From Vol. 4, Issue 11, November 2022
Meditating my way to the inner citadel
The ‘mind palace’ and the ‘inner citadel’
In the Sherlock Holmes BBC series, the famous detective retreats to his “mind palace” when he needs to tackle a complicated problem (Sherlock 2012). It’s where Holmes retreats to use his tremendous brain power to think more clearly. There, his focused brain helps him unravel the most intricate of crimes.
In a parallel concept, Marcus Aurelius had his “inner citadel.” Scholar Pierre Hadot made this idea the focus of a book on Marcus. In this interpretation, the mind can serve as a fortress of freedom and internal strength. The Meditations were a cornerstone of the spiritual exercises that Marcus pursued to live by Stoic principles and attain a sense of liberation from the everyday ills that plague most people.
The mind palace and the inner citadel share something in common: they are resources inside ourselves that we can turn to for intelligence, reflection, and peace. They are places that offer far more tranquility than any vacation to a foreign land. And if we are able to get time and bandwidth to enter these spaces, they can help us solve, or at least better understand, our problems.
The epidemic of stress and alienation
One of the most prevalent modern problems where I live, in Silicon Valley, is the epidemic of stress and alienation. It’s exacerbated by crazy-busy schedules for many people I know who work in technical jobs – the work is never done and goes deep into the night as folks work across time zones. And it’s also true for those in other employment trying to hold down multiple jobs, just to make ends meet in our very expensive region. Even our students are very stressed and overwhelmed. We don’t have much time for an inner citadel, let alone a mind palace.
The path of meditation
One possible way to move closer to a citadel could be meditation. Perhaps in addition to the reflection/meditation that Marcus practiced in writing his journal, we could explore the practice of seated, silent meditation. Based on approaches developed over centuries in cultures around the world, seated meditation has gained popularity in the US and elsewhere. These days, the flavours of meditation practices could rival a famous ice cream chain (31 – at least!). People riven with stress and fatigue are adopting meditation apps for smart phones in droves. But many find they don’t work. Apps aren’t really a substitute for a teacher – a human showing you the way and answering questions. So I decided to take a deeper dive into meditation this fall at a workshop by teacher and writer Light Watkins.
I’d like to share a few of the takeaways that resonated with the Stoic in me.
Take it easy when you sit down to meditate. Don’t try to “focus” on things – especially on your expectations. Back support is good; get comfortable and breathe normally. Spend 20 minutes twice a day sitting in meditation as you restore your body. This teaching reminds me of the Stoic concept of ignoring the things outside our power, and focus on the things in our control. Indeed, our mind’s attitude is the most prominent thing all Stoics focus on.
You’ll have a lot of thoughts go through your mind as you sit, and that’s OK. The point is to rest and relax your mind, and to go deeper into the quiet within. Don’t be bothered by the thoughts – they’re like your friends stopping by to say hi. Thoughts come and go (remember to question your impressions, Stoic-style!).
It’s not about doing meditation “right” or “better” than someone else, and it’s not about showing off that you meditate. It’s about restoring resilience and tranquility by resting your brain. This sits well with the Stoic ethos of not focusing on what others think of us or creating unnecessary competitions for status.
It works over time. In Light’s experience, it typically takes 5 years of daily meditation to feel a greater sense of inner quiet and resilience to stress.
The time commitment needed for meditation can be challenging in our culture of overwork and instant gratification. But as all Stoics know, retraining the mind towards a less reactive state requires a long period of re-education. I’ve experienced that with my Stoic self-training. It took me several years to internalize ancient Stoic lessons (and even now, I often forget!).
I left the workshop feeling that meditation is a valuable way to work towards reaching the inner citadel… and that reflection and rest are key to a resilient, balanced life.
Meredith is he author of The Stoic Mom blog (www.thestoicmom.com) and The Stoic Mom substack (https:/thestoicmom.substack.com). Twitter @thestoicwoman