Cognitive Meditation

Since starting to think seriously about keeping my brain healthy I’ve looked at meditation techniques. My first idea of meditation was of some eastern mystic sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, trying to empty their mind.

Mindfulness mimics this method to avoid taxing people who live modern lives too much. Framing itself as a more accessible version of the mind-emptying eastern mysticism. Mindfulness calls for focus on the immediate: breathing, water running over skin in the shower, distant heard in a ‘silent’ room. As its broad adoption attests, mindfulness is easier and practically more useful, than spending hours trying to still the world and imagine oneself info nothingness.

The wide adoption of mindfulness, with its claim to pedigree based on a link with mind-emptying meditation, overlooks and neglects a form of mediation far more familiar to people living modern lives. Cognitive meditation is not about finding peace in our heads, or trying to still the noise. It’s an active meditation that calls for hard mental work. Spending time in our minds analysing the issues we face is a tried and tested method for creating solutions to our problems, and its in those solutions we can find tranquility. For some reason, advice on everyday mental health appears to disregard this approach.

Stoics advocate meditating cognitively on the future to prepare for outcomes that might affect tranquillity. Meditation can focus positively – what would be the response to a good event: do you take credit, laud it over others, or acknowledge the help, and treat it like any other event, as it might be taken away soon enough? Focusing negatively, meditation might focus on responding to a boss’s criticism, the end of a relationship or bereavement? Examining how you would feel, and how you would move forward.

Using a cognitive approach to meditation, as the Stoics suggested, brings simple Stoic principles to mind, like recognising what is and isn’t in your control. As a result, when the events you meditate on do occur you’ll be in a better position to consider your feelings, avoid being overwhelmed and maintain your tranquillity.

Bedtime tranquillity

My daughter decided she didn’t fancy brushing her teeth a couple of nights ago. It was quite a late night anyway, so I’d taken care, half an hour after her usual bed time to lay out to her what I was expecting to happen. On this basis we could get her teeth done quickly and have a chance to read some part of a story.

But it turned out, my daughter didn’t want to brush. Patiently, I explained the simple ground rules again – the sooner she got on with brushing her teeth, the sooner she could have stories. I ran through a some quasi Stoic advice for her – you can only do what you can do in this moment, no other time: five minutes had passed and she hadn’t brushed her teeth, she was getting very upset, and whilst I told her she should brush her teeth soon, or miss out on her story for lack of time.

Brushing teeth was a waste of time, she told me, I don’t like doing it. It must be tough, brushing your teeth, if you think it’s a waste of time. I pointed out once more that she was wasting more time by not brushing and protesting. On top of that she was getting upset. I offered her another Stoic technique, pointing out she has to brush her teeth our they’ll rot and fall out, so brush, because there’s nothing she can do. 

After more than 20 minutes she grudgingly brushed her teeth, and went to bed upset that she would get no stories.Then spent nearly an hour yelling about wanting to read. It’s a parent’s nightmare, tough bedtimes and a child that doesn’t want to go to sleep. It’s easy to get upset and lose it, and just thinking I might terrifies me. So as I climbed the stairs to check on her as she continued to very about missing out on stories, I reminded myself that each time was an opportunity to interact with my daughter and show her love. 

The end result, she calmed down and went to sleep in the end. Best part – I didn’t lose it and have that guilt feeling hanging over me – I maintained my tranquillity. The next night, she was brilliant, did what was asked of her, had a good story time, and confessed to me that she was pleased she’d behaved better. I’m not making her into a Stoic, but if she picks up some ideas, great!

Saying No, Seeing No

It’s January, which means the TV is full of programmes and adverts promoting diets and dieting. My favourite is the WeightWatchers ad, which proclaims that people who follow their advice can say yes to everything. Of course with plenty of caveats, and somewhere along the line people on this kind of programme will have to say no to something, otherwise they’ll just over eat and not succeed. But i do find it interesting that WW chooses to lead with a message that is entirely hedonistic – have all the fun you want, and, presumably in the small print, fall back on a position that that is a form of enlightened hedonism – you can have fun, with caution.

My view is that this position, in the long run, isn’t going to benefit any one who goes to Weight Watchers. I read a news story recently about how research is identify links between sugar consumption and some cancers. Now it might not be obvious to everyone, but it’s long been known that sugar is deadly, it causes obesity and diabetes and is linked to heart disease, and a host of other disease, that, as a human being who reckons staying healthy is a good driver of tranquility, you don’t want to get. Having read the article on sugar’s link to cancer, I decided that enough was enough, and as far as possible I was going to cut refined sugar out of my diet. I am trying to cut it right back to perhaps one or two teaspoons a week, which is about fifty times what it needs to be, but about fifty times less than the average as well.

To make sure I can actually achieve this, I am constantly reminding myself of the kinds of pleasure that are part of this particular dichotomy. On the one hand, there’s the enjoyment from eating some kind of sweet and I put this against the pleasure of know that I’m doing something good for my health. putting my body in a position where it can be healthy for years to come: through not being overweight, through being able to move better, though potentially reducing my risk of developing seriously  debilitating diseases (let’s face it, having eaten sugar for as long as I have, my chances are never going to be zero again). On top of that is the pleasure I derive from recognising the pleasure I’ll experience in future with a healthy body. And all that comes before I add in the crashing impact giving in and saying yes to something sweet would have on my tranquility.

Dieting and losing weight – I’m using visualisation techniques to make sure I stick with it – far better than point systems.

Becoming stoic

It’s in the past, so I don’t have to remember, because the decision is made and we are where we are, but honestly I don’t remember what made me look at Stoicism in the first place. But I’m glad I did. Around nine months later I find myself using it more and more, and defaulting my thinking to Stoic principles. The philosophy is about living practically, and dealing with the day-to-day, so even though the philosophy relies on some solid principles, I keep on learning about it as I try to apply it to new situations everyday.

My gateways into Stoicism were two people. The first book I read on Stoicism was William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life, which provides a clear and simple explanation of Stoicism. Over the past months I’ve found myself coming back to this book over and over, because it’s well written, well set out and an easy read. Irvine is a professor of philosophy, so Stoicism isn’t the only ancient philosophy he’s come across, which was also reassuring when I was still not sure about the value of the ideas he was talking about.

The second author was Ryan Holiday, who has cleverly dressed Stoic philosophy up as a modern day self-help solution. Echoes of mindfulness  – which a lot of people I know use and appreciate – are clear through his books. The Obstacle is the Way is a book that analyses Stoicism, and has a very strong management guru/ self-helpy feel to it. It focuses on lots of examples, and didn’t leave me feeling like I was learning anything about self-analysis. His second book The Daily Stoic, is an anthology of mediations – fun to read, useful to think about, but lacking in depth. I’m not sure how helpful it is to know what Seneca said about being accepting of your fate, if you a – don’t know who Seneca is, and b – don’t have a really strong grasp of ideas like the dichotomy of control.

For these reasons, I have stuck with Irvine’s book as my go-to, whilst I venture to read the source material: Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca are beside the bed at the moment. Reminding me to meditate on what I have each day to remind myself to be grateful whilst I have it.