Sunday, January 29, 2012

Stoic Practice

Partly for posterity, and partly because I have to return this book to the library, I wanted to write a little about some of the tools and practices the Stoic teachers recommended for their students.

Negative Visualization

The practice of negative visualization was employed by the Stoics for a few reasons.  The first reason was to rob the loss of the things we care about of their ability to harm us.  Because we care about the things and people that are near to us, the loss of them has the ability to cause us a lot of hardship.  "Misfortune weighs most heavily on those who expect nothing but good fortune."  By contemplating the eventual loss of the things we own, we prepare ourselves for life afterwards. 

The second reason was to counteract the very human tendency towards hedonic adaption.  What this means is that we are insatiable.  The accumulation of things does nothing to stop the desire for more things.  You can see this clearly when someone's lifestyle becomes more expensive to maintain every time they get a raise.  Because this would extend into perpetuity, regardless of how much they earned, it is clear that the acquisition of things never stops the desire for more things.  Contemplating the loss of our possessions can have the affect of causing us to desire what we already have.  This helps prevent us from taking posessions or relationships for granted.

Negative Visualization can be performed formally as a meditation practice, and/or it can be utilized at various times during the day.  After a conversation with a family member, it may be helpful to quickly consider their loss and what that would mean to you.  A reminder that our friends, family, possessions, and our lives are all temporary and fleeting helps prevent us from taking them for granted.

Understanding and Contemplating the Trichotomy of Control

As discussed in previous posts, this goes back to focusing only on those things that we have control over.  There are three categories of things that we can consider taking action against.  The first subject is made up of those that we have no control over.  The second we have some control over, and the third we have complete control over.

We should spend no time worrying about those things we have no control over.  This does not prevent us from being prudent.  I live in an earthquake-prone area.  It is smart to plan ahead and have water and canned food available in case power gets knocked out for an extended periods of time.  Aside from preparation, there is no point in worrying about an earthquake happening sometime in the future.  It will or won't based on factors completely outside of my control. 

The things that are completely within my control is where I focus my attention and energy.  I have complete control over what goals I set for myself and the actions that I take to achieve them.  For those things that I have some control of, I can change them to be internalized, which of course makes them entirely within my control as well.  I cannot control if I will win my next tennis match.  I can control that I am properly prepared, that I play as hard as I can, and that I play to the best of my ability.  Internalizing goals changes the level of control from "some" to "all." 

For example, my goal is not to get a raise, but to do everything I can that would deserve a raise, including asking for one. 

I recently had an interview with a potential client where we discussed the possibility of my representing their product line.  My goal was not to be offered the job, but to honestly and accurately outline my experience and skills, explain to the best of my ability the ways that I thought I could be successful, and to effectively show that I had a history of helping companies like his.  Of course, doing these things (of which I have complete control) give me a better chance at being hired as well.


Stoics believed that, rather than wanting events to confirm to our desires, we should make our desires  conform to events.  Said another way, we should want things to unfold the way they happen.  This should not encourage a form of apathy or resignation, as Stoics were not fatalistic in regards to the future.  Rather, they were fatalistic in regards to the past and present.  In short, they believed that it was possible for us to act in a way that affects our circumstances in 5 minutes, 10 minutes or a decade from now.  However, the past is past, and the actions and events set in motion years ago will have the effect that they will.  My failure to look both ways before crossing the street may have led to me getting blind-sided by a car and losing the use of my legs.  Bemoaning that past act is, of course, natural, but also a waste of time.  Moving forward, my actions can only affect the future.  Nothing I do, say or think will take away the accident.  In short, the Stoics taught that it was a waste of time to "imagine if" something in the past did or did not happen.  Things happened the way they did, and now we are where we are today.  Our job is to do the best that we can from our present state.


In addition to merely thinking about the loss of our comforts or luxuries, Stoics actively practiced their loss.  This could take many forms, including going shoeless, fasting, wearing light clothing in winter, etc.  There were three benefits of this practice:
  1. By undertaking acts of voluntary discomfort, we harden ourselves against misfortunes that could (will) happen in the future.
  2. By periodically experiencing minor discomfort, a person becomes confident in his ability to withstand major discomfort if necessary.
  3. Finally, going without of course helps us appreciate what we have.  Namely, by experiencing discomfort, we will better appreciate whatever comfort we do experience.

The Stoics recommended a bedtime "active meditation" where we review our day.  This is quite different than the Buddhist form of meditation, where we attempt to empty our mind.  Instead, this was more of a report card based on our actions and emotions.  Did we judge things or events in their proper context and importance?  Did we allow our tranquility to be damaged by external events?  Did we not only experience anger, but allow it residence in our heart for longer than necessary? 

William B. Irvine offers the following checklist:
  • Reflect on the day's events
  • Am I practicing the psychological techniques recommended by the Stoics?
  • Did I, for example, engage in negative visualization?
  • Did I take the time to distinguish between those things over which I have no control at all, and those things over which we have some but not complete control?
  • Was I careful to internalize our goals?
  • Did I refrain from dwelling on the past and instead focus my attention on the future?
  • Did I consciously practice the art of self-denial?
  • Judge my progress as a Stoic
  • Have I stopped blaiming, praising or censuring others?
  • Do I blame myself instead of external circumstances?
  • Am I noticing fewer desires?
  • Is my philosophy consisting more of action than of words? (what matters most is not our ability to spout Stoic principles but my ability to live in accordance with them)
  • Am I experiencing less negative emotions?
  • Am I spending less time than I used to wishing things could be different?

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