November 6, 2020•1165 words
I have experimented with other exercises, but journaling is my primary Stoic exercise, although I journal a variety of ways.
One of the better starting points (not historically Stoic, but influenced by Stoicism) is the philosophical meditation routine from the The Philosopher's Mail, although I personally bring more Stoic elements into it by, in addition to the questions listed there, I ask what the different experiences say about what I value, whether these values concern virtues/vices or externals, and what virtues and vices do apply.
Although I think it clear that writing was an important element in ancient Stoic training, explicit instructions are lacking. The best references I know of are Marcus Aurelius's Meditations as an example of such writing, Epictetus's Discourses I.1 and II.1. There is also ~~some Seneca I am failing to dig up right now.~~ Seneca's letter 84.
Other journaling ideas, some Stoic (or at least related to Stoicism), some not (repeated from an earlier comment of mine):
- Following the examples in the first chapter of the Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, pick something or someone you admire or for which you are grateful, and list the reasons why, being specific.
- Pick a philosophical or ethical principle you agree with but do not reliably live by (from Stoicism or elsewhere), and rephrase it in your own words. Think of this as launching an advertising campaign targeting yourself. Just as commercial advertisements use assorted tricks (repetition, association, etc.) to generate impulses to buy things, have your rational mind use the same tricks to generate impulses to follow your principles.
- Think of a person, real or fictional, whose wisdom and good judgement you admire. Imagine that they have just watched the way you spent your day, then try to write a letter of advice from their point of view to yourself. Note that you don't necessarily have to agree with what you write; the additional perspective, even if you reject it, can help you gain perspective.
- Think about what you value, from the perspective of looking at your whole life. (See the life values inventory of the VIA survey of character strengths) Go through every thing you did during the day, and think about how it relates to these values.
- Write a letter of thanks to yourself for things well done.
- If there is something you have done that you regret, write a letter of apology to yourself. (See here for some guidance on what it should contain.) If it includes promissory an or restitution parts, make concrete plans. Then write a letter of forgiveness in response.
- Pick an emotionally charged situation from your life, and give a detailed account of it in emotionally neutral language, maybe from the point of view of an alien anthropologist.
- For a morally or emotionally challenging event (either recently experienced or likely future), list what character strengths or virtues are most relevant to handling it well, and what you think it would mean to handle it well exhibiting those strengths and virtues.
- For a morally or emotionally challenging event, list what impulses and gut reactions you have, what beliefs about what is good and bad they imply, and then consider which are true goods and bads, which are preferred or unpreferred indifferents, and which are neutral indifferents. Always refer back to your actual global values (see above).
- Use self-monitoring and quantified-self tracking techniques to support any plans you might make that arise from things listed above (letters of apology, etc.) (Edit: See Ben Franklin's virtue log or assorted self-monitoring exercise in the Stoic Week booklets.)
- Imagine a realistic future, say 10 years from now, in which things have turned out well, in which you have achieved what you want while exhibiting a character of which you can be justly proud. Write a detailed account of this future, and the events between now and then.
- Imagine a future in which you have been unlucky, but have always acted in a way you admire, and give a detailed account.
- If you are worried about something, write out what you are worried about in an organized, systematic way. Relate everything back to your core values, virtues, and character.
- Write out of list of situations in which you personally find emotionally or ethically challenging. Think about what triggers the response you want to avoid.
- Imagine it is one, ten, and 30 years from now. Write out what events of today you think you will remember then, and how important you will consider them to be. Write out how much someone 100, 1000, and 5000 years from now will know about your day today.
- Think about the people you encountered today, or are likely to encounter tomorrow. Imagine what they want, fear, etc. Think of one or two small kindnesses you can do for them, and make plans to do them.
- Go back to the most recent political or ethical argument from a book, editorial, etc. that you agreed with. Carefully write out the premises and conclusions, reducing the argument to syllogisms. Then, go through the list of fallacies, and write out attacks on your argument, as strongly as you can, considering each fallacy, starting with the strongest you can find.
- For an opinion or non-fiction book you are reading or have recently read, create an outline, and for each section list what you think the author thinks are the most important points in each section. List them, and evaluate them using the grid of disputation, then back up your rating in writing.
- For a work of fiction (written, TV, movie, etc.), list the characters. Imagine that each could "take over" your life for a day, preserving their own temperament and judgement, but limited to your body, skill, resources, and knowledge. How would each have lived your day? Which do you admire most?
For more on classical writing exercises for moral development, look up books on progymnasmata, for example the collection of translations of ancient sources by Kennedy.
These exercises share many characteristics with physical fitness exercises.
- Just as physical exercises will never mean you are immune to injury and disease, and never result in infinite strength or endurance, these exercises will never make you a sage. However, it's better to be fit than not.
- Don't try to do too much at once, or expect too much at once. Be wary of injuries, disillusionment, and burn-out from over-training.
- Balance variety and routine. Cross training is good, but sustained effort is needed as well.
- Sometimes, particularly when addressing an injury or illness, a mentor is needed. Someone in generally good health can "go it alone" with a modest exercise routine. Someone with an injury is better off with a physical therapist. A novice training for a triathlon might benefit from a coach.
- When you stop working at all, you lose much of what you gained.
Source: Keeping a Stoic Journal