When we think ancient Rome, we often tend to think in terms of excess — wine-fuelled orgies, giant spectacles with gladiators and epic banquet feasts.
But Rome had another side, too — a camp of thinkers who were invested in virtue, moderation and self-discipline. These were the ancient Stoics, whose ideology is now making a comeback, thanks to a recent realization that these Roman philosophers, who spent their lives working out mindfulness techniques and ways to be happy, might well have been the western world’s first wellness gurus, and maybe even the key to preventative mental health.
And that realization has led to an avalanche of self-help articles and books that apply principles like “cognitive distancing,” and “radical acceptance” to modern life, ranging from Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck to The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday, who has a big following in Silicon Valley.
Closer to home, we have Donald Robertson, a Toronto psychotherapist and author who’s launching his sixth book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, this Saturday at Ben McNally books. The emperor in question is Marcus Aurelius, whose personal journal about how to live a better life was unearthed and translated as The Meditations.
Although this original self-help text is still relatively obscure, it’s actually been insanely influential in the world of psychology. In the 1950s, psychologists Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck used it to invent a new branch of therapy, behaviour therapy, which has since evolved into the modern mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioural Theory (CBT). And if ancient philosophy seems like a strange foundation for therapy, that’s because we’ve lost sight of what those ancient thinkers were really up to.
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“Some people will criticize what we’re doing and say we’re just taking ancient philosophy and trying to make it look like modern self-help or turning it into psychotherapy,” says Robertson. “And those people don’t know that they’re missing some huge glaringly obvious things about ancient philosophy since the philosophers, themselves, introduced a lot of the terminology we use now.”
Robertson lists off a few examples, including the word “apathy” which used to mean freedom from unhealthy emotions. Another key Stoic concept, eudaimonia, meant happiness, but also a flourishing of the self and fulfilment in life. In other words, says Robertson, wellness.
How do you achieve eudaimonia? It starts with ridding oneself from those unhealthy emotions, such as anger, anxiety and depression. Both Stoicism and CBT therapy offer coping strategies for managing these feelings, most of which are informed by a basic premise that some thoughts are automatic (you get angry when you’re unfairly blamed for something at work), while other, later emotions, are of our own making. Those second-level negative thoughts and feelings are no longer about the thing that happened at work but, instead, express core personal beliefs (“I’m a failure”) or basic assumptions about the way the world works (“life is unfair”). These can spiral out of control into catastrophic thinking (“I’ll be fired and lose my house”), or, instead, we can learn to control them.
Bad things happen to everyone. That’s out of our control. But we can control how we react.
A regimen of thought experiments and exercises espoused by Marcus Aurelius and his disciples can help you stop these negative thought patterns. If a lot of this sounds familiar, well, that’s probably because it’s everywhere. Since it’s usually goal-oriented, practical and short (12 to 20 sessions to cure panic attacks, as opposed to, say, a lifetime spent in psychoanalysis to slowly bring unconscious material into the consciousness), it’s been widely adopted, especially by people looking to keep the cost of therapy down. There are mindfulness clinics all over Canada and some of them even offer CBT-based mental health and mood apps available for downloading. Even fictional character Jennifer Melfi, a Freudian psychoanalyst, suggested Tony Soprano switch over to behavioural therapy in Season 3.
Critiques of CBT, however, are starting to surface. Success rates, which started off brilliantly high, are starting to decline, worrying psychologists who wonder if this branch of therapy has inherent limitations. One major limitation, argues Dr. Loretta Breuning, author of Tame Your Anxiety: Rewiring Your Brain for Happiness, is that mindfulness might be better at shutting down negative thinking patterns, but doesn’t offer enough help for creating positive alternatives by building new “neural pathways.”
“If mindfulness works for you, great,” says Breuning, whose work is based in evolutionary psychology. “But happy and unhappy chemicals are controlled by neural pathways built from past experience so, when you want to change yourself, then you’re effectively trying to make a new neural pathway. Mindfulness can stop the flow of electricity into the path of least resistance, but it does not create a new path.”
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Much like the Stoics, Breuning offers self-help exercises designed to make us create our own new neural pathways that tamp down the unhappy chemicals and dial up the happy ones—a similar solution, but based in very different ideas about how the brain works. Others, notably Freudians, are suggesting it’s time to head back to the analyst’s couch. Everybody has ideas for CBTs falling success rates.
Robertson, on the other hand, is exploring the possibility of doubling down on the Stoicism that inspired CBT in the first place, since it’s “bigger in scope” than a short course of therapy, which he says isn’t “sticky,” meaning people often get better initially, but might relapse and have to do a refresher course. Stoicism, on the other hand, is more like a way of life, one that he hopes could give people lifelong psychological resilience. In other words, a preventative mental health treatment.
“The Holy Grail of mental health is that prevention is better than cure,” he says. “That’s a no-brainer. Everyone knows that. And we don’t really have preventative mental health techniques now. We do have a lot of therapy and we throw millions and millions of dollars into remedial approaches for people who already have a mental health diagnosis. But the Holy Grail would be to stop it in its tracks before it happens.”
And if Marcus Aurelius has the answer, that could be a game-changer. An unlikely new wellness guru, to be sure. But if it works, move over GOOP.
Christine Sismondo is a Toronto-based writer and contributor to the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @sismondo