The Stoic Mom had the chance to speak with Donald Robertson, author, trainer, and psycho therapist, and creator of courses on Stoicism including How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Crash Course in Stoicism, Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training. Here’s the first part of that enlightening conversation on Stoic thinking, and how it can help us handle our fears and focus on what really matters. (Watch for part two of this conversation soon!)
Q: Philosophy helps us think about meaning and purpose. What does Stoic philosophy say about the purpose of human life? What should we be focused on?
A: The Stoic goal of life is “living in agreement with nature.” It’s attributed to Zeno, Stoicism’s founder, and Marcus Aurelius is still talking about that 500 years later. It’s a constant. The Greek words used have other translations, like living in accord with virtue or living wisely.
What does that mean in practice? They believed that the essence of human nature was reasoning and thinking. We use language. That distinguishes us from animals. And since we can think and use language, we have a duty to use it properly.
In other words: Nature’s handed this gift to you, and it is the greatest gift of nature. We should use it to its fill.
We can think—but most of us think badly and irrationally. Nature has left us half finished, and we should complete the circle. We have the tools, we should pick up tools and use them. To reason well is to attain wisdom.
Q: What does this “agreement with nature” actually look like? I’m often stressed and worried about my kids, my family, my community, my work, and larger events in the world. Can people live in better harmony with themselves and others by pursuing Stoicism? And can Stoic thinking help its followers reach a state of tranquility?
A: We can live in harmony with our own nature by consistently reasoning well. That’s being authentic and true to ourselves. We also need to try to live in harmony with external events. At the level of society, we live with our fellow citizens—and we can try to live in harmony with rest of humanity. One of the philosophers’ goals was to reconcile people who are arguing, for instance. Socrates was really good at introducing people to new friends, forming healthy relationships among friends.
In terms of the question of tranquility, it’s not so much how you feel that matters—it is the state of health that your mind is in. A wise person who is flourishing, whose mind is excellent, will probably be tranquil, but it’s kind of a side effect.
The problem with making tranquility your goal is that you could just take tranquilizers. You could avoid stressful situations. Psychologists would call that avoidance and withdrawal.
Ancient Stoics would disagree with avoiding things. Zeno was engaged with advising politicians and believed you should engage with public life. Stoics also said you should marry and have kids, even if it can be stressful—it’s part of nature.
In fact, in modern psychology in past 15 years or so, we now think that many traditional self-help techniques are subtle forms of avoidance. People instinctively do things to help themselves that involve avoiding upsetting feelings, like visualization or breathing exercises. But research shows that being able to ride out and tolerate those feelings is more healthy. You can learn to accept the feelings.
Q: Do Stoic thinkers expect us to be perfectly calm in all situations? Do they talk about how feelings, for example of anxiety and worry, affect people?
A: The ancient Stoics recognized that all people have involuntary feelings. A wise Stoic might shake, turn pale, and sweat in a scary situation. It is what happens next that counts.
One Stoic writer tells the story of a philosopher on a ship during an awful storm. It’s scary. When he gets ashore, others say to him, why were you shaking and turning white? He says, those were involuntary reactions. But what matters is that I recovered my composure afterwards. I’m not a brain in a vat.
In fact, it’s impossible to feel courage without feeling anxiety. You can’t have that virtue unless you experience these involuntary first movements. Being in a frightening situation is an opportunity to exercise bravery.
Q: Do the Stoic thinkers offer specific techniques for combatting our negative emotions? How can we build our own reason and wisdom?
A: Yes. They practiced the “premeditation of adversity.” In modern psychotherapy, we would call it imaginal exposure. You try to habituate yourself to frightening things. If you can do this successfully, your anxiety is more or less extinguished.
Ancient Stoics practiced imagining exile, poverty, betrayal, and their own death. That’s the most robust advice they give, but it’s difficult to do on your own, without a psychotherapist or mentor.
They don’t say how long to spend on it. If you don’t wait long enough for habituation to happen, you could actually sensitize yourself. You can look at modern psychology to understand this. It works better if you do this for longer period, say at least 15 minutes at a time. It feels boring. But that feeling of boredom is habituation happening. It requires patience.
A second technique is the “view from above.” You try to imagine situations in the broader context of space and time.
So if you meet a person who upsets you, you might think of that person as a child, or when they get older, to see it as just one slice of their whole life. This moderates your emotional response. And maybe you’ll start to understand that other person—as determined by the past, for example.
You could also imagine you are floating up in the sky seeing events below. It is not blotting out and avoiding them, but plugging them into a broader context. To be rational, in ideal world, we’d see everything in context. In the ancient world, people believed that Zeus could do this.
It is impossible for humans; we just see slices. and our reaction is amplified. But we can use our imaginations.
More of my interview with Donald Robertson—on parenting, Stoic women, and handling anger—coming soon.
Do you have any burning questions about Stoicism? Post them here as comments!
“Let the goddess within you be in charge of a person who is mature, womanly, strong, brave, a leader, a ruler.… In brief, you must hold yourself upright, not be held upright.”
- Adaptation of Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book III, Part 5
Here is an uplifting thought: that we, as people, women and men, parents, and citizens can derive strength, energy, and--above all--reason from within ourselves.
Where exactly does this goodness spring from? From part of us that Roman emperor and Stoic thinker Marcus Aurelius calls “the god within," and sometimes refers to as an inner genius or guardian spirit.
I’ve been studying Marcus’ Meditations, and this element stands out over numerous pages. Although it’s unclear whether Marcus believed in a single, powerful deity, or in pantheistic gods, or thought it was impossible to know the nature of the spiritual realm, it does seem that he held fast to the notion of a divine spark within us all.
This piece of ourselves is the source of our reason and intelligence as humans. And it is that which we must preserve by following philosophy and living a good life.
It's not easy. Modern Americans are struggling with the many pressures inherent in a highly individualistic and judgmental culture, the swirling mess of work, home, housework, family, politics, finances, and an increasingly self-absorbed and self-indulgent society that seems more likely to alienate and embitter people than to care for them.
From my vantage point in Silicon Valley, I often see precious little community and pitching in for the polis; it’s a very “I got mine” vibe. I am guilty of being overworked and overcommitted, too, and lacking time and energy to take on more. I worry about my kids seeing so much self-centered behavior. The bright spot for them is that their school environments are one potential source for coming together, and I've found a handful of good friends in the parent community here (supportive for me and potential role models for children).
The question is: Can you be strong and self-sufficient without being cut off from other people? Can you cultivate that wisdom and logic within, share it, and use it to participate for the good in your community and world?
And can we teach this to our children?
I do not have a certain answer now, and I am seeking one actively. There are some rays of hope. I know that both my daughters want to pursue “take action” projects in our area with the girls in their Girl Scout troops. I’m waiting expectantly to find out what that means. Can they channel their energy into something useful and create change?
As for me, I’m engaging in helping my friends and fellow humans with their lives and issues, my colleagues with collaborations on innovative, creative work, and my world with supporting causes I care about. My company offers matching grants and I have recently been busy directing donations to local, national, and international efforts I want to advance.
But much more needs to be done. Spreading ideas inspired by this philosophy and the primacy of truth, justice, and service could help. My younger daughter serves as an example. She has started the school year strong, working to form a "stop stereotypes" club with a handful of other students. These fourth graders don't like kids getting pegged by gender, and they want to see change within classrooms and on the playground, as well as in the wider world. (I was disappointed, though, when her school principal declined to meet with the group, despite their hope to be taken seriously on the highest level available to them.)
Her enthusiasm is inspiring. We could all learn to do more, and to grow in wisdom and leadership, propelled by our inner spark.
Seething inside me is a dark image. A picture of myself that I'd like to change. Part of my journey into Stoicism is about how to gain a more balanced interior world. That begins with taking a step back to acknowledging how I got here.
For me, much of it boils own to the simple idea that I grew up with, reinforced by countless teachers, people all around me, and our culture's preoccupation with "perfect girls." The basic concept: "You should act smart because you are smart.” And more than that: "Be perfect."
This approach implies that being/acting intelligent and competent defines your self-worth. Supporting this line of thinking, the next logical step is to believe that the highest grades, scholastic achievement, degrees, and prestigious careers are marks of your worthiness as a human being. Praise is what matters, and getting something wrong is shameful.
For me, this kind of mentality led to a trap of constant self-doubt about and negativity around my own sense of value, wholeness, and, ultimately, happiness. For years, I’d often tell myself how “stupid” or “idiotic” I was for making what I perceived to be a "dumb" mistake. I’d even say “I am worthless" or "I hate myself.”
I internalized the idea that I had to be perfect, that I couldn’t make a simple error without demonstrating that, in reality, I wasn’t smart or valuable, but in fact, I was incompetent and a failure.
Why did I persist in believing this in the face of so much evidence that I was indeed, in most people's eyes, a capable, intelligent, and strong individual?
I have a theory. Over the years, I used this thinking as a protective shield in some twisted way. In 12-step programs, people look at how their addiction “served” served them in a sense. Perhaps that has been true here too. If I could preventatively say, “What an idiot I am!” then I knew deep down I would feel it less when someone else said it (or when I thought someone might say it under their breath). I’d be somehow immune when other people pointed out my flaws or shortcomings. My horrible self-talk formed a series of pre-emptive strikes.
I’d also force myself to work harder that way: “If I’m not prepared for this test, the teacher will think I’m a dunderhead, I’ll get a bad grade, and I’ll never be successful.” “If I don’t ace this interview, I must be truly incompetent, and I won't really deserve a good job. What a failure I am.” And so on.
Weird and absurd, right? Yet that’s how messed up I’ve been on the inside. That’s the kind of treatment of my own psyche that I used to propel myself forward through very competitive schools and tough work environments.
It has also taken a tremendous toll.
I have had a Dorian Gray-like picture of myself hidden away inside me, eating away at everything good.
You likely recall the Oscar Wilde story: a handsome young man hides away a painting of himself, one that ages and decays and sours and becomes monstrous as he commits bad acts. Meanwhile, his real body remains beautiful (on the outside).
My self-portrait carries the marks of emotional wounds, often self-inflicted, but dangerous nonetheless.
The acid effect of internal damage finally became too great when I found myself trying to drive my own children using the same mentality. Of course, I want them to know I have high expectations because they can live up to them and be their best selves. But I don’t want to plant a Dorian within their young, vulnerable hearts.
That is why I began, a couple years back, to work on my negativity and lack of self-compassion. I took classes on meditation and on mindfulness, I studied compassion and Buddhism, I met with counselors, I did self-assessments of who I am and how I got here, and where to go next to get over this mentality and be healthier.
I learned to care about my own suffering more. The very first step was to actually notice it, to be aware of how I talked to myself. I began slowly to try to focus on satisfying moments rather than fears.
This is a work in progress that still needs a lot of effort. But at least now I can break down why I feel this way in a more granular understanding.
Among all these efforts, my studies of Stoicism and of recovery from addictive behavior have had the most lasting and helpful effect. I am trying now to give my darker thoughts up to the universe and to the force for good instilled in humanity, that “divine spark” that Marcus Aurelius and others refer to.
I have to remember to protect my own spark. Even from myself.
A quote to meditate on:
“The duration of a person’s life is as a point; the substance of it ever flowing, the sense obscure; and the whole composition of the body tending to unravel. Her soul is a restless vortex, fortune uncertain, and fame doubtful; in a word, as a rushing stream so are all things belonging to the body; as a dream, or as smoke, so are all that belong to the soul. Life is a warfare, and a sojourn in a foreign land. Fame after life is nothing more than oblivion.
What is it then that will guide us? One thing alone: philosophy. And philosophy consists in this, for a woman to preserve that inner genius or divine spark which is within her, from violence and injuries, and above all pains or pleasures; never to do anything either without purpose, or falsely, or hypocritically: wholly to depend from herself and her own proper actions: all things that happen to her to embrace contentedly, as coming from the Eternal from whom she also came...”
A woman-centric version of Marcus Aurelius, from the Meditations, Book II, Section 15
With so much violence and death in the news recently—both human-made and nature-made—it’s hard to comprehend so much suffering.
I sometimes wonder if there is a threshold to witnessing so many things that are out of control—and out of OUR control, as the Stoic thinkers have shown us. Perhaps there is a point beyond which we just break down and turn away. (If that is true, the ancients must have experienced it, given the scale of war and disease at that time.)
After I heard about the mass shooting in Las Vegas that claimed 59 lives, my sense of despair and disconnection went into overdrive. The unthinkable cruelty hurt me on a personal level. I went through the motions of my day, trying not to discuss the horror with my kids. I didn’t want them to see my alienation and sadness. And I did not know how to explain what had happened.
We are seeing these kinds of staggering acts monthly, weekly, and daily if you look at violence on the local level around the country. It makes me ask: What values do we share in common as Americans—as human beings? How can we live “in accordance with nature” in our modern world? So many people seem to have forgotten what it means to tap into the logic of our brains and the spark of virtue, kindness, and joy within.
Human life is much more than an instinct to survive. Nor is it just material comfort or a set of serial goals, like “graduate from school," “get a job,” "get married," and “buy a house." There’s a deeper spiritual element. To feel connected, valuable, and good, the Stoics tell us, we must try to live a virtuous life, in harmony with the best elements of our natures.
Maybe by attempting to live a good life—a caring and thoughtful existence supporting those around us—we can somehow serve as a bulwark against acts of violence and terror. At the very least, we can continue to promote and protect the core virtues that make our lives meaningful while we are on this planet. Stoicism means living far from despair even in the worst circumstances, and I try to keep that thought in the forefront of my mind.
My daughters clearly have inborn body types. My older daughter was always around the 99th percentile in growth for her age. At 11, already she has grown to my height, with my wide shoulders and (relatively) powerful legs.
She is strong and healthy, and I am grateful. But I already know that she will not have the slim body type do some of her relatives. And in our culture, that will likely bother her on some level, since the slender type is so prized.
My younger daughter is a different body type altogether, one I don’t recognize quite so well. She was usually around the 55th percentile for growth for her age. She is average height and weight, also a very active kid whose friends ask how she can eat so much and still stay skinny. She’s only 9 and who knows how her body will change, but I don’t think it will mimic mine so closely.
Perhaps my children will be more able to accept their bodies, especially in this era of women’s fitness. I can dream, can’t I?
I have long had struggles with my body, especially after having two kids. When carrying my second daughter, I was put on bedrest. I lost muscle tone and put on flabby weight (more than I’d hoped), and I had to take medication that made me feel awful. Recovery was a long process, and with a two-year-old and infant it seemed to take forever.
Then when I returned to work part-time I found I was very sedentary, very busy, stressed, and had almost no time for exercise. I was surrounded (I almost said assaulted!) by free food at my office, which did not help my waistline. And I developed some seriously painful physical issues from the repetitive stress of carrying heavy babies around and (when I had a few moments to myself) hovering over a laptop and doing crafts to unwind.
It was a perfect storm for motherly physical un-fitness.
After some months (years, I guess?) of complaining about it, I finally decided to make a change and got proactive. I went to a good physical therapist, luckily covered by my medical insurance. Joyce's energetic persona made me feel old and bulky, but she helped immensely.
Putting aside a bit of budget for health matters, I found a female physical trainer, Mary, who did her best to whip me into shape over a few months. And a mom friend who liked running got me into weekend runs while the dads minded the kids.
I lost some weight and I got stronger physically. I built muscle tone and improved my posture, which helped my pain. I did what I could, given time and budget constraints.
Today, the journey continues with stops at the gym, speed walks, fitness biking, uphill hikes, dance “jam” classes, and all-encompassing eating plans. It feels like a constant battle and I expect it will get worse as I age.
Over the years, I have had a lot of trouble accepting my basic body type. It's not slender, not an hourglass, not an image of Hollywood perfection. It’s a type that’s hard to fit nicely into off-the-rack clothes, for example. But it's not all bad: I know I can look darn good in the right outfit, and I get compliments (especially from biased people like my husband).
The point is: As much as I work out and lose weight or gain it, this will always be my body.
Stoic thinking is helpful here, if I can just remember to bring it to mind. Stoics in ancient times were known for their willingness to pass up fine food and drink, and even nice, warm clothing. They could deprive themselves of an awful lot, and they did not indulge when given the opportunity.
That’s a mindset I am trying to develop—especially when it comes to the abundant free food in my office (a "first world problem," I know!).
And the ancient Stoics were, above all, accepting of things outside their control. Surely body type and body chemistry/metabolism are things we are born with, as my daughter’s form shows.
Ancient Stoics were remarkably accepting of the body’s aging and its pain. For Stoic thinkers, possessing good health was not a given and was one of the “indifferent things” that did not determine a person’s worth, virtue, or joy in life. That's because we can’t help getting sick or growing old, and eventually we all lose our precious bodies and pass away.
But long before that (I hope), we should be clear: we must accept our bodies and ourselves. We should try to be the best person we can be, to be the fittest for our own well-being, but the rest is outside our control.
Perhaps I could come up with some new Stoic mantras for women struggling with this. I’ll think about that in the coming days, as I try to find ways to work exercise and healthy eating and stress reduction into my hectic life. Any comments on coping with this often-tough path would be more than welcome!
My younger daughter attended two different sleepover camps this summer—and I've learned next to nothing about what she actually did at either one. I’m trying to use this situation as an opportunity to practice Stoicism… an approach I’m sure I will need as a mom to two children slowly separating from their parents.
When I asked my daughter for specifics about camp after picking her up from the bus stop, I got few answers. In fact, I was told to stop asking. "Mom, sleepover camp is supposed to be for kids,” she explained from the back seat of the car, her face red with annoyance. “Parents don’t have to ask a lot of questions.”
Thanks to her sister, who attended one of the camps along with her, I did find out one intriguing detail about her July experience: my daughter became famous as the "magical potato hopper." Through a few more probing inquiries I learned what that meant. A hopper gets food to those dining at camp, and my child had “magically” produced more potatoes for older campers who requested them. Her bright red hair also seemed to have something to do with it.
Then, out of my daughter’s duffel bag came a mess of purple yarn wrapped around 3 twigs. Was this evidence of fun had and experiences gained? To me, it (sadly) looked like trash, and my first impulse was to throw it away. Only when I saw her friend’s version did I finally understand it was meant to be a dream catcher—which was the name of the camp theme that week. I never would have guessed!
Letting go as our kids become individuals, as they learn independence, as they outgrow the need (and desire) for us to constantly monitor their environment and behavior is one of the hardest parts of modern parenting.
We've been taught that as moms we can never care too much, never do too much for our children. But that can come at the cost of allowing our kids the space to develop into their own people. There comes a time to allow them that breathing room, and in many ways that time can come sooner than we are ready.
Stoic thinking teaches that we should not buy into the illusion of control over anything other than our own actions, thoughts, and feelings. We need to remember that there are many things outside our power, chief among them other people's behavior. Even that of our own children.
And that was proven by history––after all, illustrious Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius' own son Commodus became a hated emperor, depicted as a monster in the 2000 movie Gladiator. (Historians have poked holes in the film, but at least one contemporary historical source recorded that Romans rejoiced when Commodus was murdered in his bath.)
I don't expect my children to get into world domination when they grow up—at least I hope not. All I can do is to hope that they will employ the values and lessons that my husband and I taught them whenever they are far from home, whether it is a camp in through Sierras or along the California coast, or at school, or later at work or play in the "real world."
I guess if my daughter can become a magical potato hopper, helping others while still expressing her own genuine self, I think we are off to a pretty good start. And even if I never find out all the details, I know a few things: she wasn't too homesick, she came back safe, and she said she had fun—evidence that she found joy in what she did far from her parents.
Stoic philosophy aims to teach us that nothing is truly “ours,” except our own thoughts and actions. Everything else is outside our control.
One key Stoic exercise is to picture ourselves and our loved ones dead and gone. We are asked to remember that our own life and body, and those of all the people we cherish today, could be taken away in an instant by death.
This ancient thought exercise, the memento mori, extends to our own children. As modern parents, we can hardly force ourselves to think about our children dying before we do. It’s simply the most devastating thing in our universe, and we resist the mere imagining of it.
Yet it does happen.
Two weeks ago, it happened to my close friends. Their only child, a vibrant, smart, beautiful 13-year-old daughter, was suddenly killed while crossing the street just a few blocks from my house.
I’ve been friends with her parents for 18 years, long before their child was born. My husband first met her dad when they were both in graduate school. His wife and I discovered we’d attended the same high-profile college. We also shared a somewhat renegade love of traditional crafts (renegade in the sense that our overachieving, academic-minded friends couldn’t understand why someone would “waste time” sewing, beading, knitting, or scrapbooking). Her dad (before he was a dad) was best man at my wedding, and we kept up ties as our careers evolved and we found ourselves living in the same Northern California city.
Not long after our wedding, their daughter was born. Seeing her grow from an infant to a toddler to a little girl helped us learn about kids before we had our own. Our daughters were two years and four years younger than she was. We met up frequently, and she was like an older cousin to my girls—someone they looked up to and who imparted helpful information about what older grades would be like. My kids attended every birthday party she had in recent memory and visited with her over numerous holiday dinners, skillfully prepared by her parents, who live far from their own relatives and treat us like family.
The last time I saw her was on July 4. She was turning tremendous cartwheels and doing aerials in the backyard, showcasing her tumbling skills to my kids. They played Wii games together, and we all ate BBQ outside on the patio. It was a normal summer day, a low-key celebration of the joys of family and leisure time and friends.
By the end of that month she was dead.
There’s simply no explanation for what happened. Witnesses said she walked into the street with the green light, in the crosswalk, phone safely tucked in her pocket. We haven’t found out how a driver in our suburban area could hit her at 12:14 pm in full daylight with such force—especially when, as a pedestrian, she was “doing everything right,” according to the police officer investigating the accident. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a reckless driver swung by. "A senseless accident," as her mother described it to me.
The unthinkable happened just a stone's throw away from me and my children. A wonderful girl is gone forever, and our friends’ lives are irrevocably changed.
This event has made the memento mori much more real to me. I still can’t actually imagine myself without my daughters and husband. It feels truly unnatural, horribly unfair, absolutely impossible. But despite our best efforts to stay safe in this world, and to protect ourselves with doctor visits and full-featured vehicles and security cameras and hand sanitizer, it can all be wiped away in the blink of an eye.
A couple days after the funeral I took my older daughter to see Shakespeare's Hamlet performed in a nearby park. (We invited our friends to join us but they declined, and I could understand why.) Hamlet’s diatribes on the meaninglessness of human life carried a weighty significance after the accident.
When something so awful can happen so quickly it makes a person question everything. As parents (or in Hamlet’s case, as a son), we devote so much love and care and effort and worry and… we can’t prevent the worst imaginable thing from happening in a mere second’s time? What is the point?
Yet somehow, we go on. And it would be worse to give up or to become paralyzed by grief, self-pity, and vengeance, like Hamlet.
We can take one lesson forward from this experience: enjoy anything and everything to the greatest possible extent while we can. Try to relish the moments of being a parent, even the tough ones, because there’s no predicting the future. Do our best to be thankful for it.
In a recent radio interview, actor Jeffrey Tambor said that the best advice he ever got about entering his profession was this: “Adore everything.” Even the dull, disappointing, or stressful parts, like drawn-out auditioning or waiting around for shooting to start. Adore it all.
In my family, we have a new motto this year: “Always be enjoying”—a play on the Glengarry Glen Ross catch phrase made famous by actor Alec Baldwin in the 1992 movie version: “Always be closing.” My mom and I have repeated “always be enjoying” ad nauseum ever since the spring, much to the annoyance of my kids. “ABE” is the short version and now we text this to each other as a reminder to take pleasure in our days.
Of course, it’s MUCH easier said than done—my own anxiety ratcheted up to an alarming degree after I heard the terrible news. I told my daughters they were not allowed to walk by themselves around town, at all. I conveyed my own (preexisting) paranoia about cars and roads and traffic. I couldn't help it.
I love our friends. When I see them, I will always think of this loss. But I will also think about what it means to face the worst and to continue living and loving and trying somehow to find peace and joy in our unpredictable world.
Cascade Falls, Emerald Bay, in Tahoe, California: where my bad mood was suddenly broken by a very tactile moment
Long streaks of water tumbled over the gray granite mountain walls above us. Dark streams gushed past well-washed tree trunks and over green shoots bearing pink wildflowers.
As I stood there taking in the scene, I was angry and frustrated. About a lot of things. Part of me couldn’t even bear to look around. It was too beautiful, and it didn’t match my mood at all.
I bent down to get a closer look at the rushing streams. Then I reached my hand towards the water, drawn to the rushing falls’ clearness and coolness in the midday sun.
The moment I felt the icy cold water touch my fingertips at cascade falls, my mood began to change.
Before that, all the advice and thoughtfulness of my husband, my hiking companion, hadn’t shifted my dark mood. “Come on, make the best of it—you’re in a gorgeous place,” he said, and it made no difference. Our kids were at camp and it was a rare chance to take a hike solo. But all the views of the mountain, the trees, Lake Tahoe, and its crystal water hadn’t broken me out of my negative thought pattern. All the footsteps that led me to these rushing falls hadn’t done it either.
It wasn’t that I had something serious to worry about that day—my terrible mood was a result of a range of petty problems and missed expectations that fed my anger with myself and other people.
But somehow the water, feeling it and being shocked by its frigid temperature, noticing just how clear it was, hearing it wash the rocks, changed me. I realized afterwards that this was an example of something I need to do much more often: Using mindful awareness of my (tactile) senses in the moment to break out of a difficult, negative emotion.
I know I have a tendency to focus on the negative. Actually, on some level, we all do: it’s how primitive humans survived in a dangerous world, by spotting threats and avoiding them. It’s just that today, we perceive so many things as threats, from other drivers (who legitimately are potential killers) to unexpected expenses to disapproval by our family members or our bosses. But my thoughts about our less-than-perfect world often spiral out of control far too quickly. I am trying to understand that, and develop resilience for myself and also for my kids. To be there for them more fully, and to model for them how to handle tough feelings.
Often I talk to my daughters about the importance of calming themselves when they get upset. While deep breathing can often work, some methods are more senses-based and tactile. I recommended that my angry daughter punch a pillow. A counselor I know suggested other things: Try a blowing game where you move a balled tissue across the table with your breath. She also mentioned finger painting, which I now realize was a brilliant idea. Using your hands in thick paint and feeling its texture could activate touch and the awareness of the moment just as the cold water did.
In fact, kids tend to do a lot of things that use their bodies and senses to take them out of their minds this way: jumping in big puddles, turning their faces up to the rain, hitting things with sticks, bouncing into piles of fallen leaves. These are the kinds of exploits that we’re often warning them against—I can hear myself saying, “you’ll get dirty, you’ll be all wet, you’ll catch a chill, you’ll hurt yourself.” But maybe they instinctively know that not only is it fun, but it’s a way of feeling the moment and experiencing life outside the confines of our regular thought patterns.
I learned from that moment at the falls. Using our senses is not merely a way to distract or cover up our feelings. It’s a way to break free by refocusing the body and the mind. No one had to lecture me to change the way I felt, no harsh voice inside me had to tell me to “suck it up.” I shifted from within.
I was still angry when I reached into that water, but it washed the feeling out of me. I noticed my hands, my sense of touch and temperature, and my own body in a way I hadn’t before. And I was able to stop ruminating over negative thoughts, even for a short time--enough time to take in the beauty and fullness all around me.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm Meredith Kunz, a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.