Today I want to describe various Stoic exercises that you can do to develop a Stoic outlook on life. While this is obviously useful for the would-be Stoic, I think that everyone can benefit these exercises.
This isn’t some spiritual mumbo-jumbo, anyone who knows me is aware that I frown upon the whole idea of “spirituality”. These exercises have been used by millions of people because they work in real life, not in some imaginary far away land. They are practical and they do not require any equipment with the exception of a functioning brain.
All of these exercises have been around for thousands of years and the reason that they are still applicable today is because they are grounded in common experience and in common sense.
Stoic Exercise 1: Early Morning Reflection
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this one out. You need to reflect, early in the morning. Of course, it’s actually more nuanced than that. It’s not just about planning what you will do that day, it’s about how you may react to what you will do and also what others will do.
Cling tooth and nail to the following rule: Not to give in to adversity, never to trust prosperity, and always to take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases, treating her as if she were actually going to do everything it is in her power to do. Whatever you have been expecting for some time comes as less of a shock. Seneca
Firstly, be thankful that you have actually woken up, many people will not have this privilege today.
Secondly, plan how you will embrace your virtues and avoid your vices. Pick a particular philosophical precet or a personal strength you want to cultivate and think about how you can incorporate it into the day ahead. Mentally check how you will deal with any difficult situations that know may well arise.
Thirdly, remind yourself that the only things you can control are your thoughts and your actions. Everything else is uncontrollable.
- If you wake up early enough and have time, go out for a walk and enjoy the rising sun while meditating on developing yourself as a human being.
- Perform light exercises using your own bodyweight. Contemplate your own mortality and the fact that you will age.
Stoic Exercise 2: A View from Above
This exercise is designed to remind you about how small you really are, and how little importance most things are. In other words, to give you a sense of the bigger picture. It’s quite simple, you use your imagination to try and relate yourself to the whole world and beyond.
There are two ways you can approach this:
- Follow a guided meditation. You can download a free recording by Donald Roberton here and the script here.
- Do it yourself. This is my prefered method as you doesn’t require any equipment and so it can be done anywhere. I recommend going somewhere relaxing such as a park or the beach if you’re lucky enough to live in a costal area. Obviously I can tell you exactly what to imagine because I’m not you, but I would recommend starting above the clouds and then slowly come closer to the world and the people in it. Feel free to start much, much farther away in some distant spot of the universe. Observe everything going on: first kisses, wars, discoveries, learning, artistic creations, traffic jams and anything else you can imagine. Observe, but do not judge. Now think of yourself in relation to all of this. Know, that many of the things you hold to be important are only relatively important. Know that you are only relatively important.
- Try freezing time as you do this exercise. Imagine yourself walking through cities and everything is perfectly still. Observe that very moment.
- Attempt this exercise but in a different era. This can really hammer home the fact that you once didn’t exist and eventually you will also not exist.
Stoic Exercise 3: Contemplation of the Ideal Man (or Woman)
This exercise is designed to provide a catalyst for change towards becoming an ideal human being. Of course, this is a never-ending quest.
Think about the qualities which make up the ideal person. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that the Greek and Roman statues represent the physical ideal and focus on the psychological aspects instead.
What qualities make up the ideal character? In some respects this is quite a difficult question to answer and perhaps it is easier to focus on what would an ideal person do in any given situation. From the actions of this ideal person we can then try and determine their inner qualities and, hopefully, begin to emulate them.
Just remember that the ideal person does not exist…
- Create a list of actual role models, past or present, and analyse what makes them ideal. Find the best qualities of these individual and discard any negative character flaws.
- You can also do the opposite of contemplating the ideal man. Contemplate the worst type of human being imaginable and strive to avoid being like that.
Stoic Exercise 4: Cultivating Philanthropy
First off, let’s define philanthropy:
The desire to promote the welfare of others.
Contrary to modern thinking, money is not the only way to become a philanthropist. In fact, anyone can become a philanthropist, it just requires the right attitude towards others.
The problem is that by default we tend to live as if we were are enclosed in a series of spheres, one inside the other, just like a Russian doll. Each sphere represents a progressively greater distance from our true selves.
So how do we cultivate philanthropy? Our goal should be to try and bring everyone into a nearer circle. So think of your family as an extension of yourself and your fellow citizens as your family, all the way to thinking of mankind as a whole as country men and women. The Stoic philosopher Hierocles even went as far as saying that we should view our siblings as if they were parts of our own body, like an arm or a leg.
This obviously requires a major shift in perspective and a lot of effort, but it does have it’s advantages:
- You end up not become overly attached to any single individual which leaves you less exposed in case of loss of friendship or their death.
- A larger circle of friends, which means greater exposure to different cultures and viewpoints. This is an incredibly opportunity for learning.
- Strike up a pleasant conversation with a stranger.
- Let your close friends know that you consider them part of your family, and that they should be able to rely on you as such.
Stoic Exercise 5: Self Retreat
While there are many good reasons to travel the world, doing so to find peace or freedom is not one of them. It’s actually deeply unphilosophical. Peace of mind and freedom are things that come from within, so if you are running away from cognitive dissonance, you are actually running away from yourself.
And unfortunately, when you travel you have to bring yourself along for the journey. ;)
Let me offer you a simpler and also much cheaper way to find peace of mind and freedom with this exercise. Regularly travel inside your mind, specially if you need peace of mind or freedom. Nowhere else is anyone as free as in their own mind. You can be different right here, right now. No need to travel to find yourself. All you need is five to ten minutes a day to shut out the outside world and to look inside your own mind.
People seek retreats for themselves in the countryside by the seashore, in the hills, and you too have made it your habit to long for that above all else. But this is altogether unphilosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself whenever you please; for nowhere can one retreat into greater peace or freedom from care than within one’s own soul, especially when a person has such things within him that he merely has to look at them to recover from that moment perfect ease of mind (and by ease of mind I mean nothing other than having one’s mind in good order). So constantly grant yourself this retreat and so renew yourself; but keep within you concise and basic precepts that will be enough, at first encounter, to cleanse you from all distress and to send you back without discontent to the life to which you will return. Marcus Aurelius
I recently watched a video about a prisoner who knew that he will spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement. He discussed how he is able to still escape the four walls of his cell by reading and thinking. This really makes you wonder what being a prisoner actually means, and if is some ways we are all prisoners in different types of prisons. The person who is physically free to do what he likes may be mentally entrapped in depression or worse.
A few things you may want to think about when on a self retreat:
- You are not disturbed by events, but by your opinion about events.
- Everything is constantly changing and there is nothing you can do about it.
- You will not live forever.
- Try and practice self retreat in non-ideal situations. You could try doing it in the same room as someone watching television or perhaps on a journey in public transport.
- Visit Calm.com to help you relax before starting if you are having difficulty when you first try this out.
Stoic Exercise 6: Philosophical Journal
I’ve discussed the benefits of keeping a journal in my essay on daily education. The difference here is that instead of writing only about what has happened in your life, you analyse it (preferably from a Stoical perspective). You can use a philosophical journal as a tool to discover your own shortcomings and to track the way you change over time. By constant reflection we can improve our current and future life.
By planning your future actions according to an ethical framework and then later you can look back and see what needs to change based on what actually happened. This Stoic exercise is very easy to combine with a normal journal, and if you do it right, eventually there should be no difference between a “normal” journal entry and a philosophical one.
- Keep a daily philosophical journal for one month.
- Read the philosophical journal called "Meditations" of the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius.
Stoic Exercise 7: The Stripping Method
The thinking behind this exercise is that every situation has many layers, just like an onion. Each layer represents something that we bring to the situation and not the situation itself. It’s only by considering the core issues without the relatively unimportant layers we add that we can act according to a proper ethical framework. Stop considering your reputation or whatever personal advantage you think you may gain as part of the equation when working out what to do in a given situation. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What value does this situation bring to everyone? You might be surprised at how many times the answer is “none”.
- What type of qualities does this situation require? If you have these qualities then great, if not then just think of this situation as a good chance to develop them.
Let me give you an example.
When we are growing up, many of us struggle to decide what we want to do in lives. If we strip this question down to the core, it’s all about finding something fulfilling and meaningful to work towards. Initially it’s worth ignoring the problem of monetization or other people’s expectation of what you should do otherwise you might find yourself living a life which is far removed from who you truly are.
I really struggled with this growing up. I had an excellent start in life in terms of an education at a top school, I had lived in many places, and I had a strong musical and intellectual upbringing. Essentially, I had every chance available, yet I was in such desperation about what I was going to do in my life by the time I was 17, that I actually quit school before I finished and never even went to university. While I wouldn’t recommend this path to everyone, it eventually worked out well for me.
- Ask yourself the following question: What would I do if money was not an issue?
- Answer the above the question, and then go and do just that.
Stoic Exercise 8: Bedtime Reflection
This is the flip side of exercise number one, Early Morning Reflection. This time, instead of reflecting on what is going to happen, you reflect on what has happened. Mentally replay your entire day and then ask yourself the following questions:
- Did I behave according to my principles?
- Did I treat the people with whom I interacted with in a friendly and considerate manner?
- What vices have I fought?
- Have I made myself a better person by cultivating my virtues?
Of course, there is nothing stopping you planning for the next day. Feel free to write down a few notes on things to think about in the morning. This all links up with the next day’s Early Morning Reflection.
In other words: Learn from your mistakes.
- Write down one thing you want to improve the next day, no matter how small. You may be surprised at how you change if you keep this up for months on end.
- Remind yourself that this day has finished and there is nothing you can now do to change it. Accept everything that has happened, whether good or bad.
Stoic Exercise 9: Negative Visualisation
I have often mention how the phenomenon of Hedonic Adaptation means that we constantly get used to the things we have and then begin to take them for granted. Negative visualisation is a simple exercise that can remind us how lucky we are. The premise is simple, just imagine that bad things have happened, or that good things have not. You decide the scale of the catastrophe:
- Losing all your possessions
- Never having met your spouse
- Losing a family member
- Losing a sense such as your sight or your hearing.
You can also imagine how situations that you are about to embark in will go wrong.
While you may think that this type of pessimism is not conductive to a happy and fulfilling life, it can actually turn your life into pure gold by making you realise that all these bad things have not happened to you.
- Try and imagine catastrophes happening in the very act that you are about to do. You could imagine that the plane you are travelling on will malfunction and crash. I don’t recommend this to everyone as it is not for the faint hearted.
- Imagine having been born sometime in the past and all the things that you would miss because they would not have been invented yet.
Stoic Exercise 10: Physical Self-Control Training
This exercises consists in purposefully experiencing physical hardships and also going without things one enjoys. In some ways one could think of this as a practical version of negative visualisation.
Physical Self-Control Training serves a dual purpose:
- To prepare ourselves in case we actually have to face physical hardships or we lose some, or all, of what we have.
- To train ourselves not to desire things that are outside of our control. Remember that we can only control our thoughts and our actions.
- Remember that you should grasp everything in life loosely, just like sand. You don’t hold sand tightly , otherwise it escapes your grasp.
A few examples of physical self-control training:
- Drinking only water for a set period of time.
- Going out in cold weather without a jacket.
I think it’s important to view everything as transient. You, the things you own and everyone you know will one day cease to exist. View everything as if it was on loan. Instead of saying “I have lost it” say “I have given it back”. I actually had a break in to my house the other day and I lost my Leica M3, a beautiful camera from the 1950’s. However, I actually reflected on this experience and realised that I wasn’t on the losing end of the event.
- For one week, change something in your daily routine that makes your day more uncomfortable or less straightforward.
- Try going without the internet at home for a certain period of time!
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about these exercises and I hope you put them to some good use in your life. Remember, you don’t have to be a Stoic to get some benefit from these exercises.
I would just like to point out that many of the above mentioned techniques can be blended together. For instance, you might decide to go out for a walk early in the morning but not wear a jacket even if it’s somewhat cold. While you are doing this you could tell yourself that you’re lucky that it hasn’t started pouring down with rain. You’ve just combined the Early Morning Reflection, Physical Self-Control Training and Negative Visualisation.
The common factor behind all of these exercises is the fact that they require you to take a conscious look at how you live your life and that is never a bad thing, no matter what your viewpoint on life is.