Over three years ago, I was new to Stoicism. I had decided to learn all I could about this life philosophy, devouring books and readings to find out how Stoic ideas could reshape my mindset.
One thing that propelled me forward was Stoic Week, the annual event where participants can “live like a Stoic philosopher” for 7 days. It includes free learning materials and an online course. I wrote about it here in 2016, when Stoic Week was in its fifth year.
Mark your calendars for October 7, because Stoic Week is back for 2019!
It’s an opportunity to question your knee-jerk reactions and tap into your sense of reason… To give your ruling center a tune up… To focus on what really matters, and what’s in your power to change. You won’t be on your own: The free online class spearheaded by Donald Robertson offers daily advice and reflections, as well as a chance to monitor progress.
The organizers have this to say about Stoic Week: "Stoic Week is a global online experiment trying to see if people can benefit from following the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. Since its inception in 2012, over 20,000 people have signed up and so far the results have been consistently positive."
For further Stoic Week reading, I’d suggest checking out a recent book that’s on my desk now: A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control, by Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez.
This book could serve as a steady companion for the Stoic Week journey and beyond. It contains a wealth of lessons and exercises—52 weeks’ worth. The book begins with a very short but helpful introduction to how Stoicism can help in everyday life, and continues to focused explanations of the ideas and how to put them into practice. Stories of people’s real-life problems offer examples of how to make Stoicism work for you.
So does explanation of the philosophy in a concise and conversational style, delving into the origin of some of the most foundational Stoic ideas. Take one example. In explaining why labeling things “good” or “bad” is questioned in Stoicism—an idea I’ve grappled with understanding—the authors harken back to Socrates’ thinking:
"Socrates argues that the only thing that can always benefit us is virtue, and the only thing that can truly hurt us is the lack of virtue. But wait a minute, you might say. Surely wealth, power, or fame is also good, no? Not really. They may be used for good or for bad. Being wealthy may be a conduit for doing good for humanity, but it may also be what enables you to do harm. The same goes for all other preferred or dispreferred things. As Epictetus puts it: “What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions.” That faculty is reason, which tells us that virtue is the only true good."
The chapter goes on to offer a challenging exercise in using the words “good” and “bad” to only refer to one’s character, and to change your vocabulary and thinking when it comes to other kinds of judgments. It’s a good way to wrap your mind around a concept that seems counter-intuitive in our money- and power-driven culture.
Multiply that chapter by 52 and you have a lot of wisdom to draw from.
On September 10, 2001, I was scheduled to fly back to the West Coast from New York City. I’d attended my friend’s wedding, and I recall strolling around Manhattan on a warm afternoon with a sense of leisure the day before.
At the airport that morning, I boarded the United Airlines plane normally. But then, with that beautiful late summer day just outside the oval window, we sat stuck on the tarmac for hours, waiting for the go-ahead to take off for San Francisco.
Eventually, people on the flight became so restless and annoyed that they started getting up. The pilot announced that those who didn’t want to stay on the plane could get off and board a later one.
“Air travel has reached a new low,” I remember thinking to myself, a veteran of cross-country flights.
Little did I know. In the wee hours of 9/11, I landed in San Francisco safely. Just a few hours later disaster struck in the form of terrorists on planes just like the one I’d been on.
I’ll never know what happened to those people who got off my flight. Did some of them end up on one of the West Coast-bound planes that were hijacked and crashed by the 9/11 terrorists? Or did they stay overnight and get stuck in NYC when the government shut down all flights after the attacks?
What about their families, their friends, people in their communities? How many people lost someone that day?
Stoic philosophy teaches us that death could strike at any minute and to be prepared. 9/11 happened long before I discovered this approach. I wouldn’t have been prepared in any possible way.
The acceptance of our mortality is a lifelong effort, one that we keep working on every day we are alive. It’s a reality that we’ll never fully understand.
Epictetus was quite sharp in his admonitions about death:
“Sooner or later, your poor body must be separated from its scrap of vital spirit, just as it was formerly. Why be upset, then, if it should come about now? If it is not separated now, it assuredly will be.”
- Epictetus, Discourses, 2.1.17
But it is Marcus Aurelius’ words that I find more helpful as a way to inch towards acceptance. Indeed, many of his writings seem intended to urge himself to embrace the concept of mortality. This one sticks with me:
“That which has died falls not out of the universe. If it stays here, it also changes here, and is dissolved into its proper parts, which are elements of the universe and of thyself. And these too change, and they murmur not.”
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations VIII, 18
It is poetry, but more than that, it is an idea that may give us a shred of hope, or balance. It expresses the unity of all nature. That's central to those who seek to live in accord with nature, the basis of Stoicism. And it reminds us of the constancy of change for us and all things.
On this 9/11, I remember the tragedy, and those who died. I like to think that they did not fall out of the universe.
It’s back-to-school season in my house, and my two kids are each starting at a new school. My family will have a lot to figure out, and we’ll be working on new routines soon. This prompts a question: How do you feel about time-bound routines?
All my life, I have avoided them. I have never really had a very fixed time for doing anything—not even getting to school when I was a student myself.
I was the one who caused my younger sister to get numerous “tardies” to class in high school. You see, I was old enough to drive her to campus, but not disciplined enough to get her there before the 8:10 am bell rang. Lucky for her, she had the benefit of a kind and not super-strict art teacher as her homeroom advisor. She didn’t suffer as many consequences as I did, a senior whose homeroom was led by a lovely English teacher whose patience was so tested that she eventually referred me for disciplinary measure for “excessive tardies.”
I was sent to a series of "breakfast clubs" as a result. (My school formed the model for the large institution depicted by director John Hughes in the 1985 Breakfast Club movie. But in real life, breakfast clubs happened at an excruciatingly early hour on weekday mornings, not during the weekend as shown in the movie. So in a sense, the timing of it was punishment enough for me.)
But even that did not stop me from showing up late some of the time to high school. I did well in many things, but not in setting my bedtime, waking time, time for getting to class, etc. You get the picture.
Now, I’ve organized my life so that at least in some ways, I can continue to control elements of my own schedule. But one of the ones non-negotiables nowadays is getting my KIDS to school and picking them up as needed. I’ve finally grown up enough to realize that making other people late is not OK.
Happily, my husband drives the kids to school most mornings, and as the years have passed, I’ve accepted the fact that you actually have to wake up at a specific time (which means getting to bed at a specific time) to get everyone on schedule, myself included. Driving factors surrounding school, my job, kids’ extracurriculars, volunteering, family needs, etc., keep me a lot more honest with my time these days.
And as I’ve adopted a Stoic-inspired life philosophy, I’ve come to see more virtues in a routine. I might even consider trying to follow more of them.
Ancient Stoics looked favorably on habits meant to cultivate the good. According to Epictetus, “every habit and capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running . . . therefore, if you want to do something, make a habit of it.”
For me, what’s most difficult about a routine is how limiting it feels, how freedom-draining. If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you’ll know that I love autonomy and making my own choices, and allowing others the same ability.
The more standing meetings that get built into my schedule, the more time-bound obligations, the more stressed I feel.
The way to counter that feeling appears, at least intellectually, to be simple: CHOOSE your habits. Find your routine by using your reason and ruling center. Assent to it, and then accept it, rather than constantly experience an inner sense of rebellion and frustration that motivates the lateness, forgetfulness, lack of preparation, etc.
For instance, if I want to keep my job, I need to attend regular group meetings. My boss has set meetings certain days, at certain times. If I did not agree to attend or just didn’t show up, that would make it clear that I didn’t really agree to doing the job. In the Stoic sense, my “discipline of assent” would be deactivated, and I should move on! In my case, I’ve assented, I understand the obligation, and I attend the meetings regularly and contribute as productively as I can.
I think it’s the inner rebellion over losing freedom that triggers a great deal of hatred towards habits and routines of all kinds, not just about school and work. But even small habits can make a difference and I’ve seen it happen with less-consequential examples, like snack foods. At one point, I decided to cut out a range of snacks, to form a new, healthier habit. I stuck with it for a long time and was happy with the results (a few pounds shed!). Several recent books, such as Atomic Habits, have struck this theme: small conscious habits can tremendously change lives.
Because let’s face it: We all have habits and routines, even if we don’t want to name them as such because they are based in chaos. In high school, for instance, my habit was to wake up at the latest possible minute necessary to “get to school on time” (in fact, a gross underestimate of the time needed). Naturally that created problems. I needed a new habit, part of a larger routine of getting ready for school.
As we prepare to start a new school year, both of my daughters are entering new institutions because of their changing grade levels. One will begin high school, and one middle school. We’ll have to get used to whole new routines and new sets of issues—and opportunities. One such opportunity: a chance to find—and choose for ourselves—good habits, to assent to them, and to create a “good flow of life,” worthy of Zeno. (If only it were that easy!)
I welcome your thoughts and comments on habits, routines, school, and work—please share!
Many of us feel under stress, facing competition to “succeed” in a society increasingly divided into winners and losers in terms of economics and social status. To me, much of Stoic practice is about unwinding this deeply-rooted impulse to compete and prove ourselves superior, and to cope the emotions we feel about status.
The work of Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist and Stanford professor, helps to explain how very important this issue is. Understanding what he has uncovered about stress and society can help us find a new path forward both as individuals and as a culture—one that strongly resonates with Stoic practices.
Sapolsky has spent much of his career studying baboons in Africa. Baboons have a strict social hierarchy. Sapolsky discovered that male baboons with low social status, who were picked on and attacked by other males, were suffering from high levels of stress hormones. These biological molecules have a terrible impact, causing a higher rate of a disease.
This linkage extends to other primates, including humans, Sapolsky indicates. Humans, too, crave high social status, and those who lack it, suffer stress and, potentially, disease. Here’s how a WIRED magazine article on Sapolsky summarized this connection:
"The power of this new view of stress — that our physical health is strongly linked to our emotional state — is that it connects a wide range of scientific observations, from the sociological to the molecular… And now we can see, with scary precision, the devastating cascade unleashed by these [stress] chemicals. The end result is that stress is finally being recognized as a critical risk factor, predicting an ever larger percentage of health outcomes."
There is a silver lining to this knowledge: once we understand it, we are motivated to find new approaches. It’s hard to change, however, because our evolution primes us to climb social hierarchies based on strict forms of judgment about each other. We need retraining to practice respect for others, to see the human being behind surface appearances, to respond with reason, and to ignore insults to our egos.
For me, the key is Stoic practice. This approach is an antidote, if we are able to internalize its ideas no matter the consequences. (We should be aware that the consequences of not striving for/conforming to social status can be vicious, as the ancients knew.)
Stoicism offers guidance. A core principle is that we should not jump to value judgments, about ourselves or others. We can pause and question our impression. Recall Epictetus’ way of talking back to our initial reactions: “You are but an impression, and not what you appear to be.” We turn to our ruling center.
Epictetus explained how to handle with insults this way:
"What does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to an insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?" (Discourses, 1:25:28)
Interestingly, certain baboons have also found a way to manage stress—and improve their situation. And it’s remarkably similar to what Epictetus advised.
From WIRED: "Sapolsky found there was a set of personality traits linked reliably with lower levels of stress hormones. One of these was the ability to walk away from provocations that might send a normal baboon into a snarling hissy fit. Interestingly, this less aggressive personality turned out to be exceedingly effective: The nice baboons remained near the top of the troop hierarchy about three times longer than the baboons who were easily provoked into a fight."
If we can conquer our ego-driven and status-motivated reactions, if we can learn to respond to insults “like a rock,” if we can find peace in our ruling center, we too can combat stress and the risks that go along with it. Stoic ideas offer an antidote if we can remind ourselves of their power and benefits, rather than being sucked into the endless competition and status jockeying all around us.
This post first appeared in The STOIC magazine. Learn about it here and see an archive of issues here.
Whenever you see someone in tears, distraught because they are parted from a child, or have met with some material loss, be careful lest the impression move you to believe that their circumstances are truly bad. Have ready the reflection that they are not upset by what happened—because other people are no upset when the same thing happens to them—but by their own view of the matter. Nevertheless, you should not disdain to sympathize with them, at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief. But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.
– Epictetus, Handbook, Chapter 16
I am committed to Stoic principles, but this passage from Epictetus has always been very difficult for me. As a mother, I think of losing one of my children as the worstpossible thing, worse than losing my own life. These “circumstances” would leave me eviscerated.
I know I’ll never be a “Stoic sage” able to handle that kind of loss with equanimity, and in a way, I don’t want to be. Some people in my life are just too important to me—I wouldn’t be the same human being if I truly reached that state of mental discipline. I can’t image the sage-me.
Yet the second portion of this passage is even more important to me and holds a valuable key. “You should not disdain to sympathize with them, at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief.” Indeed. We should all be there for the people in our lives going through pain and loss. Yet Epictetus is very wise to add this: “But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.”
What does this mean? It sounds rather heartless and cold at first, but I don’t think so. It gets at the heart of a thorny issue that I’ve wrestled with before: the difference between empathy and compassion.
A little history here. In 2016, at the same time as a I adopted Stoic ideas, I also became fascinated with the nature of compassion and the role it can play in making us better people. I took a course called Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford University, part of a program combining science (from the Stanford School of Medicine) and meditation/contemplation (with the encouragement of the Dalai Lama).
One of my major takeaways was that while it is possible drain yourself psychologically through an excess of empathy, compassion--when cultivated with care-- is bottomless and, potentially, healing.
Here’s how my compassion training instructor described it. With empathy, you try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If that person is taken over by grief, loss, and sorrow, or other very powerful emotions, you begin to experience those same feelings yourself. You overidentify, to the point where you feel overwhelmed, almost as much as that person feels.
That is sustainable for a short period, say when coping with a colleague’s funeral or listening to a friend describe a divorce or a partner announce a job loss. But when that person is in a very close relationship with you, and is given over to sadness, grief, anger, or other suffering over a long period of time, their suffering can become your own suffering. You eventually find yourself exhausted by it, as it is shared over and over—with one of two outcomes. You might begin to experience the same emotion, wallowing in a pool of difficult feelings that you have no way to solve, or you might decide shut yourself off from that person and feeling after a time, just to survive psychologically.
Either path is not ideal, and it can lead to more suffering. The problem with empathetic pain at one remove is that you don’t even have the tools to help relieve the other person’s pain in any tangible way. It’s up to that person to cope. You can’t handle that for him or her. (This is reflected clearly in the Stoic dichotomy of control.)
On the other hand, if you cut off that suffering person from your life, you’ll miss out on a valuable relationship. And you’ll be hardening your own protective shell in ways that separate you from your common humanity.
Compassion, by contrast, is about accepting that people do experience pain. It emphasizes our ability to be near it, sit with it, and be a comfort and support to that person (or to yourself), without trying to solve it.
When we struggle, we feel alone. This practice combats that in a meaningful way. That's how it can be a source for healing and strength.
With loved ones who are going through grief or depression, it’s a constant balancing act to maintain compassion without falling into the same depths of negative emotion. We can picture ourselves as a loving flame. Those in pain can come close and can hold their hands up to the fiery warmth. In time this may help, or it may not, but it’s the best we can do under difficult circumstances.
With children who are struggling, it can be very hard because we want to help and heal them. Parents tend to think this way: wouldn’t it be better if we could just solve our kids’ problems for them, and thereby make them happy and whole again?
But that’s not the way it works, and as Stoics we can recognize that we have no control over how bullies or “frenemies” treat our children at school, how their teachers reprimand them (fairly or unfairly), what decisions they make on the playground, and what corrosive ideas they pick up from their friends, their classmates, and whatever they see online.
For a long time, one of my daughters was terrified of the movie “It.” I couldn’t figure out why, since we’d never let her watch a horror film about a vicious clown attacking kids. Then one day she admitted she’d seen imagery from the film in an online ad while watching an otherwise-harmless YouTube video aimed at tweens.
There was very little that we, her parents, could do. We tried to explain that no evil clown would come and kidnap her. We tried to explain it was all make-believe, intended for people who like to be scared around Halloween. In spite of all that, she cowered in bed, unable to sleep, images returning over and over again. Sometimes she’d run to our room, saying quickly, “I’m scared.”
I would sit at the edge of her bed, saying, “You’re OK. Everything is fine. I’m right here. We’re with you. We love you. We’ll do whatever we can to protect you.” That was the best I could do. I gave her a hug. And asked her to try to be strong. After months passed, she slowly conquered her fear and slept better.
Try compassion. The combination of knowing you can’t solve other’s problems with a loving heart is a powerful approach, and a solid support for our kids and our families—one not dependent on judging them or needing to repair them—can go a very long way.
Compassion is a muscle we can exercise. If you are like me, at first, it will feel really odd not trying to fix other people. But after a while, it feels even more loving and supportive to simply be there and to care.
This post summarizes three classic compassion-based meditations. The last one, Tonglen, is considered an advanced, challenging Tibetan Buddhist visualization practice—you breathe in darkness and suffering, and breathe out compassionate light.
Perhaps we could all work up to expressing this kind of compassion by allowing ourselves to sit with those going through hardship and pain. The goal: to just be with other people, sharing a sense of common humanity, offering steady support and a touchstone of tranquility. I will aim to do that. And I hope others could do so for me, too.
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.
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.