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 ‚Äútechniques‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äúspiritual exercises‚ÄĚ 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, ‚ÄúWhenever you get angry, Caesar, do not say or do anything before repeating to yourself the twenty-four letters of the alphabet,‚ÄĚ Augustus seized his hand and said, ‚ÄúI still have need of your presence here,‚ÄĚ and detained him a whole year, saying, ‚ÄúNo risk attends the reward that silence brings.‚ÄĚ (Moralia, Book 3)

Now, on the face of it, this seemed like relatively familiar and trivial advice. ¬†Like advising someone ‚Äúcount to ten each time you get angry‚ÄĚ, 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‚Äôs not meant to be rushed, because the subject is trying to cope with anger, then it‚Äôs 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‚Äôs actually quite a long time to stop and think, by most people‚Äôs 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‚Äôs On Anger or The Discourses of Epictetus. ¬†We should view our minds as if there‚Äôs a fairly sharp dividing line between two domains: what we do, and what happens to us. ¬†Modern psychologists would call that the distinction between ‚Äústrategic‚ÄĚ or voluntary cognitive processes, and ‚Äúautomatic‚ÄĚ or involuntary ones. ¬†

What Marcus says here is that when we spot the early-warning signs of distressing or unhealthy ‚Äúpassions‚ÄĚ, 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 ‚Äúcognitive distance‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúverbal defusion‚ÄĚ. ¬†It‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúproto-passions‚ÄĚ) 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 ‚Äď 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‚Äôs the meaning of the very first line of his Stoic Handbook: ‚ÄúSome things are up to us and some things are not.‚ÄĚ ¬†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‚Äôt 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 ‚Äúalpha, beta, gamma‚ÄĚ, ‚Äúone, two, three‚ÄĚ, and then start at the beginning again. ¬†Or you could just repeat the same word on each breath, such as ‚Äúalpha‚ÄĚ, 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‚Äôre more likely to notice when your attention inevitably wanders because you‚Äôll probably lose your place. ¬†That‚Äôs helpful. ¬†Rather than being annoyed, just (figuratively) shrug, respond with indifference, and start the process again with the first word or number. ¬†It doesn‚Äôt matter. ¬†The same goes if you fall asleep: when you wake up just continue as if nothing had happened.

The point is that you‚Äôre 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôre doing it, is indifferent to you right now. ¬†Viewing things with indifference – and it‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄúSo What?‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôre 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 ‚Äúvirtue‚ÄĚ (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‚Äôd say another important factor is that we don‚Äôt 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‚Äôre 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‚Äôre repeating, sometimes called a mental ‚Äúcentering device‚ÄĚ but not to the exclusion of everything else. ¬†Rather you should be able to ‚Äúwalk and chew gum‚ÄĚ, to repeat your phrase while still allowing room for other things to cross your awareness, albeit in the distance. ¬†What you‚Äôre trying to avoid is what the Stoics called the tendency to be ‚Äúswept along‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs the reason why we do things: ‚Äúfor the common welfare of mankind.‚ÄĚ ¬†Buddhists call this compassion, (karuna) but Stoics dislike that word because etymologically it denotes colluding¬†in another‚Äôs passions or emotional distress ‚Äď- like the word ‚Äúcommiserate‚ÄĚ, to share in another person‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs in flight, it‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúreserve clause‚ÄĚ, which says ‚Äúif nothing prevents it‚ÄĚ or ‚ÄúGod Willing‚ÄĚ. ¬†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‚Äô 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‚Äôt 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‚Äôre 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‚Äôt think we‚Äôll 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.

The Emperor Meditates Before Battle

Short vignette based on events in the life of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, incorporating a description of a Stoic contemplative exercise.

Marcus Aurelius on horseback(This is based on material in my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010), published by Karnac.)

The year is 167 AD, the Pax Romana, the state of political peace and stability that once united the Roman Empire, is beginning to crumble. For years, the empire has been ravaged by a mysterious plague brought back from Persia by exhausted Roman troops. With the Roman army devastated, continual barbarian incursions have taken their toll on the northern frontiers. Finally, the combined forces of the Germanic Quadi and Marcomanni tribes smash through provincial Roman defences, cross the Danube, and descend upon Italy laying siege to the Roman city of Aquileia. A state of emergency ensues; the Marcomanni war begins.

The emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, a highly disciplined Stoic philosopher and accomplished military leader, mobilises his surviving legionnaires and marches them northward to drive back the invading hordes.  Struggling to find troops and finance the war, Marcus takes radical crisis measures that send shockwaves through Roman society.  First he auctions off his own imperial treasures to raise emergency funds for the war effort.  Then he closes the amphitheatres and conscripts the gladiators into his army.

Nevertheless, the Roman army remains vastly outnumbered and the campaign they reluctantly embarked upon has proven to be long and arduous. It is now deep midwinter, and after years of bitter fighting, they are encamped upon the southern banks of the river Danube, having cut a bloody path into the deeply-forested heart of Germania. Their beleaguered forces clash with tens of thousands of tribal warriors across the icy surface of the frozen river in a battle that will decide the fate of Rome, and shape the future of European civilisation…

Late at night, in his battle tent, Marcus kneels before the miniature silver statuettes of his private shrine and patiently enumerates the virtues of his gods and ancestors, vowing to imitate their best qualities in his own life. He prays to bring his own daemon, the divine spark within him, into harmony with universal Nature, and the Fate determined for him. Following his Stoic principles he prays to Zeus, not for victory in battle, but for the gods to grant him the strength to act with wisdom and integrity, like the ideal Sage.

Like Scipio Africanus the Younger, the famous general who razed Carthage and secured Roman dominance, Marcus trains his mind using¬†an ancient cosmological meditation in order to compose his perspective before battle. He pictures the battlefield from an elevated, Olympian point of view in order to imagine himself entering the mind of Zeus. Looking down upon the battle lines from high above, he imagines what it feels like to see things as a god. He contemplates the world¬†itself, the vastness of time and space, the transience of material objects, and the unity and interdependence of all things. In so doing, he reminds himself of his own mortality, whispering beneath his breath the words of the famous Roman maxim: memento mori ‚ÄĒ‚Äúremember thou must die.‚ÄĚ Withdrawing into deeper contemplation, he murmurs the slogan of the great slave-philosopher Epictetus whose teachings he has committed to memory, ‚Äúendure and renounce.‚ÄĚ With these words he reaffirms his vow to renounce materialistic and egotistic cravings and to secretly forego the fear of pain and death.

Finally, Marcus takes out¬†his personal meditation journal and slowly records, in a few words, the philosophical idea that’s been circulating through his mind all day long:

Plato has a fine saying, that he who would discourse of man should survey, as from some high watchtower, the things of earth.

He finishes writing, closes his eyes, and sits back in his chair. ¬†His attention turns within: to his breathing and the sensations of tension throughout his body, which he patiently begins willing himself to¬†relax¬†away… ¬†He retreats within, relaxes, and then does nothing for a while… ¬†he waits… ¬†he watches the thoughts that pass through his mind, with studied indifference…

Then he slowly shifts his attention… ¬†He imagines looking at his body from the outside… ¬†at his facial expression… his posture… his clothing… ¬†He pauses for a few moments¬†to adjust to this new perspective… ¬†Then he imagines floating serenely¬†upward… looking down at his body still before him in the chair, eyes closed… ¬†He imagines the tent around him disappearing as his mind, his spirit, floats upward, high above his body… ¬†He looks down on the camp around him… ¬†He sees himself, in his mind’s eye, and he now sees the tents and soldiers around him…

Floating higher and higher… his perspective widens to take in the whole area, the clearing, and the surrounding forests… ¬†He thinks of the animals, the birds, the fish in the rivers… ¬†He thinks of the paths through the woods… the villages nearby… and the people who live there… ¬†going about their lives…¬†interacting with each other, influencing each other, encountering each other in different ways‚Ķ ¬†Floating higher, people become as small as ants below… He patiently talks himself through the images and ideas as he contemplates them… ¬†He’s done this a hundred times before…

Rising up into the clouds, you see the whole of the surrounding region beneath you… You see both towns and countryside, forests, rivers… ¬†where one country ends and another begins… ¬†and gradually the coastline comes into view as your perspective becomes more and more expansive‚Ķ You float gently up above the clouds, above the rain, and through the upper atmosphere of our¬†world‚Ķ So high that you eventually rise beyond the sphere of the planet itself, and into the region of the stars‚Ķ You look toward our world below¬†and see it suspended in space before you… ¬†silently turning‚Ķ ¬†majestic and beautiful‚Ķ

You see the whole world‚Ķ the blue of the great oceans‚Ķ and the brown and green of the continents‚Ķ You see the white of the polar ice caps, north and south‚Ķ You see the grey wisps of cloud that pass silently across the surface of the earth‚Ķ Though you can no longer see yourself, you know that you are down there far 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 become more aligned with reality and with nature as a whole‚Ķ

You contemplate all the countless living beings upon the earth. The millions who live today‚Ķ You remember¬†that your life is one among many, one person among the total population of the¬†world‚Ķ You think of the rich diversity of human life… ¬†The many languages spoken by people of different races, in different countries‚Ķ people of all different ages‚Ķ newborn infants, elderly people, people in the prime of life‚Ķ You think of the enormous variety of human experiences‚Ķ some people right now are unhappy, some people are happy‚Ķ and you realise how richly varied the tapestry of human life before you seems…

And yet as you gaze upon the planet you are also aware of its position within the rest of the universe… a tiny speck of dust, adrift in immeasurable vastness… Merely a tiny grain of sand by comparison with the endless tracts of cosmic space…

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

You think of the lifespan of humanity itself… Just one of countless species living upon the planet… the race of mankind arising many thousands of years ago… long after animal life had appeared… You contemplate history just as if it were a great book, a million lines long… the life of the entire human race just a single sentence somewhere within that book… just one sentence…

And yet you think of the lifespan of the planet itself… Countless years older than mankind… the life of the planet too has a beginning, middle, and end… Formed unimaginably long ago… one day in the distant future its destiny is to be swallowed up fire… You think of the great lifespan of the universe itself… the almost incomprehensible vastness of universal time… starting immeasurable aeons ago… Perhaps one day, at the end of time, this whole universe will implode upon itself and disappear once again…

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

You contemplate all things, past, present and future… You see your life within the bigger picture… the total context of cosmic time and space… You see yourself as an integral part of something much bigger, of cosmic Nature itself… Just as the organs and limbs of your own body work together to form a greater unity, a living being, so your body as a whole is like a tiny part in the organism of the universe…

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 remember 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… You embrace and follow nature… your own true nature as a rational, truth-seeking human being… and the one great Nature of the universe as a whole…

He takes time to contemplate things from this perspective. ¬†Then he guides himself, with his words, back down to earth… ¬†toward the real world, and the present moment… ¬†toward Germania… toward the tent in which his body remains seated, comfortably, in repose…

His mind slowly returns to his body… back behind his eyes… his awareness runs through his body… his arms and legs… reaching out to his fingers and his toes… ¬†He feels the chair beneath him once again… and his feet resting on the floor… He takes a deep breath and begins to slowly open his eyes… moving his fingers, his toes, and starting to shift a little in his chair… he opens his eyes and looks at the things before him…

He stands up slowly, and takes a step forward.  His mind still feels enlarged, somehow lighter and more free than before.  He feels prepared.  He knows that he has work to do tomorrow that will require great patience, presence of mind, and equanimity, and he puts his trust in philosophy, once again, to guide him.

What the Stoics Really Said

This article provides an overview of some of the specific verbal formulas to be found in Stoic writings, particularly those derived from Epictetus.

Epictetus-Enchiridion-Poster.jpgEpictetus often told his students to repeat¬†specific¬†phrases¬†to themselves in response to certain challenging situations in life. As Pierre Hadot notes, often (but not always) he uses the word epilegein, which might be translated¬†“saying in addition” to something, or “saying in response” to something, i.e., to verbally add something. (The ancient Greeks occasionally used the same word, incidentally, to mean reciting a magical incantation.)

As the examples Epictetus gives often appear to be concise verbal formulae, it’s not a great leap to compare them to modern concepts such as “coping statements” in cognitive therapy or just “verbal affirmations” in self-help literature. Translating Greek philosophical texts often leads to slightly more long-winded English. For example, Epictetus tells his students to say “You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent.” Those fifteen English words translate only seven Greek words ŌÜőĪőĹŌĄőĪŌÉőĮőĪ őĶŠľ∂ őļőĪŠĹ∂ őŅŠĹź ŌÄő¨őĹŌĄŌČŌā ŌĄŠĹł ŌÜőĪőĻőĹŌĆőľőĶőĹőŅőĹ. ¬†So the original phrase taught by Epictetus is often much briefer and more laconic.

There are many more verbal formulae in Epictetus and other Stoic writings but for now I’ve just collected together¬†some of the key passages where he specifically uses the verb epilegein.

“This is the price I am willing to pay for retaining my composure.”

Is a little oil spilt or a little wine stolen? Say in addition [epilege] “This is the price paid for being dispassionate [apatheia] and tranquil [ataraxia]; and nothing is to be had for nothing.” (Enchiridion, 12)

Epictetus, and other Stoics, very often use this financial metaphor. ¬†We should view life as a series of transactions, where we’re being asked to exchange our inner state for externals. ¬†We might obtain great wealth, but pay the price of sacrificing our integrity or peace of mind. ¬†The New Testament says “What shall¬†it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul”. ¬†That could easily have been said by a Stoic philosopher and it beautifully captures what they mean. ¬†On the other hand, if you choose to value virtue above any externals, you might remind yourself of this by saying that sometimes sacrificing wealth or reputation, or accepting their loss without complaint, is the price you’re willing to pay for retaining your equanimity.

“This is an obstacle for the body but not for the mind.”

Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will [prohairesis]. Say this in addition [epilege] on the occasion of everything that happens; for you will find it an impediment to something else, but not to yourself. (Enchiridion, 9)

There’s some wordplay here lost in translation because the Greek word for an impediment or obstacle literally means that something is “at your feet”, and here Epictetus uses it to refer to something actually impeding our leg from moving. ¬†It’s tricky to capture the scope of prohairesis in English, and it’s usually translated as something like “will”, “volition” or “moral choice” – it means something between what we would call volition and choice.

“I want to do these things but I also want more to keep my mind in harmony with nature.”

When you set about any action, remind yourself of what nature the action is. […] And thus you will more safely go about this action, if you say in addition [epileges] “I will now go to bathe, and keep my own will [prohairesis] in harmony with nature.” And so with regard to every other action. Fur this, if any impediment arises in bathing you will be able to say, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my will [prohairesis] in harmony with nature; and I shall not keep it thus, if I am out of humour at things that happen.” (Enchiridion, 4)

This is also tricky to translate but mainly because it condenses a great deal of Stoic philosophy in a slightly opaque way. ¬†Stoic action with a “reserve clause” involves both an external outcome that’s sought “lightly”, in a dispassionate manner, and an inner goal (wisdom/virtue) that’s prized more highly. ¬†In any activity, the Stoic should remind himself that his primary goal is to come out of it with wisdom and virtue intact, or increased, and that’s infinitely more important than whether he succeeds or fails in terms of outward events.

“It’s¬†just a¬†cheap¬†mug.”

In every thing which pleases the soul or supplies a want, or is loved, remember to say in addition [epilegein] what the nature of each thing is, beginning from the smallest. If you love an earthenware cup, say it is an earthenware cup that you love; for when it has been broken, you will not be disturbed. If you are kissing your child or wife, say that it is a mortal whom you are kissing, afor when the wife or child dies, you will not be disturbed. (Enchiridion, 3)

What Epictetus starts off with is an example comparable to a “plastic cup”. ¬†Something very common, cheap, trivial, and dispensable. ¬†There are many examples in Marcus Aurelius of this method of “objective representation”, which involves describing things dispassionately, as a natural philosopher or scientist might. ¬†Napoleon reputedly said that a throne is just a bench covered in velvet. ¬†The last remark about the mortality of one’s wife and child seems shocking to many modern readers. ¬†However, it is probably based on a well-known ancient saying: “I knew that my son was mortal.”

“You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent.”

Straightway then practise saying in addition [epilegein] regarding every harsh appearance, “You are an appearance, and in no manner what you appear to be.” Then examine it by the rules which you possess, and by this first and chiefly, whether it relates to the things which are in our power or to things which are not in our power: and if it relates to any thing which is not in our power, be ready to say, that it does not concern you. (Enchiridion, 1)

This appears to mean that impressions are just mental events and not to be confused with the external things they claim to portray.  The map is not the terrain.  The menu is not the meal.

“It is nothing to me.”

How shall I use the impressions presented to me? According to nature or contrary to nature? How do I answer them? As I ought or as I ought not? Do I say in addition [epilego] to things external to my will [aprohairetois] that “they are nothing to me”? (Discourses, 3.16)

This abrupt phrase, ouden pros emi, occurs very many times throughout the Discourses.  The Greek is strikingly concise.

“That’s his opinion.” / “It seems right to him.”

When any person treats you ill or speaks ill of you, remember that he does this or says this because he thinks that it is his duty. It is not possible then for him to follow that which seems right to you, but that which seems right to himself. Accordingly if he is wrong in his opinion, he is the person who is hurt, for he is the person who has been deceived […] If you proceed then from these opinions, you will be mild in temper to him who reviles you: for say in addition [epiphtheggomai] on each occasion: “It seemed so to him”. (Enchiridion, 42)

Passages like these, dealing with Stoic doctrines regarding empathy and social virtue are often ignored by modern self-help writers on Stoicism for some reason. ¬†This doctrine goes back to Socrates’ notion that no man does evil willingly, or knowingly, that vice is a form of moral ignorance and virtue a form of moral¬†wisdom. ¬†The phrase ŠľĒőīőŅőĺőĶőĹ őĪŠĹźŌĄŠŅ∑ could also be translated “That’s his opinion” or perhaps “It seems right to him.”

“This is not misfortune because bearing it with a noble spirit becomes our good fortune.”

Remember for the future, whenever anything begins to trouble you, to make use of the following judgement [dogmata]: ‘This thing is not a misfortune but to bear it nobly is good fortune. (Fragment 28b)

Quoted by Marcus in Meditations 4.49.  This is a common theme in the Stoic literature.  Adversity gives us the opportunity to exercise virtue, and handled well therefore every misfortune turns into good fortune, for the wise.

“This is a familiar sight.” / “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

What is vice? ¬†A familiar sight enough. ¬†So with everything that befalls have¬†ready-to-hand: ‘This is a familiar sight.’ ¬†Look up, look down, everywhere you will find the same things, of which histories ancient, medieval, and modern are full, and full of them at this day are cities and houses. ¬†There is nothing new under the sun. ¬†Everything is familiar, everything fleeting. ¬†(Meditations, 7.1)

Marcus makes it clear this is a phrase to have ready in mind, memorized, to be repeated in response to all manner of situations.

“How does this affect me? ¬†Shall I regret it?”

In every action, ask yourself “How does this affect me? ¬†Shall I regret it?” ¬†In a little while, I will be dead and all will be past and gone. ¬†(Meditations, 8.2)

He goes on to say that all I can ask for is that my present actions are rational, social, and at one with the Law of God.

“Give what you will, take back what you will.”

The well-schooled and humble heart says to Nature, who gives and takes back all we have: “Give what you will, take back what you will.” ¬†But he says it without any bravado of fortitude, in simple obedience and good will to her. (Meditations, 10.10)

This sounds like “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away”. ¬†However, it also recalls many¬†other comments by Marcus.

“Where are they now?”

There’s a famous Latin poetry trope called ubi sunt and this Stoic phrase seems to say exactly the same thing in Greek: Pou oun ekeinoi?

Let a glance at yourself [in a mirror?] bring to mind one of the Caesars, and so by analogy in every case. ¬†Then let the thought strike you: “Where are they now?” Nowhere, or none can say where. ¬†For thus shall you habitually look on human things as mere smoke and as naught. ¬†(Meditations, 10.31)

This is a recurring theme in his writings but it’s verbal formula is perhaps stated most explicitly in this passage.

“What purpose¬†does¬†this person have in mind?”

In every act of another habituate yourself as far as may be to put to yourself the question: “What end has the man in view?” ¬†But begin with yourself, cross-examine yourself first (Meditations, 10.37).

This is also a common theme in Marcus’ Meditations, to examine the motives of others and what they assume to be good or bad in life, as a means to forgiveness and empathy, through understanding.

“The cosmos = change; life = opinion.”

But among the principles ready to your hand, upon which you shall pore, let there be these two. ¬†One, that objective things do not lay hold of the soul, but stand quiescent without; while disturbances are but the outcome of that opinion which is within us. ¬†A second, that all this visible world changes in a moment, and will be no more; and continually think how many things you have already witnessed changing. ¬†“The cosmos is change; life is opinion.” (Meditations, 4.3)

The Greek says very simply: ho kosmos, alloiosis. ho bios, hupolepsis. ¬†Literally: “The cosmos, change; life, opinion.” ¬†This was obviously meant to be memorized, like slogan or mnemonic. ¬†Marcus means that the external world is constantly changing and nothing lasts forever; and that the quality of our lives is determined by our judgments, mainly those about what is good or bad in life.

Stoic Attitudes Script

Script for a Stoic meditation exercise, which is being recorded for the forthcoming e-learning course: Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training.

Zeno-Poster-British-Museum.jpgThis script is being recorded now, after some changes were incorporated based on feedback to the initial draft version.  Thanks to everyone who contacted me.  However, if you want to add any further suggestions for future revisions please feel free to do so.

[Feel free to post¬†your comments or feedback below…]

Preamble

Take a moment to settle down and make yourself comfortable…  either lying down somewhere or just reclining in an armchair…  Find a position where you can be at ease and rest for a while without having to move around much…  Lie down with your legs straight and your arms by your sides, if possible, or sit with your feet flat on the floor and your hands resting on your lap…  If you wear glasses, you can take them off …  Close your eyes and relax…  Allow yourself to enter a more contemplative or receptive frame of mind…

Notice the sensations in your body and any thoughts or images that pass through your mind‚Ķ ¬†Become a detached observer of these things for the time being‚Ķ ¬†If you notice any sensations in your body or hear any sounds from around the room, or outside, that‚Äôs okay‚Ķ ¬†Develop indifference toward potential distractions, rather than trying to block them from your mind‚Ķ ¬†Just acknowledge whatever enters your awareness, shrug it off, and return your attention gently to the process at hand‚Ķ ¬†If you doze off, that‚Äôs fine too‚Ķ for a few minutes after awakening, just continue to imagine what it would feel like to really adopt a more profoundly Stoic attitude toward life…

By listening to this recording, you’re going to give yourself an opportunity to contemplate certain typical ideas from Stoic philosophy…  We’d like you to use it at least once per day, for a few weeks, so that you can really observe the consequences of doing so…  If these ideas are new to you, you can just begin by contemplating them patiently in a detached manner, studying their meaning…  You can always choose what to accept and what to disregard from this recording…  However, if the words you’re listening to are consistent with your own beliefs and values, you might want to try absorbing them more deeply, by mentally-rehearsing these attitudes and ways of thinking…

If you like, imagine that with every inhalation of breath, you‚Äôre absorbing Stoic values and beliefs more deeply into the core of your being… and with every exhalation you‚Äôre allowing wisdom and virtue to spread through your character and out toward the world around you, through your words and actions‚Ķ ¬†Imagine what it would be like to completely identify with the attitudes being described‚Ķ ¬†Ask yourself, what would it be like to really absorb these attitudes, take them for granted, and live in accord with them? ¬†What sort of person would you become if you accepted Stoic ideas and made them part of your character? ¬†What would it feel like to really think about things this way? ¬†Keep the Stoic goal in mind: you‚Äôre listening to every word with the intention of improving your character and progressing toward wisdom and virtue…

Induction

Now let’s begin…  In a moment, I’m going to start counting from ten, all the way down to zero…  Imagine that with each number I count you’re relaxing more deeply into a comfortable posture and state of mind…  becoming more absorbed in this process and the ideas you’re now contemplating…  If you’re ready to absorb these attitudes more deeply you might want to imagine that you’re now entering a progressively more open and receptive frame of mind…  Let go of everything else for the time being… relax… and allow your attention to become totally absorbed in these words…

Now take a deep breath in‚Ķ hold it‚Ķ exhale slowly‚Ķ relax… and let go completely‚Ķ ¬†Breathe naturally‚Ķ ¬†Now on the count of ten‚Ķ ¬†Let go and relax more deeply‚Ķ ¬†On the count of nine‚Ķ ¬†Keep letting go and relaxing‚Ķ ¬†On the count of eight‚Ķ ¬†Relaxing deeper and deeper‚Ķ ¬†On the count of seven‚Ķ ¬†More and more relaxed‚Ķ ¬†six‚Ķ keep letting go‚Ķ ¬†five‚Ķ half-way there‚Ķ ¬†four‚Ķ relaxing deeper and deeper and deeper‚Ķ three‚Ķ almost completely relaxed‚Ķ two‚Ķ relaxing in your body and deep within your mind‚Ķ one‚Ķ letting go of everything else‚Ķ and zero‚Ķ just let go‚Ķ ¬†relax completely‚Ķ ¬†and do nothing for a while‚Ķ give all of your attention to the words and ideas you‚Äôre hearing right now‚Ķ ¬†Allow yourself to relax into a positive frame of mind and to benefit from what you‚Äôre doing…

Attitudes

Now listen carefully to these words and try to imagine what it would be like to really hold some of these Stoic attitudes very deeply indeed…

Some things are under your direct control and other things are not‚Ķ ¬†You‚Äôre mindful of this distinction throughout the day, especially when faced with challenging situations‚Ķ ¬†Your priority is to do what‚Äôs up to you to the best of your ability, with wisdom, integrity, and strength of mind. ¬†You calmly and rationally accept that external events sometimes do not turn out as you may have wished, and that some things are not under your control in life‚Ķ ¬†The most important thing in life is the quality of your own actions, that they should be wise and good, healthy and praiseworthy in your own eyes‚Ķ ¬†everything else is of secondary importance…

Peace of mind comes from abandoning fears and desires about things outside your control‚Ķ ¬†It‚Äôs not things that upset us but our judgements about things, especially irrational value-judgements… or placing too much importance on external things beyond our direct control‚Ķ You can rationally prefer that things go one way or another, without demanding that they do so, and becoming upset if they do not‚Ķ ¬†You‚Äôre prepared to face either success or failure, in external events, with equal calm and serenity‚Ķ ¬†Difficult or challenging situations don‚Äôt have to make you distressed. ¬†You remind yourself of this daily, especially when faced with challenging situations: It‚Äôs not things that upset us, but our judgement about things‚Ķ ¬†Dwelling on unhealthy feelings such as excessive anger increasingly seems pointless and unnecessary to you. ¬†You can take a stand against things and assert yourself without becoming upset…

You love the truth‚Ķ ¬†You love wisdom, truth and understanding‚Ķ and you seek to grasp your own nature and that of the world around you‚Ķ ¬†Virtue, or strength of character, is grounded in practical wisdom, and knowledge of what‚Äôs genuinely good, bad, or indifferent, in life. ¬†Your true values are becoming clearer to you, and your actions more consistent with them‚Ķ ¬†You love virtue, excellence, and strength of character‚Ķ ¬†You admire wisdom, justice, courage and self-mastery in others… and seek, day by day, to cultivate these virtues in your own life‚Ķ ¬†You love to contemplate heroic, admirable and praiseworthy individuals‚Ķ ¬†Historical figures, fictional characters, and people you‚Äôve encountered in your own life‚Ķ ¬†You pinpoint their good qualities, study them, and seek to emulate their virtues appropriately in your character and actions…

You view strength of character as both healthy and praiseworthy, and as the basis of true fulfilment in life…  A good person can have a good life even when facing difficult circumstances.  It’s your attitude toward life that determines whether it is good or bad, whether you flourish or not as a human being.  Other people’s opinions are far less important to you than your own sense of what’s wise or foolish, right or wrong…  Health, wealth, and reputation may sometimes be preferable in life but they’re not necessary to excel and flourish as a human being Рall you truly need is virtue and strength of character.

You dare to be wise… ¬†You dedicate each moment of the day to improving yourself, to living wisely and in accord with your own true values and the virtues you hold most dear. ¬†You don‚Äôt allow negative feelings to hold you back but you act in accord with wisdom and your underlying values, even if it takes you outside of your comfort zone, and requires patience, courage, endurance, and self-discipline‚Ķ ¬†You take pride in your ability to face adversity calmly and rationally…

You love what‚Äôs best in yourself and others‚Ķ ¬†You feel a growing sense of affinity for your own true nature, as a rational and social being, and your place within the world‚Ķ ¬†You feel a natural affection toward the rest of mankind, and a sense of being at one with the universe as a whole‚Ķ ¬†You never lose sight of your own and other people‚Äôs capacity for wisdom and virtue…

Behaviours

You live centred in the present moment‚Ķ ¬†You‚Äôre constantly aware of the transience of material things, including human life itself. ¬†You‚Äôre conscious of your own mortality… and make the most of each day that‚Äôs given to you, as if it were a sacred gift… ¬†The past is gone and the future is unknown. ¬†You focus your attention where it belongs in the ‚Äúhere and now‚ÄĚ and on the quality of your voluntary thoughts and actions, as they shape your life.

You’re mindful of your thoughts, actions, and feelings…  You pay attention to your character, the type of person you’ve become, in any given situation…  When you notice the early-warning signs of distress, you respond by telling yourself that your initial thoughts and feelings are merely impressions in the mind, and not the things they claim to represent.  You take a step back from troubling thoughts and feelings…  You view them calmly and rationally, from a distance, almost as if they were the thoughts of another person.  You consider where they’re leading you and whether or not they’re  contributing to genuine happiness and fulfilment in life.  Do they serve your fundamental values?  How would someone who truly lives with wisdom respond to the same situation?  Do your initial impressions upset you by placing too much importance on external events?

You enjoy contemplating what the ideal Stoic or wise person would say or do in the face of different challenging situations.  You train your mind in emotional resilience, by facing the full range of human catastrophes in your imagination while your practice rising above them and viewing them serenely, with detached indifference.  You patiently wait for your feelings to settle down, allowing you to reflect on things calmly and rationally and to consider how best to respond in accord with your values.

You measure everything against your true goal in life…  You’re always watchful as to whether your thoughts and actions accord with your deeper values and the character strengths or virtues you wish to develop…  You’re gaining enough serenity to accept the things you cannot change, courage to change the things you can, and wisdom to know the difference between them.  You flourish by living wisely and in harmony with nature…  the nature of the universe as a whole… meeting with equanimity the events that befall you and the people that you encounter in daily life… and cultivating your own true nature as a rational and social being by making progress every day toward wisdom and strength of character…

Emerging

Now, just allow those thoughts to sink in for a moment longer, and continue to imagine what it would mean to live in accord with Stoic attitudes and behaviours‚Ķ imagine becoming more and more Stoic every day and making progress toward genuine wisdom and strength of character…

In a moment, I’m going to begin counting from one up to five…  As I do so, allow your attention to expand throughout your body and out into the room around you, and the wider world, as you prepare to conclude the exercise…  You’re getting ready to take some of those ideas into the real world, and your daily life…  Taking them forward in your character and actions, and the way you deal with people you meet and whatever events may befall you…

Beginning now, on the count of one‚Ķ ¬†Expanding your awareness through your whole body, into your fingers and toes‚Ķ ¬†two‚Ķ ¬†beginning to breathe a little bit more deeply‚Ķ three‚Ķ getting ready to move and interact with the world around you‚Ķ four‚Ķ ¬†starting to blink and open your eyes‚Ķ five‚Ķ opening your eyes in your own time‚Ķ take a deep breath and begin to move your arms and legs‚Ķ rub your eyes if you want and make yourself comfortable as you start to move your body‚Ķ ¬†Continue to be mindful of your thoughts, actions, and feelings, as you gradually begin to engage once again with the world around you…

[Please post your comments or feedback below…]

Audio Recording: Stoic Mindfulness Exercise

Audio recording of Stoic mindfulness exercise.

You should be able to listen using the embedded player below: