Infernal Monologue: Fighting nonStoic Thoughts

I've had a lot of fights where I was the only participant. Thankfully, they've all happened in my head and not in a scene out of Fight Club. The animosity of these intense moments is rarely directed at myself. Whichever poor soul I'm dwelling on isn't actually present, I've conjured him up with my overactive imagination. Sometimes I'm steeped in a moment where I felt slighted. Other times I'm envisioning future disagreements that I imagine are heading towards me. Sometimes I'm simply shadowboxing, beating up some straw-man standing in for a viewpoint I find hard to tolerate. Fantasizing of this type is anti-Stoic. It's the willful practice of negative emotions and misanthropic thoughts! It's as far afield as one can get from the present-focused attention that Stoicism demands. So what to do?

Stop fantasizing! Cut the strings of desire that keep you dancing like a puppet. Draw a circle around the present moment. Recognize what is happening either to you or to someone else. Dissect everything into its causal and material elements. Ponder your final hour. Leave the wrong with the person who did it.

-Marcus Aurelius, 7:29 (The Emperor's Handbook)

Aurelius' first line has also been translated, "wipe out the imagination," but I believe "fantasizing" better captures his meaning. The Emperor doesn't want to waste his life working himself up over the unreal. To combat his wandering thoughts, he reminds himself of five stoic mental practices:

  • Attend to the present moment
  • Focus on what affects people here and now
  • Break things down until they are understandable and manageable
  • Remember that life is short
  • "Leave the wrong with the person who did it."

My internal monologue, like Aurelius', is often far removed from the here and now. In contrast, the stoic mind is rooted in the present, because the present moment is the only time in which a Stoic can exercise control. Seneca put it this way, "These two things must be cut away: fear of the future, and the memory of past sufferings. The latter no longer concern me, and the future does not concern me yet." We regain our footing by attending to what is happening now.

When Stoics decide what to do in the present moment, our thoughts should be concerned with the people we can help. As Aurelius reminds himself in Chapter 9 of his meditations, "Passivity with regard to the events brought about by an exterior cause. Justice in the actions brought about by the cause that is within you. In other words, let your impulse to act and your action have as their goal the service of the human community, because that, for you, is in conformity with your nature." Chances are, if I were to pay attention to what's happening to the people around me, I'd find something better to do than daydream.

The Emperor's self-admonition to, "dissect everything into its causal and material elements," is a bit more esoteric. Donald Robertson, in his new book Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, explains it like this:

The Stoic strategy of seeing the present moment in isolation...appears to be closely related to another technique...called ‘physical definition’. This involves cultivating the calm detachment of a natural philosopher or scientist. We are to practice describing an object or event purely in terms of its objective qualities, stripped of any emotive rhetoric or value judgements, to arrive at an ‘objective representation’ (phantasia katalêptikê)... However, especially in the writings of Marcus Aurelius, this may also involve a kind of ‘method of division’, in which the event becomes broken down through analysis, calmly dissected into its individual components or aspects.

By breaking things down into smaller parts, Aurelius seeks to demystify the happenings in life. For instance, to get past lust he memorably describes sex as, "friction of the genitals with the excretion of mucus in spasms." Now that's a mood killer. Speaking of killer, on to our impending doom!

"Ponder your final hour," is a Stoic version of YOLO. Life is short. If we want life to have meaning, we should build that meaning in the here and now, not in our imaginations. Unfortunately death is a taboo subject in western society so it would take too long to make a case for the positive aspects of dwelling on mortality. However, check out Here Is Today, if you want to meditate on how the lifespan of the universe makes us all look like mayflies. I know that if I really took the shortness of life to heart, I'd stop wasting thoughts on some guy that cut me off an hour ago.

Marcus Aurelius' final advice to himself is, "leave the wrong with the person who did it." Why burden ourselves with someone else's moral failings? Don't we have enough of our own problems to worry about? Of course, this doesn't mean we allow people to do evil things. Stoic actions are for the good of humankind, after all. But we should not burn with indignation at another person's actions. Instead, we should make certain that our own thoughts and actions are good, since that's all that we truly control.

Each of these five techniques rely on a core stoic skill, the ability to pay attention. Stoicism can only be practiced with an attentive mind. 

Attention is the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude. It is a continuous vigilance and presence of mind, self-consciousness which never sleeps, and a constant tension of the spirit. Thanks to this attitude, the philosopher is fully aware of what he does at each instant, and he wills his actions fully.

-Pierre Hadot

There's no such thing as unconscious Stoicism. Attention is fundamental. When my mind is wandering, I'm losing out. I'm denying myself the pleasure of living a life of impact and meaning. In those moments I am not stoic. Thankfully, a quick reminder of what is stoic, and the will to put that into practice is all it takes to get back on the path. It's simple, but strenuous. Hadot's, "constant tension of the spirit," requires dedication. Thankfully, the long gone Stoics of the past left me a few Cliff Notes to help out along the way. I hope your internal monologue is less infernal than mine, but if not, I hope these techniques are as helpful to you as they are to me.

9 Ways to Stop Being Upset by Others!

Commit these nine observations to memory; accept them as gifts from the Muses; and while you still have life, begin to live...

The Emperor's Handbook 11:18

I keep track of my thoughts about Stoicism in a notebook that I try to keep near me. Most of its pages are incoherent; containing scattered musings from recent readings or reminders to revisit some chapter or other when I get the chance. From time to time, however, a Stoic author lays out an idea in such a succinct manner that the notes I create from it are practical. Book 11, Chapter 18 of Aurelius' Meditations is just such a usable bit of writing.

A page from Matt Van Natta's notebook. Points derived from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, 11.18.

A page from Matt Van Natta's notebook. Points derived from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, 11.18.

These four questions and five reminders are a certain means of regaining a Stoic mindset if we are set off balance by the day's social interactions. Of course, in order for them to be effective, we need a clear understanding of the worldview that informs the exercise.

  •  What is my relationship to others?

Marcus Aurelius' short answer is, "we are made for each other." The Stoic view is that our highest purpose is fulfilled by serving others. We should seek to do right by everyone we meet, even if they are not returning the favor.

  • What sort of person is upsetting me?

Evaluate the person you're dealing with. Aurelius breaks this down into sub-questions: What actions do their opinions compel them to perform and to what extent are their actions motivated by pride? Stoics never expect people with bad information to make good decisions.

  • Are they right?!

Check yourself. You could be the one that's in the wrong. Never forget that you are fallible.

  • Do I understand the context?

Aurelius reminds us that, "Many things are done for reasons that are not apparent. A man must know a great deal before condemning another person's behavior." Looking back to the question "are they right," the Stoic default position is, "I don't know." It's difficult enough to keep ourselves on a consistent path of virtue, why waste time guessing where someone else is at?

  • I also make mistakes.

If we expect any grace from others when we stumble, shouldn't we be willing to give the same to them?

  • Life is too short.

" soon you and your vexations will be laid in the grave." Aurelius didn't want to spend his time angry and impatient when he could, instead, pursue happiness. It's sound advice.

  • I am actually disturbing myself.

Stoics hold ourselves responsible for our emotions. As Epictetus put it, "it is not circumstances themselves that trouble people, but their judgement about those circumstances." It's important to realize that we can't control how others act, but we can choose how we will respond. Aurelius reminds himself that, "it isn't what others do that troubles you. That is on their own consciences. You are bothered by your opinions of what they do. Rid yourself of those opinions and stop assuming the worst - then your troubles will go away. How do you get rid of your opinions? By reminding yourself that you aren't disgraced by what others do."

  • I am choosing to prolong my suffering.

"Our rage and lamentations do us more harm than whatever caused our anger and grief in the first place." Again Aurelius lays bare the ridiculousness of fuming about another person's actions.

  • A good disposition is invincible.

"What can the most insolent man do if you remain relentlessly kind and, given the opportunity, counsel him calmly and gently even while he's trying to harm you?" I sort of love the term "relentlessly kind." If we succeed at keeping a Stoic mindset during every social interaction, then we will genuinely value each and every person we meet. This would have to be unnerving! I'm picturing a salesperson who is speaking nicely but seems to have spite behind their eyes. However, Aurelius isn't counseling a faux friendliness. In fact, he continues, "Let their be nothing ironic or scolding in your tone, but speak with true affection and with no residue of resentment in your heart. Don't lecture him. Don't embarrass him in front of others. But address him privately even if others are present."

We're not going to run out of situations that make these points useful. Emperor Aurelius advised himself to memorize them. You may want to as well. Or, like me, you might choose to carry a reminder with you. I know that when I turn to the nine points of Meditations 11:18, I find it impossible to continue stoking the anger that's in me. I'm reminded of the practical outcomes that are expected from a lived Stoic philosophy. I realize that if I truly believe that all people have value and that we are meant to work together, I can not act against that truth and consider myself reasonable. I suspect that taking a page from Aurelius will work as well for you.

All Aurelius quotes from The Emperor's Handbook, a new translation of the Meditations.