An Ancient Stoic Meditation Technique

Description of a simple meditation technique derived from a method described by Athenodorus combined with the psychological processes defined by Marcus Aurelius.

Athenodorus in the haunted houseWhen I wrote The Philosophy of CBT, about eight years ago, I tried very hard to provide a totally comprehensive overview of all the major psychological “techniques” that I could identify in the surviving Stoic literature.  This was made easier for me by the seminal work of the French academic Pierre Hadot, who documented many “spiritual exercises” in Hellenistic philosophy.  I interpreted these from my perspective as a cognitive-behavioural therapist, and spotted a few more.  Over the subsequent years, I kept studying the Stoic literature, looking for things that I may have missed.  However, I was disappointed.  I only found a few minor variations of existing techniques.  One was a passage where Epictetus mentions that the Stoic Paconius Agrippinus used to write eulogies to himself about any hardships that befell him, focusing on what positive things he could conceivably learn from them.  If he developed a fever or was sent into exile, for example, he would write himself a letter about it from a Stoic perspective.  Now, we already knew that so-called consolation letters were an important part of the Stoic tradition.  They were normally addressed to another person, like a kind of psychotherapy, using Stoic arguments to help them cope with the suffering caused by events such as bereavement.  Agrippinus, however, appears to have had a practice of writing similar letters but addressing them to himself.

Aside from a few observations like that, I came across nothing new.  One day, however, I suddenly realised that another sort of ancient Stoic meditation technique was potentially hiding in plain sight, right before my eyes.  The Stoic philosopher Athenodorus Cananites, a student of Posidonius, was personal tutor to the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, formerly known as Octavian, in the latter half of the first century BC.  We know fairly little about Athenodorus’ life or philosophy, aside from a few isolated remarks in the ancient literature.  We do know that he was held in high regard as a philosopher and that he was friends with Cicero, and perhaps assisted him in writing On Duties.  (And he features in an ancient ghost story.)  What interested me about him, though, was that according to Plutarch, he taught the Emperor Augustus a very specific mental strategy for coping with anger:

Athenodorus, the philosopher, because of his advanced years begged to be dismissed and allowed to go home, and Augustus granted his request. But when Athenodorus, as he was taking leave of him, said, “Whenever you get angry, Caesar, do not say or do anything before repeating to yourself the twenty-four letters of the alphabet,” Augustus seized his hand and said, “I still have need of your presence here,” and detained him a whole year, saying, “No risk attends the reward that silence brings.” (Moralia, Book 3)

Now, on the face of it, this seemed like relatively familiar and trivial advice.  Like advising someone “count to ten each time you get angry”, before doing or saying anything.  It was several years after reading this passage before it occurred to me that it could, and perhaps should, be viewed somewhat differently.  It started with a simple observation.  Athenodorus is talking about the Greek alphabet.  Greek has twenty-four letters; the Latin alphabet used in ancient Rome had twenty-three.  Unlike the letters of the modern English alphabet, all the letters of the Greek alphabet have names of two or more syllables: alpha, beta, gamma, etc.  So reciting those takes marginally more time and effort than just counting to ten.  If we assume that it’s not meant to be rushed, because the subject is trying to cope with anger, then it’s natural to repeat each letter slowly, on the outbreath.  Most people take 12-20 breaths per minute, so that would normally take about a minute and a half on average.  Now, although it might not sound like it, that’s actually quite a long time to stop and think, by most people’s standards.  Try closing your eyes right now and doing nothing for ninety seconds, or just breathing normally and counting twenty-four exhalations of breath.  One day, I did that, as Athenodorus suggested, and noticed that it required a bit of patience.

Augustus / OctavianThe point is that we potentially have an exercise that takes enough time to constitute a proper contemplative experience.  If you repeated that type of count ten times, it would take fifteen minutes on average.  The thing that seems to me to most resemble is the meditation technique developed by Herbert Benson, author of The Relaxation Response (1975).  Benson was a professor of physiology at Harvard Medical School who carried out physiological studies on self-hypnosis and many different relaxation and meditation techniques, in the 1970s.  The simplest method he found was the mantra yoga of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation school.  The good news for the TM people was that Benson found their technique of simply repeating a Sanskrit mantra on each exhalation of breath was effective at reducing nervous arousal, and triggering the physiological relaxation response.  Even better, it worked as well as other relaxation methods but was much simpler and easier to teach than, say, progressive muscle relaxation or self-hypnosis.  The bad news for them, however, was that Benson found that it made no real difference what phrase was repeated: you could pick more or less any word or short phrase and get the same result.  So that removed any mystical or philosophical significance from the technique, at least in terms of the physiological relaxation effect.  

So we have a Stoic technique, which, is basically monotonous enough to require patience for a couple of minutes.  That’s still not meditation.  However, what I realised was that it makes a whole world of difference what attitude one adopts to something as mundane as repeating the letters of the Greek alphabet.  That is, in order to understand this procedure we surely have to interpret it within the context of Stoic philosophy and psychology.  We have to take into account what the Stoics actually say about the attitude they tried to adopt in response to anger and other passions.  Indeed, what the Stoics said about this is very remarkable:

Let the ruling [hegemonikon] and master faculty of your soul be unchanged by any rough or smooth motions in the body.  Do not let it mingle with them but instead draw a line around it and set a boundary limiting those affects [i.e., proto-passions] to where they belong.  However, when through a sympathetic reaction [passion] these tendencies spread into your thinking, because it is all occurring in the same physical organism, you must not try to suppress the feeling, as it is natural, but rather see that your ruling faculty does not add any judgement of its own about whether it is good or bad. (5.26)

What Marcus says here is perfectly consistent with the writings of earlier Stoics, such as Seneca’s On Anger or The Discourses of Epictetus.  We should view our minds as if there’s a fairly sharp dividing line between two domains: what we do, and what happens to us.  Modern psychologists would call that the distinction between “strategic” or voluntary cognitive processes, and “automatic” or involuntary ones.  

What Marcus says here is that when we spot the early-warning signs of distressing or unhealthy “passions”, by which the Stoics mean either desires or emotions, we should maintain a sense of detachment from them, viewing them as from a distance.  Modern cognitive-behavioural therapists call this “cognitive distance” or “verbal defusion”.  It’s basically the ability to view our own thoughts and feelings as merely events in our stream of consciousness, without getting too caught up in them, or confusing them with reality.  Marcus says two crucial things here.  First, when these involuntary thoughts, sensations, or impressions (which the Stoics call propatheiai or “proto-passions”) arise in our minds, we should view them with detachment, like a scientist, or natural philosopher, calmly and objectively observing a natural phenomenon, such as a rainbow.  Second, we should not struggle against these experiences by trying to block or suppress them from our minds, because they are natural – despite being the seeds of potential emotional distress, as they stand they are neither good nor bad, but indifferent.  This is a more sophisticated way of putting something Epictetus repeats over and over again in The Discourses.  Indeed, it’s the meaning of the very first line of his Stoic Handbook: “Some things are up to us and some things are not.”  This is the subtle attitude that Stoics must strive to maintain throughout life, and especially during contemplative exercises of this kind.

So to return to Athenodorus, how should this exercise be practised in relation to the observations from Stoic psychology above?  Well, first of all, we can assume it doesn’t make much difference whether we repeat the Greek alphabet or the English (modern Latin) alphabet.  You could just as well count from one to ten, repeating each number in your mind on each outbreath.  You could repeat the days of the week or the names of the Seven Dwarves.  If you wanted you could just repeat “alpha, beta, gamma”, “one, two, three”, and then start at the beginning again.  Or you could just repeat the same word on each breath, such as “alpha”, although more or less any other short word would do just as well.  One advantage to counting, or repeating the alphabet, or any series of words, is that you’re more likely to notice when your attention inevitably wanders because you’ll probably lose your place.  That’s helpful.  Rather than being annoyed, just (figuratively) shrug, respond with indifference, and start the process again with the first word or number.  It doesn’t matter.  The same goes if you fall asleep: when you wake up just continue as if nothing had happened.

The point is that you’re deliberately engaging in an excruciatingly simple procedure: merely saying the alphabet, or counting to ten.  That frees you up to focus all of your attention on the way you do it, the attitude of mind that you adopt toward the procedure.  Stoics like to divide that into two dimensions.  You should notice that many involuntary thoughts and feelings pop into your mind.  That’s completely natural.  The first part of your job is therefore to view everything that automatically enters your mind, as Marcus says, with total indifference, as neither good nor bad.  In fact, consider this an opportunity to train yourself in an attitude of indifference toward all such things, whether you suddenly feel irritated or notice a pain in your shoulder, etc., everything except the procedure itself, and the way you’re doing it, is indifferent to you right now.  Viewing things with indifference – and it’s important to bear this in mind – means accepting them, as opposed to trying to get rid of them or block them from consciousness.  Benson described this as a “So What?” attitude and he said it was the main factor that he found to correlate with success among individuals learning techniques to control their relaxation response.  Pretty much anything that could potentially be a distraction or an obstacle to you during meditation is grist to this mill, merely another opportunity for you to train yourself in indifference.

The second part of the procedure is what you’re actually doing strategically and voluntarily: the way you repeat the words or numbers in your mind.  You should do that simple task with what the Stoics call excellence or “virtue” (arete).  The Stoics tell us to focus our attention on the present moment and completing whatever task is before us to the best of our ability, in accord with virtue.  During this meditation we can train the mind and study that attitude more easily because the task itself is exceptionally simple and mundane, making it easier to focus on the way we go about it.  The Stoics tell us to ask ourselves continually what virtue, or characteristic, a particular task demands from us.  In the case of this sort of meditation on a repetitive stimulus, perhaps the most obvious virtue would be patience or even endurance, which, incidentally, was considered part of the cardinal Stoic virtue of courage (andreia).  

I’d say another important factor is that we don’t allow our awareness to narrow in scope, which is symptomatic of anxiety and other forms of emotional distress, according to modern research in cognitive psychology.  The Stoics said that all virtue entails a quality called magnanimity, literally having a great soul, or expansive mind.  One simple way of maintaining that is to remember that you’re not trying to block anything from awareness.  When a distracting thought or feeling comes to your attention, go back to the repetition of your word, or the alphabet, but allow awareness of the intrusive thought to remain there, as it were, in the background.  Your attention should be focused on the word you’re repeating, sometimes called a mental “centering device” but not to the exclusion of everything else.  Rather you should be able to “walk and chew gum”, to repeat your phrase while still allowing room for other things to cross your awareness, albeit in the distance.  What you’re trying to avoid is what the Stoics called the tendency to be “swept along” with intrusive thoughts and feelings, to go along with them, rather than just noticing them, in a detached way, and doing nothing.  

Another key element of ancient Stoicism, perhaps the most important element, which many modern students of Stoicism nevertheless tend to neglect, is the role of natural affection (philostorgia).  That’s the reason why we do things: “for the common welfare of mankind.”  Buddhists call this compassion, (karuna) but Stoics dislike that word because etymologically it denotes colluding in another’s passions or emotional distress –- like the word “commiserate”, to share in another person’s misery.  Our primary goal in meditation, as in life, is to cultivate virtue, by perfecting what is up to us, or under our direct control.  However, as Zeno said, that’s meaningless unless it refers to an external target or outcome.  Cicero portrays Cato explaining this by the famous Stoic analogy of the archer.  His goal is to notch his arrow and fire it skillfully from his bow.  Whether or not it hits the target is indifferent to him, insofar as, once it’s in flight, it’s no longer under his direct control.  Nevertheless, he does aim at an external object – he has to point his arrow at something.  Stoics live, and therefore meditate, for the sake of their own virtue, but also for the common welfare of mankind, although the latter can only be wished for with the caveat we call the “reserve clause”, which says “if nothing prevents it” or “God Willing”.  In meditation, each moment is both in the service of virtue, and, fate permitting, in the service of the rest of mankind, because the closer we come to wisdom and virtue ourselves, the more able we are to benefit other people.  

My advice would therefore be to try Athenodorus’ technique for yourself.  I’ve been using some version of the Benson technique more or less every day for about the past fifteen or twenty years or so.  It’s a very simple and versatile method, with many hidden benefits.  If you can’t repeat the Greek alphabet, use the the English alphabet, or just count to ten.  Say one word or number in your mind with each exhalation of breath, and then start again at the beginning when you’re done.  Repeat this for about ten or twenty minutes, once or twice each day.  Before you do so, contemplate the passage from Marcus Aurelius above.  Think always about these two dimensions of the Stoic attitude: indifference toward indifferent things, including automatic thoughts that pop into your mind; and continually acting with virtue, dedicating your action affectionately to the common good.  Was this how Caesar Augustus said the alphabet, when he noticed himself getting angry?  I don’t think we’ll ever know.  But it seems to me that the method is psychologically sound and it makes perfect sense in terms of the Stoic literature on the passions discussed above.

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1 thought on “An Ancient Stoic Meditation Technique”

  1. Thank you for your profound and detailed analysis, Doctor Roberston. I have to say I particularly appreciated the way you insert the subject you’re dealing with into your own life and personal experience. (It’s something I already know about your writing “tune”, actually.)
    I would like to add just an observation caused by an event I came across this… morning! Even though I’m neither a wise man nor a Stoic Sage, I succeeded in keeping control of my reactions to a not too harsh situation, to be honest, but in any case tough enough to make me really… angry. In spite of that, I didn’t reacted and tried to put my emotional thoughts at a certain distance from my rational mind.
    I think the time needed to regain a positive and joyful attitude (because I was at perfect ease before the event) is exactly what you says – 20 to 30 minutes – that I spent not repeating the Italian alphabet, but “sweeping along” with my swirling thoughts.
    What’s more, as another and indirect positive effect, I noticed that avoiding to spread anger all around me with a stark reaction, I didn’t need to cope with a sort of “anger feedback” or chain reaction; on the contrary, after the due time, everything was all of a sudden calm and my previsous feeling seemed to be also… a bit ridicolous.
    (Hope this can make any sense…)