What Next after Week Four?

Congratulations on completing the lesson for week four.  Now it’s time to start putting things into practice!

Please take a moment to complete this brief course evaluation form with your feedback, to help us keep improving this material for others.

You should start using the techniques covered right now, if possible, and continue with them each day throughout the following week.  If you think you might have any problems adhering to the daily practices, or need any clarification, get in touch right away with the course facilitator.

However, your first step should be to visit the Comments section, as soon as you’re ready, and post your thoughts on the question for this week:

What would be the pros and cons of continually remembering, when starting to feel distressed about a situation or event, that it’s not things that upset us but our judgements about things?

Here’s a second question for you to consider, and discuss, if you want:

How can you help yourself to make the best use of this distinction in daily life?

Go to the Comments section below and post your thoughts.  If there’s anything whatsoever you could use help with, either technical stuff or the course content, please don’t hesitate to contact the course facilitator.

37 replies on “What Next after Week Four?”

What would be the pros and cons of continually remembering, when starting to feel distressed about a situation or event, that it’s not things that upset us but our judgment about things? * Pros – being more aware of what exactly is under my control, my judgment about things, and what is not under my control. * Cons – being made aware that I have less influence than I would like.

How can you help yourself to make best use of this distinction in daily life? * I could begin to question why I am upset, and give myself more time to reflect.

Hi everyone,

I recently emailed Dr. Robertson about “happiness” and about the top-level goal of Stoicism. I have been contemplating, what is the purpose of happiness in Stoic philosophy? If you are a “good” and “virtuous” person, is it alright if you are not happy? And even if you are happy: satisfied and doing well, what is the higher-level reason for doing that, or is there a higher level reason for that?


Dear Richard,

Thanks for your email. Well, the Stoic concept of eudaimonia is arguably quite different from the modern meaning of the word “happiness”. It’s more like the archaic meaning: flourishing or doing well, which is the opposite of “hapless”. The idea that happiness is a pleasant, contented feeling, and an end in itself, is perhaps more like Epicureanism. For the Stoics, the feelings are less important than the actual state of attaining wisdom and virtue, and excelling as a human being in that sense.


Donald Robertson
Nova Scotia
Mobile: (902) 237-7019

Date: Sat, 9 Jul 2016 13:21:27 +0000
To: don.robertson@live.co.uk
From: donald@donaldrobertson.name
Subject: [SMRT 2016] Contact Donald Robertson

Comment: Dear Dr. Robertson,

I have been practicing and enjoying your online course for the last few weeks (and then some, as I started the exercises in the handbook a week before your course began to prepare). And I have seen a variety of benefits, such as becoming more aware, noticing that I can indeed improve, and strengthening the belief that I can live a good life without material goods. And that, I can do all of it so that I can achieve eudaimonia, happiness, satisfaction, contentment, etc, which I shall refer to as happiness from now on.

I’ve also come to start to question, what is the reason for wanting to obtain happiness? I have been asking myself? Is there a reason to be happy? What about if I were to be indifferent, without emotion, depressed, etc? Surely, I could still be a good person, a virtuous person, who has lived the “good life” without being happy. And yet, why is it that I want happiness? What makes it such a powerful goal, and if there is a reason, what is the reason for that?

I got this answer: At a certain point, happiness is something that is desired for its own sake. Happiness can provide meaning to the world at hand, self-esteem, it can provide a sense of stability or instability depending on the type of happiness, and etc. In terms of what happiness is, I believe that happiness is a goal in itself, self-contained and no need more other reasons for it.

However, I started thinking about how this could be applied to the concept of God. I thought about how philosophers and religious men of the past have described the same reasoning could say that there is no reason for God to exist, and that the goal of living is to reach God, or some other rationale.

What I want is a stable foundation to rest my values and virtues, and for me it seems like the top-level goal of doing these practices of yours is to reach happiness (over the long-term). However, I wonder what the reasons are for happiness or how do I resolve this desire to keep going further and further into understanding why I want happiness?

Richard V

Re ‘happiness’, I’d be cautious about accepting any conventional, culturally-normative definition of it. Whatever it is, it must surely be diverse, divergent, diffuse, different? – just like us?

Secondly, should we be setting too big an objective too soon? The course has focussed us upon minding all those little decisions in the here and now. If we get those right, right now, then the big stuff later on will look after itself.

Thirdly, although I don’t know much about happiness, I do know a lot about unhappiness – and I know for a fact it’s caused by us giving our minds over to judgmentalism, emotionalism, anger, fear, jumping to conclusions, accepting worst-case scenarios, catastrophising, comparing ourselves unfavourably with others, craving for what we can’t have, & not valuing what we do have. So a good practical place to start our quest for ‘happiness’ (whatever that is) is to banish all this dumb stuff to the holding room of our mind and think about something practical instead.
Who knows how things will look from there?

I appreciate your reply, and I think that trying to ascertain whether the top-level goal of “virtue” or happiness is the best goal is certainly a large objective. I agree that focusing on the little steps is important, and I also think that it is possible to keep in mind both the larger journey and the smaller steps.

Unhappiness is certainly caused by judgmentalism, giving into anger, fear, catastrophizing, etc… and that is where I think Stoicism comes into play. By increasing our awareness and working on reducing (though not removing, because that may not be entirely possible) those irrational behaviors, we will build the foundation for contentment and long-term satisfaction.

A bit of distance, recognising that the bus is going the wrong way etc can save time and grief as well as increasing virtue.
In every day life, I find it helps to see ‘unpreferred’ situations as teaching me something about how to behave.

“What would be the pros and cons of continually remembering, when starting to feel distressed about a situation or event, that it’s not things that upset us but our judgements about things?”
The pros would be that we would likely be less judgmental. When I avoid judgement, I think it easier to be rational and do and say what is best. The con would be if someone is doing wrong, judging them is appropriate if it will bring about justice. I guess the answer is that calling attention to injustice is something that is within my control, it’s just that it is important to not leap to conclusions.

“How can you help yourself to make the best use of this distinction in daily life?”
By sticking with facts rather than just opinions, doing what is right, and focusing on excelling as a human being. Thanks everyone, for a great course. Best wishes in the future!

The pros of remembering that judgments cause upset would be that it would put my focus on conscious thoughts and immediate bodily actions which are usually in my control. In short, it would allow me to take more effective actions.

The cons would be possibly focusing too much on “thought correcting” without actually acting, and also possibly feeling a sense of guilt for upsetting myself (but then I can work with that, too).

I can best help myself to make use of this distinction in daily life by using early-warning signs as cues to tell myself pre-made “at-hand” phrases. Also, journaling about specific situations in my life a la Marcus to drill Stoic principles could help.

The pro of remembering the distinction is that we can maintain equilibrium, poise and humour in the middle of the potentially-disordering collective impulses and tensions around us. We note that the others we see around us who give in to these imperatives look and act frazzled and over-taxed. Why join them?
The con of preserving the distinction is that we might run the risk of not being perceived as a team player at work. But as Stoics we don’t set much store by what others think of us, right? If we ourselves just concentrate on doing the right thing in the situation, we can let everything else sort itself out without having to worry about it or attempting to control others’ perceptions.
As we go about our daily tasks, we deal with each stimulus-response episode in binary fashion: is this up to us or not? If yes, we go with it. If not, we let it go through to the keeper.

Saying “I prefer blueberries” or “I prefer raspberries” is the expression of a matter of opinion. But saying “I prefer rationality” or “I prefer irrationality” is different. That is the expression of a different frame of reference on life, not a matter of opinion. And sane people can make these different choices. Indeed, the same sane person can make these different choices during the same day about different things.
I find myself asking people about this question of how they feel they are influenced by outside matters, and if their judgements about things influence how they feel about things. Almost always they say outside forces act upon them and that their judgements play no part in how they respond. In fact, they often reply with scientific proofs that the contrary cannot be the case, behavioral studies indicating that it cannot be the case. Even today I was told of a scientific study indicating that one’s very morality is inherited and acquired from an evolutionary tree. As a scientifically-minded person, I have been aware of such work all of my adult life. Still, I no longer believe that outside matters control my responses, and I now believe that my responses are mere reflections of my value judgements.
So, what “scientific” proofs do I have to contradict their arguments? Must I rely solely on philosophy, on metaphysics and faith? Have I become “irrational” only while convincing myself of being more “rational” than they are?

Excuse me, but, an additional thought…

Of course, we should not depend upon the judgments of others, I understand that completely, that is a given. However, the point is that, if our entire frame of reference is divorced from everyone around us, or nearly everyone, by virtue of our “philosophy,” without any scientific basis, then wouldn’t our “belief” take on the nature of a “cult”?

My apologies, again, but my mind is clocking in overtime on the subject…
This is why I am working so hard at the idea of moving forward from the classic texts, and their dependence upon the science of 2000 years ago, to modern interpretations and current science. And why I find so much potential value in this endeavor.

I’ve run into the argument that I have not been able to fully discount that, if I can remain indifferent to the responses of others, why is it that I must still “judge” myself, “virtuous or vicious, good or bad, helpful or harmful”? Don’t those judgements, ultimately, imply that I have an effect upon others? If I have an effect upon others, how can I deny their effect upon me? (And I do understand that, implicitly, this is not the important question for us at these moments of “judgement.”)

BTW, when I said “this endeavor,” I was referencing SMRT 2016, the Stoicism Today site, the work going on at Exeter, etc., not anything I was doing. Heavens forbid!

BTW, when I said “this endeavor,” I was referencing SMRT 2016, Stoicism Today, the work being done at Exeter, etc., not anything I was doing. Heaven forbid!

With every situation, it’s helpful to realize when your judgements are irrational and when they are rational. Most of us make “snap judgments” based on next to no information and just on how we’re feeling about something, usually based on past experience that is biased. As long as we pause when we feel an upwelling of emotion, we have the hope of realizing that our judgments are irrational and therefore erroneous, so we do not waste time dwelling and stewing in our rage or angst.

From now on, I’ll make sure to repeat the two great Stoic maxims: some things are up to us, and others are not, and it is not things that upset me but my judgment of them, and my judgement is but an impression, not the very object itself, and thus prone to error.

I have noticed some instances to be more distressing to me than others. I’m most afraid of being alone, and so of losing my wife and family. I’m going to try to visualize that my wife has left me, which I consider to be the most distressing, not only because I’d be alone, but also because of the shame I’d feel at myself, because I’d blame myself for allowing it. In my premeditation of adversity, I’ll imagine doing for myself without her, how my life would be. It may be lonely and distressing, but I’d move on, just as others have in these circumstances. And I have to realize that the shame I feel at blaming myself is something I choose to believe, and that it is an impression that may be false, because of my bias of past experience. (I have been married before, though it was I who left my first wife.)

The pro – it keeps me in the moment and allows me to deal with the situation as it is rather than my feelings of situation and the actual situation or event.

The con – That overtime I do not differentiate between situations/events that cause negative feelings and positive ones and instead become hooked on being ‘stoic’ and miss out on feeling joy.

“What would be the pros and cons of continually remembering, when starting to feel distressed about a situation or event, that it’s not things that upset us but our judgements about things?”

At first I didn’t know what to make of this Stoic idea actually. For example, it seems like there our cases where our judgements (opinions) are correct and we should be “upset”. But the distinction is useful anyway because our opinions aren’t always correct; they don’t always represent the situation correctly, and recognizing this can buy us some time to decide if we want to act. Consciously inspecting my opinions does seem to improve my objectivity as well.

I wonder though if this might not slow you down too much in some cases.

“How can you help yourself to make the best use of this distinction in daily life?”
I think by periodically reminding myself of the distinction and by examining my opinions objectively when I can. I’m hoping these techniques will give me new thoughts that just might be brought to mind in situations where they are needed.

Perhaps, consciously inspecting our opinions and taking a step back may slow us down now because we’re just starting to train ourselves to be more mindful. However, as we get better, this mindfulness and ability to cognitively distance ourselves from our impulsive thoughts will become less effortful and more automatic, and likely quicker as well. I think you do make a good point in that being mindful will slow us down, at least here and now, and likely in many tasks even after we’ve gotten better at it. I think that is why we also train for adverse situations with our premeditation exercise. By contemplating and visualizing our friends rejecting us, rebuking us, or visualizing someone coming out of the dark to mug us, or some other anxiety producing situation in which we don’t have the time to think as much … we prepare ourselves in advance to deal with the situation and actually become quicker at responding indifferently compared to if we had not practiced at all.

What would be the pros and cons of continually remembering, when starting to feel distressed about a situation or event, that it’s not things that upset us but our judgements about things?

Well, if a tree fell on my house during a storm, such that I could no longer live in it, and I lost many possessions and had to find a new place to spend the night at 2 am, I admit I could look at this a few ways. Let’s look at two. I could think I am so happy that I did not die, and that I have the resources to drive to a motel and be warm and safe, or I could think, oh no, I am homeless and have lost irreplaceable treasured items, and give myself insomnia. I prefer the first way of looking at it. The benefit is obvious.

I could make the best use of this distinction by forcing myself to find at least two ways to look at any upsetting situation. If I myself angry, sad, feeling strongly negative about a situation, I will tell myself, what is another way to look at this over and over until I find a way that helps me move forward.

Pro: not being frustrated at things that do not go your way.
Pro: less hesitation to act, because you feel less scared that you will fail.

Con: apathy, not doing anything. Accepting the status quo, and not wanting to change things.

I think that if apathy were to develop then you are allowing yourself to be too detached from the present.

I think the same goes for not wanting to change anything. Maybe these future scenarios thought up and evaluated are being accepted as a reality, instead of as preparation. Accepting this unknown future and then seeing something similar may allow yourself to resign action as it posses no threat to your mental health anymore. What do you think?

The con of apathy is the antithesis of Stoicism. However, I can see how you would be tempted to say that Stoics would be apathetic and that they’d simply accept the status quo.

“What would be the pros and cons of continually remembering, when starting to feel distressed about a situation or event, that it’s not things that upset us but our judgements about things?”

The way I see this is a matter of you being able to reframe the situation. For instance, when you’re feeling distressed because your ex-girlfriend (or boyfriend or X from beyond the binary) broke up with you and you’re stuck thinking about the good memories you had together, being indifferent to the fact that your girlfriend broke up with you won’t necessarily prevent you from wanting to change things. You can still accept that the relationship is over, in the past, and beyond that, you can look over where it is that you failed, where it is that she failed, what made you two incompatible, etc and then strive to affect those different factors.

Acceptance does not necessitate apathy. I can be indifferent and accept the fact that slavery was horrible and that it happened, but I can also strive to reduce racism, to raise up those who are less fortunate, and remedy what I thought was wrong in the past.

What would be the pros and cons of continually remembering, when starting to feel distressed about a situation or event, that it’s not things that upset us but our judgements about things?

The pros include staying in greater harmony with your overall goals in life, and not being swept away by the emotions of the moment, to the detriment of what you truly value.

There are no cons, provided that the exercise is properly understood. It’s vitally important to remember that “shouldn’t be upsetting” doesn’t mean “shouldn’t be stopped”. The point is that your motivation to act should come from seeing that your actions are in harmony with your deepest values, and not from short-sighted emotional compulsion.

An imagined dialog:

“Something is wrong, and that upsets me.”

Then fix the thing because it is wrong, not because it upsets you.

“But being upset is what motivates me to do the right thing.”

But will the action made while upset be right? To be upset is to leave it to chance whether you act rightly. If you truly cared about acting rightly, then you would not willingly give up control over whether you acted rightly. It is doubly absurd to use concern for acting rightly to justify giving up control over whether you act rightly.

“But history proves that I act rightly in certain challenging situations only when I’m upset.”

Then you claim to have answered two questions: First, is your action right? Second, do you act so only because you are upset? But why bother with the second question? If your argument is valid, then you must already have answered the first question adequately. But then you’ve already justified your action. Why, then, refer your action to anything else? Simply concern yourself with answering the first question rightly, and act if the argument for acting is good.

I like your refreshing perspective on why you shouldn’t place much value on your emotions as a guide in life. First, because emotions can be easily hijacked by “causes” that aren’t in line with your own values and second, because the actions that you take due to your emotions may not necessarily be in line with your values. Furthermore, while your values can be long-lasting, your emotions are short-lived, short-sighted, and blind to the consequences that your actions have. With all of these in mind, living life and acting in accord with your own values is a far more efficient and effective way of acting in a “good” manner.

Your example about how emotion can drive you to an action, but not necessarily the right action parallels with the problem of motivation vs. discipline. You can wait until you’re motivated to work out, until you feel inspired to write a book, until you feel inspired to go out and face your inner demons… but the times you’ll actually go out and work toward your goal will be rare if non-existent in comparison to if you just decided “I’m going to do X, even if I don’t feel like it, because that is the right thing to do in my situation.”

Overall, just as discipline trumps motivation, acting in accord with one’s values trumps acting in accord with one’s emotional state.

I struggled with the same issue. I haven’t been (physically) very well lately making it a bit hard for me to keep my commitments. Am I disciplined or motivated, what if I really don’t like to go? The key question for me was ´what is praiseworthy in your own eyes´. Then the answer became crystal clear.

“I’m going to do X, even if I don’t feel like it, because that is the right thing to do in my situation.”

This is a great way of thinking about things.

Pro: if done well, I would be calm stream.
Con: subtle detachment from reality.

I am already prone to daydreaming, or focusing to hard to easily. Thinking in this manner may cause me to separate completely from the present and think on too many futures. But as I write that, I think on reminding myself to be conscience of my thoughts and think “Right now I am aware of…” and I should stop myself. This will be a challenge, indeed.

I can say though, I have never been anxious. But thinking of distressing situations and allowing the feelings to sink in, is such a great activity to prepare my mind for the unknown.

The habit of remembering oneself is bound to pay off in improved judgment and outcomes. Remembering that others are flawed humans, as am I, free humans, as am I, and therefore thinking and doing things their own way, I can accept their differences and make allowances. I wonder who makes allowances for some of my actions? It does me no good to over react, nay, to react at all to the things I may not like. I can avoid making situations worse by keeping an objective reasoning. I can focus on those outcomes I prefer and maintain my safety and values by turning away from those who are too disagreeable.
For me as a pedestrian, I prefer when drivers don’t block the crosswalks and don’t cut ahead of me if I have a “Walk now” indicator. But my safety is up to me and I must go or retreat to keep out of harm’s way. This little point increases my reliance on good judgment and the concrete actions I take and the care of myself in minimizing emotional attachments to getting my own way. Yes, frustration is bound to occur every day, I can avoid some of it and the rest I can ease through by not getting emotional when called upon to adjust to reality.
This will lead to a more reflective attitude and general well-being. Life can be good and as the Stoics claim, even in adversity, if I make the best choices I can and don’t exaggerate the frustrations in life, I can truly live easier.

Hi all, I would definitely be interested in how you are developing your blueprints, so please post them! I think it would help all of us to see how we are each tackling different (or similar) problems. Once I have played with and decided which problem behavior I want to tackle, I intend to share it with you all too.

Here is my practice coping plan for controlling my irrational desires and urges:

From now on, whenever I notice these early-warning signs..

* Wavering attention, difficulty focusing on a task, worsening posture, shallower breathing, frowning, shaking of legs or limbs in an attempt to occupy my mind, tensing my core.

… especially in situations like these…

* Working in the lab, worrying about things at work, working for a long period of time, reading a difficult book, doing a difficult task, day-dreaming, ruminating about the past, or worrying about the future.

… instead of responding by thinking this …

* "I hate this!", "I don't want to do this!" "Is this even worthwhile?" "What's the point of this?", "This isn't even fun"

… and doing this …

* Worrying about the worst-case scenario, criticizing myself unnecessarily, blaming others, staying awake at night on social media, withdrawing from my interactions with my co-workers or family.

… I will practice telling myself …

* "It's not the situation that's upsetting me, it's my value-judgments, and placing to much importance on things outside of my direct control like my energy levels, passion, or the past." "I can deal with this if I take things slowly." "I am currently allowing my irrational desires to take hold of me, but this is an opportunity to practice my Stoic philosophy and directly engage with my core values."

… and doing this …

* Pausing, viewing my upset thoughts in a detached way, visualizing my upsetting thoughts and feelings on a leaf and floating down a stream; post-poning my criticisms and problem-solving until my feelings have calmed down; accepting my thoughts and feelings as they are, and then allow them to fade before continuing my activity; viewing my thoughts as if they were from another person; writing down and saying out loud my negative feelings or thoughts and noting whether they deserve further attention; taking deep breaths; and putting things into perspective again.

I hope that you will help give me feedback, extra examples, and help me to explore our development of our respective blueprints. I look forward to seeing yours, and to updating mine … for purpose (eg. for controlling social anxiety/faux pas) or for specificity (eg. the different triggers could begin to include things like nail biting).

Richard V., Your plan looks good. Just begin by practicing it where you can. Try the simpler or clearer times you react instead of responding. I think focus on the breath is good. It took me a fairly long time to attune to the fact that my breathing got shallower when I am anxious. And just remembering to ‘Breathe’ helps one keep one’s cool. Good luck. Just keep going when you may err, it’s okay to begin again.

Thank you for your reply. What is your routine like? Which of the meditations do you do?

I have been trouble deciding whether I want to do EVERYTHING that we’ve learned… from morning to evening contemplation, to the Leaves on a Stream Meditation, Virtues, Stoic Affirmations, and finally Premeditation Exercise.

It is hard to think in a con of remember that thing are not what upset us but our judgements about things. The pros are that you can have less stress when aproaching to different situations. Maybe the way of make the best use of this distinction in daily life is training to remember it when nothing upset us. Also when you believe that something is about to happen that can provoque distressing feelings, you can have something (a small sentence in a pocket, for example) that remembers you that it is you judgement what can upset you, not the thing itself, and that the judgement is under your control, ready to be changed.

What would be the pros and cons of continually remembering, when starting to feel distressed about a situation or event, that it’s not things that upset us but our judgments about things?

Pro: The attainment of the Stoic goal of Tranquility. That we should be indifferent to events over which we have no power. Realizing that we are not being disrupted by outside events, but rather we are choosing to disrupt our tranquility in response to outside events is such a paradigm shift. It puts the responsibility on the individual, but it also gives the power to the individual.

This week I’ve had a lot of distress in my life which has kept me from completing the exercises in a timely manner. But it’s been a great opportunity to work with the material from the previous 3 weeks. When things were calm I was getting a lot from the exercises, but when the rubber met the road I discovered how much more work I have to do.

I can help myself to make the best use of the distinction between events and my judgments of them by really making some of these exercises a part of my daily routine. I’ve begun doing a very brief morning and evening meditation which I type into an online journal. In the morning I type a couple of key Stoic things to work on for the day, then copy them into my calendar. In the evening I briefly review how it went, sometimes with comments and sometimes with just a “virtue rating”. It turns out that typing them keeps me focused. I’ve also just started keeping a tally of how many times I pause for a minute of mindfulness. Now that things have calmed down I plan to do a daily premeditation of adversity using the audio. I think I’m beginning to understand the value of that one; it didn’t make much sense to me before this week.

An interesting side effect of practicing mindfulness has been the realization that some minor health issues are stress related. I had no idea that I carry so much stress, and particularly where in my body I carry it.

I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been going through a lot of stress these few weeks, and I commend you for coming back to keep practicing Stoicism.

“In the morning I type a couple of key Stoic things to work on for the day, then copy them into my calendar.” I think this is a great idea! I hadn’t thought of that before, and even though it’s so simple, it could be a powerful reminder for what your overall task for the day is. As for stress, that’s something I’ve realized about myself too… when things are easy going, the meditation and contemplation are easy… but when things hit the fan, it’s easy to relapse.

I think that this is one of the reasons why we should contemplate future obstacles and meditate on adversity. More importantly, it’s why we should think of ways in which we can get back on track if we do relapse (which I had on Saturday and Sunday). I hope you’ll continue updating us (and me) on your progress in Stoicism, and that you will become more mindful of your stress and be able to reduce it.

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