From Vol. 2, Issue 12, December 2020
The Benefits Of Stoic Journaling
Is journaling useful?
Is journaling a useful Stoic practice? Some modern Stoics have certainly found it to be helpful. They’ve often taken inspiration from Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations was effectively his own private journal in which he reflected on issues on his own life. What can a modern Stoic learn from Marcus’s journaling practices?
Retreating to pause and reflect
First, we might ask what Marcus was doing when writing his Meditations. Fortunately, he tells us in one extended passage (4.3) where he seems to be describing his process.
It is, he says, a way of retreating from the world into himself, for a brief moment of pause and reflection. The purpose of this retreat is to give him some space to repair himself before returning to the fray of everyday life.
While in this retreat, Marcus says that the task is to repeat fundamental truths by which he wants to live his life. The two truths that he thinks are most important are that we are troubled by our judgments, not things themselves (an idea from Epictetus) and that everything is continually changing (an idea from Heraclitus).
Repeating the core ideas
That tells us something about the purpose. But how does one go about it?
It seems pretty clear that Marcus thinks that what we do is repeat these core ideas to ourselves multiple times. There are numerous passages in the Meditations that begin with something like ‘Always remember’ or ‘Think continually’ (e.g. 4.36, 4.40, 4.46, 4.48). This repetition is essential if we are to ‘dye our soul’ (5.16) a new colour.
Just as a piece of cloth needs to be dipped in dye multiple times to come out with the new strong colour, so do our minds need to hear these key ideas again and again for those ideas to embed themselves. That’s why it can help to write about core ideas many times, and that’s also why there’s a good deal of repetition in the Meditations.
Picking your judgments apart
Another thing that Marcus seems to be doing in writing his thoughts down is trying to pick apart his own judgments about events in his own life. Someone is rude to him; this is likely to make him angry, so he reminds himself that nothing bad has actually happened, and there is no good reason to react badly to it. Marcus writes about these sorts of cases, presumably because it was an area in his life on which he needed to work. The same goes for concern about his own death or his posthumous reputation. These things presumably did cause him concern, and he tries to address his judgments on these topics by writing them down and reflecting upon them.
Two main ideas
In all this, we can see the legacy of two key ideas in Epictetus: One, to separate out events from our judgments about them and to write down our reactions to situations can be a useful way to try to do that. Two, to embed ideas that we want to live by, by creating new habits through the process of continual reminders to oneself. Writing these ideas down is a concrete, physical way of trying to do that.
Three key takeaways
There are three key takeaways:
- Taking some time out to journal each day is a temporary respite from the world, a period of reflection and repair.
- Repeating key ideas on paper can be a useful way to help embed them in your mind.
- Reflecting on paper about events in your own life and how you reacted to them can help separate out those events from your judgements about them.
John Sellars is Reader at Royal Holloway, University of London. John Sellars’s latest book is Lessons in Stoicism (Penguin).