Ingraining Stoicism with a Meditation Journal

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A bowl with fire coming out of it representing Logos, the spirit of logic and reason and the Force pervading all things. Just to clarify it's logical nature, the background has the Logic equation "(A∧C)→B". The bowl is placed on the side of a mountain to represent the world and all the difficulties in it. This image is for articles in this blog relating to Stoic philosophy.
Possibly the most time-honored of all the ingraining techniques used in Stoicism is the use of a meditative journal – of which the most classic examples are the twelve books written by the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, in the last decade of his life.
This article is cross-posted. It is also available on my Virtual Stoa.
Stoicism is a very practical philosophy – and as such, gaining a mere theoretical understanding of the philosophy is not sufficient as a goal of Stoic training. It is essential to make the philosophy a part of you – and to be able to invoke and make use of it whenever it is needed. As such, certain practices are needed in order to prepare yourself for exactly that – practices that I refer to as “ingraining techniques”.

Different people are different from one another in various ways – and as such, the exact same practice of ingraining techniques will not be optimal for everyone. There may even be a few people who can do well with just one ingraining technique – but I suspect that most will do best with a combination of more than one such technique.

As far as how long they have been around – ingraining techniques vary from those devised in modern times to those that may, for all we know, have been practiced all the way back to the time of Zeno of Citium. However, one of the most time-honored and revered of the ingraining techniques is the keeping of a meditation journal. Some teachers even teach it as though it were the one ingraining technique. I, of course, believe this to be a mistake – and I believe so for reasons already mentioned in this article. However, it is a technique which, even though very few if any people would do well to practice it as their sole ingraining technique – many, if not all, would be very wise to use it as part of their combination of ingraining techniques.

The most well-known example of a meditation journal is that of twelve volumes kept by the emperor, Marcus Aurelius, during the last decade of his life. It also is, for many modern Stoics, the primary source-book on the philosophy. The fact that the same document serves both of these purposes is far from a coincidence – but is very much a result of the structure of the exercise done in this journal. The first chapter of Aurelius’s journal is basically a gratitude list – and is therefore instructive to us only by means of example. However – the rest of the document is a repository of advice on how to live the good life as a Stoic.

But Marcus Aurelius never intended for his journal to be published. That decision was made by others after his death. This raises the question of who the intended audience was of all the great wisdom in his book. The answer, of course, is himself – specifically, his future selves, beginning with his immediate-future self. And in what capacity did he write this advice? He wrote it as his present self (well – present at the time of the writing) drawing upon experience and lessons inherited collectively from his earlier selves.

A lot of emphasis is given in Stoicism to the Examination of Conscience – where at the end of each day (sometimes not even waiting that long) you review your actions of the day and learn whatever lessons are to be learned from it – and then let the person whom you were while committing those actions go, for the version of you who lived that day is now dead – and a new version of yourself will rise in the morning. Many people even think this to be the kind of exercise that a meditation journal should contain.

However, while Marcus Aurelius almost certainly did this too, we do not see it directly practiced in his journal. It is indeed possible (even likely) that this process might have informed what subject-matter he would cover in this journal whenever he’d sit down to write in it – but you never see in it stuff like “Today I allowed myself to get angry at X, forgetting that he is my brother” or “Today this and that happened to me externally, but I managed to avert being distraught on account of it”.

Furthermore – there is danger in combining the meditation journal and the Examination of Conscience into a single exercise – that being that it can promote an unhealthy attachment to the journal. After all – the very medium on which the journal is kept, as well as the hands with which to write it, are externals – and therefore, according to Stoic teachings, not things to which you should strive for attachment. And though there is a traditional practice of reviewing your day’s actions at the end of the day, you should also not be intimidated from doing so on a moment-to-moment basis, without having to reach for something on which to write the matter down. The day-in-review at the end of the day is definitely a practice to be encouraged – but limiting the Examination of Conscience at the end of the day runs the risk of you forgetting things that you would have remembered had you also done the Examination of Conscience on a moment-to-moment basis. Furthermore, it increases the consequences that will fall in the event that you forget this evening session – and, especially if you limit yourself to doing it in writing, you also increase the probability that you will forget this evening session. Furthermore, the Examination of Conscience can be slowed (and not in a good way) by the process of doing it in written format.

It is best to do the Examination of Conscience in your mind – and when you are done, if there are any thoughts on the matter that you feel must be committed to writing, to do so in a place separate from your meditation journal. This way, you can devote the meditation journal itself to the kinds of exercises that Marcus Aurelius demonstrates by example in his – which for the most part was articulating philosophical advice for himself.

Some may wonder – what was the point of writing down this advice if the journal wasn’t intended for publication? If he had that advice to give, surely he already knew it – and he could, therefore, just as well pass it on to his future selves by mere memory. Well – for starters, if he did read his own Meditations (which is indeed possible) it may have refreshed his memory on matters that were getting hazy, or remind him of things that of late he had been overlooking. But even if he didn’t go back and read what he wrote, there would still be the advantage that by writing his thoughts down, he articulated them in a way that he couldn’t by merely remembering them mentally. It helped him clarify them and bring them into focus. That is what makes a journal of this kind such a powerful ingraining technique.

One question, however, remains. These Meditations were written in the last decade of Marcus Aurelius’s life. I could be wrong (and welcome comments with more information on the matter if I am) but I believe it was significantly longer than a decade before his death that Aurelius turned to Stoicism. So how did he ingrain the philosophy in himself up till the time that these volumes begin?

For starters – without a doubt, the meditation journal was not the only ingraining technique that the Philosopher Emperor used. He surely practiced other techniques as well – at least some of which are described in his journal. Then there is also the possibility that the Meditations that enlighten so many Stoics today were not the entirety of his journals – but merely the last decade’s worth of them (again – if anyone has any information on the matter, please feel free to use the comments section to provide it) and that those who made the decision after his death to publish his journals for some reason only published the last decade’s worth.

Why would they publish the last decade’s worth of Aurelius’s journals and leave the rest to be forgotten? If that is what in fact happened, the possible reasons are boundless. It could be that the last decade is all they had access to – or it could be that everything prior to the last decade was deemed less worth the effort to publish (which would have been much more effort at the time, centuries before Gutenberg, than it would be in today’s digital age). And there are various reasons why the last decade of his journals might have been seen as more worthy of publication than what preceded them (if anything did). For starters, if he spent years using this ingraining technique, he would surely gain experience – and therefore, over time, his writing would be more refined. Furthermore, a lot of the content of earlier journals may have been redundant – covering issues that he would cover again during his last decade.

At any rate – the fact that the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius that we have today only cover the last decade of his life does not in any way prove that he only used this ingraining technique in his last decade – but merely proves that that is all we have today of it.

And likewise, even though it is unlikely that anyone will get good result using a meditation journal as their sole ingraining technique to the exclusion of all others – I would say that those who can get good results without also keeping a meditation journal are also few and far between.

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