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Slave to our thoughts

Guess who?

Guess who?

There was an interesting piece in the Saturday Sydney Morning Herald a few weeks ago by University of London researcher Jules Evans about cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and the philosophy of the Stoics.

CBT, if you've not encountered it "is a form of treatment for emotional and psychological problems where a person talks with a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist or counsellor ... to help change unhelpful or unhealthy thinking habits, feelings and behaviours," according to the Victorian government's Better Health website.

It's used to treat a variety of problems including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, uncontrollable anger, substance abuse and eating disorders by observing and slowly trying to transform the way patients think about certain circumstances.

If I may be so bold, it's somewhat summarised by the famous quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet where the titular character says: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

In other words, you can be unfairly imprisoned for 27 years - like Nelson Mandela was - but it's entirely up to whether you see this as a negative or a positive and go on to change your country for the better when you get out of the hoosegow.

Jules Evans, who once suffered terrible social anxiety, says CBT worked so well for him he decided to research it.

"I went to New York to interview the psychologist who had invented it, Albert Ellis, and asked him where he had got the idea," writes Evans. 

"He told me he had been directly inspired by ancient Greek philosophy, particularly by a line from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus: 'Men are disturbed not by events but by their opinion about events.'

"Ellis, like the Greeks, suggested our emotions always involve beliefs or interpretations of the world. Our interpretations may often be inaccurate, irrational or self-destructive, and this will make us emotionally sick.

"In my case, I had a value system that put a huge emphasis on popularity and social performance, and this flawed belief system had caused me to suffer," writes Evans. 

Epictetus (55 CE - 135 CE) taught you could separate the world into two general parts - things you can control and those you cannot - which you might recognise popping up in the famous Serenity Prayer co-opted by Alcoholics Anonymous.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

The fascinating thing not mentioned in the SMH piece*, which strikes me as crucial to Epictetus's world view, is that he was born a slave - so he had no choice but to accept there were many things in his life he could not change.

As historian Will Durant wryly observed back in 1926: "Nothing in all literature is so depressing as the 'Dissertations' of the slave, unless it be the 'Meditations' of the emperor."

Says Epictetus in his Dissertations: "Seek not to have things happen as you choose them, but rather choose that they should happen as they do; and you shall live prosperously."

Durant then shares a famous tale that illustrates how strictly Epictetus lived by this maxim: "Story has it that Epictetus' master, who treated him with consistent cruelty, one day took to twisting Epictetus' leg to pass the time away.

"'If you go on,' said Epictetus calmly, 'you will break my leg'."

"The master went on and the leg was broken.

"'Did I not tell you,' Epictetus observed mildly, 'that you would break my leg?'"

Put in its' historical context, Stoicism (bought to Athens by the Phoenician merchant Zeno about 310 BCE) found fertile ground in a "despondent and decadent" Greece subjugated by Rome.

"The introduction of the Stoic philosophy was but one of a multitude of Oriental infiltrations. Both Stoicism and Epicureanism - the apathetic acceptance of defeat, and the effort to forget defeat in the arms of pleasure - were theories as to how one might yet be happy though subjugated or enslaved; precisely as the pessimistic Oriental stoicism of Schopenhauer and the despondent epicureanism of Renan were in the nineteenth century the symbols of a shattered Revolution and a broken France," writes Durant.

In other words, Stoicism is a great philosophy to observe when you have few choices.

The English philosopher and statesman, Francis Bacon, was neither enslaved or subjugated and had plenty of choices but he wrote around 1600 CE that: "How many things be there which we imagine are not? How many things do we esteem and value more than they are?

"These vain imaginations, these ill-proportioned estimations, these be the clouds of error that turn into the storms of perturbations."

Again: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

Or as the Buddhists say: "As it is".

So what does all this ancient navel-gazing offer for the contemporary reader?

Well, I would not be the first or 1001st writer to suggest the fate of the modern "wage slave" sometimes feels very much out of her or his hands - despite the proliferation of choice at the supermarket and on TV.

Many of us feel constantly buffeted and provoked by far flung causes and effects, our jobs under threat, our welfare at the mercy of "faceless men" in gargantuan bureaucracies; tiny, voiceless gears in the machinery of globalisation.

I'd suggest then, we can learn something from a Roman slave who lived 2000 years ago, by deciding what is important to us and not being suckered in by the dictates of culture and society that see us as consumers first and people second.

If you want what the rest of the world wants, you've got some stiff competition. However, if you do not and you're instead happy with what you've got, you're actually in a position most would find enviable.

It's all in how you look at it.

* The original article by Evans published in the UK's Daily Telegraph does mention that Epictetus was a slave but it seems to have been cut from the Aussie version for space.

You can follow Sam on Twitter here. His email address is here.

Please don't take it personally if I do not reply to your email as they come in thick and fast depending on the topic. Please know, I appreciate you taking the time to write and comment and would offer mummy hugs to all.

36 comments

  • I am pretty happy with my lot in life. I don't want the relationships, homes, clothes, jobs, salary, car or anything else that other people may have. I like my house, I like my friends, I like my job, I like my car, I could earn more money, but I don't think I really need it, I have a fabulous wardrobe and an awesome shoe collection and the best dogs in the whole wide world which wake me up when I sleep through my alarm by a few hours.
    I value what I have and will fight to the death to keep it, but I won't go on the war path to have something different. I've made difficult choices because I have had to and I have made some easy choices because I wanted to. I don't want anything more right now.

    Commenter
    M
    Date and time
    July 17, 2013, 5:11PM
    • Your antepenultimate paragraph summarises my philosophy to life, and I'm not surprised it has been around for a while. A person has to figure out what is most important to them, what their non-negotiable thing is, and then work towards that. Everything else in life is negotiable, and can be weighed against other things...but the most important thing has to take precedence over everything else. Too often I see people who know - or claim they know - what is most important i their life, but then sacrifice that to achieve something something. That's not a path to joy and contentment.

      In terms of Epictetus, I can see his point. Would I have achieved my dream if those crappy things hadn't happened to me? Maybe. Maybe not... But that doesn't mean that the people who did those things aren't crappy people.

      Commenter
      JEQP
      Date and time
      July 18, 2013, 1:35AM
      • Rational understanding that the world is just how you see it, is one thing, having that understanding integrated with one's emotional toobox is another.

        But the more we talk about these sorts of things the more it helps, and the medium doesn't matter; newspaper articles or The Simpsons, it's all good.

        Thanks Sam, you deserve a mummy hug.

        Commenter
        Jakob G.
        Date and time
        July 18, 2013, 2:52AM
        • I think the Stoics were pretty much on the money- life is hard. its later than you think,etc. and also i think the Buddhists- an acceptance that life is suffering, have many great ways to provide comfort in times when we become weary and despondent with life. I really like reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. I bought a copy about 20 years ago and it has helped me cope with all kinds of stuff. serious illnesses of my kids, passing away of one through heart disase, anorexia of another and marriage breakdown and deaths of close friends. One of Marcus Aurelius 's great quotes goes .. 'when you arise in the morning think of what a precious privelige it is to be alive..to breathe, to think, to enjoy , to love... to me that is Gold.

          Commenter
          what it is
          Location
          San Sebastian Spain
          Date and time
          July 18, 2013, 3:34AM
          • That's really good. It takes people usually a life time to be happy. It's about balance and finding out what you need more or less. I am the same I just don't have it in me to get all sad and depressed. I find that the key is to reduce the problems in ones life and remove all the drama associated with stress and then bingo! Sometimes one needs to really just think " What makes me sad ? " So I decided to work less and change jobs. Pay my debts and just pay cash only this way I reduce debt stress. Quit smoking to save money and work out to increase health. Get rid of those in my life that cause problems and hold onto those that are good in my life. Had a positive outlook on things and realized that there are worse things out there. I learned to be grateful and humble. Now I am 31, well traveled, great relationship of 6 years. Couldn't ask for more or less. If I have a busy day at work then I just think well my personal life is great why let small things bother me? Why let work take over me? I can have the same things as everyone else just without drama. The key to it is knowing who you are as a person and finding out what makes you tick isn't it? I like your comment and proud you found your way. People pay to find out who they are and then just get buried more in debt trying to do so. I think other people should look more to your comment as a guide and something to look up. If we one the sperm race we can win now.

            Commenter
            Great
            Date and time
            July 18, 2013, 6:50AM
            • i was once told by an individual "debt is good" to which i said "nope debt is sometimes necessary but not good", that person persisted without providing any rational examples, i guess some people just have no basic financial knowledge.

              Commenter
              Victorious Painter
              Date and time
              July 18, 2013, 9:21AM
          • It's so self evidently true Sam. Yet often so hard to adhere to.

            Commenter
            Farr
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            July 18, 2013, 7:29AM
            • Happiness is a state of mind!
              I have a saying and goes, "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, but is that because the guy on the other side mows, slashes, fertilizes and works harder than you?"......most likely!

              Commenter
              shemp
              Location
              melb
              Date and time
              July 18, 2013, 7:53AM
              • Lol. The grass is greener on my side of the fence - cos I choose to do nothing and let it grow! I also stopped trying to control the tomatoes or getting cabbages to grow in rows. Now they get to do what they like and I can finally forage enough out of the backyard to be virtually self-sufficient in vegetables if I choose to forgo greater variety. sometimes you have just got to let go.

                Commenter
                Anony Mouse
                Date and time
                July 18, 2013, 8:45AM
            • To be happy and comfortable with who we are, everyone has their views about it as I do.
              Always behave as if everyone is watching and listening, be honest, have integrity and show respect(unless you explicitly know they don’t deserve it).
              Children turning into responsible young adults and blazing thru uni, an amazing partner, supporting parents and extended family living spread across the world.
              Enjoy my job and look forward to it every day so it’s effortless, am able to contribute extra into supper up to the limit, mortgage should be paid off long before retirement and enjoy a big holiday most years.
              I enjoy my simplified life, it’s basic yet comfortable so I’m very content indeed.

              ps, don’t jump on the Mandela bandwagon, there is usually so much more to a heroes story than the convenient truth.

              Commenter
              Victorious Painter
              Date and time
              July 18, 2013, 8:05AM

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