Thursday, November 05, 2015

Modern Stoic Meditations #4: The Serenity Prayer





You may have already encountered this saying, the Serenity Prayer, perhaps on a tablemat in a souvenir shop or as the prayer associated with AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). You may have written it off either as a clich├ęd truism or as applicable only to alcoholics. If so, can I ask you to now reread the Serenity Prayer, now, slowly, as if you were reading it the first time? You may end up believing, like me, that far from offering trite advice it contains the essence of Stoic wisdom. You just have to  look at the first sentence of Epictetus's Handbook to discover the Stoic roots of the Serenity Prayer.


Why do I like the Serenity Prayer so much? Let’s look at each of the three parts  in turn.

First, have the serenity to accept what you can’t change. Think about some things that you really, really can’t change. Perhaps the fact you weren’t born a millionaire, or that the world is not always a fair place. What is the best attitude you can take to these realities? To get angry? No, you’ll only make a bad situation worse. To try to put things right? By definition, no, because these are thing that you can’t change, so it will just be wasted energy. Accepting the situation and not letting it disturb your peace of mind is the only appropriate response.

What about things that you can (and should) change? Although by definition these are things we can change, this doesn’t mean it’s easy, popular or risk-free to do so. It’s not easy to change oneself into being a more patient person (but it can be done). It is not always popular to campaign for something you believe in (but things can change as a result). We can change these things, but we need courage to do so.

Finally, and above all, we need the wisdom to tell the difference between the things we can change and the things we can’t change. We can’t change the fact that we were not born a millionaire, but we can put effort into becoming richer, or change our attitude to not being so wealthy. We can’t make the world a completely fair place, but we can make the world a fairer place. Usually there will be some aspects of a situation we can change, and some aspects we can’t. We need to distinguish which is which and then change courageously or accept serenely as appropriate


What I like most about the Serenity Prayer is how easy it is to recall and apply in difficult situations. Such a situation happened to me a while ago, a few days before I was due to go abroad to a conference I really wanted to go to. Having finished lunch in a restaurant, I checked in my trouser pocket for my wallet –only to discover that it wasn’t there. I looked next in my jacket pocket – no wallet. Neither was it in my briefcase or anywhere else. I tried to think back to when I last saw it, and recalled having it on entering a train station a few hours before. I also remembered someone bumping into me rather carelessly (or so I thought at the time) soon after. I guessed the rest. What to do? It must have been several hours ago that he stole my wallet. Thoughts began to race through my mind. What else did I have in my wallet? Had he already bankrupted me by using my credit cards? If only I’d taken a different journey…. If only I’d checked my pocket after he’d bumped into me… Maybe I’d have to cancel my conference trip …

Luckily, before these thoughts got completely out of control, I remembered the Serenity Prayer. I had to accept with serenity what I could not change. Well, I could not change the fact that my wallet had been stolen. There was no point beating myself up or fretting about these unchangeables – that would cause me to be even more upset and also stop me thinking about what I could change. So, what could I change? Well, obviously I could limit my liability – first thing was to phone the bank. Then I could arrange for the credit card company to see if they could send me new cards before my travel – there was just sufficient time for them to do so. In future, I resolved, I would be more alert to people bumping into me. Using the Serenity Prayer helped me deal constructively with this mini-crisis, and it has helped me many times since. Forget the table mat image and AA associations and focus on the underlying Stoic message and it can be of great assistance to you too.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Modern Stoic Meditations #3: Stoic advice on how to be more self-controlled








On Monday, we looked at how Stoicism can help us be more compassionate by using negative visualisation to imagine difficult people, then remembering how we are all fallible human beings to help us be more compassionate and less irritable.

Yesterday we cited Epictetus’s dictum “Persist and Resist”, focusing on how Stoicism can help us be more persistent – in modern parlance, show more “grit”. Today’s modern Stoic meditation will look at the other half of Epictetus’s dictum, and help us all to be more self-controlled.

How many of us can honestly say we are very self-controlled? According to research by the Values in Action Institute (VIA), not many, as self-control comes out near the bottom of the 24 mini-virtues (“strengths”) in terms of how much responders say they own it.  Yet, as Walter Mischel’s best-seller The Marshmellow Test, shows, it is a very important virtue – strongly linked with achievement, well-being and health.

So how can Stoicism help us be more self-controlled?

The first important thing to remember, according to the Stoics, is that self-control is within our power.

As Marcus Aurelius reminds us,  “You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” (Meditations). 

So why is it that we so often aren’t self-controlled? Too often we succumb to  thoughts that allow us to make an exception, just this once. We might use that most  non-Stoic saying  of Oscar Wilde “I can resist everything except temptation” to rationalise our action.“

"Nonsense!” reply the Stoics, "You can resist temptation, you are just allowing unhelpful thoughts to rule you. Instead, be ruled by thoughts about the benefits of self-control. Remind yourself of the benefits of self-control and the  problems with the lack of self-control. If you are on a diet, bring to mind the benefits of losing weight.  If you are about to get angry, remember the problems that anger has caused you in the past."
 All this is very good advice. Self-control is within your power. Thoughts that might lead you into temptation can be resisted.  

Seneca has one more helpful piece of advice. "The greatest remedy for anger is delay." Again, modern psychology supports the Stoics. Taking a number of slow breaths is a very useful way to control any impulse – it calms the body down and gives time for reason to convince us to do the right thing.

Let’s put all of this together and imagine being self-controlled like a good Stoic.  So close your eyes and think of an area of life where you would like to be more self-controlled – it could be regarding food, drink or showing irritation. Next imagine that temptation comes your way and practice saying to yourself “Resist, Resist.” If you notice thoughts tempting you not to resist, say to yourself “I have the power to resist.”  Picture vividly in your mind’s eye the worst problems that might be caused by your lack of self-control. Then think of the benefits to you if you are self-controlled. Finally, take a few deep breaths, and imagine yourself over-coming unhelpful desires.  Like an actor learning her lines,  you will eventually learn to perfect your script to  help you be more self-controlled.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Modern Stoic Meditations #2: Persist, Persist



According to Favorinus, Epictetus would also say that there were two vices much blacker and more serious than the rest: lack of persistence and lack of self-control. The former means we cannot bear or endure hardships that we have to endure, the latter means that we cannot resist pleasures or other things we ought to resist. ‘Two words,’ he says, ‘should be committed to memory and obeyed by alternately exhorting and restraining ourselves, words that will ensure we lead a mainly blameless and untroubled life.’ These two words, he used to say, were ‘persist and resist’.”

Epictetus, Fragment 10, “Discourses and Selected Writings”

Anyone who says that philosophers are too obscure or complicated should be made to read that quote.  Stoicism couldn’t be simpler. We must commit the words “Persist and Resist” to memory and keep saying them to ourselves. Move over mindfulness,  recite the “persist and resist” mantra instead.

Contemporary psychologists  have vindicated the importance of persisting and resisting.  Psychologist Angela Duckworth has led research on grit  - which she defines as the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.  Walter Mischel, famous for his Marshmallow Test,  has for many years argued that self-control –the  quality that allows you to stop yourself from doing things you want to do but that might not be in your best interest - is key to achievement and well-being, So when Epictetus tells us that persisting and resisting are key, he is clearly on to something.

In today’s meditation I will focus on persistence, and how Stoicism help us persist. 

We already know that we can use it as a mantra, how else can Stoicism help us?
At the time when we feel like giving up, we can train ourselves to become aware of the negative  thoughts that make us feel that way. We can then remind ourselves  “This negative thought is  just an impression in my mind and not an objective fact like it claims to be.”  For example, if I am trying to write an article and the thought 
“You will never finish it” comes into my mind”, I can respond by reminding myself that "This is just a thought, not a fact."

As well as negative thoughts, people often give up because of a setback. Here the Stoic advice to think of what the sage would do in this situation is valuable. When it comes to dealing with setbacks, I really admire the attitudes of Winston Churchill and Thomas Edison. Churchill said "Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm." Thomas Edison suggested "Negative results are just what I want. They're just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don't." When asked by a journalist how he had coped with failing in his first 10000 attempts to invent the lightbulb he responded “I   had not failed. I had just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”  


The Stoics give us one more relevant piece of wisdom in the analogy of the archer. An archer should take accurate aim, and then accept  fate if the arrow gets blown off course. In the same way we should focus on what is under our control and not get discouraged if fate prevents success. We should control the controllables.

So the Stoics give us four excellent pieces of advice when it comes to persisting and developing grit. We can use the mantra “persist”, we can challenge the validity of discouraging thoughts, we can reframe failure in the same way as the sages on success and failure do, and we can focus on what we can control and leave the rest to fate.

Let’s spend a few moments using a visualisation to help us build up the virtue of persistence.

So think of something you want to achieve – it could be completing Stoic Week, or changing career, or getting fitter – or something else that is important to you.  Imagine trying to achieve this and then something getting in the way. Now in your mind’s eye imagine saying to yourself “Persist, Persist”. Next imagine a negative thought getting in the way – perhaps “I’ll try again next year when circumstances are better”. Remind yourself that this thought is just an opinion, it’s not an objective fact. Reflect, like Thomas Edison did, on what you can learn from this setback. Perhaps you’ve learnt another way not to do it! Finally think of something you can do that is under your control to take you in the right direction. Imagine doing it, whilst repeating to yourself–persist, persist, persist. Then imagining yourself persisting until you succeed.


Tomorrow we will look at the second part of Epictetus’s mantra- Resist – how to be more self-controlled.



Monday, November 02, 2015

Modern Stoic Meditations #1 - Stoic Compassion


This week as part of Stoic Week I'm going to be writing my own set of Stoic Mediations, one meditation per day.  Each day I will begin with a Stoic quote, and then reflect on how it can help us all  live wisely and happily.

 I'm starting today with a famous quote from Marcus Aurelius

Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away. 

Marcus Aurelius Meditations, Book 2 


So we should all  remind ourselves that, like Marcus, we will encounter all sorts of people today.  On our way to work, we are quite likely to come across unthoughtful drivers or inconsiderate commuters. We can't control them. But we can control our response to them. If we manage our response to us well, then they don't have the power to make us behave like them. They don't have the power to make us not be anything but the best versions of ourselves.

Yet we know that unless we are on guard, the rude driver or the inconsiderate person we come across in our work may  upset us.  Help is at hand. We can remind ourselves that they do not mean to be like this. It is because they know no better. Like us, they are struggling, fallible human beings.   

When I think of everyone I encounter as a fellow  fallible human beings - a  brother or a  sister - I feel more compassionate. I could well be behaving like them if I had their genes, or their parents, or their education. 

A negative visualisation can help Marcus and the rest of us  here. So let's spend a few moments imagining things going wrong today. Let's imagine in our mind's eye people not behaving how we wish them to behave. Then imagine ourselves dealing  well with the situation, remembering that like us they  are struggling fallible human beings. 

Today I will  focus on what I can control. I can't control other people or their behaviour but I can exercise my capacity to be wise and virtuous.