Stoicism | Meditations
Do you have trouble sleeping at night? Try reading a book about philosophy.
All jokes aside, I want to bring to your attention a philosophy that is not boring or purely meant to sit around and think about. It is a type of philosophy that is designed to be used daily to make you a better person. From Roman Emperors to Holocaust survivors, Stoicism is a philosophy has been used by men of all statuses since 300 BC. The primary focus of Stoicism simply put is to live well.
Stoicism has been brought back to popularity since the 1990s and has been used as the foundation of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It is so popular that there is an annual convention of Modern Stoics and dozens of books published looking at the application of this ancient philosophy. To understand why this philosophy is so important, we must look back to the origins.
Ancient Stoicism was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium around 301 BC. Instead of meeting in closed courtyards, they met on the painted porch of the forum, a gathering place for Greeks, Foreigners, and now the followers of Zeno. The name Stoic doesn’t come from the modern definition of the world, but from the Greek word Stoa or “porch”. Stoicism is literally the “Philosophy of the Porch”. For over 500 years, Stoicism was rather popular in both Greek and Roman Empires, some of the most well-known Stoics are Epictetus, Seneca, and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
While Stoicism has faded and reappeared throughout history, The Daily Stoic mentions a variety of great leaders throughout history that have used Stoicism as a foundation for their lives. Some of these include:
Fredrick the Great, Prussian King
George Washington, First American President
Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father
Adam Smith, Economist
John Stuart Mill, Political Thinker, On Liberty
Viktor E. Frankl, Psychologist, Man’s Search for Meaning
Stoicism has been popularized by the practices that have been followed for the past couple millennia. These practices are the basis for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and a variety of other highly effective therapies. It seems that the stoics unlocked something about the human mind and humanity at a large. By following the central teachings, four cardinal virtues, and a variety of these spiritual exercises or practices, you can find the benefits of Stoicism yourself. This isn’t another type of -ism which is popularized by celebrities or Silicon Valley titans, but something that each person can effectively implement in their daily lives and see actual change, not some placebo effect or short-term fix.
The Central Teachings
Stoicism is not a philosophy of complex theories of the world, but instead a philosophy of the common man, a philosophy of action. Stoics follow a handful of central teachings that they keep in mind as they implement the other principles in their lives. Here are a few of them:
The world is unpredictable.
Our lives are short and fleeting.
Dissatisfaction and suffering come from our reliance upon impulse instead of logic.
Living by virtue and self-discipline is what can free us from suffering and dissatisfaction.
All men and women are created equal and we are called to live in brotherly love and readily help others.
There are 3 kinds of things: Things to Prefer, Things to Avoid, and Things Indifferent.
A couple things to note before we move on -
Freedom from Suffering and Dissatisfaction - This is not freedom from physical pain but the freedom from the negative effects of things outside of our control, essentially accepting things as they are.
Things Indifferent Doctrine - Not all things apply to moral law. Some things assist in being moral, some hinder, and some don’t make a difference.
The Four Cardinal Virtues
The ability to act and think based on experience, knowledge, understanding, common sense, and discernment.
Using Wisdom to act and think with unbiased judgment, compassion, the transience of the event, and self-awareness/knowledge.
The ability to willingly choose to confront agony, anguish, danger, and uncertainty.
Using Physical Courage to confront with bravery physical pain, suffering, death, or the threat of death.
Using Moral Courage to confront popular opposition, shame, scandal, discouragement, or personal loss.
The ability to act justly with kindness, fairness, goodwill, and moral responsibility.
Using Justice to confront our own predispositions, immorality, and other’s wrongdoings.
The ability to act with moderation, self-control, non-violence, apathy, humility, and prudence.
Using Temperance to confront our excesses, over-reactions, ego, violence, and impulses.
Spiritual Exercises or Practices
With the foundation of the central teachings and the four cardinal virtues, we can come to fully utilize the exercises and practices in which the stoics used daily. Without these practices, stoicism is just another thinking philosophy. As we have come to understand the term spiritual to mean interacting with an external deity, the stoics saw these spiritual exercises ways to connect to the internal spirit. For a Christian or Jewish Stoic, this may mean connecting with the Holy Spirit or Creator. For an Atheist Stoic, this may mean connecting with the internal self. For a Buddhist Stoic, this may mean connecting with the Universe. For an Ancient Stoic, this meant connecting with the internal flame that makes up the interconnected active part of the universe. There is no way to get into the Stoic physics and cosmology in this article, but if you want to read more UC Davis has a great lecture on Stoic Physics. However, I digress.
These practices can be implemented in a matter of minutes and are created to be used daily. They are the only way to achieve freedom from much of our dissatisfaction and suffering that we face constantly. Many modern -isms and groups use stoic spiritual exercises as elements of their programs. However, without the foundation the central teachings and four cardinal virtues they are simply mindfulness exercises and they have a much greater purpose for developing yourself.
Here are 5 common practices that you can pick up today:
Negative Visualization - The world is unpredictable.
Visualize yourself without the things that you love. The things to consider being without might be material things, loved ones, your job, or even events you are a part of. While this sounds quite pessimistic, this can actually be a freeing exercise. You might realize that certain things aren’t vital to you and your life. You might realize the gift of the presence of someone in your life. You might realize that if that is gone tomorrow, you would be okay. This exercise if viewed through the lenses of the central teachings can be highly optimistic. You realize that things are always changing, and that is okay. You also come to appreciate the things and people you have in the present moment even more.
Being Present - Life is short and fleeting.
Just like negative visualization, this exercise reminds you that things are always changing, and that’s okay. This one is focused on yourself and the immediate surrounding. Being Present can be done through meditation, training your attention, or even contemplating your death. The latter is referred to as Memento Mori or Consider Death. You won’t be around forever, so focus your attention, energy, and self to be present. You do this for your own life and for those around you. Meditation and attention training focus on being able to assert your mental capacities to be present. This isn’t empty thinking but focused thinking. It might be meditating and focusing on a phrase or word that you need at that moment, it may be only doing one task at a time, or it may be training yourself in a craft that needs your entire attention. Being present allows you to find happiness and value in this moment, not the next.
“The View from Above” - Acting with impulse, not logic causes suffering and dissatisfaction.
This is a type of guided visualization. The View from Above is a way to detach yourself from an event to logically consider it from above or with all the factors included. This is one way to develop wisdom and act with wisdom. Remember in stoicism wisdom is about being un-biased in a situation. Instead of focusing on your own interests, consider the interests of all parties and the best course of action with that. It allows you to not act with impulse but instead with logic. Again, in stoicism suffering and dissatisfaction come from reacting without considering. Often times if we can fully practice this type of guided visualization, we will see our impulses and reactions for what they are.
Daily Reflections - Living by Virtue and Self-Discipline.
Daily Reflections are actually one of the key elements from ancient stoicism that we still have today. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is his personal daily reflections of his life as the emperor of the greatest empire to exist. Daily reflections aren’t designed to be a chore, but instead a type of meditation that allows you to consider yourself, the world around you, and how you did today. It is meant to be a method of personal forgiveness as well as a way to refine oneself. Its’ goal is to allow yourself when confronted again with a similar situation to act with logic. Often times, journaling is the main method for daily reflections, however, I believe they can be effective as Socratic dialogue (conversing with others to solve a problem) or even self-dialogue. This dialogue can be in many forms, and I suggest maintain an archive for it. It is good to review and see how far you have come. I personally find journaling, voice memos, and blogging to be methods for my daily reflections.
Practice Misfortune - Act with brotherly love and readily help others.
Practicing misfortune is an exercise that can be seen in all the central teachings, however, I will describe it in the sense that all men and women are created equal and we are to act in brotherly love and readily help others. Practicing misfortune is an exercise where you deliberately go without. This may be in the form of fasting from food, things, technology, or engaging in difficult labor or tasks, or sleeping on the ground, or showering in a cold shower or not spending money for a day or a week. Practicing misfortune allows us to remember that the world is unpredictable, but it also reminds us that not everyone has the resources we have. By practicing misfortune, we can understand what it is like to go without, however, be careful not to make this something where you see yourself fit to relate to those who are without. You have the opportunity to have, many people don’t even have that opportunity. This allows you to act with brotherly love and also to help others, because you realize that they are human, too. We are all connected and without understanding, we can not be united.
This is a long-short intro to Stoicism. A philosophy that I personally follow. One that has developed me as a better person and has allowed me to live well.
“Life is short and we are called to live well.”