I’ve been listening to a series in the Waking Up app called The Stoic Path by William B Irvine. It has been a great listen. Good enough that I will likely head back to the beginning of it and start again quite soon.
The series covers Stoic philosophy and the daily practices that arise from it that can be used to improve psychological health.
If you don’t have access to the Waking Up app (it is a paid subscription), you may be able to access Willian B Irvine’s books on Stoicism via the library or amazon.
One practice he describes that has stuck with me because of how well it integrates with other psychological techniques is called the evening meditation 🌆
In its basic form, the evening meditation is a chance to review the day. What went well. What didn’t. What challenges did I meet. What opportunities did I miss. Stoic Spirit has a nice simple explanation of the technique on their website – https://www.stoicspirit.com/eveningmeditation
The evening meditation is a great practice in itself, but it also provides a good opportunity to engage in psychological repair that we sometimes find hard to do in the moment.
For example, one of the techniques we teach in Be Well Plan is ‘positive reframing’. It is taking a difficult situation/event and trying to extract out of it some positive aspects. I might have a fight with a colleague (stressful), but I now better understand their situation/viewpoint and can make necessary changes (positive aspect).
Positive reframing can be hard to do in the moment, especially when we are upset or angry. But it is easier to do once we have a bit of distance from an event.
That’s where something like the evening meditation comes in.
During an evening meditation, you could review your day for moments of high negative emotion. You could then reflect back on your thinking during that time. You can ask yourself ‘what alternatives might there have been for how I viewed that situation at the time?’
Essentially you are mentally rehearsing the techniques you want to get better at during the day.
Let’s pick a study example ✍
Say you spent the day subtly avoiding doing any real study. You checked some emails, tidied the house, had a half-hearted effort at doing some reading, but mostly you just found excuses to not do the work you know you needed to do. A whole day goes by and you didn’t really get anything of value done.
Clearly the cycle was hard to break out of at the time. If you had been able to break out of it, then you probably would have. Instead, 8+ hours went by without any real succes.
In the evening meditation however, you have the chance to mentally rehearse how you wanted that day to actually unfold. You can think about and problem-solve some of the barriers that popped up. You can then translate this into some advice for your future self.
“Maybe try just doing 30 minutes of work, then having a break”
“Maybe try going to the library and finding a nice spot to sit quietly with your laptop and books”
“Maybe check out one of those Shut Up and Study sessions that the uni runs” (sorry, cheap chance at promotion 😄)
You are mentally rehearsing for the next time that particular challenge/cycle presents itself.
The evening meditation can assist in helping us implement a range of different psychological techniques.
For example, there is a technique in the Be Well Plan called ‘Identifying Thinking Traps’ where we question (during periods of high distress) whether we have fallen into any common thinking traps (e.g. black and white thinking, catastrophizing, blaming others).
The technique can be hard to implement because at the time we are experiencing negative emotions, it’s a little harder to engage in the kind of logical thinking required to answer that question.
But we can practice it during our evening meditation.
When was I most stressed out today? Did I fall into any thinking traps that might help explain why I was so stressed? What would be some other ways to think about those situations?
Practice it regularly at night before you go to sleep and you’ll find yourself getting better at using the technique in the heat of the moment.
Think of it as similar to the way an athlete mentally rehearses how they will perform a particular action in their next training/competition. Increased mental rehearsal leads to better in-situ performance.
The good thing about an evening meditation is that it doesn’t necessarily take very long. It might only take you a couple of minutes to review your day and update your game plan for the following day. Furthermore, this mental habit attaches to an existing habit in your life (going to bed/sleep) so is likely to be relatively easy to implement.
To get started with it, set an alarm on your phone for your normal bed-time. Call that alarm ‘evening meditation’. In the first couple of weeks, just try a simple review of the day (what went well? What didn’t?). Try to take some simple lessons from those reflections on how to better live the next day. As the habit builds, you can start using your evening meditation to specifically rehearse how you want to react better to situations that are causing you difficulty.
If you like the technique, consider reading further into Stoic philosophy. You might like how practical it is, yet how closely connected it is to the simple goal of wanting to live a better life.