Stoicism: Month 1 – Stoicism for Tranquility and Appreciation of the Present

The first month of The Ancient Wisdom project will be dedicated to practicing the ancient philosophy of Stoicism.

Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy that is rooted in practice rather than dogma. It is not so much a belief system as it is a life practice system. The fundamental lesson of Stoicism is that there are things outside of your control, and there are things that are within your control.

You should not become attached to things outside of your control. You can’t control how long your friends and family live, or whether your wife will leave you, or whether you will get a promotion at work, therefore, it is silly to rely on these things for your happiness.

What you can control is your beliefs. If you suffer a tragic loss of a family member, you are sad only because you believe you are sad. You may still feel grief, but through Stoic practice, you may learn to continue living in a much more timely period than a normal person.

A less severe example may be your indignation at not receiving a promotion at work. While receiving a promotion is something you can influence, it is not something you can control. If you believe it is something you can control, you will most certainly be disappointed if you worked to receive a promotion and then did not receive it.

A Stoic would say that you are only disappointed because you believe you are disappointed. If you acted honorably when performing your duties, you should learn to be satisfied. If you did not perform your duties honorably, reflect on how you could do so in the future, and move on.

Alternatively, if you do receive a promotion, a stoic would counsel you to reflect that at any time that your fortunes could turn and you could be fired. Do not become attached to your new status and be prepared for a great loss.

Stoicism is a system for living honorably and achieving mental tranquility.

How I will practice Stoicism

When I was doing my research, I realized that it was a bit difficult to pinpoint physical rituals that I could do on my own. There are a ton of mental exercises to perform, but for this project, I want to ensure that my ancient practice is rooted in something physical, as physical actions can influence the mind.

So, in the spirit of Stoicism, I have decided to take a 20-minute ice-bath every night for the next 30 days.

Why?

Mostly because I know how much it sucks.

The anticipation is terrible. Think of the few seconds you hesitate before jumping into a cold pool. It will be like that but a billion times worse. I’m already getting nervous about my first one, which will be tonight.

During my ice baths, I will also implement the Stoic exercise of negative visualization. Negative visualization is the practice of imagining all the ways everything can be worse. I could be homeless, my girlfriend could leave me, my family could die, I could become seriously ill….well, you get the idea.

So, ice bath + negative visualization are the two ancient practices that I hope to reap some benefit from.

What benefits do I hope to achieve?

There are a few benefits I hope to achieve this month.

This first is reduced anxiety.

I’m not a nervous person (at least outwardly), but there are many things I get nervous about.

For example, the Ancient Wisdom Project is already making me nervous. I’m worried that my writing sucks (as I write this draft I realize how out of practice I am with writing). I’m worried that no one will ready it, or that people will read it and leave mean comments on the blog.

I also get a daily dose of mental anxiety when I pull into the parking lot of my work every morning. It’s not that it’s particularly stressful. Everyone is nice and the work is not overly difficult, but pretty much everyday I wonder if this is what I’ll be doing with the rest of my life and how awful it would be if it is. This can probably be categorized as existential anxiety.

The second benefit I hope to achieve is greater appreciation for the present.

I am constantly thinking about the next thing. I’ve been in DC for a year and half now and I’m getting the urge to move. I was at a friend’s wedding in San Diego this past weekend and I kept thinking “Oh man if only I lived here where it’s warm and sunny, I would be happy and everything would be perfect and blah blah blah.”

Here’s the thing, I already lived in San Diego for a year! I was no happier than I am now. I have this escapist fantasy of moving to some paradise where everything would automatically be better without much effort on my part (except the hassle of moving).

I realize how wrong this type of thinking is and I’m hoping a dose of Stoicism will help me be ok with where I am now.

Both the ice bath and the negative visualization exercises look like promising methods to reduce anxiety and appreciate the present. Taking an ice bath will force me to approach anxiety every evening as I fill up the bath tub with cold cold water, and negative visualization will force me to contemplate how much worse things could be.

I have no idea if it will work, but I will report back on my mental state throughout this month.

Stay tuned for my report on my first ice bath.

  • Meister

    When you’re in your ice bath, just think: it could be worse! you could be reading marcus aurelius in your ice bath! oh wait

    • DaleDavidson149

      Marcus Aurelius was incredibly tough to read. Perhaps reading bad translations is the true Stoic test 😉

      • Andrius

        Definitely get a better translation then. Marcus Aurelius is one of those books that is worth reading and re-reading.

        And even though I realise that it is too late, another physical thing you could have done is “poverty days”. Seneca recommends it, it seems it was somewhat popular among rich stoics in ancient times. You would live like very poor people live for a few days – eating very little and cheap food, drinking only water, wearing rough and worn-out clothes, sleeping on the floor etc. This is supposed to help you learn, that physical discomforts are not as horrible as one would imagine. Of course, your ice baths must have shown that too 🙂 But this could be a nice variation.

      • Andrew Edstrom

        All of the translations are horrible EXCEPT the Gregory Hayes translation which flies by in beautiful, common english. It’s super personal, and I actually found it even more impactful than Seneca (though it’s a different thing). Even though this experiment was a year ago, I recommend giving the Hayes translation a chance.

        Super cool blog idea. I similarly was a disciple of the self-help authors you mention (I even graduated high school early to try to start a passive income business for six months). I eventually put their writings aside and turned to ancient wisdom, just like you. I’m finding that Stoic thought exercises and Buddhist mediation are helping me more than any book with a number in the title ever did. Really excited to read about your journey through all of these philosophies!!!!!

        • I’ll have to check out the Hayes translation. Thanks for the rec!

          Are there any specific benefits you’ve noticed from your study of Stoicism and Buddhism?

          • Andrew Edstrom

            The Stoic act of rehearsing the worst case scenario has made me much more tolerant of hardship and disappointment.

            For example, there was a job that I really wanted. I prepared for months for the interview, stayed up late into the night studying for it weeks in advance, and then did an hour and a half long interview where a team of 30 people asked me extremely detailed questions. I did my best, but I didn’t get get the job. Before Stoicism I would have been crushed for weeks, but instead I read Marcus Aurelius as they deliberated and reminded myself “It’s possible you will walk back into the room and they will tell you you didn’t get it.” As I waited for their decision, I came up with a plan for what I would do if I didn’t get it. When I walked in the room and didn’t get it, I was prepared. I just accepted what had happened and started executing my contingency plan. No depression at all.

            As far as Buddhism goes, meditation is a really great way to practice “Living in accordance with nature.” As a self-help junkie, I am constantly trying to think of ways to improve. But eventually I lose track of what problems are actually real and which are made up. It’s just this anxious, directionless scramble to fight imaginary fires. Meditation helps me separate my thoughts about the world from the world itself. It helps tame the mind so it can address the problems that are actually happening.

            I’d say the two work together really well. My default state is obsessing constantly about what other people think of me. Meditation and mindfulness help me catch myself when I’m worrying about other people’s opinions. Then Stoicism helps me deal with that worrying, because it clearly says “Other people’s opinions are not in your control.” Together, they help me refocus on what is in my control.

            Do you find that they help you at all still, now that the experiments are over? Or have other philosophies/religions worked better for you?

          • Great example with the job interview. That’s a perfect application of Stoic principles.

            I also agree with your assessment that mindfulness can help you “catch” yourself in your worry, while Stoicism helps you deal with it. I found that was the case in my experiments.

            Philosophically, Stoicism and the eastern religions/philosophies have stuck with me pretty well. Hinduism, for example, has made me less irritated with others who have very different personalities or views on life than I do. I can see them (and my relationship to them) as part of a cosmic game. Very useful in the modern workplace.

            Catholicism, Islam, and Judaism were more effective when I was participating in them. The great advantage those religions had was their institutionalization. Being able to go somewhere and do something (Mass, for example) was a big plus in my book. The effects lessen if you don’t participate, but I don’t see them as a negative, I just see it as encouragement to participate more.