Stoic mindfulness and resilience training, week 3

MetaCognition1As I’ve mentioned a couple of times now, I have enrolled in the Stoic mindfulness and resilience training course offered by the good people at Modern Stoicism, and coordinated by Donald Robertson (the author of Stoicism and the Art of Happiness). I’m doing this in part for my own benefit, and in part as an exercise in philosophical journalism, in preparation for one of my forthcoming (fate permitting) books on Stoicism.

I figured, then, that I would write a series of posts, one for each of the four weeks of the course, focusing on the suggested “big question of the week,” to bring the discussion to people who have not enrolled in the course and to perhaps broaden the appeal of what Modern Stoicism is doing.

This week’s big questions are: What are the benefits of recalling what’s under your control and what isn’t in difficult situations? What would be the long-term consequences of blurring this distinction?

The questions refer, of course, to one of Stoicism’ s basic precepts, the distinction between what is and what is not under our control. As Epictetus famously put it in the Enchiridion (1, 1): “We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible.”

Specifically, the Stoics thought that what is under our control are our judgments of things and our considered behaviors (i.e., behaviors that are the result of reflection, as opposed to instinctual reactions). Pretty much everything else is out of our control, including wealth, health, and all sorts of other things they classed as “indifferent” (to virtue).

This dichotomy needs to be qualified somewhat, as I’ve discussed in the past. For instance, Irvine proposes that it is really a trichotomy: things that are under our complete control (conscious thoughts and actions), things that are completely outside of our control (e.g., the weather), and things that we can influence but whose ultimate outcome does not depend only on us (e.g., the outcome of a game we play, or whether we retain our job).

To answer the first question above, the idea is that keeping the in/out of one’s control distinction clearly in mind, particularly in difficult situations, ought to do a few things for us: first, it allows us to focus on what we can actually change, and not waste our time on things that we cannot accomplish. Second, it is supposed to allow us to achieve some emotional detachment from the outcome of things: for the Stoics it makes no sense to squander emotional energy on regretting how something turned out, if you did your best under the circumstances. (This, again, is conceptualized well by Irvine’s suggestion that Stoicism is about internalizing our goals: the goal is not to win the tennis match, say, but to play well, regardless of the final score.)

As to the second question, the long term consequences of blurring the in/out of one’s control distinction would be a cumulative waste of resources (because we would insist in trying to accomplish things we cannot actually accomplish) as well as of emotional energy (because we would be worried and distraught by things over which we have no control).

There are typically two objections to the idea of the Stoic “fork” of distinguishing what is and is not up to us: on the one hand, some worry that this will lead to apathy (as opposed to apatheia!) or inaction; on the other hand, people keep bringing up the idea that, allegedly, modern science has shown that much of our thought processing and decision making is subconscious, so it turns out that even our own judgments and actions are not really under our control. Let me address both points briefly.

Concerning the first one, many of the ancient Stoics were teachers, politicians or military commanders, i.e., the sort of people who very much thinks (and acts) in order to change society, hopefully for the better. They were most definitely not a bunch of apathetic (in the modern sense of the word) characters. On the contrary, they were able to focus on what they could really hope to accomplish, as opposed to wasting their time, energy and resources on things that philosophical reflection would lead to conclude they could do little or nothing about.

On the second point, reports of us being little more than zombies are greatly exaggerated. Yes, modern research in cognitive science does highlight just how much processing of information in our brain occurs at the subconscious level (though please notice that even our subconscious is “us,” not someone else!). But Libet-type experiments, for instance, have been conducted under very specific circumstances, situations in which we actually expect decision-making to be unconscious. They in no way invalidates the idea that our brain is, as Nobel winning Daniel Kahneman famously put it, a two-track device where “fast” (i.e., unconscious) and “slow” (i.e., conscious) thinking continuously interact with each other to reciprocal influence. Moreover, it is precisely because a great deal of our reactions and behaviors spring automatically from our subconscious that Stoics train themselves to slow down and examine their “impressions” in a detached fashion.

6 thoughts on “Stoic mindfulness and resilience training, week 3

  1. And good morning to us… often occurs to me how having had a number of old boats over my years has benefitted me. Perhaps even led me to the stoic thinking process. I certainly find many opportunities to practice distinguishing what is and is not within my control while sailing or working on a boat. Many years ago I was given a little plaque with the following quote, ” you cannot change the wind , but you can adjust your sails”. Perhaps Epictetus was a sailor.

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  2. I am totally behind the idea that we can progressively cultivate & mold ourselves to live and act in a style that best benefits ourselves & others. No doubt this requires a good understanding of how to apply best our reflections and practice’s in relation to what we perceive as our internal and external conditions. I think it’s better to think of things as existing along a continuum rather than as a dichotomy when it comes thinking of ourselves as agents of control.

    Consider something seemingly beyond our control like the weather. I think our climate will always influence our thoughts. Regardless of philosophical or physical training, our thoughts will be different when exposed to the climate on a 100 degree than on a 70 degree day or a minus 20 degree day. Our thoughts will be different when we are hungry then when are well fed, or when we sick as opposed to when we are healthy.

    I think the best use of our reflective rational capacity (or our will) is to establish a lifestyle where we understand (to the extent we can), and are prepared for to the extent possible) the various climates that we are likely to encounter. We can’t control the weather or how it feels to be in it, but we have some control over how we engage with it. We can set up a schedule so we don’t shop for food when hungry so as to make better dietary decisions. We can live lifestyle that favors health over sickness etc…… What I am arguing is that we can control our momentary reactions and we can create favorable climates to a degree, but only through a mix of reflection and practice.

    So I think I disagree with the distinction that ‘our judgments of things and our considered behaviors (i.e., behaviors that are the result of reflection, as opposed to instinctual reactions)’ are what is under our control. I think our habits are what most influence our momentary reactions & behaviors, and are habits are also related to our capacity to reflect (both as cause and effect) . I agree that rational reflection is important in establishing good habits, but it isn’t much good without practice. In the end I also think it is important to recognize that the boundaries that define what we can & cannot control are not easily reducible and that factors like rational reflection, mindful practice and automatic response are all intertwined.

    Sorry if this too much of a soundboard for my own thoughts, and let me know if it feels like my posts our distracting from a specific focus on Stoicism. Thanks.


  3. Seth,

    your thoughts are not distracting at all, they contribute to what I consider my ongoing exploration of Stoicism, as well as our public discussion.

    “I agree that rational reflection is important in establishing good habits, but it isn’t much good without practice”

    Right, though I doubt Epictetus would disagree…

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  4. It is amazing the transformation one’s life can go through when the Stoic Fork is applied and really bought into. After reading Irvine I applied the idea of internalizing goals and focusing on virtue in playing hockey. Not only am I unperturbed by losses (which are not entirely my responsibility anyway), I seem to enjoy the game more because I focus on being present and enjoying the process (which in turn actually increases my effectiveness on the ice).

    I would say for many people, anxiety and worry could be reduced significantly if they internalized their goals and dropped their expectations of how things “should be” or “should turn out” and premeditatio malorum seems to neutralize those emotional monsters fairly swiftly.

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  5. From an anecdotal perspective I would have to say this stoic response to situations is in no way detrimental. My friends and I decided to go on a canoeing trip down one of New Zealand’s rivers earlier this year. On the first day it had been longer than expected and two of the three canoes sped ahead at one point, including me. After 20 minutes we decided to pull over to the bank and wait for the other one to come. Our thoughts started wondering after 20 mins where they were and then after about 30 mins two of the air-tight containers floated on by. They must have capsized, recovered, and are on there way down or they have had an accident. After collecting the containers we waited another 30 mins and then we hear voices from the bush over a cliff. They had crashed mid-river and one of them got stranded on the boat. We were in the middle of nowhere with no reception or contact until the camp a couple of hours more down the river.

    This is where stoic thought comes into play. I was in the canoe with my brother. The river was too strong to paddle back to where they were and there was a cliff blocking access to the bush. As we made our way in a hurry to the next camp my brother who organised the event was expressing his regrets for inviting people who were not the most capable of the journey and how he felt responsible for their predicament. Having followed your posts and read some stoic philosophy I was able to divert our thinking and energy to plan what things we could do now to best help them. We couldn’t go back and change the attendance, we couldn’t go back and decide not to storm ahead, we couldn’t go back and remember to bring a rescue becon, we couldn’t go back and change the route or the date, we couldn’t change the river flow or the rapids. We only had one option so that’s all we needed to think about – getting to the camp and calling for rescue. Thoughts on what went wrong can be examined after the crisis not during the crisis.

    Ended up getting a jet boat to travel back up the river and rescue them and continued the journey over the next 3 or so days. What at the time may seem overwhelming is often not when following correct protocol and procedures step by step. Then when you analyse the crisis in retrospect you know that you did all you could with the means you had.


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