Recently I had the chance to dig out some old books of mine from my house in the States. Today I pulled one off the shelf entitled, ‘Plato, Not Prozac!’ by Lou Marinoff and thought I’d dig up some wisdom to share with you.
Plato, Not Prozac! is all about utilizing the wisdom of ancient and modern philosophical traditions in order to put your life into perspective and come to peace with some of your most pressing problems. Why philosophy over Prozac? While prescription drugs often help to lessen the side effects of your depression, they do nothing to address the root cause of your mental anguish.
The PEACE process was developed by Dr. Marinoff in his own philosophical counseling practice, in order to help others realize the benefits of exploring and identifying with some of the world’s greatest philosophies.
PEACE is an acronym reflecting the five-stage process: Problem, Emotion, Analysis, Contemplation, and Equilibrium.
Below, I’ll explain the five steps in detail so that you can apply the theory to your own life (and hopefully successfully resolve some of your own problems). More than that, I’ll test the theory by trying to find an example from my personal experiences and working through the five levels.
The first step to working through your difficult situation is to identify the particular problem you are experiencing. Obvious examples include: being laid off, a dying parent, or divorce. Sometimes our problems are not as clear-cut as we’d like them to be, and in these cases, a little digging deeper will be necessary.
Tips for this stage: At this point, it is helpful to see your problems as external phenomena. Try not to make any judgments about the situation but rather see the issue from an objective perspective. Recognize, as it states in the I Ching, that everything is in a constant state of change and thus it is inevitable that we run into new and challenging situations from time to time.
Of course, it is not possible to be completely detached from your problem, and the next step you will naturally take is to experience the emotions associated with this issue. The first two steps of the PEACE process are therefore the ones that come the most easily to us.
As you are feeling these emotions, take stock of them: which specific emotions are you experiencing? It might be despair, anger, sadness, frustration, fear, rejection, shame, or anxiety. For a complete list of negative emotions, click here.
It is important here to understand that all emotions, even negative ones, are valid and appear for a reason: most notably, they can help to alert us when we have a problem situation in our lives. By healthily expressing our emotions, we won’t necessarily get rid of that problem in its entirety, as often this is not necessary. But rather they allow us to adapt to new situations by understanding our attitudes and opinions towards them.
Most often, we feel strong emotions in response to a new life experience that we have not encountered before. We do not have a go-to, stored, habitual programmed response, meaning that we are confronted with a challenge that we will have to work through to come to a new learning outcome.
While the previous step of recognizing our emotions is handled primarily by the right brain, the next step which progresses logically from the first two is a left-brain function. Our ability to analyze comes in handy when we begin to evaluate possible options to resolve the problem. In the best case scenario, not only are we able to find a solution that addresses our problem, but we’d also be able to settle the internal issues (how we feel about that problem). Here we can also look for past solutions that may be helpful in this scenario, or likewise compare our situation to that of friends, family, or even strangers. What we read about in books or see on TV become a part of this analysis as our logical brains try to calculate which is the best option to move forward with.
Here we can also look for past solutions that may be helpful in this scenario, or likewise compare our situation to that of friends, family, or even strangers. What we read about in books or see on TV become a part of this analysis as our logical brains try to calculate which is the best option to move forward with.
Unfortunately, this is the stage where most conventional problem-solving methods end, often unsuccessfully. We brainstorm all the possible options to overcome our challenge; only to be left at a loss when it comes to choosing the best option. When we do select the best, we can second guess ourselves and our decision, forever wondering if we made the right choice.
The fourth stage of the PEACE process is where philosophy comes in.
One of the first things you should do here is to take a metaphorical step back, away from your situation, to gain some perspective on the issue. Rather than approaching the problem in parts, obsessing over tiny details, try to gain a holistic sense of the issue – in orther words see the whole picture. (In the Buddhist practice of meditation, this is a common goal; to detach ourselves from our perceived problems and recognize the forces at play in the larger, cosmic scenario).
This is the stage of the technique that might involve the most amount of work if you are not already familiar with philosophy. Do some research, discuss with friends, or read up on philosophical theories. When you come into contact with a new philosophical idea, evaluate it according to its own merit as well as the resonance it has with your own true nature.
If your problem is, for example, deciding whether or not to take a loved one off of life support, you may begin to look into writing or theories on concepts such as quality of life, our responsibility towards others, the ethics of life support, or the significance of values in life. Beginning to see how different schools of thought approach the same topic can help to put your problem into a larger framework. You come to recognize that you are not the first person to go through this, and won’t be the last. Great thinkers have already been pondering your problem for millennia (in some cases) and have come up with some pretty helpful insights.
At this point, the goal is to adopt a philosophical outlook (what Marinoff refers to as a disposition) towards your overall situation. This is something that you should genuinely be able to find within: rather than inventing a tool, the process will be more like unearthing a gem. It’s about identifying philosophical approaches to your issue and finding one or more that resonate with you on a deeper level. This could be Kant’s categorical imperative, the Buddhist rejection of expectation, or Plato’s plea for moderation- or any one of the other thousands of philosophical outlooks. At this stage, you can’t ‘fake’ appreciation or understanding for the concept that will ultimately help you to overcome your problem and heal your wounds. When a breakthrough is what’s necessary, a superficial outlook just won’t do.
Finally, you have reached the last stage of the five-step process. You have identified the problem, taken account of the emotions that it stirs within you, began to identify alternative solutions, compared your situation with established philosophical principles and narrowed in on which philosophies speak most poignantly to you. Finally, you have reached equilibrium.
Here you have not only identified the problem but come to understand its essence: the true, rather than phenomenal, nature of your struggle. If at first, your problem was that your boyfriend/girlfriend broke up with you, which caused you anger, you might eventually come to recognize the essence of your problem through philosophical contemplation, which might sound something like this: ‘I have a fundamental, universal need for closeness and connection with other human beings that is not being satisfied.‘
With this deeper understanding of your particular, yet universal conundrum, you are better prepared and ready to take action towards alleviating your suffering and finding a resolution to the original problem. More than that, you can take your new insights, understandings, and solutions with you, incorporating them into your life and thereby decreasing your odds of having to suffer through the same situation again one day in the future.
Real life example:
In order to better illustrate this process, I’d like to work you through a typical problem which was also a problem of mine at one point in time:
- Problem: My partner has ended our relationship.
- Emotion: Rejection, Confusion, Anger, Sadness, Loneliness, Fear.
- Analysis: What did I do wrong and how can I correct my flaws? Should I try to get back together with them? Should I date someone else? How are they flawed and therefore not meant for me? Should I do more things I am passionate about to move on? Should I let myself be sad and grieve this relationship? Should I try to understand better their point of view? Should I maintain contact or none at all? Can we be friends? Should I talk about my feelings with friends and family? (All of this led to no real conclusion that made me feel better).
- Contemplation: Some philosophers say that we are not meant to stay with one person our whole lives, but rather that people come into our lives for a temporary amount of time for a reason (Osho, Paulo Coelho). Others say romantic love is not the highest expression of love, but rather compassion. Some argue that I do not need a partner to be loved – but rather that love is my God-given, natural state of being. Personally, I feel that I don’t have to center my love on one person; but rather focus on sharing my loving energies with the world in a productive way, one that yields the most good for the most number of people (Utilitarianism).
- Equilibrium: I am at peace with the breakup. I know that love is not limited to one relationship or person. I know that life is always changing, and happiness always follows sadness. I know that the truest source of love is already within me, and I can connect to this source through self–love and mediation.
This whole process can take days, weeks, or months. Most people will never get further than stage three – unless they’ve taken the time to read this article or the book by Lou Marinoff: Plato, Not Prozac!: Applying Eternal Wisdom to Everyday Problems
What do you think about philosophical counseling? Has consulting the world’s philosophical traditions helped you to work through your problems? Let us know your thoughts & stay well!