Last week I wrote a short, over-simplified article about Stoicism and the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus. Stoicism is a worthy philosophy, but does it advise any spiritual practices to help its disciples attain their goal of Virtue?
The answer is, “Yes”; and the modern Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci, lists several of his spiritual practices in a Great Courses video. These practices would also serve Christians, Buddhists, and other spiritual seekers. I have classified them into “morning,” “evening,” and “anytime” categories.
Pigliucci lists only one evening practice. Before bedtime he writes in a diary and reflects on his actions during the day. Which ones were virtuous, and which were not so virtuous? In the latter case, what could he do in future to improve himself? I have long resisted (don’t know why) journaling, which is almost a go-to exercise for Quakers and other Seekers; but I recently resolved the negative feelings around a personal setback by putting the incident down on paper (well, on Microsoft Word). So, I am thinking of taking up reflective journaling and making it a habit by tying it to some other evening habit or routine. Perhaps I can journal immediately after my nightly habit of watching an episode from Netflix.
Pigliucci engages in several morning or beginning-of-the day exercises, not all simultaneously, of course. Occasionally he and his wife get up early enough to see the sunrise, an experience which connects them to nature. Psychologists have confirmed that communing with nature—perhaps walking in the woods or looking at birds soar in the sky—have a calming and spiritually uplifting effect. I can’t conveniently see the sun rise from my house, but I do find it soothing to gaze at the patterns of sunlight that form on the walls of my living room after the sun rises above the houses around us.
Pigliucci also finds it helpful—at the start of his day—to ask himself which parts of the day will be under his control and which will depend upon other people or outside forces. Following Epictetus, he then resolves not to get excited or anxious about what he can’t control. Before leaving his apartment, he resolves to do what he plans to do but—more importantly—to live in harmony with his fellow human beings. Sometimes he meditates on the probability that he will encounter someone who in the past has been unpleasant or difficult to deal with.
I don’t know exactly how Pigliucci performs this meditation, but I can imagine a breathing exercise in which one visualizes a peaceful scene and then transitions to visualizing the problematic person, all the while maintaining the calm that comes from rhythmic breathing and meditation. A related practice is simply to recall that when someone insults you, everyone—in fact—has many faults, and we shouldn’t be overly-concerned if one of them is mentioned.
In the “anytime” category, Pigliucci occasionally plans a week in which he buys nothing except the bare necessities of life, thereby reminding himself not to fall prey to the unhealthy consumerism that afflicts people in this country. Or he decides to talk less. After all, if we speak too much, we’re often not listening deeply to what the other person says. Sometimes he chooses an activity in which to practice moderation. It’s common, for example, to eat too much, eat too fast, or eat too many high-calorie foods. Moderate, mindful eating would, of course, benefit all of us—not just Stoics.
One of his more interesting practices is that of self-imposed hardship. Pigliucci might fast, do without alcohol, or go walking in winter cold while wearing light clothing. The idea is to remember that we can endure hardship, that discomfort is something we will experience and that we must learn to live with. He surmises that tolerating physical pain will translate to coping with psychological and spiritual distress. (For me personally, occasional internet outages produce a restlessness and anxiety that is both physical and psychological.)
I’ll conclude by asking Friends which of these Stoic exercises might be useful for them to adopt? Probably many Quakers are already engaged in “Stoic” spiritual practices. Theologies and philosophies may vary from person to person, but virtuous behavior is much the same for anyone seeking to live a good life.
~ Richard Russell
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