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.
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.