CBT, although it’s largely forgotten now.)
  7. Anyway, many other psychotherapy authors, especially the CBT ones, have arrived at similar ideas, perhaps independently of the Stoics.   (Once you accept that cognitions are the key to emotions, you’re likely to invent similar therapy strategies for dealing with those cognitions.)
  8. I think the best example of this is what Beck called cognitive distancing, sometimes called “verbal defusion” by behaviourists.  So I want to say a little about that…  Cognitive distancing the ability to view one’s own thoughts in a somewhat detached manner, as transient mental events.  It’s the difference between “This guy’s an idiot!” and “I notice I’m having the thought right now that this guy is an idiot!”  It’s the opposite of being absorbed in thoughts or swept along by them, like happens in worry or rumination.  We suspend worry and rumination when we meditate and view our own thoughts more objectively.  Separating the map from the terrain, or separating thoughts from reality, as opposed to fusing them together.
  9. Beck’s original idea (1976) was that when people put their thoughts into words and write them down on paper or on a blackboard that can help them gain distance and view them as events, and he talks about several other ways of achieving this sense of detachment, although surprisingly he didn’t originally mention meditation.  (For instance, I might say “Donald is having the thought that…”, draw it inside a speech bubble, view it as a mere hypothesis as if I were a scientist who might test it out, and so on…)
  10. It wasn’t long before clients and therapists who were into Buddhism or yoga, etc., said: “Hang on a minute: this is basically what happens during meditation.”
  11. This has become the focus since the mid-1990s of what’s called the third-wave of CBT: behaviour therapy (first wave), cognitive therapy (second wave), and now mindfulness and acceptance-based therapy (third wave).
  12. However, ironically, this was the part of Stoicism most neglected by Beck and Ellis.  And later CBT authors don’t turn to Stoicism but to Buddhism for their inspiration with regard to mindfulness and distancing.  They could have found it in Stoicism, though.  (Pierre Hadot called it Stoic prosoche, attention to oneself, to your thoughts and value-judgements, in particular.)  
  13. Epictetus taught his students: When you experience a troubling thought (impression), you should train yourself to say to it: “You are just an impression and not at all the thing you claim to represent.”  That’s unmistakable: it’s a cognitive distancing strategy.  There are many similar strategies in Epictetus and in the other Stoic literature.  In about half a dozen places, Epictetus refers to being “swept along” or “carried away” by thoughts (he uses the same Greek expression each time), and he tells his students to be mindful of this, and to step back rather than going along with these runaway thoughts.  That’s cognitive distancing again.
  14. Albert Ellis actually taught most of his clients a famous quotation from Epictetus: “It’s not things that upset us but our judgements about things.”  For many CBTers that forms part of what’s called the “socialisation” phase of treatment: where clients are taught their role in the process of therapy.  It’s not a method of disputing thoughts, questioning their evidence, but something that precedes that.  It’s also a cognitive distancing strategy.
  15. To be clear: we don’t mean “distancing” as in getting really far away from thoughts but rather we mean separating our thoughts from events, and viewing them more objectively.  That’s the kind of detachment we sometimes have when contemplating another person’s beliefs: when we say “it’s just his opinion.”  It’s the difference between looking at the world through rose-tinted spectacles and taking the spectacles off and looking at them: looking at our thoughts, or our value-judgements, rather than looking at events through them.
  16. The Stoics also refer to this as withholding “assent” from our automatic flow of impressions: not just going along with them, and not struggling against them either, but pausing to consider them in a more detached and contemplative way. 
  17. Now, cognitive distancing is a subtle concept.  It’s tricky to define and it takes a while for some people to get the idea.  That’s why we use a technical term, there’s no word for it in ordinary language.  Most cognitive therapists would be familiar with this idea but classicists and philosophers wouldn’t normally be, so it’s been somewhat neglected in modern commentaries on Stoicism.  (People kind of missed it.)
  18. Earlier I mentioned “mindfulness”…  I would say “mindfulness” is a slightly broader concept that consists of roughly three things: cognitive distance, focus on the here and now, and a degree of self-awareness.  These are all themes that run throughout all the Stoic literature: (1) we should view our impressions objectively, (2) we should focus on the present moment, (3) we should continually pay attention to our ruling faculty, the seat of all our value-judgements and source of the passions.  We should not allow ourselves to be swept along by troublesome impressions into worry, into irrational, unhealthy, and excessive trains of thought, rumination about fears and desires.
  19. “Mindfulness”, incidentally, is, in a sense, a modern concept: it’s actually a bit of a buzzword.  The English word wasn’t in widespread use until the 1960s.  Scholars are undecided to what extent it actually corresponds with concepts found in the earliest Buddhist scriptures.  Although “mindfulness” has become associated with Buddhism, in some ways, what we’ve come to mean by that word may actually have as much, or more in common, with what the ancient Stoics were talking about.
  20. So for me, IMHO, Stoicism is very much a mindfulness-based philosophy of life, and it contains many mindfulness-based psychological techniques: it contains a mindfulness-based therapy of the passions.  
  21. Stoicism is essentially an ethical world-view that says virtue – or excellence of character – is the only true good.  We should love and cherish virtue.  That implies that we should continually be paying attention to our own character and actions, the seat of virtue.  (If you want any good, look inside yourself: said Epictetus.)
  22. However, only our voluntary judgements and actions can be virtuous, so Epictetus advised his students to continually maintain a careful distinction between their own actions and everything else, everything external to their volition or involuntary.
  23. It seems to me that’s the most important practical component of Stoicism.  That’s why it’s spelled out in the opening paragraphs of Epictetus’ Stoic Handbook.  We have two types of thought: thoughts that we think on purpose and thoughts that just pop into our minds automatically.  (Like when you try not to think about donkeys.)  Psychologists call those “automatic” versus “strategic” thinking processes.  And this distinction has become central to third-wave or mindfulness-based CBT.
  24. It seems to me that separating those two things – what’s under our control about our thinking and what isn’t – requires a kind of cognitive distancing.  I think that’s what’s most distinctive, though, about what I’d call “Stoic mindfulness”.  That dichotomy of control – which I sometimes like call the “Stoic fork” – that’s what’s most Stoic, about Stoic mindfulness.  
  25. It’s no coincidence that it constitutes the very beginning of Epictetus’ Handbook, because it’s the psychological foundation of Epictetus’ Handbook.  Some things are “up to us” and others are not.  In a word, our own actions (or rather our decisions, our ruling faculty’s judgements) are up to us and everything else is indifferent, at least with regard to our attaining eudaimonia, or fulfilment, the goal of life.
  26. So anyway, I’d like to leave you with this quote from Marcus Aurelius, as that’s our theme: “Always bear in mind what Heraclitus said: […] ‘we must not act and speak like men asleep.’” (Meditations, 4.46)

Workshop on Stoicism and Mental Imagery

Part I

Overview of Stoic psychological strategies…

  1. Premeditation of Adversity (cf. “Negative Visualisation”).
  2. View from Above / Cosmology (Olympian versus Cosmic)
  3. Contemplation of Death (and transience of material things)
  4. Contemplation of the Sage (Model, Observer)
  5. Contemplation of Gods and Heroes (Zeus, Hercules, Socrates, Diogenes, etc.)
  6. Contemplating the Virtues of Others (Marcus Book 1, Zeno on Antisthenes)
  7. Memorisation of Maxims (Paraphrasing) – Fist clenching
  8. Writing a Journal to Oneself (The Meditations)
  9. Writing Letters for Others (Seneca’s Letters and Consolations, possibly unsent)
  10. Socratic Philosophical Discourse (Epictetus’ Discourses, Seneca’s Dialogues)
  11. Contemplation of the Present Moment
  12. Morning Meditation, cosmos, anticipate adversity (Marcus, Epictetus)
  13. Evening Meditation/Review (Pythagoras, Seneca, Epictetus)
  14. Distancing (“You are just an impression…”)
  15. Postponement of Response, until Passions have naturally abated (Seneca on Anger, Epictetus)
  16. Distinguishing what is “up to us” from what is not.
  17. Voluntary hardship (camp bed, philosopher’s cloak, vegetarian diet, endurance of heat and cold, physical exercise)
  18. Attention to Faculty of Judgement (Stoic Mindfulness)
  19. Action with the Reserve Clause
  20. Amor Fati (Stoic Acceptance)
  21. The Goal of Life as Virtue (Unity of Purpose)
  22. Contemplation of Metaphors (Life as Festival, Life as Ballgame)
  23. Self-Monitoring (Epictetus, count times you become angry)
  24. Contemplating the Unity of the Cosmos (men as limbs)
  25. The Circles of Hierocles (calling friends “brother”)
  26. Natural Philosophy (scientific mindset) / “Objective Representation” (Phantasia Kataleptike)
  27. Plus others (we haven’t spotted, or that I’ve forgotten)

Part II: View from Above Script

“Plato has a fine saying, that he who would discourse of man should survey, as from some high watchtower, the things of earth.” – Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations

Take a moment to settle into your posture and make yourself comfortable… Close your eyes and relax… [Pause.] Be aware of your breathing… Notice the rhythm and pattern of the breath… Do nothing for while, just be content to contemplate your breathing more deeply… [Pause.] Now, begin by paying attention to the whole of your body as one… From the top of your head, all the way down into your fingers and down into your toes… Be aware of your body as one… every nerve, muscle and fibre… Don’t try to change anything. Don’t try to stop anything from changing… Some things can change just by being observed…

Just be content to notice whatever you notice, and feel whatever you feel… Be a passive, detached observer… As you continue to relax, turn your attention deeper within, and become more aware of your body… until you can almost imagine how you look right now… Begin to picture yourself as if seen from the outside… Now just imagine that you are taking a step back and looking at yourself. It really doesn’t matter how vividly you can picture yourself, it’s just the intention, just idea that matters. Imagine your body posture… your facial expression… the colour and style of your clothing…

Now keep looking at the image of yourself resting there, and imagine your own feet are gently leaving the ground. You begin floating serenely upwards, slowly and continuously, rising upwards. All the while your gaze keeps returning to your own body, now seated there below you as you rise above it. Keep looking down toward your body as you float higher and higher…. The roof and ceiling disappear, allowing you to float freely upward. Gazing down you see yourself seated comfortably below in the building, looking contented and contemplative. You see all the rooms, and any other people around.

As you continue to float gently higher and higher, your perspective widens more and more until you see the whole surrounding area. You see all the buildings nearby from above. You see the people in buildings and in the streets and roads. You observe people far below working, or walking along the pavement, people cycling or driving their cars, and those travelling on buses and trains. You begin to contemplate the whole network of human lives and how people everywhere are interacting with each other, influencing each other, encountering each other in different ways…

Floating higher, people become as small as ants below. Rising up into the clouds, you see the whole of the surrounding region beneath you. You see both towns and countryside, and gradually the coastline comes into view as your perspective becomes more and more expansive… You float gently up above the clouds, above the weather, and through the upper atmosphere of the planet Earth… So high that you eventually rise beyond the sphere of the planet itself, and into outer space… You look toward planet Earth and see it suspended in space before you, silently turning… resplendent in all its majesty and beauty…

You see the whole of your home planet… the blue of the great oceans… and the brown and green of the continental land masses… You see the white of the polar ice caps, north and south… You see the grey wisps of cloud that pass silently across the surface of the Earth… Though you can no longer see yourself from so far above, you know and feel that you are down there on Earth below, and that your life is important, and what you make of your life is important. Your change in perspective changes your view of things, your values and priorities…

You contemplate all the countless living beings upon the Earth. The population of the planet is over six billion people… You realise that your life is one among many, one person among the total population of the Earth… You think of the rich diversity of human life on Earth. The many languages spoken by people of different races, in different countries… people of all different ages… newborn infants, elderly people, people in the prime of life… You think of the enormous variety of human experiences… some people right now are unhappy, some people are happy… and you realise how richly varied the tapestry of human life before you seems.

And yet as you gaze upon the planet Earth you are also aware of its position within the rest of the universe… a tiny speck of stardust, adrift in the immeasurable vastness of cosmic space… This world of ours is merely a single planet, a tiny grain of sand by comparison with the endless tracts of cosmic space… a tiny rock in space, revolving around our Sun… the Sun itself just one of countless billions of stars which punctuate the velvet blackness of our galaxy…

You think about the present moment on Earth and see it within the broader context of your life as a whole. You think of your lifespan as a whole, in its totality… You think of your own life as one moment in the enormous lifespan of mankind… Hundreds of generations have lived and died before you… many more will live and die in the future, long after you yourself are gone… Civilisations too have a lifespan; you think of the many great cities which have arisen and been destroyed throughout the ages… and your own civilisation as one in a series… perhaps in the future to be followed by new cities, peoples, languages, cultures, and ways of life…

You think of the lifespan of humanity itself… Just one of countless billions of species living upon the planet… Mankind arose as a race roughly two hundred thousand years ago… animal life itself first appeared on Earth over four billion years ago… Contemplate time as follows… Realise that if the history of life on Earth filled an encyclopaedia a thousand pages long… the life of the entire human race could be represented by a single sentence somewhere in that book… just one sentence…

And yet you think of the lifespan of the planet itself… Countless billions of years old… the life of the planet Earth too has a beginning, middle, and end… Formed from the debris of an exploding star, unimaginably long ago… one day in the distant future its destiny is to be swallowed up and consumed by the fires of our own Sun… You think of the great lifespan of the universe itself… the almost incomprehensible vastness of universal time… starting with a cosmic explosion, a big bang they say, immeasurable ages ago in the past… Perhaps one day, at the end of time, this whole universe will implode upon itself and disappear once again… Who can imagine what, if anything, might follow, at the end of time, in the wake of our own universe’s demise…

Contemplating the vast lifespan of the universe, remember that the present moment is but the briefest of instants… the mere blink of an eye… the turn of a screw… a fleeting second in the mighty river of cosmic time… Yet the “here and now” is important… standing as the centre point of all human experience… Here and now you find yourself at the centre of living time… Though your body may be small in the grand scheme of things, your imagination, the human imagination, is as big as the universe… bigger than the universe… enveloping everything that can be conceived… From the cosmic point of view, your body seems small, but your imagination seems utterly vast…

You contemplate all things, past, present and future… You see your life within the bigger picture… the total context of cosmic time and space… The totality is absolute reality… You see yourself as an integral part of something much bigger, something truly vast, the “All” itself… Just as the cells of your own body work together to form a greater unity, a living being, so your body as a whole is like a single cell in the organism of the universe… Along with every atom in the universe you necessarily contribute your role to the unfolding of its grand design…

As your consciousness expands, and your mind stretches out to reach and touch the vastness of eternity… Things change greatly in perspective… and shifts occur in their relative importance… Trivial things seem trivial to you… Indifferent things seem indifferent… The significance of your own attitude toward life becomes more apparent… you realise that life is what you make of it… You learn to put things in perspective, and focus on your true values and priorities in life… One stage at a time, you develop the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference… You follow nature… your own true nature as a rational, truth-seeking human being… and the one great nature of the universe as a whole…

Now in a moment you are beginning to sink back down to Earth, toward your place in the here and now… Part of you can remain aware of the view from above, and always return to and remember that sense of serenity and perspective.

Now you begin your descent back down to Earth, to face the future with renewed strength and serenity… You sink back down through the sky… down… down… down… toward the local area… down… down… down… into this building… down… down… down… You sink back gently into your body… all the way now… as your feet slowly come to rest upon the floor once again…

Now think about the room around you… Think about action… movement… think about looking around and getting your orientation… raising your head a little… Begin to breathe a little bit more deeply… a little bit more energetically… let your body feel more alive and ready for action… breathe energy and vitality into your body… breathe a little deeper and deeper again… until you’re ready to take a deep breath, open your eyes, and emerge from meditation… taking your mindfulness and self-awareness forward into life… beginning now… take a deep breath… and open your eyes now… when you’re ready… entering the here and now with deep calm and serenity…

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