The Basic Concept

This week you’ll be deepening your understanding of Stoic Mindfulness by returning to some of the themes in Week One and building on the skills you’ve developed. The Stoics believed that we must train ourselves to make a clear distinction between things “up to us” and things not. When we do the things up to us well, and act wisely, that’s “virtue”, which the Stoics considered the most important thing in life. In fact, they believed that “virtue is the only true good” and that external events, including the outcome of our actions, should, at most, be “preferred”, or sought lightly and in a somewhat detached manner, because they’re not entirely under our control.

Stoics naturally focus their attention on the “here and now” because only our actions in the present moment are “up to us” – it’s too late to change the past and the future hasn’t happened yet. The most important thing in life, our ability to act with virtue, resides squarely in the present moment, in other words. However, if we try to remain grounded in the present moment, as you did during Week One, it’s soon apparent that our thoughts and feelings can easily sweep us away from it into the past, into the future, or into the realm of fantasy. When we spot this and bring our attention back to the present moment, something strange happens… We shift from thinking “What if xyz happens?” to thinking “Right now I notice I’m having the thought ‘What if xyz happens?’” That’s a subtle but incredibly important difference. In other words, we shift from looking at the world through the lens of our thoughts to looking at our thoughts, as if they were objects. Epictetus appears to take this distinction for granted. For example, he says:

Therefore train yourself without hesitation to say in response to every harsh appearance that “you are [merely] an appearance and in no way the thing appearing.” Epictetus,Handbook, 1

The map is not the territory, as Alfred Korzybski put it. Thoughts are not facts. This ability to take a step back from our thoughts and view them objectively is called “cognitive distancing” in modern psychology and there’s a very large volume of evidence now showing its value for mental health. Consider the difference between being completely “lost in a story” and pausing to notice instead how the story is being told: the tone of voice, the words, the pace, etc., of the storytelling. What if worry, for instance, were like a story we tell ourselves?  We can choose whether to lose ourselves in the story of worry or whether to pay attention instead of the way in which we’re worrying, as it’s happening, how long we’re spending on it, the language we’re using, etc.  When we gain distance from thoughts in this way, they generally have far less hold over our feelings.

Thoughts are just “impressions” as Epictetus puts it, and not to be confused with things themselves. For the Stoics, this is especially important when it comes to thoughts containing value judgements and associated feelings. This is particularly a concern for Stoics when we get the automatic impression that something not “up to us”, or under our direct control, is supremely important in life, and we allow our emotions and desires to be swept along with that initial impression rather than questioning it from a philosophical perspective. Hence, the most famous passage in the Stoic Handbook says:

It is not things themselves that upset us but our judgements about these things. Epictetus,Handbook, 5

That quote actually became one of the fundamental slogans of modern cognitive therapy. Clients were taught it in their first therapy session and asked to think about its meaning. It provided a foundation for everything that followed but recent research has suggested that this attitude of “cognitive distance”, viewing our own thoughts more objectively, may be one of the most important factors determining the outcome of psychotherapy. For ancient Stoics, this kind of “cognitive distance” was a way of life, though. This week your self-monitoring and daily exercises are going to focus on generating greater “cognitive distance”, in a way that draws directly on ancient Stoicism.

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