Report from STOICON 2015 — part III

Tim LeBonI recently returned from STOICON 2015, a gathering of people interested in learning about, as well as practicing, Stoicism. This is the third such event in as many years, the last two organized by the delightful Jules Evans. (It turns out, incidentally, that STOICON 2016 will be hosted by yours truly, in New York, on 15 October. Mark your calendars!)

The event featured a number of talks in the morning, followed by two series of parallel workshop sessions for smaller groups of people, concluding with a plenary keynote lecture. In the first installment of this series I shared my notes and thoughts about the morning session, while in the second one I recapped the first workshop I attended. Here I will tackle the second workshop, ending with the keynote in the last installment. All of this material will be online by the end of this week.

The workshop I picked in the second part of the afternoon was Tim ’s “How to become virtuous — lessons from Compassionate mind-training.” (his slides are available here) Tim is a therapist by profession and the guy behind some of the questionnaires being used during the annual Stoic Week.

Compassionate mind training (CMT) is aimed at the general population, while the related compassionate focused therapy (CFT) is, as the name clearly states, a kind of therapy, and so aimed at people with specific psychological problems.

The general psychological question tackled by Tim was: how does one become more virtuous? This is distinct from philosophical questions about virtue, such as what is virtue, and why is virtue important?

He began by connecting emotions with virtues: compassion is related to justice, persistence with courage, moderation with self control, following the advice of Jules Evans, who has argued that philosophy and the social sciences need each other: the first needs to be relevant, the second one needs conceptual guidance.

Modern critics of Stoicism point to its alleged dearth of an emotional dimension. For instance, according to Martha Nussbaum “Stoicism is an anti-compassion tradition” (which is a weird statement, when one thinks of Hierocles’ circles of concern and the general concept of Stoic cosmopolitanism). Similarly, the concern is often raised that Stoicism may lead people to be too hard on themselves.

In order to ally these concerns, according to LeBon, Stoics need to phrase their ideas in “non-Spock like” terms. Take mindfulness, for instance: it is necessary for the practice of virtue, because it allows one to step back and respond to a given situation, rather than react to it. But by itself mindfulness is not virtuous: one could be a mindful sniper who focuses on warding off distraction while proceeding to kill people. Therefore one also needs what Buddhists would call right intention.

Here is where CFT may help, being a kind of “CBT [Cognitive Behavioral Therapy] with a heart,” aiming at developing a self able to achieve emotional balance, compassion to others as well as self-compassion. It is a type of so-called third wave CBT.

According to Tim, moreover, what CFT practitioners mean by compassion is not all that different from the Stoic concept of virtue. He showed us pictures of compassionate people (Mandela, Gandhi), and asked us to reflect on the fact that we probably think of those people as courageous, wise, self controlled, and moved by a sense of justice — i.e., characterized by some version of the four cardinal Stoic virtues.

A key idea of CFT is that there are three emotional “systems” in the brain: red, about negative emotions aiming at self protection (anger, fear); blue, about dynamic positive emotions that drive us (joy, excitation); and green, related to soothing and contentment, generating positive emotions (eg., calm).

Specific techniques developed by CFT practitioners include compassionate breathing, mindfulness, self-compassion guided meditations, and ideal compassionate other guided meditation, which he proceeded to describe in some detail.

Part of the idea is to engage in a kind of “method acting” with yourself: if you want to be assertive, for instance, adopt a strong physical posture (as opposed to a slouchy one) with your body. Because emotions are embodied, mindfully changing your body’s posture sends a signal to your emotional systems.

LeBon had some practical suggestions for modern Stoics: use the language of compassion and self-compassion (we are fallible, we should work toward the best version of ourselves); use self-compassion meditation as rehearsals for the day ahead; when doing the evening meditation (imagining the “Sage on your shoulder,” so to speak) think of the Sage as compassionate and encouraging, not stern.

The session ended with a guided meditation on persistence, what modern psychologists call “grit.” Tim asked us to think of something we would like to do with a bit more persistence, such as dieting or working out, or even personal development. Then we read the passage from Epictetus that ends with the exhortation to “persist and resist.” One can use that phrase as a mantra to include in one’s morning meditation.

We also need to become more aware of thoughts that defeat us, such as “I will never be able to do that.” We can distance ourselves from such thought and reply: that is just an opinion. Moreover, we can benefit from thinking about appropriate role models, for instance Thomas Edison, who famously said (paraphrasing here) that he had not failed 10,000 times before inventing the light bulb, he just discovered 10,000 ways in which the thing does not work. Further, one can apply the Stoic dichotomy of control to separate things that are under our control from those that are not, persisting on the former and not wasting energy on the latter.

Finally, we all engaged in an exercise of visualization that began with slow breathing while our eyes were closed. Tim guided us to focus on a task about which we want to persist, imagining our difficulties, eventually overcoming them, and then feeling proud of our accomplishments and of the positive effects they will bring.

5 thoughts on “Report from STOICON 2015 — part III

  1. Jaycel Adkins

    Thank you again for this write up, Massimo.

    This topic is where my interest lies (not debating Stoic Physics).

    I downloaded Lebon’s slides but couldn’t make much of them without the context of the talk, your review will make me return to them. Can’t wait for the tape, also!

    I also like Julia Annas conception of virtue as a form of skill acquisition. That metaphor allowing one to bring in all the various research on ‘deliberate practice.’

    The major issue I have with Stoic conception of Virtue is the de-linking with the consequences of one’s actions. The sole (seeming) focus on intention as the carrier of Virtue seems off, even in practical terms. The virtue of Prudence/Practical Wisdom/Phronesis seems to fold in consequences almost by definition.

    If you haven’t yet, Massimo, check out “Strangers Drowning” by Larissa MacFarquhar.
    Her book in relation to oikeiôsis, thus far, has been insightful. (The title is an allusion to Peter Singer, of course).


  2. Massimo Post author


    “I also like Julia Annas conception of virtue as a form of skill acquisition. That metaphor allowing one to bring in all the various research on ‘deliberate practice.'”

    Yes, it also goes well with Becker’s idea that virtue is the maximization of agency, which is also a skill to be acquired with practice.

    “The major issue I have with Stoic conception of Virtue is the de-linking with the consequences of one’s actions”

    That’s not just Stoicism, it applies to all virtue ethics. I actually find it an advantage of the system, as I find consequentialism to be fraught with even greater problems. This doesn’t mean that consequences don’t matter for Stoics, but that they are outside of our control, so the focus has to be what is in our control: our intentions and actions.


  3. jdesc


    Thank you for these interesting summaries and recaps.
    The idea of virtue seems to be ,as we often hear, the core and center of Stocism and most Eudamonic traditions, and the family resemblance is there also in many non-western ethical traditions. So there may be a need for a very solid and practical definition of this if a revival of Stoicism is done that hinges on the centrality of virtue, and links it up to the rest.
    Yet, I am a bit confused by the various ways of approaching the concept among the ancient themselves, and certainly among the modern moral philosophers, including the books on Stoicism I have read.
    That definition and the illustration of it may be the common denominator for all kinds of modern Stoicism? Or do you think it will not be feasible because of the already varied and diverse metaphysicial preconceptions…What will unite the Stoics today if not the way they see virtue?


  4. Massimo Post author


    I think it’s pretty clear what the Stoics mean by virtue, they even give a list: (practical) wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. And they provided us with plenty of role models to study in order to get their meaning right. And yes, if there is anything that should unite modern Stoics it is the fundamental Stoic view that practicing virtue is the most important thing in life. By the way, Lawrence Becker has a very good in-depth discussion of this in his A New Stoicism.


  5. John Velman

    I was particularly interested in the paragraph about persistence. I had enough persistence to quit smoking (after about 60 years). Some of the thoughts presented here may help me get my persistence going again to get some exercise and lose weight. By the way, William Irvine’s book was a substantial help to me when I first stopped smoking (6 months ago now). (Written in haste!)

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