What is it like to live like a Stoic philosopher?
To follow their practices?
To entertain thoughts that lead to a more peaceful and happy life?
If you want to find out but don’t know where or how to get started, then Stoic Week might be for you.
Organized by the team of Modern Stoicism, Stoic Week is a free-of-charge online course that guides you through an intensive week of Stoic practice.
I discovered Stoic Week when I wrote about Stoic principles and running, decided to experience it for myself, and signed up.
Structure of Stoic Week
The course is set up via the platform “Teachable.” Since you can download the handbook as MOBI, EPUB, and PDF files, you can also follow the course offline.
The week starts with an introduction. You learn about the main Stoic ideas and the most important Stoic philosophers.
During Stoic Week, you practice Stoic philosophy at least three times a day.
Every day starts with a text for a morning reflection. Midday, you complete a Stoic exercise and the day concludes with an excerpt of Stoic writings for evening reflection.
Using the course platform, you can discuss your experiences and thoughts with fellow students.
You are also encouraged to observe your thoughts and feelings during the day. The provided “Stoic Self-Monitoring Record Sheet” is an excellent tool you can use for this practice.
Each day has its own topic, and the overarching theme of the whole week was “Stoicism during a pandemic: Care for Ourselves, Others and our World.”
What I Learned During Stoic Week
Monday: Making Progress
The week started with thinking about making progress towards better caring for yourself, other people, and the environment.
I realized that I put self-care last most of the time and that it needs a higher priority in my life.
This was becoming very clear when I met a dear friend that day. It struck me that he engages in many self-care practices and makes his own well-being a priority.
He also reminded me to not put work before my own health and private life.
The text for the morning reflection was a gentle reminder for me to continue my path of self-employment that I started earlier this year:
“The wise person does nothing that he could regret, nothing against his will, but
does everything honourably, consistently, seriously, and rightly; […]
…. and refers everything to his own judgement, and stands by his own decisions. I can conceive of nothing which is happier than this. – Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 5.81”
It felt like a reassurance that is ok and right to say no to overtime in my job. That it is right and ok not to do my co-workers’ work anymore and set the boundaries I needed.
I am still committed to excellence in my job.
However, not at the expense of my health, my true passion, and my social life anymore.
The Stoics teach that happiness is not dependent on outer circumstances.
Rather happiness depends on one’s attitude and actions. According to the Stoics, living a “virtuous” life leads to happiness. And a happy life is characterized by a balance between caring for oneself and others.
I have yet to find that balance.
Wednesday was all about the value of virtues.
You were invited to think about the virtues you aim to express and what qualities in a human you value. According to the Stoics, the virtues are essential for happiness. In contrast, external things, such as job title, wealth, and even health – are not.
In my morning reflection, I thought about how I could practice the Stoic virtues – wisdom, courage, justice, and moderation – daily. I found that it is still a somewhat abstract concept for me.
During the day, minor work-related annoyances tested my resolve to express only good qualities. I became aware of how small things irritate me and how quickly I get upset when I feel I am not being taken seriously. When evening rolled around, I was drained. I didn’t take the ten minutes for the evening reflection. I noted in my journal only the following thoughts: “I think I applied most of the virtues today. But I don’t know. I feel tired.”
The Stoics believed that we are all connected and that caring for each other is a natural instinct. We should see any human as a relative.
As an exercise to practice this thought pattern, the “Circle of Hierocles” was introduced. You had to envision several circles. You are in the center, and the next circle encompasses your family. The outer circles contain friends, neighbors, and, eventually, people living in foreign countries. The goal is to reduce the circles so that the outer ones have the same importance to you as the inner ones.
I found the concept easy to understand. For years I have been approaching life with an attitude that we are all part of one big family.
However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I am more isolated and feel less part of a community.
Instead of going to the office daily, I now work from home.
Friendships have become quieter and more distant.
Whereas before I spent 90% of my waking hours surrounded by people, I am now alone for at least 90% of my day.
However, when COVID-19 hit Berlin, I saw how many people feel a sense of belonging to a community that encompasses more people than their relatives, friends, and work acquaintances.
People organized neighborhood help and went shopping for strangers. Most people comply with safety measures. Not only because they want to protect themselves but also because they care for each other.
Many realized we all have a responsibility for each other’s well-being.
As Stoic Week went on, I became more and more aware of my emotional reaction to other people’s behaviors and current events.
When COVID-19 started to spread in Germany, my emotions were all over the place. My anxiety levels reached new heights.
I was already familiar with the concept of focusing only on the things that one can control, but I didn’t always practice it. Now I decided I had to if I want to better manage my anxiety levels. I created a document where I outlined things I can control and those I cannot.
During the first few weeks, I referred to it often.
Stoic Week’s Friday theme brought a new level of awareness and understanding. I realized how many of my “negative” emotions arose because I judged a specific situation and other people’s behaviors.
And finally, the concept of the interconnection between virtue and happiness made more sense to me.
It was this passage of the Stoic Week Handbook that I reflected on a lot:
“In effect, you were thinking that your happiness (what really matters in life) depends on being giving status or importance by other people and annoyed when this did not happen. Remind yourself that happiness does not depend on other people’s valuation of your status but on what you do for yourself to develop the virtues and put these into practice.”
I had to admit that I rely a lot on other people’s opinions about me for my happiness.
I also tend to complain and judge events and other people’s behavior more than I want to.
My diary entry for that day reads: “I think I have been doing a lot of blaming and complaining the last months. I was so overwhelmed with everything going on […]. Still, I have also become better the past weeks in just taking action. To remove myself from the situation, change things, and do what I can. I need to practice non-judgment more. Seeing things and events more rationally.”
Saturday was all about developing resilience.
I was already familiar with the concept of ecological resilience. In the environmental context, it is defined as an ecosystem’s capability to absorb disturbance and reorganize and recover quickly.
Similarly, having resilience means you can withstand difficulty and recover from adverse situations.
The Stoics built resilience by visualizing future events that we like to label as “bad.” It was the preparation for these events and reduced anxiety about them.
For Saturday’s midday exercise, you followed this Stoic practice and had to imagine an event that you label “negative.” Then you observed your emotions while reminding yourself that nothing is inherently bad. Instead, we get upset because we judge and label events as negative or harmful.
I used this exercise to deal with fears about the near future that surfaced during the spread of COVID-19. I visualized another possible second lockdown and the possibility of losing my job.
To my surprise, the exercise was indeed helpful.
I became more comfortable with the thought of living the winter months more isolated again. I mapped out strategies in case our company would have to shut down.
Stoic Week concluded with the topic “Nature.” It reminded us of our interconnectedness and that we are an integral part of nature.
This was not a foreign concept because of my passion for ecology and my training in environmental sciences.
However, a new idea was that we should see the universe as giving us the moral norms for leading a good life. Order, structure, rationality, and providential care are qualities the Stoics attributed to the universe.
Inspired by the midday exercise instructions, I thought about how every action I take produces ripple effects.
These effects impact not only “nature” or “the environment” in my classical understanding but also other people.
Feeling resentful, angry, or complaining would harm both me and my environment. By becoming aware of these emotions and behaviors, I can reduce negative ripple effects. Similarly, I thought about increasing positive ripple effects by practicing more kindness and showing more love and gratitude.
Did Stoic Week Change Me?
As Stoic Week went on, I found it harder to make time for the daily exercises and develop my thoughts. However, I found the week to be an excellent kick-start for practicing Stoic philosophy consistently.
Since the completion of the course, I have been reading Stoic philosophy daily. Either a text of one of the Stoics – Seneca’s “Letters,” one passage of Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” or a blog post.
I only begin to understand Stoicism. But I find it a practical philosophy that helps keep me grounded when life feels chaotic or my emotions feel too overwhelming. When I read some Stoic wisdom daily, I am calmer. Small annoyances don’t irritate me as much. I am more patient with other people and myself.
And the effect I am most grateful for: I don’t worry as much anymore.