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Mind Macros 60: Gaining distance from thoughts, the stubbornness of beliefs, and Epictetus' approach to happiness
“The higher we soar the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.
A note on the change of format:
The issues of the newsletter have become long of late, with my commentaries that sought to explore the author's points being almost as long as the book passages they discussed. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it's not per the promise of the newsletter. Thus, I have decided to update the format. For the next handful of issues, I will include an extra book passage and drop my commentaries.
Some book selections are rather long and need to be for full context. But to aid in consumption, I will bold the critical principles to help you better separate the wheat from the chaff. In my opinion, everything I include is wheat, but that doesn't mean it will resonate with you. If something does catch your attention, the additional context will help to solidify the concepts.
Food For Thought
I. Gaining Distance From Our Thoughts
“You can start training yourself in this Stoic practice of objective representation right now by writing down a description of an upsetting or problematic event in plain language. Phrase things as accurately as possible and view them from a more philosophical perspective, with studied indifference. Once you’ve mastered this art, take it a step further by following the example of Paconius Agrippinus and look for positive opportunities. Write how you could exercise strength of character and cope wisely with the situation. Ask yourself how someone you admire might cope with the same situation or what that person might advise you to do. Treat the event like a sparring partner in the gym, giving you an opportunity to strengthen your emotional resilience and coping skills. You might want to read your script aloud and review it several times or compose several versions until you’re satisfied it’s helped you change how you feel about events.
“Marcus [Aurelius] tends to refer to this way of viewing events as entailing the separation of our value judgments from external events. Cognitive therapists have likewise, for many decades, taught their clients the famous quotation from Epictetus: ‘It’s not things that upset us but our judgments about things,’ which became an integral part of the initial orientation (‘socialization’) of the client to the treatment approach. This sort of technique is referred to as ‘cognitive distancing’ in CBT, because it requires sensing the separation or distance between our thoughts and external reality. [Aaron T. Beck] defined it as a ‘metacognitive’ process, meaning a shift to a level of awareness involving ‘thinking about thinking.’
“‘Distancing’ refers to the ability to view one’s own thoughts (or beliefs) as constructions of ‘reality’ rather than as reality itself.
“He recommended explaining this to clients using the analogy of colored glasses. We could look at the world through positive rose-tinted glasses or sad blue ones and just assume that what we see is how things are. However, we can also look at the glasses themselves and realize that they color our vision. Noticing how our thoughts and beliefs tinge our perception of the world is a prerequisite for changing them in cognitive therapy. Later generations of clinicians and researchers discovered that rigorous training in cognitive distancing, by itself, was sufficient in many cases to bring about therapeutic improvement. Greater emphasis on this cognitive skill is an integral part of what became known as the mindfulness and acceptance approach to CBT.
“Sometimes merely remembering the saying of Epictetus, that ‘it’s not things that upset us,’ can help us gain cognitive distance from our thoughts, allowing us to view them as hypotheses rather than facts about the world. However, there are also many other cognitive distancing techniques used in modern CBT, such as these:
• Writing down your thoughts concisely when they occur and viewing them on paper
• Writing them on a whiteboard and looking at them ‘over there’—literally from a distance
• Prefixing them with a phrase like ‘Right now, I notice that I am thinking…’
• Referring to them in the third person, for example, ‘Donald is thinking…,’ as if you’re studying the thoughts and beliefs of someone else
• Evaluating in a detached manner the pros and cons of holding a certain opinion
• Using a counter or a tally to monitor with detached curiosity the frequency of certain thoughts
• Shifting perspective and imagining a range of alternative ways of looking at the same situation so that your initial viewpoint becomes less fixed and rigid. For example, ‘How might I feel about crashing my car if I were like Marcus Aurelius?’ ‘If this happened to my daughter, how would I advise her to cope?’ ‘How will I think about this, looking back on events, ten or twenty years from now?’ — From How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald J. Robertson.
II. The Stubbornness of Beliefs
“Flaws in forming and updating beliefs have the potential to snowball. Once a belief is lodged, it becomes difficult to dislodge. It takes on a life of its own, leading us to notice and seek out evidence confirming our belief, rarely challenge the validity of confirming evidence, and ignore or work hard to actively discredit information contradicting the belief. This irrational, circular information-processing pattern is called motivated reasoning. The way we process new information is driven by the beliefs we hold, strengthening them. Those strengthened beliefs then drive how we process further information, and so on.
“It doesn’t take much for any of us to believe something. And once we believe it, protecting that belief guides how we treat further information relevant to the belief. This is perhaps no more evident than in the rise in prominence of “fake news” and disinformation. The concept of ‘fake news,’ an intentionally false story planted for financial or political gain, is hundreds of years old. It has included such legendary practitioners as Orson Welles, Joseph Pulitzer, and William Randolph Hearst. Disinformation is different than fake news in that the story has some true elements, embellished to spin a particular narrative. Fake news works because people who already hold beliefs consistent with the story generally won’t question the evidence. Disinformation is even more powerful because the confirmable facts in the story make it feel like the information has been vetted, adding to the power of the narrative being pushed.
“Even when directly confronted with facts that disconfirm our beliefs, we don’t let facts get in the way. As Daniel Kahneman pointed out, we just want to think well of ourselves and feel that the narrative of our life story is a positive one. Being wrong doesn’t fit into that narrative. If we think of beliefs as only 100% right or 100% wrong, when confronting new information that might contradict our belief, we have only two options: (a) make the massive shift in our opinion of ourselves from 100% right to 100% wrong, or (b) ignore or discredit the new information. It feels bad to be wrong, so we choose (b). Information that disagrees with us is an assault on our self-narrative. We’ll work hard to swat that threat away. On the flip side, when additional information agrees with us, we effortlessly embrace it.” — From Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke.
III. Epictetus' Approach to Happiness
“Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control. We cannot have a light heart if our minds are a woeful cauldron of fear and ambition. Do you wish to be invincible? Then don’t enter into combat with what you have no real control over. Your happiness depends on three things, all of which are within your power: your will, your ideas concerning the events in which you are involved, and the use you make of your ideas. Authentic happiness is always independent of external conditions. Vigilantly practice indifference to external conditions. Your happiness can only be found within. How easily dazzled and deceived we are by eloquence, job title, degrees, high honors, fancy possessions, expensive clothing, or a suave demeanor. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that celebrities, public figures, political leaders, the wealthy, or people with great intellectual or artistic gifts are necessarily happy. To do so is to be bewildered by appearances and will only make you doubt yourself. Remember: The real essence of good is found only within things under your own control. If you keep this in mind, you won’t find yourself feeling falsely envious or forlorn, pitifully comparing yourself and your accomplishments to others. Stop aspiring to be anyone other than your own best self: for that does fall within your control.” — From The Art of Living by Epictetus and Sharon Lebell.
Quotes to Ponder
I. Marcus Aurelius on not letting thoughts run rampant:
“Don’t let your reflection on the whole sweep of life crush you. Don’t fill your mind with all the bad things that might still happen. Stay focused on the present situation and ask yourself why it’s so unbearable and can’t be survived.”
II. Friedrich Nietzsche on never letting the opinions of others limit our ambitions:
“The higher we soar the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.”
Source: Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche.
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