Stoicism: Day 8 – Should I take colder or longer ice baths?

I mentioned in my previous post that, while the ice baths are not easy per se, I do not fear them like I did before I started my month of Stoicism. Yesterday’s ice bath was about the same as the previous days.

My friend, who has been kindly commenting on my posts, asked

I wonder if the Stoics had philosophy surrounding increasing difficulties of a practice.  Say you get used to your 15-minute ice bath towards the end of the month.  Is it worth increasing the difficulty somehow then? “

That’s a great question, the answer to which is, I’m not sure.

There are two types of goals (there are more, but humor me).

There are positive goals, in which you aspire to achieve something. Improving a race time, getting a promotion, getting an A, etc.

These generally require you to take positive action and your external state ends up being improved in some capacity.

Then there are negative goals. These are goals that are of a subtractive nature, or goals achieve by what Nassim Taleb calls via Negativa in his book Antifragile. Instead of aspiring to be happy, you aspire to remove unhappiness from your life.

In the case of the positive goals, systematically increasing the difficulty of your training or practice is important. If you want to improve your marathon time, you cannot do your training runs at the same pace forever. You must increase the difficulty. Cal Newport discusses the concept of deliberate practice and deep work extensively which are highly appropriate for positive goals.

The Stoics’ primary goals are to want only that which is in your control and to achieve tranquility. Achieving tranquility seems like a positive goal, but it is really a negative goal as they write more about avoiding things that will disturb your tranquility.

Here’s where it gets tricky. The Stoics mention a variety of practices that can help you achieve tranquility and to want only what is in your control. Some of their practices include

  • Fasting
  • Minimizing alcohol consumption
  • Deep study of philosophical works
  • Wearing rough clothes
  • Working in noisy and distracting conditions
  • Avoiding people who are negative influences
  • Avoiding speaking about your achievements

There’s quite a few of them, but out of the practices I mentioned, several are opportunities that are afforded to most people in the course of their daily lives. For example, if you work in a cube, there are plenty of distractions that could prevent you from working. You can use that as an opportunity for Stoic practice. Or if you want to avoid speaking of your achievements and minimizing alcohol consumption, you can do this at the next company happy hour or outing with your friends. Applying Stoic training to everyday situations, you can learn to avoid things that disturb your tranquility.

Combined with some intentional deprivations and hardships (like my ice baths),  the aspiring Stoic would have a fairly complete system for learning how to achieve tranquility. You don’t need to be a masochist.

I disagree with those who strike out into the midst of the billows and, welcoming a stormy existence, wrestle daily in hardihood of soul with life’s problems. The wise man will endure all that, but will not choose it; he will prefer to be at peace rather than at war.  – Seneca