A Stoic Journal #15 – Relax, It is Just Life

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Relax, it is just life.

We take ourselves awfully seriously, don’t we? ‘I must work harder’, ‘I’ve got to look better’, ‘I have to send that email, or else …’, ‘I ought to be happier’, ‘I’m not doing enough‘, ‘I need to make my mark’, ‘do they like me? What should I do?’.

We are constantly jostled by imperatives, like squeezing through a crowd on a busy shopping street. Relentlessly we parry our daily demands. We wind ourselves up like the rope in a catapult in order to create enough tension to propel ourselves forwards. And especially when we encounter some disaster or an obstacle which upsets us, we either succumb to ire and dolor or gravely march onward like a soldier surviving aerial bombardment.

I definitely do this. When I wake up I’m instantly winding up my torsion catapult, thinking about what I could be doing to have a good day, to make the most of it. I spend a lot of time and effort trying to figure out how to be a good person. I want to live a good life. I want to be my best. I want to get it right, I don’t want to get it wrong. I don’t want to waste my limited time alive. I ask myself ‘am I living as fully as I could be?’. I am careful to point out to myself when I am not doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

That is all fine and good in a way. But also, I worry myself. I wind up my catapult so tight, it is like I am strangling life. I care so much about life, I think it is so valuable, so meaningful, and so important, that I take it far too seriously. In this entry, I am prompting myself to let that all go, at least for a few breaths, to relax and not take life quite so seriously.

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A Stoic Journal #14 – Follow Through or Be Adrift on a Sea of Chaos

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If you cannot follow through on your own decisions, then you are helplessly adrift on a sea of chaos.

We make hundreds, even thousands, of decisions every day, big and small. Do we follow through on those decisions though? We say ‘today I will quit smoking’ but cave in like the previous 153 times. We say ‘today I won’t just sit at home watching videos’ and waste the day anyway. We say ‘I really need to start sleeping properly’ then stay up till 3am again. We say ‘I’m going to be less selfish’ but end up leaving it ‘for tomorrow’. In this entry, I am trying to shake myself awake from such a slumber.

What is chaos? A total lack of structure and direction. And what creates structure and direction in our lives? Our minds, specifically our rational faculty, our ability to make a decision and then to execute it. Making a decision but not seeing it through till completion is as good as making no decision at all because the result is the same. Therefore, it is our ability to follow through on our decisions which establishes a healthy order in our lives as opposed to chaos.

Living in chaos is like being adrift on a stormy sea. The waves crash over you this way and the other, the gale swirls tempestuously, you want to travel out of the storm but have no means to, instead being dragged about by Poseidon’s fury. You cannot make any progress. You are so absorbed with simply not unceremoniously drowning in a watery vortex that you can make no progress. You keep your head just above water saying ‘I’ll get out of this storm today’ but eventually become so worn out and jaded at what your life has become that, somewhere, you give up trying to persevere. Continue reading

Stoic Exercise: Mealtime Gratitude (4 Ways You Can Appreciate Eating and Your Life More)

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Do you feel grateful at mealtimes or do you begrudge them?

As you might have heard, humans need to consume a certain amount of nutritious matter (known as ‘food’) per day to stay alive and be healthy. Most of us break this process into several stages throughout the day, e.g. breakfast, lunch, dinner, and supper. Mealtimes are an excellent target for our gratitude because they are so repetitive and because they are so fundamental to our existence. Moreover, practising gratitude about one thing is practising gratitude, period – over time, the seed of gratitude will germinate and ramify into the rest of our lives.

It is common for a religion to have some practice of mealtime gratitude, appreciation, or mindfulness. However, it doesn’t need to be a religious practice. For example, you don’t need to thank a deity to express gratitude for your food.

I will provide background and motivation for this exercise as a Stoic and then describe the exercise itself.

Background and Motivation

What is this Gratitude?

By gratitude here, I mean:

  • Looking for the positives in the situation rather than dwelling on the negatives, including reframing negative judgments as neutral or positive judgments.
  • Bringing yourself back to the present moment and being aware of what you are doing rather than mentally wandering around somewhere else.
  • Recognising that everything in this world is impermanent, hence you won’t have what you have forever.
  • Feeling grateful.

Why Should I Be Grateful?

Well, you don’t have to be grateful, but practising gratitude is one of the most effective ways to enhance life. I say ‘practice’ because being grateful is a habit, and all habits are formed by practice.

Gratitude allows us to:

  • Enjoy what we have more.
  • Complain less. Complaining can ruin our lives, dragging down others with us.
  • Be satisfied more easily. If we don’t appreciate what we have, we are likely to seek greater and greater external sources of satisfaction, leading to insatiable desire. Insatiable desire is otherwise known as greed.
  • Be more aware of those who don’t have what we have.
  • Be more grounded in the real world. Being grateful requires thinking through what we are doing and how that came to be, as opposed to acting thoughtlessly.

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A Stoic Journal #13 – Life Stands in Stark Contrast to Death

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Each day of life stands in sharp relief to death.

You are going to die. Indeed, depending on how you view time, you are already dead. It might be tomorrow, or in one month, or 10 years, or 50 years, or, who knows, in 100 years. But you will die, like every human and every animal and every organism will.

It is good to know this. Imagine if you didn’t know that you would die, you had not heard of death and instead you believed you would live forever. Then, one day, you became seriously ill, and a doctor told you that you would die within the month. Or, one day, you died suddenly without forewarning. What a shock! In your dying moment, you think ‘alas! I thought I had all the time in the world. I would have my very different choices had I known this day was coming! I wouldn’t have been so idle, so passive, so wasteful. And now, nothingness.’

Indeed there are many creatures on this Earth who, while having powerful survival instincts, are incapable of knowing that they will perish. In this regard, humans are spoiled. However, even though we are all gifted this precious knowledge, most of us face death with the same shock and regret, as if we hadn’t known all along. So how can we avoid this? Continue reading

Stoic Exercise: Negative Visualisation (How to Prepare for Adversity and Seize the Day)

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Life is unpredictable. Many difficult things will happen, that is an absolute given.
Much of the sting we feel upon encountering difficult events comes from the idea that ‘I did not expect this!’. The ancient Stoics accepted the inevitability of trying circumstances, but not the inevitability of reacting badly. They realised that we can summon our intelligence and imagination to prepare ourselves to face our fears.

As such, here is another Stoic spiritual, philosophical, moral, psychological, exercise, the premeditatio malorum. Premeditatio malorum is Latin for ‘premeditation of evils’. William Irvine in A Guide to the Good Life names it ‘negative visualisation’. Donald Robertson in The Philosophy of CBT calls it ‘philosophical premeditation’.

Whatever name you prefer, it means mentally preparing yourself for adversity by visualising difficult events, logically analysing them, and mentally rehearsing a healthy, constructive, response. If continually practised, we may 1) lessen our anxiety in the present about possible or inevitable future events, 2) have better composure if or when the event occurs, 3) be prepared to act decisively and make the most of the situation. In summary, the premeditatio malorum is training to reduce anxiety and enhance right action.

Also, by imagining losing what we have, e.g. safety, someone’s company or love, fun, we can use this exercise to re-align our priorities and savour the present rather than take our blessings for granted.

Outsmarting Fate

I said that life is unpredictable. This is true in that we cannot predict everything which will happen in our lives. We can’t even predict most of what will happen, our developed deterministic scientific understanding aside. But we can predict some things with varying degrees of certainty, and by exploiting this limited certainty about our future, we can, in a way, outsmart fate.

Of course, you can never outsmart fate. Fate will always get the better of you because you are a small creature in an incomprehensibly big world. But you can at least train yourself to be reconciled with fate. As Seneca translated Cleanthes, ‘fate leads the willing and drags along the reluctant.’ Continue reading

A Stoic Journal #12 – When You See Nothing But Terror

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Stoicism is not just for rainy days and missed appointments, it is for when you want to claw your own eyes out, when you see nothing in your path but terror.

Every single day our efforts and expectations are frustrated. Someone leaves the dirty dishes on the counter, a late bus means you arrive late, you forget your keys, you spill your drink on your new trousers, someone gets snippy with you for no reason, you get stuck in a long and boring conversation, the shop you wanted to buy something at is actually closed, it starts raining and you are not prepared, you realise you missed your doctor’s appointment.

We will experience events like this every single day of our lives. They test our patience, they test our desire to be a benevolent person, they test our desire to press on. We try not to lose our temper, we try to remain focused on the task at hand. Stoicism is profoundly effective to us here. It is raining? So what? What is rain, but falling water? Are you so afraid of water? Is it not a wet head, or wet clothes, or wet skin, which disturbs you, but your belief that being in the rain is bad, a belief you can choose to change?

That being said, these things are trivial. They do not matter in the grand scheme of things and they barely matter in the small scheme of things, regardless of how much we might overreact throughout the day due to ignorance and lack of mental discipline.

We realise this when we are truly struck down by terror, when we are aghast at what our life has become, when we incredulously ask ‘how did I get to this point?’, when we exceed what we ever expected we would have to endure, exceeding even our own pessimistic worldview, when we acquire two heavy burdens as a reward for each burden we throw off, when we disown this unfair world and begin to entertain the delight of exiting. Continue reading

Stoic Exercise: Expanding Circles of Concern (How to Love Yourself and Others)

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We are all in this together. Though each of us experiences life as a single, individual, mind, we share this vast universe as our home. We depend on one another for survival, for enjoyment, for care, for learning. It is so easy to become wound up in our own desires and to get lost in ourselves, particularly when we are having some trouble or feel wronged by others.

Thus, it is important for us to regularly gain some perspective from outside our own bubble, to deliberately summon goodwill, to challenge ourselves to care about more beings than we might at present, to remind ourselves of what we have in common.

The Expanding Circles of Concern come down to us from fragments of the Stoic philosopher Hierocles in the 2nd century CE. However, Albert Einstein articulated the essential matter perfectly when they said:

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He [sic] experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

What is It?

The Expanding Circles of Concern are:

  1. A Stoic ethical framework
  2. A meditative exercise

It is used to expand our goodwill and thus expand the magnitude and range of our benevolent activity.

My main goal here is to present the Expanding Circles of Concern as a meditation which you can do regularly. Before I do that, I will provide some helpful background.

Drawing the Circles

The expanding circles of concern are very intuitive. Day-to-day, we have different amounts of care for and obligation to different people. For example, all of us care most for ourselves. We are primarily occupied with tending to our own needs. This is not necessarily because we are nasty and greedy, but because being inside our own skulls we are best positioned to pursue our own interests.

After that, we care most, perhaps, for our close family, romantic partner(s), and best friend(s). We can visualise this as a circle representing ourselves, and a layer outside representing our closest loved ones. Indeed, we often talk of an ‘inner circle’ in common speech. We can imagine further circular layers, for example, our work colleagues and classmates, our neighbours, the bus driver, a passerby, a stranger living in an adjacent province, a stranger living on the other side of the planet, and so forth.

Typically, we aren’t particularly concerned with the stranger walking past us on the path. We don’t wish them any harm, we might wish that they have a good day, but we don’t spend most of our time thinking about them or trying to help them. Whereas if, say, we have an infant, we are specially obligated to tend directly to their basic needs and we have a greater natural fondness for that child than a passerby.

The idea of circles of concern is an application of the Stoic psychological theory of oikeiosis, whereby we generalise our natural self-concern to more and more things external to us.

Our de facto circles of concern might look something like the following:

expanding circles of concern Continue reading