Here’s How to Practice Stoicism and De-Stress — Even if You’re a Complete Beginner

“Cognitive journaling” is genius.

Courtesy of marcovarro / Shutterstock
Courtesy of marcovarro / Shutterstock

The evening meditation is one of the most useful Stoic exercises. It is described in some detail by Epictetus in Discourses III, 10, and of course one can imagine the whole of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations as the output of this practice. It’s rather intimidating to take Marcus as your model here — the goal is not to produce the sort of prose that has rightly impressed posterity for almost two millennia. The objective, rather, is to achieve exactly what Seneca describes: the peace of mind that comes from having honestly examined our deeds of the day. We should reflect on what we did, learn from our mistakes, and orient ourselves toward better conduct in the future. This last point should be emphasized; the goal is not to beat yourself up about your past failings, as Seneca specifically mentions — he “pardons” himself, which is in line with modern psychological research emphasizing the importance of self-compassion.1 But the pardon has a caveat: that he try not to repeat his past moral failings in the future. After all, the past is not in your control (short of inventing a time machine), so being upset by it would go against the dichotomy of control. Rather, the point of reviewing your actions is to learn from your mistakes.

The Epictetian version of the evening meditation suggests that we ask ourselves three specific questions: Where have we gone wrong? What have we done right? What is left, as yet, undone? The goal of the first question is to humbly learn from our mistakes. The purpose of the second is to practice shifting our natural propensity away from erroneous thinking and toward right thinking, by taking time to acknowledge when right thinking has occurred (although note that vanity is not a Stoic virtue). The third question is future directed, aimed at preparing our minds for the tasks ahead and focusing on what is important as well as on the best way to accomplish it.

Psychologist Maud Purcell summarizes the benefits of what today is known as journaling: It clarifies (to yourself) your own thoughts and feelings, it allows you to know yourself better, it reduces stress (especially when writing about negative emotions like anger), it helps you tackle problems more effectively, and it makes it easier to resolve your disagreements with others.2 Or as the Stoics would put it, journaling makes you a better person, capable of learning and better equipped to deal with challenges and, as a consequence, more serene when facing such challenges.

Interestingly, research by psychologists Philip Ullrich and Susan Lutgendorf explored the effects of journaling in response to stressful events when people focus only on their emotional reactions, as contrasted to when they process emotions only by thinking about them.3 Their results were clear:

Writers focusing on cognitions and emotions developed greater awareness of the positive benefits of the stressful event than the other two groups [including a neutral control]. This effect was apparently mediated by greater cognitive processing during writing. Writers focusing on emotions alone reported more severe illness symptoms during the study than those in other conditions. This effect appeared to be mediated by a greater focus on negative emotional expression during writing.4

In other words, Stoic meditation, which today we call cognitive journaling, turns out to have anticipated modern psychology by a couple of millennia.

1. Neff, K. D., K. L. Kirkpatrick, and S. S. Rude, “Self-Compassion and Adaptive Psychological Functioning,” Journal of Research in Personality 41, no. 1 (2007): 139–54.

2. Purcell, M., “The Health Benefits of Journaling,” Psych Central, psychcentral.com/lib/the-health-benefits-of-journaling/.

3. Ullrich, P. M., and S. K. Lutgendorf, “Journaling About Stressful Events: Effects of Cognitive Processing and Emotional Expression,” Annals of Behavioral Medicine 24 (2003): 244–50.

4. Ullrich and Lutgendorf, “Journaling.”

Excerpted from A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control © Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez, 2019. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold. theexperimentpublishing.com

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