Step onto the Stoic Path: Focus on the Present Moment
As humans, we can travel in time. Within a split second, we can move to any point in our past, come back to the present, and wander off years into the future. How is this possible?
We do it in our minds, hundreds of times a day.
Mental time travel is a real thing. It’s an aspect of our unique kind of consciousness which has brought us a lot. On the other hand, mental time travel can also screw you up.
The past is something you have no control over. The future is unpredictable and uncertain. The only thing that’s real is the present.
What you do this very second can affect you for years to come. Epictetus said it right:
"When you relax your attention for a little while, do not imagine that whenever you choose you will recover it, but bear this in mind, that because of the mistake which you have made today, your condition must necessarily be worse as regards everything else."
- Epictetus -
The present moment is the soil for the future. If you don’t act wisely now, you will most likely hurt yourself in the future. Without a focus on your present thoughts, emotions, and actions, it becomes damn near impossible to be a Stoic.
Practicing Stoicism means you’re constantly monitoring yourself, and intervening with helpful strategies when you’re about to be swept along by thoughts and emotions.
But focusing on what’s happening to you from moment-to-moment is easier said than done. Having systems that nudge you toward the good is essential. In this article, I'll outline three strategies.
"Those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy.”
- Marcus Aurelius -
Three stages of Stoic mindfulness
These three methods have helped me progress from a mindless idiot to… well… someone progressively mindful.
The meditation methods outlined below have been discovered by Stoic philosopher Pierre Hadot after careful analysis of ancient philosophical texts. Each step builds on the other but is also fully integrated with all other steps. The only reason I number them is that I’ve noticed that this order is the easiest way to progress with Stoic meditation.
Stoicism contains many simple (but effective) thinking systems. When you read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius you’ll notice that he reminds himself of the same ideas over and over again. By writing the same ideas repeatedly, Marcus was able to memorize the most important Stoic axioms.
Once you’ve memorized the basic Stoic ideas and keep reminding yourself, you’ll start to interact with the ideas. The best way to explore and integrate Stoic ideas in your life is through journaling. Not only did Marcus copy Stoic core ideas word-for-word, but he also reminded himself how to apply them in his life.
Once you’ve made Stoic principles your own, you'll start using Stoic thinking patterns to approach situations. This will take time, and you will often forget using Stoic principles. But with practice, attention on what's in front of you becomes easier. This is the third stage of Stoic meditation. Instead of reflecting on what you’ve done wrong, you will catch your thoughts, emotions, and actions sooner. Eventually, you'll be able to steer yourself consciously, and progressively make smart decisions.
Let’s now have a look at how to actually do each step.
How to focus on the present moment
The practice of memorization has been part of Stoicism since its first class. Students were encouraged to create short maxims of key Stoic principles, which would make them easier to remember. Zeno's motto "live in agreement with Nature" is an example of such a maxim, which brought up the essence of his teachings in his students' minds.
The way to do memorization practice is simple. You can start out with any (Stoic) snippet of text that summarizes an important idea. You then copy the text word-for-word, without changing it. That's it!
You can further elaborate on the copying by rewriting the key ideas in bullet points. By rewriting and restating the same idea several times, you engage deeply with it. It'll become part of you, and will be there when you need it.
In the past week, I've been practicing with Meditations 2.1, which was something I really needed as I was facing a difficult situation at work. The first days I copied the passage a few times every day. Simply through rewriting by hand, I was memorizing the idea and spirit of Marcus' words.
After a few days, I started to summarize the snippet and came up with a few personal maxims. I wrote those down in a notebook I carry everywhere and read my own maxims whenever I need them. As they're my own words (based on timeless wisdom repeated by Marcus), they resonate a whole lot more.
Writing meditation (hypomnêmata)
Once you've started copying passages of Stoic texts that resonate with you, it's a good idea to combine this practice with free-form writing. Write a short commentary on the text you've been memorizing. Think and write of ways how you can apply the wisdom in your life.
By writing to strategize and reflect, you will trigger a whole range of thoughts and emotions. Some will be useful, others need to be discarded. Writing will help you think through your life and choose the right course. Stoic principles will help you decide what parts of your own advice to take, and what to discard as irrational.
An easy way to start free-form writing is by using writing prompts. You do this by asking yourself a question, then writing down what comes to mind. The act of writing will naturally act as a filter, so you get to focus your thoughts. If you tend to use many words (like me), you can set yourself a limit of one page.
Through my newsletter, I'm always sharing Stoic exercises and writing prompts (subscribe here!). Here are the prompts I've found particularly useful:
In the morning
- What are three things I'm grateful for?
- What is one situation I will likely face today that's going to test me, and what must I do to act virtuously?
- What is one thing (that's within my control) I want to have achieved at the end of this day?
In the evening
- What went well today?
- What didn't go well today?
- What vice have I checked today?
- What opportunity have I missed today?
The goal of Stoic mindfulness is attention to your present thoughts and emotions.
Yes, this is quite tricky. When you're taken over by a thought or emotion, there tends to be no distance between your mind and what it's consumed by. In other words: your whole consciousness is taken over, and there is no sense of detachment. You experience that you are your thought and emotions.
This is an idea that's very prominent in Buddhism, and with a bit of research, you'll notice it's also a core idea of Stoicism. I encourage you to watch Donald Robertson's talk at Stoicon 2016 on the subject of Stoicism, Mindfulness, and Cognitive Therapy. In it he outlines three stages of attention:
- Attention on impressions (thoughts and emotions).
- Attention on the here and now.
- Detachment from impressions.
By journaling, you become aware of your actions. It also makes you do research on yourself by examining why you did what you did. The key is to bring this examination closer to the moment it's happening, so you can use thinking models to make the right decision moment-to-moment.
Attention on the here and now can be trained in several ways. Personally, I prefer to use sitting meditation to train this ability.
Every morning and evening, I sit with a straight back and focus my attention on my out-breath for 20 minutes. Each time I notice I'm distracted by a thought or bodily sensation, I acknowledge it. I then bring back my focus to my out-breath. That's all I do.
By noticing I'm distracted and returning my attention to my point of focus, I train my mind to become aware of impressions.
A next step I take outside of sitting meditation is applying thinking models to my impressions. Stoic texts are chockfull responses to things that come into consciousness. In his talk, Donald outlines cognitive distancing, which is as old as Epictetus:
“It isn’t the events themselves that disturb people, but only their judgements about them.”
- Epictetus -
“Distancing' refers to the ability to view one's own thoughts (or beliefs) as constructions of 'reality' rather than as reality itself'"
- Aaron Beck -
So what can you do when you notice you're overtaken by an irrational thought or emotion? You could give the answer Epictetus gives:
"Say to every impression: you're just an impression, and not at all what you seem to be!"
- Epictetus -
If you're not sure if your thought is rational or irrational, choose to withhold judgment:
Be not swept off your feet by the vividness of the impression, but say, "Impression, wait for me a little. Let me see what you are and what you represent. Let me try you."
- Epictetus -
These are the ways I found useful to train myself to focus on the present moment, and become aware of my thoughts and emotions moment-to-moment.
Awareness is an essential skill to have as a Stoic. You can only make progress when you're aware of what you're doing and what's influencing your actions. Without awareness, changing yourself becomes very difficult.
Try the advice in this article for a few weeks. Start simple by copying Marcus Aurelius' Meditations 2.1 for the first week. Consistency counts, not the amount of work you do. Copy the text in 5 minutes by hand, and do it every day.
If you found other exercises useful to become more mindful, please share them in the comments. If you need more inspiration for your Stoic practice, sign up for the weekly newsletter below.