“I will keep constant watch over myself and—most usefully—will put each day up for review. For this is what makes us evil—that none of us looks back upon our own lives. We reflect upon only that which we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future descend from the past.”
— Seneca, Moral Letters, 83.2
In a letter to his older brother Novatus, Seneca talks about a useful exercise he learned from another eminent philosopher. Every night, he would ask himself different versions of the following questions:
- What bad habit did I curb today?
- Which shortcoming did I take a stand against?
- How am I better?
- Were my actions righteous?
- How can I improve?
Every day, the Stoic takes time in the morning or evening to sit down with their journal. They think about what they did that day, what thoughts they had, and how they can do better in the future. This practice not only allows us to reflect on our actions and thoughts but also paves the way for conscious and intentional living.
The ancient Stoic philosophers emphasized the importance of self-awareness and self-examination. They believed that by regularly reflecting on our actions and thoughts, we could align ourselves with virtue and wisdom.
Let’s consider the example of Marcus Aurelius. As he faced innumerable challenges during his rule, particularly while he directed military campaigns, Marcus wrote down his personal reflections on Stoicism in twelve books of his private journals. These writings later became known as Meditations, one of the most influential self-help books of all time and a cornerstone classic of Stoic philosophy.
Like any other journal, the aim of Meditations was personal clarity, not public interest. And it’s ironic that these writings that were originally never intended to have an audience, have become so popular and special amongst countless philosophy enthusiasts. Marcus was simply writing down key Stoic principles and exercises, just like a person repeating mantras and hymns, so that he could remember and practice these insights as he faced the challenges of being an emperor and leader.
Journaling gives us both time and space to explore our thoughts, feelings, and emotions and capture them into words. It helps us discover who we are as a person. Author Susan Sontag explains this wonderfully in these words, “In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.” She adds, “The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood.”
In addition, journaling is incredibly helpful in our personal growth as we are able to look back at our previous entries and go through the lessons that we learned from our experiences.
Imagine a day where you interact with various people—colleagues, friends, family, and strangers. At the end of this day, a Stoic would sit down with their journal and reflect upon their interactions. They might ask themselves: “Did I treat others with kindness and respect?” This reflection not only helps in recognizing our behavior patterns but also opens the door to improvement. For instance, if they realize they were impatient with a colleague, they can plan to practice patience the next day. This continuous cycle of reflection and improvement leads to personal growth over time.
In our modern world, filled with distractions and fast-paced living, the practice of journaling offers a precious opportunity to pause and reflect. It becomes an effective medium to record the chronicles of our journey toward becoming better versions of ourselves. The beauty of this practice is that it doesn't require grand gestures or fixed themes—it thrives in the simplicity of daily reflection.
It doesn’t matter whether you maintain a physical notebook or use a digital tool, and how much you write each day, just get started with writing your thoughts and experiences. If it works for you, make journaling a daily habit; I’m sure it’ll add incredible value to each and every aspect of your life.