Thursday, April 2, 2020

Stoicism in Practice

In my previous post, Stoicism in Six Points, I discussed the framework and why of the Stoic philosophy.  That post ended with a call to action.  The Stoic philosopher will not be content with only learning the philosophy, he will also be motivated to put it to use.  He wants to show how floods, riches, poverty, excellent health and contracting the corona virus don't make him happy or sad.  Rather, he wants to show how he can retain equanimity regardless of circumstance (self-preservation of his rational nature).  He wants to show the world and Nature how he can demonstrate his excellent character through moral fortitude.  He wants to show the world and Nature how he can be modest, trustworthy, high-minded, unshakable, free from passion, imperturbable, unhindered, unconstrained and in a a word: free.

action required: stoic exercises

To get to that unassailable position, the Stoic must train, practice and prepare.  In this post, I've compiled a list of Stoic practices or exercises the Stoic philosopher will incorporate into his life - this is the how of Stoic philosophy.  And as he practices and prepares for life to happen, he will begin to see the benefits.  The Stoic will rise each morning from his bed, ready to encounter anything that Nature throws at him.  The obstacles placed in his path, become the material he puts to good use.  He will plan and make goals and he will look for opportunities to demonstrate to the world and Nature what a good human being looks like.  As he progresses, he ultimately embodies the Stoic philosophy.

As I continue to find exercises in Stoic books I read, I will continually add to and tweak this post.  Many of these exercises will seemingly overlap and you also may find that you too will tweak various practices to fit your lifestyle and preference.  Feel free to share your ideas in the comments.

click to jump to a section

changing desires
circles of compassion
contemplation of virtue
levels of control
memento mori
mindfulness / acceptance / prosoche
pain and discomfort management
part of the whole
planning with a reserve clause
premeditatio malorum
present moment
remaining calm
values identification & clarification
view from above

back to top

There are many forms of journaling.  Some write out their meditations, some use it as a method of planning and reviewing their day.  Below is an example of journaling while planning and reviewing the day.
  • Plan in the morning; look at your day ahead and note where you might need to exercise virtue
  • If time allows, use some negative visualization to anticipate how you should appropriately act (i.e. traffic, grumpy managers, a headache, hunger, pains, etc); this could lead to identifying something for which you are grateful that day
  • At the end of the day, review your day, two or three times and ask yourself some key questions:
    • What did you do badly (ruled by irrational fears or unhealthy desires, etc)?
    • What did you do well (progressed towards wisdom, courage, self-discipline, etc)?
    • What would you have done differently if you had a do-over (how would have you reacted differently to the things you did badly, did you miss opportunities to practice virtue)?
mindfulness / acceptance / prosoche
back to top

This practice is looking at the world objectively; viewing reality as it is; "it's not things that upset us, but our opinions of them"
  • Write down your thoughts as they occur and just observe them without judgement
  • Plainly state the emotion you are currently feeling
back to top
  • Write your thoughts on a white board and stand on the other side of the room and look at them from a physical distance.
  • Will this / these thoughts matter in an hour?  A day?  A week?  A month? A year? Or years from now?
  • Evaluate the 'pros' and 'cons' of an opinion … evaluate them with detachment
  • What would Marcus Aurelius (or a wise person or friend) think of my situation? 
view from above
back to top

The effort to see from another perspective: 'the view from above' was practiced by Marcus Aurelius while he was emperor of the Roman Empire.

The sight of Earth from the perspective of a space craft or satellite was not available to Marcus, but we have all seen pictures of our planet. When you see earth from a distance in both time and space it aids one in setting aside personal, political, and cultural prejudices. To see the world from the perspective of a god helps feeling less stress about the minutia of life.

Consider this tweet from Stoic in New York City (@stoicin / link to tweet):

Or, also consider the view from above in terms of time.  Meditations 7.23 asks us to consider how everything is like wax that is molded, melted and molded again and again.  This helps us appreciate the impermanence of everything.

We don't know why Marcus developed this technique, but it would appear to be especially useful to one who's daily decisions could affect the lives of millions. Because of its proven effects, something very similar to this ancient practice of distancing oneself from one's thoughts is still used today in modern psychotherapy techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

present moment
back to top

Throughout the day practice bringing your attention back to the present moment. Pretend you are seeing the world for the first time or this is your last day of life. The present is all we have. As Marcus Aurelius said, "He who sees the present has seen all things, both all that has come to pass from everlasting and all that will be for eternity: all things are related and the same" (Meditations 6.37).

Become mindful in the present space at the present time ("I am in a room, with four walls, a fan on the ceiling; the fan is moving; there is carpet on the floor; I'm sitting in a leather chair … etc.)

back to top

There are dozens of ways to meditate.  The ultimate goal of meditation is to see the world objectively as well as to help you lengthen the pause between an event occurring and you reacting and assenting to the event.  This is simply widening the gap between stimulus and reaction.

levels of control
back to top

Self-control is related to the domain of desire and aversion – one is responsible for what one does, so one should be in charge of what one does.  Man as an ape has appetites that consume him; but man as a thinker can see the endless servitude therein. Appetites and fears chain man to worry and give others power over him; all these, then, constitute a kind of slavery.  Self-control is a first step towards freedom from impulse and domination by others, towards being one's own natural self and one's own master at the same time.

This exercise reminds us of just what kind of control we have over something. Daily, in every situation and decision, the first question to ask is: "How much control do I have over this?" Epictetus repeatedly emphasized that we have no control over anything except the will; all else is up to Fate.

The benefit of this exercise, which increases after it becomes habit, is the tranquility we experience. Most of the things we worry about are out of our control, so we can learn to drop that habit and accept external events with greater calm. We cannot prevent what another person does to us, but we can choose to remain calm and carry on.

remaining calm
back to top

It is one thing to claim that we have various levels of control, that we can act or not react, but what are some of the methods we can use to help us remain centered and calm? Here are two methods:
  1. Self-deprecation. This is the method made popular by Epictetus, who said that if someone accuses you of having some flaw in your character you should tell him its a good thing he doesn't know you well enough to point out even the worst flaws you have. Through quick, humorous, self-deprecation, attacks are swiftly deflected. If I want to say to you that you are evil or, at best, ignorant, you could reply with, "Why can't I be both?" Self-deprecation works on accusations that are untrue and true. If the accusation is true, be grateful that a flaw has been pointed out to you, while at the same time, using humor to deflect the sting of the remark.
  2. Correction. As parents, we correct our children when they misbehave. If we are supervisors at work, we correct our workers of errors so that they can perform their work correctly. In the case of children, even if we are not the parent, we may find ourselves in a position to take part in their formation for life in society. Teachers also fill such a role. Epictetus recommends that we instruct others who are misbehaving as we would a child. No one has to put up with bad behavior. Instruct. The instruction can be firm without being personal or emotional.
negative visualization or premeditatio malorum
(assent, desire)
back to top

All negative visualization can become a positive realization once it has been performed. Remembering that people, places, and things we love can be taken from us, we realize that nothing is certain. There will be loss in our lifetime so it is a good thing to prepare ourselves for them and we can do this by imaging what it would be like to have lost these things right now.

This exercise prepares you mentally and emotionally for the changes in fortune that are a part of life, and it lessens the sting of the loss if that loss happens in the future. The plus side to the exercise is that it can actually be positive in that it reminds us to appreciate what we have now while we still have it.
  1. Start with a coffee cup or small object that you love or a "what if …" scenario
  2. Visualize that you've lost it; or broke it or it was stolen … it no longer belongs to you or the "what if …" scenario happened
  3. Process your reaction, emotions and evaluate them
  4. Think about what an appropriate reaction should be if you were to lose that thing or if that event happened
  5. Start small and move to bigger things; a cup, a loved outfit or shirt, a backpack, a laptop or smart phone, bigger items in your home, a car, your whole home, your career or job, your land, an injured limb, your health, your child, spouse and then your life
  6. All of this takes time and can be quite emotional, but often take time to visualize losing these things
  7. This practice falls under the Discipline of Assent and Desire … breaking things down; seeing things objectively; and then "checking" your desires to ensure they are appropriate.
  8. All of these things are preferred indifferents
back to top

A side benefit of Negative Visualization is gratitude.  After thinking about losing various things, you will come back to the present moment and circumstance and you will have a greater appreciation for what you have.

remembering you are mortal / memento mori
back to top

A specific form of Negative Visualization that specifically focuses on the fleeting nature of mortality and how it is nothing to fear.

According to Wikipedia, memento mori began in classical times. “Plato's Phaedo, where the death of Socrates is recounted, introduces the idea that the proper practice of philosophy is 'about nothing else but dying and being dead.' The Stoics were particularly prominent in their use of this discipline, and Seneca’s letters are full of injunctions to meditate on death.” Notice that memento mori refers to the proper practice of philosophy. This is what we're doing.

values identification & clarification
back to top

This comes from Donald Robertson's How to Think Like a Roman Emperor p. 108.
  • What's ultimately the most important thing in life to you?
  • What do you really want your life to stand for or represent?
  • What do you want to be remembered for after you're dead?
  • What sort of person do you most want to be in life?
  • What sort of character do you want to have?
  • What would you want written on your tombstone?
  • What do you want said in your eulogy?
Write out a list with two columns:
  1. Desired: values and virtues you most desire for yourself in life
  2. Admired: qualities which are praiseworthy and commendable in other people
In Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, in Book 1, he observes all the admired qualities in other peoples' lives which he would presumably want to incorporate into his life.

This practice may begin with a list of desired and admired values and qualities (in the previous exercise).  Then the exercise would shift to observation as you find people in your circle of life who exhibit these qualities and noting them, similarly to how Marcus noted them.

back to top

As you begin to pivot your desires and aversions away from indifferents and towards virtue, consider these steps found in Robertson's How to Think Like a Roman Emperor in chapter "The Choice of Hercules."
  1. Evaluate the consequences of your habits or desires in order to select which ones to change.
  2. Spot early warning signs so that you can nip problematic desires in the bud.
  3. Gain cognitive distance by separating your impressions from external reality.
  4. Do something else instead of engaging in the habit.
back to top
  1. Select something you are planning to do
  2. Imagine the obstacles that could stand in your way and accept that these could happen
  3. Rehearse saying to yourself “I will do ____” adding the caveat “…fate permitting.” This is a reserve clause that accepts the role of fate in the outcome of all externals.
  4. If the obstacles do get in your way accept the outcome as it happens
In chapter 4 of the Encheiridion, Epictetus says,
Whenever you are about to start on some activity, remind yourself what the activity is like.  If you go out to bathe, picture what happens at a bathhouse - the people there who splash you or jostle you or talk rudely or steal your things.  In this way you will be more prepared to start on the activity, by telling yourself at the outset: ‘I want to bathe, and I also want to keep my will in harmony with nature.’  Make this your practice in every activity.  Then, if anything happens that gets in the way of your bathing, you will have the following response available: ‘Well, this was not the only thing I wanted; I also wanted to keep my will in harmony with nature.  I shall not do that if I get angry about what is happening.’

An important nuance about the reserve clause.

From James Daltrey in the Living Stoicism Facebook group

"[reserve clause is] related to the discipline of desire.

  • The Stoics didn't internalize their projects.
  • If you start on a project you DON'T KNOW how it will end out.
  • Whatever happens is what you want to happen.
  • You can never be disappointed.

In sum:

  • The reservation DOES NOT relate to hedging against failed expectations.
  • The reservation relates to lack of knowledge

Two scenarios

  1. You apply for a job, you hope you will get it, but you prepare for not getting.  You don't get the job.  You have prepared for your failed expectations.  You have mitigated things going wrong.
  2. You apply for a job, you don't [know] if you will get it, and understand that you cannot know.  You don't get the job.  Not getting the job is the best possible outcome from which to proceed with the rest of your life.

Everything went perfectly.."

The first example is about hedging against failed expectations, while the second is based on lack of knowledge.

back to top

Injury and illness may come into your life.  Additionally, your life may have become too "soft" and one day, you may lose the comforts of modern life due to uncontrolled circumstances or fate.  Preparing for that fate will go a long way to deaden the pain, worry and stress that comes with hardship.

As for immediate illness or pain, below is a list from Donald Robertson's How to Think Like a Roman Emperor from the chapter "Grasping the Nettle."
  • Separate your mind from the sensation, which is called “cognitive distancing,” by reminding yourself that it is not things, or sensations, that upset us but our judgments about them.
  • Remember that the fear of pain does more harm than pain itself, or use other forms of functional analysis to weigh up the consequences for you of fearing versus accepting pain.
  • View bodily sensations objectively (objective representation, or phantasia kataleptike) instead of describing them in emotive terms. (“There’s a feeling of pressure around my forehead” versus “It feels like I’m dying—an elephant might as well be stamping over and over on my head!”)
  • Analyze the sensations into their elements and limit them as precisely as possible to their specific site on the body, thereby using the same depreciation by analysis that we used in the previous chapter to neutralize unhealthy desires and cravings. (“There’s a sharp throbbing sensation in my ear that comes and goes,” not “I’m in total agony.”)
  • View the sensation as limited in time, changeable, and transient, or “contemplate impermanence.” (“This sensation only peaks for a few seconds at a time and then fades away; it will probably be gone in a couple of days.”) If you have an acute problem like toothache, you’ll have forgotten what it felt like years from now. If you have a long-term problem such as chronic sciatica, you’ll know it sometimes gets worse and so at other times it must be less severe. It makes a difference if you can focus on the notion that this shall pass.
  • Let go of your struggle against the sensation and accept it as natural and indifferent, what is called “Stoic acceptance.” That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take practical steps to deal with it, such as using medication to reduce pain, but you must learn to live with the pain without resentment or an emotional struggle.
  • Remind yourself that Nature has given you both the capacity to exercise courage and the endurance to rise above pain and that we admire these virtues in other people, which we discussed in relation to contemplating and modeling virtue.
Other, intentional practices of hardship will also go a long way in preparing for the worst to come.  Examples include:
  • fasting, intermittent or extended fasts
  • cold showers, ice bathes
  • tough, physical exercise, yard work, chopping wood, lifting weights, running, etc.
  • living like a pauper or homeless person, in which you try to live as minimally as possible
  • sleeping on the floor, with no blanket
  • walking barefoot
  • in ancient times, some embraced cold statues, with no clothes on - be mindful of decency laws in your country and city :-)
Seneca practiced poverty regularly.  In Moral Letters to Lucilius #18 he wrote,
Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: "Is this the condition that I feared?" 6. It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence.

circles of compassion
back to top

The basis of Stoic desire is self-preservation, both physical and rational.  However, we ought to hold our rational self-preservation to be more valuable.  Once we have secured freedom for our rational natures, we ought to concern ourselves for those in our social circles.  This means helping others with self-preservation both at the physical and rational levels.

Einstein conveyed this message well when he said,
A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
you are a part of a whole
back to top

Marcus Aurelius spent time thinking that he was a limb playing its unique part in a greater whole body.
Rational beings collectively have the same relation as the various limbs of an organic unity - they were created for a single cooperative purpose. The notion of this will strike you more forcefully if you keep on saying to yourself: 'I am a limb of the composite body of rational beings.' If, though, by the change of one letter from I to r [melos to meros], you call yourself simply a part rather than a limb, you do not yet love your fellow men from your heart: doing good does not yet delight you as an end in itself; you are still doing it as a mere duty, not yet as a kindness to yourself. (Meditations 7.13)
While to many, the idea that a person is just a 'cog in the wheel' is offensive, it actually is an appropriate perspective.  Is a car truly a car when it is missing one or more wheels?  Don't take the analogy too literally.  The spirit of the exercise is to appreciate your position in the cosmos.


I'll simply conclude this post with a thoughtful analogy Epictetus used as he tried to get his students to commit to real change in their lives.  It is from Discourses 3.21
Those who have taken in the principles raw and without any dressing immediately want to vomit them up again, just as people with weak stomachs bring up their food. Digest them first, and then you won’t vomit them up in this way. Otherwise they do indeed become nothing more than vomit, foul stuff that isn’t fit to eat. But after having digested them, show us some resulting change in your ruling center, just as athletes show in their shoulders the results of their exercises and diet, and those who have become expert craftsmen can show the results of what they have learned. A builder doesn’t come forward and say, ‘Listen to me as I deliver a discourse about the builder’s art,’ but he acquires a contract to build a house, and shows through actually building it that he has mastered the art. And you for your part should follow a similar course of action: eat as a proper human being, drink as a proper human being, dress, marry, father children, perform your public duties; put up with being abused, put up with an inconsiderate brother, put up with a father, a son, a neighbor, a fellow traveler. Show us these things to enable us to see that you really have learned something from the philosophers.