October 21, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
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4. The Stoic ‘Lojong’: A Habit Training Exercise

Stoic principles can help us lead a better life if we apply them in our daily lives. Even when we know this, when the time comes to apply them, we don’t remember them. We know, for example, that many things that happen are not under our control and there is no point in worrying about things over which we have no control.

So when we face a traffic jam (which is not under our control) we should be able to put these two things together and realize there is no point fretting about it. We might as well listen relax and listen to music.

But we don’t. Our emotions take over. We fret, we curse, we ‘catastrophize’ the situation. We become miserable. This is because we forget what we know: worrying is useless when we have no control over at a time when we need it.

The Stoic ‘Lojong’ exercise is designed to make you remember automatically the principle when you need it. (Lojong is a Tibetan Buddhist mind training technique that uses 106 short slogans which the followers practice throughout the day until they become automatic.)

When to use it

This exercise is designed to make it automatic for you to remember a Stoic principle exactly when you need it.

What to use it for

Use it for any Stoic principle which you think would be useful to you, if you consistently applied it to your life. For example, here are some of my favourites. Start with any one of them, or choose your own.

  • Why worry about what I cannot control?
  • No one has the power to make me unhappy.
  • Knowledge is useless if I don’t practice it.
  • There is nothing that I want from anyone.
  • My anger gives others the power to control me.
How does it work

Suppose you fret about minor (or even major) things that go wrong in your life. For example, your favourite porcelain cup breaks. The Stoics advised us to remember that it is just a porcelain cup. Sooner or later porcelain materials will break. So when it breaks, just say to yourself “Well, it is just a porcelain cup.” Then you won’t feel so bad. You can keep repeating this phrase whenever something goes wrong. (Massimo Pigliucci uses a more memorable and light-hearted phrase, “There goes my cup!” whenever things go wrong. You may want to apply this phrase to minor things at first – such losing small things. Then, gradually, apply it to larger losses. If someone you know dies, say “There goes my cup.” You keep practicing this for several months until it becomes second nature to you and you can apply to your job loss or even to the death of your loved one.

Saying “There goes my cup,” rather than “Well, it is just a porcelain cup” might work better because “There goes my cup!” is not only a light-hearted way of looking at losses, but it also evokes an suitable imagery to put your loss in perspective. Here are a few other phrases suggested Pigliucci:

  • What do you want, a fig out of season?
    Use this slogan when you desire something that is not available at the present moment.
  • Why won’t you do the job of a human being?
    Use this slogan whenever you are unwilling to things that should be done, such as getting up in the morning.

You can take any Stoic principle that appeals to you, make up a slogan and then use it as often as you can, until the reaction becomes automatic to you. You can of course use more than one slogan at a time. However, it is probably more effective to practice only one slogan until it becomes a habit. Then add another one until that also becomes a habit. And continue this process, adding other slogans.

Some tips for creating and adding slogans

  1. Make the slogans short. Shorter slogans are easier to remember and repeat.
  2. Make it light-hearted, if you can. A light-hearted slogan relaxes you, so you are more receptive to the message.
  3. Make it evoke an image. Slogans like “There goes my cup!” and “Do you want a fig out of season?” can evoke vivid images in our minds thus making the slogans very effective.
  4. Do not be in a hurry to add slogans. Wait until you make one slogan automatic before adding another slogan.
What is the basis of this exercise?

Stoics believed that a habit is strengthened when you feed it. Walking makes you walk better, running makes you run better. Each time you get angry, it becomes easy for you to get angry again. When you don’t feed a habit, it weakens. If you don’t want to be bad-tempered, don’t feed the habit. Don’t do anything that will strengthen the anger habit. Calm down. Don’t be angry today. Or the following day.

However, we often forget not to feed the habit. When someone provokes you, we automatically respond with anger. Because of this, the anger habit is strengthened, even if we realize later that we should not have responded angrily.

Stoic ‘Lojong’ makes a Stoic principle easy to remember and practice what Epictetus calls a ‘counter habit.’ When you keep repeating a slogan often, when a situation arises where you could use it because t is there close to you. When you use it,  your anger habit weakens. As you keep using it, the anger habit gets weaker and weaker until it becomes just memory of the way you used to react.

In their own words

“Every habit and faculty is confirmed and strengthened by the corresponding actions, that of walking by walking, that of running by running.” Discourses II.18.1. Epictetus [WO]

“Make a bad beginning and you’ll contend with troubles ever after.” Discourses II.18.32. Epictetus [RD]