Last week I continued a discussion of the Stoic methods of inner-discipline (what’s popularly called spiritual practice nowadays).
Number one is Write and Reflect in the Morning. The second is Focus on Your Goals. The third is Take the Long View and Practice Letting Go. The fourth is Practice Self Control. Today I will conclude with the final two.
5. Go on Retreat in your Own Mind
I have to admit that I’m baffled when friends talk about going on retreats. Rather than the bucolic fields that brochures and ads would have us imagine, for me retreats are mostly exercises in learning new schedules and routines that interfere with my writing and meditating.
I have long followed the advice of the Stoics: don’t be like “an eye that searches only for green things,” but live as closely as possible to a schedule every day and relax all the time.
When I teach meditation or creative writing to beginners, the first thing I point out is the need for a firm schedule. I was taught this discipline by my own teachers, and I have seen over and over that the meditators who meditate and the writers who get writing done are those who make themselves meditate and write at a particular time with specific rituals—anything from brewing tea to making coffee to lighting incense to sharpening pencils or cleaning a computer screen.
A time and a place and a regular routine are essential. Otherwise, the little lazy voice that always seems to say “oh, please, not today!” wins out.
As an emperor who spent much of his reign on the front lines of war, Marcus Aurelius knew a thing or two about distraction. And clearly he succeeded in finding time to both write and meditate. He wrote this:
Many seek retreats for themselves. Places in the country, by the sea, in the mountains. We want these. But this is a common mistake. You can retreat into yourself anytime. There is nowhere quieter. Nowhere are you more free. Tranquility is nothing more than the good ordering of the mind.
Go on this retreat constantly and renew yourself. Develop a set of brief and basic principles so that, when you return to them, they will cleanse your thoughts. Then, return to doing what you must do. (Meditations Bk. IV. 3)
Don’t get me wrong: if that writers retreat or that meditation center looks juicy, go for it. But remember Marcus’ advice: “You can retreat into yourself anytime. There is nowhere quieter. Nowhere are you more free.”
If you hope to get better, you’ve got to stop saying, “If I leave time for thought, I will starve to death.” Isn’t it better to starve than to survive in agitation? Peace of mind has a cost. (Handbook 12)
Yes. “Peace of mind has a cost.” We like to think that our own time is unique in its busyness and distractions. In some ways it is. Yet, in essence, as the practical exercise of the ancient Stoics show, the human mind has always been an unruly patient. The Stoics are also there to tell us that we must do it. As Marcus put it:
Those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy. (Meditations Bk. II.8)
In his essay “On Anger,” Seneca reports his daily practice:
After the lamp is out and my wife and I have said goodnight, I parade the whole day in review before me and repeat all that I have said and done. I hide nothing from myself and leave nothing out. Why should I be afraid of any of my shortcomings, when it is in my power to say, “I pardon you this time—see that you never do that again!”
Seneca anticipated what became Step 4 of the Twelve Steps: “made a searching and fearless moral inventory.” I underline that after this thorough self-examination, Seneca concluded by saying, “I pardon you this time.”
Another good practice for bedtime is remembering with gratitude the good things of the day, because, as Epicurus pointed out, “By forgetting the good that has been, we become instantly old.” (Vatican Sayings XIX)
The Stoics were under no illusion that their methods were easy. But doing the difficult work—every day—produces results. Epictetus said,
Illness slows the body but not the will; disability impedes the body but not the will. Remind yourself—no matter what happens—every impediment stops something . . . But not your will. (Handbook, 9)
He also said,
Remember—you are an actor in a drama you did not write. It may be a short play; it may be a long one. Beggar, cripple, king, average sort—whatever your role, act your best. Your task is the acting of the part. (Handbook, 17)
Perhaps the best summary of what is gained by Stoic practices is by Seneca in “On the Shortness of Life:”
Why do we complain about Nature? She has shown herself to be kind—life is long, if you know how to use it.
But one person is possessed by a greed that is insatiable; another by a dull devotion to useless tasks; one person is besotted with wine, another is paralyzed by sloth; one person is exhausted by an ambition that always depends upon the decisions of others; another—driven on by the greed of the trader—is led over land and sea by the hope of profit; some are tormented by a passion for war and are always either bent upon inflicting danger upon others or concerned about their own safety; some there are who are worn out by voluntary servitude in a thankless attendance upon the powerful.
Many people are kept busy pursuing good luck for others, or in complaining about their own luck. Many, with no fixed goal, are forever changing, inconsistent, and dissatisfied, roaming from one plan to another. Others have no firm principles to direct their decisions and time takes them while they nap and yawn.
The ancients were clear about this summary of human folly: don’t do that.