Stoicism – Becoming an Emotional Black Belt

Life philosophy is an interesting subject to try and study in a practical sense. When I’m intentionally trying to build strength, I might do push-ups, squats, or other exercises designed to target a specific muscle group. If I wanted to sharpen my mind, I might read a textbook and try to memorize facts or solve problems with known solutions. What equivalent is there for emotional practise? Is there a school you can go to with the explicit purpose of exposing your vices and training to eliminate them? Is there a place that intentionally makes you angry, afraid, or greedy so you can learn to handle fear, anger, and practise self restraint?

I suppose reading philosophy books, performing self reflective meditation, or discussions with friends are the Stoic’s training exercises, but they seem biassed toward the intellectual side of the problem. What about the physical component to emotions that interferes with your mind in a real situation? Just as you can’t learn to swim well from a book, you can’t truly master anger, fear, or desire in a purely intellectual sense. You have to physically experience frustration, terror, or wants to even begin applying anything you’ve read or thought about philosophically.

I do most of my Stoic emotional development based on actual life situations rather than dedicated exercises like one might use to improve the body or mind. Maybe that’s one reason I feel like it’s easier to make intellectual or physical progress. It isn’t too difficult to forgive yourself when you screw up a training exercise like an exam or set of push-ups that doesn’t actually affect anything you truly care about. It’s harder to reflect on your emotional development and admit that you’ve mishandled events you cared about in your life. How depressing.

Travel as Therapy

The School of Life has a ongoing series of blog articles entitled Travel as Therapy. The author suggests that travelling can serve as a form of therapy to expose yourself to places that might exemplify certain virtues. Rather than taking trips for short term amusement, a little planning or thinking about our destinations could allow us to pursue a kind of modern pilgrimage for personal development. The author hopes:

In the future, we would ideally be more conscious travellers – aware that we were on a search for places that could deliver psychological virtues like ‘calm’ or ‘perspective,’ ‘sensuality’ or ‘rigour’… travelling to the place would be an occasion fundamentally to reorient one’s personality. It would be the call-to-arms to become a different person, an 8,000 mile, £3,000 secular pilgrimage that would be properly anchored around a piece of profound character development.

I doubt if most people travel with the intention of curing their character flaws, but perhaps certain experiences can better people regardless of their initial intent. I wonder if it’s possible to choose worthwhile travel experiences in a way that’s more intelligent than trial and error. I feel like aimlessly wandering the earth wouldn’t really benefit me unless I had a specific idea of the experience I needed and how a certain place might give that to me. I’m reminded of a quote Seneca’s “Letters from a Stoic” where he had spoken to a disappointed traveller:

Why did you expect travelling to make you feel better when you take yourself with you wherever you go?” – Seneca

Sanchin – Three Battles: Mind, Body, Spirit

Sanchin is a karate kata I’ve been studying recently. It’s a Japanese term meaning three battles: mind, body, and spirit. Efforts at self improvement are aimed at improving at least one of these aspects of the self. In myself, I see these battles taking shape in my choice of career, martial art, and life philosophy: the Engineer, the Shodan, and the Stoic.

My intellectual battle began long ago in engineering school. I have a desire to understand the physical world which lead me down this path. Engineering relies on an analytical reductionist problem solving method. Complex systems are designed as a collection of independent isolated blocks that can be assembled into a larger structure, which is itself another tiny block of something bigger. The process is almost fractal in nature, fraught inefficiency and human error, and stirs emotions in me ranging from wonder to despair. I often feel like a player on a losing team, and I’m well aware this is a battle I will be fighting for the rest of my life.

In fighting my physical battle, I am attempting to become a Shodan, which translated from Japanese means first-rank. It is the first degree of black-belt, although it already represents a certain level of self mastery. Karate has many lower ranks defined by coloured belts, which are from lowest to highest: white, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown, black. The levels are arbitrary markers along a continual process of self mastery. The process involves learning how the body and mind responds to inputs, and training the body and mind to act correctly, efficiently, in accordance with the will of the spirit.

Life philosophy covers the third battle, the spiritual. Just as your physical and mental abilities need training and practise, your emotional side also requires development and conditioning. Stoic philosophy is my spiritual path. Happiness starts with self mastery. Stoic joy is the feeling you get when you put effort into something worthwhile. When you act as you ought to, and work on activities that have intrinsic merit, you can take pleasure in the absence of regret and derive satisfaction from having lived well. If you’re lucky, fate will bless you with opportunities, and others will notice you and respect your achievements. That is success.


About Zeno

Zeno is an engineering graduate, currently working as software developer in Canada. The alias was adopted in honour of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoic philosophy in ancient Greece.
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