How Stoic journaling stopped me overthinking.

If you are interested in learning more about Stoic journaling, register to attend the Stoicon-x ‘Journaling with the Stoics’ workshop on November 1st.


When we experience hardship, we are encouraged to read the Stoics and to start journaling.

But while we go all the way back to the ancient Stoic texts and read from there, our understanding of how to journal is much more contemporary.

A 5-minute “Lighting Talk” given at the Midwest Stoics Stoicon-x event on 24 October 2020.

Pennebaker’s Expressive Writing Method

Our method of journaling is mostly informed by the pioneering work of James Pennebaker who, in around the 80s, taught a method called expressive writing a kind of free form journaling as a way of thinking through an issue, identifying emotional reactions to an issue, making sense of it and finding a way forward.

Now, the Pennebaker idea is that you write about a single issue that’s bothering you. You write for brief stretches of time, say 15 to 20 minutes, and you write consecutively for one to five days, and you stop writing when the issue stops troubling you.

Now, the only problem with that is that some problems don’t stop troubling us. We cannot change them and we cannot leave them, we are stuck with them, at least for a certain period of time.

With these ongoing problems, then the temptation really is to keep writing, page after page after page, and while the cathartic hit or release of getting it all down on paper is satisfying, endless rumination is the last thing that we want.

The Marcus Aurelius Self-Writing Method

The type of self-writing or self-help writing that we find in Marcus Aurelius differs significantly from the expressive writing method that we inherited from Pennebaker.

Marcus Aurelius penning his notes to himself, now known as Meditations.

For one thing, there are hardly any personal references in the text. For another, there’s no account of personal anguish, no dramatic accounts of confrontation with other people and no confessions of anger, which we have, which we find in Seneca’s letters.

All Marcus Aurelius does, is rewrite, re-express and reformulate the Stoic doctrines.

He’s basically paraphrasing.

How I Journal With Marcus Aurelius

So, for a while, I left my freeform journaling to journal with Marcus Aurelius, and here’s an example of one journaling session.

First I open up the meditations, I’ll read a section quietly to myself, I’ll copy it out in my journal.

Literally, copy the text out word for word.

This really just helps me slow down. And it helps me focus my attention on the text itself instead of on how the text relates to me. This is a subtle but extraordinary difference.

Next. Once I’ve copied the text, I still have more work to do. I need to make these teachings, these doctrines, these maxims speak loud and clear to me. Pierre Hadot talks about rhetorical amplification.

And this just means how to make words and meaning sound more amplified to your own personal ear, which enhances your own comprehension and memorization of a text.

So back to Marcus Aurelius, I look at words and rhetoric.

I do some summarizing, I do some rewriting, and reformulating or paraphrasing of the text.

If I’m able to come up with a spectacularly good re-expression, I’ll transfer it either to some wall art or to my own pocket handbook.

I’ve created a little pocket-sized handbook, my own “Encheiridion,” my own handbook for life, which is precisely what Epictetus instructed his own students to do.

Rules for Life Instead of Solutions to Specific Problems.

Journaling with Marcus Aurelius in this way has helped me formulate rules for life and not just solutions for specific problems.

I’ve been able to engage much more intensely with the Stoic teachings. And I’ve also been able to memorize more of the teachings, which means that when I head back out into the world, I’m actually equipped with a Stoic toolbox which I can use.

Marcus Aurelius goes over the same issues again and again, but in an evermore eloquently expressed way, and sometimes with remarkably vivid imagery, just to make the teachings ever more memorable. Memorization is key because you need to take the doctrines with you, as always to have them as Epictetus says always at hand.

Further Reading:

Gregory Hays’s introduction in his translation of Meditations.

Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life.

Donald J. Robertson’s How Marcus Aurelius Wrote the Meditations.

Nat Dolin’s The Marcus Aurelius Guide to Journaling.

Ryan Holiday’s The Art of Journaling.

Kathryn Koromilas

Kathryn Koromilas is an author and educator. She leads The Stoic Salon, a Facebook group dedicated to reading and writing with the Stoics. On November 1, The Stoic Salon is hosting a Stoicon-x event/workshop on “Journaling with the Stoics.” Information & registration here: If you have any questions about journaling contact Kathryn on