Stoic Mindfulness

The philosopher and statesman, Seneca stated that “it is the power of the mind to be unconquerable.”

This is a bold statement.

The philosophy of Stoicism asserts that it is true.

The discipline of judgement transforms this power into practice. The French philosopher, Pierre Hadot, states that the discipline “consists essentially in refusing to accept within oneself all representations that are not objective and adequate.”

What does this mean?

The Stoic philosophers believed that there were two steps involved in perceiving the world: impression and judgment.

Impression is the primary representation, it is the sensation or thought that first occurs. When I view my surrounding room, it appears to me as though there is a cup on the table. The impression can have both representational content (“there is a warm cup of tea the table”) and qualitative content (“it is good that there is a warm cup of tea the table”).

The second step is judgment. At this step, we determine whether our first impression is true. I can see a cup on the table and judge that there is, in fact, a cup on the table.

Marcus Aurelius discusses an example:

Don’t tell yourself anything more than what your primary representations tell you. If you’ve been told, “so-and-so has been talking behind your back”, then this is what you’ve been told. You have not however been told that “Somebody has done a wrong to you”.

When we perceive things, we can perceive them mindfully without unnecessary negative judgements. As in Marcus example’s, you can perceive someone telling you that someone has been talking behind your back. This is a description of how the world is, nothing more. This is the primary representation. To the primary representation, we may add a value judgement: someone talking behind your back is a bad thing. But we do not have to do this.

Often value judgements sneak into our impressions. They can be difficult to notice. The Stoic discipline of judgement is about becoming mindful of our thought patterns and beliefs. It is about realizing the gap between our impressions and judgments of those impressions. You can practice this through meditation, journaling, or countless other exercises.

When we exercise our ability to represent the world objectively without unnecessary and inaccurate judgements, we become unconquerable. We have in Pierre Hadot’s words, an Inner Citadel. This is the borderline which other people and objects cannot cross, an inviolable stronghold of freedom inside all of us. Because we can control how we react to events through our judgements and actions, we are free.