A new decade is a fresh start, right?
So you make a bunch of resolutions – anything from getting fitter to getting smarter to taking more risks. But a few weeks in your motivation starts to fade. By March you’re back to the same habits.
It’s hard to properly change. Experts suggest taking small steps and shifting one or two habits. But what if you tried to improve all aspects of yourself, all at once?
As an experiment, I signed up to three self-improvement courses.
For improvement of my mind I took an online course in Stoic philosophy. Stoicism is an ancient Greek and Roman philosophy that focuses on ethics, virtue and reason. For spiritual gains I signed up to a course on feminine archetypes, and to tackle my fitness I took a yoga challenge comprising of daily classes, group meetings, a nutrition component and journaling.
If I was not a changed person after this, I never would be.
I check in on Whatsapp with my Stoic group, consisting of 10 friends around the world. Each day we have to do three sets of readings from ancient philosophers and in the chat we discuss them.
Day one explored the Greek concept of praxis, interpreted by group member Michael as “if you want to live a better life, the act of trying is just as good (as the act of succeeding)”.
Start yoga course. Ninety minutes of level two vinyasa. It is hard. I am unfit. But I least I am bringing praxis to it. Afterwards I have to get an Uber to take me home, a five-minute walk up the hill.
That night, I attend the course on the feminine. I entered the room and was encouraged to connect with my inner feminine archetypes through touching my body and making sounds. I didn’t know where to look when other people were connecting with themselves in this way. Is this the right place?
I spend two hours in a state of shock. Women here are encouraged to make noises and use touch to shift any sexual suppression.
It’s a lot for my repressed, Catholic-school educated self to take in. How is it legal that these women are just allowed to touch themselves in front of strangers? Oh god, where do I look? The ceiling? No, I’ll get a crick in my neck. The ground? No, that sends a message that what these women are doing is doing is shameful, and the whole point of the course is to remove shame. Settle into looking at a spot on the wall, and when encouraged to touch self, touch the elbow area. Stay silent.
When the class finally finishes, I don’t even wait to put on my shoes before bolting onto the street, barefoot, flagging down a cab that’s going the wrong way. At home, sit in the dark backyard for a long time – just thinking to myself – “oh god, what the heck was that?”
People in the Stoic chat aren’t happy. The readings are difficult, like riddles.
Emily was perturbed that “passion” wasn’t listed as a stoic virtue.
After a particularly confusing midday Cicero reading, Trav posts: “Seems a bit much to work out at lunch.”
I haven’t done the readings, as I’m trying to fulfil the requirements of the yoga course: another hard vinyasa class, following a nutrition plan (when am I going to have time to do all the juicing?), journaling and meetings.
The first yoga meeting is tonight. Around 20 of us sit on the ground in a circle. No one is moaning or touching themselves, which is a relief.
When we introduce ourselves and say why we are doing the course the answers are tentative. To get better at yoga? A few of the men in course say they run marathons, and an intensive yoga program is the best way to help with flexibility. They look uncomfortable when told about journaling.
The question we have to contemplate this week is quite existential: what is your purpose?
In my journal I write the word PURPOSE in big letters across the top … then a question mark.
At home, I check in with the Stoics. One of the members, Emily is already fed up with the philosophy after a close family friend became ill.
“I’m not coming to the stoic readings with a lot of generosity today,” she posts. One of the readings advises to be “shocked at nothing”.
“At what point does detaching from your emotions become weird as hell,” she asks us.
Members of the Stoic group – many of whom don’t know each other – message support to Emily and I feel like even if the group fails at stoicism, they are practising empathy.
I do a difficult yoga class. Starving. Eat a pie. Feel guilty because have not engaged with the nutrition aspect of the course. There is a mini detox coming up where we fast for a few days, which seems impossible due to the amount of fuel I am using in racing around to all these self-improvement classes.
Check into Stoic group. One member, Ivan, has accidentally skipped ahead for the readings of the day and is now talking about parenting. He posts: “Was a weird choice for the reading this morning. That the parental bond is fundamental and natural basis for the social order seems deeply conservative to me. I guess you might want to make this point if you live in a society where infanticide was an everyday occurrence.”
Rein group in and try and return to day’s topic, not parenting but attitudes to wealth and money. Do extra hard yoga class. Think about life’s purpose. Think about parenting. Think about infanticide. Think about money.
It’s time to go back to the feminine workshop. Feel uneasy about it on the way there. I have been looking after a friend’s multimillion dollar mansion in Bronte, and when I sit in the feminine circle I’m suddenly consumed by anxiety that I have left the stove on and need to leave immediately or else their house will burn down.
Distracted. Miss some of the instruction. Something about goddesses. Something about witches.
Calm self using meditation technique learnt in the yoga course. People share stories about how society or their families or their religion quashed their feminine side – how success in this world involves taking on traditionally masculine traits like ambition, aggression and assertiveness. How feminine qualities in men and women have been denied, dismissed and downgraded, until we learn to hide or repress them just to get by in the world. Very relatable.
Return to friend’s house. It is still intact. Go to Whatsapp, check the Stoic group. Ivan has apologised for skipping ahead on the readings. Group discussing whether Stoicism allows for deep structural societal changes and revolutions.
Have packet of chips and glass of wine for dinner. Feel guilty. Was too busy self-improving to go vegetable shopping.
Yogic circle meets. People loved the yoga, they went every day, but the act of contemplation and the practice of journaling proved difficult. People are happy to do six or seven hours of hard yoga a week – but sitting with yourself and asking what your purpose is – that’s the real work.
I have got used to the feminine course now, and while I do not look forward to going, I always learn something incredible about the effects, on both men and women, of living in a patriarchal society.
It’s no longer weird or off-putting to see people express themselves in the room. Bring it on. Over the last four sessions I’ve stopped freaking out and come to a feeling of acceptance (but of course the acceptance of others was always about acceptance of myself).
Am improving at yoga. I can put on my socks in the morning with ease.
The stoicism chat has gone quiet.
Yoga course. Another group session sharing experiences, but hardly anyone is talking about the yoga now. People have taken to journaling. They are meditating, using their phones less.
Surprisingly it is the blokes who do the talking, the ones who initially rejected journaling. They are talking about their feelings. There is a good feeling in the room. We do a final class together and it’s like a party. I love everyone!
The Stoicism Whatsapp chat winds up, but not before a kind of anarchy has loosened the group. Some are rejecting it for being “too robotic”. But in this rejection they are finding their own meaning. “Gandhi was about personal discipline and self control while practising love, compassion and leading one of the country’s biggest revolutionary movements. My kind of Stoic!” writes Sharon.
As for myself, some of the readings were obscure and difficult. But they were just a gateway to hear the perspective of the group and I got to know my friends better.
The feminine course was the most challenging. In going to the edge of my comfort zone, I got a new perspective on how suppressing parts of ourselves means we can never be truly free.
So am I a better person after all this self-improvement?
It’s hard trying to be disciplined with exercise and food. It’s tough trying to unpack all the shame, conditioning and taboos around sexuality. It’s difficult to understand and practise Stoic principles when all around you is easy, superficial pleasure.
But there’s a reason why these courses occur in a circle (virtual or otherwise) and sharing is the main thing. We can’t do all this stuff alone. It’s too entwined with how we are as a society.
There was an unexpected tenderness to each group that in turn cracked me open – stoics, yogis, goddesses – all of them were up for sharing and being vulnerable.
We’re all the same deep down: we all want to be healthy, to be good, to be free.
Brigid Delaney is a Guardian Australia columnist