• Quote of the Day
    "Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you as by the attitude you bring to life;
    not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at what happens."
    Kahlil Gibran, posted by David Baxter

desiderata

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I have recently taken to the teachings of stoicism- A school of Greek philosophy and wisdom. The teachings have revealed what is mostly known to me yet is refreshing when put into a format and context spoken or written by some of the great minds in history. Mindfulness being in the forefront. My question to the panel is does stoicism have a place in the world of psychology?
 

Daniel

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A number of therapists and schools of therapy, especially the CBT variety, have been a fan of the ancient Stoics to some degree. Albert Ellis mentioned stoicism a lot, especially that of Epictetus.

Like you are saying, Stoicism is a therapy or way of life, rather than something cold and robotic (like David Burns and other CBT therapists can seem at times if one is not on the CBT bandwagon already). At least on the surface, Ellis had an overly pragmatic kind of stoicism as opposed to a spiritual, Taoist-like love of Nature/Universe/Logos by Zeno, Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and the other ancient Greek and Roman Stoics:

Practices such as saying grace before meals, or giving thanks for the day at night-time, are stoic.

Is it too cheeky to suggest that if you want to practise stoicism today, you might start in a church?

To me, what is missing in most contemporary forms of stoicism is addressing the metacognitive beliefs regarding the nature of the self -- the "little Logos." Or at least a defusion of what one "knows" already in order to be more open to experience:


Of all ancient philosophies Stoicism was the most favorably disposed toward poetry.

“The best things cannot be told because they transcend thought. The second best are misunderstood because they are the thoughts that are supposed to refer to that which cannot be thought about. The third best are what we talk about.”

"Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived. Follow the path that is no path, follow your bliss."

Joseph Campbell
 
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Daniel

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Some bravado about low reactivity regarding a terminal diagnosis:


During this ordeal, not once have I cried. Not once have I felt depressed, anxious, or out of sorts. Not once have I felt a need to seek therapeutic help. On the morning of surgery, I worried more about losing cognitive abilities if the surgery went awry than I did about death. One of my sisters commented that I was so calm she thought the doctors must have given me a Valium. I was, in a word, stoic...

As a man who believes wholeheartedly that mental health is a serious and under-appreciated discipline, I fully support the effort of any man, or woman, to come to terms with anxieties, complexes, traumas, and other emotional vulnerabilities, either with family, friends, or mental health professionals. At the same time, I would emphasize again that restraining emotion is not the same as repressing emotion...

All of those friends, and others, offered a great deal of emotional support when they learned I had brain cancer. But I invariably told them not to worry. For me, a healthy and happy life is one of emotional restraint in the face of life’s adversities. Dealing with brain cancer has been no different.
But what isn't mentioned is that he probably has lived a life of relative luxury compared to most humans on the planet. Epictetus, on the other hand, was against vacations or even sleeping comfortably. (Cicero had a field day with the ancient Stoics, who took things to religious extremes. Epictetus, for example, viewed his body as simply a "walking corpse" and was against self-care -- not unlike how the Heaven's Gate cult stoically viewed the human body as just a "vehicle.")

Not knowing how the brain works, the ancient stoics had no tolerance for the sin of mental distress. At least on paper, they espoused being content (and free of pathos) as being more important than literally anything else--even the survival or health of one's family.

In other words, everyone is stoic/accepting about some things and some things not so much. Even someone with relatively little emotional regulation (due to genetics, upbringing, etc) may be more stoic/accepting about living arrangements, having few if any friends, or having a narcissistic boss, etc -- more so than one born with a generally calmer amygdala

What is missing from the article (like most contemporary articles on stoicism) is the most important piece of the puzzle -- like any idea of the true motivation/mythology/metaphysics underling the philosophy or lifestyle ("the music behind the moves"). In other words, why get up in the morning just to be stoic all day? Part of the modern stoic answer is their belief in the inherent value of human virtues such as courage. But the ancient stoics went much further. They spiritually/religiously viewed the Universe/Nature as being benevolent/divine rather than indifferent.

Ultimately, modern stoicism is just another preference, personality trait, way to cope, or form of spirituality -- one of many "softwares" for our brain hardware. Personally, it would be nice to wake up with a greater frustration tolerance, but, on the other hand, stoic-like CBT hasn't been a great for me -- just like some do better with Prozac than mindfulness exercises. For most people's brains, focusing more on self-care, exercise, socialization, or pet/animal therapy may be a more direct way to greater acceptance (and self-acceptance) than stoically "bracing for impact."

Of course, downturns in the economy tend to engender stoicism (or at least friendly deal sharing) :)
 
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Daniel

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Acceptance/stoicism as change:


"Wherever you are right now, be there fully. Accept it. Open up to it. It’s only when we accept the lows that we’re able to grow through them and rise to the highs."
 

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Stoicism for death anxiety and related issues:


An awareness of Stoic philosophy has the potential to guide and improve CBT treatments for fears of death...

Death anxiety has been argued to be a transdiagnostic construct, underpinning a range of mental health conditions [3]. In support of this argument, death anxiety has been shown to predict the symptom severity of at least twelve different mental illnesses, including depressive disorders, anxiety-related disorders, and addictive disorders [4]. Further, experimental evidence has highlighted the causal role of death anxiety in numerous conditions. Studies have demonstrated that reminders of death increase compulsive washing in obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) [5], bodily checking, threat perception and reassurance seeking in panic disorder, illness anxiety, and somatic symptom disorder [6], avoidance in social anxiety and specific phobias [7], and disordered eating behaviours among women [8]...

A central principle of both Stoicism and CBT is the idea that it is our beliefs and interpretations that are the cause of anxiety...

Some individuals will believe that they can indeed have control over their own lifespan, and may view their maladaptive behaviours (e.g., compulsive washing, avoiding leaving the home, excessive exercise, or frequenting medical services) as a way of doing so. However, contrary to this view, meta-analytic research has shown that individuals with clinical anxiety do not live longer relative to controls [35].

One study of over three million people revealed that not one anxiety disorder examined appeared able to reduce the risk of death from either natural (e.g., illness) or unnatural causes (e.g., accidents), compared to people without anxiety disorders [36]. Thus, for clients who hold this view, therapy may help the client understand that although these anxious behaviours may in theory ward off one particular cause of death (e.g., compulsive checking of a stove may reduce the chance of death by household fire), they are unlikely to actually extend a person’s lifespan...

Cross-sectional evidence suggests a relationship between Stoic attitudes to death (e.g., neutral acceptance) and reduced death anxiety. Further, preliminary evidence suggests that a CBT-based treatment which integrates Stoic perspectives on death appears to reduce fears of death. Future studies are needed to investigate whether: (1) interventions which center on Stoic philosophy can significantly reduce death anxiety, (2) complementing existing CBT treatments with a component on Stoic approaches to death can have an additive effect on death anxiety, and (3) increasing death acceptance (through interventions informed by Stoicism) may improve broader mental health and wellbeing, consistent with theoretical arguments [60].

On the other hand, cognitive approaches are not necessarily better than anything else:


"no evidence of CBT being superior to other bona fide treatments"
 
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desiderata

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Thanks for the article. I believe certain traits of stoicism are relevant in today's world.
 

Daniel

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I also came across this quote last night, which captures the mythology or feeling behind traditional/ancient stoicism that Nature or the universe is fundamentally good (rather than neutral or apathetic):

“Despite this invisible caring, we prefer to imagine ourselves thrown naked into the world, utterly vulnerable and fundamentally alone. It is easier to accept the story of heroic self-made development than the story that you may well be loved by this guiding providence, that you are needed for what you bring, and that you are sometimes fortuitously helped by it in situations of distress. May I state this as a bare and familiar fact without quoting a guru, witnessing for Christ, or claiming the miracle of recovery? Why not keep within psychology proper what once was called providence—being invisibly watched and watched over?”

― James Hillman, The Soul's Code: In Search of Character and Calling

Similarly:

"If you think it's you against the Universe, who do you think is going to win?"

~ Robert Thurman in one of his podcasts
 
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