From the 2013 Stoic Week Handbook:
Today’s Lunchtime Exercise: The Practice of Stoic Mindfulness
A large part of Stoic 'mindfulness' is concerned with the 'discipline of assent'. Epictetus said (Discourses, 3.2.2.) that this is about 'freedom from deception and hasty judgement, and, in general, whatever is connected with assent.' Essentially, that means developing more self-control over our thoughts and judgements. It involves a kind of continual mindfulness of our thinking processes, which the Stoics called prosochê or “attention” to yourself. Epictetus says that it requires training ourselves to avoid rashness or errors in our judgements. For Stoics, the key error of judgement that we make, as we’ve seen, lies in treating external things as if they were intrinsically good or bad, and forgetting that virtue is the only true good, as they claimed. We’ve already looked at this aspect of Stoicism when we talked about the practice of evaluating whether our judgements refer to things under our control or not. However, the discipline of assent also involves a process that’s perhaps even more fundamental, which Epictetus alludes to as avoiding “rashness” or being “carried away” by our thoughts and feelings. He says the key to retaining our grip on objective reality and not being swept away by irrational desire or emotions is that before we even begin to challenge our thoughts, we must learn to step back from them temporarily. The key passage here occurs at the start of the Handbook where Epictetus tells us to respond to each troubling thought or “impression” by saying: “You are just an impression and not at all the thing you claim to represent.”
This isn't a familiar concept to most people. To understand what Epictetus may have meant, it helps to compare it to a psychological strategy commonly employed in modern cognitive therapy called “psychological distancing” or “cognitive distancing”. (So this is a modern interpretation and not something you'll find explicitly stated in most books on Stoicism.) In cognitive therapy, which was originally inspired by Stoicism, it’s understood that before we can learn to challenge unhealthy patterns of thinking, we have to first spot them, and place our thoughts in question – they have to be “up for debate”. This is sometimes described as being able to see our thoughts as merely thoughts, rather than confusing them with facts or external events. Cognitive therapists commonly explain this by using metaphors. Imagine, for example, that you’re wearing coloured glasses, they could be “rose-tinted spectacles” or they might even paint the world in dark and gloomy colours. When you lack “cognitive distance” it’s like you’ve forgotten that you’re wearing coloured glasses, and you assume that the world really is, objectively, rose-tinted or gloomy, etc. When you engage in “cognitive distancing”, it’s like taking the glasses off and looking at them, rather than through them, or just realising that you’re wearing glasses that distort the colours you see. The first step in responding to troubling desires and emotions, in Stoicism, is therefore to gain psychological distance from them by reminding ourselves that the impressions they’re based upon are just impressions, just thoughts, and not the reality they claim to represent.
One quotation from Epictetus puts this so well that it is still taught to clients in cognitive therapy today. “It is not the things themselves that disturb people but their judgements about those things” (Handbook 5). Epictetus repeatedly advised his students that remembering this Stoic principle could help them to avoid being “carried away” by their troubling emotions and desires. We should be alert for the early-warning signs of problematic emotions and desires, which are often habitual and barely conscious. When we spot this initial signs, often certain bodily sensations or internal feelings, we should quickly try to identify the initial impressions and underlying value-judgements that are causing them. For example, the modern cognitive model of anxiety, which is derived from Stoic psychology, says that anxiety is caused by a thought or judgement along the lines of “Something bad is going to happen and I won’t be able to cope with it.” Distancing would consist in saying “I notice I’m having the thought ‘something bad is going to happen’ and that’s upsetting me” rather than being swept along by the impression that something bad is going to happen and allowing your fear to escalate unnecessarily.
One of the simplest ways of responding to troubling impressions, when you spot their early-warning signs, is to postpone doing anything in response to them. Modern researchers, for example, asked college students simply to spot when they were becoming anxious and starting to worry, and to postpone thinking about their perceived problems any further until a set time, later in the day, when they would try to problem-solve more calmly. Within about a week, this was found to reduce the frequency, intensity and duration of worry episodes by about fifty percent on average. Epictetus gave very similar advice to his Stoic students, nearly two thousand years ago. He says when we spot initial troubling impressions, especially if they seem overwhelming, we should “gain time and respite”, by reminding ourselves that these are just thoughts and waiting a while, until we’ve genuinely calmed down, before thinking about them any further, or deciding what action to take. The Pythagoreans mention a similar technique, which involved pausing, walking away, and waiting until your anger has naturally abated before rebuking someone over their behaviour. In modern anger management, this is sometimes called the “taking a time-out” strategy. The Stoics talked of withholding our “assent”, or agreement, from upsetting initial impressions. They knew that although some thoughts and feelings may appear to be very rapid or automatic, we do then typically have an opportunity to step back from them, spot what’s happening to us, and suspend judgement until things have calmed down enough for us to evaluate our thinking rationally.
You have already started self-monitoring your thoughts, actions, and feelings, and distinguishing between things under your control and things not. From this point onward, try to catch the early-warning signs of strong desires or upsetting emotions. Pause to give yourself thinking space and gain psychological distance from your initial impressions. If your feelings are particularly strong or difficult to deal with, postpone thinking about them any further until you’ve had a chance to calm down, which may be during your evening meditation practice. Epictetus advises his students to do three main things when they return to the thoughts they’ve previously withheld their “assent” from:
1. Most importantly, ask yourself whether the impressions that upset you are about things under your control or not and if they’re not under your control, accept this fact, and remind yourself that external things are “indifferent” with regard to your own flourishing and virtue.
2. Ask yourself what someone perfectly wise and virtuous person would do when faced with the same problem or situation. This is the 'Stoic Sage', whom the Stoics treated as an ideal for imitation. Who would you pick as a wise role model?
3. Ask yourself what strengths or resources nature has given you to master the situation, e.g., do you have the capacity for patience and endurance? How might using those potential virtues help you deal with this problem more wisely?
In a nutshell, don’t allow yourself to be carried away by irrational feelings, whether through force of habit or because they arise unexpectedly. Remember that you are upset by your own thoughts and value-judgments rather than by external events. Use this realisation to help you gain psychological distance, and the time and respite required to return to the subject later and evaluate it calmly and rationally, in accord with Stoic principles, using strategies like the three lines of questioning above.