The ancient Roman Stoics were keen on freedom. There are as many definitions of that word as there are people on the planet, but, in this context, I will use it to simply mean not letting your mind be under anyone else’s control.
You may be reading this, thinking that you have freedom, but I can guarantee you most likely don’t; at least not 100% of the time.
How do I know this? Because probability dictates that you have a smartphone, tablet, or laptop within reach; all are amazing feats of human scientific achievement, and I feel fortunate they exist; but most worthwhile things come at a cost and I argue now that these electronic devices exist not only with a financial price tag, but at the cost of freedom as well, particularly at night.
You might think it is your piece of property to do with as you please, and on that level, you are correct.
However, back in the 1900s, before Wi-Fi, LTE, and hand-held web browsers, you were free, especially at night, from work, from social media, from 24 hour news cycles – all things that want to take up your time, mental space, and quite often, emotional well-being.
To add to the concern, as the years progress, more and more studies are concluding that screen time right before bed, aside from potentially disturbing you with unsettling information, simply has a negative impact on your circadian rhythms because you are exposing yourself to light, when the body needs darkness in order to prepare for true rest.
Since the Stoics didn’t have the technology that we do, one could only venture to guess what they would say about our glowing screens.
One could logically deduce though that they would see no need to check email for the thousandth time, see what the latest drama in the Khardashian’s lives is, or read about some politician who today said the same ignorant things he has said countless times before.
Many religions would have you saying prayers of beseechment and forgiveness to a deity, which is something in which people who base their lives on reason would see no point; although, if the prayers are intent on love and compassion, at least that is keeping those virtues at the forefront of one’s mind.
Eastern thinkers would stress the importance of meditating before sleep, and modern science is quickly finding ample evidence to support the benefits of doing so. But the reality is, the average westerner is not going to twist themself into a full lotus every night.
What did Seneca do before trying to flag Morpheus down?
He would sit on the edge of the bed, as his wife was already sleeping, review his day, and see if his actions aligned with the principles he taught and claimed to follow.
When he realized he did something in accordance with what he thought to be of virtue, it would reinforce the continuation of that behavior.
But if he realized his deeds ran afoul of what it takes to have a good life? There was no asking for absolution from a deity, or self-recrimination and guilt.
He would say to himself, “See that you don’t do that again, but now I forgive you.”
Take a moment and ponder: Here was one of the greatest minds ever known to this planet, who thought it important that every night, he forgive himself.
I started doing that practice on my own and discovered it to have great effect. It is now a regular part of my nightly routine, and I consider it one of the most important things I have learned from the Stoics.
The peace and freedom it gives me when trying to find the ever elusive R.E.M state is priceless.
Acta Non Verba: For at least an hour before bed, turn off all screens, and put them away. Don’t even allow them in your bedroom.
Use that time to write, read, even meditate, just so long as your mind is in complete control of the information reaching it (i.e.: not being force-fed advertising, news, or work.)
Then, right before sleep, review your day. Take joy in anything you did that was motivated by reason, wisdom, love, or compassion.
And if you stumbled, as we all do? Just utter Seneca’s words, “See that you don’t do that again, but now I forgive you,” then sleep in peace.
I examine the whole of my day and retrace my actions and words; I hide nothing from myself, pass over nothing. For why should I be afraid of any of my mistakes, when I can say, “See that you don’t do that again, but now I forgive you.” – Seneca
Is anything more admirable than this custom of examining the whole day? How sound the sleep that follows such self-appraisal, how peaceful, how deep and free, when the mind has either praised or taken itself to task… – Seneca
If it’s freedom you seek, then wish nothing and shun nothing that depends on others, or you will always be a helpless slave. – Epictetus
Stephen Sumner is a writer with over three decades experience studying what it means to have a good life. He has a BS in Human Development and Family Studies from Cornell University. His favorite pastimes include reading, fountain pens, and growing insanely hot peppers. Click here to follow him on Twitter.
Original, non-meme image from Ken Reid via Unsplash.com.