Learning how to reflect like a Stoic will give you many benefits as you go through life. Reflection is an important part of our process to improve ourselves and become better people. There are, however, some things that we need to know if we want to do it in an effective way. This article will address those issues as we break them down. To do so effectively, we will ask for guidance from Marcus Aurelius. Who left us with one of the best works of reflection, one that millions still use as inspiration and guidance today. The Meditations, in which we can find his thoughts, is a powerful tool to help us get started and continue on the path.
“Characteristics of the rational soul: Self-perception, self-examination, and the power to make of itself whatever it wants.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 11.1
Stoicism teaches us to stay in the moment. The ‘Now’ is where our actions need to be focused on since that is what is at hand. The future is unknown and the past is gone. It is gone, but not lost to us as a source of knowledge. By reflecting on our actions and past events, we can learn how to grow from them and how to better respond in the future.
We can see Marcus struggling with aspects of his life, the people around him, and how to respond to things. He tells himself many times how one should act if one wishes to live in accordance with nature. To live a virtuous life now, we can use the past as a tool to learn from. While the future has all possible outcomes, we can try to prepare ourselves for them by seeing what has happened to humanity before. For if something can happen to someone else, it also can happen to me. Learn not to think, Why me?, but Why not me?
Some rules on reflecting like a Stoic
Before we look into the different ways of reflecting like a Stoic, we must first set some ground rules. These are important to keep in mind for us to have the best results. It is key to learn to apply reason and rational thoughts to this practice. Reflection doesn’t work if we can’t be honest to at least ourselves. It is good to know what happened in the past, but we must now learn to analyze it. It is vital that we can hold ourselves accountable for our own behavior. No one else can be awarded the blame.
How we act toward external events, is all up to us. That is another part of these rules. We need to know where to look. Don’t reflect on things that happened to you. Look at how you reacted to those events. And be brutally honest in your breakdown as well as in your ways to grow. It is our responsibility to become better people and live a virtuous life. Pointing the finger at others won’t help you or them.
No emotional reflection
To do this, we need to leave our emotions out of it. This doesn’t mean that we are rejecting our emotions, but when we reflect on our actions we need to do it with a steady mind. And we should also reflect on our emotions. Because how can we determine why we got angry, how angry we got, and what actions it resulted in when we are angry during our reflection? The most effective way of looking back at one’s own actions is from a calm and clear mindset. That’s why we need to find a quiet place and let our minds become empty from all the noise around us. As we go through this topic, we will also touch on some of the tools. They all have this in common; they require a peaceful and quiet mind.
Gratitude to the important people
Marcus Aurelius starts his Meditations with a book that is not always judged in the right way. He begins by listing the people who influenced him and noting how they did so. Some overlook this part since it is somewhat different from the rest. But this is a great first practice in reflecting like a Stoic and showing gratitude. Marcus lists people from his parents, some teachers, and others who left impressions on him. He even seems to quote a slave as his first teacher. This was his fifth entry, which could mean that it was early in his life and stayed with him forever. That first teacher told him, among other things:
“To put up with discomforts and not make demands.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 1.5
How often do we reflect on the people who shape our lives? The ones that are still with us and the ones that have left us. We tend to take them for granted. But if we take a minute and look at the values they added to our lives, we can learn to be more grateful towards them. This could be a good exercise for you to practice. Writing it down isn’t even a requirement.
You could start by thinking about the important people in your life. What have they taught you and why do you value them so much? I’ve taken it a step further and started thinking about what I would say in the eulogy at the funeral of some of these people. That way we can add the idea that they can leave us at any given time. Making us appreciate the time we have with them now even more.
A reflection in an instant
Reflecting like a Stoic is about understanding and learning more about ourselves. We must examine our thoughts, opinions, and actions. If we can learn to do so at the moment, we can get an even better hold on our progress and learn to correct possible bad behavior before it shows itself in actions. For that, we need, as we saw before, some calm and quiet.
When we find ourselves in a moment of emotional impulse, we must learn how to pause and not react to that emotion. We can get a better grip on the source of this impulse if we reflect on it as it happens. This does not mean that we need to reject our emotions. No, we need to accept it as an instinctive reaction, but we can’t let our actions be guided by it. If we do so, then we run the risk of displaying behavior that isn’t virtuous and might not be in accordance with our nature.
When we practice this pause and stop the emotional reflex, we learn to become better at it over time. After a while we won’t need more than a second to calm ourselves down, assess the situation, and act properly. As we are building on controlling the impulse, we can scale out and review our day or week. We can look back at the medium term. Not in the moment when the externals are acting upon us, but a little removed from it. This will provide us with greater contemplative means. For not only can we try to determine the cause of the moment we are reflecting on, but we can also see part of the effects it has. Then we can start asking ourselves questions to see if we behaved in accordance with nature. Whether our actions were in line with the virtues and how we should have done better.
It is important to have this kind of reflection because it will allow us to assess patterns in our behavior. We can start to notice what kind of situations trigger us to display actions out of line with our nature. The results of those patterns are then also clearer for us to see. This can help us to prevent us from acting in the moment on these non-beneficial impulsive actions.
A personal example
My personal example that I apply this technique to is with my alcohol consumption. I’ve mentioned this a several posts, but I know alcohol has a bad influence on me. And while I didn’t drink when I was alone, I used to drink heavily while at parties. Which caused me high levels of anxiety and the price of time lost was even bigger because of the recovery time the day after. Most of all, I wasn’t in control of myself. I kept drinking and drinking. Reflecting on these patterns made me conclude that I should stay away from alcohol completely.
Understanding patterns in our lives is important because it shows us where we need to change course or where to put our focus on. If we see that we thrive in one area of life and it is in line with our nature and the virtues, then we know what direction to take. The other side is that we know what to avoid. And these are then decisions we make coming from objective reflections by a rational and reasoned mind.
Reflect on the big scale
To get a better idea of ourselves and how we fit into society, we can zoom out again. Now we can take a larger moment of reflection. Recurring dates, such as birthdays, New Year, or the end of a project, allow us to look back and see what direction it is we’re going. By enlarging the scope, we can see a trend and take stock of our improvements in case they can already be observed.
These are often reflection moments where we wish to implement some kind of drastic change. They show us that time is ticking and point us to the fact that we have less available. But big changes are difficult to make stick and we shouldn’t need a specific day to start a change. These long-term reflections should be used to check the compass, align with the moon and stars, and find out whether the currents have caused you to drift away. These are important moments for us to use, as we will keep in mind the information from the other two reflective times; in the moment and the medium term.
How to reflect
We can reflect by meditating, creating a moment of peace for our mind, and being still. To review the past period and find out how we are doing. Then there is the method of journaling. Where we write down daily, or at an interval that works best for us, how a certain period went, what we are grateful for, and what we need to improve. The most important thing is to find something that works for you. I’m not good at meditation and journaling doesn’t seem to stick. I do write a morning and evening tweet as a reflection of that moment. Since I always have my phone at hand, this works for me. Some use an audio tool to record themselves and others perhaps need neither. This is all part of the exploration into the self.
Why we reflect like a Stoic
What we do with these reflections is the most important aspect. We need a firm, direct, but also kind approach. If we have shown behavior that isn’t what we aim for then we need decisive action. We need to examine the reason why and explore ways to address it. We can only point at ourselves when we look for solutions. It is up to us to take ownership of the problem and learn to improve. Life is hard for everyone, which means it will be hard for us too. We can make it easier by preparing for these hard times and using them as lessons.
When we reflect, we can see missed goals as failures, bad behavior as wrong, or look at unfortunate events from a victim, but we can also change that view. We can turn them into lessons. Ones that we learn from by experience and use to grow as individuals. The wealth of knowledge from our past is within our grasp. Learn to reflect with an open mind and use it to improve your life.