Stoic Mindfulness in a Nutshell
Detachment and Cognitive Distancing in Stoic Philosophy
Ever since I began researching and writing about Stoicism, about two decades ago, I’ve been looking for ways to capture the basic psychological practices of Stoicism in the simplest possible set of instructions. The Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) online course that I designed for Modern Stoicism was a first step in that direction. It has now been completed by thousands of participants, allowing us to collect data that suggest even a very simplified Stoic routine can have measurable benefits psychologically.
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There are many psychological techniques described in the surviving Stoic writings. I counted about eighteen in The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy. (I explain how to use them in daily life in How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.) Some of these are exercises done periodically such as contemplating the world as though seen from above or asking yourself what a perfect Sage would do when faced with certain types of circumstances. I think it’s clear, though, that these are all grounded in one continual practice, which Epictetus called prosoche or “attention”, i.e., paying attention to our ruling faculty (hegemonikon) and the way we use our judgment to form opinions, particularly our value judgments.
Attention (prosoche) 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 actions fully. (Hadot, 1995, p. 84)
In my experience, most people find it natural to refer to this continual attention to their own thought processes as the practice of “Stoic mindfulness”. (Although, it’s not necessarily the same as “mindfulness” in Buddhism.)
More specifically, Epictetus explains that what Stoics should pay continual attention to is the principle that good and evil reside in their own choices rather than in any external events. Whenever we notice ourselves becoming upset we should pause to ask whether the thing we’re concerned about is up to us or not. If not then we shouldn’t assign value to it in a way that causes us to become upset. We should ask ourselves instead what aspects of the situation are up to us — our own thoughts and actions — and how we could respond more wisely by taking greater responsibility for these.
The reason we’re often unaware of this, though, is that our thoughts become fused with our perception of external events. If I’m very upset with someone, I just view them as an awful person. That’s how I see them. Being good or bad is a quality they appear to possess, like being big or small, or having blue eyes or brown ones. In order to pay attention, mindfully, to the way we’re using value judgments we first have to separate them from reality. I have to realize that the “awfulness” I perceive is a quality projected onto the other person by me and not something I’m passively observing that somehow exists apart from me. As Hamlet said, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” For Stoics that’s true of external things, although our own character can certainly still be called either good or bad.
Aaron T. Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy, called this realization, that our thoughts are separate from reality, “cognitive distancing”.
“Distancing” refers to the ability to view one’s own thoughts (or beliefs) as constructions of “reality” rather than as reality itself. (Alford & Beck, 1997, p. 142)
He explained it by analogy with a set of coloured glasses. If you look at the world through rose-tinted spectacles for long enough you might be forgiven for assuming that the whole world is simply coloured pink and seems so to everyone else. Imagine, though, that one day you met someone wearing dark blue glasses who told you that the whole world seemed cold and blue to them. Realizing that the outside world itself is neither completely pink nor blue but that it’s being coloured by the lenses through which you’re looking is cognitive distancing — the ability to notice the distinction between the lens through which you’re looking and the events at which you’re looking.
In cognitive therapy, we sometimes help clients to do this by teaching them to use strange neologisms like the word “catastrophizing”. (Turning a noun into a verb in this way is called “verbing” or “verbification”.) Imagine someone has been dumped by his girlfriend and says “It’s a catastrophe!”, as though he’s just describing an objective fact about the situation. The therapist might encourage him to say instead that he’s “catastrophizing” it, if that helps him to take responsibility for choosing to view it as a catastrophically bad. Indeed, another person might have viewed the same event less catastrophically, with relative indifference, or even as a positive opportunity to learn and grow emotionally. “It’s not events that upset us”, said Epictetus, “but rather our opinions about them.”
In Stoicism, we’re encouraged to continually be on the lookout for these sort of distressing opinions. Epictetus says that whenever you’re troubled emotionally by an impression concerning external events that’s a warning sign that you’ve fused it with a value judgement. He tells his students to respond to upsetting impressions — such as “My partner lied to me; it’s a catastrophe!” — by literally speaking to them as follows: “You are just an impression and not at all the thing you claim to represent.” It’s not a true objective representation of events (phantasia kataleptike), in other words, because it’s fused with a strong value judgment of the kind that distorts events and causes us to experience emotional distress.
Other common ways of gaining cognitive distance include:
Translating your feelings into words by stating the thoughts that are causing them, e.g., “I feel as though everyone hates me and that’s awful.”
Referring to your thoughts in the third person, e.g., “Donald is currently viewing this situation as if it were catastrophic.”
Keeping a tally of the frequency of certain thoughts or feelings so that you increasingly view them as events in their own right.
Writing your thoughts down in a journal or on a whiteboard and viewing them in a detached manner, literally from a distance.
Imagining that your thought is written on a pane of glass through which you’re looking at the event, a bit like looking through rose-tinted glasses but with words such as “This is a catastrophe” scrawled on them.
Imagining being in the shoes of someone who views the same situation differently from you, perhaps even a wise person like Socrates, in order to develop the flexibility to move easily between different viewpoints.
Repeating the thought several times with greater awareness of it being an activity in which you’re engaged, e.g., by saying it aloud very slowly or very quickly.
Imagining how you might view the same situation differently years from now, e.g., if you encountered it many times and got used to dealing with it to the best of your ability or were looking back on it with the benefit of hindsight.
Describing the same situation to yourself in a more matter-of-fact way, without using any emotive language or strong value judgments.
Sometimes also considering the consequences of viewing a situation in a particular way can help you to separate your thoughts from external events and envisage other ways of looking at the same situation. The Stoics frequently reminded themselves of the paradox that, according to their philosophy, passions such as fear and anger do us more harm than the things we’re upset about. Viewing them in this way requires seeing the beliefs underlying them as, in a sense, arbitrary and unhelpful — we could easily look at the situation in a more helpful way.
As Epictetus put it, “everything has two handles”, a broken handle and a good one. When we become upset we’re trying to pick up events using the broken handle, i.e., an unhealthy perspective. However, often just realizing that’s what we’re doing is enough to weaken the grip that unhealthy beliefs and passions have over our mind. All of the techniques above are just gimmicks, in a sense — props to help you get the cognitive knack of separating your value judgments from external events.
I’ve increasingly come to the conclusion that this ability to gain cognitive distance lies at the psychological core of Stoicism. In a sense, it boils down to wholeheartedly embracing the famous precept that “it’s not events that upset us but our opinions about them”. Whereas in CBT it’s usually presented as a cognitive technique to cope with certain difficult situations, in Stoicism it forms part of a whole philosophy of life. Stoic mindfulness, or prosoche, is the continual awareness of how our value judgments are shaping our feelings, particularly when we begin to grow distressed or irritated with life.
This becomes a more general trait of resilience when we apply it across a wide range of situations. However, it’s also maintained by certain underlying philosophical beliefs concerning the nature of our value judgments. Modern psychologists would potentially classify these as “meta-cognitions” — beliefs about beliefs. In a future article, I hope to return to this subject and explore the ways in which Stoic philosophy is meta-cognitive insofar as it teaches us to experience certain types of belief or judgment in a novel manner.