Stoicism and mindfulness meditation

… or the surprisingly itchy way to getting started applying stoicism in your life

The promise of stoicism is amazing: Not only will you always make the decisions that are right for you, your family and the community, but you will do so while living a tranquil life in total balance with yourself and the world.

It sounds almost too good to be true. Especially if you’ve been lying sweating in the pitch black night having fought for the last 4 hours to fall asleep with raging catastrophic doomsday thoughts running rampant as wild horses in your mind.

The most frustrating thing about stoicism is getting started, this post explains why and then a solution to how to get started.

This is not a detailed introductory post about all aspects of stoicism. For those go here, here, here, here, and you should definitely read Ryan’s book, but I do introduce the first key discpline of stoicism in the next section.

The discipline of value-judgment

One of the first stoic disciplines you will encounter, when reading stoicism books from contemporary authors like Ryan Holiday, is the Discipline of “value-judgment” — or “Perception” [1] as Ryan calls it in his excellent introductory book on stoicism. This discipline promises — if you can pull it off — that you can change the way you feel about anything.

The essence of value-judgment is described in Marcus Aurelius famous quote from Book 4 chapter 7 in Meditations:

Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.

In it’s essence, if you can choose not to be harmed by some event — e.g. your boss yelling at you, the fact that it’s raining on your barbecue night, the fact that the trains are late and now you’re running late for an important meeting etc. — then you won’t be harmed and hence are able to react more rational to the event. What Marcus means is that it is not events themselves that harm us, but our value-judgment about that event that harms us. In other words it is the value that we assign to some event that causes us harm. If we can just stop doing that, then we won’t ever be harmed by anything!

The problem with applying this principle is that to many people the harm of an event (somebody said something negative, something bad happened etc) is that the event and the label “bad”, ”negative” seem to follow automatically with the event. You experience something, you realize it’s bad, you react emotionally to it. What is this “choice” that Marcus speaks of? Where is it?

The three stages of experience

The historian Pierre Hadot wrote in his fantastic and detailed book on Marcus Aurelius — The Inner Citadel — that according to the stoic philosophy the process of experiencing an event and reacting to it actually has three stages:

  1. Primary representation: We experience an event and form our primary representation of that event, i.e. What is this event? For instance: Somebody fell on the their bike, somebody challenges our intelligence, somebody is yelling at us. Only the event that actually happened in reality and not what it “means” to us. This is just the pure translation of sensory data to a representation that the mind can understand and work with.

The choice that Marcus refers to lies in the assent stage. The problem today is that we go through these three stages so blazingly fast that we don’t even realize that there’s a choice.

This presents a problem to the stoic disciple as the stoic mindtricks such as Marcus’ Aurelius’ Book 3 chapter 11 (below) applies only at the value-judgment stage:

… always to define whatever it is that we perceive — to trace it’s outline — so we can see what it really is: its substance. Stripped bare. As a whole. Unmodified. And to call it by its name …

You can only apply this trick right after the primary representation has materialized. But if your mind runs stage 1–3 on autopilot how can you deactivate this autopilot?

Sensory processing

There’s one step that wasn’t mentioned in the above process of experiencing an event. That is the step right before primary representation. The step that goes before that might be summarized as “Sensoric input”. This is the step where somebody speaks to us, or we witness something with our eyes and so on. Any type of sensoric input that leads us to form a primary representation of some event. This sensoric input is the real objective representation of what happened (assuming our sensory organs are average). Without any attachment of value. This is the raw sensory data.

As it turns out any type of sensory data goes through the same three stage process: Primary representation, Value-judgment and Assent. For instance: You see somebody fall on their bike:

The primary representation tells you: Somebody fell on their bike.
Value-judgment instantly reacts: Holy shit, I should run there and see if the person is ok.
Assent: Ok go do it.

Or: Your boss yells at you for not attaching the right document to an e-mail

The primary representation tells you: Your boss yells at you for not attaching the right document to an e-mail.
Value-judgment instantly reacts: He is challenging my intelligence and think I’m stupid. I better tell him that I’m not f***ing stupid.
Assent: Ok go do it.

In the first case the sensory input is visual. In the second, auditory. All sensory input are processed in the same way [2].

Meditation and the itch

You’re probably wondering by now, why the title of this post is “stoicism and mindfullness meditation” [3] when I haven’t written a single word about meditation until now. Well here goes (and this is the important part of this post although it might at a glance seem ridiculous):

If you’ve tried to meditate I guarantee that you will have experienced an itch while meditating. In the first months of your meditation practice you just scratch it: “Hey there’s an itch — let’s scratch it! I’ll do anything to get out of this boring meditation!”

A good meditation practice teaches you to let any sensory input whether pain, itches and even thoughts just float on by without reacting to them. Typically, if you realize (a thought) that you forgot to buy milk, while meditating, you don’t rush out the door and buy it for the simple reason that you’re currently meditating and you can do it afterwards. Whereas itches and pain you react to automatically: Your leg falling asleep: You move a little. You sense and itch: You scratch etc. It’s on autopilot. You just do it. You might not even be aware that you did it.

Once you realize that you shouldn’t actually scratch the itch while meditating you start paying close attention to what happens when you go from sensing the itch, to actually scratching it. And after multiple more hours meditating and of looking like someone with severe ticks fighting the movement of your own hand, you start to realize (and this is the important part) that there’s a physical sensation in your head attached to the act of detecting the itch. And if you can detect that then you can stop your hand from moving at all! In fact, this exact point in time where you detect the itch is where you get the primary representation i.e. the most pure representation of what the event you’re reacting to is.

And you know what the fun part is (yes there are actually funny parts about an itch)? If you just leave the itch alone it goes away by itself. Hence just as the stoics predicted: It’s you and you alone that attach a negative value to something. And the only reason why you scratch it in the first place is because you apply a value-judgment of “bad”.

Feel the pre-itch sensation

If you practice identifying the physical sensation in your head related to detecting an itch while meditating, you can start to feel the same sensation when you’re out and about in the real world. Next time your boss yells at you feel the same pre-itch sensation that arises from the interaction and stop any action right there. Look at this primary representation and apply the stoic mindtricks to that so you can behave rationally and in the best way.

So if you’re itching to start applying stoic philosophy in your life I can highly recommend this little trick which is so simple it itches: Just stop scratching the itch.


What are your experience from mixing meditation and stoicism? I’m itching to hear from you.


Footnotes

[1] I choose the word “value-judgment” instead of “perception” in this post because I think it describes better the action you need to do. This word is also used by the stoic historian Pierre Hadot.

[2] Looking at research in the area of sensory processing it would seem that we’re not yet 100% sure about exactly how sensory processing works. However, there does appear to be an agreement on the fact that dedicated sensory parts of the brain processes the raw sensory data, which is then passed on to the central nervous system, which then results in a response.

[3] The post applies to any kind of meditation. I just had to label it to make it more clear what the post is about as Marcus Aurelius book “Meditations” is pretty often cited in posts about stoicism.

On becoming the stoic sage

About practical approaches and experiences with applying stoicism in your life.

Michael Reibel Boesen

Written by

Entrepreneur (corti.ai, #cphftw,…) and engineer (space-tech, self-repairing hardware). Currently thinking about how we can save our planet with/from technology.

On becoming the stoic sage

About practical approaches and experiences with applying stoicism in your life.

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