Beyond the buzzword — Practical mindfulness with ACT

Mindfulness seems to be the self help buzzword of the moment, yet it is still misunderstood by many people to be “just another form of meditation”. However, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) offers a toolbox of mindfulness techniques that not only make sense to the modern mind but are also immensely practical.

The Happiness Trap

Most science-based approaches to psychotherapy typically involve changing thought patterns and beliefs in an attempt to uproot negative thoughts and build a positive outlook. All well and good.

This is certainly true of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) — arguably the most dominant system of psychotherapy in the world.

It seems obvious — thinking creates our problems so what we need is better thinking right? More positive, better quality, less negative.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ‘ACT’ (pronounced as the word ‘act’), being based on mindfulness, says enough of that. Thoughts don’t necessarily cause problems — thoughts are just internal streams of images and words. Fusing with thoughts causes problems. That is, latching onto thoughts as they go by and identifying with them.

Our capacity for mental self-flagellation can be astounding and the temptation is to entangle and get caught up in a wave of unhelpful critical thoughts. Trying to challenge them doesn’t work (it just gives the unhelpful thoughts more power) while trying to change the station to “Radio Positive and Feel Good” just invites a stream of the opposite thoughts.

As Australian psychotherapist Russ Harris explains, ACT focuses on the acceptance that thoughts and feelings will arise and that they’re not necessarily “negative”. The radio station of the mind will broadcast all kinds of messages and that’s okay. To challenge them and dispute them, as is our common tendency, is to fuse with them.

Where mindfulness comes into ACT, and where it offers enormous value, is in the practice of what is termed defusion. If fusion is buying into thoughts and wrestling with them, defusion is the separation from those thoughts and just watching them from an observer position.

Hence, Russ Harris explains that fusing with thoughts is the problem in the first place. Thoughts are just transmissions of the mind — a natural phenomena we all have — including successful people who look cool and confident all the time.

The counter-intuitive

Being a skeptic and familiar with the self-help industry, I’ve become quite adept at discovering the flaws and chicanery of the various half baked ideas passed off as “wisdom”.

The principles of ACT are fundamentally opposed to the central assumptions of the happiness and positive thinking industry. For instance, the idea we’re bombarded with from a thousand angles is that some emotions are bad and to be avoided, while others are pleasant and to be embraced.

Happiness is therefore a warm fuzzy feeling, so we get locked in this cycle of chasing some desirable emotions and avoiding others. But this is a futile search that has no end.

Emotions are just emotions, there is no inherent reality to them. By accepting them and allowing them space to just ‘be’ we cease to struggle and magnify them beyond their natural parameters.

The positive thinking mantra also creates fusion with thinking. The latching onto positive mantras, affirmations, and the practice of blocking of critical thoughts from your inner voices is fusion. It’s identifying and wrestling with thinking that is the problem, so positive thinking often won’t work because the fusion creates the inner struggle.

Anyone who has tried doing affirmations knows first hand the problem with them — they awaken the opposite thoughts and feelings.

You say: “I’m happy, fun and filled with confidence”.
Your mind retorts: “No you’re not, you’re fat, boring and your breath stinks”.

At some level, positive thinking is the denial of reality and creates discontent from the avoidance of your current state of being.

Where positivity fails

As Russ Harris notes, the human mind evolved to think negative. It’s perfectly natural and serves a valuable purpose — to keep us safe and help us navigate uncertain territory effectively.

For years I was under the impression I was somehow ‘broken’ because I had negative thoughts. I had read numerous self help books and was fully under the illusion that I had to eradicate negative thoughts. Needless to say, that approach leads to a superficial connection with reality and is ultimately doomed. The negative thoughts are still there.

I’ve unintentionally destroyed relationships because of positive thinking. There was action that I should have taken that I didn’t because I thought I needed to stay positive. It’s delusional thinking like this that is more about denial of reality than genuine optimism.

Conclusion and Resources

I have to thank fellow Kiwi and renowned confidence coach Dan Munro for the introduction to ACT and the work of Russ Harris. Dan’s video and blog post about “The I’m Not Good Enough Story” based on Russ Harris’ work inspired me to look more into ACT and therefore this enthusiastic post.

I have to admit, the exercise that Dan runs through in the video really lifted a weight off my shoulders and I’ve felt lighter ever since.

Russ Harris has a wealth of information on ACT, mindfulness and how to live a values driven life rather than a goal oriented one on his websites:

Why America is NOT a Christian nation in logic anyone can follow

The evidence that the constitution of the United States was crafted to keep religion out of politics is fairly straightforward. This fact however does not stop those in power who want to wedge their beliefs and preferences into public discourse and laws.

Religion is a powerful force in human affairs. It not only motivates individuals, it can move entire groups and nations to act in ways both good and bad.

It can also be divisive — subjugating the needs and rights of others for an interpretation of an ancient text which the adherent believes is the divine word of the creator of the universe.

So why am I addressing this issue? The tipping point for me was reading about how Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore is trying to ban same-sex marriage in his state for purely theocratic reasons.

The lengths Conservative Christians and sympathizers will go in order to argue that they and their views deserve special privileges because they are Christians is astounding.

We could go back and look in depth at the history of the US, the founding documents and invoke all kinds of arguments. Ultimately though, the best arguments against such horrendous attempts to overhaul the United States are very simple.

So let’s dive straight into Roy Moore’s flawed reasoning and I’ll demonstrate, in terms everyone can verify and understand, why America is not a Christian nation in the legal sense of the word.

When asked “Are laws themselves superseded by God?” Chief Justice Moore said:

CLAIM ONE: “I think you’re correct in saying that,” he answered. “This is a Christian nation by the fact that 90% of the churches in America are Christian churches and it’s certainly founded upon Christian principles.

I’m sure most churches in America are Christian. That wasn’t the concern of the founding fathers. The establishment clause preventing the government from favoring or discriminating on the basis of religion was largely to prevent one religious group rising up above all the others.

Furthermore, the constitution guarantees equal treatment under the law regardless of religious affiliation. The appeal to a majority is just an attempt by Roy Moore to lend his arguments credibility that they don’t deserve. It’s also a form of bullying.

CLAIM TWO: “The supreme law of the land is the Constitution of the United States which recognizes many of those principles.”

Here’s the kicker — the Constitution is overtly non-religious (secular) and in a fatal way to Christianity.

Compare the very first of the Ten Commandments to the first amendment to the Constitution.

First Commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”
First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment (the very first issue the founding fathers felt they needed to address) directly contradicts the First Commandment, presumably the most important commandment to Yahweh.

CLAIM THREE: “Our freedom to believe what we want comes from God. When it comes from God, no man or no court, can take it away. That’s a God-given right under the Declaration of Independence, which is law itself.”

This is ignorance and wishful thinking in its extreme. Again, taking the First Commandment, God has clearly said you have freedom to believe in one god only. That’s not freedom,that’s coercion.

If history is a guide, the human species only attains freedom after fighting off the oppression of autocratic regimes. Multitudes of humans have met their demise bringing this fight. Christianity, as a monotheistic religion, has autocracy as a fundamental principle.

You can’t argue that freedom comes from God and then advance a book he supposedly inspired that is filled with punishments and inducements for disobeying his rules, especially when some of those rules fundamentally oppose basic human rights (such as self determination).

“Why must they continue to flog dead arguments?”

But despite all this obvious evidence, conservatives still try to bring religion to the table. Why? Because it gives them unchallenged power to control the populace. They can justify whatever backwards and regressive laws they like, no matter their real world consequences.

The ambiguity of religious texts means they’re able to pick and choose their interpretations and become righteously indignant to those who stand in their way. In many cases, this feeling of moral superiority and absolute certainty has led to genocide and war — both civil and with other nations.

The religious impulse to absolutism sows the seeds of dictatorship. Just listen to the likes of Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. They explicitly want to force everyone else to comply with their beliefs. This is not the role of a public official who is in power to represent the people… ALL people.

Constitutional protection was established so that no one could use their own religious interpretations to enforce their own theocratic versions of the law.

The irony is, most conservatives who buy into this “Christian Nation” fallacy are highly critical of nations that employ the same ideology, but in a different religious background.

They must be envious of government officials in Iran and Saudi Arabia, nations where they can enforce theocratic law in ways that contravene most basic human rights.


What escapes these fundamentalists is that by saying freedom comes from God (the one they believe in) they’re ignoring their own rule book — the Ten Commandments, which categorically states you are free to believe in only one god — Yahweh.

This coercion is intrinsic in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, where many passages point to the death of all who oppose the will of Yahweh.

Freedom makes no sense when it comes with strings attached as it does with monotheistic religion. God quite clearly states that their can only be one true deity. All others are strictly prohibited.

The founders of the US knew this and went on to make the very first amendment to the constitution in direct opposition to what the creator of the universe laid out in the first commandment.

Hence… America is not founded on any religion. The humanistic philosophy that underpins the founding documents strictly prohibits the state from religious  meddling.

Being products of the Enlightenment, they knew full well what religious tyranny look liked and realized the only true way to ensure everyone is equal under the law was to scribe a secular constitution that prevented such abuses.

Cold showers can change your life (not just make you cold!)

Why would anyone in their right mind even contemplate going through the discomfort of taking a cold shower?

A valid question indeed. which contains the seed of a profound answer: Choosing to be uncomfortable hardens your mind and resolve.

Think about it, almost everyone goes through life making decisions that are easy and comfortable. I mean, why would you even want to be uncomfortable right? Shouldn’t everything be exactly as you want it and even better?

This is the society we live in and we’re paying a price for it. We have more than any society has ever had before. More options, variety, more food, more freedom to travel and do as we please, yet somehow this isn’t enough.

The easy choice is the wrong choice if we want to be happy and fulfilled. Does that mean we should make life intentionally difficult. Yes and no.

It is here we need to make a distinction between masochism and extending our comfort zones. Taking a cold shower isn’t masochism, it is merely an inconvenience we can choose to experience. If we do, we can gain more of an appreciation for having hot water available, which is something most people in the world do not have access to.

We can also develop thicker skin. If the power went off for three weeks we know we could handle bathing in cold water.

Prescription for contentment

But there’s something profound that happens when you start making choices to endure doses of voluntary discomfort: Your mental outlook changes. You shift from needing to have things as perfect as possible in order to enjoy life. You stop being so darn precious about feeling uncomfortable… These cease to be excuses for inaction, whining and not enjoying life as it is.

I know it’s a tough sell, and I’ve gotten a multitude of strange looks for mentioning this idea, but really, it is a small thing you can do to set in motion positive changes. Both in mood (you feel funky for hours afterwards) and in long term emotional states because you develop a level of resilience.

If you’re the sort of person who has to have everything exactly as they want it, taking cold showers will seem utterly foreign to you. No doubt this expectation that your experience must fit a narrow set of standards in order for you to feel fulfilled/happy produces a great deal of discontent. Doing something against the grain is probably the best thing you could do.

Don’t believe me?

Try it. Take a cold shower for 7 days. That is cold from start to finish. Revel in it, look forward to it, abandon hesitation and you’ll notice your days go much smoother.

If you’re really keen to improve your mental outlook, stop having your morning coffee. Maybe that one is for another time🙂

Here’s a few cool resources for more info:




No limits language learning FLR style

Every now and then someone shows up online or in person who just blows your model of reality out of the water. 

I recently stumbled on Moses McCormick’s YouTube videos (username laoshu505000). Moses is a fascinating guy. Based in Columbus Ohio, he makes it his business to learn every language he possibly can. Through his efforts, he has gained proficiency in more than a dozen languages and distilled his approach down into an effective product he calls the FLR Method.

What Moses brings to the Polyglot community is a wonderful humility but also a sense that nothing is impossible. He basically studies his languages in his bedroom and an adjacent room which he calls “bootcamp stations A and B”.

However, he isn’t confined to his bootcamp quarters merely listening to audio, combing through language courses many of us would be familiar with (Teach Yourself, Assimil, Colloquial…) Yes he does all these things but it is all in service of his primary goal with a language, which is to “level up” — code for getting out into the real world and communicating with native speakers.

The drive to refine

There is something very cool about Moses’ approach which dawned on me after watching this video on how he goes about learning multiple languages at one time.

Firstly, his goal to reach an intermediate level in 4 languages every year changes the game completely. If you’re learning one language only, then there is a temptation to drift in the language and not take it as seriously as you could.

Designating multiple languages in a short time frame entails some serious planning, but beyond that, it requires a high level of organisation and daily commitment.

Moses uses charts to organise his time and resources leading to a very effective approach. Having fairly aggressive timelines to practice his languages, Moses has had to create a lean and effective schedule of learning. He has optimised all his systems and is constantly refining.

Again, without the audacious goal of learning 4 languages a year, the need to refine and constantly improve his approach wouldn’t be as necessary.

A second aspect of Moses’ approach worth noting is his drive to go out and test himself on native speakers. Anyone who has learned even a few phrases of a new language and used them successfully with native speakers will know there is an exhilaration that comes from doing it.

You will make mistakes but as the Irish Polyglot Benny Lewis is fond of saying, people want the interaction to go well and they will mostly help you out. This is true even when your grammar is not so flash.

I have had numerous dialogues in Czech where I left thinking “doh! I should have used the genitive case there not the dative”. That learning would only take place when I went out and tried it out.

So now I don’t beat myself up for making mistakes, in fact, it is necessary to make as many mistakes as possible as early as possible.

An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field. — Niels Bohr.

Because communication is Moses’ primary goal, his approach is to listen, read and speak as much as possible, especially early on. He studies grammar only after having a solid grounding in the dialogues from books and audio programs.

I speak from experience when I say that the grammar first approach isn’t effective, at least not for me. My approach to study languages like science projects actually stunted my progress in Czech — a language with an enormous amount of detailed grammar.

Impossible you say?

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I find Moses to be truly inspirational. He genuinely cares about the languages he learns — he says none of them are useless (as some YouTube commenters have said).

He speaks with a nonchalance about learning multiple languages and the 1-20 year plan he has to study virtually every language you can name. But never do I hear him complaining about how hard a language is, or making excuses. In Moses’ world, excuses never even enter the door.

FLR Method

His 10 years or so experience is testament to the fact he’s a smooth operator in the language learning field. Through his tenacity and experience with multiple languages, Moses has created an approach to learning languages he calls the Foreign Language Road Running (FLR) Method.

His YouTube channel has numerous outlines of FLR but he has condensed all of these techniques into language learning packages that make it easy for the learner to progress week-by-week.

If you think language learning is difficult then FLR might just be what you’re looking for. Moses’ style is very down to earth and doesn’t involve anything complicated at all.

In fact, Moses explains on several YouTube videos how to effectively study a regular textbook like a Teach Yourself or Assimil. His ideas about taking one chapter and repeating the dialogues for an entire week (reading and listening) have been immensely valuable to me. A 19 chapter textbook can seem daunting but if you devoted one week for each and devoured the dialogues, you would have a vast understanding of the language.

Once you’ve got a solid grounding in listening and reading, then, as Moses explains, is when you should begin looking at grammar. It will make much more sense when you’ve got the comprehension from 18-19 weeks of dialogue study.

Applying FLR to French

Since I began learning French in July this year I have learned a tremendous amount. However, I used my old “grammar first” approach so when it comes time to speaking the language I have struggled.

To remedy this, I’m putting grammar on hold and am only using textbooks to study the dialogues. In less than a week of doing this I already feel more confident in the language.

Resources aren’t an issue for me (I have tonnes) but the approach I’m taking is now making those resources come to life. Thanks to Moses, I feel excited about learning again!

Useful links and more french resources

Stoic Week 2015 — Hitting the ‘reset’ button

Stoic Week 2015
Stoic Week 2015 commences on 2 November. What is Stoic Week? In a nutshell, it is a chance for anyone who wants to understand what the Stoic perspective and daily practice entails, and to experience some of the benefits that comes with developing a Stoic approach to life and all its complexities.

This will be my second Stoic week, so to make sure I get the most out of the experience I’m starting to get momentum the week prior by really taking seriously the central tenets of Stoicism, including:

  • Virtue is the only true good worth pursuing
  • Living a frugal lifestyle with a reduced focus on the acquisition of external ‘goods’ and the cultivation of a contentment for the internal life and qualities
  • Developing a mindful moment-to-moment approach to “impressions” and learning to use my power of judgement to nip unhealthy desires and fears in the bud
  • Recognising what is in my power and focusing my efforts in those areas
  • Accepting what is not within my power
  • Practising Stoic exercises such as the morning and evening meditations and reading Stoic texts.

If you are new to Stoicism, then I suggest you check out the Stoicism Today site for a complete run down on what Stoicism is and how to take part in Stoic Week.

One of the things I struggled with after Stoic Week 2014 was keeping the momentum going following that 7 days of intense focus on Stoic principles. It is too easy to fall back into patterns of indulgence in excessive irrational pleasure, including food and drink, wanton consumerism and wasting time on the internet.

I’ve found myself focusing too much on things I can’t control and feeling anxious because of this. Modern Western cultures prize insecurity and excessive hedonism, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us or that we should continue to participate.

Pushing the reset bUTTON

Stoic Week 2015, for me, will therefore be a reset of sorts. By taking a flying start and beginning my Stoic intensive the week before Stoic Week, I believe I’ll be able to better adopt Stoicism as an “operating system” for making better decisions in life.

Stoic Week is a great opportunity to reflect on your life, examine it through a Stoic lens and gain valuable insights on how your life could be better by taking on a more Stoic attitude to life.

A practical philosophy

The success of Stoicism in recent years is in part due to its practicality — it is philosophy you can use to lead a better life.

With that in mind, here are some of the things I’ll personally be doing to put Stoic principles into practice. This is in addition to the Stoic techniques that will be outlined in the Stoic Week 2015 Handbook:

  • Eat only a simple meat-free and dairy-free diet
  • Manage cravings, hedonism with proper use of impressions
  • Cultivate simplicity in all things
  • Perform simple bodyweight only workouts with full presence
  • Be a producer: Make good use of my time in service of producing work rather than consuming (i.e. Being a creator of web content that helps others rather than consuming content on the web).
  • Act from my highest values and virtues, not emotions
  • Cultivate a disciplined mind: Minimise distractions by applying the Pomodoro Technique to ensure sustained attention on the task I am doing
  • Sleep well
  • (New addition) Cold showers

*For an idea of what Stoic Week entails, check out the 2014 Stoic Week Handbook (pdf).

Just do it!

Stoicism has already had a profound effect in my life and the lives of thousands of others. If you’re religious, it will make you a better believer. If you’re not religious, Stoicism will give you an operating system and code of virtue ethics that will make you a better person, family member, friend and citizen of Earth.

Stoic Week also serves as a research project, based at the University of Exeter in the UK so by participating, you can help add vital data in to the mix.

On the joys of learning French and other language exploits

Several years ago, before my first trip to Prague, I picked up a Berlitz Czech phrasebook and began what seemed like an innocent attempt at learning a few words and phrases.

However, like a lot of things I dip my toes into, learning Czech became somewhat of an obsession. Thus begun a fascination with learning languages and the constant bewilderment that acquiring a second language is so undervalued in New Zealand.

It is true to a large extent that to know the people and the country you really need to know the language. I have found the intricacies and idiosyncrasies in languages reveals a lot about how native speakers think and evaluate life, along with the history of the people.

My impediment was this strange notion that “I’ll learn another language when I’ve learned English properly first”. Yeah it’s silly, especially considering the fact I have more of an appreciation for English because I have studied another language.

French impressions — at 3 weeks

If you climbed a mountain then the surrounding hills will seem like a doddle. Czech was the mountain for me. It’s so completely different in structure, pronunciation and scope than English. Czech is highly inflected language — nouns are declined more often than not. Verbs are all conjugated to the point where personal pronouns are largely unnecessary and adjectives, pronouns vary according to which of the 7 cases you are using. It can appear to be a mammoth task to learn Czech, especially straight out of the gate as your second language.

So to my delight, French has been a walk in the park. I can see there is a lot of complexity in the language going forward but right off the bat, French has similar sentence structures to English and of course English is basically a mix of French and German that has evolved over the past 1000 years.

There are plenty of words in French that have similar meanings in English (cognates). I am finding that learning these cognates can be a great way to acquire French quickly.

The really fun part about French, in my humble opinion, is the pronunciation. As a dabbler in languages over the years, I love pronouncing Italian words and sounding Italian when I speak. The entire word is spoken definitively whereas in French the words flow off the tongue (and the back of the throat in the case of the ‘r’ sounds) much more delicately. For the most part, the ends of French words are silent and soft. It really is a joy to speak.

The magic of auxiliary verbs

I share the observation by Benny Lewis (Fluent in 3 Months fame) and Tim Ferriss that a great way to get a grasp on a lot of a language early on is to master auxiliary verbs combined with the infinitive of the verb you wish to convey. That way, the only conjugation you’ll need is for the initial verb, which is easy to remember and master early on.

Auxiliary verbs convey a sentences function, which could be tense, modal aspect… In our cases, the modal verbs are: I must, I can, I will, I may.

English French Czech
I must go to the cinema Je dois aller au cinema Musím jít do kina
I can eat the meat Je peux manger la viande Můžu jíst toto maso
You must listen better! Tu dois mieux écouter! Musíte naslouchat líp!
Can we have some water? Nous pouvons avoir de l’eau? Můžeme dostat nějaké vody?

The initial modal verb in the sentences above allows us to use the infinitive verb to convey the meaning we want. In the first example, I merely have to conjugate the I must verb. I could say I must go, I must eat, I can drink, can I drink… Numerous meanings and sentences by memorising the conjugation of a handful of verbs and then tagging on the infinitive (eat, drink, watch, go…)

In French the verbs to go (être) and to have (avoir) have numerous functions as auxiliary verbs by forming the immediate past (passé compose). Instead of the infinitive verb, and easy to grasp past participle is used instead (as is the case with English also):

I ate breakfast -> J’ai mangé le petit déjeuner
Here, the J’ai is the present tense of the to have verb. Mangé is the past participle of to eat, so the sentence literally says: I Have eaten Breakfast.

I went to the restaurant -> Je suis allé au restaurant
In this example the past participle of to go (allé) is used to convey the meaning I went.

The simple future tense is also easily formulated from the verb to go:

We are going to the market -> Nous allons au marché
As we say it in English, the nous allons refers to we go

I’m not going to let that happen! -> Je ne vais pas permettre ça !

That’s my experience with French after only three weeks. Here are some cool resources that I am using :

  • Memrise — A spaced repetition app that keeps you locked into the daily revision and learning targets with a points system. Social networking also a key feature.
  • FluentU — a range of video, audio and flashcard resources designed to teach you in a more dynamic way than just books and CDs.
  • Coffee Break French podcast — superb resource with lots of free lessons and a premium feature. Progresses season by season from beginner to advanced French.
  • Benny’s insights into French — Straight from the Irish Polyglot’s mouth!

Concluding thoughts

Clearly, French is a popular language with a lot more complexity and richness than presented here by a mere newbie, but I have to say it is proving to be a rewarding experience.

In many ways I’m glad I studied such a relatively difficult and completely foreign language first. Czech is still my first love and I enjoy it immensely. As Benny Lewis is fond of saying, you’re first language will be your hardest because you’re learning how to study a language as well as the language itself.

Rethinking the role of pleasures in life

Many people don’t even consider the role of pleasure in creating a ‘good’ and ‘flourishing’ life.

In fact the word flourishing probably doesn’t factor in to any one person’s philosophy of life.

This is primarily a cultural thing — very few of us are ever presented with the idea of questioning the cultural norms and attitudes we are inculcated in. You’re a consumer, you consume and thereby participate in the great cultural experiment of no-limits capitalism.

It is my contention that life truly worth living requires some critical reflection on the relationship we have with pleasure and the external objects and events that we rely on for fulfillment.

To some, the idea that pleasure isn’t somehow connected to a valuable and worthwhile life is dumbfounding. This was certainly my realisation when I first discovered Stoicism and virtue ethics as a way of developing a personal code for living.

In fact, the pursuit of pleasure, despite being a tremendously self-centred preoccupation, often leads to discontentment or worse, addictions.

“It is self-discipline, above all, that causes pleasure.”
— Socrates

As it turns out, philosophers have been debating ideas around what constitutes a good life for at least 2500 years. Only in the last few centuries has philosophy been preoccupied with areas that are academically interesting, but bare little relevance to practical living.

Epicurus and the “pleasure garden”

Of the Hellenistic schools, the Cyrenaics and the Epicureans held that pleasure is the only intrinsic good. In fact, the Cyrenaic school only lasted a century — their project essentially carried on by the Epicureans.

Like most words pertaining to Greek philosophy that survive in modern English, ‘Epicurean’ distorts the original meaning of the word.

Epicurus did expound a hedonistic philosophy, but his take on pleasure was vastly different to that of the modern standard. His hedonistic ethics were aimed at the attainment of ataraxia — freedom from unnecessary pain while being content with simple pleasures.

Epicureans were not rampant pleasure seekers at all costs. Food, drink and sex were not objects of unusual desire for them. Instead, Epicurus and his ardent followers did all they could do maintain this blissful state including:

  • Withdrawing from politics and, to a large extent, public life
  • Retiring to a plush garden to practice philosophy and live the good life among friends
  • Enjoy pleasures in moderation while abstaining from unhealthy pleasurable pursuits
  • Avoiding superstitious beliefs that cause undue existential harm (e.g. Gods that punish us in an afterlife).

The latter point to me is the most interesting as a modern skeptic. Epicurus’ theory of atomism stemmed from his insistence that beliefs should be proportioned to the empirical evidence. Epicurus thought it unnecessary to worry about the gods and to fear the consequences of judgement from the gods. This was a bold departure from the beliefs of the populous at the time.

So Epicureans pursued a state of tranquility through the taming of desire, because they knew that wantonly fulfilling desires is an unending pursuit that leads to discontentment.

Staunch Stoics

The Stoics went one further than the Epicureans — pleasure is not a good at all, in fact virtue (those actions that perfect one’s character) is the only good. The Stoics were unimpressed with pleasure and craving after desires. They thought these to be the cause of much human unhappiness.

The way to combat perturbations or “unnatural movements of the soul” is to live apatheia (without passions). To achieve this state, one must pursue only those things that are within one’s control. Any ‘passion’ in Stoicism is inappropriate because the presence of such intense emotions can only arise in a person if they mistakenly place value in an external object, sensation or event (which are only indifferents with respect to a flourishing life).

That is Stoicism in a nutshell — quell passions like desire by judging only internal things within our control to be good. Value those things and be indifferent to everything else (in fact we should love whatever befalls us because that is what nature has willed).

Stoic practice is therefore training to hone one’s wisdom about what is truly good and what is truly bad and to act in accordance with nature.

As with much of the Stoic canon, Epictetus is bang on when he says: “It is impossible that happiness and yearning for what is not present, should ever be united.”

The mental disposition of yearning, craving or lusting after something external is the very definition of discontentment. However, this way of thinking, puts us squarely at odds with the frantic, never satisfied life we’ve landed ourselves in.

What that means for us today

Many people from all walks of life are waking up to the fact that there is more to life than just fulfilling every desire that enters their consciousness.

In rich countries, we’re sold on the idea from multiple sources — the media, big business, governments… That the goal in life is to have the house, the car the toys, the holidays and everything in between. We’re supposed to work ourselves into the ground to pay for these things and when we can’t we can just sign on the dotted line and go in to debt.

The above narrative is not only faulty it is the also the cause of a great amount of human unhappiness, environmental degradation and social problems. The lie persists, however, because so much is at stake for those who profit from us buying into it.

Socrates said that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living”. Perhaps the most insightful and life changing aspect of my study in Hellenistic philosophy stems from challenging the role desire plays in my life. For me, preoccupation with pleasure has reduced dramatically and the positive results as well as increased sense of well-being has flowed into all aspects of my life.

Your path might be different to mine — I have principally studied Stoicism, but it really doesn’t matter. Eastern philosophies and religions have also much to say about how desires and aversions rule our lives. The point is: examine your life, don’t just sleepwalk through it. And evaluating the effect of pleasure and desire in your life is about as fundamental an examination as you can get.

Even if you come out of your study of practical philosophy as a full blown consumerist hedonist, at least you’ll know why and be able to recognise the limitations of that philosophy of life and be prepared for any challenges that you may face.