Practical Stoicism


I spent the weekend reading a little book about Stoicism and its potential to be practiced in everyday life. Oddly enough, this week is apparently Stoic Week.

I admired the author’s reason for writing his book: to demonstrate that ancient philosophy can be applied to the modern everyday (and should be, for personal improvement, peace of mind, and a nicer society).

There are three Stoical techniques among the others described by the author that I already find myself doing fairly naturally, and which I can vouch for:

1. Negative visualisation

Imagine how it would feel if you lost something you currently enjoy. How would you cope if you lost your computer, your looks, your teeth, your winter coat, your favourite coffee cup, a loved one, your mobility, your ability to read? All nightmares of varying degrees of severity.

Briefly considering these potential losses makes you deeply grateful for what you have (and science tells us that gratitude is healthy).

It’s a measure of antifragility, psychologically preparing you for occasions of real loss. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s a talisman against insatiability, making you less likely to want more than you currently have. I think this technique might be the true engine behind my tendency toward minimalism and is a genuine way to find contentment.

2. Periodic Voluntary Discomfort

I sometimes like to deliberately endure slight discomfort. I’m not into self-flagellation and I’m not into the “no pain, no gain” school of exercise, but I might try to tolerate a slightly ill-fitting shoe before buying a new one; or see how long I can sweat through a summer before switching on the air conditioner; or push myself to walk five miles instead of catching the bus.

It makes you understand what comfort is, makes you more tolerant, makes you less dependent on luxury or perfection.

It makes you appreciate small luxuries wherever they may be, and to take little for granted. If you’re accustomed to drinking tap water with meals, the occasional glass of wine or iced tea is a marvelous treat. If your main form of transportation is walking , a jaunt in a taxi is quite the adventure.

It’s also humbling: why should you have the newest, hippest and most expensive of everything? Who are you, the King of Siam?

3. Consistent Self-Monitoring

To fulfill a social element of Stoicism, Seneca suggests we reflect upon our actions at the end of each day or, better yet, develop an internal self-monitoring agent capable of assessing our behaviour as it happens. I have this. We probably all have it, but it can be trained to be consistently active and to be on the lookout for certain positive or negative traits.

I’m not naturally generous for example, forgetful that sharing and gregariousness are good virtues to have! But my self-monitoring ability alerts me to instances of this now. This doesn’t mean I obey it consistently, but at least I choose to be an arse now.

Stoicism. It’s what’s for dinner.

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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 36. Dark Matter.

Three domestic opportunities for minimalism arise. Oh baby. It’s rare for even one to come up these days since I’m already down to brass tacks (Tacks? Excessive!).

1. Life without microwaves

A microwave oven is something most devout minimalists are proud to be free of, but since I tend to rent furnished apartments there’s usually one around.

When our microwave exploded last weekend, my girlfriend suggested we try to live without it rather than replace it. Music to my ears!

Since I do most of our cooking the old-fashioned way, the only thing we ever used the microwave for was to reheat leftover coffee (a dirty habit anyway). I suspect we will not replace it. Already the microwave-shaped empty space in our tiny kitchen is nourishing my minimalist soul.

2. Eradication of DVD

Years ago, I minimised my DVD collection by jettisoning the cases and filing the discs into a handy DJ case. I now have an alphabetised DVD collection the size of a shoe box. It’s a work of art.

But! I want rid of it. Watching DVDs has become a bore. I prefer to read books for home entertainment these days; but even if you’re happy to watch videos, DVDs are a lousy experience compared to Internet downloads. They jump, they’re often incompatible with newer media software, and you have to humour the obstacle courses of animated menus and the offensive anti-piracy warnings. So I’m giving away my beloved collection of classic British sitcoms to my friend Phil, a Canadian, who likes British comedy and will be new to much of my curated treasure.

3. A blitz on Dark Matter

I’ve wanted to mention ‘Dark Matter’ for ages. Dark Matter is the mysterious, barely-detectable matter that physicists believe accounts for much of the universe’s mass. It’s also the metaphor I use for the unseen stuff shoved into the backs of cupboards. It’s the shameful plaque-like accumulations that minimalists don’t count on their inventories, preferring instead to pretend it doesn’t exist. But there can be loads of it! (By loads, in our case, I mean there was a desk lamp, some empty boxes, and a beach towel — like I say, brass tacks). It’s now no longer with us.

Why the sudden attack on our Dark Matter? We used to keep suitcases under our bed, something which has always bothered me. They would accumulate dust bunnies and the symbolism alone was a headache, so I wanted to relocate them to our closet, hence the need to clear it out.

Now that we’ve courageously tackled Dark Matter, the breath of chi dragons can swirl around us unencumbered as we sleep.

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