Several times on this blog, I have used a cold shower as an archetype of the sort of self-inflicted test of will that Stoicism requires. And really, a cold shower is just the thing to serve in that role: it’s unpleasant without being terribly painful, it lasts only as long as you want it to last, and it requires a certain force of will to endure, or a certain amount of equanimity. It’s a wonderful way to build willpower and seek equanimity at the same time, with full consciousness of the fact that equanimity makes willpower obsolete, as it were. But what other tests can we inflict on ourselves in the practice of Stoicism? I can think of a few.
- Fasting. I haven’t tried this one yet, but I fully intend to take a day one weekend and refuse to eat anything, making that day a day of contemplation and meditation. Ignoring the gnawing hunger in my belly, and the removal of the distraction of the enjoyment of food, will serve as a good way to getting myself to that place where I can scorn suffering.
- Refusing palliatives for minor irritations. Got poison ivy? Don’t put any calumny lotion on it. Got a headache? Don’t take an aspirin. Thirsty? Put off drinking any water for 30 minutes. Instead, I will try and focus on the pain, or the itching, try to go into the sensation and strip it of negative judgment. Learning to swallow the small pains will lessen my reactions to the big ones.
- Underdressing. Is it cold enough outside for a light jacket, but not enough for a heavy coat? While I don’t encourage anyone to develop hypothermia, going outside when it’s 50 degrees Fahrenheit in a t-shirt and jeans may be a good way to practice Stoicism. One big benefit is that, unlike a cold shower, you can’t “turn off” the cold weather. Once you’re out of the house, you’re stuck with the clothes on your back. This may be slightly more challenging than the cold shower, but it’ll be worth it.
- Ignoring minor annoyances. Is a fan clicking as it moves, and is the clicking driving you nuts? Don’t turn the fan off: just focus on the clicking and try to remove the negative judgment. Did someone cut you off in traffic? Don’t swear and curse at them: use the horn if you must, to get them to move and prevent an accident, but no more than is necessary. Note that I am not advising “bottling up” one’s anger here; if someone in everyday life makes you angry, it’s not contrary to the general tenor of Stoicism to express your anger in a qualified, controlled way. It is contrary to Stoicism, however, to blow up on that person.
That’s all I can think of for now. All of these provide excellent grist for the Stoical mill. Perhaps someone could accuse me of masochism for doing all this, but I plan on addressing that in my next entry.