This idea of “cognitive distance” can be tricky at first so let’s explore it in a little bit more detail. Once you grasp the basic concept, though, it’s actually quite simple. One of the most common analogies used by therapists is that holding value judgements is like wearing coloured spectacles. If I look at the world through yellow lenses then everything looks as if it’s yellow but that’s just an appearance and not the way things are in themselves. I can also take the glasses off and look at them, as an object, instead of looking through them. That’s like pausing to observe our thoughts and judgements with detachment rather than blending them with external reality.
As we saw, Epictetus said that it’s not (external) things that upset us, but our (value) judgements about things, i.e., our judgement that what befalls us is more important than how we respond. The Stoics would say that external events that befall us are, by contrast, “indifferent”, or trivial, and that what really matters is the way we cope and the type of person we become. This strategy of gaining distance from our initial impressions rather than being swept along by them is recommended to Stoic students quite frequently throughout Epictetus’ Discourses and Handbook. Here are a few more examples:
- Do not be carried away by the impression of someone else’s good fortune, if they achieve wealth or status; instead remind yourself that the only good that can befall you is inner freedom and that is within your own power to achieve, if you can look down on external things with indifference. (Handbook, 19)
- Even if you witness a bad omen, like a raven croaking, do not be swept away by the appearance of prophesied misfortunes; remind yourself that misfortunes can only be predicted for your body or your property but your mind is always available to turn it into good fortune, internally, by responding with wisdom and virtue. (Handbook, 18)
- When you see someone else in misery do not be swept along by the impression that some catastrophe has befallen him; remind yourself that it is not the thing itself but his judgement that upsets him otherwise other people, in the same situation, would all be affected in exactly the same way. (Handbook, 16)
In other words, don’t be carried away by your initial impressions but pause, take a step back, and realise that you’re projecting values onto something that, in itself, is merely a fact. Try to separate your value-judgements and emotions from the things they refer to. Modern therapists teach something similar by telling clients to shift from saying (or thinking) “this is catastrophic” to saying “I’m catastrophising things” – I’m judging it to be catastrophic although someone else might judge it differently.
Throughout the next week, try to distinguish between your judgements and external events, to view your thoughts in a more detached and objective way, almost as if you were a psychologist observing the thought processes of another person, a subject in a research study, and noticing how their thoughts, feelings and actions might be interacting and influencing one another, etc. This is not unlike the attitude people experience during certain forms of meditation and you can refer to it as another aspect of the Stoic “mindfulness” you’re cultivating throughout this course.