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.
Can Stoic practice help you live a happier life? I say yes, and I've been writing about why.
I’m happy to highlight two recent posts featuring my work on Stoicism and happiness, and a free upcoming online event that can help anyone interested learn more about how to "live like a Stoic."
The first post, "Stoic Happiness in this Fleeting Moment," is a piece I contributed to the Modern Stoicism blog as part of a series on Stoic ideas and happiness. Please take a look if you haven't already done so!
Also, if you'd like to test your Romance language skills, some news: an Italian translation of the same article appeared as a post in The Notebook, an Italian language blog, where I’m known as “La Mamma Stoica.” (Thanks to the blog's author for translating and sharing this.)
Last, I'd like to spotlight Stoic Week. Every fall, the Modern Stoicism group offers a free chance to follow along with online educational material that helps you "live like a Stoic" for the week, and then to reflect on it afterwards. This year it begins on October 1. I recommend making the effort to try this if you can, even for just a few days. Participating in Stoic Week helped me start to internalize the practices of this highly practical philosophy!
Last week, Modern Stoicism published my guest post on Stoic Parenting in the Age of Distraction. If you haven't seen it, please check it out. If you already have, thanks!
The post is my take on staying focused on what really matters - as parents, modern Stoics, and technology users. It's not an easy task in our world filled with distracting devices and competing demands.
My story begins with my dad, who had remarkable powers of concentration. I find it much more difficult than he did, but every day is an opportunity to practice. I try to squeeze in dedicated periods of concentration. The more I remind myself to be present, the more I'm able to focus on the people and projects I truly care about.
In case you are not familiar with it, Modern Stoicism is an excellent source on applying Stoic philosophy to our lives today. Writers for the blog explore a wide range of interpretations of Stoic thought. The group also organizes the annual Stoicon conference and Stoic Week.
This is part two of my conversation with author, trainer, and teacher Donald Robertson. Read on for his thoughts on Stoicism and parenting, and on how Stoic philosophy can help us question our own values.
Add to the discussion in the comments… and share your questions and suggestions for future posts and interviews.
Q: How can Stoic philosophy help me become a better parent? And how should I begin teaching Stoic values to my kids?
A: The best way to teach is through role modeling. Stoic philosophers did lecture and wrote books, but they also thought that the best thing to do is to set a good example. To start by improving our own character.
Accepting that our children and our students are not under our direct control is critical. Even Socrates had bad students who went off the rails. Well, he said, I don’t control their minds. All I can do is provide a role model. Sometimes it’s in the hands of fate.
We need to work on accepting these limits and not getting frustrated with them.
The ancient Stoics were a lot tougher on kids than we are today. They believed that character is instilled through exercise, sport, and work.
Today, many parents express their love through consumerism, buying toys, taking kids out to places for entertainment. But in Stoicism, it’s more important what we give them to DO, rather than possessions. The way we invest our time is a more appropriate gift – and to have them do things that require effort. We develop virtue through hard work.
Q: Parents today get competitive about their children’s success in academics, sports, careers, everything. How can we re-think that with Stoicism?
I live in quiet Nova Scotia. That’s not as obvious here. The competitiveness of parents varies a lot.
As Stoics, our goal isn’t to give our kids skills that would make them externally successful. Stoicism challenges some of our culture’s values that way. Stoics believed that what they were proposing should upset people. It’s an “epistrophe” in Greek–like a U-turn. Part of that is questioning consumerism and narcissism.
Stoics would say – what is Success in LIFE? Will a degree and a good job make our children good people? Is our priority to make our children materially successful, or more rounded people?
Sometime pursuit of wealth is obstacle. Epictetus says you can’t serve two masters. If you pursue a successful career, you can earn wealth. Some career paths suck you into a certain type of character and values, which is not necessarily good. External success is not same as virtue.
Instead, we should ask: Do our children have wisdom? Integrity? Are they true to themselves? Are they living in a way consistent with rational values?
Q: Interesting. Could we apply these same questions to ourselves, as people and as parents?
A: Yes. In Stoic week, we do an exercise known as “values clarification.” It’s Socratic. Rather than saying “these are the values,” this approach asks you a bunch of questions. It asks you to figure out what you care about and reflect on those values. The Socratic method can expose contradictions between our beliefs and actions.
Another approach is the double standard strategy. You think about what you want for yourself. Then you make a list of what you admire most in other people. Then you ask: What if I did what I admire in others? What would it be like to apply that in practice?
We have a Stoic model for this: Marcus Aurelius. In Book 1 of his Meditations, all he does is describe others’ virtues. It’s a huge list.
As parents, we could ask: What do you spend most of your time doing with your kids? What are things you most admire about other parents? What if you could do what they do?
Q: Let’s go back to the source material for a moment. Much of the language and emphasis in ancient Stoicism is masculine. Discussions focus on “the wise man” and on “manly” attributes. How did the Stoics of Greece and Rome view women?
A: Stoicism’s founder, Zeno, wrote a book called The Republic that we only have fragments of now. It was a critique of Plato’s Republic. He said that everything would be equal in the Republic. That implies no slavery, and that men and women would be equal.
Ancient Cynics also seemed to have believed there was an equality between men and women. The idea was shocking then. And maybe only Cynics would think this—they were known for saying shocking and anarchic things.
We believe that Cleanthes wrote on the thesis that virtue is the same in men and women, but we know nothing about what he said.
Then 400 years later, Musonius Rufus’ lectures argue that virtues are the same in men and women, and he argues that girls should be taught philosophy as well as boys. Women should be able to practice philosophy.
Next time: ANGER rears its ugly head. And it is indeed ugly, as Donald Robertson tells us in part three of our interview. Leave any questions or thoughts in the comments!
Learning to Surf: Mindfulness for kids
The presidential election is over now, and a lot of people I've encountered have been unsettled by it. They are uncertain about our country’s future, and so am I. All around me, parents are struggling to explain the election, and the words and ideas of the president-elect, to their kids.
In this stressful time, practicing mindfulness is more important than ever. That’s true for both adults and kids. After completing the exercises of Stoic Week—many focused on becoming more aware of my own emotional responses to events in my life—I decided that I needed to do more than just work on myself.
So I began to put together a session for children. I plan to lead mindfulness training at a Girl Scout meeting for third-graders in a couple weeks. From there, I will look into other ways to share both Stoic ideas and mindfulness training with grade-schoolers and middle-schoolers.
Here’s a preview of what I’d like to tell students. (The surfing metaphor is inspired by a passage in the book Sitting Still Like a Frog by Dutch mindfulness teacher and therapist Eline Snel.)
A baby cries when she is hungry or wet or tired or just feeling bad. She giggles when she’s happy or something seems funny. It’s all pretty simple. As we get older, our emotions get more complicated. But the good news is that we can become more aware of our feelings.
During each day, we have a lot of feelings, like frustration if we can’t get an answer correct in math, or anger if our friend wants to play with someone else at recess, or joy if we get a basket in basketball.
Some feelings are pretty tough to handle. We worry about people being mad at us. We are upset about having a fight with someone. We think about how we might not be good enough at something in school or in our activities. We remember seeing bullies pushing people on the playground and wonder, what if that happened to us? It’s normal to have worries and feelings that rise up inside us and make us feel bad. But what I’d like to remind you is that YOU ARE NOT your feelings – you just have them for a while. (Or put another way, one of my favorite notions in mindfulness: “Don’t believe everything you think.”)
What if we could imagine that our feelings are like a giant ocean of waves?
Then we could learn how to surf. Surfing is a hard sport because you can’t really change the waves. You can’t make them bigger or smaller. You can’t stop the waves. It’s like that with our feelings. We can’t make our emotions change, nor can we fix or stop the people around us from making us feel a certain way.
But we can practice surfing. You can start seeing your own reaction to problems and issues and you can try to stop and think. You can notice what makes you upset or frustrated. And instead of having an automatic response, take a deep breath. Take a pause, and keep breathing, as you work on building the balance of a surfer.
From there, I'd ask the students to pay attention to their breath, doing a simple meditation.
This, I think, is one way of conveying the essence of Stoicisim. We all need to become skillful surfers of life’s emotions, of its ups and downs. I can’t wait to see how the kids respond!
Get a slogan and say it often
We’re surrounded by advertising slogans. “Think Different.” “Just Do It.” “Eat Fresh.” “Stronger Together.” “Make America Great Again.” They get embedded in our brains. Heck, I still think of “Where’s the Beef?” pretty often despite its age (and general annoyingness).
How about some philosophical slogans instead?
That way, if they get stuck in your head, they might at least do some good.
I’ve been reading the 2016 Stoic Handbook as part of Stoic Week, a period of contemplation and an effort to “live like an ancient philosopher” being pursued by several thousand people worldwide. (If you register on the group's site, you should be able to download the handbook yourself. It offers some excellent instructions for using Stoicism in your life, including a week of readings and meditations.)
One of the first things that struck me in this book was a set of sayings from Stoic philosophy, words that can help people recall the philosophy’s basic precepts in shorthand. Here are a few to put to use starting today.
Here are a few more from me, inspired by Stoic teacher Epictetus’ writings:
These would make good Post-It reminders. Or they could pop up on our phones (Stoic iPhone notifications, anyone?)… Many of these are nearly short enough for Twitter.
The more you say them, the more they seem to sink in. It’s not exactly daily affirmations, but it could be a powerful way of reframing things in our chaotic world. To me, they rise above inspirational office posters, and help me access important ideas quickly.
Stay tuned for my next post. I’ll start to explore why these maxims matter today …and how they get at the root of Stoic thought.
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.