Stoic mindfulness and resilience training, week 4

the panel on "impressions" from the Action Philosophers! comic on Stoicism
the panel on “impressions” from the Action Philosophers! comic on Stoicism

As I’ve mentioned before, 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 question is: What would be the pros and cons of continually remembering, when starting to feel distressed about a situation or event, that it’s not things that upset us but our judgements about things?

This, of course, refers to one of the central Stoic doctrines: the difference between “impressions” and our judgment of such impressions. As Epictetus put it (in Discourses I, 13, 7): “There are impressions that you assent to, others that you reject; sometimes you suspend judgement altogether.”

For instance, I may suddenly experience irritation at something someone said to me (perhaps a slightly insulting comment). Irritation is not a positive emotion, so Stoics would recommend to keep your distance from the initial “impression” and decide whether you wish to give it “assent” or not. Why am I getting irritated? Is the person who insulted me someone I regard highly? If so, perhaps he meant to convey a constructive criticism, to which I’m reacting defensively rather than listening and learning. Or maybe this is a guy whose opinion I really shouldn’t value at all. In which case why allow him to bother me? He just doesn’t know better.

Since I began practicing Stoicism I have tried to apply the discipline of assent, as it is called, with varying degrees of success (hey, I’m learning…). The major con I can think of occurs when you try to communicate it to others, with the genuine intention to help. Sometimes it has happened that people close to me got upset about things that really should not have upset them — like a slight received from a boss, or an unnecessarily harsh word from a friend. Even though the people in question know I’m practicing Stoicism, and had been exposed to the idea of assent to impressions, they were visibly irritated when I reminded them of it in the midst of their reaction. What I got was something along the lines of “don’t tell someone who is nervous to calm down. It doesn’t help.” But I do think the discipline of assent is very helpful, and I do want to help people close to me when they are in emotional trouble. So I have switched to a softer tactic, a combination of talking about the doctrine when they are not in the midst of an emotional situation, and gently nudging them away from the issue when they are in the midst of it, using paraphrases that don’t make it sound like I’m reading straight from Epictetus. I think it works, at the least some of the time.

The major pro, of course, is exactly what the Stoics said it would be. At the least for me, it really helps to train to distance myself from my immediate emotional reaction to a situation; to try to gain some time to calm down and achieve a level of detachment, if needed; and then to analyze the emotion rationally and decide what it is telling me and what the best course of action is.

I hasten to say, of course, that this is not at all a question of becoming “unemotional.” I’m practicing Stoicism, not “Spockism.” That is, the idea is just as much to control negative emotions as to nurture positive ones, like joy toward life, love toward others, a sense of justice, and so forth. So detachment here doesn’t mean not giving a crap about events or people, it just means an attitude of avoiding to succumb to instinctual, and perhaps misguided, first impressions, taking one’s time to decide what to care for and what to do about it. Think of it as a Stoic recommendation to switch whenever possible from what Daniel Kahneman famously labeled “thinking fast” to his “thinking slowly”: from quick reaction to deliberative reflection.

10 thoughts on “Stoic mindfulness and resilience training, week 4

  1. There are a couple aspects of this post that I would frame differently. In agreement with the preceding comment I think that both the fast thinking process, and the more deliberative slow judgement forming should be equally valued. I think when we place more importance on one aspect of what is a two sided irreducible process we then are prone to place value judgements on partial aspects out of context.

    For example, by valuing the judgement over the feeling we naturally place distinctions on the feelings (emotions) themselves as being positive or negative. Of course any emotion may be appropriate or inappropriate depending on context ( useful in one context damaging in another) so I think we need to be careful here.

    I think what is most useful is learning to notice the perspective we bring to our interactions with the world attentive to the way different perspectives can alter our perceptions, feelings, judgments etc…. In dealing with others there is an asymmetry of access to intention, we do not have direct access to the intentions of others. The default when there is conflict that may elicit discomforting emotions to view our own intentions with charity, not so with the intentions of others. I think it sets a stage for detaching from the emotion and introspecting rationally without addressing the asymmetry of the perspective. We can then get very good at rationalizing (slow system), while making no progress or even regressing in accurately evaluating life events with our fast thinking system as they occur.

    A well oiled fast thinking system is one that produces more appropriate responses to conditions through the capacity to evaluate from the self & other perspectives in real time more accurately. I think one can follow a Stoic approach and cultivate both the slow and fast thinking systems so long as the potential biases of the approach with it’s emphasis on the judgement side of the process kept in mind.

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  2. Patrice,

    “thinking thoroughly” isn’t a different category of thinking, it is “thinking slowly” done well.

    Seth,

    “I think that both the fast thinking process, and the more deliberative slow judgement forming should be equally valued”

    I think the are, because circumstances may not permit anything other than the fast version. But the Stoic advice would be to shift to the slow one whenever possible, which is in agreement with Kahneman’s research as well.

    “Of course any emotion may be appropriate or inappropriate depending on context”

    Not for a Stoic. Anger, for instance, is always a negative emotion, even when it is generated for good reasons. That’s because it leads to impulsive reaction, not to a rational deliberation of the best course of action.

    “we do not have direct access to the intentions of others”

    True, that’s why the Stoics are careful in saying that we shouldn’t judge intentions at all.

    “We can then get very good at rationalizing (slow system)”

    Correct. Of course, for a Stoic that means one is using reason improperly, and one can be corrected by peer opinion.

    “A well oiled fast thinking system is one that produces more appropriate responses to conditions through the capacity to evaluate from the self & other perspectives in real time more accurately.”

    I disagree on the “more accurately” part, and I think cognitive science research bears that out.

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  3. Thanks Massimo,

    If you have one I would appreciate a link to the research that demonstrates that we cannot train our automatic processes to respond more appropriately to various contexts.

    I know for sure for example that I overcame a dramatic and debilitating fear of public speaking which was a very irrational yet automatic response filled with overpowering feelings/emotions. In my view my cognitive understanding of the situation had very little to do with my progress. I knew all along the fear was irrational, there was no purely cognitive solution. The more I tried to understand a conceptual understanding of the fear the worse the reactions became. It was by learning some simple practices of staying grounded in the actual interaction that I was performing connected to a tai chi practice that I had begun investing myself in that I was able avoid descending into the cycle of disembodied thoughts that brought on the panic. I used to have trouble speaking at a table of 5 people, now I have no trouble presenting at full sized conference rooms.

    I’m also familiar with research on endurance training that suggests the neurological results of such are beneficial for dealing with mental discomforts with less anxiety in different contexts then the training itself.

    I have read a good deal Kahnemans work. I don’t think it is accurate to conceptualize slow and fast thinking moduoles as independent and flipping back and forth. My understanding is that they operate simultaneously influencing each other in healthy individuals, and that our cognitive process is never free of it’s situated environment. A lot of Damasio’s work showed how defective are reasoning can be when brain impairments remove emotions the reasoning process, even seemingly logical decisions like some gambling games. My example, was one where both my emotional and cognitive response spun out of control together. As my fear/panic would escalate so would my inner-narrative of how pathetic must to appear to my audience. We have had the anger discussion before. I agree that the more extreme the emotion the less likely there are to be appropriate settings for it’s emergence, but as I don’t need to suggest to you fight and flight responses can be functional.

    So I would differ from the Stoics in that I think the ideal balance of feeling/judgement, emotionality/rationality, ‘knowing how’/’knowing that’, etc…is always context dependent. I guess that makes a radical perspectivalist or something similar.

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  4. seth,

    “If you have one I would appreciate a link to the research that demonstrates that we cannot train our automatic processes to respond more appropriately to various contexts”

    That’s pretty much the trust of the entire Kaheman book, as far as I can tell. Plenty of specific research is referenced there. It is also common sense. Surely your writing of your thoughtful replies on this blog are not the result of automatic processes, but rather of slow, conscious deliberation.

    “In my view my cognitive understanding of the situation had very little to do with my progress. I knew all along the fear was irrational, there was no purely cognitive solution”

    Sure, but even so you had to analyze the situation, decide that your fear of public speaking was irrational, and begin a training regime to overcome it. Much of what the Stoics are saying is along those lines, hence their emphasis on practicing, not just theorizing.

    “research on endurance training that suggests the neurological results of such are beneficial for dealing with mental discomforts with less anxiety in different contexts then the training itself”

    Same as above.

    “I don’t think it is accurate to conceptualize slow and fast thinking moduoles as independent and flipping back and forth.”

    Right, apologies if that’s what I convened. They do act simultaneously (well, except when one is not conscious, like when one is asleep), but one can purposefully slow things down and let conscious, deliberative thinking take the lead. Again, one doesn’t really need cognitive science research to show this, but it’s nice to have the data.

    “A lot of Damasio’s work showed how defective are reasoning can be when brain impairments remove emotions the reasoning process”

    Right, I’m familiar with Damasio’s work. But please remember that, contra popular misunderstanding, Stoics did not counsel to suppress emotions.

    “I don’t need to suggest to you fight and flight responses can be functional”

    Never argued otherwise (though now you are talking about fear, not anger). Indeed, if there is no time to slow down and deliberate, instinctual reaction is all we have. But do we want to say that, if we do have the time, we still want to relegate our decision making to automatic processes?

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  5. Thanks again for the reply Massimo,

    Don’t have time for a full reply, but I actually I think we are mostly in agreement giving the examples, and our understandings of the basic processes involved in making progress. I think there are some differences but a big part is how we emphasize and characterize the processes based on our backgrounds which I find interesting. I took my examples to show that we can influence our canned responses through training, and to me that is just common sense as well ( how else can we learn new skills) 🙂 I certainly recognize the training aspect as being a more deliberative process.

    If I gave the example of an experienced jazz musician improvising around a structure with other musicians equally skilled I am wondering how you would characterize it. From a taoist point of view the emphasis would be on the ability to respond effortlessly to novel changes in real time. During the performance there is monitoring taking place. FMRI experiments have shown dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex playing a key role (inhibatory I think ?) even during what appears to be effortless performance. It’s just that so many of the skills are happening intelligently without direction that the monitoring of what is surprising to the artist (along with what is anticipated) can be accommodated without disrupting the flow of the performance. Of course such performances don’t come without cultivation of the skills. During the training, skill level improves, and the skill level determines the degree of slow deliberation in proportion to automatic intelligent expression. That’s all I was trying to argue, and why I suggested the fast and slow aspects are of equal importance although differing applications are appropriate giving the context of ones skill/knowledge a giving medium.

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  6. I think I understood Kahnenman’s basic take that we can only see what we see and thus are at the mercy of things like confirmation bias in any moment based on our inevitiable blindness. We can’t change the innate confirmation bias tendency, but by expanding our capacity to see with greater perspective that tendency can be less damaging. I may see more clearly tomorrow than I do today. This is why I was try to emphasize the idea of perspective.

    So rather than adopting the slow deliberative stance ‘whenever we can’ I think we should do so whenever our fast, skilled, developed, intelligent, biases are not well suited to context. Being able to recognize that lack of fit to context I think is itself a skill and one that needs continuous monitoring.

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  7. Seth,

    “If I gave the example of an experienced jazz musician improvising around a structure with other musicians equally skilled I am wondering how you would characterize it”

    Deliberate training of an automatic skill. Though notice that this isn’t really the sort of thing the Stoics were concerned with. It’s not like the musician is responding to an impression and pondering whether to give it assent or not.

    “We can’t change the innate confirmation bias tendency, but by expanding our capacity to see with greater perspective that tendency can be less damaging”

    Agreed. The Stoics suggested that the way to knowledge is to subject your opinions to peer review, which in today’s parlance would reduce the importance of biases (see, for instance, philosopher of science Helen Longino’s work on “objectivity” in science emerging as a social property, not an individual one).

    “So rather than adopting the slow deliberative stance ‘whenever we can’ I think we should do so whenever our fast, skilled, developed, intelligent, biases are not well suited to context”

    Right, that wasn’t the correct phrasing. I meant whenever we are facing the sort of decision for which deliberative thinking is helpful and instinctual reaction may get us into trouble.

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  8. Many thanks Massimo, I will look into Helen Longino’s work.

    As I suspected we are not so far apart. Maybe a subtle difference is that I don’t see the Jazz musicians skill as purely automatic. There are the automatic skills that happen without availability to conscious report, but perhaps the most important skill for such an artist is the ability to vigilantly attend and respond to the uncertain, the unexpected, novel. That I believe is the continually moving focus of attention at the forefront, while a field of less accessible perceptual awareness’s wave in the background.

    I’m totally on board that our automatic biases often lead us astray, and that conscious deliberation is an important aspect of gaining clarity in our own beliefs. I’m not so sure that the monitoring that takes place in conscious deliberation is all that different from the example above though. For me the deliberation seems to be effective only when I can focus in and hover my attention around the contradiction that is the source of my uncertainty while allowing perspectives to shift around that focus. If the deliberation is effective then assent will emerge which provides some change in the prior belief system. It feels like a similar process to me although on a different time scale, and because assent seems to emerge on it’s own it doesn’t feel purely deliberative either.

    I really do appreciate all the time you gave me as just an interested layman trying to work out my uncertainties 🙂

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