This exercise is designed to help you ground your awareness in the “here and now” and view your experiences from a detached and objective perspective, as the ancient Stoics described.
Your main goal during the first week is to develop more self-awareness and insight into your own thoughts, actions, and feelings, and how they’re related to each other. You’ll be trying to do this more or less continually, from moment to moment, throughout each day. That will mean developing greater “mindfulness” of your own judgements and actions, and a greater awareness of what’s happening “here and now” in the present moment, as it happens.
Mindfulness of the Present Moment
You can develop greater self-awareness and attention to the present moment by using the following mindfulness exercise derived from Gestalt Therapy. You’re going to practice the art of patiently observing and describing your own experiences from a detached perspective. The ancient Stoics employed a number of similar exercises, involving attention to the “here and now”. These often involved adopting an attitude comparable to that of a “natural philosopher”, suspending any value-judgements or emotive rhetoric, and patiently describing the observable qualities of physical objects in completely neutral and objective language.
- Begin with your eyes open, although you may close them in a moment if you wish to do so. You might want to take a minute just to settle down and bring your attention to the present moment.
- Say to yourself, silently in your mind: “Right now I am aware of…” Keep repeating that phrase and putting your own ending it, as you slowly describe your experiences.
- Try to suspend any value judgements and just describe specific things that you notice, as concisely and objectively as possible.
- Use the tactic of putting things into words to make your attention linger for longer than normal on the features of the present moment that you experience.
- Take your time and proceed very slowly and patiently; don’t rush to describe everything. Just notice what comes to your attention.
Let go of the past, the future, and the realm of imagination, for a few minutes, and train yourself to remain with the present moment and the reality of your immediate surroundings. Allow yourself to notice what you’re actually doing right now, from moment to moment. What do you think the long-term consequence of training yourself in this way, and getting good at staying with the “here and now” for a while, might be? You don’t have to keep doing this forever, but it might be useful to be able to do it whenever you choose to, and to spend more time noticing your own experiences and what’s going through your mind in response to them. In a sense, you’re learning to make the unconscious conscious, or at least to become more aware of yourself and what you’re actually doing.
The more you practice doing this simple exercise the more you’ll develop a number of basic psychological skills, which will provide a solid foundation for the rest of the training that follows. The first time you do this you might want to spend a few minutes away from distractions. However, as you practice you should find that you can do it more or less in any situation. You could be sitting on a bus, pausing for a couple of minutes while sitting at your computer, or relaxing in a bath. Some people have told me that they take time to do this exercise during the commercial breaks between segments of a television programme, or even while sitting on the lavatory. It doesn’t really require any additional time or effort during your day – you just need to rememberto do it. So try to do this as often as possible for as long as seems helpful. We’d recommend doing it for a minimum of 3-4 minutes, at least once per day during the first week of the training. If you want to do it more frequently, for longer periods, or throughout the subsequent weeks of the training, though, that’s absolutely fine. Later in this lesson we’ll look at some ways to prompt or remind yourself to practice mindfulness throughout the day, in case you forget…
Stop reading: go ahead and do the exercise above right now!
Once you’ve finished, continue to the next page…
The Stoic Handbook
Sign up today for our free email course on the Stoic Handbook. You'll receive weekly emails with my commentary on passages from Epictetus.