Reason, Emotion, Happiness

The Stoics were very much concerned with being the best version of themselves that they could be. And for them, this meant being rational, but they were not robots. That much is very clear when you read their writings. Epictetus, a former slave, could never be mistaken for Seneca, an advisor to the Roman Emperor. One had a very direct and abrasive teaching style akin to a sports coach, while the other one primarily traded in heavily polished orations, which on my most judgmental days I would describe as “fancy schmancy.” They came from diverse backgrounds and had unique and personal ways in which they developed their practices. Yet they all focused on the same thing, being rational. But what was the point of being rational? For the Stoics, being rational equated to leading a happy life.

The happy life (Greek: Eudaimonia) was, for the Stoics, a life in which one flourished, but this was a very specific kind of flourishing. We tend to think of flourishing as I kind of success or prosperity that one achieves, like when one’s business takes off and flourishes, or when a garden flourishes and grows many beautiful plants. This kind of flourishing was not the immediate concern of the Stoics, what was of concern to them was the kind of flourishing that was essential to the human being, the kind of flourishing that only a human being could be capable of. But what was the essential nature of being a human being to begin with?

The Stoics settled on Reason (Greek: Logos), or rationality, as the essential nature of what it was to be a human being. The power to think, to speak, to act according to reason was what made a human being, it was human nature. Given this, for a human being to flourish, to really succeed and prosper as a human being, they would need to develop themselves as rational creatures.

If the Stoics were to be rational then, if they were to try to live their lives according to Reason, then this meant that they would need to find a way to manage their Passions (Greek: Pathos). The word Pathos is typically thought of as designating emotions in general. But for the Stoics, the Passions were specifically unhealthy sorts of emotions, the kinds that were destructive and fundamentally roadblocks towards leading a happy life. Fear could easily override one’s decision making process during a scary situation and one could end up doing something that they regretted afterward. Why? Because in that moment, they hadn’t been operating under Reason but under the influence of a Passion. In a way, one was being led by emotion, and by doing so, was no longer being true to human nature.

So we can think of emotions as being destructive if they led a person away from Reason, from their true selves. To combat destructive emotions, the Stoics developed different techniques and practices. If you are so inclined, I have written about many of these practices here. Fundamentally, these practices were meant to bring a person closer to their true Rational self, to be the best version of themselves that they could be. In other words, these practices led to Virtue (Greek: Arete). I’ve written about Virtue as well before, and a more detailed explanation of it can be found here.

But what was the benefit of being Virtuous and Rational? I could be the most upstanding, virtuous, rational person you could meet in ancient Rome, but at the end of the day, it wouldn’t save me if someone in political power decided they didn’t like me. And these sorts of things did happen. For example, Seneca was condemned to die by the very Emperor he used to tutor. If being a Stoic couldn’t guarantee me any physical benefits what could it offer me?

As I’ve said, in developing their Reason, the Stoics worked to inhibit the overpowering influence of negative emotions in their daily lives. Because much suffering could occur when negative emotions ran rampant, Stoics who were successful in their practice were able to achieve a state of equanimity in regards to those negative emotions. In Greek, this mental state was called Apatheia, which literally means “Without-Passions.” Since the Passions were, for the Stoics, unhealthy emotions like Anger or Fear, this left room for positive emotions (Greek: Eupatheia), emotions that didn’t call the shots, but that were a product of the Stoic pursuit of being rational. A constant fear of pain and death when traveling in a strange placed turned into reasonable caution. Self-directed anger towards oneself for failing at something turned into determination to learn from mistakes. These are some examples, to name a few.

The Stoic who was without Passions was not free from all emotions then, rather, those that were disruptive to mental well-being were no longer what ruled them. What this meant ultimately was that the successful Stoic had achieved Tranquility of Mind (Greek: Ataraxia), a mental state in which they were the true owners of themselves. And this happiness could only have been achieved, according to the Stoics, by being true to themselves, by being rational.

Dear Diary: Meditating with the Stoics

Well, I told myself back in March that I would spend a month living and breathing Stoicism. It ended up running slightly longer than a month but I definitely learned quite a bit from the experience and hope to do another round sometime in the future. I have to say, on a personal level, the biggest takeaway I got from the whole thing was a deeper sense of compassion for those around me, as well as a stronger sense of self-reliance on myself to be able to face challenges that I ran across in my day to day.

How did I go about it though? What methods did I use?

First, I read, quite a bit. I already had a few books by Stoic philosophers sitting on my bookshelf. I purchased some additional books and got to reading during my free time. While I normally take a lot of notes (a habit picked up from my college days), I made an effort to just let the ideas I was reading about soak in naturally. I also watched a lot of videos online related to Stoic concepts or listened to Podcasts related to Stoicism. While doing this, I made a conscious effort to stay away from any sources, aside from the primary texts I read, that veered into academic territory.

Believe me, I love “Hard Philosophy,” it was my bread and butter for many years, but this time I wanted to understand Stoicism not from an academic perspective, but from an everyday practical perspective. I wanted to read and listen to how Stoicism could be practically applied, not on the difference between Stoic Propositional Logic and Aristotelian Term Logic.

Second, once I got a handle on some of the Stoic concepts, I made a conscious effort to live according to them, irrespective of whether I agreed with them theoretically or not. What did this mean? It meant that if I was reading something that said, “this is how you should behave in this situation,” if there was a theoretical concept in there that I ran into that I disagreed with, I didn’t let it stop me from following the ethical rule that was being given. Another way to put this is that I made an attempt to follow the ethical rules in good faith, without being reserved about the theoretical backdrop in which they were formulated.

Third, I started keeping a Stoic journal and writing in it daily, usually in the mornings, sometimes in the evenings. The Stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius actually kept one as well, and that was where I got the idea. On a daily basis I would write something to myself that related to Stoic concepts that were bouncing around in my head. After a few days of doing this, I found certain themes that I would return to, for example, on how to deal with strong emotions like anger or fear from a Stoic perspective, or simply reminding myself what the Stoic Virtues were. Sometimes my journal entries took the form of a dialogue between my emotional side and the rational (Stoic-like) side of myself. Sometimes, after rereading them, I saw that they repeated things I had read somewhere else, but that didn’t bother me either.

Most importantly though, I kept these entries short and to the point. I wasn’t trying to do anything but keep my daily thoughts and actions centered around Stoic ethics. Basically, the meditations that I wrote to myself were meant to keep me on the Virtuous path, to constantly remind myself of what was in my power to control in this sometimes crazy world.

I’ve included some selected excerpts of my journal entries over the past few weeks. Perhaps they will be of use to you if you are so inclined to experiment with this journaling method. As a reminder, these meditations were written directly to myself, so sometimes I felt no need to pull punches. Many times I was honest to myself about my own failings, as one should be if they wish to improve anything about themselves.

Meditation 1: The Mortal

The mortal: confused, lost, pulled in every direction by malformed and undetermined ideas of the Good. Or lost to the whims of anger, or desire. And you are much the same aren’t you? Remember your share in this.

Meditation 2: Wake Up

Early morning. Cold. Wanting to sleep in. But you are a human being and you were not meant for sleeping. At least that’s what you’ve heard. Even with eyes half-closed, in pre-dawn glow, get up, walk, run, do something, anything to warm up this body from within, through it’s own power. You may not do it perfectly but keep at your practice. It is the same way with the mind as the body.

Meditation 3: What You do Today

Today you will meet with some form of adversity whether it is a mortal danger or a trivial thing. Meet it with clarity of thought, with the saying, “What is outside of me does not own me, I own only myself and that is all I should concern myself with.”

Well in what way should that concern express itself?

Acting according to what the Stoics called Virtue, acting according to Reason, and always ask yourself, “whatever I do today, will I regret it later at some ungodly hour?”

Meditation 4: Be Kind

One moment in which you lose compassion topples over the moments that proceed from it. Be mindful of these moments when you forget to practice kindness.

And if you lose your temper, fall short of the ideal, what then? Fall apart? No, there is nothing you can do once the moment is past. Move on, you only have this present moment, the here and now, to act according to Virtue.

Wisdom, Courage, Temperance, Justice. What more do you need?

Meditation 5: Rest

Back to the grind. No more rest. But what did you expect? This body was not meant for laying under the covers for days. It was made to move and to work. You’ve rested long enough, recovered enough, now pick yourself up. You’ve wasted enough time.

Meditation 6: How to Respond to the World

You have no control over the world. Only of yourself and how you respond to it. And there are only four ways you can correctly respond. With Courage, Temperance, Wisdom, and Justice.

Meditation 7: Mindfulness

Mind only yourself but watch others, how they behave, what motivates them. And then ask, are you any different?

Meditation 8: Justice

In what ways will you be just towards others today? In what ways will you be unjust? You have some Wisdom that’s been given to you, but you must practice it. How else will you sleep at night?

Meditation 9: Bad Dreams

Even asleep one is assailed. Bad dreams, vision of what could have been, or of what will never be. Words left unsaid, things left unresolved. So be aware when you wake up.

“These dreams have perturbed me, but why should they? They are what they are and have no power over me unless I let them. All I have to worry about is whether or not I let them carry me away from myself.”

Meditation 10: Four Virtues

Wisdom: What is good, what is not good, what is indifferent.

Courage: Acting correctly despite your fears.

Justice. Duty to your fellow human beings, to your society.

Temperance: Self restraint, self control.

Meditation 11: The Human Being

To the Stoics, the human being was matter and a little bit of soul. A puff of air, a wisp of life in a fleshy capsule. Where did this animating essence originate?

Meditation 12: Mindfulness

Many of us assent to whatever appears to our minds and so they carry us away with them. If something like a memory of a bad event that angered you comes your way, you don’t think twice about letting it take up your thinking. So you turn the memory over in your mind, how you could have done things differently, how you could have come out on top at that moment, what you will do in the future to get even.

First, remind yourself you are a mortal and your time is precious, so why let this memory of the person who offended you eat up your time? Is it something that’s already happened? Something outside of your control?

Then, remind yourself that because you are a human being, you are not to blame for these thoughts appearing. That is just what thoughts do, appear. You might as well ask the world to stop spinning.

Finally, remember you do have this power: the power to say to the thought, “you are none of my business. I will not assent to you.” Turn away from the irrational thought, do not reason with it, it isn’t something that you can reason with any way. Pick yourself up, move on with the day.

Meditation 13: Compassion

Say to yourself, so you won’t be surprised, “Today I will run up against other mortals who are just as sick as I am. Perhaps they have a bit of Wisdom too, but I won’t even catch a glimpse of that if I see them as enemies. Because really they are myself with just another face, caught up in their own lives, pulled here and there by strong emotions, strangers to the Good.”

The only thing you can do then, is show a bit of compassion and bite your tongue, until you find the right words, kind words.

Meditation 14: Facing the Truth

Is turning away the same as avoiding? Only in the case of Truth. Face the Truth everyday under every circumstance. Everything else is not even worth looking at.

The Stoics sought Tranquility, to not be perturbed by the world. They achieved this by making a distinction between what is in our power and what is not in our power. Furthermore, they found that by living in accordance with this distinction and worrying only about what is in our power, they could not be ruled by misfortunes.

Meditation 15: Sleeplessness

Every night going into the morning you should be asking yourself, “what is keeping me up? What is it that my mind won’t stop turning over?”

If it is something you’ve done that did not align with Virtue, then you can never go back to that moment. It is lost to time and has slipped from your hands.

So say to yourself, “I will make an effort the next time the same situation occurs. I will act according to Virtue. ”

There is nothing more to say after that, all you can do is rest.

Meditation 15: Consequences

If you turn the memory over in your mind and find that your actions aligned with Virtue, then you did all you could do. The consequences weren’t to your liking? You are not a divine being, the world does not move according to your desire. You are a mortal, your power extends only to your actions and your thinking. So there is nothing more to turn over in your mind.

Meditation 16: The Need for Philosophy

Socrates said, “I am not Wise.” And in this way he was Wise. Because to know that you do not know is the start of having some sort of Wisdom.

In the same way you can say to yourself, “I am un-divine. I am mortal.”

Because, if you you were divine then you would already have Wisdom from the start. But you clearly do not have Wisdom from the start, otherwise you would have had no need of any sort of philosophy.

Meditation 17: Three Disciplines

Three things you have some control over and so you can develop.

First, you have the power to say yes to this or to say no to that. So, you can develop the ability to assent only to what is true.

Second, you have control over how you act, but no control of how the world reacts to your actions. And how you act should align with the kind of thing you are, which is a rational and social creature. So, let your actions be for the benefit of others.

Finally, you have the power to control your desires and fears. Whatever causes fear in you only does so because you allow it. If you choose to act in accordance with truth and justice, then whatever fear presents itself will only obstruct you if you allow it to. Similarly, you may know the right thing to do, but if desire gets the better of you, if you don’t renounce it for the sake of truth or justice, then you will never proceed further.

Meditation 18: Stress

Some people think, “I am stressed, I am irritable because I need more rest, because the world is not giving me a break.”

But when was it ever promised to you that the world was subject to you? Are you a god? No you’re not, otherwise, you would not be troubled.

And why do you want more rest anyway? Rest is merely a stop along the way to becoming who you are.

Why would you wish to add further stops along the journey, unnecessary ones at that? If anything you are stressed because of this imposition of further waiting, an imposition you placed on yourself by not getting to it.

Meditation 19: Choice

You are not the god of this world, it doesn’t listen to you, much less care what you think is or isn’t fair. But you are the ruler of this self, of what it chooses to do or not to do.

So, if you get mad, if you lash out at someone else, the responsibility will always lie with you, no matter how you rationalize it.

“I was tired. It was a long day. I didn’t have my coffee today. They yelled at me first. He was rude to me.”

Yet you make the choice to assent to these things, to let them sway you towards a direction that time and time again you end up regretting. And this regret proceeds from the realization that anger is no Virtue, but a Vice, and every Vice only compounds your lack of Justice.

Meditation 20: Pleasure & Joy

Pleasure comes and goes. When it is here it is wonderful and when it goes there is a pain caused by it’s absence.

Then there is something like pleasure, but less transitory. It is something like joy.

What makes joy so different? It is unaffected by time, by the ups and downs of life, even if you catch a sense of it once, you can always go back to it and it never changes.

Pleasure you can regret, you can resent even. Pleasure, in time, can turn to a pain and vice versa. And so in this way joy and pleasure must be distinct things with distinct avenues by which you reach them.

Meditation 21: Four Virtues

If you are Wise then you will know what is in your power and what is not in your power and so will act accordingly.

If you are Just then you will regard your fellow human beings as fellow citizens of the world and will treat them as family even.

If you are Courageous then you will do what is correct to do despite the fear it may cause in you.

If you are Temperate then you will not give in to desires when they contradict the correct thing to do.

Meditation 22: Your Other Self

Think of others as yourself with another face.

Do you criticize yourself too harshly sometimes or tell yourself “I am no good?”

But when you are fair to yourself you think, “I am being too hard on myself, I am not doing myself any good by thinking so badly of myself. How will I get any better if I’m not kind to myself?”

Now turn your attention to your other self, the one with another face. What good is it to throw insults at that self, to think that they are good for nothing? To be cruel to them, even in your thoughts? Stripped of race, gender, social status, of the accidents of a particular life, the human being is fundamentally the same self, an admixture of material body and rational soul.

You know this don’t you? So act like it.

Meditation 23: The Goal

The correct thing to do: what is that?

What is of benefit to the whole.

And what is it that is of benefit to the whole?

That which allows every human being to achieve tranquility.

And by what means is tranquility achieved?

By practicing the Virtues.

But not everyone wants to practice the Virtues, not everyone wants to be like you.

Well that is not my concern, I can only own myself. But I shouldn’t impede others from trying to achieve tranquility in their own way. That would not be Just.

Meditation 24: Being a Passerby

In every situation remind yourself, “I am a passerby, an observer from some far off land, coming and going from here just like that.” Then maybe later you won’t feel ashamed at having gotten caught up in troubles that are none of your concern.

Meditation 25: Reviewing the Day

Review your day. Did you try to the best of your abilities to be kind and compassionate to your fellow citizens of the world?

Yes.

Did you stop yourself when anger or fear arose in you?

Yes, I said to the feeling, stop, you have no power over me, I will not be led around by you on a leash.

Did you ever say to yourself I am a mortal and so I must die someday?

Yes, the thought is like my shadow now, an old friend.

And did you say to yourself, I will only worry over what I have the power to control, namely my own words and actions?

Yes.

So there is nothing more to say. If you wake up in the morning, be happy, you have another day to better yourself.

Meditation 26: Meditating on Death

No rest for the wicked, or so I’ve heard it said. You are a mortal, material body and a little bit of soul. You put them together and you get a human being, a rational creature that can conceive of eternity yet dwells in the finite.

What of it though? Dust to dust and all that. The mortal is fated to death in either case, to dissolution.

Well, that’s none of your concern now is it?

Well, it must be some of my concern, I mean, some aspect of me goes along for the ride down to some dark unknown right?

And if it does? Whether you protest it or not, the same outcome occurs right? “Thou art not a god.” You yourself said this, so why stress? Why worry? Why spend any time concerned over it?

My guess is as good as yours.

Well, I have a theory.

Well? Go on, explain it to me.

You, the one I speak to now are that aspect of yourself that only has one impulse, to live, to survive. Somehow you’ve gotten all mixed up with that animal self, and you’ve begun to think that it’s concerns are your concerns and they are sort of, in a fashion I suppose. But you aren’t merely an animal are you? You have some share of intelligence. That is the part that is unafraid I think, that speaks to you now, because it knows the way of things and so doesn’t concern itself over what is not in it’s power.

Ah but why should it? After all, it benefits from this arrangement does it not?

For you, yes, it appears as a benefit, but for that rational aspect of yourself, it is treated indifferently. Because your reason can also imagine the reverse of the situation and feel untroubled, it can say without hesitation that, were the tables turned reason would accept it’s fated dive into nothingness.

Meditation 27: Self-Improvement

So you want to improve yourself ? For beginners, change your words they only seem to trip you up.

“Why have I been so stressed lately?”

Say instead, “Why have I allowed myself to be stressed by these things which are happening?”

Remember, you and only you control what it is that you do or don’t assent to.

“But sometimes I am so lost that I don’t know what to assent to.”

That seems like a poor excuse doesn’t it? Think to the last time you let your temper get the better of you. There was that moment when you were presented with two choices, to say something or be silent. You know what is a Virtue in that situation, to simply let the situation be because no one was really hurt. But your pride has been hurt and so you have already allowed it to whisper in your ear this is what you should do. And despite you knowing what is correct to do, you follow along and worse still feed the fire, compound your anger and dig yourself deeper, all the while very much aware of it but letting yourself be carried along. So in the final account, the stress has not caused you to lose your temper, you have allowed yourself to assent to be carried along. You are the sower of your own discord.

“If only there was one day when I didn’t have to be tested.”


Everyday is a test. How could you forget?

Meditation 28: Tranquility

What is a good life irrespective of fortunes?

A life free of worry and the overpowering emotions.

How does one free themselves of worry and overpowering emotions?

By living virtuously, by developing the discipline of assent, of action, and of desire and aversion.

But if I free myself of passions don’t I lose a taste for life?

By freeing yourself of passions you open yourself to more authentic feelings. Non-destructive feelings. Wouldn’t you rather be reasonably cautious as opposed to constantly fearful?

Meditation 29: Justice

Yourself with another face. That is all another person really is. Because what are you really? Not your race, nationality, clothes, job. You are all the same deep down. Since you’ve caught a glimpse of this, act like it.

Know what is and isn’t in your power.

Act according to what is in your power, irrespective of the consequences because they certainly aren’t under your control. And what is in your power is to be virtuous because when you’re not virtuous, then you have relinquished that power.

To give in to desires is to relinquish your power. To give in to your fears is the same thing.

Meditation 29: Own Yourself

Remember your time with the Stoics.

You want to be wise? Know the difference between what is and isn’t in your power, then worry only about what you have it in your power to control.

Not even what you did yesterday is in your power so what’s the point of tossing and turning in bed at night reliving past mistakes? All you have is this, the present moment to act justly, to temper destructive emotions, to do what must be done without being afraid. As for the future? All you can do is prepare for it by reminding yourself yet again, it can turn out well or it can turn out bad, but you will wind your way through it with integrity, with wisdom.

It will press on you, it will back you into a corner, it will pull at you in every direction but only if you say yes to it, if you let yourself be owned by it.

How to be a Better Person : Stoic Edition

I’m always working on trying to improve myself, on trying to become the best version of myself that I can be. I don’t always succeed, actually far from it. It’s a lot of work, and it’s a project that’s never complete. But there is something to be said for making the effort, for having self-improvement always in the back of your mind. And when I talk about improving myself, I don’t necessarily mean the outer aspects of myself, like my eating habits, my workout routines, or even my career.

Don’t get me wrong, those are important things to work on, and I do work on them, but they are secondary projects to me, projects distinct from what I mean when I say improving myself. Really I’m talking about something like improving my mental habits, my character, my soul.

Maybe that’s why I always find myself drawn to Stoic philosophy, because that was what the Stoics were concerned with first and foremost; becoming the best version of oneself that one could be. Of course, the Stoics had very specific ideas about what that meant.

For the Stoics, self-improvement involved practicing the 4 Virtues (in Greek: Arete), Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Temperance. No matter what Stoic writer you read, these Virtues will always come up in one form or another. I’m always amazed when I read what kind of advice Seneca or Epictetus would give people who came to them with various personal problems that they were experiencing. These Stoics would always find a way to resolve the problem by tracing it’s solution back to one of these Virtues.

So, the Virtues set the standard for how to behave and so, the closer you adhere the Virtues, the more you are improving yourself. I’ll try to explain the Stoic Virtues below, as I as far as I have understood them:

Wisdom

Wisdom (in Greek: Sophia) is, simply put, knowledge of what we should and should not concern ourselves with. What should we not concern ourselves with? Everything outside of us that isn’t in our power to control, and that list is quite large: life, death, reputation, health, wealth, social status, the list goes on and on.

But you might say, “Of course I have the power to control things outside of me, what are you talking about? If I want to be healthy, I’m gonna exercise every day. If I want to make more money, I’m gonna move up the ladder at work. I’m not just gonna sit around and do nothing, that’s stupid.”

And I don’t think the Stoics would disagree with you. Yes, go out there and work on building your career, start eating healthier and work out. But remember, you’re not guaranteed to keep those external things that you want. They’re nice to have, worth going for, helpful in a lot of ways, but not absolutes. A major economic downturn can make your money worthless, you could be paralyzed in a freak accident. Don’t base your entire existence on them, they are not fundamentally under your power.

So what is important? The only thing we should really be concerned with is what is in our power to control and that’s really only two things: our thoughts and our actions.

What the Stoics are getting at with placing your thoughts and actions exclusively under your control is that you are ultimately responsible for everything you think and do. Someone was rude to you and it caused you to be in a bad mood for the rest of the day? Well you have no control over the other person’s attitude, but you are in control of refusing to let those emotions get the better of you.

Making this distinction between what is in your power and what isn’t in your power seems easy, but it is something you have to develop on a daily basis, constantly asking yourself, is this something that should concern me? Is this something that’s worth my time worrying over?

Justice

Justice (in Greek: Dikaiosune) is a concern for the common good, for the welfare of other people.

It’s very easy to say to yourself, “Well, because I should only concern myself with what is in my power to control, then I shouldn’t worry about other people. They’re having a bad day? That’s their problem, they need to work on that themselves.”

But when we say things like this to ourselves we are ignoring how interconnected we are with one another. The Stoics believed that the universe was one enormous organism, and that each and every human being was part of this greater whole. Given that, one’s actions shouldn’t be merely for their own benefit, but for the benefit of others as well. To me this means having a compassionate and understanding attitude towards other people, even when you may not see eye to eye or just plain don’t like each other.

But this doesn’t mean that you should just allow people to walk all over you either, or say to yourself when you see terrible things happening on the news, “Oh well, I have to accept that people are just people.” Far from it. After all, if you view all of the world as interconnected, then other people’s problems are also your problems. Given this, it is almost as if it’s your obligation to stand up for others, to correct bad behaviors from other people, and at the same time not be just an all-around jerk yourself.

Courage

Courage (in Greek: andreia) is more than just being unafraid. It doesn’t mean that you can pick a fight without hesitation either. Courage is acting the right way, doing the right thing, being your true self, despite whatever fears you may have. You’re not pushing your anxieties or worries away when you do this either, you’re recognizing that they’re there. But you’re also recognizing that the thing that you have to do, whatever it may be, is in keeping with you being Virtuous.

Temperance

The word Temperance (in Greek: Sophrosune) always makes me think of someone who abstains from drinking alcohol, doesn’t even dare talk to women, and is just an overall un-fun person to be around. I think a better way to describe this Virtue is that it is something like self-control, or self-discipline. I can get behind that, who doesn’t want to be in better control? But in better control of what?

The easy answer is: in control of the things that give you physical pleasure. I like to drink beer, but I also have a history of doing very stupid things when I’ve wanted to keep the party going longer that it should. So I intentionally practice drinking in moderation. Maybe a victory beer after a particularly hectic week at work, or when I’ve decided to treat myself and cooked myself a burger and need something to pair it with. By practicing self-control, I can still do the things that give me pleasure, but in a way that won’t kill my liver.

A more subtle way of looking at self-discipline is when it comes to your emotions. We all experience anger, fear, jealousy, sadness. We’re all human beings, it’s a normal thing. But when we let those emotions lead us and start to guide our decision making, then we can get into all sorts of trouble. Remember, for the Stoics, Wisdom is being able to make a distinction between what’s important and what’s not. If your thinking is clouded by anger or sadness, how well do you think you will be able to make important decisions?

Of course, it’s easy to say, “Shut off your emotions, be a robot, only think logically.” That’s not what I think the Stoics are advocating either. What I think they are pushing instead, is an awareness of the presence of those emotions, of looking at something like anger straight in the eye and telling it, “You’re not the boss of me. You can’t fool me into doing something I’ll regret later. I am the boss of me. I decide what I do.”

Those are the Stoic Virtues to the best of my understanding. Because I practice them daily does that mean I consider myself a Stoic? Do I consider myself a Wise, Just, Courageous, Temperate person? Far from it, but on a practical level I can derive benefits from making the attempt. I invite you to try to examine yourself and see if you can also draw any benefits from trying to live according these principles.

The Cup is Half-Empty: The Art of Negative Visualization

I am not known to be a generally positive-minded person. If you were to ask me if the cup was half-full or half-empty I would tell you it’s half-empty. In other words I don’t see the positives in most situations I find myself in, only the negatives. If I’m going to set out on a new task I only see the challenges before me, and the many ways that things could go wrong on the way to my intended goal. This has led to many people calling me “moody” or “negative” over the years, and in the past I would have agreed with them. But as I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve slowly come to regard my negative-minded approach as a virtue of sorts.

The Ancient Stoics were very much negative-minded thinkers as well. They developed the ritual of Negative Visualization to an artform, reminding themselves on a daily basis of the many ways that things could go wrong, of the many challenges they would meet on any given ordinary day. Those negative conditions could be as disastrous as one’s boat sinking, or as mundane as running into an unpleasant person. Here is an example by Marcus Aurelius:

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.” (Meditations)

This is just one of numerous meditations written by Marcus where he reminds himself about all the terrible people he will have to interact with on that day. Why would he do this to himself? Wouldn’t it make more sense to tell yourself that today is going to be a great day? That everything will work out? I’m sure that I’m not the only that’s been told the same thing in the past.

For the Stoics, the ritual of Negative Visualization was meant to ready them for whatever might happen so that they would not be caught by surprise by dramatic turn of events. After all, one can plan the perfect day, but it is never promised to us, as is shown by experience, that things will turn out the way we want them to. And, for most of us, when we are caught by surprise by events that we don’t plan for, we panic, we freeze up, we fall apart. This is exactly what the Stoics were trying to prevent, as Seneca says:

“He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.” (Letters from a Stoic)

By utilizing Negative Visualization, a Stoic mentally kept themselves mindful and alert. They were prepared for anything and so would ensure that they maintained their own integrity and were able to navigate through changing circumstances whatever they may be.

So how to go about practicing Negative Visualization?

For myself, this exercise is most effective when I wake up early in the morning before the start of what I know will be a big day. This doesn’t mean that you have to do it in the morning, but definitely prior to undertaking an activity which has some importance to you. What constitutes an important activity? That is completely up to you. We all have different things which make us anxious and which we worry about going right. For some people, it could be going on a first date with someone. For others, it could be making a speech at a meeting.

I’ve written before that my preferred method to conduct many of these Stoic exercises is in the form of a short journal entry and I invite you to do the same. If you have a note-taking app on your smart phone that works just as well. Saying it to yourself in the form of an internal dialogue works as well but I think it is important to stress that there is a difference between simply thinking something and letting that thought manifest in the world in some concrete form.

In this step-by-step exercise I will be using excerpts from Epictetus’ Enchiridion to help show how this exercise can be structured.

First, be clear with yourself about what it is that you are going to do. Picture yourself going to the place, how you will behave, what it is that you are intending to do when you get there. Imagine the people that will be there, how they will most likely behave, what they will most likely say. In a way you are imagining the ideal scenario, how you would like things to go. In ancient Rome, communal bath-houses were very popular and were found everywhere. In the example by Epictetus we are asked to rehearse how we hope things will go when we head out on a trip to a bath-house.

Whenever planning an action, mentally rehearse what the plan entails. If you are heading out to the bath, picture to yourself the typical scene at a bathhouse…

Second, list the things that could go wrong once you get there. This is where you are imagining the things that people might say or do that would not make the situation ideal. If in the ideal situation of giving a speech you had imagined that someone would laugh at a joke you had prepared to open with, now imagine that they don’t laugh or that they sigh. Imagine that there are complaints from people who can’t hear you very well from the back. Maybe the room will be lit poorly. In Epictetus’ example, he imagines that at the bath-house there will be people rough-housing, maybe even fighting, maybe even stealing other people’s personal belongings when they’re not looking.

people splashing, pushing, yelling and [stealing] your clothes…

Third, remind yourself that in your ideal version of events, there is also an ideal version of yourself. This ideal version prepared their notes for the speech they were going to make, they practiced it in front of a mirror or friends, they are ready to go out there and make it happen! This ideal version of yourself is something that you do have control over. While the event itself could always go wrong in a variety of ways, many of which I have asked you to imagine, you don’t have to stress over those details, the only thing you should worry about is how you will respond.

Someone coughs loudly during your speech? Not your problem, you were in the middle of an important topic, continue with it in the precise manner you had planned. You see someone not really paying attention to something you’ve just said? What’s it to you? You know what you have to say is interesting and worth talking about so go on in keep at it. In the bath-house example, Epictetus reminds us in a similar way to make a distinction between the event in question, and what is in our power to control, ourselves. As he says:

…say at the outset, “I want a bath, but at the same time I want to keep my will aligned with nature…which is impossible if I go all to pieces whenever anything bad happens.”

Another way of saying this to yourself is, “I want to participate in this event, and whether this event goes good or bad, I will not let it control how I behave. Because I will be the best version of myself no matter what happens.” Now, while the Stoics had very specific ideas about what it meant to be the best version of oneself, for the practical purposes of this exercise I leave it up to you to decide what the best version of yourself is.

The speech was not received well? Perhaps you need to work on improving something about it, and you will make efforts to improve yourself based on feedback, but during those minutes while you were up on stage you gave it your best shot. The date was a disaster? Your date was rude? Maybe it’s not meant to be, but you made sure that you were authentic and kind to your date. You maintained yourself. Move on, keep putting your best foot forward. While you may not be able to control how things play out, you are completely in control of how you respond to adapt those situations.

I invite you to try this exercise, to imagine that the cup will be half-empty, and further, to remind yourself that, that is only half of the cup. The other half still has something, the best part actually, the part that you have control over, the part that can surmount obstacles, yourself.

Dialogue with a Six-Year Old about Death

I am a single working parent with two daughters. Given this, I rely on my family to help with watching over my girls when I’m not able to. My mother watches them most of the time while I’m away; she feeds them, helps them with their homework, bathes them, puts them to bed, and sometimes has to answer difficult questions that they may have, questions that I wish I could be there to answer. A few nights ago my mother and I sat down for tea together after I arrived late from work. My daughters were already sound asleep. My mother told me the following:

Your oldest (she’s six years old) asked me today if I was old.

I said “Yes, I am old. Everyone gets old.”

And then she said to me, “Are you going to die someday? Are you going to turn into a ghost?”

I just said to her, “Yes I am going to die one day. But no, I don’t think I’m going to turn into a ghost. Maybe an angel. If I turn into an angel, I’ll be your angel. Ok?”

And do you know what she started to do? She started to cry. So I asked her, why are you crying? Hmm? Why are you so sad?

She was still crying, but started hugging me and she said, “Grandma I don’t want you to die!”

I said, “Oh but everyone dies. Don’t cry! Look at me, am I crying? No right?”

She shook her head and she said to me, “No, you’re not crying.”

“And why am I not crying? Because you cannot change that. Everyone has to die.” She got quiet then and finally started closing her eyes. Then she fell asleep.

Now my mother isn’t a philosopher by trade , at least as far as I know, but there was something very Stoic about the way she was able to speak plainly about her own inevitable death that I admired. Death is a difficult thing for people to talk about, even more difficult when the subject is one’s own death. But try as we might, none of us will be able to outrun death, and neither will anyone else that is close to us. So why do we avoid talking about it? Why do we run from it in our daily thoughts? After all, even if we refuse to think of it as something that will happen to us or our loved ones it’s not as if we have the power to stop it from eventually happening right?

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus recognized this tendency of ours to avoid thinking about death when he said the following:

You are a fool to want your children, wife or friends to be immortal; it calls for powers beyond you, and gifts not yours to either own or give. (Enchiridion 14.1)

Now I am a mortal, a human being. And as a human being I must accept the reality of the situation which is that I neither have the power to live forever or to grant immortal life to anyone. I would most definitely be living in a fantasy if I thought my wishing otherwise would have any effect on this state of affairs. I think, it would be equally as foolish to attempt to evade any thinking about death. But this is exactly what I do most of the time without even noticing, and it definitely doesn’t do me any good.

There are definitely practical reasons for thinking on the inevitability of death. I have children, so I have to ensure that my finances are in order at least enough so that if something unexpected happens to me, they are taken care of. I have to plan for my later years too, ensure that I have an end of life plan so that I am not a burden on others.

Those are the practical aspects, and they are definitely important, but what about what I gain from thinking on death? Something else must come of this acceptance of death as an eventuality, right? At the most basic level, I think at least, it is a sense of relief, a sense of not having to always be on the defensive when the idea of death makes itself known. No more wasted moments spent afraid, anxious, worried. I can get on with my day, my life, and do something worthwhile with my remaining time.

What do I recommend then? How to prepare for the eventuality of death? Talk about it, either with yourself or with another person. I am a fan of journaling so that is my favored method. But I have also held impromptu dialogues with individuals when the subject has come up, lest I neglect Epictetus’ advice in some subtle way.

But there should be a structure to this sort of dialogue if you choose to go through with it, a process by which one can accept the inevitable but also be able to turn this acceptance into an opportunity to flourish within the confines of mortality. The Memento Mori, I think, is suited to what we are trying to achieve. This Stoic exercise is found all throughout Stoic literature in various forms. It can be as simple as repeating to yourself the phrase, “You must die.” However, my favored version of this is written by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius:

The first step: Don’t be anxious. Nature controls it all. And before long you’ll be no one, nowhere-like Hadrian, like Augustus.

The second step: Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being; remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy. (Meditations 8.5)

I like this version of the Memento Mori because it is still somewhat short, aims for conciseness, and is broken down into a two-step process.

In the first step of the exercise, you are reminded not to be anxious, that death is not something that is ultimately in the power of the human being, but under the control of nature. Because the eventuality of death is ultimately something that is not in your control, why should you feel anxious? It’s not in your hands, it isn’t something that you should spend any amount of your time fretting over.

Marcus also reminds himself that his predecessors, Hadrian and Augustus, men who he most likely admired, also died. By bringing up those you have acquaintance with that have passed away, you remind yourself yet again, in a visceral way, that death is a shared experience that we all must undergo. I think there are two insights that we can derive from this reminder.

The first insight: we can take comfort in knowing that the fears and anxieties we have concerning death are not ours alone, but something that all mortals must contend with. Even someone who you don’t get along with or actively dislike is afraid of dying or has felt the pain of losing someone close to them. If you find yourself resisting the urge to empathize with that person you dislike, know that this could only be happening because, in thinking about your shared anxieties about death, you have started to empathize with them.

The second insight: that time runs out for everyone, that what time I do have left is precious, is a gift that I should not waste. There were wise and great individuals that came before me, they were not able to avoid the eventuality of death, it caught up to them as well. This leads directly to the second step in Marcus’ meditation.

In the second step, you are reminded that there are things you have to do, that there are in fact things you are responsible for. Things that are worth your time that you have an opportunity to work on right now this instant. You are not responsible for stopping the eventuality of death, but you are responsible for being a good human. Go, do it, don’t hesitate, this is your time.

But what does being a good human consist of? The Stoics most definitely had very specific ideas about what it was to be a good human. To go in depth, I think, is best left for a later time. But for the time being, in the exercise as outlined by Marcus we are left with a few reminders.

The first reminder is to be kind. From the first insight that I explained above, remember in your dealings with people that, whether you like or dislike them, they are the same as you, with hopes, fears, losses they must also endure. The Stoics would say they are “fellow citizens of the world.” Focus on improving yourself, on doing with what needs to be done, but don’t step all over others when you do it.

The second reminder is to be humble. Remember, no matter where you are in life, how successful you may become, or think you have become, you are still a human being, subject to the same fortunes as everyone else. In fact, subject to the same eventual fate.

The third reminder is to be truthful, to avoid hypocrisy. You’ve already admitted a truth most people avoid even in their daily thoughts! “I will die. Everyone will die.” If you can be truthful about this, if you can look it directly in the face without flinching, and accept the relief that comes with it, why would you ever want to be a liar ever again? Why would you ever want to lie to yourself about the time you have with your loved one? Appreciate those moments, cherish them, don’t tell yourself that you will always be able to make it up in the future, because that has never been promised to any of us.

There are many other ways to conduct the Memento Mori. I have only explained the route I have taken in meditating on this subject. In my research I have found many creative and interesting ways that other people have interpreted this Stoic practice. I invite you to try it out, see in what ways it can help you.

I appreciate the conversation that my mother had with my daughter. It begins the process by which my daughter can begin to think about her mortality in a clear and practical manner. She will learn to appreciate the time she has and will also appreciate the time she has with her loved ones. It is the first but not last small step for her to become the best version of herself that she can be. I have some work to do as well, to keep that dialogue going, to ensure that she has the proper support and tools to help on her way. After that, the rest will be up to her.

A day later I’m sitting with my oldest having breakfast. She turns to me and says, “Daddy are you old?”

I squint and say, “Eh so so, I’m so so old.”

Oh okay. Daddy, will you die when you get old?”

Eh, yeah, but that’s normal.”

“Oh okay.” Then she finishes eating breakfast and goes to get ready for her day.

The View From Above

I usually get pretty nervous whenever I have to speak publicly at my job. It’s not that I don’t have a firm grasp of what I’m doing either, it’s just that when all that attention is focused on just me I doubt myself, my own knowledge, whether my words clearly articulate the work I am speaking to, if what I say will define how my peers think of me negatively or positively. So I usually blank out, recede into myself, and pretty much throw out a few phrases that hopefully will have some relation too what I was supposed to be talking about, and then go hide in the back, defeated, wishing I’d done better.

I don’t think this is a problem that’s unique to me either. I’ve taken courses on public speaking in the past, as well as watched numerous videos which are supposed to provide tips and tricks on perfecting this art. A need to teach public speaking wouldn’t exist if it weren’t something that people needed help with.

Despite the steps I’ve taken to try to remedy this consistent problem of mine, I’ve never been quite that successful. At this point in my life, I’ve started to suspect that my problem really has nothing to do with any lack of technical knowledge in regards to public speaking, but with how over-concerned I am about the outcome of what it is that I’m going to say. Will my words be in keeping with the company culture? Will I touch upon the key points necessary to show that I am competent in the subject matter? Will what I say define how upper management sees me and whether or not they consider me for further promotion?

These are real concerns of course. But they press on me too heavily when I am in the middle of trying to speak. Really, I just need to put things in perspective. I am knowledgeable about my field of expertise, I am capable of articulating myself pretty well under normal circumstances, so why can’t I just get on with it? With what I’m supposed to be talking about? After all, whether I do good or bad, the world will keep on turning and business will go on as usual. In other words, in the grand scheme of things, whether or not I put on a good presentation will not affect the entirety of the universe. Maybe my own personal universe, but not the big picture.

Now it’s easy to put things in perspective in this way, but much more difficult to act accordingly. My own personal universe is important, what I do and how I do it might not matter to the universe, but dammit, it matters to me. And that’s perfectly natural. But when this over-concern with the effects of my actions or words stifles or paralyzes me, well then I have a problem don’t I?

When I recognize this paralyzing fear coming on before a day at work when I have to speak in any official capacity, I practice a Stoic meditative exercise that is called The View From Above. The purpose of this exercise is primarily to put our words and actions into perspective, to remind ourselves, in a substantial way, that we are not the center of the universe. In putting ourselves in the context of the larger fabric of existence, we are released from our overwhelming concern about what we are going to say or do next. And it’s not that we don’t care anymore either when we do this, but rather that we are able to care in the correct proportion to the situation. After all, if I am too concerned about my words and actions, like I’ve explained above, I freeze up and am not able to even utter a coherent sentence.

Well, putting things in perspective is easier said than done right? How to do this in a Stoic context? At it’s most basic level, the exercise consists of imagining oneself from the third person and increasing the range of one’s attention from one’s own personal life further and further out until the entirety of the universe is encapsulated in one’s thought.

Many examples of this sort of exercise can be found in the writings of Marcus Aurelius. Now, Marcus was a Roman Emperor who led a very busy and stressful political life, but utilized philosophical practices on a regular basis in order to be the best ruler that he could be under those circumstances. In his personal writings, which have come down to us as the Meditations, we see him using different meditative exercises in order to mentally prepare himself for the daily duties which were required of him, duties which surely must have included public speaking as well.

Here is one such example:

To see them from above: the thousands of animal herds, the rituals, the voyages on calm or stormy seas, the different ways we come into the world, share it with one another, and leave it. Consider the lives led once by others, long ago, the lives to be led by others after you, the lives led even now, in foreign lands. How many people don’t even know your name. How many will soon have forgotten it. How many offer you praise now—and tomorrow, perhaps, contempt. (Meditations 9.30)

And here is another:

Think of the universal substance, of which you have a very small portion; and of universal time, of which a short and indivisible interval has been assigned to you; and of that which is fixed by destiny, and how small a part of it you are. (Meditations 5.25)

Marcus would write meditations like these to himself constantly, to remind himself of his place in the universe and how small his own personal troubles and concerns were in relation to them. It was a way for him to achieve the tranquility needed to make level-headed decisions without being distracted with his own emotional attachments.

I’ve never had to run an empire, or a fight in a war, as Marcus did, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t run into the similar problems as he or any of the other Stoic philosophers did. We are after all, human beings. We all fall into the same mental blocks that inhibit us from being the best version of ourselves.

With that being said, I’ve included below a step by step approach to conducting this meditative exercise. This isn’t the only way to do it but it’s the way that’s worked for me.

The following steps are the ones I took to conduct this meditation:

First, I ensured that I set some time aside in the morning before I went to work that was all to myself. This is important because when you conduct this exercise all of your attention must be focused on your train of thought. Any music in background, or loud conversations will be a distraction. If you are naturally the kind of person that can ignore outside sounds and feel that you can do this exercise in a distracting environment, more power to you, but for most of us, a quiet minimally comfortable place will be most appropriate. I tend to just drive to work early and do these sort of exercises ten or fifteen minutes before I head into work.

Second, I made sure that I brought a journal to write in and a pen to write with. For me personally, writing on paper is still the way to go, but since most of us carry a smart device of some sort nowadays, you can pull up any app that lets you write, whether it is a notepad, google docs, even an e-mail app. The important thing here is get the words out of the space of thinking into the space of words. If you find yourself in a situation where you have no tools with which to write, your final resort should be to speak or whisper it to yourself, to verbalize it, not just to think it. Trust me, letting the words take verbal or written form is key for this exercise to have any sort of noticeable effect.

Third, remember that this sort of meditative exercise has a certain sort of structure to it in accordance with it’s purpose. You have the freedom to choose what words you use, what imagery you play with, and how long you write for. All of that is up to you. That’s why I’ve included some samples from Marcus above and why I’m providing a sample of what I wrote to myself below. But, because this exercise is meant to have a definite conclusion, I suggest you shoot for conciseness. When you end this exercise you should be ready to face the day, to meet the world as best as you can, which is all that any of us can do.

So here is what I wrote to myself:

As a human being you have a remarkable ability to think outside of your immediate self. So do this for me now: Let your mind leave this body, this sense of yourself. Let it float away from this parking lot, wander out of the neighborhood, even further past the city limits. Let it traverse the forests and the mountains. Finally, let it step off the beach and walk over the Pacific Ocean. Go further up. Where the air thins, where the vast starry expanse seems to go on forever. Leave this star and it’s planets. Glimpse the churning galaxy as it becomes a pinpoint among pinpoints, each a galaxy unto itself. Further still in the grand emptiness where light has yet to reach you go now. All of the cosmos is no larger than an atom, barely perceptible, it might as well be but a dream. All your cares, all your worries, all your troubles, anxieties, reside there in that place which is barely the size of an atom. Now, get up. Go about your day.