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  • Writer's picturePeter McKenzie

The View from Above - The Stoic technique to get back on track

Updated: Sep 25, 2021

Have you ever felt overwhelmed? That things are too much? You don´t know where to turn or what to do?

It is a feeling that all of us will, unfortunately, face at some time or other. This is a step up on feeling stressed. Overwhelm leads to paralysis, the feeling of being trapped. We feel as though we are being held underwater and we can´t come up to breathe. We try to think our way out of the problem, ruminating and spinning the issue round and round in our heads.

The Stoics developed a powerful technique to get us out of this trap. They said that when we face overwhelm, the best thing to do is to put everything back in perspective.

They urge us to ask simple questions. How important are our problems in the big scheme of things? Will our situation go down in history as a major disaster? Or will we ourselves have forgotten all about it in a few weeks’ time?

Has our situation ever been faced by someone else? What did that person do? Or, perhaps even more importantly, where are they now?

But the most powerful technique that the Stoics suggest we use is to take “The View from Above”.

The View from Above involves us shifting from a first person view of events to a third person view. We distance ourselves from our internal thinking, which is so unhelpful in an overwhelming situation, and we imagine ourselves looking down upon our own body from above.

Then the meditation process begins. We begin to shift our perspective higher, step by step in the following manner:

1) Firstly, we see ourselves from the ceiling of the room where we are sat or are lying. We look down upon our body, looking at the top of our head.

2) Then shift our view out, to the roof of the house where we live. Here we begin to consider the other people we share our home with. What situations are they facing? How are they doing? Do they have problems too?

3) The next shift up is to see the entire city where we live from above. The rooftops, the parks, the streets. Here we should think of the thousands, the millions of people who live with us, who we see every day without a thought. They are people just like us, with problems, hopes, fears…

4) Next, we move up to see all of our country from above, the familiar outline we would see in an atlas. We view all of the other cities, the rivers and mountains, the sea….

5) Again, we zoom out to see the whole planet. Consider all of the different nationalities and races of the people on earth. All of the different species of animals on land and sea, the wondrous vegetation, the forests, the icecaps……The Stoics say here that what we should consider is how we are all part of a system. Everything is interconnected. We are not isolated but part of a bigger whole.

6) Next, we go further out to see our solar system, the planets, the sun, a backdrop of stars. Imagine where we fit into this view. How small and insignificant we are.

7) Then zoom out to see the entire universe, all of galaxies, the celestial heaven. Where do our problems lie now?

8) Finally, think of the fourth dimension – time. The 13.8 billion years since the universe began and the billions of years ahead. Our time, our presence here is reduced to the blink of an eye. Our problems? What problems!

This technique, done properly, slowly, carefully and with imagination, is very powerful. I personally have found it really does put things straight back into perspective. Not only that, but it also levels out all of the actors in our personal stories.

What do I mean by that? Well, when we think of our enemies, our allies and the people that are around us in this situation that is overwhelming us, often they appear much larger, much more significant or more powerful than they really are.

When we meditate on the View from Above and we consider all the universe and all of time, how important is any of these people. How important is any one human being that has ever lived?

The Stoics remind us that we are all born and we all will die. Our fate is the same. The fact that a person has more power, money or fame is insignificant when you consider that they too will die and then these things really are irrelevant.

Even the memory of people that during our lifetime may be incredibly famous will soon be forgotten. They are simply human, just like us.

There is something incredibly humbling to seeing how small and insignificant we are. At the same time there is great comfort in knowing that we are all part of a greater, interconnected whole, with our own small part to play in the evolution of the universe.

"How beautifully Plato put it. Whenever you want to talk about people, it’s best to take a birds-eye view and see everything all at once, of gatherings, armies, farms, weddings and divorces, births and deaths, noisy courtrooms or silent spaces, every foreign people, holidays, memorials, markets…all blended together and arranged in a pairing of opposites."
Marcus Aurelius
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