As I gave a presentation about my work on compassion recently, I heard myself saying several times, “it’s a practice.” I was trying to emphasize that learning to be more compassionate towards oneself and others doesn’t just happen instantaneously, and that we need to work at it over time, developing new habits.
Then a woman in the audience asked me this:
“You said it's a practice. But HOW do you practice this on a regular basis?”
In other words, how do you integrate your values around compassion into your everyday life? How do you reinforce it, and teach yourself to live up to your own ideals?
A great question. The same could be asked of Stoicism, too, the other pillar of my life philosophy.
(And if you are wondering about the connection between my compassion work and Stoicism: I believe that the common humanity emphasized in Stoic thought is beautifully complemented by the practice of compassion and self-compassion. Both emphasize the same thing: we are all human trying to live our lives with the least possible pain and the most possible peace, while also getting along with the people in our lives, in the most positive way possible. This is a hard, livelong practice because none of us are Stoic sages: As Seneca said, we’re all patients in the same hospital.)
To describe how I practice, I mentioned my long walks and runs, which I use to meditate (seated meditation is good, too). I talked about my attempts to raise awareness in myself, to stop myself when a random thought or first impression appears, and work to make a good and reasonable judgment. (This is also the Stoic practice at the heart of the philosophy. It’s the one that Epictetus speaks of when he says, “[We] should… train for impressions every day,” in Discourses, 3.8.1.)
What I did not bring up in the discussion, and realized after the session was done, is that I also practice through writing.
Writing is a form of the philosophical life for me. I write to make meaning from my experiences. I write to understand what I think, to analyze why some moments offer insights into the whole of existence.
In fact, through writing I’ve learned to value my role as a parent more than ever, because it helped me explore my underlying parenting beliefs and values. It also helped me to realize that some of the pain and struggle I’ve experienced has a deeper meaning—and that in many ways, it has taught me something.
Things as serious as my father’s death. And as minor as my children’s squabbles in the pool.
My family life is not just a laundry list of issues to deal with—it’s where I live my philosophy. And as such, it can (and should) be a source of rich strength.
As my kids get older, far from the baby stage, parenting has become more and more about applying practical common sense and ethical core values. That’s where my Stoic thinking, and compassion training, have served me in recent years. When a tough situation comes along, I’m more able now to take a step back, question the impression, and make a wiser judgment. The big picture and “accord with nature” prevail more often over knee-jerk reactions and high-flying emotions.
And writing about it, from my point of view on this blog, has given me a way to understand and explain some of that, to myself most of all. And I’m grateful for the opportunity and time (snatched between numerous obligations) to do it.
In a way, writing is an extension of the discipline of assent—of thinking clearly and agreeing to a rational interpretation of the world. After all: Once I write it, and especially after I blog publicly about it, I must really agree to it!
The ancient Stoics did write philosophical journals, at least some who had leisure time to make that possible. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations were the thoughts recorded in his personal journal. Seneca kept a journal late at night analyzing his actions daily, and Epictetus told his followers that those who wished to “be a philosopher” should “write down every day” the most accurate philosophical interpretation of the world around them (Discourses 1.1.25).
I wish that all parents could find the time (and interest) to write about their experiences. Not just to record memories for our kids’ future reading or to remind ourselves of what it was like raising a child. But also to frame what we are doing, to understand it better.
This wish extends beyond parents too. Writing things down, and analyzing our own challenges and actions, can help us become philosophical people, realizing that the everyday work we do as human beings is much greater than the sum of its parts.
If you live in the US, it’s tax season. My husband and I have been sifting through forms, receipts, and paperwork of all kinds, preparing to pay our tax bills, all the while using tax-incentivized accounts for childcare, college savings, and retirement.
We do all this to protect our financial well-being. It’s part of our reality: As citizens of the modern world, we need to keep paying our taxes and saving for our family’s future. It’s not just us. Huge industries revolve around financial protections for individuals, companies, and governments.
And yet, in my recent reading of Epictetus, I was reminded of the greatest asset we need to protect: Our ruling center.
In Discourses 3.10, “How we ought to bear our illnesses,” Epictetus shares these thoughts:
"For it isn’t the business of a philosopher to safeguard these external things, his little store of wine or oil, or his poor body; but in that case, what? His own ruling center. And how should he concern himself with external things? Only so far as to ensure that he doesn’t have towards them in any ill-considered manner…. What occasion is there left for fear when it comes to external things, to things of no value?"
It is easy to lose sight of how little external things, especially material possessions, matter in the bigger picture of human flourishing.
The experience of living without luxuries can teach us that. I just recounted to my daughters how when they were very young, we didn’t have the funds to fix our bedroom’s broken windows. We stuffed paper towels and strips of brown paper bags in the warped wood of the double-hung frame, dating back to 1940, that gaped open. Another window was cracked through the middle.
We couldn’t do anything about it, and years went by that way. At night, it was often cold, too, since we were living without central heating. Sometimes I’d wake up with strange dreams, likely prompted by the wind whistling through the glass.
And yet we had some of our most memorable experiences in that two-bedroom cottage with its white picket fence and butter-yellow siding. Our daughters learned to walk there; they learned to talk there. We cooked and hosted our family and friends. My husband and I spent many a late night, after the kids fell asleep, watching movies together from the sofa by our front window. We've since moved on, but haven't forgotten.
Knowing that you can “do without” eases the fear about losing external things that Epictetus speaks of. It was tough. But my own ruling center, along with my principles and the values I aspired to, were what mattered, then and now. The virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control were and are the treasures I hope to gain. I try to guide my children down this same path, too, so that they will be prepared to cherish this part of themselves more than anything.
A version of this post appeared in The Stoic magazine, April edition, published by @TheStoicGym. Please take a look at the whole issue!
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.