(Thanks to Jahed for the discussions on healthcare, government, and many other topics.)
“The mind that is free from passions is a citadel, for man has nothing more secure to which he can fly for refuge and repel every attack.”
When I was a kid, I used to struggle with processing emotions and relating to people. Retreating inside, I would imagine a barrier between me and the things happening around me. I would sometimes pretend that I was like a robot being operated by tiny people inside, safe from any external threats.
As an adult I discovered the Stoics. And in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, I found the idea of the “inner citadel.”
I also realised that I’d been exposed to Stoicism before. After struggling with major depression for years, I had found relief in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT is loosely based on Stoic principles, with an emphasis on examining your perceptions and how you react to situations. I successfully used many of the techniques I learned from CBT without knowing about the philosophy that inspired them.
Rather than escaping from the world, I made an effort to take control over my thoughts and create my own citadel. I learned to distance myself from my automatic reactions to events, – rather than trying to escape them with fantasy, – examine them, and decide if I should accept them or not.
I look at what is in my control and what isn’t. If it’s in my control, I direct my focus and my efforts on it. And if it isn’t, I let go of it and try to accept that I cannot do anything about it.
This is the Stoic mindfulness I practise every day, and I have found that it has helped me to virtually eliminate anxiety and depression from my life.
But your phone, the glowing, vibrating portal to a nightmare world of invasive work emails, unsolicited direct messages, and relentless notifications about nothing, promises to help you develop mindfulness too.
All you need to do is spend a few minutes every day using a meditation app.
(There are even devices that claim to be able to measure how effective that meditation is.)
But if I told you that a few minutes of exercise every day was enough to see continual improvements, would you believe me?
And is there any portion of your day, any aspect of your life, that wouldn’t improve if you paid greater attention to it?
Quotes must be internalised, and your practise must be consistent until it manifests on the outside. Meditation only has value if it prepares you for the challenges you’re going to face every day.
And that’s why I think there’s a problem with keeping a gratitude journal. A gratitude journal tends to focus your attention on externals, things that aren’t fully within your control. And the more you focus on them, the more you’ll start to believe that your happiness depends on them.
(I say all this knowing that I pursue externals through health and fitness. However, I choose – and constantly remind myself – not to derive my happiness from those things. And I recognise that despite all the time and energy I’ve invested in my training and nutrition, it could all be wiped away. And if I lost it all, it would not diminish who I am.)
We’re rarely grateful for suffering, but often it gives us the greatest opportunity to cultivate characteristics that allow us to flourish, like patience, resilience, and humility.
Instead of a gratitude journal, I find it more useful to keep a kind of philosophical journal, reflecting on the events of the day and the choices that I made. This practise helps eliminate that deep anxiety which arises when your actions and values don’t align.
“The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he had betaken himself to rest, to inquire of his spirit: ‘What bad habit of yours have you cured to-day? What vice have you checked? In what respect are you better?’ Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgement seat.”
Seneca – On Anger III.36
Take Nobody’s Word For It
My earliest exposure to science was from a TV show called Take Nobody’s Word For It. This is the motto of the famous Royal Society, perhaps the oldest scientific academy in the world. The show encouraged you to replicate experiments yourself at home and verify the results, which I often did with varying degrees of success.
The motto urges you to stand up to authority, to check facts and find answers for yourself.
“The true method of knowledge is experiment.”
As a scientific researcher, the greatest crisis you will ever face, – the reason why so many PhD students experience waves of anxiety and depression, – is that you are forced to find answers for yourself. There is no guarantee of success and no guarantee that the answers exist. And what’s worse, you may find that you’re asking the wrong questions in the first place!
And we see this crisis in health and fitness too. People are looking for answers to problems that medical science often has no solutions for. When doctors fail them, they abandon conventional medicine and seek out quacks, snake oil salesman, and gurus who promise them the solutions they’re looking for.
We are all desperate for answers. The mistake is not to place your trust in medicine, or to consult doctors, but rather to do it blindly. Following any authority, trusting them unconditionally, is the mistake. (And not accepting the possibility of mistakes is also a mistake.)
If we totally relinquish our desire for control and the need for answers, we would lose the essence of scientific enquiry. But I believe that by studying both philosophy and trying to understand the nature of science, we develop a better understanding of the limits of our knowledge and what is reasonable for us to discover through experimentation.
“What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions — reason.”
Metrics and measures are powerful tools, but they aren’t a substitute for reason.
Measurement without judgement is like assembling ingredients and weighing them without knowing what you want to cook or what it should taste like.
I used to believe that performing an exercise correctly was about achieving a full range of motion. I thought that a bench press should involve touching the bar to your chest at the bottom and locking out the elbows at the top.
But what is happening externally – the arc describing the movement of the barbell over time – does not necessarily tell you what’s happening internally, like the stresses experienced by structures inside your body, or the tolerances those structures have. And it does not necessarily reflect your subjective experience of that movement.
Analysing posture and assessing movement with arbitrary screening protocols often leads us to make misguided attempts to correct issues that arise from natural and immutable variations in the structure of the human body.
I’ve seen personal trainers instruct clients to do “full range of motion” squats, far beyond the current limits of their mobility (and most likely beyond what they can safely tolerate).
(If you’re a personal trainer, remember: the client has all the answers, it’s your job to ask questions. You must not impose your beliefs on them.)
You should focus more on internalising the practise of training, understanding the capabilities and limitations of your body, and interpreting the feedback it’s giving you.
There are devices that can tell you how many steps you’ve taken as you walk through a park, how much distance you’ve covered, and approximately how many calories you’ve burned.
But that tells you nothing about how it feels to be in a natural environment, how it helps you relax, or the way that walking permits creative thoughts to flow. And when you forget those things, you’re losing essential components of the experience, reducing it to parameters that describe only the mechanical process of walking. The same number of steps taken on a treadmill in an artificially lit gym, watching Netflix on your mobile, does not create the same effect.
And does knowing the number of steps you took really help you?
Perhaps, if your goal is to track activity, it may help you drive a change in your behaviour. We often use measurements as proxies for what we really want. But if we really want to be healthy, we need to pay attention to the things we can’t measure too, it’s not about mindlessly hitting targets.
Understand that your internal state drives the actions that manifest in your external state. Self-quantification is not self-awareness.
And don’t quantify at the expense of quality.