Stoicism and Addiction: Stoic Philosophy as a Recovery Program

By: John C. Gentner

This article will serve as the basis for a simple and practical guide to intermingling the ancient philosophy of Stoicism – of which Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy and its successor Cognitive Behavioral Therapy are, in part, based on – and Recovery from Addiction. If you find this guide helpful, please see our Facebook Group. For a look at the Stoic take of the “12-Steps”, click on this link.

Addiction causes us to have distorted thinking and irrational behavior. Stoicism teaches us that reason ie., virtue (or human excellence) is the highest good. It’s a philosophical way of life, and we’re taught that in order to live a truly happy life, we have to act in accordance with the nature of a social being. Which means a free and continuous exercise of wisdom, self-discipline, courage, and justice will allow us to live a truly good, fulfilling, and flourishing life.

One of the first things we need to knock out-of-the-way is the difference between Stoicism (proper noun) and stoicism (common noun). The former is the ancient Greco-Roman philosophy that we are discussing here, while the latter is a personality trait that is characterized by a suppression or concealment of emotions – the notion of a stiff upper-lip. As you’ll learn in this article, these two terms have very little in common. For a more detailed explanation between the subtle yet enormous difference between these two words, please see this excellent article written by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy expert Donald Robertson.

Stoicism and the Art of Recovery:

In Sharon Labell’s The Art of Living – which is an interpretation of Epictetus’ Discourses – she tells us that: “Philosophy’s purpose is to illuminate the ways our soul has been infected by unsound beliefs, untrained tumultuous desires, and dubious life choices and preferences that are unworthy of us. Self-scrutiny applied with kindness is the main antidote. (…) True happiness is a verb. It’s the ongoing dynamic performance of worthy deeds. The flourishing life, whose foundation is virtuous intention, is something we continually improvise, and in doing so our souls mature. Our life has usefulness to ourselves and to the people we touch.”

While in active addiction, our souls are just that – infected. We must kindly scrutinize ourselves by using reason to dissecte, and operate on our thought processes, so as to align them with what we know deep down is the correct conduct of life. Because, as I said earlier, true happiness will come about through a free and continuous exercise of wisdom, self-discipline, courage, and justice. While it’s important to keep in mind that this won’t be an over night change, – as Stoicism is a practical philosophy, not a magic wand – if we truly put the practices which are spelled out later in the article into action, then the promise Epictetus makes us in his Enchiridion (1.3) will manifest itself:

“no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you; you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm.”

Stoicism and Emotional Pain:

Addiction often stems from underlying mental illness, and even when it doesn’t, it can cause feelings of anxiety, depression, shame, guilt, etc. Stoicism teaches us to transform our emotions in order to achieve an inner calm. It’s about understanding the difference between negative emotions and positive emotions. And with practice, overcoming and possibly conquering those negative emotions; while allowing the positive emotions to flourish and truly drive us.

Negative emotions of say, fear or anger, are instinctive evolutionary reactions to certain stimuli which can’t be avoided. But a wise person can distance themselves from the raw emotion, and contemplate whether the emotion in question should (or shouldn’t) be given “assent” to. It’s that moment in between that we have the choice to either react to that fear, anger, etc., or to let it pass over us. Which takes practice and training to be able to do.

One of the foundations of this is what is called the Dichotomy of Control. The first category includes our thoughts, actions, and attitudes. What we pursue, and what we avoid. While the second category includes pretty much everything else. The idea is that peace of mind comes from focusing on what we can actually control, rather than wasting emotional energy on what we can’t control. (Echiridion 1.1)

You’ll notice that the Dichotomy of Control is very similar to the Serenity Prayer often used in 12-Step programs:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”

Yet, this concept is over two millennia older than the Serenity Prayer, and it rests on the foundation that the ‘acceptance, courage, and wisdom’ comes from within our own directing mind.

“What, then, is to be done?  To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 1.1.17

Beginning Your Stoic Practice:

Donald Robertson, Licensed Psychotherapist, REBT & CBT expert, and author of The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, lays out what I believe to be the perfect Philosophical Regime for beginners. Which, since it is based in both Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, it can, I believe, be perfectly meshed into a Recovery Program. Robertson tells us it consists of three stages. Morning, throughout the day, and night:

Stage 1: Morning Preparation

Plan your day ahead with the Stoic “reserve clause” in mind.  Decide what goals you want to achieve in advance and make a decision to try to achieve them but with the caveat: “Fate permitting.”  In other words, aim for success and pursue it wholeheartedly while also being prepared to accept setbacks or failure with equanimity, insofar as they lie outside of your direct control.  Try to choose your goals wisely, picking things that are rational and healthy for you to pursue.  Your primary goal throughout these three stages should be to protect and improve your fundamental wellbeing, particularly in terms of your character and ability to think clearly about your life.   You’re going to try to do this by cultivating greater self-awareness and practical wisdom, which requires setting goals for yourself that are healthy, while pursuing them in a sort of “detached” way, without being particularly attached to the outcome.

Stage 2: Stoic Mindfulness (Prosochê) Throughout the Day

Throughout the day, continually pay attention to the way you make value-judgements and respond to your thoughts.  Be mindful, in particular of the way you respond to strong emotions or desires.  When you experience a distressing or problematic thought, pause, and tell yourself: “This is just a thought and not at all the thing it claims to represent.”  Remind yourself that it is not things that upset you but your judgements about things.  Where appropriate, rather than being carried away by your initial impressions, try to postpone responding to them for at least an hour, waiting until your feelings have settled down and you are able to view things more calmly and objectively before deciding what action to take.

Once you have achieved greater self-awareness of your stream of consciousness and the ability to take a step back from your thoughts in this way, begin to also apply a simple standard of evaluation to your thoughts and impressions as follows.  Having paused to view your thoughts from a distance, ask yourself whether they are about things that are directly under your control or things that are not.  This has been called the general precept or strategy of ancient Stoic practice.  If you notice that your feelings are about something that’s outside of your direct control then respond by trying to accept the fact that it’s out of your hands, saying to yourself: “This is nothing to me.”  Focus your attention instead on doing what is within your sphere of control with wisdom and to the best of your ability, regardless of the actual outcome.  In other words, remind yourself to apply the reserve clause described above to each situation. Look for ways to remind yourself of this, eg., the Serenity Prayer.

Stage 3: Night-time Review

Review your whole day, three times, if possible, before going to sleep.  Focus on the key events and the order in which they happened, e.g., the order in which you undertook different tasks or interacted with different people during the day.

  1. What did you do that was good for your fundamental wellbeing?  (What went well?)
  2. What did you do that harmed your fundamental wellbeing?  (What went badly?)
  3. What opportunities did you miss to do something good for your fundamental wellbeing?  (What was omitted?)

Counsel yourself as if you were advising a close friend or loved one.  What can you learn from the day and, where appropriate, how can you do better in the future?  Praise yourself for what went well and allow yourself to reflect on it with satisfaction.  You may also find it helps to give yourself a simple subjective rating (from 0-10) to measure how consistently you followed the instructions here or how good you were at pursuing rational and healthy goals while remaining detached from things outside of your direct control.  However, also try to be concise in your evaluation of things and to arrive at conclusions without ruminating over things for too long.

Obviously, there is a lot more to Stoicism, in terms of both the theory and practice. But, as you begin to study, and apply these practices into your life, I’d suggest keeping it simple. If you are interested in furthering your study and practice, here are three more examples from Mr. Robertson of other Stoic practices; followed by a link to a longer and more detailed article of his:

  1. Contemplation of the Sage: Imagine the ideal Sage or exemplary historical figures (Socrates, Diogenes, Cato) and ask yourself: “What would he do?”, or imagine being observed by them and how they would comment on your actions.

  2. Contemplating the Whole Cosmos: Imagine the whole universe as if it were one thing and yourself as part of the whole, or the View from Above: Picture events unfolding below as if observed from Mount Olympus or a high  watchtower.

  3. Premeditation of Adversity: Mentally rehearse potential losses or misfortunes and view them as “indifferent” (decatastrophising), also view them as natural and inevitable to remove any sense of shock or surprise.

Follow Robertson’s link for a more detailed account of Stoic practices with a far wider range of techniques.

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