Setting aside a regular time to practice “formal” mindfulness exercises is probably going to be essential. However, you shouldn’t confine your practice to a few minutes each day. Try to practice “informally” by being constantly more mindful of what you’re doing in the present moment, throughout the whole day. Epictetus asked his students the rhetorical question: Is there anything you can’t do better by doing it with greater self-awareness? (Okay, maybe sleeping, but not much else.) Self-awareness isn’t self-consciousness. We tend to speak of someone being self-conscious when they’re overly-preoccupied with the importance they place on other people’s perceptions of them. That’s the opposite of Stoic mindfulness, which asks us to let go of attachment to things not directly “up to us”, like other people’s opinions, and to focus instead on whether our current patterns of thinking are healthy or not. We should continually remind ourselves to let go of trains of thought that are unhealthy, excessive, or irrational, rather than going along with them. Imagine that your troublesome thoughts are like a bus going to the wrong destination. Once you’ve realised where it’s headed, you don’t need to jump on the road in front of it and try to stop it with force… but you don’t need to get on it and let yourself be taken for a ride either. You can just step back and allow it to drive on. Troublesome thoughts and feelings, impressions which pop automatically into our mind, aren’t “bad” in Stoicism; they’re “indifferent”, and we should practice being indifferenttoward indifferent things. As Epictetus and Seneca explained, even the ideal Stoic Sage may experience anxious thoughts and feelings sometimes, such as during a storm at sea, but he doesn’t allow himself to be carried away by them.
Finding or creating cues in your environment to practice the mindfulness exercise we described earlier will help you to develop this ability to detach from automatic thoughts, which modern psychologists sometimes call “cognitive distance”. For example, you might do this at certain times of the day, for a few minutes, or whenever you’re about to begin a new task, or move to a new location, during the day. You may also find it useful to create reminders or “cues” for yourself to engage in Stoic practices, or just remember your goals during the course. The Stoics and other schools of philosophy appear to have used images of their founders for this purpose, such as the gem reputedly depicting Zeno of Citium shown on the first page of this lesson.
Make it your goal to be continually aware of your own actions in the present moment, throughout each day. Keep count of unhelpful thoughts or feelings, and step back from them rather than indulging in them and going along with them. In particular, keep an eye on whether your thoughts place more importance on things (objects, people, events) outside your direct control than upon the way you deal with them, which is where your true locus of control resides. Think of this as a basic training in mental self-discipline and your first step on the ladder of achieving Stoic resilience.
Stoic Therapy Toolkit
Five-page summary of key Stoic ideas and practices.
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