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What is Prosoche? It is the ancient Greek word for “focused attention” used by the Stoics, and considered the important initial step and skill to learn for a student of philosophy.
I am not an expert on the history of the Stoic world view. A modern place talking about the idea of Prosoche is Chris Fisher’s traditional stoicism website and ‘Stoicism on Fire’ podcast. Chris Fisher often cites the writing of Piere Hadot and A. A. Long as scholars to read on the ancient Stoic worldview.
I am not necessarily talking about the ancient Stoic practice of Prosoche today, although I hope we can have a discussion during the meet-up if you have more knowledge about what the Stoics said about Prosoche. I am more interested in how the concept of Prosoche and a modern understanding of mindfulness can inform a study of philosophy, Wisdom, and Virtue.
First, what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is being present in the moment and non-judgmental. We’ll explore that modern definition more in a moment.
But what is Prosoche? Present in the moment, with a focus on virtue, what is good, what is under our control or “up to us”.
One last citation from Chris Fisher. In Episode 6 of Stoicism on Fire Podcast, he talks about the role of “the will” of an individual directing how we focus our attention. Initially it takes more of a conscious effort to focus our attention, but as we practice, and discipline our attention and value judgments, we become more in accordance with Nature, accepting of fate, and maybe it gets easier to remain focused on the present moment and what is actually up to us.
I hope today will give you an idea of how you might consider combining mindfulness practices from the Buddhist tradition and modern psychology with the Stoic conception of virtue and Prosoche.
John Kabat-Zinn is one of the big names associated with bringing the practice of mindfulness to modern psychology and clinical psychology. He is the founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. He gives the definition of mindfulness I like to use, due to its simplicity.
The first half is stating what you are doing, you are focusing your attention on the present moment.
Going about your day, you may be doing things mindfully or mindlessly. I remember my mom would say sometimes we would be driving to school and she couldn’t remember the previous 10 minutes of the drive and to be surprised we were there already. You can drive on auto-pilot and when it is a well practice behavior, you can usually do so relatively safely.
You can also be living your life on autopilot. Getting up each day and doing the same thing you always do, doing the next thing that you “should” be doing. Or you can be present, and aware and stop to consider what you want to be doing. The difficult thing about mindfulness, to stop and be aware, is then you might stop, look within, and have to confront the disappointment of not being able to have the thing you desire.
You can also be living life focused on the past or the future rather than the present. Albert Ellis says that we feel fear when we are focused on some terrible outcome in an unknown future. We feel loss when we are focused on the terrible outcome that already happened. We can also feel disappointment about a thing that hasn’t even happened yet. Imagining being at a party, but already feeling sad that the party will be over in another hour or two and you will have to go back home and sit in your house alone.
But the party isn’t over yet. If you are mindful, present in the moment, you still have time left to enjoy. Call to Mind Epictetus’s quote on how to conduct yourself at life’s banquet.
In addition to being present in the moment, mindfulness is about the attitude you hold while keeping your awareness to the present moment.
Non-judgment is the perspective that a thing is neither good nor bad, it just is.
As you observe things in the external world, you also observe your inner states of feeling and thinking. The buddhist perspective is that we have 6 senses. The usual five: vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell, and the sixth is “intention”. Mindful eating meditation really helps to identify this sense. When you hold a piece of food in front of your mouth you have the urge to eat it. When you chew up food, you have the urge to swallow it and not leave it sitting in your mouth.
When something is scary, you have the urge to run away. When someone angers you, you have the urge to lash out at them.
My perspective on mindfulness is particularly influenced by Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which includes mindfulness as an essential skill for “living a life worth living.” I personally see a degree of mindfulness practice as essential for fully engaging in any form of cognitive behavioral therapy.
DBT teaches that to get better at mindfulness is to practice observing and describing. Observe what you notice and put it into words to “think about our thoughts.”
You will observe thoughts passing through your mind. “I really like that painting.” “my desk is such a mess.” The judgment is when we add “and that’s a bad thing.” I can organize my desk if I want to, but the judgment that it’s terrible and awful that my desk is a mess, leads to shaming. It also takes us out of the present. My desk is exactly the way it is. It is only in an uncertain future that it might get more organized or someone else might come in and look disapprovingly at the mess.
To practice getting better at non-judgment is to practice observing and describing the judgment. To become curious about our judgments, allow the thought, put a label on it, “a judgment that something was bad” and let it go. To stop judging begins with “stop judging your judging.”
To practice non-judgment is not to turn off feelings or emotion. A feeling is an experience, there is a physiological reaction in the body to notice. There are thoughts that go along with the feeling or keep reinforcing (agreeing with) the feeling.
We can separate judgments from our values. Something can happen that goes against our values. It is a separate process to judge as good or bad. “I need it” or “I can’t stand it.” To notice and just sit with an experience going against our deeply held values takes courage.
Some related perspectives or attitudes for mindfulness include non-attachment. Not clinging to the moment to remain, but letting go. Also non-striving. Not pushing to keep doing or accomplish some desired outcome. But allowing for what is in the moment. But it all begins with non-judgment. To not judge the past or present as inherently good or bad helps to let go of the desire to stay attached or strive.
So how does a person get better at mindfulness? It is not enough to just take a class and learn about mindfulness, but it is something that must be practiced regularly, if only for a few minutes.
To intentionally focus the mind on what is happening. To observe, and describe, and notice judgment.
The benefits are allowing yourself to be present and enjoy the moment more often. Improving your ability to stop and actually ask yourself, “what do I want to be doing with the time I have available?” Being more aware if and in alignment with your values and emotions.
How do we integrate Stoicism into this modern picture of mindfulness?
The dichotomy of control. Virtue, vice, and indifferents.
I have enjoyed wrestling with the idea of indifferents when listening to Steve Karafit on Sunday Stoic Podcast wrestling with the idea “are we meant to feel indifferent about indifferents?” But it is not about feeling indifference. Rather events are indifferent towards virtue. One definition of indifferent is “undifferentiated”, not good or bad, but “it just is”.
So what is Prosoche from my perspective?
Mindful, focused attention on the present moment, with an attitude of non-judgment towards “indifferents”, those things outside of our control, influence, or Will. And mindfulness of what thoughts and actions we can will towards virtue. Mindfulness of “what does the moment demand?” Is it courage, justice, temperance?
DBT talks about the idea of “Wise Mind”, being a state of mind between reacting to your emotional mind, and being overly rational or “reasonable mind”, ignoring emotion.
Stoicism is all about the Logos, rationality. But the Logos is not The Logos, without Eros, without love, passion, feeling. It is the goal to not react on emotion, but also to not avoid or push out of conscious awareness. Finding a state of “Wise Mind” requires the hegemonikon, ancient Greek word used by Marcus Aurelius for the “governing faculty” or aspect of the will that makes a conscious, mindful, choice.
We are often left with fragments of what the early Stoics considered as practices of the prokopton, the beginner student learning to love wisdom. But from my perspective, modern practices of mindfulness that adapt Buddhist spiritual traditions are helpful towards training that faculty of will and self-discipline and can be further adapted to consider the spiritual attitude of Stoicism. Accepting Fate and what is and what is not “up to us”.
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