Episode 5 is now available. This week I talk about the Evening Meditation, also called Retrospective Meditation. In addition, I cover a way to convert the exercise into a family dinnertime conversation. Head over the the Good Fortune podcast page to listen to or download the episode.
The ancient Stoics trained not just their minds, but also their bodies for the hard work of philosophy. The 'good flow of life' which they sought could not be grasped from books and lectures without additional toil. A simple lesson or a clever turn of phrase was never expected to overcome a lifetime of bad habits in the hearer. Stoic exercises, both mental and physical, were designed to take the lessons found on paper and write them into the life of the student. Because the universe will take things from us, the Stoics meditated on death and loss. Because life has lean times, they would eat plain foods or take no food at all. Stoics trained in order to be ready to meet the inevitable trials of life. We too must train if we want to be Stoic when it matters.
A clear expression of the physicality of the Stoic School can be found in the writings of Musonius Rufus. History leaves us very little of Musonius's words, but what we do have is illuminating. Unlike other Stoic texts, his give us insight into the daily practices at the Stoic school. For instance, he gives lessons on what foods Stoics should eat. He also gives job advice and lets loose some really horrible opinions concerning sexual relationships (always remember, we don't always have to pick up what ancient Greek guys are laying down). The ancient notes titled, By Musonius from the lecture on practicing philosophy, begin, "virtue...is not just theoretical knowledge, it is also practical, like both medical and musical knowledge. The doctor and the musician must each not only learn the principles of his own skill but be trained to act according to those principles. Likewise, the man who wants to be good must not only learn the lessons which pertain to virtue but train himself to follow them eagerly and rigorously." Stoicism is meant to be used in the field. What's the point in claiming indifference to the things we don't control if we continuously get angry as slow traffic? Stoicism is only Stoic when it is enacted, and that requires disciplined practice.
Stoic physical training was focused both on testing students' beliefs and building their mental endurance. Musonius Rufus did not care if his Stoics were under ten percent body-fat or how much they could deadlift. He was concerned that when they came face to face with pain they might choose comfort over virtue. The hard work of Stoicism involves desiring only what is good and avoiding only what is bad. Pain, according to Stoicism, is not actually a bad thing, it's simply indifferent. That's an easy enough idea to pay lip service to, but when pain stands between us and virtue, will we go through that pain or avoid it? Better to test ourselves in a controlled setting. Musonius said it this way, "the philosopher’s body also must be well prepared for work because often virtues use it as a necessary tool for the activities of life...We will train both soul and body when we accustom ourselves to cold, heat, thirst, hunger, scarcity of food, hardness of bed, abstaining from pleasures, and enduring pains."
So what exercises did the ancients use to become better Stoics? We don't really know. History has taken that from us. The glimpses that we do have fall into the category of 'voluntary discomfort.' For instance, Epictetus advised that a thirsty person could wet their mouth, but then spit out the water. Seneca would eat bland but nutritious foods for long stretches. It would be interesting to see exactly how the ancient Stoics exercised, but there's no secret sauce, we simply need to train ourselves to follow Stoicism eagerly and rigorously. It isn't difficult to devise voluntary discomforts; hard beds, cold showers, and fasting come to mind. I happen to use an ice based practice that I learned in a birthing class. The point is not to make ourselves uncomfortable for discomfort's sake. We are meant to uncover the ingrained mental habits that go against Stoic thought, experience through disciplined exercise that those thoughts are wrong, and learn to consistently choose the wiser course.
Again, here are Musonius' thoughts on the matter,
As modern Stoics, we seek to conquer the obstacles that come our way. We've turned to the words of an ancient school of thought and found, through practice, that Stoicism is replete with practical wisdom. It is the practice that proves the words. We are doing ourselves a disservice if we do not routinely exercise our philosophy. If we don't pack on some Stoic muscle, how will we be strong when real obstacles rise up before us? Be certain to not simply read the Stoics, participate along with them. Train yourself in the hard work of philosophy. The Stoic who pursues wisdom eagerly and rigorously is the one who obtains the good flow of life.
- all quotes from Cynthia King's translation of Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings
Commit these nine observations to memory; accept them as gifts from the Muses; and while you still have life, begin to live...
The Emperor's Handbook 11:18
I keep track of my thoughts about Stoicism in a notebook that I try to keep near me. Most of its pages are incoherent; containing scattered musings from recent readings or reminders to revisit some chapter or other when I get the chance. From time to time, however, a Stoic author lays out an idea in such a succinct manner that the notes I create from it are practical. Book 11, Chapter 18 of Aurelius' Meditations is just such a usable bit of writing.
These four questions and five reminders are a certain means of regaining a Stoic mindset if we are set off balance by the day's social interactions. Of course, in order for them to be effective, we need a clear understanding of the worldview that informs the exercise.
- What is my relationship to others?
Marcus Aurelius' short answer is, "we are made for each other." The Stoic view is that our highest purpose is fulfilled by serving others. We should seek to do right by everyone we meet, even if they are not returning the favor.
- What sort of person is upsetting me?
Evaluate the person you're dealing with. Aurelius breaks this down into sub-questions: What actions do their opinions compel them to perform and to what extent are their actions motivated by pride? Stoics never expect people with bad information to make good decisions.
- Are they right?!
Check yourself. You could be the one that's in the wrong. Never forget that you are fallible.
- Do I understand the context?
Aurelius reminds us that, "Many things are done for reasons that are not apparent. A man must know a great deal before condemning another person's behavior." Looking back to the question "are they right," the Stoic default position is, "I don't know." It's difficult enough to keep ourselves on a consistent path of virtue, why waste time guessing where someone else is at?
- I also make mistakes.
If we expect any grace from others when we stumble, shouldn't we be willing to give the same to them?
- Life is too short.
"Think...how soon you and your vexations will be laid in the grave." Aurelius didn't want to spend his time angry and impatient when he could, instead, pursue happiness. It's sound advice.
- I am actually disturbing myself.
Stoics hold ourselves responsible for our emotions. As Epictetus put it, "it is not circumstances themselves that trouble people, but their judgement about those circumstances." It's important to realize that we can't control how others act, but we can choose how we will respond. Aurelius reminds himself that, "it isn't what others do that troubles you. That is on their own consciences. You are bothered by your opinions of what they do. Rid yourself of those opinions and stop assuming the worst - then your troubles will go away. How do you get rid of your opinions? By reminding yourself that you aren't disgraced by what others do."
- I am choosing to prolong my suffering.
"Our rage and lamentations do us more harm than whatever caused our anger and grief in the first place." Again Aurelius lays bare the ridiculousness of fuming about another person's actions.
- A good disposition is invincible.
"What can the most insolent man do if you remain relentlessly kind and, given the opportunity, counsel him calmly and gently even while he's trying to harm you?" I sort of love the term "relentlessly kind." If we succeed at keeping a Stoic mindset during every social interaction, then we will genuinely value each and every person we meet. This would have to be unnerving! I'm picturing a salesperson who is speaking nicely but seems to have spite behind their eyes. However, Aurelius isn't counseling a faux friendliness. In fact, he continues, "Let their be nothing ironic or scolding in your tone, but speak with true affection and with no residue of resentment in your heart. Don't lecture him. Don't embarrass him in front of others. But address him privately even if others are present."
We're not going to run out of situations that make these points useful. Emperor Aurelius advised himself to memorize them. You may want to as well. Or, like me, you might choose to carry a reminder with you. I know that when I turn to the nine points of Meditations 11:18, I find it impossible to continue stoking the anger that's in me. I'm reminded of the practical outcomes that are expected from a lived Stoic philosophy. I realize that if I truly believe that all people have value and that we are meant to work together, I can not act against that truth and consider myself reasonable. I suspect that taking a page from Aurelius will work as well for you.
All Aurelius quotes from The Emperor's Handbook, a new translation of the Meditations.