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Stoic Week 2014 & Stoicism Today Event in London

Zeno CalendarStoic Week 2014 will be happening from November 24th-30th – save the dates!

N.B. During Stoic Week, the blog will feature personal stories and testimonies about how Stoicism has been useful in people’s lives. If you would like to write on how Stoicism has helped you (the account can be written under a pseudonym, if you like), then please get in touch.

If you are planning on organising an event during Stoic Week, whether a talk or a meet-up group, for example, please also get in touch. I’ll be putting together a page with all the different events going on.

More details about Stoic Week 2014, which was followed by over 2,200 people last year, will be announced in due course, but for the moment here are details of a Stoicism Today Event in London, to be held on Saturday, November 29th, at Queen Mary, University of London. You can book your place at the event here.

Have you

You can join the Facebook group for Stoic Week 2014 here.

You can see a video, giving an overview of last year’s London event here:

And the roundtable discussion from last year:

More about the 2014 event:

“This is the second annual Stoicism Today event, and the biggest global event on Stoic philosophy in 2014. It brings together leading experts on Stoicism and its modern relevance.

We will explore:

  • practical advice for Stoic resilience and flourishing

  • ancient techniques for transforming the self, changing habits and facing adversity – and the scientific evidence for them

  • how modern psychotherapy draws on Stoic wisdom

  • how people use Stoicism at work, in professional sports, in prison and elsewhere

  • how Stoicism is related to other wisdom traditions like Buddhism and Taoism

  • we also want to hear from you about how you find Stoicism helpful

The morning will have key-note talks and a plenary panel, then the afternoon will offer five different workshops for attendees to take part in. The event also sees the launch of a new book, ‘Stoicism Today: Selected Writings’, which includes contributions by many of the event’s speakers.

Speakers include:

Professor Christopher Gill, emeritus professor at Exeter University

Professor Angie Hobbs, professor of the public understanding of philosophy at Sheffield University

Dr John Sellars, author of ‘Stoicism’

Gill Garratt, author of ‘CBT for Work’

Tim LeBon, psychotherapist and author of ‘Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology’

Donald Robertson, author of ‘Stoicism and the Art of Happiness’

Patrick Ussher, editor of ‘Stoicism Today’

and Jules Evans, author of ‘Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations’

Other speakers will be announced in the next two months.

The pre-event fee is £15, which includes coffee, tea and lunch. The event will cost £20 on the door. We’re not making a profit from this event and none of the speakers are being paid – the ticket price is entirely to cover the overhead costs of the event. 

You can book your place at the event here.

This is a great event for any fans of Stoicism, or anyone interested in learning about this highly practical and therapeutic ancient philosophy, whose modern devotees include Arianna Huffington, Tom Wolfe, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Elle MacPherson and Adrian Edmondson.”

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‘Stoic Living for the Modern Soul’ by Dmitri Mandaliev

There are many attributes of a Stoic that could be discussed, but the primary point is that Stoicism may not be what we may have supposed. It is not an ivory tower into which one disappears to turn away from life. On the contrary, it is embracing life in a manner more fully than one had before. To face the anxieties, pain, and suffering in such a way as to no longer be controlled by them is truly liberating. To engage in eating, sex, exercise, and work in more meaningful and straightforward ways is empowering and removes extraneous psychological clutter from one’s existence. I put it to you that to live a Stoic life is to embrace a clear ray of sunshine in what was once a dark pit. This pit was one we created ourselves, fueled by our endless yearnings to appease a fragile ego.

From Book One: Introduction (pg. 6). 

***

 Like the body, the mind must be exercised and kept fit. You must look at yourself each day and hold yourself to a high standard. As you develop habits in this you will be better able to stay true and keep yourself honest. And yet, again, we all change throughout time. We may not know today what tools we will need tomorrow in order to keep ourselves humble and true. This is why we embrace principles. To develop particular routines only would be a failure. Our principles adapt and can be extrapolated to our changing life circumstances. Through our principles we are able to remain true to ourselves and thus true to the universal in us as well as our fellow man.

From Book Three: Regarding the mind (pg. 19) 

***

The mind is the most flexible and useful tool we have. Adaptable to any situation, any problem, any grief. The greatest quality our mind may have is honesty. To see ourselves clearly, to see others clearly, and to see our reality clearly, these are our goals. It is in seeing ourselves clearly that we become aware of what we are able to achieve, what our faults are, and what our strengths are. To see others clearly is to see them as human beings, including their faults and weaknesses. In doing so we no longer consider them evil, nor do we consider them objects. In this way we may deal with other men fairly. And finally, in seeing our reality clearly we may understand what we may change and what we may not. This awareness is chief in our goals. The clarity of mind which makes this possible is our goal. By daily asking ourselves honest questions and not settling until we find honest answers is the way in which we achieve it. Learning from and then moving past our many failures is our duty.

From Book Three: Regarding the mind (pg. 28) 

***

Today there are many distractions pushing us and pulling us. We focus on tiny screens more than we do our fellow humans. We check our tiny accounts and leave the larger accounts in front of us untended. This is foolish. Our lives are around us and in front of us. They do not, on the whole, exist on these screens yet we often behave as if it were so. Though these devices may serve some purpose to us we should be careful how much energy we put to them. Make effort to rid yourself of the distractions which you do not truly need. Some may benefit you more than others and it is your task to understand which are beneficial and which are not. You may be surprised when you see how hollow a thing is, after truly looking at it.

From Book Five: Regarding the living of life (pg. 31)

***

Consider that it behooves some to convince you to behave one way rather than another. Yet, is that way in your own best interest? Is it in the best interest of your family, or your country? You must prepare your mind daily to be aware of what is being thrown at you. Like a shield your mind must remain vigilant to guard against unwelcome messages. If you wish to remain chaste, understand that there are many images put in front of you encouraging you to end your chastity. And so on. Hold onto your center and your ideal of what you most value and consider at all moments if you are behaving according to your virtue or according to some conditioning.

From Book Five: Regarding the living of life (pg. 52)

About the Book: Stoic Living for the Modern Soul is a guidebook of philosophy and inspiration for living a better life in the modern age through stoic living. Written primarily as a collection of reminders for the author, its aim is to provide food for reflection, inspiration, and improvement.

Biography: Dmitri Mandaliev is an author and modern stoic whose primary interests are Confucianism, Stoicism, and Taoism. His most current work, Stoic Living for the Modern Soul, is a reflection on his way of life and stoic mindset. His “Letters to a Young Man” series is inspired primarily by the works of Seneca. He is married and spends his time between Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the United States.

Audio: An Overview of Stoic Ethics by John Sellars

An excellent talk, especially for those new to Stoic philosophy, in which John Sellars, lecturer of philosophy at Birkbeck College London, gives an overview of the key claims of Stoic philosophy.

Starting from the widespread consideration in antiquity of philosophy as ‘medicine for the soul’, John goes on to explain Stoic psychology (how what we value or consider important in life leads to the kind of emotions we have) and ethics (how things external to us are ‘indifferent’, but that it is up to us to make ‘good use’ of these indifferents, and how some indifferents, such as health, are preferable to others). He then discusses how Stoicism leads to strength of character, with a focus on preparing well for difficult future events and for dealing with difficult events in the present (‘disaster is virtue’s opportunity’ as Seneca puts it). He also explores objections to Stoic ethics, as well as the relationship between Stoic ethics and modern psychotherapy.

A Q&A follows the session, and you can read the texts John refers to here.

With thanks to Cristóbal Zarzar at KCL for recording this talk last November as part of Stoic Week.

Mindful Virtue by Ben Butina

Mindful Virtue

Ben Butina

Seriously, guys.

With the flood of books and articles coming out every day on gracklene, it’s really about time that we hash this thing out from a stoic perspective. Can gracklene really help a person become more virtuous? If so, how? And how does gracklene fit with ancient stoic practices? Are we just pulling out the parts of gracklene that we like and throwing out the rest because we find them inconvenient?

At this point, you’re probably asking, “What the hell is gracklene*, anyway?” Good question. Before we get into that, though, re-read the previous paragraph, replacing the word gracklenewith the word mindfulness.

Gracklene is a completely unfamiliar word, so it sends up a red flag–you probably wouldn’t try to have a conversation about gracklene without first clarifying its definition. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is becoming a very familiar word, and we tend to have conversations about it as if we shared a common understanding of what it means. That’s where we run into trouble.

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According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the English word mindfulness has been around at least since 1530 A.D. and was used several times in the King James Bible (1611 A.D.):

“He is the Lord our God; his judgments are in all the earth. Be ye mindful always of his covenant; the word which he commanded to a thousand generations; Even of the covenant which he made with Abraham, and of his oath unto Isaac;” – 1 Chronicles 16:14-16

Needless to say, it didn’t have any Buddhist connotations at the time, but simply referred to being aware of something–remembering it and paying attention to it. The Buddhist connotation of the word didn’t kick in until 1910, when Rhys Davids appropriatedmindfulness to stand in for the Pali word sati in his hugely influential English translation of theMahasatipatthana Sutta. Although sati originally meant memory, its use in early Buddhist writings is subtle, complex, and varied. (Bhante Sujato, a Theravadan Buddhist monk and scholar of early Buddhism, provides an excellent short history of sati in the Pali canon here for those who are interested in going further down this path.)

The definition of mindfulness that we use most frequently now in Western countries bears little resemblance to the earlier English-language definition of mindfulness and is not a direct translation of any single Pali word. It is, in fact, some variation of the definition offered by pioneering secular mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn.

 “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

Sounds familiar, right? But you’ll find that the Kabat-Zinn definition gets mutilated quite a bit in the press. Here’s how mindfulness was described in the five most recent popular articles about mindfulness I could find on Google News.

“The most basic definition of mindfulness? It’s simply paying attention.” – Melanie Harth, Ph.D., LMHC (Mindfulness for Success: Top 3 Management TipsHuffington Post)

“Simply put, mindfulness is the act of focusing on the present moment in a nonjudgmental way.” – Janet Singer (OCD and MindfulnessPsychCentral)

“I practise mindfulness, which involves letting my garbage go through my brain but always bringing my focus to my breathing.” – Ruby Wax (Ruby Wax On Depression, Mindfulness and Prada HandbagsThe Telegraph )

“…a practiced nonjudgmental in-the-moment awareness rooted in meditation, Buddhism and yoga…” – Todd Essig (Google’s Gopi Kallayil on the Business Value of Mindfulness, Forbes Magazine)

“Mindfulness is a way to ‘detach from the literal junk that comes through your mind’ by observing thoughts in a non-judgmental, non-emotional way…” – Eden Kozlowski (CEO on a Mission to Spread Mindfulness, Akron Beacon Journal)

Are these five people all talking about the same thing? Maybe. But they sure aren’t speaking the same language. Two of the definitions above suggest that our thoughts are bad (“garbage,” “literal junk”), which is problematic. One of them (“…simply paying attention”) simplifies the concept to the point of meaninglessness. None of them–including the respected Kabat-Zinn version–gives us much of a clue as to what we’re supposed to be paying attention to.

If we’re going to talk about mindfulness in a stoic context, clearly, we need to settle on a shared understanding of what the word means. The definitions discussed above are simple and accessible, but ultimately vague and unsatisfying. I propose that we adopt the definition ofmindful awareness offered by American meditation teacher Shinzen Young:

“three attentional skills working together: Concentration Power, Sensory Clarity, and Equanimity.”

Right off the bat, you can tell that it’s not as simple as the definitions we looked at above. It’s going to require a little unpacking, but stay with me. It will pay off.

“You can think of Concentration Power as the ability to focus on what you consider to be relevant at a given time. You can think of Sensory Clarity as the ability to keep track of what you’re actually experiencing in the moment. You can think of Equanimity as the ability to allow sensory experience to come and go without push and pull.”

So Concentration means exactly what you think it means: the ability to pay attention. Sensory Clarity is the ability to keep track of all the components of your experience with high magnification and high resolution; it allows you to track all the external and internal “bits” that make up your sensory experience of the world. Equanimity allows you to experience those “bits” without trying to push them away, grasp onto them, or spin them into a story.

And Young doesn’t define concentration, clarity, and equanimity as states or traits, but as skills. And like all skills, you can improve them with practice. But why would a stoic want to?

Because mindful awareness increases our ability to live virtuously.

Mindful awareness is not itself a virtue, but it is a powerful enabler of virtue. It improves our ability to act according to our intentions by clearing away the obstacles that prevent us from acting rationally. Here are a few examples to give you an idea of how it works.

  • You’re sitting at the dinner table with your family, but you’re only vaguely aware that anyone is talking to you. Your mind is awash in memories of your day at work, worries about the next day, and fantasies about your upcoming vacation. You want to pay attention to the people you love, but you lack concentration.
  • You hear a crash coming from the next room. Your immediate reaction is to fly off in a rage. You storm into the room screaming, “What the hell is going on in here?!?” You know you should  act calmly to make sure no one was hurt, but you are overwhelmed by emotion (i.e., “passion”) because you lack the sensory clarity necessary to break your reaction down into its component parts where they are easier to deal with. Instead, everything just sort of comes at you in a big tangled, ball of overwhelm.
  • You ask a question of someone at work and they answer in a hurried fashion. You immediately begin telling yourself a story about their reaction. Soon you’ve invented an entire drama in which you’ve assumed that they’re angry with you about something you’ve done…but what? You lack the equanimity necessary to simply experience the situation for what it is without inventing a mental story to go with it.

In all three cases, your intentions were good. You wanted to act with virtue, but you got overwhelmed and reacted instead of responding reasonably. Now let’s look at the same three situations with a higher level of mindful awareness.

  • You’re sitting at the dinner table with your family and your mind is awash with memories, planning, and fantasy. You hear someone say your name and you’re able to set aside your thoughts and focus your attention entirely on the person speaking to you.
  • You hear a crash coming from the next room. You become aware of mental images (a shattered television screen), mental talk (“What they hell are they doing in there?!”) and physical body sensations (a tightening of the stomach muscles, a racing heartbeat), and you’re able to deal with them without being overwhelmed. You move swiftly but calmly into the next room to make sure no one is hurt.
  • You ask a question of someone at work and get a brusque response. You become aware of your reactions (mental image, mental talk, physical body sensation) and allow them to come and go without attaching to them and spinning them into a troubling story.

Here again, your intentions are good, but now you have the skills necessary to act virtuously without getting swept away by passion or distraction. The software (stoicism) is the same, but the upgraded hardware (mindful awareness) has allowed you to act according to your intentions. In short, mindful awareness gives you the ability to respond rather than simplyreact.

There is much, much more to say about mindful awareness and stoicism, of course, and I’ve already said some of it in a series of blog posts called Mindful Virtue over on my blog. You can also get a short-short summary of mindfulness by viewing this video I created. If you’d like to start developing your mindful awareness skills, however, I highly recommend downloading and reading Five Ways to Know Yourself: An Introduction to Basic Mindfulness by Shinzen Young. He provides a complete system of explanation and practical exercises that is secular, clear,  and comprehensive.

*Gracklene is just a word I made up by combining the brand names of things I found in my kitchen.

Ben Butina blogs at approximatelyforever.com.