Stoic self discomfort and control exercises

RomanI mentioned in a previous post, covering part II of Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, the idea of Stoic exercises of (mild, as Irvine specifies) self discomfort and self control, which Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus and Marcus advise to practice in order to achieve two goals: i) prepare oneself for possible adversity; ii) develop a more keen sense of appreciation of one’s current circumstances.

Here are a couple of excerpts from Irvine:

“Musonius takes this technique one step further: He thinks that besides living as if bad things had happened to us, we should sometimes cause them to happen. In particular, we should periodically cause ourselves to experience discomfort that we could easily have avoided. We might accomplish this by underdressing for cold weather or going shoeless. Or we might periodically allow ourselves to become thirsty or hungry, even though water and food are at hand, and we might sleep on a hard bed , even though a soft one is available.

Besides periodically engaging in acts of voluntary discomfort, we should, say the Stoics, periodically forgo opportunities to experience pleasure. This is because pleasure has a dark side. Indeed, pursuing pleasure, Seneca warns, is like pursuing a wild beast: On being captured, it can turn on us and tear us to pieces. Or, changing the metaphor a bit, he tells us that intense pleasures , when captured by us, become our captors, meaning that the more pleasures a man captures, “the more masters will he have to serve.””

That chapter of the book (#7) goes on to discuss the benefits of this sort of Stoic practice. With this in mind, I’d like to come up with a list of Stoic exercises in self discomfort and/or self control. Here is the beginning of such a list:

Self control:

  • leave part of your meal on the plate
  • go without drinking alcohol for a day

Self discomfort

  • go hungry for a day
  • go outside underdressed for the whether
  • sleep on an uncomfortable bed

Care to add your own?

16 thoughts on “Stoic self discomfort and control exercises

  1. The Leather Library

    I have been thinking about this more and more over the past year or so. I have been trying to participate more in my university classes seeing that i do not feel comfortable doing so. Likewise I will generally put myself into situations that would normally make me feel uncomfortable. But I also try to do it on smaller levels such as not wearing gym gloves when exercising, not eat what, or as much, as i’d normally do.

    great article professor.

    -Steven U


  2. Seth Leon

    ‘Care to add your own’:

    I believe becoming comfortable with degrees of discomfort can be extremely valuable, but like all things the value depends on how the concept is applied. Needlessly causing self-damage can be maladaptive if the exposure to the stressor is too extreme or does not take place in the context of well a conceived program. It is important to have a proper balance between the stress, recovery, and adaptation for progress to take place.

    I find that marathon training is a great way immerse oneself in this process. There can be obvious physical benefits, but also mental/cognitive benefits as well. It is also easy to over-train and suffer repercussions as well. With experience I find it much easier to get closer the sweet spot where the benefits are maximized and the downsides avoided. This inevitably leads to an understanding of the importance of other aspects like the value of rest, proper nutrition, some strength and mobility supplemental training etc….


  3. viennahavana

    In my opinion, not only does exercise count, but doing it in the way that the Stoics would recommend (in other words, to the point of mild discomfort) is the most reliable and scientifically proven way to feel a significant health benefit (if one is already relatively healthy).
    I have found that kind of exercise to be very rewarding, although so irritating when I’m doing it.

    I would add cleaning… something I really find uncomfortable–but which provides such a benefit to my life when it’s over! You’ve inspired me to do a little spring cleaning now that spring is finally here.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. 363dsmo

    Thanks for this blog. It’s always provoking.

    But I am a bit dissatisfied by this article. I once took an introductory course to a meditation technique in a community outside Boston right around dinner time, and the instructors related all of the benefits of the meditation to dealing with traffic and hunger. While the example, used once, might have made an idea more accessible, the returns to it trivialized the practice for me. And it made me concerned that the practitioners were not committed to the deep dive called for by the masters. I feel the same about this idea of collecting little discomforts as a means stoic practice.

    I suppose my complaint is a matter of direction. It seems to me that the micro-deprivations noted as examples in the article should occur as a result (an outcome) of one’s self-awareness and self-control. And that an accrual of micro-deprivations for their own sake doesn’t indicate or necessarily lead to mastery of practice. We need to be cautious that leaving some frites on the plate or jogging when tired doesn’t score a win for smugness, rather than for one’s stoicism practice.

    Philosophy has to work during our horrible moments. And our preparation for those difficult patches (and everything between them) should provide us with the poise and strength of character that will influence our micro-decisions in our daily lives. I just can’t see the vector running the other way.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Massimo Post author

    363, you raise an interesting point, but I disagree with the substance of your argument. First off, the micro-practices above are based on actual suggestions made by the ancient Stoics themselves (Seneca and Epictetus, for instance), so that’s definitely one of the things they intended to convey to their followers.

    Second, I actually think that there is quite a bit of empirical evidence that human behavior can be modified precisely by habituating oneself to a new regime by small incremental steps. Certainly cognitive behavioral therapy, which is highly influenced by Stoicism, works that way.

    Lastly, the points of the exercises isn’t to score points for “smugness.” The practitioner truly wishes to work toward perfecting Stoic doctrine, and these exercises are just one of the several tools available (for others, see my “Stoicism 101” section on this site, as well as several of the books recommended under the corresponding tab).


  6. Seth Leon

    I think the important point 363dsmo raises is one I also tried to raise. With any tool or practice there is on one hand the essence of the goal that the practice intends to address, and then there also is always the potential to fall into attachment with idea or formalization of the concept of the practice. When we slip into the the latter and practice for the sake of the concept we often do more good then harm.

    I think this relates to the prior topic on controlling that which can be controlled by setting well conceived intrinsic goals and staying vigilant against acting for superficial purposes.


  7. Massimo Post author

    Seth, sure, but therein lies virtue: being able to tell the difference between the primary goal of one’s activities and its secondary (“indifferent”) benefits, avoiding to get attached to the latter.


  8. Seth Leon

    I agree Massimo, in general.

    I do think however that tracking the resulting secondary “indifferents” provides important feedback on any practice. For example, if the Stoics considered our physical health and temporary emotions to be ‘indifferents” which could be preferred or dispreferred I think a productive practice and one directed by well conceived intrinsic goals would also be one that made preferred “indifferents” more likely to occur as stabilized default states of being. Conversely, if the practice seems to induce extended periods of dealing with preferred “indifferents” outside of the practice it might suggest one re-evaluate the goals or application of the practice.


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