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Philosophical Reflection - A Cognitive Health Check

Updated: Feb 27, 2022

How we can learn from the thought techniques of the past to bring greater peace to the anxieties of the present.

As we progress through 2022, one cannot begin to ponder the past two years without noticing the effects of COVID-19 splashed across its perplexed calendar. Although the interruption to our everyday lives and our organisations was undeniable, the situation has also highlighted the resilience of human nature. You can touch the grief, grip the disillusion, feel the heat of the frustration, and yet remain emboldened at the numerous valiant attempts to recover, grow and flourish in staunch defiance. Whilst we cannot change what has happened, and there is no guarantee that we can influence the future, this apparent limitation on our ability to control life offers liberation from hopelessness. One simply has to focus on the present, reflecting on how our experiences and challenges over the past year have led us to this moment, and what our direction from here might be. We can complete a philosophical health-check, and commit to doing this regularly in order to save our aspirations for 2022 from requiring post-mortems in 2023.

Currently, we live in a changed world, with alternative habits, routines and structures that have had to adapt to what now counts as “safe”. Thus, as we approach Christmas and the New Year, a time when we tend to collectively pause and consider the year past, whilst making hopeful commitments for the year to come, some questions rest, poised, ready to leap into society:

How have recent events affected us, and how can we nurture a positive and practical mindset for the New Year?

Nurturing a positive and practical mindset is one of the great gifts of philosophy. In fact, most philosophical traditions appear to hold to the fundamental principle of being practical wisdom, what the Western philosophical tradition of the Ancient Greeks termed “phronesis”. To the Ancient Greeks, there was a general understanding that wisdom related intrinsically to how one applied knowledge to practical action. Importantly, philosophers didn’t aim to teach practical wisdom. Instead, they aimed to educate others in understanding themselves more deeply, in order to apply their knowledge with greater moral and ethical purpose to their personal and professional lives.

I like to think that these living traditions enabled those who had developed a wealth of considered experiences to share their learnings with others. Through dialogue or written discourse, philosophers were able to address the concerns or challenges faced by others in their societies by drawing on the results of their own reflections, and offering questions and conversation as a remedy to reach some solution.

Sound familiar?

Consider the fact we are encouraged to see a GP when we feel that our health is challenged. The GP is likely to draw on their considerable experience or learnt knowledge to assess your challenge, and offer remedies, sometimes even in the form of some (liquid) solutions. This year, we are even more attuned to the importance of checking in on our physical and mental states, and this approach can apply just as readily to our personal and professional wellbeing. Given how blurred our personal and professional lives have become, it can help to consider how this has affected one’s wellbeing and, subsequently, one’s operational effectiveness. For an organisation, allowing employees the time and space to perform a cognitive health-check will help mitigate greater challenges related to stress and anxiety further down the line, enhancing their ability to collaborate with one another and problem solve from a position of personal strength.

Regular health-checks of any kind have the potential to prevent future catastrophes and supplement our natural resilience. This is certainly the case for our physical and mental wellbeing, and is no less important when considering the more philosophical aspects of how we make sense of life’s events.

It is at this point, I would like to refer you to my take on GPs – Guiding Philosophers – who can assist you in performing your own cognitive health-checks.

First, Pierre Hadot, a 20th Century French philosopher and historian, who recommends a method of contemplation he terms the “view from above”. Consider your current state, picture your concerns, worries and anxieties as you sit in your chair. Now, picture yourself rising from the chair, lifting into the air and looking down on yourself in your room, then your house, then your street. As you ascend, consider your position in your city, then your country, picturing the multitude of other concerns, challenges and anxieties held by all those around you. Finally, ascending into space, look back on the entire world and consider the troubles you were thinking about as you sat in your chair in comparison to the entirety of human existence. You may feel uncomfortable, you may wonder at the relevance of others when considering your own troubles, yet, it can help to alleviate the pressure you place on yourself or your team when you remember that everyone faces problems.

Pierre Hadot’s prescription for a roadblocked mind: Remember that challenge is a part of everyday life.

Our second GP is Epicurus, an Ancient Greek philosopher from the 3rd Century BC, who is what I will term an anaesthetist-philosopher. He envisioned that our purpose was to aim for “ataraxia”, a state of contentedness, through the removal of pain from our lives. After such a turbulent year, it is natural for us to consider what might happen next year. Yet, to Epicurus, becoming anxious over the possibility of future occurrences in the present moment only allows something which may not come to pass to bring you unnecessary pain now. Far better to focus on the moment and decide how to enjoy Christmas and New Year, before worrying over how to recover from next year before it has even occurred. This isn’t to say that individuals and organisations should not make plans and look to mitigate risks effectively, rather, to point out that challenges should not be brought into the present simply because they might exist in the future.

Epicurus’ prescription for a mind aflame with anxiety: Appreciate the present moment.

Finally, I refer you to our final GP Heraclitus, an Ancient Greek philosopher from the 5th Century BC, and our resident physio-philosopher. Heraclitus once coined the phrase, “one cannot step in the same river twice”, and this calls to mind the question over what makes you the person you believe yourself to be. If the water is constantly flowing downstream, and the rocks on the river bed dancing to the liquid’s movement, is it the same river we step into each time? When we apply this to our lives and organisations, reflecting on what COVID has removed from them in 2020, and consider (but not get anxious over) what might be taken in 2021, give a thought to whether those things make you, or your organisation, what you believe them to be. Perhaps you might find that these unique identities are retained without them, or you might decide it’s worth the fight to keep them. Either way, you will have a clearer understanding of what makes you – you, and your organisation the entity it is.

Heraclitus’ prescription for a mind hampered by self-doubt: Don’t be afraid to let things go.

In conclusion, the past year has raised many challenges we never thought we would face, posed many questions over our purpose and identities we never thought we would have to consider, and left us wondering what the future may hold. May I suggest taking a moment, as regularly as suits you, whether individually or within your organisation to:

i. Contemplate your challenges in relation to the whole

ii. Try to consider the future without becoming anxious over the possibilities

iii. Look to what makes you the unique person or organisation you believe you are

This will assist in converting a dispassionate 2020 into a 2021 filled with sustainable potential!

To take the ideas in this article further, I recommend the following sources:

· Epicurus, The Art of Happiness – A collection of motivational Epicurean writings, letters and doctrines detailing his answer to removing pain from, and increasing happiness in, one’s life.

· Jules Evans, Philosophy for Life – A relatable account applying the philosophies of numerous historical thinkers to modern everyday life.

· Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy – A referenced collection of philosophical ideas laid out in an immensely intuitive online format.

· BBC Radio 4 Podcast, In Our Time: Heraclitus – Melvyn Bragg conducts his usual compelling discussion on Heraclitus, considering his belief that everything in life is constantly in flux.

· Heraclitus, Fragments – Detailing his well known theory that everything is in a state of constant change, Fragments presents all 130 surviving pieces of Heraclitus’ teachings.

· Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life – From the French philosopher who aimed to teach us perspective, Hadot’s book details how philosophy still remains a critical way of seeing and living in the world.


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