The Ancient Greek Roots Of The Serenity Prayer


Many people are familiar with The Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.”

The Serenity Prayer is attributed to American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr, who used it in his sermons as early as 1934.  It is widely known from its use in the meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous & other 12 step group meetings.

Interestingly, it is not of Christian origin:

“And they said: At the head of all understanding – is realizing what is and what cannot be, and the consoling of what is not in our power to change”

That quote is from Solomon ibn Gabirol, an 11th century Jewish philosopher.

“If there is a remedy when trouble strikes, what reason is there for dejection?  And if there is no help for it, what use is there in being glum?”

That quote (oddly translated) is from Shantideva, an 8th century Buddhist scholar.

“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.  Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.

Our opinions are upt o us, and our impulses,desires,aversions – in short, whatever is our own doing.

Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions,our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is whatever is not our own doing.”

That quote is from Epictetus, a 1st century Stoic philosopher.  It is at the beginning of his book the Enchiridion ( “Handbook”).

A Stoic Cheat Sheet

picture of a Greek stoa
The early Stoics taught in roofed porches or stoa

Stoicism is enjoying a modern and a popular ( ordinary people, non-academics ) revival. This is likely due ancient Stoicism having the practical goal of leading a happier life and is also likely due to the success of cognitive behavioral therapy which has its roots in ancient Stoic philosophy.

Disclaimer: I know nothing of Stoicism and I am just starting to learn about it myself.

The goal of Stoicism is to learn to live in harmony with how things work ( your mind, life, other people, the laws of nature ).

The ancient Stoics believed that in order to live a eudaimonic ( worthy and happy ) life people need to understand 2 things:

The nature of the world

The nature of human reasoning

The ancient Stoics had 3 disciplines and 4 virtues they tried to cultivate for happy and worthy lives. They studied 3 main subjects to aide this pursuit.

The chart below shows the primary relationship between each Stoic discipline, virtue, and subject of study. Unfortunately, translators have picked English words for translations of key Stoic concepts that are the way contemporary English speakers understand those words. This is an impediment to understanding the ancient writings. The chart below includes a “modern translation” or an alternative choice of words for those key Stoic concepts. It is based on my personal understanding of chapter 2 of “How To Be A Stoic” by Dr. Massimo Pigliucci.

44% Off Your Anxiety Or Depression


No, this isn’t about a sale. Its about an interesting article I read several years ago by health journalist Cindy Kuzma on the psychological benefits of breathing exercises.

My interest in this subject has been rekindled by recently discovering the 4-7-8 breathing technique which I have found to be very quick and significant in reducing mental tension.

The article is about an Italian study where researchers taught test subjects some yogic breathing exercises. After 6 months the test subjects had a 44% drop in symptoms of anxiety and depression:

Italian researchers put 69 people with generalized anxiety disorder, depression, or similar conditions through a two-week workshop in Surdashan Kriya Yoga, or SKY. Though SKY includes some poses and meditation, the core component is a sequence of 5 breathing exercises: slow breathing, alternate nostril breaths, fast breathing from the diaphragm, rapid exhalations, and cyclical breathing.

After graduating from breathing bootcamp, participants practiced at home and went in for weekly follow-up sessions. Six months later, their anxiety scores had decreased by about 44%, and many no longer qualified for a clinical diagnosis.

The article didn’t describe what those 5 exercises were, but I had an intuition that they are yogic breathing exercises that existed long before the SKY ( Sudarshan Kriya Yoga ) program was taught by The Art Of Living organization.

It wasn’t easy to find, but with persistent Googling I found this academic paper which describes the SKY breathing routine:

Anti-anxiety efficacy of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga in General Anxiety Disorder: a multicomponent, yoga based, breath intervention programfor patients suffering from generalized anxiety disorder with or without comorbidities. Journal of Affective Disorders 184 (2015) 310–317

The sequence of SKY, adapted to clinical purposes, consists of five sequential breathing exercises separated by 30-second periods of normal breathing.The sequence is performed as follows:

  1. Ujjayi, slow breathing 3-4 cycles per minute
  2. Nadi Shodana, alternate nostril breathing,
  3. Kapalabati, fast diaphragmatic breathing
  4. Bhastrika, rapid exhalation at 20-30 cycles per minute
  5. Sudarshan Kriya, rhythmic, cyclical breathing in slow, medium and fast cycles.

A brief interlude of chanting is introduced between the Bhastrika and the Sudarshan Kriya cycles.

I was told that the sequence above, minus #1, has been around in yoga for a long time and it is known as The Four Purifications.

So, it looks like it is possible to learn the breathing exercise routine that had the fantastic results in the research study without going to The Art Of Living organization. I have seen 1-4 described in many pranayama books, and endless YouTube videos. I am a big fan of getting proper guidance from live, in person teaching so I would likely find a yoga or kriya class in my area that taught these things or hire a yoga teacher for private lessons.The SKY ( Sudarshan Kriya Yoga ) breathing routine is taught through a “non-profit” organization called “The Art Of Living” in their “Happiness Program” course. You go for two evenings and two days on a weekend (18 hours total ) and pay $400. That may or may not be a reasonable cost when compared to the cost of 18 hours of yoga instruction from other sources. People who pay for the course are entitled to near unlimited follow ups and practice classes.

Over the course of my Googling I found that some of the scientists who studied those techniques took what they learned and made their own breathing exercise program which they claim gets similar results.

The Healing Power Of The Breath — about $10 on Amazon.

My intuition ( uninformed, non-expert opinion ) is that the SKY routine is not necessary for these results. I read a Psychology Today article just the other week stating that ordinary slow deep breaths can relax people.

The Art of Living foundation is a “non profit” founded by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the famous Indian musician. Though being a nonprofit they “keep” a lot of the money collected ( big buildings all over the world, cars, paid staff, etc ). Some accounts (take with a grain of salt) on the web have stated the organization felt kind of cultish. I found this article that indicates some part of this organization may be sketchy and trying to profit off yogic practices that have existed for thousands of years.

Its a large organization so it is quite possible for some parts of it to be crappy and for other parts to be crappy. Its the Internet, take it all with a grain of salt.