Interview: Walter J. Matweychuk on Marcus Aurelius

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

Walter J. MatweychukI am a clinical psychologist and work at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice psychotherapy and train psychologists to do psychotherapy. I teach, at New York University, a graduate-level course on cognitive behavior therapy. I author books on this therapy and maintain a website REBTDoctor.com aimed at disseminating this useful philosophy and psychotherapy. I also am a consultant on a project with the United States Navy where we are teaching rational thinking and problem-solving skills to enlisted personnel. What all these roles have in common is I teach people how to help themselves and others to cope with adversity.

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

I practice a form of psychotherapy known as Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). It is the original form of cognitive behavior therapy. Dr. Albert Ellis, a famous psychologist now deceased, created REBT. I studied with Ellis for many years. He based REBT on ancient and modern philosophy and behavior therapy. REBT heavily borrows from Stoicism. I am always looking to improve my effectiveness as a psychotherapist and communicator of REBT. I assumed that by studying the underlying ancient philosophy upon which Ellis built REBT, I could deepen my understanding of it, better communicate its core ideas and perhaps enhance my clinical effectiveness.

How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?

I integrate quotes from Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius into my REBT sessions. Stoicism mixes nicely with REBT, and the aim of using these quotes is to induce a philosophical shift that helps the patient cope with the adversity that originally leads them to seek psychotherapy. I also use these same quotes to assist me in coping with the adversities I face and to develop my character and lead a meaningful life.

What’s the most valuable thing we can learn about Stoicism from the life or writings of Marcus Aurelius?

To prepare ourselves in advance for adversity, especially adversity caused by others. To expect it to happen so as not to be thrown by it. To see that when obstructed by others, we can more effectively address the challenge by not disturbing ourselves about what has happened. Marcus teaches that humans largely hurt ourselves. I agree. We hurt ourselves largely by the attitudes we choose to hold towards what others do to us. Marcus reminds us to remember that people do bad things largely out of ignorance or emotional disturbance not because they are bad people. I believe this about people. Seeing people as flawed, ignorant and emotionally disturbed makes sense to me. I then go on to remind myself that I too am a flawed human. With this mindset, I work to control and improve my behavior and also resist what people do so that I can accomplish my goals. In so doing I try very hard to work with people as opposed to work against them. I try to accept people and not condemn them, although I may very much dislike what they are doing. Not condemning people as people allows me to avoid self-defeating anger and to deal with them constructively. Aurelius also helps me to see and remember that I live in a social world and it is important that I try to get people to work with each other rather than against each other. As I see it, people too easily work against each other. He helps me maintain the perspective that it is good and natural to see ourselves as part of a whole, not isolated individuals. With all this said, I try to keep other people’s interests a close second to my interests.

What do you think is the most important psychological technique or piece of practical advice that we can derive from Marcus’ Stoicism?

There is great value in holding ourselves responsible for our emotional reaction to other people rather blaming them for our reaction. Others may obstruct us, but we hurt ourselves about what they do. We control our emotional destiny regardless of what others do or fail to do. When we master this simple idea, we liberate ourselves.

Do you have a favorite quote from The Meditations?

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Marcus Aurelius or Stoicism?

Take your online course on Marcus Aurelius and read the Meditations.

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

I believe people are well advised to study both Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. They complement each other nicely because Ellis crafted REBT from Stoic ideas and sentiment. Stoicism is a wonderful philosophy, but REBT can be more accessible, at least initially. Use both tools. To this end go to my website REBTDoctor.com and watch my free audios and videos and learn about REBT and how to put it to use in your life. Register for my Intermittent Reinforcement emails, and you will receive on an intermittent basis useful emails on how to deepen your understanding of REBT and how to use it to cope with adversity and change your unwanted behaviors. If you are a mental health practitioner, coach, or philosophical counselor, consider reading my book Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy – A Newcomer’s Guide. It will teach you how to use REBT in your counseling and coaching work with others. Finally, I will be doing a workshop at Stoicon 2018 in London which I have titled “Stoic and Rational Thinking in an Irrational World.” I plan to show how both Stoicism and REBT and be used in today’s challenging world and to facilitate a lively discussion with those who attend!

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