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“What are you thinking?”
This infamous question has torpedoed many a new romantic relationship. People famously hate answering it. It feels like someone else is trying to get into our mind when we’re lost in thought.
But here’s a different take on it: I think we should be asking ourselves this question, frequently, to get a sense for how we are actually using our mental energy. And, in a Stoic sense, this question can help us practice some home improvement on our inner citadels—the place we can retreat to inside our minds, as described by Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus also reminds that “the soul becomes dyed by the color of its thoughts.” In other words, to some extent, “you are what you think.”
To test how I’m doing on this, I asked myself recently in a more serious way: What am I thinking? What’s occupying my mind?
I wasn’t too pleased by the answer.
Let me explain. This fall, I attended a meditation workshop (I wrote about it in The STOIC magazine’s November 2022 edition). As I sat for meditation sessions of 20 minutes, I inquired what was going on in my mind.
It turned out to be simple, but devastating: I was thinking of my endless mental to-do list, filled with reminders, admonishments, and a sense of dread at not being able to get it done.
It often felt impossible to detach myself from “here’s what I have to do next, for whom, by when, and all the obstacles I’ll face in trying to get it done.”
Over the next couple weeks, I realized I needed to take a closer listen to my inner dialogue. I resolved to take a listen the very next morning. As I woke up with my mind filled with all the work I needed to do for my family and my colleagues, I was shocked by how limiting that inner dialogue felt, and how stressful.
Why am I occupying my entire brain with a to-do list?
Believe me, this isn’t a to-do list of fun things. It’s about me figuring out how to help folks get crap done. Largely, stuff that they don’t want to do… stuff I’m either stepping in to do, to remind them to do, or to worry about no one successfully doing.
Case in point. I’ve gotten on my kids’ cases umpteen times in the past weeks about getting things done in their schedules. Have they responded to the Girl Scout meeting invitation? Have they figured out which students to carpool with to basketball? Have they checked with their teachers about making up the tests from when they were out sick? Have they filled in that scholarship application they mentioned last week, and sent in their transcript by the deadline?
My kids are teens, and they are perfectly capable of handling many of these things, for the most part on their own. But habit is strong, I guess. I’m still “the mom” who is checking if everything is going smoothly for everyone else in my family. I still put myself mentally in charge of checking stuff has gotten done , and making the up the difference if they don’t. I find myself doing this with—and to—my husband, too. Again, he’s capable. But yet I feel responsible for making sure things happen, on time and without headaches that result from forgotten things.
For my work, too, I tend to goad myself with reminders throughout the day, not fun or pleasant ones, but ones filled with dread about the next tasks to come—especially the ones I don’t think I’ll have time to finish by the necessary deadlines.
I can’t help but think that I’d be better able to set long-term goals and be more creative about achieving them if I could get unstuck from this to-do list attitude and this mental load. Saying all this stuff inside my head, about what I need to do for other people, is stressful in part because much of it is outside my control (again, a helpful Stoic reminder). That increases the burden and the frustration.
It feels like a cloud is hanging over my days—the cloud of the never-ending to-do list of tasks that invades my every moment. To be clear, I know I’m fortunate to not be suffering from something truly awful or distressing. My situation is just busy and stretched very thin, with everyday stress and a demanding job on top of teenage kids and volunteer work. I know I shouldn’t really be complaining. And that means that now I have to add to my to-do list: “Remember to stop complaining.” (This resonates with Stoicism, and also with my meditation teacher who has been posting on Instagram about a month-long no complaining challenge… and yet, the way I frame that as another add-on to my list, too, is a bit problematic…. right?!?)
How to get out from under this cloud? I have to begin with an unlearning of habits of taking on “mental load” over the years. Even younger kids can do more than we often give them credit for. Did you hear about the Japanese TV show sensation Old Enough!, focused on giving toddlers important tasks and setting them loose to handle things on their own? We’re talking about 2- and 3-year-olds!
I could take a page from my older daughter, a role model for how to think imaginatively and creatively outside of a to-do list mentality. Despite a crushing load of schoolwork as a high school senior, she is working on a fantasy novel, and participated in November’s NaNoWriMo. She spends her free time wondering how to evolve her plot and characters, and putting creative words on the page. And I spend time trying to keep my to-do list fresh in my head so I will remember to get stuff done for other people. Hmmmm.
I used to do a lot more creative writing, and I still write poetry when I can find the time. (Check out a Marcus Aurelius-inspired poem I wrote here.) But these days, I find it very hard to access that part of my contemplative brain.
One promising technique that could help is actually a very old-fashioned one, with a new-fangled name: “Cognitive off-loading.”
The concept really simple. Take that to-do list out of your brain and WRITE IT DOWN! That way, you’ve loaded it onto an external vehicle outside your brain, like a simple notebook, or your notes app in your phone, or any one of a million apps with reminder functions. Keep it somewhere you can find it. This lessens the mental load, and could increase access to creativity and to restful downtime.
Aristotle and other ancient thinkers advocated devoting time to contemplation. Ancient Romans from well-heeled backgrounds spent their free time on “otium,” leisure time that often included the pursuit of culture and ideas.
Granted, most people in history, aside from the very wealthy, haven’t had a lot of contemplative free time. But having some mental space could be a goal for those of us with access to labor-saving appliances and computers to help us with our tasks. We’ll never get that to that place if we are constantly overworked, overbooked, and burned out with our to-do lists.
This winter, I’ll be chipping away at my inner dialogue one day at a time, asking myself what I’m thinking. And I’ll be using lists that store to-dos outside of my brain, and will tell my brain to refer to those instead of keep its whole bandwidth fraught with tasks.
As I work on this myself, I challenge you to build your own inner citadel this way, to try to carve out a mental space unburdened by the to-list’s mental load.
Ask yourself what you’re thinking. Is it a to-do list?
Even now as Stoicism has spread in a resurgence around the world, many people still think of it as a “stiff upper lip.” Some see it as a tough, uncompromising ideology that can turn us into modern-day Spartans, impervious to our own pain and unconcerned with the suffering of others.
But these views are narrow and inaccurate. In my vision of Stoic thinking and practice, it’s a way of cultivating our inner resources to make us stronger and better humans, more capable of living fully in the world, and more realistic and reasonable about our place in it.
And that’s why I believe that you can be a Stoic and cultivate compassion for the suffering of other human beings (as well as yourself). In other words: Stoic compassion is not an oxymoron!
I recently gave a talk about how the two approaches—Stoicism and compassion cultivation—can work together side-by-side for the Stoics Care conference. I’d like to share a few highlights of that talk here. You can also check out the video here:
Why Stoic compassion?
Why did I turn to both Stoicism and compassion cultivation, and combine them together in my own life? A number of years ago, I went through a period when I was very stressed. I experienced stress at work, the stress of family needs, financial stress, everyday life stress. And politics played a big role—the divisions and rancor that grew in the public sphere in the US in 2016 was off the charts, and this situation hasn’t subsided since. I felt disconnected and sad and wanted to have a more positive connection with other people. I started practicing Stoicism and then in fall 2016 I took a course on Compassion Cultivation that has influenced me ever since.
The word compassion comes from Latin for “with suffering.” It begins with acknowledging that people face pain, loss, and adversity. The core of compassion is “being there” for others, wishing them happiness and peace. Put simply: “Compassion is the recognition of the suffering of another, along with a desire to alleviate that suffering,” according to James Doty, a co-founder of Compassion Cultivation Training. This 8-week training program that originated at Stanford University in 2009 focuses on insights from psychology, neuroscience, and contemplative practice. It aims to build calm and resilience in the practitioner, and to give techniques to learn how to grow a compassion muscle in ourselves so that we can spread compassion to others.
Compassion allows us to be with another person’s pain without absorbing it into our own being—preserving our sense of inner strength. Compassion for others is a resource that won’t run out, as long as we take care of our own internal resources.
Some people think that if Stoics truly follow their philosophy, they won’t suffer themselves, and perhaps there is nothing that they can do for the suffering of others. I have two things to say to that: first off, we all know many other loved ones, friends, colleagues who are not Stoics and who suffer. And it is our duty as humans—and as Stoics who believe in common humanity, cosmopolitanism, and that need for pro-social interactions inborn in all people—to care about these others and to support them. Second, we ourselves are not Stoic sages and are imperfect beings. That means we are bound to feel negative emotions and suffering, and we must also support and tend to ourselves.
What do Stoicism and compassion have in common?
Now let’s get to the heart of what Stoicism and compassion cultivation have in common.
Both are inexhaustible inner resources. Once you build and maintain these mindsets within yourself, they will never run out! That’s really the key here. You grow Stoic approaches and compassion in your mindset, attitude, and personal practices. Through mindfulness meditation, loving-kindness practices, journaling to encourage and analyze your approach, reading to re-set your mind, and new ways of being with other people, you light this fire within yourself. I will share a bit more about some of these practices at the end of this post.
I like to think of my Stoic and compassion practices like a flame within me. I can use that flame to improve relationships with other people and myself.
In this way, compassion can be the “missing piece” that connects your Stoic practice to other humans. In other words, you can unite your Stoic ruling center with a compassionate ability to support other people and yourself through adversity.
To build Stoic compassion, keep in mind these Stoic and compassionate concepts:
In a future blog post, I’ll dive deeper into self-compassion. For now, I’d like to briefly address how Stoic compassion is different from our typical concept of empathy, and why it is preferable.
Stoic compassion vs. empathy
Most often, people approach others’ suffering through the lens of empathy and emotional identification with pain. It sounds OK in theory, but empathy has flaws. Empathy (or emotional empathy) usually means putting yourself in the shoes of the suffering person. It can lead to feeling emotionally drained and experiencing “empathy fatigue”—especially for caregivers or medical professionals.
Often, empathy leads to entangling your response with negative emotions stemming from the other person (fear, anger, hurt, remorse, jealousy, etc.). You try to help but feel yourself becoming overwhelmed. You may experience a sense of powerlessness or guilt when you realize you can’t fix the other person’s problems, or make different choices for him or her. Ultimately, this could lead to you withdrawing from the suffering person due to frustration, fatigue, or despair.
The ancient Stoics understood the pitfalls of empathy and taught a form of compassion that avoided emotional over-identification. Both Stoicism and Compassion Cultivation acknowledge that only certain things are up to up and that we need to stop trying to control or fix other people.
Epictetus said that “you should not disdain to sympathize” with people who are suffering, “at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief.” He then added: “But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.” (Enchiridion, Chapter 16)
This sounds harsh to our ears, yet I think it’s a reflection of a form of compassion, one in which we share sympathy and loving expressions, but we do not give our soul over to the other’s pain. We maintain the integrity of our own hearts in order to stay strong for others in a more sustainable, long-term way.
Exercises to build Stoic compassion
Here are a few exercises for building Stoic compassion:
Mindfulness meditation is not specific to compassion cultivation training, but it is a practice widely accepted to calm and center the mind. We sit quietly, follow our breath, and let our chaotic thoughts flow out of our minds. (You’ll still have thoughts occur to you, of course, but you’ll be able to let them go more easily—and observe them less judgmentally—if you practice this kind of meditation regularly.) Once we are more grounded and relaxed, we are more open to experiencing compassion.
Loving-kindness meditation is a classic practice derived from Buddhism (where it is called metta) that plays a strong role in encouraging compassion towards ourselves and others. The focus is to feel compassion without any sense of judgment, and without wanting anything in return. Here is a quick review of how it works:
A more advanced type of compassion-oriented meditation is called tonglen, which originated in Tibetan Buddhist practice. It’s not recommended for beginners because it can sometimes bring up tough emotions or negativity.
Here’s a quick explanation of tonglen, if you feel ready to try it:
In addition to meditating, journaling is another excellent way to combine compassion training and Stoic practice. It’s a Stoic tradition dating back centuries.
You can write in your journal how your meditations are going and what aspects are hard for you, exploring why. You can investigate challenges in your life and share supportive thoughts to “be there” as a friend for yourself.
You can also use your journal to cultivate gratitude, recognizing what you love and appreciate about other people. You can also write about aspects of their lives that you’d like to build compassion for, even if you disagree with the person’s decisions or approach. A more advanced practice would be to journal about those who are tough to feel compassion for, and imagine their inner struggles.
All of these are ways to grow connection and feelings of kindness, benevolence, and support for others—in other words, compassion—in alignment with your Stoic mindset. When combined, these two practices are incredibly powerful to the individual, and to all those around her/him who benefit from that bright flame within.
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!
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.