Jules Evans, author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, discusses How Philosophy Can Save Your Life at TEDxBreda Conference (Transcript)
Listen to the MP3 Audio: How philosophy can save your life by Jules Evans at TEDxBreda
So I’m going to tell you how ancient Greek philosophy inspired modern cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT, and how through CBT, millions of people have got access to the therapeutic wisdom of the ancient Greeks. We are realizing that philosophy can help us as Socrates put it: “To take care of our souls.”
So I’m going to begin by telling you my story of how philosophy helped me through the most difficult phase of my life. So when I was a teenager in the mid 1990s, my friends and I were — I guess you could describe us as amateur neuroscientists. We liked to experiment on our own brains with various different chemicals every weekend. So we began our experiments with marijuana and we had some interesting results, and then we moved on to experimenting with LSD, also quite interesting, and eventually we were experimenting with MDMA, amphetamines, ketamine, magic mushrooms, all thrown into our neural chemistry like ingredients into a druid’s cauldron. I mean, we had some great times and hilarious visionary and even spiritual experiences.
But then I noticed some of my raver friends were beginning to wipe out. So my best friend had a psychotic breakdown when he was tripping. He was just 16 and he was locked up and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Other friends developed bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, paranoia.
And then in my first term at university I started to get panic attacks. I didn’t know what a panic attack was, I just knew I’d be in a quite unthreatening situation and I’d suddenly feel this full-bodied existential terror. And that undermined my confidence because I didn’t know who I’d be from one day to the next, and it also made me more socially anxious because I was never sure when panic was going to jump out and humiliate me. And my real terror was that I had done some permanent damage to the chemical balance in my brain, in which case maybe there was nothing I could do about it. Maybe I’d ruin my life before the age of 21.
So all the way through university I’d became more and more miserable and then I graduated and I hit rock bottom. I became a financial journalist. I got a job reporting on the German mortgage bond market. This is what happens if you mess around with drugs. My kind parents sent me to see quite an expensive therapist trying to help me, and he diagnosed me as suffering from social anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. I think he was being paid per diagnosis. And he wasn’t able to help me, so I went away and I researched those conditions for myself and found they could apparently be treated by something called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT.
I also discovered there was a CBT support group for people who suffered from social anxiety that met near me every Thursday evening in London. So one Thursday I went along. I found ten people sitting in a circle and there wasn’t actually a therapist present, but someone in that group had illegally downloaded a CBT course for social anxiety from the Internet. So we listened to that course and practiced the exercises and did the homework and encouraged each other on, and for me, at least, it worked. I stopped having panic attacks after a few weeks and I began to understand how to transform my emotions.
So I became fascinated by CBT and I wondered where it had come from. I discovered it had been invented by an American psychologist named Albert Ellis, who lived in New York. So one day in 2007, I got on a plane to New York and I went to interview him. By that stage he was 92, old, frail and sick, and it turned out to be, sadly, the last interview he ever gave. He died a few months later.
But I got to thank him in person for inventing this therapy that had saved my life. And I asked him where it had come from. Ellis told me he had trained as a Freudian psychoanalyst in the 1950s, but he’d become frustrated with how little progress his patients seemed to make. So he looked around for other ways to understand the emotions and he turned back to his first great love: ancient Greek philosophy. He’d been particularly inspired by a line from a stoic philosopher called Epictetus. Epictetus said: “Men are disturbed not by events, but by their opinion about events.” That inspired Ellis’ famous ABC theory of the emotions. A stands for the Activating events, something that happens to us. B stands for our Beliefs, how we interpret that event, and C stands for the Consequent emotion that we feel through our interpretation.
It often feels that our emotions just happen to us automatically and involuntarily in response to an event, that it’s just an action and a reaction. Let’s say we’re walking down the street and we pass someone frowning, we immediately feel offended and angry. It feels like we go straight from A to C. But if you look at that event closely, what happened was you interpreted it a certain way. You thought: “That person is frowning at me. They’re looking down on me in some way. And they shouldn’t. How rude! How offensive!” And that interpretation led you feeling offended and angry.
Once we realize how our interpretation leads to our emotions, we can hold our interpretations up to the light and ask if they’re definitely accurate or wise. We could ask ourselves, for example: “Was that person definitely frowning at me? Maybe they were just frowning. And if they were frowning at me, so what? Does that mean that I have to take their bad mood with me through the rest of my day?” We can start to choose our perceptions, our interpretations more wisely and this will affect how we feel. So that might sound quite simple, quite easy. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy because lot of the time our interpretations are unconscious and automatic. We have a kind of running commentary, an inner voice that’s going through our head all through the day, making judgments about the things that are happening to us. And usually we don’t question that inner voice, we don’t even notice it. That inner voice would be made up of all the beliefs and opinions we’ve heard since we were children and we’d internalized it.
We assume that, that running commentary, that inner voice, is always completely accurate and true. But, unfortunately, it isn’t; it often gets things wrong. You can think of that inner voice, that running commentary, as like a sort of 24-hour news channel, constantly commenting on your life, but in a very distorted and biased way, it never really checks its facts.
Now if you have emotional problems like depression, that would be because, probably, your inner commentary is jumping to very negative conclusions. You might assume, for example, that everyone dislikes you or that everything you turn your hand to will fail. So according to the Greeks, then, what often causes suffering is our own beliefs. We are our own imprisoners, our own torturers. We cling to our negative or toxic beliefs even when they hurt us or even kill us.
So how do we free ourselves from our self-made prisons? Well, according to Socrates, the father of Greek philosophy, what we need to do is learn how to ask yourself questions, not just assume that that inner voice is always telling the truth, learn how to engage it in a rational dialogue. So that’s what Socrates tried to teach to his fellow Athenians. He engaged them in a dialogue in Athens, getting them to think, perhaps for the first time, about their unexamined beliefs and values and life philosophy.