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.

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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.