Whenever you see someone in tears, distraught because they are parted from a child, or have met with some material loss, be careful lest the impression move you to believe that their circumstances are truly bad. Have ready the reflection that they are not upset by what happened—because other people are no upset when the same thing happens to them—but by their own view of the matter. Nevertheless, you should not disdain to sympathize with them, at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief. But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.
– Epictetus, Handbook, Chapter 16
I am committed to Stoic principles, but this passage from Epictetus has always been very difficult for me. As a mother, I think of losing one of my children as the worstpossible thing, worse than losing my own life. These “circumstances” would leave me eviscerated.
I know I’ll never be a “Stoic sage” able to handle that kind of loss with equanimity, and in a way, I don’t want to be. Some people in my life are just too important to me—I wouldn’t be the same human being if I truly reached that state of mental discipline. I can’t image the sage-me.
Yet the second portion of this passage is even more important to me and holds a valuable key. “You should not disdain to sympathize with them, at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief.” Indeed. We should all be there for the people in our lives going through pain and loss. Yet Epictetus is very wise to add this: “But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.”
What does this mean? It sounds rather heartless and cold at first, but I don’t think so. It gets at the heart of a thorny issue that I’ve wrestled with before: the difference between empathy and compassion.
A little history here. In 2016, at the same time as a I adopted Stoic ideas, I also became fascinated with the nature of compassion and the role it can play in making us better people. I took a course called Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford University, part of a program combining science (from the Stanford School of Medicine) and meditation/contemplation (with the encouragement of the Dalai Lama).
One of my major takeaways was that while it is possible drain yourself psychologically through an excess of empathy, compassion--when cultivated with care-- is bottomless and, potentially, healing.
Here’s how my compassion training instructor described it. With empathy, you try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If that person is taken over by grief, loss, and sorrow, or other very powerful emotions, you begin to experience those same feelings yourself. You overidentify, to the point where you feel overwhelmed, almost as much as that person feels.
That is sustainable for a short period, say when coping with a colleague’s funeral or listening to a friend describe a divorce or a partner announce a job loss. But when that person is in a very close relationship with you, and is given over to sadness, grief, anger, or other suffering over a long period of time, their suffering can become your own suffering. You eventually find yourself exhausted by it, as it is shared over and over—with one of two outcomes. You might begin to experience the same emotion, wallowing in a pool of difficult feelings that you have no way to solve, or you might decide shut yourself off from that person and feeling after a time, just to survive psychologically.
Either path is not ideal, and it can lead to more suffering. The problem with empathetic pain at one remove is that you don’t even have the tools to help relieve the other person’s pain in any tangible way. It’s up to that person to cope. You can’t handle that for him or her. (This is reflected clearly in the Stoic dichotomy of control.)
On the other hand, if you cut off that suffering person from your life, you’ll miss out on a valuable relationship. And you’ll be hardening your own protective shell in ways that separate you from your common humanity.
Compassion, by contrast, is about accepting that people do experience pain. It emphasizes our ability to be near it, sit with it, and be a comfort and support to that person (or to yourself), without trying to solve it.
When we struggle, we feel alone. This practice combats that in a meaningful way. That's how it can be a source for healing and strength.
With loved ones who are going through grief or depression, it’s a constant balancing act to maintain compassion without falling into the same depths of negative emotion. We can picture ourselves as a loving flame. Those in pain can come close and can hold their hands up to the fiery warmth. In time this may help, or it may not, but it’s the best we can do under difficult circumstances.
With children who are struggling, it can be very hard because we want to help and heal them. Parents tend to think this way: wouldn’t it be better if we could just solve our kids’ problems for them, and thereby make them happy and whole again?
But that’s not the way it works, and as Stoics we can recognize that we have no control over how bullies or “frenemies” treat our children at school, how their teachers reprimand them (fairly or unfairly), what decisions they make on the playground, and what corrosive ideas they pick up from their friends, their classmates, and whatever they see online.
For a long time, one of my daughters was terrified of the movie “It.” I couldn’t figure out why, since we’d never let her watch a horror film about a vicious clown attacking kids. Then one day she admitted she’d seen imagery from the film in an online ad while watching an otherwise-harmless YouTube video aimed at tweens.
There was very little that we, her parents, could do. We tried to explain that no evil clown would come and kidnap her. We tried to explain it was all make-believe, intended for people who like to be scared around Halloween. In spite of all that, she cowered in bed, unable to sleep, images returning over and over again. Sometimes she’d run to our room, saying quickly, “I’m scared.”
I would sit at the edge of her bed, saying, “You’re OK. Everything is fine. I’m right here. We’re with you. We love you. We’ll do whatever we can to protect you.” That was the best I could do. I gave her a hug. And asked her to try to be strong. After months passed, she slowly conquered her fear and slept better.
Try compassion. The combination of knowing you can’t solve other’s problems with a loving heart is a powerful approach, and a solid support for our kids and our families—one not dependent on judging them or needing to repair them—can go a very long way.
Compassion is a muscle we can exercise. If you are like me, at first, it will feel really odd not trying to fix other people. But after a while, it feels even more loving and supportive to simply be there and to care.
This post summarizes three classic compassion-based meditations. The last one, Tonglen, is considered an advanced, challenging Tibetan Buddhist visualization practice—you breathe in darkness and suffering, and breathe out compassionate light.
Perhaps we could all work up to expressing this kind of compassion by allowing ourselves to sit with those going through hardship and pain. The goal: to just be with other people, sharing a sense of common humanity, offering steady support and a touchstone of tranquility. I will aim to do that. And I hope others could do so for me, too.
As I gave a presentation about my work on compassion recently, I heard myself saying several times, “it’s a practice.” I was trying to emphasize that learning to be more compassionate towards oneself and others doesn’t just happen instantaneously, and that we need to work at it over time, developing new habits.
Then a woman in the audience asked me this:
“You said it's a practice. But HOW do you practice this on a regular basis?”
In other words, how do you integrate your values around compassion into your everyday life? How do you reinforce it, and teach yourself to live up to your own ideals?
A great question. The same could be asked of Stoicism, too, the other pillar of my life philosophy.
(And if you are wondering about the connection between my compassion work and Stoicism: I believe that the common humanity emphasized in Stoic thought is beautifully complemented by the practice of compassion and self-compassion. Both emphasize the same thing: we are all human trying to live our lives with the least possible pain and the most possible peace, while also getting along with the people in our lives, in the most positive way possible. This is a hard, livelong practice because none of us are Stoic sages: As Seneca said, we’re all patients in the same hospital.)
To describe how I practice, I mentioned my long walks and runs, which I use to meditate (seated meditation is good, too). I talked about my attempts to raise awareness in myself, to stop myself when a random thought or first impression appears, and work to make a good and reasonable judgment. (This is also the Stoic practice at the heart of the philosophy. It’s the one that Epictetus speaks of when he says, “[We] should… train for impressions every day,” in Discourses, 3.8.1.)
What I did not bring up in the discussion, and realized after the session was done, is that I also practice through writing.
Writing is a form of the philosophical life for me. I write to make meaning from my experiences. I write to understand what I think, to analyze why some moments offer insights into the whole of existence.
In fact, through writing I’ve learned to value my role as a parent more than ever, because it helped me explore my underlying parenting beliefs and values. It also helped me to realize that some of the pain and struggle I’ve experienced has a deeper meaning—and that in many ways, it has taught me something.
Things as serious as my father’s death. And as minor as my children’s squabbles in the pool.
My family life is not just a laundry list of issues to deal with—it’s where I live my philosophy. And as such, it can (and should) be a source of rich strength.
As my kids get older, far from the baby stage, parenting has become more and more about applying practical common sense and ethical core values. That’s where my Stoic thinking, and compassion training, have served me in recent years. When a tough situation comes along, I’m more able now to take a step back, question the impression, and make a wiser judgment. The big picture and “accord with nature” prevail more often over knee-jerk reactions and high-flying emotions.
And writing about it, from my point of view on this blog, has given me a way to understand and explain some of that, to myself most of all. And I’m grateful for the opportunity and time (snatched between numerous obligations) to do it.
In a way, writing is an extension of the discipline of assent—of thinking clearly and agreeing to a rational interpretation of the world. After all: Once I write it, and especially after I blog publicly about it, I must really agree to it!
The ancient Stoics did write philosophical journals, at least some who had leisure time to make that possible. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations were the thoughts recorded in his personal journal. Seneca kept a journal late at night analyzing his actions daily, and Epictetus told his followers that those who wished to “be a philosopher” should “write down every day” the most accurate philosophical interpretation of the world around them (Discourses 1.1.25).
I wish that all parents could find the time (and interest) to write about their experiences. Not just to record memories for our kids’ future reading or to remind ourselves of what it was like raising a child. But also to frame what we are doing, to understand it better.
This wish extends beyond parents too. Writing things down, and analyzing our own challenges and actions, can help us become philosophical people, realizing that the everyday work we do as human beings is much greater than the sum of its parts.
This Friday, I'm trying something different: a pop music-inspired philosophy reflection.
My kids got me into pop. I had always preferred jazz and classical, aside from a lingering love of 1980s-era Police and Talking Heads.
When my daughters were very small, I played recordings of Mozart and Beethoven for them, in addition to lots of kids’ songs and folk music. They seemed to like it all, but really gravitated towards songs they could sing along with. Another favorite I shared was Allan Sherman, the musical comedian (his parodies of 1960s and American folk songs are still classics).
It was my daughters’ early experiences at summer camp finally made me start to appreciate frothy pop. They attended programs run in our neighborhood, where day camps rent out private schools for the summer. In the tradition of camps, they are staffed by teenagers. And both my girls, starting at age 5, would come home singing tunes loved by teens, mostly songs I’d never heard. They even made up special versions just for camp.
Camp Galileo was at the forefront of this cultural appropriation. They subbed in “Galileo” for many other lyrics. For example, the 1980s German pop song “Amadeus” became “Galileo, Galileo, oh, oh, oh, Galileo” rather than “Amadeus, Amadeus, oh, oh, oh, Amadeus.” The lyrics from Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” were altered this way:
“I throw my hands up in the air sometimes,
Saying ‘Ayo! GALILEO!’
I want to celebrate and live my life,
Saying ‘Ayo! GALILEO!’”
The kids got to know these songs well, performing some of them for an audience of parents and caregivers on the last day of each week-long camp session. Seeing the children sing and dance made me smile. The kids' enthusiasm was palpable. Slowly I dropped my negative judgments, my pre-existing bias against pop. I let the words and sounds wash over me. I felt myself start to move to the beat. Suddenly I realized: This is fun!
A song that both my daughters loved, and one that helped finally break down my skeptical armor when it comes to pop music, was “It’s Always a Good Time.” This 2012 song, by Owl City and Canadian singer Carly Rae Jepsen (of "Call Me Maybe" fame) is about as fluffy as pop gets. The female and male singer croon about what a great experience they have going out and how everything in their lives is pretty great.
As unexpected as it sounds, I’d like to take the opportunity to point out some ways in which the lyrics (such as they are) support my life philosophy inspired by Stoicism.
“We don’t even have to try, it’s always a good time”:
Remember when I wrote against “trying”? Well, this message is good reinforcement. Rather than tensing up and trying very hard to remain true to your philosophy, ease up. Internalize its key ideas, and work from there. This was the crux of what my Alexander Technique teacher taught me: Learn the method, and then live it. Put your principles into practice, without fear or stress.
The type of stress we develop when we are about to try to tackle something “really hard” creates a physical barrier that makes it tougher. Sometimes it also surfaces a sense of failure before we’ve even begun. So go ahead, live with the energy of the universe flowing through you and have a good time!
“Doesn’t matter when—it’s always a good time then”:
I love this line even more. Anytime is the time to put your principles into action—and to live life to its fullest. This is the core of mindfulness, too. Any moment is a good time to acknowledge the extraordinary world all around us, and to become more aware of what we are thinking, feeling, and experiencing.
Marcus Aurelius wrote about concentrating on the present moment: "We live only in the present, in this fleet-footed moment. The rest is lost and behind us, or ahead of us and may never be found."
So did the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: "The present moment is the only moment available to us, and it is the door to all other moments."
Both of these quotes inspire me.
One of the concepts I’m trying to live by these days is reducing resistance to the world around me. Resistance in this sense is when I feel a conflict between what I want/expect and what reality gives me. (I know there are many other terms for this, and many other uses of the word resistance.) I’ve had a habit of noticing, commenting on, and quite frankly overly focusing on this frequent gap. It creates suffering. And it’s largely unnecessary.
(That is, aside from when we witness real injustice, or danger, or truly immoral behavior. Then, noticing and pointing it out, and fighting it, is our duty as followers of justice, wisdom, and courage.)
How does this align with a Stoic-inspired life philosophy? Starting with Zeno, the Greek founder of Stoic thought, the Stoics wrote about living “in accord with nature.”
This means, in part, living without resistance. Being in accord with nature means using that spark inside us that’s rational. It means being truly human, and I think we can express that in the very human balance of work, play, and reflection.
“Happiness is a good flow of life,” Zeno is also quoted as saying. The flow happens when we align with the universe and build our capacity for making good decisions and forming excellent judgments.
In mindfulness meditation, people sometimes speak of “being breathed.” It’s when the air flow seems to be happening on its own, our lungs perfectly able to manage this process masterfully, and naturally, enabling us to let go of our fears and distractions. Perhaps the “good flow of life” feels that way.
I can picture Zeno now, talking with his students. I’m wondering if he might, just might, enjoy pop music if he were around today…
I promised I’d post about how the 8 and 9-year-olds responded to my mindfulness and contemplation training for a small group of girls at a local elementary school. My daughter participated, which gave me a good sense for how things were going (she can be brutally honest about her opinions!). The program was more successful than I’d imagined and motivated me to keep thinking about how to share these ideas locally and beyond.
I wanted the kids to understand the context for why this matters—and how we can influence how our brains work. We all began by thinking back to the time when the human brain first evolved. What was the world like? The students chimed in with a lot of reasons why humans would be afraid of things like lightning and wooly mammoths and running out of food. (Although one girl’s claim that people were fearful that they would be eaten by dinosaurs had to be quickly discounted!) The students grasped how hard life must have been.
I asked them to try to understand that nowadays, we view the small annoyances and setbacks of modern Western existence as if they were equally life-threatening dangers. And that we can develop bad habits of the mind as a result. I used the example of my response to someone not replying to my email – was my message stupid? Will that person tell other folks that I’m an idiot? Could I be fired from my job because I’m not smart enough? Will I then starve? This kind of thinking is sometimes called catastrophizing. It’s common in my brain and seems to happen to a lot of us.
(If you’ve seen the short film called Inner Workings that is now showing before the movie Moana, you’ll understand that it is a perfect example of what I mean. The main character, a guy whose body we can peer into like in an anatomy textbook, is pulled by the lure of fun things like eating a big delicious breakfast and going swimming or surfing in the ocean. But his brain keeps pointing out all the threatening, dangerous things that could happen to him if he chases fun. These possibilities always lead to an illustration of an early grave in his mind’s eye.)
Next, I explained to the students how to do a personal weather report about how they feel. I liked this idea because it’s such a neutral, non-judgmental way to think about our own emotions. In the same way that you can’t change or control the weather, you can’t always change your feelings—but you can notice them and be aware. I had all the students close their eyes and ask themselves quietly if they felt stormy, rainy, snowy, sunny, cloudy, tropical, etc., in their own minds. My daughter thought this was a useful exercise.
I included a few other metaphors that didn’t register as well with the third graders. For instance, the notion of “surfing your emotions” turned out to be pretty abstract to them. I got a few vacant stares and quickly moved on.
We did a five-minute guided meditation using a recording from the UCLA online center. It focuses on calming the mind and gently breathing, but not much else—just a very simple pause. Most of the girls engaged with it. A few kept giggling, and one said she thought it was creepy. I asked that girl afterwards to explain what she meant, but she wouldn't respond. Possibly it was the recorded voice—which was a sort of monotone. I found it soothing, but kids might not all agree. Next time, I would try to bring in a bell or a block to strike when the meditation time is over. The students would pay attention to an intriguing sound, I think, and I could use my own voice rather than a recording.
At the session’s end, I briefly explained that we could use meditation to develop compassion and loving-kindness towards others and ourselves. The girls closed their eyes and thought of a friend or family member, repeating to themselves, “May she/he find joy and peace.” They did the same with themselves: “May I find joy and peace.”
Feedback on this session has been positive. I’d like to pursue more testing of this teaching soon. More to do in 2017!
The presidential election is over now, and a lot of people I've encountered have been unsettled by it. They are uncertain about our country’s future, and so am I. All around me, parents are struggling to explain the election, and the words and ideas of the president-elect, to their kids.
In this stressful time, practicing mindfulness is more important than ever. That’s true for both adults and kids. After completing the exercises of Stoic Week—many focused on becoming more aware of my own emotional responses to events in my life—I decided that I needed to do more than just work on myself.
So I began to put together a session for children. I plan to lead mindfulness training at a Girl Scout meeting for third-graders in a couple weeks. From there, I will look into other ways to share both Stoic ideas and mindfulness training with grade-schoolers and middle-schoolers.
Here’s a preview of what I’d like to tell students. (The surfing metaphor is inspired by a passage in the book Sitting Still Like a Frog by Dutch mindfulness teacher and therapist Eline Snel.)
A baby cries when she is hungry or wet or tired or just feeling bad. She giggles when she’s happy or something seems funny. It’s all pretty simple. As we get older, our emotions get more complicated. But the good news is that we can become more aware of our feelings.
During each day, we have a lot of feelings, like frustration if we can’t get an answer correct in math, or anger if our friend wants to play with someone else at recess, or joy if we get a basket in basketball.
Some feelings are pretty tough to handle. We worry about people being mad at us. We are upset about having a fight with someone. We think about how we might not be good enough at something in school or in our activities. We remember seeing bullies pushing people on the playground and wonder, what if that happened to us? It’s normal to have worries and feelings that rise up inside us and make us feel bad. But what I’d like to remind you is that YOU ARE NOT your feelings – you just have them for a while. (Or put another way, one of my favorite notions in mindfulness: “Don’t believe everything you think.”)
What if we could imagine that our feelings are like a giant ocean of waves?
Then we could learn how to surf. Surfing is a hard sport because you can’t really change the waves. You can’t make them bigger or smaller. You can’t stop the waves. It’s like that with our feelings. We can’t make our emotions change, nor can we fix or stop the people around us from making us feel a certain way.
But we can practice surfing. You can start seeing your own reaction to problems and issues and you can try to stop and think. You can notice what makes you upset or frustrated. And instead of having an automatic response, take a deep breath. Take a pause, and keep breathing, as you work on building the balance of a surfer.
From there, I'd ask the students to pay attention to their breath, doing a simple meditation.
This, I think, is one way of conveying the essence of Stoicisim. We all need to become skillful surfers of life’s emotions, of its ups and downs. I can’t wait to see how the kids respond!
About The Stoic Mom
I'm 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.