A few words are needed here to clarify what ascesis means. It is an anceint term referring to the practice by which one trains one’s self in order to make their philosophy an inherent part of how they think and behave in their everyday life. In recent centuries, the term “ascesis” has acquired a connotation suggesting that it involves deprivation. It is true that many ascetic practices involve deprivation of some kind. As a matter of fact, any serious Stoic is bound to make some use of deprivation in their ascetic regimen. However, not all ascetic practices involve deprivation – and it certainly isn’t part of the definition of ascesis. What defines an ascetic practice is that it is part of what you do to move your philosophy from the point of being mere intellectual knowledge to being an inherent part of who you are.
At any rate – being a practical philosophy, Stoicism places great value on ascesis – and many different Stoics have found different kinds of journals to be helpful in this process. But in this piece, I want to discuss a particular kind of journal that I have recently begun to keep. This kind of journal is what I call a meta-ascetic journal. It is not a direct ascetic tool like some kinds of journals out there – but it can be a crucial part of someone’s ascetic regimen.
The way you keep a meta-ascetic journal is simple. Every ascetic practice you try, you describe in detail in the journal how it is done. Did you make a modification in one of your ascetic exercises? If so, then you write about that too. You may even want to write about how often you do certain exercises. And you certainly should make note of it if you drop an exercise from your regimen due to it being ineffectie, or worse, counterproductive.
You should also keep notes on changes or anomalies that you notice in your behavior. You never know if these might be signs of what does and doesn’t work for you. Any other experiences with or around your ascetic exercises that could possibly be relevant should also be recorded. And with all this record-keepping, you will have more information to help you find the ascetic regimen that best ingrains the Stoic philosophy into your day-to-day and moment-to-moment way of living.
Of course – as with any kind of journal, not every Stoic will need to keep a meta-ascetic journal. There are some people who can very effectively integrate the philosophy using only the traditional ascetic exercises recorded by the ancient Stoics. However, that limited range of regimens doesn’t work for everyone. Some people are not able to put all of those exercises to practice. Others might find that no matter how much they use these exercises, their character just doesn’t undergo the desired transformation.
In the old days, if someone couldn’t make the philosophy part of who they were using the traditional exercises, it was often concluded that they were not of the nature to practice philosophy. In other words, the conclusion was that they just didn’t have what it took. This conclusion made sense seeing as back then, people knew little if anything at all about neurodiversity and other factors that might make the ascetic exercises that work so well for one person a complete flop for another. But today we know much more about these things. We should revise our conclusions accordingly.
Yes – there may be the occasional person for whom the Stoic philosophy just isn’t a good fit. However, I suspect that such people are very rare. Chances are that more often, the Stoic philosophy is a very good fit for someone, and that it is just a specific ascetic regimen that is an ill-fit. Even if someone seems to be genuinely uncommitted to the pursuit of philosophy – it often can be because their struggles with an ill-fitting ascetic regimen appear as a lack of serious effort to someone who doesn’t experience first-hand what they go through.
As I mentioned in a recent piece, a good teacher of Stoicism is one who can help students through such difficulties. However, as I mentioned in that same piece – the art of teaching Stoicism, which such teachers would need, hasn’t really been developed yet. For the time being, a student of Stoicism who can not make the established set of exercises work for them will need to shoulder the burden of figuring out such things with less guideance than what would be preferred. In doing so, keeping an ascetic journal can be very helpful.
Furthermore, after solving such problems for themself, such a student of Stoicism may be called upon to help develop and improve that aspired art of teaching Stoicism. There are many things that such a stuent can do for this purpose. They could offer up documentation on their own ascetic regimen to improve the Stoa’s knowledge-base. They could offer suggestions for improving the system by which later students are assisted in navigating that knowledge-base and in putting together their own ascetic regimens. The ways in which a student who has had difficulties can help improve the art of teaching are endless. But no matter how that student helps this endeavor, they will have an easier time doing so if they can look back on well-kept records of their struggle.
Keeping a meta-ascetic journal isn’t for every Stoic. But for those that it is for, it can be a very useful tool – both for improving their own discipline and for helping to improve the quality of the Stoa as a whole.