Summary of A Guide to the Good Life

A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy is a handbook of Stoic philosophy by professor William Irvine. He points out that Stoicism is very different than the stereotypes we have developed about unfeeling robots, and in fact it contains a lot of timeless advice for psychological well being. This is not an academic work of philosophy, it is written as a popular self-improvement book. Though he does discuss a bit of the philosophy and history behind Stoicism, the bulk of the book consists of practical and actionable advice to improve your life. My summary reorganizes the book chapters, with a brief intro in the beginning, followed by all the actionable advice and the author’s personal suggestions, and concluding with a discussion of Stoicism in the modern context and some brief notes on the history of Stoic philosophy.

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Do You Feel Like an Adult?

I was doing some IFS with an old friend yesterday, and when I told her to imagine what her adult self would say to her ten-year-old child self, she said that her problem was that she didn’t feel like an adult.

I primed the pump with some wisdom I’ve heard from her over the years, and she mostly took it from there. Still, it was an interesting situation for me. I think one nugget of IFS theory that I’ve heard is that if the subject of the process doesn’t have a strong enough “Self”, the facilitator can lend his. That advice has largely informed how I’ve dealt with similar situations as well.

But, at least in her case, the problem wasn’t that she didn’t have an adult self to draw on, it was that she wasn’t in touch with it–she was too blended with the child.

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Conscious Judging, Mourning, and Self-Forgiveness

One day, maybe I’ll write a post about how “judgement” (like “belief”), is one of those words that is overloaded to the point where using it at all is likely to interfere with precise communication.

But today, I’ll just use the word “judgement” as best I can.

While I was working with someone the other day, it came to our attention thats he had a bunch of unresolved, quasi-specific judgements about herself.

When I say quasi-specific, I mean that they were somewhere between “I’m not good enough” and “I would have had a more fun evening if I’d remembered to download Game of Thrones a few hours earlier.”

Judgements like these can be quite suffering-inducing because (as usual) it’s easy to get stuck in a pattern of resisting them.

One solution is to take a step back and not only noticed the judgements but make space for them, hear them out, decide whether they’re true and how you’d like to change your behavior in the future. Once you’ve done that, you can mourn the past, forgive yourself, and move on.

I’ll give an example below, using a judgment that still somewhat lands for me, that “I’m lazy.”

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How I Think Pathological Guilt Works

“If I do something wrong, I have to feel bad about it forever.”

I used to believe that, and that belief has been on my mind because I really don’t believe it anymore, and I was just talking to someone who expressed pretty much that exact belief.

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Beyond Rationality

I called this post “Beyond Rationality” because I wanted to move past the unfortunate connotations and bad habits associated with the word “rationality” in our culture. With tongue firmly in cheek, Divia and I often refer to the cluster of ideas I am about to present as post-rationality, and you may well encounter us using that very term. But in truth, I don’t see this philosophy as being opposed to rationality in any way. In fact, quite the opposite – I see this as rationality being properly applied. At the end of my last post, I promised to present you with a model of a rationalist human being. Not an ideally rational agent as described by mathematical equations, but how those abstract representations manifest in a living, breathing person. This is my approach to rationality, my philosophy of life, and why I think that rationality is actually an incredibly powerful meme.

Supremacy of the Instrumental over the Epistemic

In the first post in the series I presented my theory that self-described rationalists most often come to these ideas because of an aesthetic preference for truth. They are drawn to epistemic rationality, and that subsequently defines their relationship to these ideas. I found myself in the exact same boat when I first started out, the notion of systematically honing in on true beliefs was the siren’s call that left me immediately hooked. I had to understand these methods and apply them to my own cognition… and this laid the seeds for the triumph of instrumental rationality. [Read more…]

If You Have A Strong Feeling, It’s Yours

I’ve had a plan to blog about something related to personal growth every Monday. I’ve managed this the last two weeks, and I’m doing it again today.

I read an IFS book about relationships a couple of years ago that had an articulate explanation of why strong feelings are always about us, never the other person. Will and I just hosted an NVC webinar, where we talked about the importance of taking responsibility for all of your feelings. The basic idea is that even though there are external triggers that prompt us to feel emotions at certain times, something always happens in our head between our sensory perception of what happened and our reaction to it.

And we have control over that something that happens. We can change our narrative, and therefore change our feelings about a situation.

While this principle basically always holds true, today I’d like to focus on the specific case of really strong feelings. One heuristic I use is that if a reaction seems disproportionate, it’s because the person isn’t actually reacting to the situation at hand.

If I get a little annoyed at my roommate for eating my cheese, ask her not to do it again, and forget about the whole thing, I think it’s basically fair to say that I was annoyed about the cheese. If my roommate eats my cheese and I’m in tears (yes, I’ve done this…), there’s something else going on. I’m pattern matching my current circumstance to an unresolved incident, probably from my childhood.

If someone says or does something that makes me feel absolutely terrible, I always try to remember that whatever the trigger was can’t possibly be what I’m really upset about. It doesn’t make sense to say that I’m in a really bad mood “because my friend was late” or “because Will joked that ‘you only think of yourself’ when I didn’t unplug his power cord for him”.

It doesn’t make sense to frame it that way, because I’ll never actually be able to resolve my emotional state by focusing on the trigger. Setting up my life to avoid situations that pattern match to the past probably won’t work, and (in my opinion) would be counterproductive even if it did. Because the trigger brought my attention to some emotional pain that was already there.

My model of how this works is that actually feeling better means owning the feeling and opening up emotionally. In doing so, my mind will naturally go back to the original incident where I created a distorted narrative instead of processing the emotion. Once I can see the mental movements I’m going through, it’s not usually hard to change the pattern.

So, if you find yourself complaining, either to yourself or out loud, about how bad someone made you feel, or about how much someone is making your life difficult, try getting curious about what’s going on underneath the surface.

And if you can manage it, try feeling grateful to the other person for drawing your attention to something that already a problem.

(If the thing the other person did to you is actually huge, like killing someone you care about, then this heuristic doesn’t apply. That’s a different story.)

Compassionate Communication Recap

Thanks to everyone who showed up to yesterday’s webinar! The title was Compassionate Communication: What to Say When People Get Upset, and we were talking about the ideas from Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication. We outlined the basic model of NVC, talked about our experiences with it and how we think about it, and even did a bit of empathizing in the moment!

First of all, the recording of the webinar itself can be found here.

Alton Sun helpfully made a collaborative editing document, where he and others took notes. I uploaded it in permanent form to Google Docs here.

I wrote a summary of the NVC book itself a while back, which will give you the important bullet points from the book (though reading it yourself will give you many specific examples and exercises). Divia was many things to say about NVC, though her favorite is probably How to Read NVC.

If anyone is interested in working with us to learn NVC or put it into practice in your life, make sure to drop us a line and we’ll get in touch!

Your Inner Virtue Ethicist Should Like Self-Compassion

If you haven’t read Virtue Ethics for Consequentialists, I highly recommend it. As I see it, consequentialism is obviously correct, and virtue ethics is how you implement it on human hardware.

I’m also a big fan of self-compassion. Today, I was working with someone, and while we did some good IFS work together, we didn’t manage to wrap things up in a nice little bow at the end of the session. That happens sometimes. So, I recommended an operant conditioning exercise to work on in the meantime.

Basically, imagine the situation that was triggering her and feel compassion. Practice this enough times, and it gets easier to feel compassion in the real situation.

She said, that her inner virtue ethicist objected, because it seemed like rewarding herself for undesirable behavior. That’s not how I see it at all, so it seemed worth it to me to write up my reasons for seeing it differently.

Compassion is a game-theoretic hack.

Or something. 

Many people end up using some sort of internal system where they aim to feel good when they do something aligned with their moral system, and bad when they do something that isn’t aligned with their moral system. This is a relatively intuitive way to set things up. And compassion is generally experienced by people as positive, so I could see why it might seem backwards to “reward” yourself with compassion for, say, feeling resentful.

But here’s how compassion is a hack. Yes, compassion feels good. But in order to feel self-compassion, I have to be updating. As humans, we tend to store data that tells us that the world is worse than we realize. We cordon it off and prevent ourselves from looking at it. If we were to take it out and look at it, we would get sad. And if you look at your sadness from the right angle, you get self-compassion.

Compassion lets you feel good while updating your model of the world to be accurate even when you’re getting bad news. But you’re not going to start doing the undesirable behavior in order to get more compassion, because feeling the self-compassion at all requires that you be in exactly the sort of observer state that means you’ll be updating as you feel it. If you take in the compassion, you’ll accept the world as it is,  feel better about yourself, and then not have the emotional impetus to do the problematic behavior anymore.

(I’m somewhat worried that this post isn’t particularly articulate, as this isn’t a concept I’ve tried to put into words very often, but it seemed worth trying. I may revisit this topic later.)

Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately #5: Use Curiosity

The most natural thing in the world is to get stuck in our usual patterns.  We do the same thing day in and day out and it becomes a habit, it feels incredibly easy or maybe even right to take the same action.  Each time we follow the path of least resistance we create a slightly deeper mental groove, which makes the next iteration even more difficult to escape.

It is time to break the pattern.  Take a deep breath and change your context.  Now, I want you to look at your situation with fresh eyes.  Forget for a moment everything you think you know – pretend you are an alien who has just been dropped into your body here on Earth.  Be curious about yourself, your reactions, what you are trying to accomplish and why.  You need to find out more information about the situation, so start listing a bunch of questions that you would need to answer to be able to make the best decision.  Write as many questions as you can before you start trying to answer any of them.  The purpose is to explore as much as possible before proposing any of your usual solutions!

Genuine curiosity is an incredibly powerful state because it is so open to new possibilities.  By asking all of these questions and wanting to know the answer, you have engaged your subconscious mind in gathering information.  Now that you have done this, imagine the outcome that you want in as much detail as possible, including any pictures, sounds, words or sensations you want to be experiencing.  You will begin to notice that ideas are spontaneously coming to mind, that there are in fact a number of ways to achieve that particular goal.  Don’t reject any of them, no matter how absurd, and let your subconscious keep working.  One of these original ideas could be the brilliant alternative you’ve been looking for!  When one of them feels right, you will experience a natural surge of motivation to begin working on that solution.  Well done!

Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately #2: Cultivate Positive Mind-States

Once we start to get upset, these negative feelings can become self-perpetuating until it seems like we have never felt and could never feel any other way!  The more intense the build-up becomes, the harder and harder it is to break out of those beliefs.  The best way to escape this cycle is to interrupt the pattern before it even begins – with positive emotions.

It turns out that one of the most powerful emotions is gratitude.  There has been a volume of research showing that gratitude is correlated with greater subjective well being – people are happier, more productive, sleep better, have more control over themselves and their environment, and grow through challenges when they experience more gratitude.  The effect is so strong that interventions have been done where people keep a journal and write down three things every day they are grateful for – try it for yourself and see!  When you find yourself avoiding work, take a moment and think about the person you are most grateful towards.  Then think about what you are most grateful about in your own life.

Another powerful emotion is self-compassion.  Consider yourself from an outside perspective for a moment: not only is that person suffering because of his internal conflict about work, but on top of that he is feeling shame, guilt, fear, anger and/or self-judgment too!  Don’t you want to reach out and comfort that person?  Don’t you wish you could do something to help?  Remember that what you are going through is part of the shared human experience, and feel some compassion for yourself and your struggles – you will feel a lot better afterwards.

I will leave you with one further note: try laughing!  The situation may not be very funny at the time, so remember a recent situation or your favorite comedy routine, maybe even sneak away quickly to listen to it.  If you can, laugh at how ridiculous the situation is!  Everything will look a little bit brighter in that light.