CBT and the philosophy of Epictetus: ‘Events themselves are impersonal and indifferent’

albertellisrationality2This post introduces you to the views of the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus, the ‘Buddha of the west’, to get you thinking about thinking.

What does philosophy have to do with psychotherapy? Well, everything. Today’s so called third wave of CBT is ‘holistic’ and a philosophy for living. For all day every day.

Dr Albert Ellis, the ‘Prince of Reason‘, and a founding father of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, is regularly voted one of the most influential people in modern psychotherapy. Dr Ellis himself said he was heavily influenced by the Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus, (whose most quoted teaching is ‘it is not events that disturb us, but rather it is our interpretation of the event‘ – which is the core of CBT).epictetussepia

Epictetus believed that we could train ourselves to be happy by challenging our ‘thinking’, by deliberately developing calm rational thinking skills, and by understanding what we can control and what we cannot control.

The following is a contemporary translation of one of my favorite passages from the renowned ‘Enchiridion‘ (or guide or manual for living). Have a read, and have a think… Is there advice here that can help you to change how you view life and events? Enjoy….


Events Themselves Are Impersonal and Indifferent


When considering the future, remember that all situations unfold as they do regardless of how we feel about them. Our hopes and fears sway us, not events themselves.

Undisciplined people, driven by their personal antipathies and sympathies, are forever on the lookout for signs that build up or reinforce their unexamined views and opinions. Yet events themselves are impersonal, though judicious people certainly can and should respond to them in beneficial ways.

Instead of personalising an event (“this is MY triumph, that was HIS blunder, or this is MY bitter misfortune”) and drawing withering conclusions about yourself or human nature, watch for how you can put certain aspects of the event to good use. Is there some less-than-obvious benefit embedded in the event that a trained eye might discern? Pay attention; be a sleuth. Perhaps there is a lesson you can extract and apply to similar events in the future.

In ALL events, however seemingly dire, there is nothing to prevent us from searching for its hidden opportunity. It is a failure of the imagination not to do so. But to seek out the opportunity in situations requires a great deal of courage, for most people around you will persist in interpreting events in the grossest terms: success or failure, good or bad, right or wrong. These simplistic, polarised categories obscure more creative – and USEFUL – interpretations of events that are far more advantageous and interesting

The wise person knows it is fruitless to project your hopes and fears on the future. This only leads to forming melodramatic representations in your mind and wasting time.

At the same time, one shouldn’t passively acquisesce to the future and what it holds. Simply doing nothing does not avoid risk, but heightens it.

There is a place for prudent planning and for making provision for situations to come. Proper preparation for the future consists of forming good personal habits. This is done by actively pursuing the good in all the particulars of your daily life and by regularly examining your motives to make sure they are free of the shackles of fear, greed, and laziness. If you do this, you won’t be buffeted about by outside events.

Train your intentions rather than fooling yourself into thinking you can manipulate outside events. If you are helped by praying or meditating, by all means do so. But seek divine counsel when the applications of your own reason hasn’t yielded any answers, when you have exhausted other means.

What is a GOOD event? What is a BAD event? There is no such thing! What is a good person? The one who achieves tranquility by having formed the habit of asking on every occasion, “what is the right thing to do now?”quotemarks1


The above translation is from the gorgeous ‘Manual for Living‘ adaptation by Sharon Lebell.
Click HERE to read a basic translation of the Enchiridion free online.

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