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May 27th, 2021
I have been going on some good philosophy walks these days. The cool thing about these walks is that I do not know where they will take my body, and I do not know where they will take my mind either. It is always such a surprise.
A few days ago the inquiry of my philosophy walk started with a salient health issue that is mildly concerning, and what could be the reasonable response to it, then the inquiry quickly turned to facing death, the void, and the fear that comes along with those things. I also teased out that there was still an unconscious fear of hell, which was somewhat of a surprise to discover.
I did what any good Stoic would do: befriended the fear, asked it what it wants, and related to it on its own terms. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has a technique that helps with this, and it is called “cognitive defusion,” and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) calls the same thing “cognitive distancing.”
This is a Stoic technique, and as Donald Robertson wrote about in The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, CBT, and “third-wave CBT” like ACT, have their philosophical origins in Stoicism. If you follow the Stoic algo, cognitive defusion is a natural byproduct.
I like the ACT wording of defusion better than the CBT wording of distancing, because cognitive defusion indicates there is something called “cognitive fusion,” which is a super important thing to know. Steven Hayes, the founder of ACT, who also visited The Stoa last year, coined the term. Cognitive fusion is when your thoughts become fused with your emotions. This is when you cannot distance yourself from your thoughts, and it is when your thoughts become synonymous with your reality.
ACT has tons of cool techniques for doing this defusion thing. I recommend the book Cognitive Defusion in Practice: A Clinician's Guide to Assessing, Observing, and Supporting Change in Your Client if you want a useful cognitive toolbox of a lot of these techniques. Cognitive defusion is actually pretty easy to do after you get a few defusion reps in.
Once you become good at cognitive defusion, you can spot when people are cognitively fused, especially when it comes to their argumentations and opinions. This is basically the culture war, which is an enmeshed shitshow, where people’s thoughts are totes fused with their emotions, and they view their arguments as reality. So not cool.
When faced with an unpleasant emotion, that is serenity disrupting, here is my algo: engage in basic cognitive defusion, and bookmark the propositional content for a moment to hang out with the emotion for a while. I anthropomorphize my emotions, not by visualizing it as a human, but by relating to it as one. This way I get to turn on my Dale Carnegie charm game, which is pretty tight, and then apply it to the emotion itself.
I hold space for this anthropomorphized emotion, let it emote and communicate what it wants to communicate, which I translate into propositional content. I will gently disagree with it, as it is usually wrong on a propositional level, and I use the Dale Carnegie conversational tactic of “disagree agreeably.” Before I do that though, I do the following Stoic boss move …
I invite the emotion to stay as long as it wants. I offer to hold space for it to express itself, and I give it no pressure to go away, nor am I needy for it to stay, which is something that comes when I am doing this with a positive emotion. This usually confuses the hell out of the anthropomorphized emotion, as it is totally unprepared for such a boss move.
That is when I disagree agreeably, and after I do, the emotion usually fades away in its intensity, and that is when a sweet Stoic serenity visits me. When this happens, my attention is then turned back to the propositional content of the issue that initially invoked the need for cognitive defusion. The next part is easy: reason with myself about the issue at hand under the conditions of serenity.
A way to look at this is that the serenity disrupting emotion is like a philosophical bouncer that can stop philosophizing from happening. During my going to bars and clubs days, my “get past the bouncer game” was pretty good. I used to just skip the line and go right up to the bouncer and look him in the eyes. One time I got into this fancy club while wearing a dorky hoodie that said “philosophy” on it. When the bouncer asked what was under my hoodie, all I said was “weapons.” He laughed and let me in.
I obviously did not have any weapons, but once you learn how to speak the alpha male language that comes with knowing “chimp politics” (and most bouncers are alpha male posturing), you can then get away with a lot. The same thing goes with learning how to “speak” with your own emotional landscape.
I went on somewhat of a tangent here though. I will circle back to the recent philosophy walk I had about facing death and the void, along with the thought of a hell existing after death. I processed the fear first, then did some good reasoning about what to do. The philosophical thread on hell required some interesting reasoning moves, but it was the one on fear of dying and facing the void that offered a surprise…
Death, Stoically speaking, is a dispreferred indifferent most of the time, but sometimes it can be a preferred indifferent. On its own though, it is not a “bad thing.” The fear came because I was feeling into the reality of losing life, or to be more specific, losing love. What happens to love when you die? Is there love after death? Is there love in the void?
Perhaps not. I realized I had a neediness for love, and an unrealistic expectation that it will continue forever. That is not only unrealistic, but it also comes from a fearful place. I did some more processing, and a bittersweet romantic feeling came to me.
It is the same feeling I get when watching a really good romantic movie, like those postmodern romance films such as Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. It is like love is there, along with a nebulous promise, and a tender pain that comes from knowing it might not last. Yeah, this was the exact emotion that came when realizing that my experience of love might not last forever.
Something strangely beautiful then happened. I anthropomorphized love, then loved love itself. My whole surroundings then changed, and I was seeing my environment through the “eyes of love.” It was beautiful. It was a similar feeling to when I last heard the music, and it basically felt like I was on MDMA. The loving intensity did fade, but the memory of it is still here with me.
This was a surprise, and this is what makes doing philosophy beautiful.
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