Stoic Mindfulness

What thing, out of all those that go to make up our lives, is done better by those who are inattentive? […] Do you not realize that when once you let your mind go wandering, it is no longer within your power to recall it?Epictetus, Discourses 4.12

This course will require you to pay attention to yourself more carefully than normal, and to the way you actually live your life each day.  As Socrates said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  You should aspire to “know yourself” by using this opportunity to study your own daily routine, and train of thought, from the detached perspective of a natural philosopher.  Learn to patiently examine your way of living each day as if you were an ethnographer studying an exotic tribe, and documenting their culture and rituals, or a naturalist studying the behaviour of some newly discovered species of mammal.

There’s a special form of continual self-awareness that ancient Stoics trained themselves to develop, which we can reasonably describe as “mindfulness”, although it differs in some respects from similar ideas in Buddhist meditation practice.  According to the ancient Stoics, we should naturally be mindful, from moment to moment, of the most important thing in life: the character of our own thoughts and actions.  They even used a technical term in Greek, prosochê, to describe this mindful attention to oneself.  The eminent French scholar Pierre Hadot, has probably done more than anyone else to document the extent to which psychological exercises can be found in the literature of ancient philosophy, particularly Stoicism.  He wrote:

Attention (prosochê) is the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude.  It is a continuous vigilance and presence of mind, self-consciousness which never sleeps, and a constant tension of the spirit.  Thanks to this attitude, the philosopher is fully aware of what he does at each instant, and he wills his action fully. Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life

For Stoics, mindfulness of breathing, for example, wouldn’t necessarily be a particularly helpful exercise.  (Although, maybe there are ways it could be made appropriate.)  It’s attention to our judgements that really matters, especially our value-judgements and whether we lapse into placing too much importance on things outside of our direct control or not.  In doing this, don’t try to force yourself to change.  You may find that many things change just by being observed.  However, you may also find that you can simply step back from certain trains of thought or actions, from the outset, and choose not to go along with them or waste your time on them.  Sometimes, less is more.  This strategy may help you save time and energy throughout the day, by reducing the frequency and duration of unnecessary activities and, in a sense, simplifying your life.  It starts with self-observation, though, and noticing what you’re actually doing, from moment to moment, as you’re doing it.

That’s the theme that runs through this course.  It might seem a bit challenging or paradoxical at first but we’re confident it will come to make more sense to you if you persevere with the practical exercises each day and, perhaps more importantly, if you engage in discussion with the other participants about the “big questions” we’ve prepared for each week.

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