Report on my second day of Stoic Week 2014: mindfulness

Yesterday, I reported on my first day of Stoic Week 2014. Today, the second day’s theme was “Stoic mindfulness”. This is similar to the Buddhist teaching on mindfulness, and is basically a sound psychological observation that “You are just an impression and not at all the thing you claim to represent”: our thoughts and feelings are one thing but what we do about them is another.

I found it particularly useful to remember this today, because Tuesdays present an interesting challenge for me.


On Tuesday nights, I have been playing in the latest 6-round current Tuesday night Pittsburgh Chess Club tournament, one round every Tuesday. Tonight was round 4. I had experienced an extremely painful loss last week in round 3 when I was not mindful and got carried away by emotions: I had an overwhelming advantage during an attack on my opponent’s King, but I allowed my excitement to cloud my judgment, make poor moves, and then worse, after I managed to recover and had the opportunity to survive with a draw, and saw this, I passed it up out of wishful thinking that I could continue an attack, so I ended up losing. In chess, I face the stark reality that most losses at my level in local competition (where I am typically the top-rated player) are due to faulty psychology, rather than lack of sufficient understanding and skill. A loss of objectivity (which all athletes and other performers under high pressure) is the reason we fail. Mindfulness directly addresses this all-too-human flaw.

Continuing habits from yesterday

Yesterday, I noted that I began meditating and exercising again, because it was in my power to do so. I have continued. It’s been tricky to get going again, because my body is out of whack, but I remember to do what I can, no more, with faith that incremental progress will pay off. Instead of running, I did a 7-minute workout. I’ve lost a lot of strength over the years and plan to regain it. I have dumbbells lying around the house from when I was using them a decade ago; it’s time to get back to them.

Tonight’s chess game

I won a decent game tonight at the chess tournament. It was the third last to finish, taking almost four hours. I’ve played against my opponent many times before over the years, mostly winning, but the last time I played him, he held me to a draw, despite a 500-rating-point difference (which is huge). One thing that sometimes happens in tournament chess is overconfidence when facing someone who is on paper much weaker, or fear because of a past bad result. Mindfulness teaches us that although historical facts are facts, we should distance ourselves from distracting feelings about them.

As in many hard-fought chess games, I experienced a range of emotions during the game. First of all, in the opening, although I was doing OK, I was frustrated that I allowed a certain kind of position I ordinarily do not allow, because of an oversight. Instead of kicking myself, I focused to do what I could with what I had, assessing that even though I did not want that position, it was actually still OK for me. (Actually, computer analysis afterwards showed that I was more than OK, so I was still more pessimistic than warranted during the game.) In the middlegame, I emerged with an advantage, but then faced a curious choice. My opponent gave me an opportunity to win some material (a Rook for a Bishop and Pawn) at the expense of destroying my Pawn structure and therefore creating good chances for a draw. At the time, I saw no better winning try, so I went for it, deciding that, unlike last week, I was going to settle for a draw if my opponent could prove he could defend; I simply made sure to play soundly and not recklessly. It turned out that he cracked eventually and I won. I was pleased that I remained psychologically strong in the game and was rewarded accordingly. (For those of you interested in the technical details of the game, I will be annotating it in an upcoming article I will write for my weekly column in The Chess Improver.

Heavy traffic

Another thing: when driving home from work to eat dinner before the chess game, I noticed that the traffic was unusually bad. Mindfulness is always helpful when facing stressful situations like this. I was upset with myself for not anticipating apparent pre-Thanksgiving-holiday traffic and therefore being pressed for time to get home and eat dinner before playing chess. I decided to let go of my self-annoyance because it wasn’t going to help me get home any sooner and would just sap my mental energy I needed for my game.


Mindfulness is something I’ve had prior experience in trying to adopt well before I even read about Stoicism. But having a daily theme and reading during Stoic Week has been surprisingly helpful in keeping me aware.

Are you familiar with the concept of mindfulness and the scientific underpinnings of it? If so, do you deliberately practice it? Do you have misgivings about it?

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