You should be able to listen using the embedded player below:
Stoic Mindfulness Exercise
Script for Audio Recording of Mindfulness-Based Stoic Exercise
[This is a draft, still being edited and updated. I’ve put it up so that others can provide feedback. It’s a mindfulness-based CBT exercise, involving imaginal exposure, that I’ve modified so that centres on the use of Stoic dogmas, based on the classical exercise called praemeditatio malorum. Stoicism is a complex system, however the Enchiridion of Epictetus provides simplified guidance on psychological exercises, which he specifically describes as being for use in the first instance, presumably by novices. So the Stoic maxims employed here are based as closely as possible on my reading of the original Greek Enchiridion, although they need to be phrased slightly differently for our purposes here, of course.]
Make yourself comfortable, close your eyes, and allow yourself to pause for a while and become more mindful, self-aware, and centred in the present moment… Take time to settle down and get comfortable before we begin. Notice what’s going on in your body and mind, right now, in the present moment… Your goal in this exercise is to learn to face troubling situations patiently in your imagination, rehearsing and strengthening a Stoic or “philosophical” attitude toward apparent adversities… You’re going to do so longer and more carefully than normal to develop greater mindfulness, or awareness of the role of your own thoughts and judgements… viewing them with calm, rational, detachment… You’re not trying to control or eliminate any of your feelings but simply to stay with them for a while, letting go of any struggle against them. You may find by doing this exercise that anger, anxiety or other unpleasant feelings tend to reduce naturally over time, but that’s not your immediate purpose, and initially you may even find that you actually become more conscious of uncomfortable feelings. Your goal in this exercise is simply to learn how to observe your own thoughts and separate them from external events…
For now, with your eyes still closed, just be aware of what you’re currently experiencing, from moment to moment, without evaluating it, analysing it, or interpreting it any further… If your mind wanders, that’s fine, just acknowledge the fact and bring your awareness patiently back to the exercise you’re doing… You’re going to choose a scene to picture throughout this exercise… You can start by working through a mildly upsetting event and then, in later sessions, progressively working on more challenging ones… So pick a situation to imagine yourself in, if you haven’t already… Employing all of your senses, as if it’s actually happening right now, and you’re seeing things through your own eyes… Make it as realistic as possible and pay close attention to the most upsetting parts of the scene rather than trying to avoid them… Turn it into a brief sequence of events, like a video clip, and imagine going through it as realistically as possible… Beginning… middle… and end… Don’t try to change anything… Just observe things in a detached way and allow yourself to accept and fully experience your internal reactions so that any novelty or surprise gradually wears off and events begin to seem more and more familiar as you get used to contemplating them…
Keep imagining yourself in that situation, right now… but throughout this exercise, also have the following advice from the ancient Stoics constantly in mind… “People are not upset by events but by their opinions about events”, especially their value-judgements… Keep reminding yourself, as you picture that scene before you… There are many alternative ways to view external events and so different people feel differently about them… Your attitude toward events is the most important thing in life rather than the events themselves… Keep guard constantly, therefore, over your judgements and intentions, and watch them closely. When automatic thoughts or feelings cross your mind, you always have the freedom to suspend your response… withholding your agreement from your initial impressions, rather than allowing yourself to be carried away by them… so pause for a moment and observe your thoughts… Say to yourself in response to them: “You are just an impression, a mental representation, and not at all the thing you claim to represent.” Take a step back from your initial impressions, rather than allowing yourself to be swept along by them… Instead, silently examine whether they’re about things that are “up to you”, under your direct control, or not… Remember that sovereign precept of Stoicism: That only things that are “up to us” are intrinsically good or bad, and that bodily and external things are “indifferent” with regard to our ultimate wellbeing… neither helping nor harming our character in themselves, but only through the use we make of them…
[Repeated Premeditation of Adversity]
You’re going to review that whole sequence of events very patiently, a few more times, from beginning to end… Start at the beginning right now… going through things slowly and with mindfulness… Remind yourself that it’s not events that upset you but your opinions about events, especially your value judgements… So don’t try to change anything… Instead, as you go through events, practice taking a step back from your thoughts and actively accepting your feelings as harmless and indifferent… As you continue to go through those events slowly, allow your mind to become more absorbed in the scene, using your senses, as if it’s happening right now… Notice what you see… Notice any sounds you hear… Notice what you’re saying or doing, and how you experience that… Notice any thoughts, images, or associations that go through your mind… Notice your feelings and the sensations in your body… Just allow yourself to acknowledge each experience as it arises… not trying to get rid of or change anything… Patiently going through the whole event, using all of your senses, as if it’s happening right now… Stay with your feelings for a while, as if you’re creating a space around them, giving them the freedom to come and go naturally… Now gradually draw the scene to a close in your mind, and rate the level of discomfort you felt… From 0-100% how distressing was it to imagine? Just make a mental note of that number. [Pause]
Okay, now patiently go through the whole experience once again… from just before you noticed the earliest signs… through the peak or middle… to the end, once the scene is over… Remind yourself: it’s not events that upset you but your opinions and value-judgements about events… Again, patiently watching your thoughts from a distance… while you radically accept your feelings… Don’t try to change anything; don’t try to stop anything from changing… Just take your time… Notice any sounds you hear… Notice what you’re saying or doing, and how you experience that… Notice any thoughts, images, or impressions that go through your mind… Notice your feelings and the sensations in your body… Just allow yourself to acknowledge each experience as it arises… Notice your automatic thoughts and feelings but don’t allow yourself to be carried away by them, pause and take a step back from them instead… Patiently going through the whole event, using all of your senses, as if it’s happening right now… [Pause] Now gradually draw the scene to a close… Make a mental note of your how distressing it was this time, from 0-100%. [Pause]
You will probably find it helpful to repeat this exercise daily, reviewing the same situation in detail in your imagination, several times, and visualising things more vividly and for longer than you normally would… You can use this time as an opportunity to practice both distancing from your thoughts and actively accepting your feelings… It will often help if you carefully observe and note down what effect the exercise has upon your problem, both immediately and over time… As your distress reduces, and you begin to feel more confident, you can also consider how you might solve problems and cope differently with similar situations in the future… However, the most important thing for a Stoic is to calmly evaluate whether the thoughts and feelings that you experience in response to apparent “adversity” refer to things that are “up to” you or not. If they’re about external things, the Stoic practice is to remind yourself that these are neither good nor bad, but ultimately indifferent with regard to your moral character and wellbeing. Over time, begin to ask yourself how a perfectly wise and just person, with complete self-control, would respond when faced with the same situation you’re imagining. What would the Stoic Sage do under these circumstances? Let that be your role-model and guide in this and similar situations…
Now let go even of the scene you were imagining… and gradually begin to expand your awareness throughout your whole body… and into your current environment… Continue to be aware of your breathing and any internal experiences that you’ve been attending to but, in addition, allow your awareness to begin spreading through the rest of your body… throughout the trunk of your body… your arms… your legs… your neck and head… your hands… your feet… your face and eyes… Become aware of your whole body as one… Now gradually spread your awareness out further beyond your body and into the environment around you, where you are and what you’re doing right now, in the real world… Continue to notice how you’re using your body and mind as you slowly open your eyelids and look around you… As you finish the exercise and begin interacting with the external world or other people, continue to be mindful of the way you’re using your body and your mind… and aware of how you relate to environment and any tasks at hand… becoming more focused on the real world around you and the way you’re interacting with life, right now, in the present moment, as you move forward into action…
Cognitive Distancing in Stoicism
“Distancing” versus “Disputation” as the central process of Stoic psychotherapy
This article explores whether “distancing” from thoughts/impressions or “disputation” of underlying irrational beliefs is more integral to Stoic therapy. If it were established that ancient Stoicism employed a focus on “cognitive distancing” strategies that would be important for several reasons. Distancing is a simpler and more consistent procedure than verbal disputation, so analogies between Stoicism and CBT would be easier to make. Moreover, large volumes of research now exist on distancing, which suggest that it may be one of the most important mechanisms in psychotherapy, and may serve both a preventative and remedial function. Some groups of modern researchers also believe that disputation may interfere with distancing, which would be an important consideration for modern Stoics to assimilate.
The first major figure to notice the relevance of ancient Stoic philosophy for modern psychotherapy was Albert Ellis. In the late 1950s, Ellis began developing what later became known as Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT). REBT is the main precursor of modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), currently the approach to psychological therapy with by far the strongest evidence-base for most clinical problems. Ellis had read the Stoics as a youth. He later trained in and practiced psychoanalytic therapy. However, after becoming disillusioned with psychoanalytic theory and practice he started looking for a radically different approach, and remembered Stoicism. Hence, Ellis explicitly stated that Stoicism was the main philosophical inspiration for REBT. Stoicism arguably stands in the same relation to subsequent CBT approaches in general, although these are really quite a diverse cluster of different therapies, rather than a single homogenous approach.
Ellis’ approach placed considerable emphasis on the systematic and vigorous verbal disputation of irrational beliefs – its characteristic feature. However, he used to provide clients with a quotation from Epictetus to illustrate his basic premise that our beliefs are at the root of emotional disturbance: “It is not the things themselves that disturb people but their judgements about those things” (Enchiridion, 5). This quotation highlights a basic assumption shared by all cognitive-behavioural therapies: that we should begin by separating our thoughts from external events. Ellis and Beck (the founder of “cognitive therapy”) both saw this as an important therapeutic insight but mainly because it was a necessary precursor to the use of disputation techniques. Typically, for example, REBT or CBT practitioners would ask their clients to evaluate the “pros and cons” of an irrational belief, or the evidence “for and against it”, and to identify alternative rational beliefs to replace it with. This, combined with “behavioural experiments” designed to test out and challenge irrational beliefs in practice, form the bulk of what happens in most modern CBT sessions.
However, although the Stoics do appear to have sometimes challenged specific beliefs in ways that loosely resemble this, it was perhaps not their dominant or characteristic approach. REBT and CBT might encourage clients to challenge underlying (“core”) irrational beliefs such as “I am worthless” or “Other people must like me otherwise it’s awful!” When philosophically evaluating beliefs, Stoics tended to focus on defending underlying precepts of an even more general nature from which individual judgements are derived, such as “the only good is moral good”, considering the possible criticisms, or arguments against these positions, and those in favour of them. Whereas CBT and REBT often target “underlying” value judgements, Stoic disputation might be described as more “philosophical” or “meta-ethical” as it tends to concern the very nature of “the good” itself. (And it may be closer to what modern researchers term disputation of “metacognitive” beliefs, beliefs about beliefs or cognitions about cognition.) The Stoics do appear to have challenged their judgements about specific situations but the focus in their writings is typically more on defending their core philosophical dogmas. Moreover, when Stoics do examine particular situations they appear to place more emphasis on constructing a positive mental representation of how the Sage might act, or what virtues Nature has granted that allow them to rise above adversity. CBT places more emphasis on the identification and direct disputation of negative or irrational beliefs.
Since the 1990s, different researchers have introduced alternative approaches to CBT that are collectively known as the “third-wave” movement. (The first wave was behaviour therapy in the 1950s and 1960s, the second the rise of cognitive therapy in the 1970s and 1980s.) Although there are significant differences between these new forms of CBT, they all tend to place less emphasis on direct verbal disputation of beliefs and more on the initial step of gaining “cognitive distance” (follow link for a detailed article on this concept). Beck defined “distancing” in cognitive therapy as a “metacognitive” process, a shift to a level of awareness involving “thinking about thinking”, which he defined succinctly as follows:
“Distancing” refers to the ability to view one’s own thoughts (or beliefs) as constructions of “reality” rather than as reality itself. (Alford & Beck, 1997, p. 142)
In CBT, clients are usually “socialised” or introduced to this notion through the use of simple diagrams or metaphors. For example, they may be taught that when thoughts distort our perception of events it’s like we’re wearing coloured spectacles. When we gain cognitive distance from our own thoughts, it’s as though we’re taking off the spectacles and looking at them, rather than looking through them. A similar “distancing” mechanism has been seen as integral to mindfulness meditation practices which have been found effective in the treatment of depression, and were therefore integrated with some forms of CBT. Therefore, the third-wave approaches are often described collectively as the new “mindfulness and acceptance-based” approaches. For example, one of the most prominent of these, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), was originally called “comprehensive distancing” because it explicitly aimed to test the hypothesis that the initial “cognitive distancing” strategy in conventional CBT was much more important than had previously been assumed.
Unlike REBT and Beck’s cognitive therapy, these recent forms of therapy do not explicitly claim to be influenced by Stoic philosophy. However, perhaps by chance, they may have many similarities with aspects of Stoicism that were overlooked by the founders of CBT. In particular, it might be argued that Stoicism itself placed more emphasis on a something akin to “cognitive distancing” than upon direct disputation of beliefs. This may have been somewhat overlooked by scholars because “distancing” is a more subtle and elusive concept than disputation. For that reason, sometimes it is difficult to tell if the Stoics are genuinely referring to the same mechanism, as this often turns on subtleties of translation and interpretation.
One of the passages that stands out most in this regard occurs right at the start of the Enchiridion of Epictetus, where he writes:
Train yourself, therefore, at the very outset to say to every harsh impression: “You are merely an impression [phantasia] and not at all what you appear to be [phainomenon].” (Enchiridion, 1)
Alternatively, perhaps more literally: “You are an appearance and not in any way the thing appearing” – you are merely the subjective impression and not the thing in-itself.
Epictetus, as is often the case, appears to be literally instructing his students to repeat this phrase to themselves as part of a general-purpose psychological strategy for managing disturbing thoughts or impressions. The fact that this occurs in the first passage of the Enchiridion may also signal its importance. It’s presented, as in cognitive therapy, as a prelude to other strategies, which involve “testing” the impression by applying the core precepts of Stoicism to it. At this point, cognitive therapy might involve weighing up the evidence for and against the impression (or “automatic thought”), or identifying the types of distortion it contains, such as “over-generalisation” or “black and white thinking”, etc. However, Epictetus says the most important response a Stoic can make is to question whether the impression has to do with things under our control or not. If it refers to something external, the student is to say to it: “It is nothing to me.” That is, this is completely indifferent with regard to happiness and the good life, the chief goal of Stoicism. The Stoics appear to have realised, as modern CBT does, that any form of re-evaluation or disputation is impossible unless the initial step of gaining “psychological distance” takes place first. I have to be able to view my judgements as hypothesis (merely impressions) rather than as facts (confusing them with the things they claim to represent), before I can begin to question them as such.
In relation to this, Epictetus also refers many times to the strategy of avoiding “being carried away” (sunarpasthêis) by impressions in general, and not letting them “seize the mind” prematurely. He specifically refers to impressions that attribute good or bad to indifferent things, such as pleasure, other people’s happiness, insulting behaviour, or fearful prophecies, etc.
When you get an impression of some pleasure, guard yourself, as with impressions in general, against being carried away by it; nay, let the matter wait upon your leisure, and give yourself a little delay. (Enchiridion, 34)
And so make it your primary endeavour not to be carried away by the impression; for if once you gain time and delay, you will more easily become master of yourself. (Enchiridion, 20)
This delaying tactic was well-known in antiquity and can perhaps be traced to the early Pythagoreans. It resembles time-out or postponement strategies used in modern CBT, which require cognitive distance from an automatic thought, and the ability to defer thinking any more about it or acting upon it until later. Another reason this works well is clearly due to the fact that emotional disturbances (“passions”) tend to come and go naturally and so returning to a thought at a later time, in a different “frame of mind”, generally makes it easier to evaluate it more objectively.
Beck’s cognitive therapy writings only discuss “cognitive distancing” very briefly, although he does mention about half-a-dozen practical strategies, which are taught to clients in the initial stage of therapy. For example:
- Writing down negative automatic thoughts on a daily thought record, particularly fleeting automatic thoughts that might normally go unnoticed or get conflated with feelings
- Writing thoughts on a blackboard and literally viewing them from a distance, as something objective and “over there”, by patiently describing the colour, size, and style of the writing, etc.
- Viewing thoughts as inferences or hypotheses instead of facts, distinguishing between “I believe” and “I know”, discriminating carefully between thoughts and facts
- Referring to your thoughts and feelings in the third-person (“Bill is having anxious feelings, he’s thinking that people are criticising him…”)
- Using a counter to keep a tally of specific types of automatic thoughts, seeing them as habitual and repetitive, as just a meaningless side-effect of previous experience rather than something important and meaningful that deserves to be taken seriously
- Self-observation, being aware of your own awareness, noticing how you observe your thoughts, maintaining a sense of yourself as conscious observer, separate from the contents of your stream of consciousness
- Shifting perspectives and imagining being in the shoes of other people, who might disagree with your beliefs and view things differently, adopting a different perspective on things and identifying a range of alternative views, among which your current thought is just one of many
ACT and other third-wave therapies have added more techniques to this list and refined the existing ones. In particular, they’ve introduced the use of mindfulness meditation techniques, derived from Buddhism, which are mean to train clients to develop greater detachment or psychological distance from their thoughts. Beck himself never mentioned the use of meditation in this way, although it may seem an obvious adjunct to the techniques described above.
Moreover, a brief survey of the Stoic literature suggests that most of the psychological techniques employed can be seen as relating more to the mechanism of “distancing” than “disputation”. For example, in the Enchiridion, Epictetus instructs students of Stoicism to do the following:
- We should continually maintain attention (prosochê) to the leading faculty of the mind (hêgemonikon), watching our judgements as they happen; as if watching our steps, cautious of stepping on a sharp object, or as if looking out for an enemy in hiding
- When upset, we should always remind ourselves that it is our judgment that harms us and not the external thing itself, and we should guard against being “swept away” by upsetting external impressions
- When something appears to be upsetting, you should imagine the same thing befalling someone else, so that you can judge it from a distance
- We should abandon value judgements and stick instead to a bare description of the facts of a situation, which forces us to see our value judgements as something we’re imposing on events rather than an intrinsic characteristic of external events themselves
- We should remind ourselves how the wise man would judge the same thing differently because noting that different people view things differently helps us to distinguish our thoughts from external facts. Epictetus’ favoured example: Death cannot be intrinsically evil otherwise Socrates would have judged it to be so.
- We should postpone responding to impulses associated with powerful impressions until later, something which forces us to adopt a more detached perspective on them – modern therapists call this taking a “time-out” or simply “postponement”
These might be described as brief “shifts in perspective” rather than stepwise methods of disputation. They are perhaps more experiential than verbal. There’s no need to evaluate the evidence for these judgements, the Stoic simply reminds himself that they are judgements, peeling them away from the surface of reality, as it were, and viewing them as events within his own mind. The Stoics referred to this process as “withholding assent” from initial impressions that mistakenly ascribe intrinsic value to indifferent things. They assumed that impressions are outside of our control, being triggered by external events, like the “automatic thoughts” of cognitive therapy. However, we do control what happens next: whether we accept the impression as reality or not, by giving our “assent” and saying “yes” to it. Interestingly, the Stoics don’t seem to refer to saying “no” or exercising “dissent” toward impressions, merely suspending assent appears to be sufficient, at least at first. Shortly after, attention may be shifted on to alternatives to the initial impression, such as “What would the Sage do?”
Some researchers, most notably the founders of ACT, have argued that verbal disputation techniques may interfere with psychological distance (which they call “cognitive defusion”). The best way to illustrate this is perhaps by considering the example of Buddhist-style mindfulness meditation. While meditating, if a distracting thought crosses the mind, mindfulness practitioners are taught to view it with detachment and resist the urge to respond to it by analysing its meaning or engaging in an internal dialogue about it. They might view it as if it were like a cloud passing across the sky and “let it go”. Engaging with the thought can simply make it more prominent, even if someone is attempting to challenge or dispute it. One can easily be swept along with the thought this way and lose psychological distance from it. The relative brevity of Stoic techniques arguably lends itself to maintaining psychological distance from upsetting impressions. That could be lost again, though, if you “get into a debate with yourself” about the truth or falsehood of certain thoughts. There’s a considerable body of modern research showing that attempts to suppress or distract oneself from distressing thoughts tend to be counter-productive. Gaining psychological distance neatly circumvents this problem because it means neither assenting to (“buying into”) a thought nor trying to eliminate it, but rather viewing it from a detached perspective. Rather than “I must not have this thought”, someone with psychological distance from their thoughts might say: “It’s okay to have this thought cross my mind but it’s just a thought, I don’t need to dwell on it or take it too seriously.” There appear to be some references in the Stoic literature to suppressing automatic thoughts or feelings, though, which would be considered unhealthy and problematic from the perspective of modern research on psychotherapy. However, the dubious strategies of thought-suppression or distraction do not seem to be an important or necessary part of Stoic therapeutics, and could easily be replaced with more consistent emphasis on “cognitive distancing” or merely withholding assent.
The View from Above
Stoic Meditation Script
Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2010. All rights reserved.
(This is a brief excerpt from my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, published by Karnac and available for order online now.)
Plato has a fine saying, that he who would discourse of man should survey, as from some high watchtower, the things of earth. (Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations)
Take a moment to settle into your posture and make yourself comfortable… Close your eyes and relax… [Pause.] Be aware of your breathing… Notice the rhythm and pattern of the breath… Do nothing for while, just be content to contemplate your breathing more deeply… [Pause.] Now, begin by paying attention to the whole of your body as one… From the top of your head, all the way down into your fingers and down into your toes… Be aware of your body as one… every nerve, muscle and fibre… Don’t try to change anything. Don’t try to stop anything from changing… Some things can change just by being observed…
Just be content to notice whatever you notice, and feel whatever you feel… Be a passive, detached observer… As you continue to relax, turn your attention deeper within, and become more aware of your body… until you can almost imagine how you look right now… Begin to picture yourself as if seen from the outside… Now just imagine that you are taking a step back and looking at yourself. It really doesn’t matter how vividly you can picture yourself, it’s just the intention, just idea that matters. Imagine your body posture… your facial expression… the colour and style of your clothing…
Now keep looking at the image of yourself resting there, and imagine your own feet are gently leaving the ground. You begin floating serenely upwards, slowly and continuously, rising upwards. All the while your gaze keeps returning to your own body, now seated there below you as you rise above it. Keep looking down toward your body as you float higher and higher…. The roof and ceiling disappear, allowing you to float freely upward. Gazing down you see yourself seated comfortably below in the building, looking contented and contemplative. You see all the rooms, and any other people around.
As you continue to float gently higher and higher, your perspective widens more and more until you see the whole surrounding area. You see all the buildings nearby from above. You see the people in buildings and in the streets and roads. You observe people far below working, or walking along the pavement, people cycling or driving their cars, and those travelling on buses and trains. You begin to contemplate the whole network of human lives and how people everywhere are interacting with each other, influencing each other, encountering each other in different ways…
Floating higher, people become as small as ants below. Rising up into the clouds, you see the whole of the surrounding region beneath you. You see both towns and countryside, and gradually the coastline comes into view as your perspective becomes more and more expansive… You float gently up above the clouds, above the weather, and through the upper atmosphere of the planet Earth… So high that you eventually rise beyond the sphere of the planet itself, and into outer space… You look toward planet Earth and see it suspended in space before you, silently turning… resplendent in all its majesty and beauty…
You see the whole of your home planet… the blue of the great oceans… and the brown and green of the continental land masses… You see the white of the polar ice caps, north and south… You see the grey wisps of cloud that pass silently across the surface of the Earth… Though you can no longer see yourself from so far above, you know and feel that you are down there on Earth below, and that your life is important, and what you make of your life is important. Your change in perspective changes your view of things, your values and priorities…
You contemplate all the countless living beings upon the Earth. The population of the planet is over six billion people… You realise that your life is one among many, one person among the total population of the Earth… You think of the rich diversity of human life on Earth. The many languages spoken by people of different races, in different countries… people of all different ages… newborn infants, elderly people, people in the prime of life… You think of the enormous variety of human experiences… some people right now are unhappy, some people are happy… and you realise how richly varied the tapestry of human life before you seems.
And yet as you gaze upon the planet Earth you are also aware of its position within the rest of the universe… a tiny speck of stardust, adrift in the immeasurable vastness of cosmic space… This world of ours is merely a single planet, a tiny grain of sand by comparison with the endless tracts of cosmic space… a tiny rock in space, revolving around our Sun… the Sun itself just one of countless billions of stars which punctuate the velvet blackness of our galaxy…
You think about the present moment on Earth and see it within the broader context of your life as a whole. You think of your lifespan as a whole, in its totality… You think of your own life as one moment in the enormous lifespan of mankind… Hundreds of generations have lived and died before you… many more will live and die in the future, long after you yourself are gone… Civilisations too have a lifespan; you think of the many great cities which have arisen and been destroyed throughout the ages… and your own civilisation as one in a series… perhaps in the future to be followed by new cities, peoples, languages, cultures, and ways of life…
You think of the lifespan of humanity itself… Just one of countless billions of species living upon the planet… Mankind arose as a race roughly two hundred thousand years ago… animal life itself first appeared on Earth over four billion years ago… Contemplate time as follows… Realise that if the history of life on Earth filled an encyclopaedia a thousand pages long… the life of the entire human race could be represented by a single sentence somewhere in that book… just one sentence…
And yet you think of the lifespan of the planet itself… Countless billions of years old… the life of the planet Earth too has a beginning, middle, and end… Formed from the debris of an exploding star, unimaginably long ago… one day in the distant future its destiny is to be swallowed up and consumed by the fires of our own Sun… You think of the great lifespan of the universe itself… the almost incomprehensible vastness of universal time… starting with a cosmic explosion, a big bang they say, immeasurable ages ago in the past… Perhaps one day, at the end of time, this whole universe will implode upon itself and disappear once again… Who can imagine what, if anything, might follow, at the end of time, in the wake of our own universe’s demise…
Contemplating the vast lifespan of the universe, remember that the present moment is but the briefest of instants… the mere blink of an eye… the turn of a screw… a fleeting second in the mighty river of cosmic time… Yet the “here and now” is important… standing as the centre point of all human experience… Here and now you find yourself at the centre of living time… Though your body may be small in the grand scheme of things, your imagination, the human imagination, is as big as the universe… bigger than the universe… enveloping everything that can be conceived… From the cosmic point of view, your body seems small, but your imagination seems utterly vast…
You contemplate all things, past, present and future… You see your life within the bigger picture… the total context of cosmic time and space… The totality is absolute reality… You see yourself as an integral part of something much bigger, something truly vast, the “All” itself… Just as the cells of your own body work together to form a greater unity, a living being, so your body as a whole is like a single cell in the organism of the universe… Along with every atom in the universe you necessarily contribute your role to the unfolding of its grand design…
As your consciousness expands, and your mind stretches out to reach and touch the vastness of eternity… Things change greatly in perspective… and shifts occur in their relative importance… Trivial things seem trivial to you… Indifferent things seem indifferent… The significance of your own attitude toward life becomes more apparent… you realise that life is what you make of it… You learn to put things in perspective, and focus on your true values and priorities in life… One stage at a time, you develop the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference… You follow nature… your own true nature as a rational, truth-seeking human being… and the one great nature of the universe as a whole…
Now in a moment you are beginning to sink back down to Earth, toward your place in the here and now… Part of you can remain aware of the view from above, and always return to and remember that sense of serenity and perspective.
Now you begin your descent back down to Earth, to face the future with renewed strength and serenity… You sink back down through the sky… down… down… down… toward the local area… down… down… down… into this building… down… down… down… You sink back gently into your body… all the way now… as your feet slowly come to rest upon the floor once again…
Now think about the room around you… Think about action… movement… think about looking around and getting your orientation… raising your head a little… Begin to breathe a little bit more deeply… a little bit more energetically… let your body feel more alive and ready for action… breathe energy and vitality into your body… breathe a little deeper and deeper again… until you’re ready to take a deep breath, open your eyes, and emerge from meditation… taking your mindfulness and self-awareness forward into life… beginning now… take a deep breath… and open your eyes now… when you’re ready… entering the here and now with deep calm and serenity…