Stoic advice: how do I keep training myself to become a better person?

R. writes: I have started reading about and practicing Stoicism in Spring 2018. However, during these two years I have not always done it to the same extent. When I was spending a lot of time practicing and reading, I had what I think is a good life (applying the four cardinal virtues, etc.). However, often there were periods of time where I read and practiced less, or even not at all. During this time, my life was not good. I fell into what I call "deep/low/pre-depression phases," where I basically completely lacked motivation and interest in life. These phases could last for weeks or even months, but sometimes also just one day amidst otherwise "days of a good life."

What I don't understand is why I (or other people I guess also) fall into these phases. When I'm there, I try to force myself to read Seneca, Marcus or Epictetus (which during those times takes a lot of effort to do), but for some reason it doesn't resonate with me then. I read a bit and think "Yeah whatever" and put the book back. Whereas during the "good" phases of my life I would read the same passage and think "HOLY SHIT YES THAT'S SO TRUE."

During these "deep phases" I do know that if I'd be practicing Stoicism right then it would help, but I can't overcome my attitude to get started. I have also been seeing a psychotherapist during those times, but unfortunately it didn’t help much, or for the long term. Now what I would like to ask you: What would a Stoic philosopher suggest doing in these "deep phases"? In my understanding my faculty of reason is not really existing during those times. Is that something I have to accept? But on the other hand, it would be "in my control" to do something against it. Is my mind then too weak? How could I train for those situations while I am in my "good phases"?

To some extent, we all have those moments. And it's okay. Unfortunately, you don't provide details about what distinguishes the two phases, other than your willingness (or not) to practice Stoicism, but it sounds like you are experiencing somewhat serious periods of low mental activity and reduce willpower, what you call a pre-depression.

People have written about how Stoic practice has helped them during a depression, although Stoicism is a philosophy of life, not a type of therapy. I definitely suggest seeing a therapist during and even before your deep phases. Therapy isn't a panacea, and in fact it is as much a science as an art (arguably, more the latter), so you need to keep looking for a kind of therapy, and an individual therapist, that work for you. And even then don't expect miracles or one hundred percent effectiveness. Depending on the specifics, and of course in consultation with your therapist, you may also consider medication.

But therapy and medication only have the goal of bringing your mind back to a more or less normal place, at which point you still face questions about meaning in life, what to prioritize and why, and so forth. And that's where a philosophy of life, like Stoicism, comes into play.

That said, let's go back to your key question, about practicing during the "deep" phases. As you probably know, the Stoics often drew an analogy between philosophy as the art of life and athletic training. I don't know about you, but I regularly experience both "good" and "deep" phases while going to the gym. During a good phase, I'm all pumped up and ready to go for an intense workout. And I feel great when I finish it. Such phases can go on for months, and they are good for both my physical and mental health.

However, inevitably, the deep phases come as well. Usually they are triggered by periods of stress or unhappiness, which manifest themselves into losing energy and willpower to do things that are good for me. I think, the hell with the gym, let me stay home and watch some television.

But of course, those are precisely the times in which it is of the utmost importance that I get my butt off the couch and go for a workout! So I force myself and do it. I assure you, I do not enjoy it. And I often think along the lines of what you said above: yeah, whatever. But boy do I then appreciate, later on, when the good phase returns, that I stuck with it. Even if perhaps I went less frequently, or exercised less energetically. The key is to keep doing it so that it becomes a habit, through thick and thin.

Another example. During the ongoing pandemic I've been tempted several times to suspend my weekly Stoic exercises of self-deprivation, which usually consist in fasting once a week and (on a different day) abstaining from alcohol consumption once a week. Then I did what Epictetus tells us we should do all the time:

"So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: 'An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.' Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, 'Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?'" (Enchiridion 1.5)

I had the "impression" that it was reasonable for me -- given the stress imposed by self-isolation during the pandemic -- to let go a bit, to cut myself some slack. But then I told the impression: no, my friend, you are not what you seem to be. And, moreover, this was most definitely something under my control, thereby passing Epictetus' "test." So I have kept to my exercises throughout, meaning (at the time of this writing) 85 days and counting. There have been weeks during which the temptation to skip the fasting or abstinence came back, but it was weaker, and I easily reasoned it away.

So my advice is to use standard Stoic techniques like the premeditation of adversity and the philosophical diary during the good phases, to predict and prepare for the deep phases. Then apply Epictetus' approach during a deep phase and try to maintain a minimum of practice. The phase will pass, and you will regain full agency.

That said, you have only been practicing for a couple of years, and should remember that Stoicism is highly self-forgiving. Do not beat yourself up if you cannot muster the energy, or if you skip a few days. Just gently bring your mind back to it and try again. Reflect on what Epictetus says:

"An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise person never has to blame another or themselves." (Enchiridion 5)
By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 12 exclusive posts
12
Writings
By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 12 exclusive posts
12
Writings