Like I said in my last post, I would spend a four week “introduction” to Stoicism following the program from Donald Robertson called Stoic Mindfulness & Resilience Training (but since we are close friends we are going to call it SMRT).
The course itself is an extension of the Stoic Week, but it challenges you a bit more to change your perspective over how you interpret situations and helps you, step by step (week by week) to take Stoic mindset. Since I been studying Stoicism for a while and experiencing the calminess that Stoic phylosophy provides, I found the course very helpful since it teaches how to apply the teory in a very practical manner.
So if you are curious, I prepared a short summary of what you get in the course, but don’t expect it to be comprehensive, since this is a very short summary compared with the course and I encourage you to do the course actual course (go ahead and do it, it is FREE!!!).
I should also mention that Mr. Robertson has not asked me to make this summary or advertise about his course (nor has he given me permission, so I hope he doesn’t request me to take it off…). I am simply sharing my own annotations because I truly believe the experience to be positive.
In any case, let’s start:
Week One: Foundation
This week, as the name says, it is the foundation of what will be used in the next weeks. It focus on being self-aware of the value-judgements that one make from moment to moment. Keeping your attention in the character of these judgements. There is one word in Stoicism that means exactly this type of mindfulness: prosoche.
One of the most fundamental ideas in stoic phylosophy is the distinction between what is under our direct control and what is not. There is one question that is reffered to as the Stoic fork:
What aspects of this situation are under my direct control?
And from the Stoic point of view, only our judgements and actions are under our control. Everything else is somewhat in the hands of fate. And that inclues the consequences of our actions.
There is also one audio recording provided for practicing a daily meditation.
One exercise to increase awareness of our own thoughts is suggested:
- Settle down, close your eyes and stay in the present.
- Say to yourself: “Right now I am aware of …” (Complete with anything that is in your mind, refrain yourself from judging your thoughts, only objectively describe them)
- Put thing into words to keep your attention.
- Take your time and don’t rush.
This should take 5 – 10 minutes.
The Self-monitoring to be practiced during the week had the most impressive results, I was skeptical at first, but I got surprised with the results.
It consists simply of keeping an tally of your bad emotions and thoughts. Simply count +1 in your tally every time you get yourself worrying or ruminating, you can get any app in your phone to do it. The number may seem big by the end of the day, but being aware of this number is already a big step in reducing it.
So just to make sure we are on the same page, I will provide a short explanation of what is worrying and what is ruminating:
- Worrying: Consists of prolonged chains of catastrophic “what if?”.
- Ruminating: Consists of prolonged chains of unanswerable “Why?”.
Week Two: Stoic Virtues
From the Stoic perspective, virtue is the only real good that can be achieved in life. Everything else falls under the cathegories of desirable, undesirable or vice. So let’s clarify what each is:
||Under our control
||Hands of Fate
- Virtue: Excellence of character, flourishing.
- Vice: Passions, bad emotions and actions derived or motivated by those emotions
- Desirable: Good things that happens to us.
- Undesirable: Bad things that happens to us.
There is a focus in this week to specify what are your own values and compare/merge those values with Stoic values. But more importantly, is to connect your values with your actions. Defining general strategies and for each strategy a specific set of actions. Keeping in mind why you are doing what you are doing.
Here are a few helpful questions to determine what are your values:
- What is the most important thing in life for you?
- What do you want your life to “stand for”?
- What would you most like your life to be remembered?
- What things you most want to spend your life doing?
- What sort of person you want to be?
And here is one from me: What would you do, or are already doing, for free (meaning not for money, obligation or any other compensation other than the pleasure of the activity itself)?
This week’s daily exercise is another form of meditation, that can be done in two forms:
A mindful breathing meditation that you repeat the word “good” for every exhalation (it may seems silly but repeating the word, even if only mentally, has a profound effect in your mind).
A mindful breathing meditation that for every inhalation you imagine yourself absorving a certain quality that you want to posses (preferably one of the core virtues from Stoicism: Wisdom, Courage, Justice or Self-Control). And for every exhalation you imagine you imagine you are spreading that quality to external events. This will condition your mind to act in a way when the situation presents itself.
This weeks self monitoring was a bit more elaborate, but yet simple. It does not necessarily means you should stop the other monitoring, keep doing if it still benefits you.
You should simply make a plan of the day on how you can apply your values and show virtue (in the stoic sense) throughout the day. Make a conscious effort during the day to stick with the plan and most importantly, at the end of the day, rate yourself from 1 to 10 on how well you kept that plan.
Week Three: Stoic Mindfulness
This week builds in the first week about what is “up to us”. Bringing ourselves to the present moment is the only way to really do what is “up to us”, the past is set in stone and the future is unknown. Mindfulness is shifting from thinking about X to being aware that one is thinking about X.
It is important to note here that Mindfulness from the Stoic perspective is not exactly the same as mindfulness from the Buddhist perspective that most of us are used to. It is not only being fully aware of your senses and focused on the moment, but also being aware of the quality of your thoughts. Both concepts are slightly different but not mutually exclusive.
There were two quotes from the handbook (Enchiridion) of Epictetus that give us guidance on how to be aware of our thoughts.
It is not things themselves that upset us but our judgements about these things
Epictetus, Handbook, 5
… Train yourself without hesitation to say in response to every harsh appearance that ‘you are merely an appearance and in no way the thing appearing
Eictetus, Handbook, 1
There is one concept in modern psychology that draws the same idea: Cognitive-Distancing. imagine yourself using color spectacles, maybe green or yellow, when using these spectacles, everything around you would be in shades of that color (say, everything would be in shades of green). Cognitive-Distancing is said to be looking at the spectacles instead of looking through the spectacles.
The exercise this week uses a lot of imagination, which in my opinion makes it easier to employ:
- Close your eyes and sit confortably
- Imagine yourself in a bridge or a bank atop of a stream or a river. And there are autumn leaves slowly floating in the stream.
- When you notice that your attention wandered, turn your thoughts into an object, maybe a specific color or a small ball with images in it that represents your thoughts.
- Place that object in one of the leaves in the stream and watch it go as your attention is again at the stream in front of you.
The magic about this exercise is that trains your brain to see in a very physical form how thoughts work in your mind. They come and go again, and as they do you start to notice it is futile to fight them or try to stop them from happening, it is better to realise how temporary they are.
Obs: I preferred an alternative version where instead of a stream I imagine clouds moving in the sky, and the clouds themselves took the shape of the thought. A small variation but the principle is the same.
Along with keeping a tally of how many times you have a negative thought, you will also keep track of how much time you spend worrying or ruminating. You can also track how long you spend with unrewarding activities such as watching TV or mindlessly surfing the internet.
It may seem, at first, that this Self-monitoring exercise will take much of your time. However, what really happens is that you gain time by avoiding wasting it. It really works!
There is one extra exercise or technique suggested this week called Worry-Postponement: It is as the name says, as some worrying thought invades your mind, simply set a time aside later to worry about it. You not exactly repressing the thought but only postponing it. According to some studies (References in the course, sorry!) studies this activity helps seen the worrying thought more objectively.
Week Four: Stoic Resilience
This week focus on how to prepare yourself for future problems strategically. It was (in my personal opinion), the most important week because it teaches a tool that strengths your psyche. And gave me a solution to a problem that for long was bothering me. I will give details in a minute, but first let’s focus on the tool.
Premeditatio Malorum: Premeditation of adversity is a strategy of ancient stoicism and modern psychology to train yourself to deal with future misfortunes and set backs.
In modern psychology there is the same concept with a different name: Imaginal exposure. It is simple and works like this: Visualize the negative situation over and over practicing “stoic acceptance” every time you do it. Over time, the anxiety of the situation wears off by an effect known in psychology as “habituation”.
You should, of course, start with a small situation that does not affect you so much and work your way up to more stressful situation as you get better at it and learn how that effect works in your mind. However what I found out is that technique also works for bad memories that may upset you as well. So running the risk of looking vain, I will share one of these memories I had with you.
This part is a personal example and not part of what the SMRT is about, if you not so interested you can simply skip the next paragraph.
It may seem silly, and you probably get to the conclusion that I am damaged, but I sometimes remember some events of my past and get myself ruminating over them until I get myself upset with the whole of existence. One of such memories (a not so stressful one but perfect for this example) was an event that happened to me when I was a teenage, around 12 years old. I was in a party and at some corner a group of other kids were talking in a circle. When I tried to join the group one of the kids (the one friend I never really liked) started to push me out of it saying that their conversation was particular and I was not invited to be part of it. He actually went out of his way to take me out of the group. It was even more upsetting because even my sister was in this group. It seems silly now to think that almost two decades later I still remember that kid pushing me and I would still get mad. Mad at the fact he was younger than me and should respect me. Mad of the fact he had no right to tell me where I could be. Mad of the injustice of being pushed out. Poor little me! However after thinking objectively about that event over and over, practicing acceptance that this is completely out of my control (it is in the past) It just never comes to my mind or upsets me. It just makes me feel silly (in the sense that makes me smile at myself) for actually making this memory so strong in my mind for thinking about it and getting emotional about it. Don’t get me wrong, I am not so shallow that so small upsets me so much, but if I can make this little annoying memory stop being annoying, I can definitely make the worst ones stop having an effect on me. It is just a matter of practicing and learning.
This week exercise is a very quick exercise. It is meant to remind you of your values and keeping yourself more aware of them.
Set reminders for yourself to think about your values. It can be sticky-notes in your computer or your workplace. Maybe triggers such as going through a corridor that you often walk through it or looking at something that you encounter several times during the day. I set one alarm in my watch at every hour or so to beep. Whatever it is, when you are reminded spend around one minute thinking about your values.
- Stop what you are doing.
- Turn your attention inwards and in the “now”.
- Don’t try to change anything that you notice in the present moment, just focus on what is “up to you”.
- Repeat one word mentally every time you exhale (such as good or aretê).
- Notice the difference between voluntary thoughts and the involuntary ones popping in your head.
- Observe your thoughts from an “indifferent” perspective.
The last self-monitoring is a bit more elaborate, and definitely a very powerful one.
Create a blueprint or map for maintaining resilience and changing bad habits. You can use a spreadsheet, or a word document or simple write with pen and paper the following information:
- Triggers: Early warning signs and situations that are likely to start the bad or unwanted behaviour.
- Previous response: Thoughts and actions (or better saying, reactions) that you usually do and want to replace.
- Alternative Response: Thoughts and actions that you want to cultivate in place of the Previous response.
This post was pretty much a copy-&-paste of my annotations put in blog format. It is, for every purpose, a summary of what is taught in SMRT but far from a complete material. If you read it so far it is a strong sign you are interested in stoic philosophy I strongly recommend you checking out this course and others offered by Donald and his team.
There is so much more to learn about stoicism and so many topics that I have only slightly touched on here. If you have questions please send them to me I will reply as soon as possible. As usual, the best places to start are the books from Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.
I really hope you liked this content. If you did, leave me a comment or send an email. If you didn’t do it as well so I know where I can improve and learn more from you as well!
Now, there is this thing I am trying together with my significant other called Lucid dreaming…