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?
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?
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.