Resource: Stoical ME, practical wisdom for adversity

For the last 3 weeks I have been using most of my mental energy on a free online course from Modern Stoicism. This has been interesting, helpful and at times puzzling. The way they are combining ancient philosophy with modern psychological techniques seems to have something new to offer to the ME/spoonie community in terms of practical wisdom for adverse circumstances.

I have curated an edited-down version of the course below which I think will be more accessible to our community. For example, with the problems I have reading I’ve found it draining to access the written content so I’ve tried to organise mainly the audio/video resources. I also think that our lifestyle deviates enough from a typical person’s to be worth placing different emphasis on some of the exercises.

If you are able to read normally you might want to head directly to Modern Stoicism’s Stoic Week Handbook.

I am in no way suggesting that the exercises are a cure for ME, but until you get better they may help you cope with the adverse circumstances that you’re experiencing.

I also have a sense that although I can do very little at the moment I want to invest my time in something that will last in the future. You could call this virtue (this is big with the Stoics), wisdom or resilience: if I can get through years of being housebound with ME and remain psychologically healthy and good natured I’ll have learnt skills to improve my future life too.

I’ve tried to keep instructions very brief, please bear with it if things seem overly simplistic, the philosophy itself isn’t trite but its hard to communicate philosophy without a lot of words! I’m intending to write a follow-up post reviewing the relevance of these ideas for people with ME. If you comment on this post it will feed into my next post.

You should approach the exercises as if you’re an ethnographer observing and recording the beliefs/practices of a newly discovered tribe, except that what you’re studying is yourself. 

Depending on your preference and energy you can treat the practices below as additive/accumulative (by the end this will be a lifestyle), pick n mix (if you don’t like something leave it and try the next), or alternative (do them in order). Try new activities at your own pace. This might be a new activity every day, week or month. If you already do a more bodyfocused activity like yoga, tai chi, body scans or yoga nidra I recommend carrying them on.

NB all images, quotes and audio content below are from Modern Stoicism, unless otherwise attributed.  The Stoicism Today team is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License I have contacted them about this blog post. 

1 Afternoon Meditation

Download this meditation 

If you want to check the content the script is here.

You may want to listen to it everyday,

perhaps in the afternoon. If you usually have a smartphone or computer nearby I recommend setting an alarm which plays the audio file (and for the other meditations below).

Don’t worry if you don’t understand all the ideas, but have a think about your first impressions. Everyday you may notice something new.

2 What is important?

“Health, wealth, and reputation may sometimes be preferable in life but they’re not necessary to excel and flourish as a human being – all you truly need is virtue and strength of character.” Donald Robertson

“Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.” Epictetus, Enchiridion 

Do you agree? ME certainly challenges health, wealth and reputation so it may be worth returning to this idea a few times to develop your opinion on it.

Use this meditation as a one-off to get things in perspective

3 Right Now

Set an alarm or Mindfulness Bell app to go off every one or two hours for a period of the day. Or you can do this in every ad break or loo visit.

Stop what you’re doing and create a mental list of everything you’re experiencing in the immediate present. It might go something like

“Right now I am aware of the sound of the rain on the lean-to roof; I am aware of nerve pain on my chin; I am aware of the warmth of my dog beside me; I am aware of cognitive fatigue; I am aware of feeling frustrated at stopping what I was doing.”

Do this for about a minute. It might prompt you to change your activity or take a rest. Try not to get emotionally involved in your thoughts, you are an ethnographer observing remember.

Over time, are there any patterns in your observations? For example, when you stop to think about it are you always feeling too ill to be doing what you’re doing?

4 Morning Meditation

Watch this video tomorrow morning:

For subsequent mornings:

Download this meditation 

Listen in the morning after you’ve eaten. Pay particular attention to planning for setbacks. Which activities in your day are likely to exacerbate your symptoms? Can you plan alternative actions? What if this is beyond your control? What will you do if you feel terrible? Allow yourself to be pessimistic. Will it actually be terrible, or have you found a way to cope before?

(optional video)

(optional video) 

5 Up to Me?

epicteto para, Donald Robertson
epicteto para, Donald Robertson

There is no point worrying about things which you have no control over. Stoics think that only our thoughts and actions are under our control.

Michel Daw Stoic Infographic

Click on image to see the fullsized infographic, which gives an overview

There is a lot to take in the image. Concentrate on the middle section.

Do you agree that our bodies aren’t under our control?

Do you think that our desires and actions are completely under our control?

Is it easy to work out what is under our control?

Video to illustrate this type of deliberation:

Take some time to think about issues around control, perhaps while you’re resting in bed. 

6 Observing me with ME

Keep a tally every time you have a negative thought/reaction that runs away with itself (not just a fleeting thought). You may want to use an app like Counter and you might want to categorise the thoughts (eg ‘relapse panic’, ‘insomnia catastrophe’, ‘friend rejection’).

After doing this for a while, contemplate patterns in this tally.

Use this meditation as a one-off: 

How To Silence Critical Inner Voices:

7 Heroes and Virtue

Take time to identify the virtues/values/morals you live your life by.

I’ve heavily adapted this section as I found it hardest to access in the written content. I found the easiest way in was thinking about people I admire for their strength of character.

Identify at least 5 people you admire. You might want to include people with ME-like conditions past and present (such as Florence Nightingale, Louisa M Alcott, Jen Brea) or people from your faith tradition.

Identify virtues they have in common (perseverance, social justice etc).

Optional activities:

Favourite/retweet tweets that support your values (with #StoicalME)

Create a Pinterest board of value based quotes

Start a Twitter Hero (private?) list of spoonies who demonstrate shared values in their blogs or tweets and check their tweets regularly

Add in positive categories to your thought tally, related to the virtues/values you identified (eg ‘self disciplined’, ‘kind actions’).

8 Evening Meditation

For the first evening listen to this explanation and meditation

Download this meditation to use for subsequent evenings

Listen to the meditation mid-evening when you’re still relatively awake (I found it overstimulating to do at bed-time). Pay particular attention to how you have managed pacing and symptoms throughout the day. How did your other Stoic practices affect the day as a whole?

9 The Good Life is a Simple Life

Food is for nutrition and health:

“I maintain that its purpose should be to produce health and strength, that one should eat for that purpose only, and that one should eat with moderation, and without any haste or greed.” Musonius Rufus

The Stoics thought that it was wise to behave in a way that promotes physical health, but the outcome of being healthy was indifferent compared to what is gained through the virtue of self-discipline while living simply and healthily.

Practice this principle by giving up a type of food that other people with ME say is bad for them (e.g. wheat, dairy, sugar, caffeine). In your mind, focus completely on this being an exercise in self-discipline. Try not to concentrate on whether you are actually feeling better or whether you like what you’re eating. This is similar to a Christian giving up chocolate for Lent and trying not to make its meaning be about losing weight. From what I remember of Social Cognition at uni, this will be a very difficult exercise.

10 Fate and Destiny

The Stoic worldview can be challenging, and I’m not expecting that you’ll be signing up to it in its entirety (I certainly don’t).

These two videos give a bigger overview:

Take some time to think about choice, fate and destiny. This can be quite emotive for us. Try to step back from the emotions associated with these thoughts, as if you’re a researcher who doesn’t have ME. Is there a designed purpose in our illness? Did it come about by random chance? Is it our fault for over working etc?

This video shows current debate on Stoicism from psychologists and philosophers:

What do you think about Stoicism? Please take time to comment below (either first impressions or after you’ve tried the exercises). You might want to tweet about it with #StoicalME #MEcfs and #stoicism hashtags.

To conclude your time as a Stoic do the ‘View from Above’ meditation again:

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