So last week was Stoic Week organised by Exeter University and I decided to try it out and see whether it could improve my life and make me happier. In this post I want to sum up what I learned.
Firstly I discovered that I agree with a lot of Stoic philosophy. It takes the basic premise of Pantheism – that the universe is in some sense divine and builds a philosophy on top of that which shows a beneficial way to live. I like the fact that it emphasises simplicity and detachment rather than materialism, that it doesn’t imagine weird and wonderful afterlives but encourages acceptance of this life. I like that it encourages contemplation of the universe, compassion for all people and focusing on the present moment. I like that it emphasises the interconnectedness of all things and the importance of personal ethical development. I like the fact that it prioritises happiness, tranquility and equanimity in the face of life’s difficulties. It is a philosophy that makes sense within a Naturalistic Pantheist worldview.
The week involved various elements – daily quotes to ponder, taking time out in the morning to plan the day ahead and how one would deal with setbacks, spending the evening evaluating ones actions during the day, a compassion meditation (similar to Buddhist loving-kindness meditation) and a meditation on having a cosmic perspective. It also suggested exercises designed to help prepare one for life’s problems like short term voluntary hardship exercises and visualising dealing with worst case scenarios in a Stoic way.
I managed to keep to the disciplines for the first 4 days but struggled over the weekend so I had to do the last few days early this week. The thing I found most helpful was the importance of remembering “some things are under our control, while others are not under our control.” Remembering this in situations during the day as well as in planning my day really helped me feel much calmer than I have felt recently. I found myself getting angry or frustrated with situations a lot less over the past week and I really think Stoicism has been a huge help to me here. I also found the emphasis on accepting things will only happen fate permitting, has also been useful – it is important to always focus on doing our best in a situation while acknowledging that the ultimate outcome is not under our control – we should adjust our expectations accordingly – especially about how others behave.
In terms of the future, I do not tend to stick to only one philosophy so I don’t intend to suddenly declare myself a Stoic and that’s it. I do however think I will find it beneficial to research it a lot more and see what lessons I can integrate into my life. I will definitely continue to use some of the morning exercises but I didn’t find the evening ones as useful personally.
For those who are interested, I distilled the basic morning exercises down to the following and it could make a good foundation for Pantheist practice too –
1) Find a quiet place to meditate and focus on your breath for a few minutes.
2) Contemplate the vastness of the universe and your place in it. Imagine yourself slowly rising above your body all the way out into space.
3) Think about that fact that you might meet people who are irritating, unfriendly or aggressive today and realise it has afflicted them due to their ignorance. They are interconnected to you and we are all really one therefore we should love them.
4) Compassion meditation. Imagine a light around you of love, slowly extend it out to people close to you, acquaintances, enemies and eventually all mankind. I like the Buddhist suggestion of saying “may you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be loved” as you visualise each group of people.
5) Contemplate the fact that “some things are under our control, while others are not under our control.”
6) Plan the day ahead and accept that these things will only happen fate permitting.
7) Imagine possible setbacks and how you’ll deal with them virtuously.
In conclusion, I’ll leave you with some of my favourite quotes from the week –
“Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception (the way we do things), intention (the voluntary impulse to act), desire (to get something), aversion (the desire to avoid something), and in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, position (or office) in society, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing.” Epictetus
“Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I might meet with people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious and unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own – not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong. Nor can I be angry with my fellow human being or hate him. We were born for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature: and anger or rejection is opposition.” Marcus Aurelius.
“Seek not for events to happen as you wish but for events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly.” Epictetus.
“It is not the things themselves that disturb people but their judgements about those things.” Epictetus.
“If what philosophers say about the kinship of God and man is true, then the only logical step is to do as Socrates did, never replying to the question of where he was from with, “I am Athenian” or “I am a Corinthian,” but always “I am a citizen of the Universe.” Epictetus.
“I travel along Nature’s way until the day arrives for me to fall down and take my rest, yielding my last breath to the air from which I draw daily, falling onto that earth which gave my father his seed, my mother her blood….the earth which for so many years has fed and watered me day by day; the earth which bears me as I tread it under food and which I make use of in a thousand ways.” Marcus Aurelius.