I took my final ice bath and completed my Stoicism month yesterday. There were no balloons or anything, but I celebrated the occasion quietly in my mind. I think Seneca would approve.
Did my month of ice baths and negative visualization help me achieve tranquility and greater appreciation for the present?
It’s hard to say. I certainly don’t walk around in a Zen-like state of calm and constantly proclaim how wonderful everything is.
Things still annoy me. When someone cuts me off on the highway the instinctual angry feeling still pops up. However, the next action I take is to invoke a Stoic exercise or principle and calm myself down.
I still take things for granted and don’t appreciate everything I have. My job still feels silly and meaningless on many occasions. However, I can take a step back and see that it’s still a good job that allows me the space and energy to take on projects like this one. No 80-hour workweeks here.
Here is a list of positive things I’ve observed over the course of my Stoicism month:
- I reduced the number of times I get anxious pulling into my parking lot at work
- If I get annoyed, my thoughts immediately jump to Stoic wisdom as a remedy, instead of lingering on the annoyance
- I have not missed a single day of writing, nor have I missed a workout
- I don’t fear cold water any more
- I think a lot about how my life could be worse than it is
- I constantly notice the amount of excess and consumerism we are exposed to in the US
- I take advantage of everyday activities to think of Stoic principles (movies, sad news, etc.)
- I fantasize less about travel and moving somewhere tropical
- I think more frequently about how silly or inconsequential most things are and how silly it is to worry about them.
- I think a lot more about what it means to live virtuously, instead of thinking about things I want
Here is a list of areas where I feel Stoicism falls short:
- Stoicism is lonely. Because there is no “Church of Stoicism,” you’re doing this on your own
- Though there is some talk of higher power and goodness, the focus tends to be on avoiding negative feelings and thoughts, not achieving some form of transcendence. This gets you quite far and may be sufficient, but still, it feels as if something is missing.
- It only partially channels your ambition. I still find myself fantasizing about writing a best-selling book or getting a billion readers for this bog, and it competes with my ambition to live virtuously and be a good person
Certainly, many of the shortcomings that I observed are probably explained by the fact that I only immersed myself in Stoicism for 30 days. Had I extended the experiment to a year it might actually turn out to be a very complete life system.
Overall, I am impressed by the results of daily ice baths and contemplation of Stoic wisdom. It has done infinitely more to improve my state of mind than reading top ten lists about reducing anxiety or fantasizing about quitting my job and traveling the world.
Is this better than the wisdom of the Internets?
I have a theory about why modern advice falls short in the areas of anxiety reduction and appreciation for the present. Most of the advice offers some good tactics, but they lack a comprehensive philosophy for viewing the world.
Take this article on “Top 10 Tips to Reduce Anxiety.” It prescribes a number of tactics that would probably work if implemented correctly: staying busy, exercising, and avoiding watching news will work to an extent But they don’t give you a framework for understanding the nature of the life and the world which makes the advice seem hollow and more difficult to adhere to over the long run.
Stoicism teaches you that the highest good is to live according to Nature, and that desiring things or trying to control things that are not within you control will cause you to work against your Nature. The rest of Stoicism is a footnote. They are incredibly useful footnotes, but still footnotes.
Stoicism is much “stickier” as a self-improvement system than the collection of blog posts and psychology books written in the last twenty years.
Practice and Belief
One of the goals of The Ancient Wisdom Project is to show that you don’t need to “believe” in philosophy or religion to benefit from it. Though Stoicism has relatively little “religion” in it, there is still talk about God and Nature and the soul, concepts that don’t really make sense if you come from a more modern, secular background, like I do.
I’m not sure there is a God or such thing as the soul, but over the past month I’ve developed a greater understanding of those concepts. It’s not an intellectual understanding. It’s more of a feeling. When I was practicing negative visualization and thought about all the crappy things in the world, it was hard not for me to see all the good in the world as well: people helping and taking care of each other, being charitable, risking themselves for the sake of others. It makes me tear up and you really feel something in your soul and you feel there is some sort of divine goodness in the world, the best word for which is God.
I developed a sense of what God and the soul are only because I forced myself to practice Stoicism. If you are an atheist or secular person and hear a religious person talking about God, you might just politely nod and think the person is misguided or even dumb. If you challenge their belief, they will only be able to explain what they mean in similarly opaque religious terms that you won’t be able to comprehend and thereby confirming your original suspicions that believing in God is like believing in the tooth fairy.
However, if you immerse yourself in the practices of a religion or philosophy, you will develop a more intuitive understanding of what a religious person means when he or she says “I believe in God.”
Based on my month of Stoic practice, I’m convinced that practice is the only true way to develop this understanding.
Your Stoic Experiment
I don’t know what will work or not work for you if you want to practice Stoicism. The elements that were crucial for me were
Daily physical discomfort – I took daily ice baths but you may find something else uncomfortable that you can do every day.
Reading and re-reading of Stoic texts – I used the following three books the most
Incorporating Stoic mental exercises into daily life – I used
- Negative visualization – good to implement during commutes or periods of solitude. Think about all the terrible things that could happen to you, and the terrible things that happening to others right now.
- Considering the nature of things – I’m not sure if there is a term for this, but when something or someone annoys you, try to put it into context. If someone insults you, you must think of them as simply words and that it is only your perception that bothers you
- Cataloging things into spheres of control – When something worries you, think about whether its in your control. The number of readers my blog has is not within my control, but the effort I put into writing is. Therefore, I should not worry about the former, only the latter.
Reflection via writing – I wanted to make my project public so I had to write, but the act of writing, whether for yourself or for others, is helpful.
Would I do it again?
In fact, I am going to continue with the mental exercises throughout the course of the experiment unless something more effective pops up.
I consider myself a rational person, and Stoicism places a high value on reason and rationality. Though the philosophy does mention souls and Gods and such, you can ignore those parts and still easily understand and apply the rest of the philosophy (though you might find like I did that you will begin to understand the concepts of the soul and God).