As the number of the post-religious skyrockets in the United States, the “mindfulness” train is picking up speed. Mindfulness answers a basic question: how do we tame our own thoughts?
Most mindfulness programs are based in Buddhist practice, but the study of Stoicism is a growing trend. Stoicism has the advantage of being a Western philosophy, and therefore more easily accessible to Westerners.
Perhaps the most popular Stoic, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, said, “Those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy” (Bk. II.8). That fairly well sums up the spiritual practice, or inner-work, of the Stoics.
Stoicism a practice worth trying because, as the Stoic Cicero put it, “Virtue may be defined as a habit of mind in harmony with both reason and the way of nature. (On Invention II.53). Reconciling our own thoughts with the flow of reality is not an easy task, but it does lead to greater well being.
First and foremost, Stoics assumed that unmediated experience does not exist. In other words, what we consider reality is always filtered through our own subjectivity. Therefore it is practical policy to take a long, hard look at how we are mediating our experiences.
Despite all the hype that surrounds the concept of mindfulness these days . . . it does work. For your consideration, I will over the next few weeks examine seven Stoic methods of inner-discipline:
1. Write and Reflect in the Morning
2. Focus on Your Goals
3. Take the Long and the High View
4. Visualize Catastrophe and Practice Letting Go
5. Practice Self Control
6. Go on Retreat in your Own Mind
7. Reflect on your Actions in the Evening
The first, morning reflection and writing, is best exemplified by the writings of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. His work has come down to us as a book called Meditations. This title is a misunderstanding of Marcus’ intentions. He did not prepare his manuscript for publication. They were personal writings. The French philosopher Pierre Hadot pointed out that a better title would be “Exhortations to Himself.”
The morning meditations and writing by Marcus Aurelius would nowadays be called journaling. Here’s is the emperor’s timeless advice to himself:
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from bad. But I have seen the beauty of the good and the ugliness of the bad, and I have realized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same family and social class, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.
None of them can hurt me. No one can draw me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, like hands, like eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on someone: these are unnatural. (Meditations II.1)
It appears that Marcus really hated getting out of bed. Here is another of his musings:
When you wake up in the morning and don’t want to get out of bed, think about this: I am getting up to do the work of a human being. Why am I dissatisfied with doing the things for which I exist? Or do I exist for the purpose of staying in my pajamas and keeping warm?
But, you say, this is more pleasant!
Do you exist for pleasure? Or do you exist for work and action?
Look at the little plants; the little birds; the ants, the spiders; the bees—all work together to give order to the universe. Are you unwilling to do the part of a human being? Don’t you hurry to the work that is your nature? Sure, you need rest. That is necessary. But rest has natural boundaries too. There are boundaries to eating and drinking, even though you go beyond those bounds, beyond what you need.
You do not love yourself, for if you did, you would respect nature’s limits.
When you work, however, you stop quickly. Those who love their work keep going, without bathing, without food. But you love your nature less than a dancer does dancing; or a lover of money loves money; or the egotistical love glory. Is work and action for society so contemptible to you? (Meditations, V.1)
And thus Marcus Aurelius got himself up for another day of ruling the empire.
I haven’t done anything so difficult of grand, but for thirty-five years I have maintained a daily practice of writing at least half an hour each morning. I don’t journal, but I do write poetry and meditations. This practice has kept me sane by bringing focus to the chaos of my thought. I write about what I see around me, right now, in the moment. I also write things such as what you are reading now.
One of the things I reflect on as I write is an idea that the Stoic Epictetus phrased well:
Forget about controlling what happens; learn to wish that everything that happens happens just as it happens. Then . . . all will go exactly as planned. (Handbook, 8)
2. Focus on Your Goals
I assume it’s no accident that we have the best advice concerning sticking to goals from Marcus Aurelius, one of the few effective Roman emperors. Even without email and bulletins on smart phones, Marcus knew that the latest news is a distraction:
Do all the problems of the world distract you? Give yourself time to learn something new and good. Stop being whirled around. Shallow people tire themselves by doing, doing, and yet have no goal toward which to direct their movements or their thoughts. II. 7
“Stop being whirled around.” Not bad advice, especially now that studies have shown that multi-tasking is an illusion. The fact is, we do only one thing at a time. The question is the duration—how long we stick on one thing. In our day, with news constantly streaming in, we do well to keep this advice from Epictetus close to hand: “Keep this in mind: events don’t care about you, so you can’t care about events” (Handbook, 32).
Seneca the Younger also knew about the dangers of busyness. In “On the Shortness of Life” he says,
Think back on times when you have had a fixed goal. How many days have gone exactly as you had planned, when you had all the time you needed, when you never frowned, when your mind was never troubled? Think about how many times you have been robbed of time without even noticing. Think of the time used up in useless sorrow, in foolish joy, in greedy desire, in the attractions of society. Think of how little of yourself has been yours . . .
Epictetus offered this handy bit of advice:
If you wish to improve yourself, accept being thought a bit simple and foolish when it comes to things of this world. Don’t try to look smart. If you look smart, you’re doing something wrong. Here’s the truth: it’s not easy keeping in harmony with nature if you’re out to collect the things of this world—as you grab one thing, another escapes. (Handbook, 13)
That’s summarizes a good deal of the problem, doesn’t it: when we pick up one thing, we drop another.
Seneca perhaps put it most succinctly: “Those who wish to arrive at the goal must follow a single road and not wander on many paths.” (Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 45).
It’s easy to think that people in other times had it easier. I lived in the era before smartphones and computers. People didn’t get around to doing difficult things in those days either. Bad news arrived, even when there were no bulletins on smartphones. Procrastination, distractedness, and lack of focus are human traits, no matter the era or the popular inventions of the day. If we are to focus, each of us must firmly decide not to be whirled around.