Start As You Mean To Go On

I have recently found myself drawn towards the Stoics. I don’t want to be one, but some of their ideas – controlling what you can and letting go of what you cannot – just seem such a sensible way to go about things that I cannot believe I haven’t tried it before.

Stoicism is an ancient philosophy of ethics. Doing the right thing and living the good life in harmony with world about you are central to stoic way. As with much Western philosophy Stoicism was founded in Greece though, arguably, its most famous exponent was not a Greek but was in fact the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Through the Stoic practice of self-restraint and respect for other, Aurelius acquired the reputation of a philosopher king. He would certainly have stood out as such qualities were certainly less obvious in many of the emperors that both preceded and succeeded his reign.

His collected writings – known now as ‘Meditations’ – are an examination of his life and role in the world was one of the first published example of what is now termed ‘self-help books’ and is still widely read.

Today I tried for the very first time to follow a guided Stoical meditation session. The person leading the session began by explaining how we tend to try to make ourselves happy by seeking satisfaction in obtaining the ‘thing’ we want. However, this approach almost never works because once we get ‘it’ and momentarily fill that gap we swiftly find something else to desire that subsequently take its place. The meditation was entitled ‘Negative Visualisation’ and suggested that the solution to this on-going issue of desire and dissatisfaction was not to seek happiness in the things you don’t have but to try to recognise it in things you already do. One way to teach yourself how to do this is to occasionally imagine losing something or someone – your job or your partner – and exploring how this makes you feel. If it sounds simplistic (and a little grim if I’m honest) – a bit ‘count your blessings’ – that’s because it is. Life is essentially very simple, we just like to complicate it.

The guiding principles behind stoicism are referred to as precepts. They are not rules or laws as such, rather than dissuading us from a particular behaviour through the threat of punishment, a precept merely invites us to accomplish our duties and to ultimately fulfil our human responsibilities to ourselves and to those around us. The specific number of precepts is unimportant and in my research I have found reference to any number though the range 4 to 10 seems most popular. Again, I must remind you that these precepts are not like the explicit laws of the biblical 10 commandments or the implicit rules contained within the 5 pillars of Islam. They are a general scheme intended to help us regulate behaviour or thought.

I am actually something of a fan of resolutions at new year. There is something appealing about making new starts, in resolving to change something in ones life and the turn of the year/decade/century seems an appropriate point on which to do so. I realise that there are many such occasions in life and that essentially January the 1st is just an arbitrary point within the abstract concept we call ‘time’. Indeed, my birthday, due to the more personal significance of the date, might be a more appropriate time for this activity and I agree – I also make certain resolutions then as well – there really is no limit on the number of time we do this as far as I am aware. The big issue isn’t with the number it is with the type of resolutions that are generally made – they tend to be too specific and thereby too easy to break. What’s more, the reasons behind our failure is all too often something that is beyond our control.

For example, one new year I promised myself I would practice yoga every day for a year (! I know, I think I may have revised it quite quickly down to a month). I only needed to find 15 minutes in each day, how hard could that be? Well it turned out that there was much more to this than just my allotted time on the mat. First off, I had to be dressed appropriately so once I had showered and adorned myself in outdoor clothes it was a pain to change back into leisure pants and vest. In addition I had other members of the family who insisted on using the room I normally practiced in for something else. Worse still they wanted me to do something with them in the only window I had available to me that day! How inconsiderate can you get? Inevitably I failed.

Not all of my old resolutions met with such abject failure. At the turn of the last millennium I gave up smoking and, thanks to the significance of the date and the simple maths involved, for the subsequent 15 years, 3 months, 23 days, 14 hours and 38 minutes I knew precisely how long it had been since I last had a cigarette. Clearly a success until I started smoking again but by then only I recalled that I had given up in the first place so no one cared that my resolve had broken because no one remembered that I made such a promise in the first place.

So, this year I made no resolutions and instead I drew up a short set of precepts that I could use to guide me through the next twelve months and beyond. I am writing this a full year on and I feel quite proud of how well I have adopted and absorbed them into my life. I am now confident that I can use them most years with a few tweaks here and there.

This is what I wrote down as my new years precepts:

  • Try not to drink during the week at home when there is no good reason to do so and if I do have one not just lapse into a session.
  • Attempt to avoid eating snacks at home i.e. bag of nuts Friday at the pub
  • When possible eat food prepared at home for lunch so spend some time working out good things to eat but if I don’t manage it try not to use it as an excuse to eat crap
  • Keep an eye on portion size!!!!!
  • See if I can find a way to create some space for regular meditation and yoga whilst realising that the benefits of both can be found in other activities like walking the dog.
  • Instead of continually consuming the fruits of other peoples artistic expression, be creative in the evenings – cook something, record something, write something or take a picture of something
  • Plan other activities on Friday and Saturday evening in order to facilitate some weekend days off drinking.
  • Be kind to yourself – there will be times that prevent any of this coming to pass. It might not be down to you. If it is deal with it, if not accept it – move on regardless.

Most of this, if not all, is self-explanatory and I do intend to expand on some of these initiatives in other essays but I do want to draw your attention to a couple of points.

The most obvious thing, to me, in these precepts is that I feel the need to address my alcohol consumption. I suspect, given the ‘popularity’ of ‘dry January’ – whereby participants agree to abstain from alcohol for the whole of that month – I am not alone in this post-festive-season activity. The difference in approach is subtle – both initiatives have at their heart an intention to reduce the amount of alcohol consumed. I enjoy a drink and the challenge, and probable inevitable failure, of total abstinence might just have the effect that I ditch all the restraint and make no further attempts at reduction. Psychologically, it’s an all-or-nothing scenario versus an attempt to introduce some balance. So far the balanced approach is working.

Equally I want to make some changes in my diet without actually going on an actual diet. A have-my-cake-and-eat-it-and-not-put-any-weight-on-as-a-result situation if ever I heard one! As with my alcohol consumption target, I want to balance healthy eating with the occasional treat of a snack at the weekend. Again this seems to be working well for me. But, and this is the really important part here, if I am not so successful with this strategy it is ok. I am being kind to myself and recognising that I am not in control of all situations and therefore I cannot be held totally responsible for the times when things go awry. As Elvis Presley once said, “when things go bad, don’t go with them”. Come to terms with it and move on.

This might, to some, appear to be muddied thinking and the lack of any clarity of intention makes it wishy-washy and ineffectual. They are right. This is a whole other way of regarding myself. I am not a project with a series of tick-boxes that, once checked off, marks some sort or progress. There is no end goal, no final moment of triumph, in life.

We liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiive then we die and that all important biiiiiiiiiiiiit in the middle is where ‘i’ become.

By setting these precepts and being kind to myself regardless of how well or how badly I follow them, I am approaching life in a manner that will surely make me more accepting of other people and less judgemental of their attempts at becoming?

We might start with a particular set of intentions but we are not necessarily defined by our beginnings. If we find that the way we are going isn’t working then we have the power to change it. This really is that simple – control what you can, accept what you cannot.

This then is my plan and in subsequent essays I will look at some ways I can help it towards fruition.