Stoicism was a school of philosophy around 300 AD.
Founded by Zeno Citium, they taught that all destructive emotions, such as hate, anger, and even emotional pain, are caused by belief in something that was not true or only half-true.
Most psychologist and self-help gurus connect happiness to positive emotions and feelings. They say to be happy, you need to go about maximizing your positive responses to life. It is true that happiness involves positive emotions and feelings. But the search of happiness can easily lead to unhappiness. This indicates that positive feelings are not the only cause of happiness.
A better way of thinking about happiness is to see it as the product of a full and thriving life.
The story goes that a slave was being shackled to make sure he didn’t get away. As the slave master tightened the ankle shackle, the slave calmly stated that if it was tightened much more, it would break his ankle. The slave master continued to tighten the shackle and sure enough, the bones in the ankle broke. Instead of going into hysterics or fighting, the slave simply fell to the ground saying nothing. The slave master was so impressed with the calm demeanor of the slave that rather than punishment, he was celebrated.
The slave was able to remain calm because he knew he had no power to stop what was about to happen and that getting excited or belligerent would only make matters worse.
Stoics took the lesser of evils when evil was unpreventable. A whole leg would have been the ideal but the slave was unable to accomplish that and remain rational.
Getting a broken leg was bad, but fighting with his master could get him killed, therefore it was the lesser of the two evils.
Stoicism was a refinement of cynicism, which teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions. It does not seek to do away with emotions completely, but to transform them allowing a person to develop clear judgment, inner calm and freedom from suffering (which is different from pain).
Stoicism includes the practice of logic, contemplation of death and a kind of meditation aimed at training one’s attention to remain in the present moment.
The key is not to assume stories but to believe only what is provably true.
Look at this picture
Which of the following things do you see in the picture above?
One of our biggest problems in Western Society is that we are taught deductive reasoning to a fault. We are taught to jump to conclusions based upon partial evidence. We often can’t tell what is true and which of our beliefs are merely conclusions to which we have jumped. What if the conclusion is not the truth?
For example, knowing someone whose clothes are mostly red or have red accents might make you think that red is their favorite color. It is also entirely possible that they have a loved one who loves red. Or that there is some kind of symbol expressed by wearing red. Perhaps they wear second-hand clothes from someone who loved red.
By the way, in the above picture, the only things we can be sure of are that it contains four people, a dog, a table and chairs, a plate, a picture and two glasses.
Our brain is a great story teller
You can tell by looking at the above picture that it is capable of making up all kinds of stories. The reality is that story may be true or may not be. Instead of asking yourself if it is true or not, ask if believing the story in your head is helpful or not. If it is not true, you can just about bet it isn’t going to be helpful.
But a story can be true and still not helpful. If we pay attention to this story, will it help us to create a rich and full life?
We often react to our thoughts as if they are the absolute truth of as if we must give them all our attention. When it comes to the stories in our minds, it is often harder to tell whether or not they are biased. The “official” word for this assuming that our thoughts are true is “Fusion”
Fusion means a blending or melding together. When we are in a state of fusion we believe that thoughts are reality – what we’re thinking is actually happening, here and now. We believe that our thoughts are the truth – we completely believe them. Our thoughts are important – we take them seriously and give them our full attention.
Our thoughts are orders – we automatically obey them. We think our thoughts are wise – we assume they know best and follow their advice. We believe our thoughts can be threats and they are deeply disturbing or frightening and we want to get rid of them.
Here are five steps to not taking these thoughts seriously:
- Begin by writing a sentence that bothers you. It should describe you in some derogatory way. Something like “I am too fat”. Remember, this sentence should apply to you. The “too fat” could be “incompetent”, “Lazy”. Whatever bad feelings you have about yourself.
- Now take that sentence and add the phrase, “I’m thinking that… So, my sentence would be “I’m thinking that I’m too fat”.
- Do that again, only this time make it a little longer, “I notice that I’m thinking that I’m… So again, my sentence would be “I notice that I’m thinking that I’m too fat”.
- Did you actually do the exercise? Remember that you can’t learn mindfulness by reading about it. You must do the exercises and practice.
- So what happened? Did you notice that your statement lost power as you added your phrase?
I will mention acknowledgment of negative thoughts again, but for now, let’s imagine the statement, “I am too fat,” is a thought that comes into my head. I will acknowledge that thought by saying, “I am thinking that I am too fat”. Notice I’m not saying that I’m too fat. I’m just acknowledging the fact that I’m thinking that.
Now look at “I notice that I am thinking that I am too fat”. That separates me even further from the thought “I’m too fat”. At this point, it is almost as if someone else had the thought and I’m not giving it any credibility at all.
If you want to make the negative story sound even more nonsensical, sing it. Russ Harris recommends that you use to tune to “Happy Birthday”, although I understand that tune is under copyright. (Update: On September 22, 2015, a federal judge ruled that the Warner/Chappell copyright claim over the lyrics was invalid.)
You could also name the story. “OH that’s the ‘I’m too fat’ story. I know that one”.
Jack Kornfield is a bestselling American author and teacher in the vipassana movement in American Theravada Buddhism. I love the way he explains the acknowledgement. He says that when he was studying to be a monk, one of the first things he learned was to bow with respect to every being. They bowed to their masters to the other monks, to the other students, he said there were times he felt he should bow to an ant that was walking across his path in the woods. So he said that when he get a negative thought in his head, he simply says, “Oh, I know you. You are sadness. “Sadness, sadness”, and in his mind he bows to the sadness as it goes its way. So when I’m meditating and a sad thought or an angry thought comes to mind, I say, “Oh, I know you. I’ve seen you before. You are anger.” And in my head I take a little bow and say, “Anger” and wait until it wanders away on its own.
- Recognize the Story
- Sing the Story
- Name the Story
- Acknowledge the Story
Rational thinking is the ability to think clearly and sensibly, unimpaired by physical or mental conditions, strong emotionality, or prejudice.
Rational thinking is presented in a way that is in line with reason and logic or with scientific knowledge. I speak with so many people who say they believe in science rather than religion and yet think irrationally, believing something that is not true and that we can actually disprove. Things like, “I’m too stupid.” “I am never going to be happy.” “No one cares about me.”
There is a mental glitch that some people suffer from. It is called the “True Believer” syndrome. Once they are convinced that something is true, no amount of evidence to the contrary can convince them otherwise.
Here are five questions that will tell you if you are thinking rationally and accepting reality just as it is. The criteria for reality is that a situation must illicit a positive response from at least three of the following questions. Thinking rationally must:
Our Rational Self
Our Emotional Self
A common emotional thought is that something “should” or “should not” have happened.
"Shoulding" is a very easy way to make yourself miserable. The late Albert Ellis used to tell his clients that they were, “shoulding all over themselves.” Meaning they were believing something that was not wholly true.
“Must” was another clue that your thoughts were emotional and not factual.
“I must get this person to like me.” “I must pass this test.” “You must do this for me.”
None of these is true. You can hope, you can prepare your best, you can ask for help, but you may still not accomplish what you think you must. Dr. Ellis called it “Musterbation”.
Can you see why “must” and “should” can be irrational?
First, in order for something to happen in this universe, everything that needs to happen to make an action take place must happen. (One place where “Must” is rational). Things only happen when everything needed for a thing to happen has happened.
Second, if everything required for an action to take place, has happened, then that action will happen.
Third, if an action doesn’t happen, it means that not everything required for that action to take place, has happened. If everything required for a thing to happen, has happened, then it will happen.
There is no magic! Everything in this universe happens exactly as it should happen. Nothing that shouldn’t happen, happens. I hope you can get your brain around that. It took me a while.
If someone dies by electrocution because of a bare wire, we can’t say, “That shouldn’t have happened!”
There was a bare wire. The victim touched the wire, possibly while standing in water to provide the ground. The flow of electricity was strong enough to interrupt to heartbeat. He was exposed long enough to stop the oxygen flow to his brain. No one was able to start his heart beating again. Everything necessary for that person to die from electrocution was present.
It would have been a miracle (Magic) had he not been electrocuted!
That doesn’t mean that we like what has happened or approve of it. In fact, we may proceed to do everything we can to prevent it from happening again. Still, it happened just as it should have – just as it must have.
So when you are saying this "shouldn’t” have happened or this “must” happen this way, you are fighting with reality. When you believe something that is not true, you are fighting with reality. When you think and act irrationally, you are fighting with reality.
When you fight with reality, who do you think will win?
When all of the facts can’t be available, then you can gather all of the information that is available to you, everything that every wise person you knows and then put that together with intuition and you will have contacted your higher-self. (It will become wiser as you become older and more experienced. So don’t be afraid to consult someone older and wiser until you get there.
Our next page will explain how acceptance will help you when you are Dealing with Painful Emotions.