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Stoicism

Stoicism and Being AWARE of Anxiety

Cognitive Therapy and Emotional Acceptance

Therefore when some terrifying sound, either from heaven or from a falling building or as a sudden announcement of some danger, or anything else of that kind occurs, even the mind of a wise man must necessarily be disturbed, must shrink and feel alarm… — Epictetus, Fragment

In recent decades, there’s been a revolution in the way cognitive-behavioural psychotherapists treat emotional disorders. A “third wave” of evidence-based therapies evolved that focus more on mindfulness of thoughts and acceptance of unpleasant feelings, rather than disputing our beliefs in order to change our emotions. This sea change emerged from a growing body of research, which converged on the finding that people with severe anxiety and depression already tend to be trying too hard to think their way out of their problems and struggling too much to control their feelings.

The Stoic philosophy, which originally inspired cognitive therapy, had also endorsed a similar acceptance of unpleasant emotions, although this is often forgotten today.

However, acceptance of uncomfortable emotions had already long been taught by many earlier forms of psychotherapy, e.g., the Gestalt therapy of Fritz Perls and others, which developed in the 1950s. Indeed, even the original forms of behaviour therapy and cognitive therapy had, sometimes, taught emotional acceptance. In his recently-revised manual for the evidence-based treatment of anxiety disorders, Aaron T. Beck, one of the pioneers of cognitive therapy, clearly states that his objective is not to teach people how to “control their anxiety”.

Instead cognitive therapy focuses on helping individuals develop a more “accepting attitude” toward anxiety rather than a “combative (i.e., controlling) attitude.” When thoughts like “I can’t let these anxious feelings continue” are replaced with “I can allow myself to feel anxious because I know I’m exaggerating the threat and danger,” then the intensity and persistence of anxiety are greatly diminished. — Clark & Beck, 2010, p. 195

The Stoic philosophy, which originally inspired cognitive therapy, had also endorsed a similar acceptance of unpleasant emotions, although this is often forgotten today. When people speak of “being stoic” today (lower-case) they typically mean “having a stiff upper-lip”, i.e., suppressing or concealing unpleasant and painful emotions. Several modern research studies have shown that this is often an unhealthy way of coping, though. Lower-case stoicism tends to do the opposite what people believe by making us more emotionally vulnerable in the long-run rather than more resilient — it’s really a sign, in most cases, of weakness not strength. In contrast, Stoic philosophy led to cognitive therapy, and modern evidence-based protocols for psychological resilience training, which many studies have shown to be healthy and effective.

Indeed, the Stoics make a more nuanced distinction between aspects of emotion that are involuntary and those that are voluntary. We should accept the former, as natural and inevitable, but take greater responsibility for the latter. When we’re caught in a threatening situation, they said, like being in a ship during a storm at sea, even a seasoned sailor will often turn pale and tremble, if his life is in imminent danger. We shouldn’t struggle against those feelings or view them as bad. However, we don’t need to make things worse either by worrying or ruminating about events afterwards, or complaining excessively about them.

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Stoicism

How to Think Like Marcus Aurelius

Three Simple Ways that Stoicism can Change your Mindset

The Meditations of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius is one of the most cherished and widely-read self-help classics of all time. His personal reflections contain a lot of good advice based on the ancient Stoic philosophy that he followed.

Below, I’ve outlined three of the most simple and practical Stoic exercises that you’ll find within the pages of The Meditations.

I’ve been researching Stoicism for nearly a quarter of a century, from my early days as a student of academic philosophy to my later career as a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist deeply engaged with psychological-resilience training. I’m the author of several books on Stoicism, including a recent one on Marcus Aurelius called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. Over the years, I’ve observed that although people love The Meditations they often struggle to know how to put Marcus’ psychological wisdom into practice. Below, I’ve outlined three of the most simple and practical Stoic exercises that you’ll find within the pages of The Meditations.

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Stoicism

Free Email Course: Unstuck Yourself

Special Offer: Enroll on Kasey Pierce’s new email course How to Unstuck Yourself before the end of May 2021, free of charge, and your name will be entered in a sweepstake to win a copy of my audiobook How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. (See website for terms and conditions.)

What you get in the course. You’ll receive one email each week with Kasey’s advice on how to get your life unstuck. She will guide you through six steps to freedom, combining ancient wisdom and modern psychology.

  1. How to unstuck yourself
  2. Clarity and vision
  3. What’s your story?
  4. Opinion versus advice
  5. Time travel
  6. Action and will

Register now free of charge to begin receiving your emails, and start putting these six easy tips into practice today. Want to learn more? Check out this interview I recently did with Kasey about practical ways Stoicism and cognitive therapy can help you get your life unstuck.

Kasey Pierce is an author and motivator, who specializes in helping people to overcome blocks in their lives. She is the editor of the forthcoming book 365 Ways to be More Stoic from John Murray Press.

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Stoicism

How Stoicism Can Help You Get Unstuck

Interview with author and CBT therapist, Donald Robertson

Sometimes we all feel a bit stuck. Perhaps you’re making no headway with an important project or task. Perhaps you’re just feeling stuck in general, when you think about your life as a whole.
Some people get stuck and remain stuck for a long time. That can be the cause of a lot of suffering for them. It can also lead to other problems, such as through the wider and longer-term impact on their confidence, mental or physical health, work, studies, or their relationships with other people.

Some of us really struggle to get unstuck. However, there are others who cope well, and manage to get through periods of stuckness, and break free from them, relatively quickly or easily. So what are the crucial differences between those of us who cope badly with stuckness and those lucky souls who cope better?
Donald got straight into a discussion of practical hints and tips, based on his clinical experience, and knowledge of practical philosophy.

I asked author and cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, Donald Robertson, for his advice. Donald has been helping therapy clients and coaching all sorts of high-functioning professionals, helping them to get unstuck, for over two decades now. He’s the author of six books on philosophy and psychotherapy, including the recent best seller on Stoicism and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, published by St Martin’s Press. Donald got straight into a discussion of practical hints and tips, based on his clinical experience, and knowledge of practical philosophy. He focused on some of the techniques that have proven most helpful to his clients in the past. Here’s what he said…

Q: What are your favourite ways of helping people get unstuck?

Read the answers to these questions on Medium.

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Stoicism

Stoicism and Journaling

Journaling for self-improvement is popular today but it builds on a tradition of moral self-examination that goes all the back to ancient Greece and Rome. This article describes a simple method of daily reflection, which was well-known in antiquity. It was first described in a poem called The Golden Verses of Pythagoras, based upon the doctrines of the famous 6th century BC philosopher. However, it was later assimilated into Stoicism, as we’ll see.

Arrian and Stoicism

The most famous Stoic teacher of all, Epictetus, wrote nothing. His words were transcribed and edited by a Roman citizen, called Arrian of Nicomedia, the capital city of Bithynia (in the northwest of modern-day Turkey). Arrian attended Epictetus’ lectures at Nicopolis in Greece, around 120 AD. He was later appointed senator, and reached the rank of consul, under the Emperor Hadrian, with whom he was most likely good friends.

Perhaps his success in life was helped by the use of Stoic philosophical exercises.

Later, around 131 AD, Hadrian appointed Arrian the governor of Cappadocia (in the northeast of modern-day Turkey). As such, he assumed command of a provincial army, consisting of two legions, Legio XII Fulminata and Legio XV Apollinaris, numbering approximately 20,000 men in total, including auxiliaries. Arrian was, indeed, a highly-accomplished Roman statesman and general, an expert on cavalry training and tactics. Perhaps his success in life was helped by the use of Stoic philosophical exercises.

Arrian became known as the second “Xenophon”, after a famous Athenian general and author who lived five centuries earlier. Xenophon was part of Socrates’ circle of friends and students, and left a collection of Socrates’ dialogues known as the Memorabilia Socratis. Arrian was also a prolific, erudite, and talented writer, who was clearly very interested in Epictetus’ philosophy. The relationship between him and Epictetus was like that between Xenophon and Socrates. Having transcribed eight volumes of the master’s discourses — only half of which survive — he acquired a very thorough understanding of Stoic teachings. Arrian also reputedly wrote twelve volumes of conversations with Epictetus and possibly even a biography of the philosopher, which are lost today.

In the Discourses, Arrian portrays Epictetus teaching a specific daily routine, which clearly lends itself to journaling (Discourses, 4.6). It’s a Stoic version of the method described in The Golden Verses of Pythagoras.

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Stoicism

How Stoicism can make you Invincible

Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been. — Marcus Aurelius

When I was younger — in my mid-20s — I had a very strong, ego driven, sense of entitlement about my feelings. However, if you asked me to tell you about myself, I would have said that, of course, I was the most humble person you’d ever meet. I was deluding myself, though.

I remember being in a squabble back then with a family member, about some work I was doing for them. I told them: You know, it really hurts you would say that!

This wasn’t the first time I’d said this in response to a statement, a critique of my performance, based merely on opinion. I thought I was putting on my “big girl pants” by being honest about my feelings. I basked in the triumphant feeling of being vulnerable and transparent! Surely these were the behaviors of someone wise beyond their years! Such bravery!

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Stoicism

Time Projection in Stoicism and CBT

Time projection can be an easy way to use cognitive therapy at home

I began practicing as a psychotherapist in the mid-1990s. I studied many different approaches. I used to train other therapists and became known as a psychological “techniques guy” because I was fascinated by the variety of psychological strategies and tactics we can learn.

You’ll find psychological techniques in books on psychotherapy, as well as in self-help books and even spiritual and philosophical classics. Each individual technique can be classified in different ways. For instance, is it broadly visual, meditative, cognitive, verbal, written, or behavioral in nature? Some are quite complex. Others are surprisingly easy to learn, and work pretty reliably — they often provide “easy wins” for therapists.

I’ll let you in on a trade secret. Most experienced psychotherapists know that one such easy win is what we call “time projection”. That’s the terminology used by early cognitive-behavioral therapists, although you’ll find similar techniques in lots of other types of books. Time projection is a vague term that refers to using your imagination to shift your perspective as if you’re in the future or the past. There many different ways of doing this. Some work better than others. Let me give you my favorite example…

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Stoicism

Medium: Three Sources of Joy in Stoicism

What did Marcus Aurelius say about our reasons to be cheerful?

Live your whole life through free from all constraint and with utmost joy in your heart… — Meditations, 7.68

Many people assume that ancient Stoic philosophers such as the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius were a grave and joyless lot. However, that’s a misconception. In fact, the Historia Augusta tells us that, despite his “serious and dignified” bearing as emperor, Marcus was “without gloom” and known for his pleasant and genial nature.

We can actually see direct evidence of this as the warmth of his affection for them truly shines forth in the private letters which survive between Marcus and his rhetoric tutor, and family friend, Fronto — such the charming letter Marcus sent Fronto on his birthday, for example. According to the historians, Marcus had a circle of long-standing friends who loved him very dearly, and based on his surviving correspondence that seems easy to imagine.

Marcus himself likewise refers to joy, cheerfulness, love, friendship, and other positive emotions throughout The Meditations, his notebook of personal philosophical reflections. He says, among other things, that he learned how to remain “cheerful when ill, or in the face of any other predicament”, from one of his Stoic mentors (1.5). Applying Stoicism to his own life, he tells himself to be unafraid of death and to meet his fate, not complaining, but “with a truly cheerful mind and grateful to the gods with all your heart” (2.3).

Elsewhere, he says that a good person is one who “loves and welcomes all that happens to him” and preserves the guardian spirit within him throughout life “in cheerful serenity, and following God” (3.16). Moreover, he does so by “living a simple, modest, and cheerful life”, free from anger, and accepting of his fate (3.16). Indeed, once he has grasped the right course of action in life he is to “follow it with a cheerful heart and never a backward glance” (10.12). So based on the evidence, Marcus was perceived as serious but never downcast by others, exhibited warmth and affection to his friends, and, in his private life, valued the cultivation of a cheerful philosophy of life.

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Medium: The Father of Oratory

In the fourth century BC, a giant was born among Athenian orators. When he spoke, it’s said his words struck listeners like the blazing thunderbolts of Zeus. And his name was… The Anus.
Or rather, as a youth, the other children called him this, Batalus in Greek, because of his speech impediment, as Batalus could also mean “The Stammerer”.

His rivals continued to taunt him with that rude nickname for the rest of his life. However, there’s an inspirational story about how he overcame his vocal problems through the most rigorous, focused, and determined training. His real name was Demosthenes, and he was later described by Cicero as the one true master of the whole art of oratory.

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Stoicism

Medium: How to kiss like Stoicism?

Contemplating love, loss, and mortality

If you are kissing your child or wife, say that it is a human being [a mortal] whom you are kissing, for thus when they die, you will not be disturbed. — Epictetus

This is of the most notorious passages in the ancient Stoic literature. It comes from the famous Encheiridion or Handbook (§ 3). Epictetus intended his advice to be taken literally, as basic psychological training for the students of Stoicism he was addressing.

He means that we should silently remind ourselves of the fact, when kissing our loved ones, that they are mortal. Nothing about them is immune to change, and eventually they’re going to die.
Based on his comments elsewhere, incidentally, it seems unlikely that he meant we should expect not to be disturbed at all by the loss of a loved one. Rather he’s advising his students on how to increase their emotional resilience to loss by reducing their sense of attachment, within certain bounds.

In the same passage, he explains that this strategy should be applied in a very general way to anything we love or find pleasurable. We should pause to consider its true nature, avoid adding strong value judgements or emotive language, and just stick to the facts. We should love in accord with reason, by being brutally honest with ourselves. The facts are that the character of our loved ones may change over time, and one day they will be no more.

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