How I practice Stoicism: 9 easy exercises

(the only known sculpture of Seneca, left, represented opposite Socrates, right)

Stoicism is a practical philosophy. Which means that, although there is a theory behind it (otherwise, it wouldn't be a philosophy!), the most important part is how you do it. I am often asked exactly what it means "to be" a Stoic, or, more specifically, how I personally practice. Below is a list of the exercises I regularly engage in, each with an accompanying quote from a Stoic source and a brief commentary about how to operationalize the idea. For many more exercises (52, in fact), see the forthcoming "A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control—52 Week-by-Week Lessons," which I co-wrote with my friend Greg Lopez.

Daily exercises

1. Reflection on Stoic passages

The wise man, indeed, overcomes Fortune by his virtue, but many who profess wisdom are sometimes frightened by the most unsubstantial threats. And at this stage it is a mistake on our part to make the same demands upon the wise man and upon the learner. I still exhort myself to do that which I recommend; but my exhortations are not yet followed. And even if this were the case, I should not have these principles so ready for practice, or so well trained, that they would rush to my assistance in every crisis. Just as wool takes up certain colours at once, while there are others which it will not absorb unless it is soaked and steeped in them many times; so other systems of doctrine can be immediately applied by men's minds after once being accepted, but this system of which I speak, unless it has gone deep and has sunk in for a long time, and has not merely coloured but thoroughly permeated the soul, does not fulfill any of its promises. (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius 71.30-33)

Here Seneca is telling us that we need to constantly bring to mind the principles of our philosophy, in order to, gradually, over time, internalize them and make them second nature to us. One way to do this is to start your day (though this can be done at any convenient quiet moment) by reading a passage from one of the Stoic sources and reflecting on how it applies to our lives. You may, of course, come up with your own list of favorite passages, but I publish an almost daily Stoic meditation precisely for that purpose.

2. Table temperance

Mastering one’s appetites for food and drink is the beginning of and basis for self-control. (Musonius Rufus, Lectures 18A.1)

Temperance is one of the four cardinal virtues, and as Musonius reminds us, we have at least three easy occasions to practice it daily: every time we sit at the table and eat or drink. That's what I mindfully try to do at mealtime. It's not just good for your soul, it's good for your health as well!

3. Philosophical diary 

Admit not sleep into your tender eyelids till you have reckoned up each deed of the day--How have I erred, what done or left undone? So start, and so review your acts, and then for vile deeds chide yourself, for good be glad. (Epictetus, Discourses III, 10)

I do my philosophical diary in the evening, before going to bed, though again, any moment of quiet will do. It doesn't have to be done every day, actually, and in fact I tend to write in it whenever the need arises, usually several times a week. I use a word processor on my laptop, making sure to protect the file with a password (I mean, I ain't no Marcus Aurelius, I don't really need future generations to look at these very personal thoughts...).The template provided by Epictetus works, though there is another one given by Seneca (in On Anger, III.36). Or you can come up with your own. The point is to reflect on what you have done that is ethically salient, learn from your mistakes, appreciate what you have done right, and make a mental note to try as much as possible to move away from the first category and toward the second one.

Weekly exercises

4. Self-deprivation

Now there are two kinds of [Stoic] training, one which is appropriate for the soul alone, and the other which is common to both soul and body. We use the training common to both when we discipline ourselves to cold, heat, thirst, hunger, meager rations, hard beds, avoidance of pleasures, and patience under suffering. For by these things and others like them the body is strengthened and becomes capable of enduring hardship, sturdy and ready for any task; the soul too is strengthened since it is trained for courage by patience under hardship and for self-control by abstinence from pleasures. (Musonius Rufus, Lectures 6)

These are typically understood as mild exercises in self-deprivation, so don't go crazy! The idea is, just as Musonius says, to strengthen our character by voluntarily renouncing certain pleasures or conveniences. The ones I do regularly are: fasting for at least 24 hours, abstaining from drinking alcohol at least one day a week, taking occasional cold showers (or ending a regular shower on cold), and going out under-dressed when there are low temperatures outside. Many more variations are possible. Another reason to do these exercises is to rekindle your gratitude and appreciation for what you normally have but take for granted.

5. I didn't know there were so many things I do not need

How far happier is he who is indebted to no man for anything except for what he can deprive himself of with the greatest ease! Since we, however, have not such strength of mind as this, we ought at any rate to diminish the extent of our property, in order to be less exposed to the assaults of fortune: those men whose bodies can be within the shelter of their armour, are more fitted for war than those whose huge size everywhere extends beyond it, and exposes them to wounds: the best amount of property to have is that which is enough to keep us from poverty, and which yet is not far removed from it. (Seneca, On Tranquillity of Mind 8)

The notion here is to leave as little as possible in the hands of Fortuna, which means to rely less on external goods, such as property and money. In this case too, there is no need to go to extremes: just be mindful of everything you buy and ask yourself if you really need it. Sometimes I begin a week by deciding that I will not buy anything except basic necessities for seven days. The title of the exercise comes from a phrase attributed to Socrates, who one day walked throughout the Agora -- the Athenian market -- got to the other side without buying anything, and said "I did not know there were so many things I do not need." In this era of consumerism and one-click purchases, this is good both for your soul and your wallet!

Occasional exercises

6. Premeditatio malorum

If an evil has been pondered beforehand, the blow is gentle when it comes. To the fool, however, and to him who trusts in fortune, each event as it arrives 'comes in a new and sudden form,' and a large part of evil, to the inexperienced, consists in its novelty. This is proved by the fact that men endure with greater courage, when they have once become accustomed to them, the things which they had at first regarded as hardships. Hence, the wise man accustoms himself to coming trouble, lightening by long reflection the evils which others lighten by long endurance. We sometimes hear the inexperienced say: 'I knew that this was in store for me.' But the wise man knows that all things are in store for him. Whatever happens, he says: 'I knew it.' (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius 76.34-35)

"Premeditatio malorum" literally means premeditation of evil, and it can be done in a number of ways. Some modern practitioners do it as a visualization exercise akin to those recommended in cognitive behavioral therapy (a clinical approach that is, in fact, inspired by Stoicism). I am not good at visualization exercises, so I have developed a method that uses the widespread technique, in educational circles, of concept mapping. The method is described here.

7. View from above

The agitations that beset you are superfluous, and depend wholly upon judgments of your own. You can get rid of them, and in so doing will indeed live at large, by embracing the whole universe in your view and comprehending all eternity and imagining the swiftness of change in each particular, seeing how brief is the passage from birth to dissolution, birth with its unfathomable before, dissolution with its infinite hereafter. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.32)

Here and elsewhere Marcus invites us to take a bit of distance from our daily affairs, stresses, and preoccupations. By purposefully embracing a long view, either in terms of time or in terms of space, we will be able to put things in perspective, realizing that what seem like serious problems on the spur of the moment are but a blip in the general scheme of things. This one too can be done as a visualization exercise (here is a video to help), or as a writing exercise.

8. Sunrise meditation

The Pythagoreans bid us in the morning look to the heavens that we may be reminded of those bodies that continually do the same things and in the same manner perform their work, and also be reminded of their purity and nudity. For there is no veil over a star. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, XI.27)

Nothing like reconnecting with Nature for a philosophical practitioner that identifies with a school whose motto was "live according to Nature"! To do this exercise, I make sure the weather forecast is good for the following morning, set up my alarm for an hour before sunrise, get dressed quickly, grab a cup of coffee on the go, and walk to a spot from which I get a reasonably unimpeded view of the Sun rising above the horizon (not easy in New York City...). Then I wait until the celestial ball of fire is completely visible, reflecting on our relationship to the cosmos, and the majestic beauty of the latter. Bonus: having started the day so early, I get a lot more done!

9. Meditation on death 

No man can have a peaceful life who thinks too much about lengthening it. ... Rehearse this thought every day, that you may be able to depart from life contentedly; for many men clutch and cling to life, even as those who are carried down a rushing stream clutch and cling to briers and sharp rocks. (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius 4.4-5)

We are mortal. It's a fact of life, and an inevitable one at that. So let us focus on living life here and now, and not be afraid of death since -- as the Epicureans used to say -- wherever she is we are not (and vice versa). One way to meditate on our own mortality and help take the sting out of the thought of it is to visit a cemetery, walking around looking at names and dates, all the while thinking that we will soon join that group of no-longer beings. This may seem depressing, but I assure you I always get out of it more energized and resolved than before to live every day to the fullest! 

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