Think of stoicism as a habit, not a task
For someone who spends a lot of time reading, thinking and writing about Stoicism, I’m not very stoic. That’s not surprising. Even the Stoics weren’t stoic.
The irony is that they wouldn’t have developed the philosophy if they were. If Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and the others had been chilled out, calm, rational and unruffled, they would never have needed to develop a philosophy to teach themselves how to be those things. There would have been little to pass on to others in their writings and teachings. They didn’t preach from an ivory throne, telling others how to behave. They started with themselves, then shared what they learned. Stoicism is about living in the real world and facing the challenges that involves. We don’t learn how to implement the philosophy by reading about it. We learn about it by living it - or trying to.
Stoicism is not a task we can pop on a to-do list then tick off later. Rather, I view it as a habit. A part of everyday life. Something to turn to during big tragedies and small annoyances. The philosophy itself is based on exercises which incorporate the key principles. I turned to it during one of the worst weeks of my life, when I lost a number of people at once. I turn to it when I’m about to send an angry email, or my ego flares up, or I start snapping at someone. It’s one of the main things which helped me to dig my way out of depression after years of useless hospitalizations, medication, and therapy. It has helped me to drastically reduce the number of panic attacks I have. I didn’t derive that benefit by reading about Seneca’s childhood or writing essays on the thematic concerns in Meditations. I have learned about Stoicism by applying it, by integrating lessons as daily habits.
Most of us are terrible at controlling our emotions and reactions, myself included. It’s easy to read Meditations or Letters From a Stoic, feel inspired, and decide to start acting like a Stoic. Then something happens, minor or major, maddening or frustrating. Philosophy goes out the window. This just means we’re human. Stoicism is not a one time task. It isn’t something you can learn from a book or a blog post or a course. That's why I believe in turning the teachings into useful daily habits.
Here are some of the Stoic habits I (and countless others throughout history) have adopted. All are based on the exercises mentioned in the original texts:
1.Start the day by setting intentions and preparing for difficulties.
One of the best-known parts of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is this:
"When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own- not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me with ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural.To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions."
And another is this:
“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work–as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for–the things which I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?’
–But it’s nicer here…
So you were born to feel “nice?” Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?
–But we have to sleep sometime…
Agreed. But nature set a limit on that–as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota. You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash and eat.”
Although these two sections deal with different ideas, both are intended to be thought of first thing in the morning. It’s hard to articulate the impact that memorizing both - and reminding myself of them whenever I wake up - has had on my life. The first quote is about gaining control of our emotions before the day begins and we start getting faced with frustrating people. It's a lot easier to get a grasp of tranquility if we keep coming back to it.
The second quote is concerned with setting intentions and starting the day with an awareness of why we are getting out of bed. I got up at 4 am this morning (I'm almost always up somewhere between 3 am and 6 am) which wasn't easy. But thinking of the work I need to do today and the head start this will give me was ample motivation. On the toughest days, I will literally picture myself having that conversation with a disapproving Marcus Aurelius. It turns out long dead emperors make for helpful imaginary friends.
2. Practicing deprivation to develop self-reliance.
Seneca advocated practicing going without the things we consider to be essential. Bear in mind the fact that he was one of the richest people around during his time. Yet he devoted certain days each month to eschewing comfort: "take part of a week in which you have only the most meager and cheap food, dress in shabby clothes, and ask yourself if this is really the worst that you feared." Who is in a better position to advocate simplicity than someone who experiences the misery of complexity? Even if his own wealth was a blind spot, I find this quote to be true. Habit and conditioning turn any frivolity into a necessity.
He didn’t mean this in the Gwenyth Paltrow living on food stamps for a week kind of way. This means getting out of our comfort zone and using the good times to prepare for the bad times, building self-reliance in the process. After all: “Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We've been using them not because we needed them but because we had them.”
I apply this idea by making regular efforts to reassess my dependencies. Doing so extends my comfort zone. I practice going without certain things - TV, hot showers, social media, new clothes, Starbucks, alcohol - for a set time frame to see if I actually need them. Sometimes the answer is no. I’ve never gone back to watching TV after I gave it up for a month a year and a half ago. Sometimes the answer is less than I think. I just moved and for a while, I didn’t have lights, electricity, or a cooker and I still don’t have home internet. It proved not to be a big deal and I get a lot more done working offline. But I will go back to it at some point and disconnect when I need to. Whatever we have, we always want more. And we don’t find contentment by getting more, we find it by being comfortable regardless of our circumstances.
The Stoics didn't know what life would throw at them. Marcus Aurelius lead his army in a number of tumultuous wars, lost his father early in life, saw somewhere in the region of 8 of his children die and faced endless crises in his empire, alongside poor health. Likewise, Seneca experienced exile and an uneasy role as Nero's adviser which ultimately lead to his death. Epictetus was a former slave, crippled early in life (by some accounts, on purpose) and was also exiled. It makes sense that they would want to prepare for the worst. We might not have the same sorts of issues today, but the value of self-reliance is undiminished.
3. Finding gratitude each night by rehearsing grief.
The Stoics talked about memento mori a lot. What I find interesting about Epictetus’ ideas is that he describes the practice as habitual. He advocated meditating on death on a regular basis. In particular when we say goodbye to someone. The point isn’t to get all morbid and picture people in a coffin every time you part. It’s about recognizing the transient nature of human life. One day we will say goodbye to each person we love for the last time. I learned that the hard way by losing people close to me with no warning. Now I make an effort to keep Epictetus’ words in mind each time I say goodbye. To truly see the person without rushing off to the next place. To take a second to recognize what they mean and who they are. This exercise illustrates that Stoicism is not about feeling nothing. It’s about separating the worthwhile emotions from the useless ones. We can’t reverse the loss of someone we love. We can change the extent to which we appreciate them.
Seneca took the approach of contemplating memento mori before going to sleep, writing in his letters that we should say each night “I have lived my life and run the course that Fortune gave” and “You may not wake up...You may not ever sleep again.” It seemed to have worked for him. By all accounts, Seneca was fearless during the final hours before his execution,* having prepared himself in advance. Likewise, Socrates spent the time before his execution** discussing philosophy with friends. He remained indifferent and unruffled.
The Stoic practice of memento mori is about developing gratitude. When I think of Seneca's words before bed, it changes everything. I find myself looking back on the day, asking if I made good use of it. If the answer is no (as it has been lately), it's time to make changes.
*Note: I disagree with descriptions of Seneca’s death as a suicide.
**Also not a suicide. But I'm not a historian.