Stoicism

Check out Stoic Week 2014

stoicism

Stoic Week 2014 is an online international event taking place from Monday 24th to Sunday 30th November. The week is part of a multi-disciplinary project called Stoicism Today, which is helping to revive the ancient philosophy of Stoicism in modern life.

I’ve mentioned stoicism on this blog before, in articles based on quotes by Marcus Aurelius, who I’ve described as “the original Western Buddhist” because of stoicism’s striking similarities to Buddhism.

Stoicism inspired Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and modern resilience psychology, and is a powerful philosophy for helping people flourish in the face of adversity. At a time when many schools and companies are interested in teaching resilience and character, it’s never been more relevant.

Modern fans of Stoicism include Derren Brown, Adrian Edmondson, Elle MacPherson, Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Newhouse (CEO of Conde Nast International). Stoic Week will hopefully help more people discover the practical usefulness of this ancient philosophy, and while allowing us to measure its therapeutic effectiveness.

Anyone can participate in Stoic Week by following the daily instructions in the Stoic Week 2014 Handbook, which will be made freely available online. Over 60 schools have already signed up to take part, as well as philosophy groups, mental health charities and a prison philosophy club.
There is also a one-day event being held at Queen Mary, University of London, on November 29th, with places for 300 people, at which leading experts on modern Stoicism will be speaking.

More information on Stoic Week 2014.

More information on the London Event.

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“There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control.” Marcus Aurelius (Day 80)

Marcus Aurelius

“There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control,” wrote Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations. “These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.”

I’ve described even-minded love (upekkha) as being love with insight. One thing that allows our love to be even-minded, or equanimous, is insight into impermanence.

Even-mindedness is a quality that accompanies all of the other brahmaviharas, which are the four qualities of lovingkindness (metta), compassion (karuna), joyful appreciation (mudita), and even-minded love (upekkha) itself. We need to have even-mindedness accompanying these other states because loving-kindness, compassion, and joyful appreciation each involve desires. Metta is a desire that beings be happy; compassion that they escape suffering; and mudita that they continue to experience the joy and peace that comes from the good qualities they embody.

And the problem is that the things we want aren’t necessarily going to happen, or if they do they won’t last. We can wish that beings be well, but they’re going to experience distress, sickness, and loss. We can wish that beings be free from suffering, but their suffering isn’t necessarily going to end. And we can wish that they continue to enjoy the benefits of their skillful qualities, but it’s not guaranteed that either the skillful attributes nor the peace and joy that spring from them will endure.

In the brahmavihara meditations, we desire particular outcomes, and yet the things we wish for can never last. And so, in order that we ourselves be at peace, we need to appreciate impermanence.

In order to strengthen our even-mindedness, we can cultivate lovingkindness while bearing in mind that although we wish happiness for beings, they’re not necessarily going to find it, and when they do it’s not going to last. We can bear in mind their sufferings and develop compassion, wishing that they be free from suffering, and at the same time remember that any freedom from suffering that they experience will be temporary. And we can rejoice in their good qualities and the peace and joy flowing from those qualities, and remember that any peace they may experience is a phenomenon, like every other experience, that arises and passes away.

Non-equanimity is like sitting on the shore, watching waves rising and falling and cheering when the waves rise, mourning when they fall. With equanimity we recognize that the waves are not under our control. They rise, they fall; we watch, with love.

The “love” part of this is important. It’s easy to be fooled by words like equanimity and even-mindedness into thinking that upekkha is an emotionless, detached quality. Rather, it’s a form of love. It’s well-wishing. In upekkha we sincerely love beings and desire that they be well and that they be free from suffering, but we also accept that happiness and suffering are impermanent experiences that arise and fall outside of our control.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t act on our love, or that acting is pointless. We act with kindness; we seek to relieve compassion where we can; we encourage and rejoice in the good we see in others. But we don’t get attached to outcomes. When we do get attached to things turning out in a particular way, we may initially wish beings well or wish to relieve their suffering, but we soon become frustrated or despondent. We try to help them and perhaps they don’t want to be helped, and our love turns to aversion. Or we don’t have the skill to assist them, and we feel dejected. We act compassionately to help one person, and recognize that there’s an immeasurable amount of suffering in the world, and our efforts are just a drop in the ocean, and we feel depressed and hopeless.

This is why equanimity is necessary, and why it pervades the other three brahmaviharas. But it’s also cultivated as a quality of even-minded love in its own right, as the fulfillment of love.

In the formal practice, we develop a state of loving equanimity toward ourselves, by wishing ourselves well while bearing in mind that the joy and sorrow we experience is impermanent, and by simply accepting any pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral experiences that may arise.

Then we do the same with a neutral person (someone who we neither like nor dislike), then with a person we find difficult, then with a friend. Finally we expand our awareness into the world around us, where happiness and unhappiness rise and fall like waves on the ocean, and we wish all beings well while accepting the impermanence of their joys and sorrows.

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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Marcus Aurelius: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself…”

Marcus Aurelius

We can’t choose what happens to us in life, but we can choose how to respond to it. This piece of practical wisdom is found in the Buddhist tradition, but was also a cornerstone of Stoic philosophy. Bodhipaksa explains how we can untangle ourselves from the stories we tell ourselves about our experience.

Marcus Aurelius is my favorite Stoic philosopher. The Stoics, if you’re not familiar with them, were a school of philosophy who started about 300 BCE and who continued teaching until 529 CE, when the Christian emperor Justinian I banned pagan philosophies.

Although we use the word “stoicism” to mean something like to “grin and bear it” or to “suck it up,” Stoicism wasn’t a macho pose of unemotional toughness but a well-developed practical philosophy based on living with an awareness of impermanence. For example Marcus said, “Reflect often upon the rapidity with which all existing things … sweep past us and are carried away”. The stoics worked to live ethically, to eliminate negative emotions such as ill will and jealousy from their lives, and they even meditated. Marcus again: “Allow yourself a space of quiet … and learn to curb your restlessness”. Sounds like Buddhism? Yes it does. I think it’s a tragedy that Stoicism was killed off before it had a chance to encounter Buddhism; I think Buddhists and Stoics would have had a lot in common.

Marcus Aurelius: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

Marcus Aurelius’ advice to look to our responses to events in order to pinpoint the cause of suffering in order to eliminate suffering parallels some important Buddhist teachings. And here’s the crucial thing: It’s not what happens to us that causes most of our suffering, but how we respond. In the end, we cause virtually all of our own suffering: not all, but most of it. A Buddhist analogy is the man who is shot by an arrow, and who responds by shooting himself with yet another arrow. It sounds weird, but that’s what we do all the time.

See also:

Some things in life are going to be painful, but we amplify and repeat the pain through the way we respond to it. Let’s say that something painful happens, like someone saying something unkind to us. Without mindfulness, the mind is likely to proliferate thoughts: blaming the other person; thinking about their faults; wondering over and over, why me?; telling ourselves we’re stupid for having got hurt; wishing things were otherwise; repeating the painful words we heard over and over. There seem to be endless possibilities for multiplying thoughts. This proliferation of thoughts adds yet more pain, but this time it’s self-inflicted.

We don’t just witness events, we automatically create stories about them.

With more mindfulness we’re able simply to accept that we experienced pain in response to another person’s words. If necessary, we respond appropriately without obsessing about it. We might tell the other person how we feel, for example, or suggest another perspective. Or we might decide that no action is the most appropriate action. We let the matter go quickly without obsessing. The mind doesn’t take the original arrow and plunge it into our bodies repeatedly.

Marcus says that “the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it.” We create distress in response to external events because of the way we interpret them. We don’t just witness events, we automatically create stories about them, based on our habitual tendencies. We assign meaning to them. So when we say hello to someone and they don’t seem to acknowledge us we might jump to some assumption about how rude they’re being and how they’re trying to snub us and think they’re too important to reply and so on and so on, and then those thoughts may lead to memories of similar incidents and we move on to telling ourselves stories about who we are and our importance or lack of importance in the world. Proliferation!

Every time we think a hateful thought we hurt ourselves.

A lot of the time these stories we make up bear little resemblance to reality. And we know this (or should) because we’re often characters in other people’s dramas. You know, where you have one of those weird conversations where everything you say and do is taken the wrong way? What’s going on there can be more obvious for us. It can be easier to see that a story is being made up that doesn’t match with reality. But we do this ourselves all the time.

One thing that’s really ironic is when we get into thinking hateful thoughts about another person in response to something they’ve done, or that we think they’ve done. Every time we think a hateful thought we hurt ourselves. Isn’t it crazy? To “defend” ourselves we hurt ourselves!

To notice the stories that we tell ourselves is an important practice

To notice the stories that we tell ourselves is an important practice. When we start watching them unfolding we can quickly see that they are repetitive. It’s like we have a limited repertoire of stories that we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it. And when something goes wrong we automatically put on a “recording” of one of those stories. It might be the “poor me” story or the “why am I surrounded by jerks” story, or one of a thousand others. When something hurts us we often reach for one of these stories. They’re comforting, in a way. They give us a reassuring sense of who we are in relation to the world. But they’re also a cause of pain.

So noticing these stories is a good first step in moving towards a more satisfying way of living. Eventually, as we hear these stories for the umpteenth time, we start to take them less seriously. They still may have an effect on us, but it doesn’t go as deep. Part of us is unaffected by the narrative, and we’ve become more free. Eventually, particular stories can just die away. They’re just not needed any more. Something painful happens in life, we notice it compassionately, and we move on. We’ve stopped interpreting life and started living it.

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