The Thinking Person’s Guide to Meditation

The Thinking Person’s Guide to Meditation March 2, 2023

thinking meditation
Jen Theodore via Unsplash

Are you the type of person who has trouble meditating because they can’t turn off their chattering brain? Well, I’ve got a meditation for you. It dates back over 2,000 years and it comes from the Stoic school of philosophy. And unlike most meditation practices, it actually involves thinking.

The Stoics are an interesting bunch. Prominent before Jesus walked the earth, the Stoics followed a philosophy that centered on personal virtue. They believed the key to flourishing as a human being isn’t economic or social gain, but to live a morally ethical life. It isn’t what you say that makes you ethical, it’s how you live your day-to-day life.

In A Guide to The Good Life, The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William B. Irvine covers all things Stoic, but one especially interesting section is on meditation. Through Irvine, the famed Stoic Seneca advises us to meditate regularly on the events that make up our daily lives. That means reflecting at the end of each day on any personal problems you solved, what temptations you resisted, and where you might show improvement.

To the last point, Seneca once reflected on a dinner party he had just attended. He was not seated in the place of honor he thought he deserved but in the back of the hall. Steamed, he spent the banquet angry at the person who had assigned his seat and jealous of those who had better seats than he did. But at the end of the day, he assessed his behavior like this:

You lunatic, what difference does it make what part of the couch you put your weight on?

It was a behavioral faux pas he promised himself he would never make again.

The difference between Zen meditation and Stoic meditation

As you’ve probably surmised, there’s a huge difference between the Zen-influenced meditation that’s popular today and Stoic meditation. While most meditation practices encourage us to empty the mind, the Stoics do exactly the opposite. Their minds remain quite active. You might refer to it a thinking person’s meditation.

Similar to the Jesuit practice of examen, Stoics like Seneca would meditate daily. At bedtime, they would look back and reflect on the day’s events and examine their conduct and character. Seneca was well aware that while he could not control events, he could control his reaction to them. During his meditation period, Seneca would ask himself questions like:

  • Did anything upset my tranquility or composure today?
  • Did I experience anger or envy or lust?
  • Was I boastful when I could have been humble?
  • Is there anything I could have done better?

Irvine points out that the goal of Stoic meditation isn’t to stop us from experiencing emotion, but to have fewer negative emotions. This involves not over-reacting to any challenges or disturbances that come our way. We go with the flow and take them in stride. By doing this we spend less time wishing things could be different and more time enjoying things as they are. We also enjoy a degree a tranquility that the unexamined life lacks.

If you’re feeling especially stressed, or need to give your overanalyzing mind a welcome break, I still think that good old-fashioned Eastern-style meditation works best. But for those who want to reduce their negative emotions while honing their character, a regular Stoic meditation practice is well worth exploring.

Here’s a bonus meditation from another Stoic: Arnold Schwarzenegger

Movie star and former politician Arnold Schwarzenegger is a self-professed fan of stoicism. So it may come as no surprise that Schwarzenegger once said, that if you want to endure and overcome obstacles, “it’s not about what you are in life, but who.” In other words, character and virtue matter more to a satisfying life than lesser attributes like fame and popularity.

I receive Schwarzenegger’s daily motivational email and he recently pointed out that while he loves meditation, he realizes it’s not for everyone. So he called attention to a new study that showed breathwork can improve your mood and reduce anxiety—and might be even better for your mind and body. There were two breathing methods that proved to be effective.

  • Cyclic sighing. It works like this: Breathe in through your nose. When you’ve comfortably filled your lungs, take a second, deeper sip of air to expand your lungs as much as possible. Then, very slowly, exhale through your mouth until all the air is gone.
  • Box breathing. This consists of equal lengths of inhaling, holding your breath, and exhaling. For example, breath in for four seconds, hold your breath for another four seconds, and then breathe out for four more seconds.

The amazing news is the study showed that using one of these breathwork practices for just 5 minutes a day had a positive effect, resulting in less stress and a better mood. You might want to try one right now.

For another alternative take on meditation, see The Lazy Person’s Guide to Meditation.

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