The Evening Meditation: Some Reflections

Some personal reflections on the evening meditation exercise for #Stoicweek

The Evening Meditation: Some Reflections

Donald Robertson

Follow @Stoicweek on Twitter #Stoicweek for daily updates and, er, light-hearted Stoic chit-chat.

I’ve been practising aspects of Stoicism for a few years now, although I feel that for a long time I was just scraping the surface and I’m sure that in years to come I’ll look back on my current practice as a pretty “lightweight” effort.  I’m a cognitive-behavioural  therapist and I feel it’s important for me to try to put into practice as many of the things I use with clients as possible.  However, CBT is largely designed for use with people who have specific mental health problems, clinically severe anxiety or depression, etc.  It helps people with certain problems but it has no clearly-defined goal for us to pursue in relation to life in general.  I felt that I needed a broader philosophical framework, therefore, in order to apply these therapeutic strategies to my own personal development.  (I wrote my book on the subject partly to help me reconcile the techniques I liked from modern therapy with the kind of philosophical system I liked: Stoicism.)

I wanted to share some personal reflections, for a change.  Hopefully this will encourage other students of Stoicism to talk about their experiences during Stoic Week and beyond.  I don’t pretend to be an expert on the Stoic way of life but maybe some of these comments will inspire thoughts from others and help fuel a bit of discussion.

Recently, in fact for a few years, the most important Stoic technique for me has been what I would call the “evening” or “retrospective” meditation.  Others refer to this as a form of moral self-examination.  It actually appears to have been a Pythagorean technique, assimilated by the Stoics, and so Pythagorean writings give us some more clues as to how it was done.  Zeno, the founder of Stoicism wrote a book on Pythagorean doctrine, which is now lost, but may have, from the outset, encouraged Stoics to assimilate aspects of Pythagorean theory and practice.  We know that an influential Roman philosopher called Quintus Sextius combined Stoicism and Pythagoreanism and he may well be the philosopher, held in such high-regard by Seneca, to whom he ascribes his own use of this technique.  We don’t know how widespread this technique of evening meditation was in Stoicism but it’s notable that Epictetus, who never mentions Seneca, refers once or twice to the same method, which perhaps suggests it was fairly common, at least among Roman Stoics.  However, Epictetus explains it by quoting directly from the Golden Verses of Pythagoras – a famous poem that I think every student of Stoicism should read!

Anyway, the method is simply to review the events of your day each evening before closing your eyes to go to sleep.  The Pythagoreans say this should be done three times, imagining events in the order they happened, e.g., the people you met or spoke to in order, and the sequence of tasks you performed.  We know that Pythagoreans saw this, in part, as a way of improving their memory and although the Stoics perhaps didn’t use it for this purpose, that perhaps sheds some light on the way it was originally approached.  I spend about ten minutes doing it, perhaps not as long as the ancients, but I find that’s enough time to briefly review the main events of the day.  The Golden Verses, quoted by Epictetus, famously suggest that we then ask ourselves three questions:

  • What did you do amiss?
  • What did you do?
  • What duty was left undone?

Seneca and Epictetus seem to place quite a loose interpretation on this, though.  Seneca describes his self-examination as if it were analogous to a defendant appearing in court.  It’s important not to allow this to turn into a kind of morbid rumination or worry.  I think there’s perhaps just a knack to keeping it constructive that comes with experience.  Another observation I’d make that might help Stoics manage this is that, of course, the events being reviewed, as they are in the past, are all in the domain of things outside of your control and therefore, I assume, “indifferent” in the Stoic sense of the word.  Hence, there’s not much point worrying about them.  The most we can do is learn from them.  Stoics might ask themselves whether certain activities could have been done with more “prosoche“, attention to your character and actions, or whether nature has given you some resource or virtue that you neglected to make use of in a particular situation, etc.  Most importantly, perhaps, did you follow the general precept of Stoicism throughout the day, reminding yourself to distinguish clearly between things under your control and things not, acting with wisdom and justice while accepting the cards dealt you by fate?

Seneca says that this technique helps one to sleep well.  That might seem odd at first, especially to people who are prone to morbid worry or rumination.  However, again, if you can keep at the forefront of your mind that all of these events are now indifferent, being outside of your control, while you review them three times, my experience tells me that you may find that disturbing emotions begin to reduce (“habituate”) with patient exposure to the memories and that a sense of closure and resignation can accompany the remembrance that this is all in the past and cannot be changed.  Ideally, I think this should leave you with a sense of “That’s enough now, time to set it aside”, after three reviews, as you prepare to go to sleep.

Seneca also says that if we do this carefully it can heighten our awareness (prosoche) during the day because we notice our irrational or excessive passions arising and automatically think “I’m going to have to review this three times before I go to bed tonight!”, which can give us a chance to nip them in the bud before they spiral into something worse.  My experience is that this is often a very helpful aspect of the technique.  It’s as if you are being observed by someone else, in a sense.  As you know that later you will have to account for your actions in detail before the “court” of your mind, during the evening meditation.

Anyway, hope that’s of some help to others who are trying these things for the first time.  I’m just writing quickly from memory so apologies if I’ve made any mistakes above or missed anything out (like more detailed references!).  I’d be very interested indeed, from a practical perspective, to know how others get on with this technique.  So please do post comments below about your own Stoic Week…

Never allow sleep to close your eyelids, after you went to bed,

Until you have examined all your actions of the day by your reason.

In what have I done wrong? What have I done? What have I omitted that I ought to have done?

If in this examination you find that you have done wrong, reprove yourself severely for it;

And if you have done any good, rejoice.

Practise thoroughly all these things; meditate on them well; you ought to love them with all your heart.

It is those that will put you in the way of divine virtue. (The Golden Verses of Pythagoras)


Leave a Reply

6 thoughts on “The Evening Meditation: Some Reflections”

  1. Enjoyed reading what are likely the philosophical roots of the Roman Catholic practice (which I was taught at a very young age) of the Examination of Conscience. Devout Catholics also do this nightly, as well as before the sacrament of reconciliation (confession).

    A nuance is doing this collectively during Lent at a penitential service (I think this is a relatively new practice, at least among the laity).
    I find this helps me greatly on my path to better align my actions with my convictions and goals.
    Can those old enough in the U.S. recall the television station sign-off with the commercial of the Indian weeping over pollution followed by the national anthem? What if every evening before midnight media stations ran an Examination of Conscience, helping us reflect on our choices during the past day and how they align with the virtues we honor and the goals we have committed ourselves to, both as individuals and as a nation?

  2. This reminds me to some extent of the Japanese “therapy” of naikan which focuses on three questions about one’s relationships:

    What have I received from…”X”?
    What have I given to….”x”?
    Wat troubles and difficulties have I caused for…”X”?

  3. I haven’t been reviewing 3 times so far, although I may try that.

    Currently, my review is in journal format as I feel my thoughts become clearer if I have to put them into a solid narrative form.

    I’m finding it quite useful to call attention to what could have gone better during the day. An additional benefit of writing it is that it seems to be revealing patterns that may be useful to know and that I may not have caught had I not written it down.

  4. Enjoyed your post, Donald.
    Over the years I have tried a number of techniques for daily self examination. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius comes to mind. The laborious pursuit of that particular endeavor left me feeling hemmed in by the doctrinal boundaries. The Stoic practice leaves a feeling of satiation (the positive kind) and progress. My day went happily along with a few kindnesses enacted without a much thought and fanfare. There was a moment of virtuousness lacking in thought that did not evolve into deed and vanished like a puff of smoke. I’m not saying there have been miraculous results but my life feels more pleasant when put into the Stoic perspective. I find it allows an even keeled pace to trim up as well as appreciate the self. The treatment of others reciprocates as a by product. I must add that there haven’t been any particularly stressful occurrences that would rock the boat – the true test of any method to keep one’s dignity and composure.
    One last thing…I will not refer to the noisy neighbors as barbarians nor remark on their conduct as they interrupt my meditation. I have stylin’ new ear buds to connect with the “from above” meditation. Yes.