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Cultivating the Good Emotions




Let’s talk about emotions. Not your emotions or my emotions, but emotions as they might be experienced by a person of perfect wisdom. There is a common misperception that Stoicism is about getting rid of emotions and a corresponding misunderstanding that a wise person would be impassive or unfeeling. This is completely false. Epictetus, one of the most austere of the ancient Stoics, says we shouldn’t be unfeeling like a statue (Discourses, 3.2, 4), and Diogenes Laërtius (7.117) explains,

They say the wise man is also free of passions, because he is not disposed to them. And the base man is 'free of passions' in a different sense, which means the same as hard-hearted and cold.

Diogenes Laërtius specifically contrasts the wise man with the hard-hearted and cold man. Both are ways of being free of passions, but one is wise and the other is unwise. Wise people don't experience negative emotion because they have overcome them through wisdom; hard-hearted people may be passionless because they have learned not to care about anything.


What, then, is the Stoic approach to emotions? You might say our goal is not to eliminate emotions but to perfect them. According to the ancient Stoics, even a sage would have emotional responses to the world because this is just part of being human. We don’t want to become inhuman! We want to become a better version of a human. So let's dig into what the ancient Stoics really say about emotions and how we can develop wise emotions.



What Are Good Emotions?


Stoics say that our emotions follow from what we believe about the world. Our beliefs about what is important in life actually determine how we feel about life. We want our beliefs to accurately reflect the world around us; we don't want a distorted view of reality which clouds our judgment and leads us to think and act erroneously. So if we want to be truly happy, we need to carefully distinguish between what is true and what is false, and what is truly important and what isn't.


When we do this, our perspective on the world changes. Rather than pegging our feelings on material comfort or external sources of validation, we realize more and more that we find contentment in being an excellent person. As a result, we are not jerked around by negative emotional reactions to whatever is going on around us. Our beliefs and emotions are based on a firm foundation, which is a wise understanding of the world.


Margaret Graver explains the relationship between values and emotions in her definitive work Stoicism and Emotion (p. 82):

The wise do not believe that externals have genuine value, but they do believe that human conditions and activities have that sort of value, and it is toward these that normative affect is directed. Thus we have every reason to think that the Stoics’ wise person can experience very powerful feelings when the occasion calls for them. An awareness of having done the right thing should evoke not just a mild satisfaction but a rich, deep joy...

The principle is recognized by Lawrence Becker writing as a modern-day Stoic in response to [a] point raised by Posidonius. Posidonius inquired why it is that the wise, who recognize ‘all things honorable’ as unsurpassable goods, do not also find themselves deeply moved by those things. The Stoic response, argues Becker, is that they do. Those who perceive virtue to be surpassingly valuable should in fact be surpassingly passionate about it.


Clearly, the goal here is not eliminating emotions but gaining a proper understanding of the world. As our wisdom increases, our negative emotions decrease because we understand at a deeper level that most things are not worth getting upset about. At the same time, positive emotions (such as contentment and cheerfulness) that were once few and far between become more established. These good emotions change from fleeting feelings (which are based on external circumstances) to dispositional traits (which are present all the time, no matter what the external circumstances are).


As the good emotions shift from fleeting feelings to stable dispositional traits, they take on a new nature. There is a qualitative difference between the experience of a wise emotion and a non-wise emotion. Cicero (cited in Graver, p. 203-204) describes the difference this way:

The sort of reaching which is aroused too vigorously and in a manner opposed to reason is called ‘desire’ or ‘unbridled longing,’ and this is what is found in all who are foolish. Similarly there are two ways we may be moved as by the presence of something good. When the mind is moved quietly and consistently, in accordance with reason, this is termed ‘joy,’ but when it pours forth with a hollow sort of uplift, that is called ‘wild or excessive gladness,’ which they define as an unreasoning elevation of the mind.


Non-wise emotions are similar to a greedy grasping (in which we feel we must have the object of our desire or we will be unhappy) or a hollow uplift (which has the appearance of happiness but which is hollow inside). These non-wise emotions have an edge of desperation, urgency, and precariousness. They are unstable and unsatisfactory because they are based on a false understanding of the world.


Wise emotions, in contrast, are steady, quiet, and in accordance with reason. They are solid rather than hollow, and they will not let you down because they are based on a true understanding of the world. These eupatheiai (good emotions) include enjoyment, cheerfulness, good spirits, goodwill, welcoming, cherishing, and even love (Graver, p. 58). The eupatheiai are characteristics of a wise mind no matter what is going on around it. In other words, they do not result from external events but are simply a property of wisdom itself.



Cultivating the Good Emotions


That’s a far cry from the dour, emotionless stoic of popular imagination, isn’t it? Given that these are the emotions the sage would consistently be feeling, Stoicism all of a sudden seems like a pretty joyful philosophy. This is what makes all that hard work worth it. At the end of the road awaits not just tranquility, but boundless good spirits, cheerfulness, and goodwill toward everyone in the world.


This is such a worthy goal, in fact, that lately I’ve been thinking about ways to actually cultivate these good emotions as part of our Stoic practice. A caveat, though: as a Stoic, it would be impossible to sit down on a cushion and simply meditate your way to happiness. Stoicism is all about actively helping others (fate permitting) and this active social involvement is a requirement for becoming happy. Isolated meditation on its own will never get you there.


But when complemented by other Stoic practices and a Stoic lifestyle, I think contemplative exercises can help us cultivate those wise emotions such as goodwill and cherishing. Perhaps, instead of the good emotions simply resulting from wisdom, these good emotions can actually help us develop wisdom. Maybe the two go hand in hand. By teaching ourselves to reflexively experience joy and kindliness, we will be training our internal responses to external events.


In this post I’m going to focus on cultivating just a few of the eupatheiai. I’m following in the tradition of other modern-day Stoics who turn to Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations as a basis for mental training and spiritual exercises. Here I’m going to be focusing on the good emotions that are directed toward other people (from Graver, p. 58):

  • Good intent (eunoia) > a wish for good things for another for that person’s sake

  • Goodwill (eumeneia) > lingering good intent

  • Welcoming (aspasmos) > continuous good intent

  • Cherishing (agapesis) > [definition missing]

One reason I’m focusing on goodwill exercises is that this is an underdeveloped area of contemporary Stoicism. Sure, Stoics use many techniques to help manage our anger and frustration with other people. But it tends to be very reactive: we just try to manage problems as they arise. However, if we want to cultivate sage-like happiness, we need to do more than get rid of anger. We need to actually create goodwill toward others. We need to learn to cherish them. As you can see from the list of good emotions above, there is quite a lot of good intent toward other people going on in the mind of a sage. Stoic wisdom is not merely the absence of negative emotion but an active, consistent good wishing directed at all other people.


I think we can work to actively cultivate this good intent toward others. And if my theory is correct, then not only will we be moving ourselves toward wisdom, we will find ourselves able to cope much better with the daily challenges of living with other people.


In fact, Marcus Aurelius seems to be doing just that in his Meditations. Scholars suggest that Marcus wrote the Meditations as a philosophical exercise to help him live up to his Stoic principles. And there are quite a few chapters in which Marcus reminds himself to be cheerful and kind to others:

  • At every hour devote yourself in a resolute spirit, as befits a Roman and a man, to fulfilling the task in hand with a scrupulous and unaffected dignity, and with love for others, and independence, and justice. (2.5)

  • Adapt yourself to the circumstances in which your lot has cast you; and love these people among whom your lot has fallen, but love them in all sincerity. (6.39)

  • Just as with the limbs of the body in individual organisms, rational beings likewise in their separate bodies are constituted to work together in concert. The thought of this will strike you more forcibly if you say to yourself again and again, ‘I am a limb (melos) of the common body formed by all rational beings.’ If, however, by changing a single letter, you call yourself a part (meros), you have not learned to love your fellows with all your heart, nor do you yet rejoice in doing good for its own sake; for you are still doing it simply as a duty, and not yet in the conviction that you are thus doing good to yourself. (7.13)


This last quote is especially striking. Marcus quite forcefully makes the point that we must consider ourselves not just an abstract “part” of human society, but literally a part of the same body. We must visualize ourselves as so closely integrated with others that doing wrong to another person would be like striking off our own body part. Otherwise, we are just being nice because we have to, not because we truly believe that we are one with them.


So the goal of the contemplations below is to develop an attitude of “oneness” with other people. Not merely a theoretical recognition that we are all interconnected, but an acute, visceral awareness that we are all limbs on the same tree, so to speak. This attitude will enable you to approach your interactions with others in a spirit of kindliness and goodwill.



Three Contemplations


You can do a contemplation anywhere, at any time. If you happen to be alone in a quiet place, that’s wonderful. If you happen to be commuting to work, or doing laundry, or out for a walk, that’s wonderful, too. Work with the circumstances of your life. One reason I don’t like using the term “meditation” for these exercises is because we tend to have images of a meditator sitting peacefully in a beautiful and quiet place, inspired and undisturbed. I don’t know about you, but that does not happen in my life! And that also misses the point of what we’re doing. We’re not separating ourselves from other people--we’re drawing closer to them. It defeats the purpose if you feel annoyed that someone else is interrupting you, or you’re frustrated that your life doesn’t afford the luxury of a zen retreat.


I remember reading a story from a Buddhist meditation teacher who, in his younger days, was hosting Buddhist monks from East Asia. He offered to hike with them to a beautiful and secluded nature park so they could meditate. The monks just laughed and said they could meditate anywhere--even while washing the dishes! So don’t try to unrealistically create a perfect environment for yourself. Remember that Marcus Aurelius says we can retreat into our own minds at any time to return to our Stoic principles (Meditations, 4.3). Don’t wait for a perfect time. Just get started!



Good Qualities Contemplation


“When you want to gladden your heart, think of the good qualities of those around you; the energy of one, for instance, the modesty of another, the generosity of a third, and some other quality in another. For there is nothing more heartening than the images of the virtues shining forth in the characters of those around us, and assembled together, so far as possible, in close array.” (Meditations, 6.48)


Start this contemplation by thinking about a person you know well and love. Feel the corners of your mouth start to smile and the warmth spreading through your body as you hold that person in your mind. Your breath slows down and becomes steady, your body relaxes, tension lifts off your shoulders. Hold this person in your mind as long as you like. When you’re ready, shift your mind to one specific quality of this person. Choose a quality you love and admire, one that really represents who that person is. Their strength during adversity. Their reliability, their cheerfulness, their bright energy, their calm resolve. Whatever quality this person exhibits, let it fill your whole mind. Picture that person in front of you, with this quality filling them and then starting to radiate outward. You might see it shining, glittering, flowing--however it seems to you. This is your own personal visualization, so you can visualize it any way you like!


Feel it that quality starting to reach you and touch your mind, so that you also become imbued with that virtue. You share in the energy and warmth coming from your loved one. Now picture that wonderful quality spreading from your loved one to other people standing nearby, spreading like warmth through them and then onward to others. This virtue is now expanding to everyone in the neighborhood, and everyone smiles with warmth and happiness when they receive it. Not only is your friend sharing it, now you are spreading that virtue to others, too! Those good qualities are radiating from you and your friend, and you are both shining happiness outward to everyone else.


Sit and hold that warmth and radiance in your mind for as long as you want. You can repeat this visualization with as many people as you have time for. (You can find at least one good thing about everyone!) When you are finished with the contemplation, carry those good qualities with you and continue to “shine” them out to others for the rest of the day.


Variation 1: If you are struggling to get along with a particular person, or that person has wronged you in some way, you can add on a visualization for them. After your mind is filled with light from your friend’s good qualities, try to identify one good quality about your antagonist. Everyone has at least one good quality! Be fair and try to see a spark of virtue in them. Now imagine that one tiny spark growing stronger and glowing throughout the whole person. That spark of goodness is spreading throughout the person and filling their heart, mind, and whole body with virtue. Send that person good wishes, even though they may have wronged you. It doesn’t matter--they haven’t truly harmed you because they haven’t taken away your good character! Wish them happiness anyway.


Variation 2: If you are struggling with self-acceptance, you might want to contemplate some of your own good qualities. Start with the visualization of your loved one’s virtues. As you hold on to the warmth and goodwill from your loved one, start thinking about one of your own good qualities. It’s important to recognize what you do well and appreciate the good things about yourself! Maybe you are a loyal friend, or you’ve overcome hardship through inner strength. Whatever it is, visualize that quality spreading throughout your whole body.


Start by feeling that quality coursing through your chest (if you want it to emanate from your heart) or head (if you want it to emanate from your mind). Feel that virtuous quality filling the space in your body and slowly spreading throughout all your limbs, upward and downward to your toes. Your face is smiling and your body is relaxed. Now feel that good quality shining outward, glowing from you and visible to your friend near you. The warmth is shining out of your eyes and reaches your friend, who smiles and feels your good qualities touching them. You both feel uplifted and happy. Together, you shine this virtuous quality outward to everyone in the neighborhood, and as each person feels your goodwill, they smile and are at peace.



Circles of Care Contemplation


This guided meditation is well known based on fragments we have from the ancient Stoic Hierocles. I won’t say much about it here, but I will refer you to a lovely guided meditation by Eve Riches on our new site Stoicare.com. This video will explain the theory to you and walk you through a basic contemplation.



Tonglen Meditation


This is a Buddhist meditation, but one that fits really well with our Stoic goal of cultivating good intent toward others. I first learned about tonglen from Elen Buzaré’s short book Stoic Spiritual Exercises, based on the work of Pierre Hadot, and I really think it’s perfect for us. I’m not even going to adapt it for Stoics. You can just follow along with Pema Chodron or another qualified teacher.



I hope you, dear reader, are able to try out some of these exercises in your daily Stoic practice! If you do, please get in touch and let me know how it's going for you. I have found even spending just a few minutes a day on these exercises helps keep me in a Stoic frame of mind, which is to say, calm and happy. I hope they work for you, too!