Let’s begin with some slow breathing to help you prepare for this Stoic mediation.
Close your eyes and breathe a little slower and a little bit deeper than usual. Breathe in through your nose down to your belly and then out slowly through your nose. As I count from one to three try to follow my voice as you breathe in slowly and then out slowly. Breathing in 2. 3 . Breathing out 2.3 . 1 2 3 in 1 2 3 out 123 in 123 out [pause] You might now like to count silently to yourself now whilst I keep quiet [pause]. If you get distracted, that’s normal. Just bring your attention back to your breathing [pause}
If you want to slow it down more breathing in and out to 4 that’s good too. [pause 1 minute] Well done.
Now I’d like you to recall in your mind’s eye an image of Basil Fawlty thrashing his car. He’s such a vivid reminder of how an absence of Stoicism can cause problems . When we are bothered about things outside our control we are likely to get angry, anxious and upset and to be frank can end up looking rather silly. So bring to mind now just how silly Basil looks when he is thrashing his car.[pause[
So how could Stoicism have helped Basil?
Seneca advises us to bring to mind an ideal Stoic adviser.
“Cherish someone of good character and keep them always in your mind. Then live as if they were watching you , and order all your actions as if they saw them”.
An Ideal Stoic adviser might well begin telling Basil about the classic Stoic wisdom similar to the Serenity Prayer The adviser would say to Basil: “Don’t try to control what you can’t control. Learn to accept what is outside your control with serenity. Focus only on the aspects of a situation that you can control. Now the main thing you can control is yourself. You can choose to be the best version of yourself in a situation, a person of excellent character, a virtuous person. There are four key virtues that make an excellent character –self-control , justice, wisdom and courage - so let’s think about how you can develop each them.
Unless you are a perfect Stoic sage, which frankly you aren’t Basil, you need self-control. Slow calming breathing like we’ve just practised is one way to calm yourself down enough to enable you to postpone action until you can think more clearly about things and so be more self-controlled.
You also need to develop a sense of justice to take into account the interests of other people – so think for a moment about the other parties affected by you, and try to see things from their point of view as well as your own.
You require practical wisdom to work out the best option, using your experience and asking wise questions like “what would I advise a friend in this situation?” and “what really matters here?”
Finally having decided the right thing you may well also need the courage to get out of your comfort zone and do the right thing.
Let’s think about how you can apply all of this, Basil.
At the moment you are trying to control whether the car starts. How’s that working for you? So why not focus instead on what you can control, which is being the best version of yourself. I sense that you feel like giving the car a damn good thrashing., so you need self-control to help you not do something so silly. Taki a few deep breaths and postpone doing anythin until you calm down. Next, think about other people involved and what a fair solution would be.Your customers are waiting a long time now for their meal – how about giving them drinks on the house? But I sense that you feel like bluffing your way out of it rather than explaining what has really happened to them. So you also need the courage to apologise sincerely to them when you get back to the hotel. Moving on to practical wisdom, what would you advise a good friend to do in your predicament? [pause ]Maybe it would be to get a taxi to deliver the food to the hotel whilst calling the AA to recover your car.
Do you think that all this would be good advice for Basil.? You can nod if you think it would be.
If Stoicism can help the likes of Basil, could these powerful ideas can help all of us. Let’s try it right now. Bring to mind a recent occasion when you’ve let yourself get unduly upset, angry or anxious. It doesn’t have to be a drama of Fawlty-esque proportions, just a time when the best version of yourself would have responded differently. if you need a moment to think of a suitable event you can pause the recording.
At this stage we are just aiming to increase awareness of what makes things go wrong. So just play back in your mind’s eye your scenario as if you were watching it on video. Recall the chain of events – how it all started, what was going through your mind, what you felt - and the adverse consequences that resulted.. Go through it a couple of times, so you are aware of any unhelpful thoughts and actions.
Now let’s see how an Ideal Stoic adviser can help you. Imagine yourself back in your challenging situation with your ideal Stoic adviser saying this to you:
“Don’t try to control what you can’t control –- notice any aspects of the situation outside your control and accept them with serenity. [pause] You can’t control the past, so let that go. You can’t control other people or what they think, so stop trying to change other people. The main thing you can control is yourself and whether you act like the best version of yourself. So ask yourself what a more self-controlled, just, wise and courageous version of yourself would do in this situation.
To increase self-control it’s often helpful to do some slow breathing. Decide to postpone over hasty action until you can think more clearly and calmly. So imagine taking some slow breaths in your situation and not doing anything until you have calmed down a bit [pause]. Next think about the other people involved and what being fair to them would mean. Ask yourself What would you like to happen if you were in their shoes? [pause]
Next ask yourself: What does my experience tell you would be a wise thing to do in these circumstances? What does my experience tell me NOT to do? What would I advise a friend? What really matters here? What’s going to matter tomorrow? [pause] So what would the right thing to do be? [pause] Now imagine doing the right thing. If that that’s you out of your comfort zone, imagine other times you have been strong, You might like to imagine yourself telling someone, perhaps even your ideal Stoic adviser, about how you responded courageously in this trying situation..
Do you think it would be helpful for you and other people in your life if you too the Ideal Stoic Adviser’s advice more consistently? Justas actors due to appear in a West End play need to rehearse to perform well when the pressure is on., we can perform better if we rehearse how we will respond to difficult situations.
So let’s try it one more time. You can choose to rehearse your ideal Stoic response the same situation again, or you can choise a different past event, or perhaps even a challenging situation you are likely to face in the future. [pause] If you need a moment to think of which situation to tackle you can pause the recording for a moment.
I’ll again suggest Stoic advice, this time I’m inviting you to add to this by thinking of how you’ve achieved self-control, wisdom, courage or justice in the past. So first of all ask yourself what you can control, and the focus on only those aspects that you can. Then focus on each of the four parts of being virtuous, being the best version of yourself. Ask yourself “ how can I be more self-controlled?” – remember that slow breathing can help ––[pause] next how can I be fair and just – [pause] think of other parties how you would like to be treated in their shoes – next “how can I be wise?” – remember thinking of what you’d advise a friend and what is going to matter tomorrow. [pause] Finally how you I be courageous [pause] for example imagining yourself at your strongest. Take a moment to run through again in your minds eye you tackling this situation Stoically and being the best version of yourself.
As with any other skill, like learning to drive or learning a language, Stoicism requires practice so it will help to listen to this recording regularly. With regular practice, you may find yourself automatically responding like an ideal Stoic adviser.
So well done, and to end today’s meditation it’s fitting to end up with some wise words from a real ideal Stoic adviser, Marcus Aurelius
"Waste no more time arguing about what a good [person] should be. Be one."
When you a ready, take a few more slow breaths and open your eyes.