Jon Brooks is the co-owner of the popular HighExistence site, and a thought leader on the modernisation and practical implementation of Stoic philosophy.
Through his work with his Stoic Handbook website and podcast, he aims to take ancient, esoteric wisdom and translate it for modern people who seek self-fulfilment.
I have been very impressed with the content Jon produces, both written and audio, and it was great to be able to interview him recently. His answers, which you can find below, perfectly articulate how and why Stoicism should be practiced and not just theorized.
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Can you explain a little about how you got started with Stoicism and how it has helped with the difficult experiences in your life? (e.g. the ones you have spoken about on podcasts)
From a young age, I have always been drawn to art and creativity. I’m naturally very high in the “big five” personality trait “openness.” I am highly curious about ideas and the human mind. But at the same time, when I was around 14 years old I was introduced to skepticism and bias in Derren Brown’s Tricks of the Mind. The combination of creativity and reason has allowed me to have the faith to explore many forms of esoteric aspects of self-improvement yet always reign my thinking back and not get too lost in the potentially false claims of gurus and charlatans. When I first stumbled on Stoicism in Alain de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy, it felt like a perfect match with my personality. The path of the Stoic is in some sense magic. It’s a path of deep transformation, yet it is based on reason and verifiable claims.
Even though I was a fan of Stoicism immediately upon discovering it, I didn’t become a practicing Stoic until a few years later when I was faced with significant emotional difficulty. When I was around 24-years old, things started piling up as they so often do. I was suffering from symptoms of PTSD from a knife attack I went through a few years earlier. I had braces that were taking years longer to work than was first advertised. My mental health, in general, was declining, my friendships were becoming more turbulent, and to top it off I experienced a breakup. Not so long ago I felt on top of the world, and now I found myself afraid of life, insecure, having few good relationships, and with braces. I stumbled my way through this time as we often do, but I didn’t properly “wake up” and take action till I was given the date of my double jaw surgery to correct an underbite.
In a pre-surgery meeting, my surgeon told me, “Your body will respond to double jaw surgery, exactly like you have been thrown out of a car windshield. It’s a very stressful event for your body. Do you still want to go through with it?” After waiting so many years, I agreed. But I was afraid. Very afraid. So I began reading Stoic philosophy with a new lens. Instead of reading it from the perspective of a self-improvement hobbyist, I was now reading it as a form of emotional therapy.
I began creating my own visualization exercises that incorporated techniques like premeditation of adversity and useful comparisons to others. I would find individuals who had experienced significant injury and were handling it with grace. I would then visualize myself as these individuals in daily life and practice coping with their life situations. This gave me great strength. Even when I went to the hospital the night before my surgery, the only book I took in with me was Man’s Search for Meaning. This was the beginning of my journey as a practicing Stoic.
In the decade or so since then, I have used Stoic philosophy to help when traveling solo to other countries, getting out of my comfort zone and creating meaningful relationships in places where I knew nobody, raising a child as essentially a full-time single parent, dealing with the loss of my dear mother, and handling all sorts of other extremely challenging situations in between. I now write and teach Stoicism to deepen my own understanding as much as anyone else’s.
One of the calls to action on HighExistence is to “scrap the script that’s been written for you and author your own story” – what part does Stoicism play in helping us do this?
Society, whether we like it or not, has a huge influence on us. Most of us even get our schema of what constitutes happiness from the environment around us. William B. Irvine talks about this with his model “The Gap Theory of Happiness.” Most of us are on one side of a large gap wanting things on the other side. We are told from a young age that the way to fulfillment is to close the gap. You are unhappy because you don’t have [insert material object]. Advertisers implicitly tell us that if only we were more like the people on TV (more famous, more friends, more money, better looking), then we would be more happy.
The Stoics saw many problems with this view, of course. One of those problems was that even if we do manage to close the gap as if by magic another gap appears. We strive so hard to close these gaps, often suffering in the process and failing. But when we finally do succeed, we are faced with another problem to solve, another inessential thing to acquire. The Stoics saw clearly how the things we desire are often built on false promises, and when we finally do get them, we can become disgusted with our possessions. Think of a material possession that on the day you first acquired it felt like it was the greatest thing in the universe, and now not only do you not appreciate it, you actually dislike it and want the upgraded version.
The Stoics, in their often brilliant and counterintuitive style, encouraged us rather than to try and close the gap between where we are and what we want, to instead learn to want the life we already have (a skill that can be trained and practiced) and to focus on changing the things we have the power to control rather than external things over which we do not have complete control.
In this way, by practicing Stoicism we can completely let go of the social conditioning we have received about what makes a good life, and take things back into our own hands using reason and wisdom.
One of the lines that stood out to me from your talk on The Stoa was “Stoicism is preparation for the worst day of our life.”
How do we ensure that our training is effective enough that Stoicism is there for us when we need it?
I like to view Stoicism through the lens of martial arts. During your first day in a martial arts class, it would be dangerous and foolish if the instructor put you in the cage with a seasoned professional fighter and told you to fight until there is a knockout. The worst day of our lives is essentially a world champion opponent. Our goal in Stoicism is to develop enough skill that at the very least we can survive in a bout against them. Just as it would be silly for a beginner to fight a professional in a martial arts bout, so too in Stoicism it would be foolish for a complete beginner to believe that they can handle extreme pain and turmoil like a Stoic sage.
As Epictetus tells us when practicing Stoic exercises, “Start with things of little value…” And then we build up to things of greater value. The goal in Stoicism is to practice the techniques regularly, just as we would learn any skill like martial arts or learning an instrument. We practice, we drill, and then we gradually add more stress to simulate real-life situations. If you are practicing letting go of the fear of attachments, for example, you start with journal and visualization exercises and then move on to real-world acts of letting things go. This might include practices like abstinence from pleasures. Seneca famously practiced poverty so he could remind himself that he would be able to cope even when poor.
I encourage my students to turn Stoicism into a scheduled and formal training practice. That includes putting daily, weekly, monthly plans in place so you are always leaning into discomfort in a way that is both fun/challenging, but also transformative.
Related to the previous question, do you have any advice on practicing voluntary discomfort? (e.g. How often? What form it should take?)
If you read the book Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke, she talks about something called the pleasure/pain balance. Essentially the place in the brain that generates pleasure is the same place that generates pain. To maintain homeostasis, the brain will typically seesaw pleasure and pain. So if you experience a huge dose of pleasure, you will subsequently experience a drop in dopamine that will not feel good. The Stoics were scientifically accurate in their view that chasing pleasure is not the path to happiness because what comes up must come down. But the same also works in reverse: if we engage in a painful experience such as ice baths or vigorous exercise, then we will experience a rise in dopamine afterward. In other words, the reason why many of us engage in voluntary hardship practices is that it feels great after we’re done.
There is nothing wrong with this, but from a Stoic perspective the goal isn’t to just spike our dopamine levels and walk around feeling “good.” The goal is the cultivation of wisdom. So it’s important that whenever we engage in voluntary hardship, we do it with intention. Take the example of cold showers. We could just dive into the cold shower and fight our way through it because we want to get a dopamine high afterward. Or we could walk into the cold shower with the intention of, “I want to show myself now that I can act courageously with discipline even when my body is tempting me to do otherwise. I also will imagine how some people can only shower with cold water and prove to myself that if I was living in similar condition, I could cope just as well.” This is the same action (cold shower) but with a different intention (cultivation of wisdom). Apply this framework to all acts of voluntary discomfort.
I have come to think of Stoicism as something of a baseline, solid ground on which to build.
In a similar way, you have talked about how Stoicism is compatible with other pursuits like jiu-jitsu and mindfulness.
Do you feel that applying Stoicism in this way is how we can get the most out of the philosophy and keep it evolving (while still maintaining its core principles)?
I love the ideas and views of the ancient Stoics. But at the same time I’ve always thought that if Seneca or Epictetus was transported into modern times and given access to all of our modern knowledge, it would be extremely unlikely that their views about psychology, virtue, wisdom, and life would remain unchanged. Stoicism is undeniably true and potent in so many ways, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be augmented and modernized for people in modern contexts. Times were so very different just 200 years ago, never mind 2,000 years ago. My whole mission in Stoicism is to try and innovate upon it and make it more accessible to modern people.
In terms of self-improvement, I don’t like to call myself a Stoic because that creates too much identity around the label, but instead like to call myself someone who practices Stoicism. That to me feels more fluid and accurate. Countless individuals know more facts and history about Stoicism than I do. Some people can explain the context of Stoic techniques better than I can. That’s great. But at the same time, Stoicism is meant to be a practice. It’s one thing to talk about Stoicism well, but the real question is how well are you embodying it daily? As Epictetus said, “Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.” So too often I have seen individuals on Stoic groups who are attached to pointing out faults in other people’s views. There is a deep satisfaction that can be seen here. It’s almost as if they have just chosen Stoicism as a vector to assert power over others. Whenever I imagine someone like Marcus Aurelius or Seneca in these groups, I don’t picture a pompous character with an addiction to cognition pointing out others’ faults. Instead, I imagine a kind teacher who is both encouraging and corrective, wanting the best for you and everyone. This is my ideal.
When it comes to practices like Jiujitsu, my fears have always been around violence and confrontation so this martial art has been the perfect form of voluntary discomfort. The reason I started training was because I was terrified of it. Even as I was catching the tram to my first session I was listening to A Guide to the Good Life, the section on the dichotomy of control. Our environment is rich with opportunities for Stoic practice. I encourage you to write down a list of things you feel resistant toward, things you are afraid of, blind spots you have that you’ve been brushing under the rug, and to get real with yourself. The first step as a practicing Stoic is to look in the mirror and see ourselves clearly.
Can you share some background on your “7-Day Anxiety-Melting Stoic Meditation Course” and what would you say is the most important first step in dealing with anxiety?
As I mentioned earlier, I was attacked at knifepoint and developed symptoms of PTSD. I am all too familiar with anxiety. I have had health anxiety (trips to the hospital), I’ve had phobias (fear of dogs), social anxiety (fear of speaking), I’ve had hypervigilance (scared of walking around at night), and panic attacks. Anxiety used to be a major issue for me. I have researched anxiety and practiced many different methods to overcome it. To go from experiencing all of these types of anxiety to being able to enter Brazilian jiujitsu tournaments, travel the world on my own, make new friends with ease, and teach live workshops online and in-person is quite a radical transformation and for that reason, I feel more than qualified to help others with their anxiety through a Stoic framework.
The course has been received extremely well so far, in just 2 months over 2,800 students have enrolled and given it an overall rating of 4.8/5. This is very surprising considering the techniques in the course are often uncomfortable. I get people to face their anxiety head-on. As for the first step in working with anxiety, I like to use what’s called the”What if technique.” This technique can relieve anxiety all by itself, but the main aim is to simply get more acquainted with our fears. The idea is that you imagine your anxiety coming true (premeditation of adversity) and then ask yourself, “If this came true, what would that mean?” Then a new anxiety forms and you continue the process. The method helps you see the root of your anxiety, which is vital before you can work on it. You can think of this technique as months of therapy condensed into just a few minutes.
Do you have any plans for new Stoic content or courses in addition to the Stoic Handbook in the near future?
I’m currently working on my second Insight Timer course which is all about radical gratitude. Very often the gratitude practices we use are quite stale and lackluster. We simply say “thanks” to the good things in our life. But gratitude practice can go much deeper than this. The goal with gratitude, I believe, is not to be able to say thanks to the good things in your life, but to deeply love even the “bad” things. That is the aim of this course.
I am also creating an expanded version of my anxiety meditation course that includes more theory, exercises, and journal templates. That is called Stoic Anxiety Mastery and will be released soon.
Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, Jon. Finally, the question I ask all interview guests – in terms of what the philosophy means to you, What is Stoicism?
Stoicism is an opportunity to mentally converse with some of the greatest minds of all time, many of whom spent their life thinking about how we ought to live well and then tested their hypotheses in the arena of existence, often against great misfortune and likewise great success.
To ignore the wisdom of the Stoics, to dismiss them is to not just waste your own life, but to waste thousands of years of progress we’ve made on the art and science of happiness.