How to be a Stoic, in practice

Practice, practice, practice…

This past summer I ran a Stoic School in Rome for three days (will do it again next year, so stay tuned…), during which I went through both the theory and practice of Stoicism. The goal was for the students to get out by Sunday night and have all the basic tools they needed to begin their journey as prokoptontes (those who make progress, as the Stoics referred to themselves).

One of the useful tools that came out of that experience was a list of pithy phrases to keep in mind as reminders for daily practice, whenever the occasion arises. In this post I will present another tool we developed at the School, a list of daily, weekly or occasional practices that make very clear and easy to see what it means to “be” a Stoic, rather than just talk like one.

If from the moment they get up in the morning they adhere to their ideals, eating and bathing like a person of integrity, putting their principles into practice in every situation they face — the way a runner does when he applies the principles of running, or a singer those of musicianship — that is where you will see true progress embodied, and find someone who has not wasted their time making the journey here from home. (Epictetus, Discourses I, 4.20)

The photo below was taken at the School, by the time we had reached the end of this particular discussion, and is a pretty handy (if a bit messy, and written in my quasi-illegible handwriting) summary of this post. Let’s go through it bit by bit.

First, however, an important caveat. This is by no means the only way to practice Stoicism. It’s just my way. And I have tweaked my approach over time on the basis of what seems to work best for me, the time I have available, and so on. Therefore, the one below is just a possible template among many.

To begin with, then, there are those practices that I do, or try to do, every day. I start with a morning meditation, which comprises two components. I pick a passage from one of the ancient Stoics (the same passage I share every day on the Stoicism Facebook page; here are several downloadable collections of such favorite quotes), read it two or three times, and reflect on how it may apply to my life. It’s a constant source of inspiration and meditation. I then briefly go over the upcoming day, focusing on potentially difficult situations that may arise and preparing my mind to react to them in the best possible way. The whole thing may take 5-10 minutes.

Just as I know that all things can happen, so I know, too, that they will not happen in every case. I am ready for favorable events in every case, but I am prepared for evil. (Seneca, Letter LXXXVIII, On Liberal and Vocational Studies, 17)

During the day I practice Stoic “mindfulness,” which I understand as it is presented in Epictetus (wherever he uses the word “prosochē,” usually translated as “attention”). Consider these two quotations, both from Discourses IV, 12:

When you relax your attention for a little, do not imagine that you will recover it wherever you wish, but bear this well in mind, that your error of to-day must of necessity put you in a worse position for other occasions. For in the first place — and this is the most serious thing — a habit of inattention is formed, and next a habit of deferring attention: and you get into the way of putting off from one time to another the tranquil and becoming life, the state and behavior which nature prescribes. Now if such postponement of attention is profitable, it would be still more profitable to abandon it altogether: but if it is not profitable, why do you not keep up your attention continuously?


Is any part of life excluded, on which attention has no bearing, any that you will make worse by attention, and better by inattention? Nay, is there anything in life generally which is done better by those who do not attend? Does the carpenter by inattention do his work better? Does the helmsman by inattention steer more safely? And is any of the minor duties of life fulfilled better by inattention?

But what, exactly, does Epictetus mean here? What are we supposed to pay attention to? The examples of the carpenter and the helmsman may be misleading, if taken literally rather than as analogies. Epictetus is not talking simply about pay attention to what you do while you are doing it — as much as that’s good advice in general. He is specifically talking about paying attention to our impressions (i.e., the first, automatic judgments we make about anything that happens to us), delaying our reaction until we can “interrogate” them, and most importantly applying to them the crucial Stoic test of the dichotomy of control: is this up to me, or is it not up to me? If it is, by all means let me focus my energy and resources on it. If it isn’t, then it is nothing to me. (Meaning not that I don’t give a crap, but that I accept that there is nothing for me to be done about it.)

So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ (Enchiridion 1.5)

Epictetus even goes on to give us examples of what to pay attention to and apply the Stoic test to:

Provoked by the sight of a handsome man or a beautiful woman, you will discover within you the contrary power of self-restraint. Faced with pain, you will discover the power of endurance. If you are insulted, you will discover patience. In time, you will grow to be confident that there is not a single impression that you will not have the moral means to tolerate. (Enchiridion 10)

That’s what I try to do every day, all day. It sounds taxing, and it is in the beginning, just like it’s hard the first few times you go to the gym. But, just like going to the gym, your capacity to pay attention becomes better and better, and you make progress as a student of Stoicism. Every day, every moment.

Finally, near the end of the day I retire to a quiet corner of my apartment and write down my philosophical diary, focusing on the ethically relevant episodes that have taken place during the day, again just like Epictetus advices (though see also, for a longer explanation, Seneca’s On Anger, III.36):

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. (Fragments, Aulus Gellius, Noctes Acticae, XII.19)

The evening examination does not have to be done in writing, of course, but I find that writing it down takes only a few minutes, helps me focus on the important bits, and moreover creates a record (searchable, in my case, since I do it on my iPad) of both your progress and the times when you inevitably slip back a little.

That’s it in terms of daily practice. There are then some exercises that I try to do at least once a week, beginning with some listed on the right side in the photo above: gentle exercises in self-denial. These range from fasting for a day to taking a cold shower, to going out under-dressed in the winter. The idea here is not to punish yourself, or to experience pain (as mild as it is) for its own sake. Rather, there are two goals to this practice for the prokopton: (i) to remind yourself that things one might fear, like a dearth of food, or unpleasant living conditions, are nothing to be afraid of, because you can endure them; (ii) to appreciate just how good your normal life is, precisely because you can usually count on nice meals, hot showers, and warm clothing.

‘Bad bread!’ you say. But just wait for it; it will become good. Hunger will make even such bread delicate and of the finest flavor. (Seneca, CXXIII. On the Conflict Between Pleasure and Virtue, 2)

At least once a week I also engage in one of a number of meditations exercises, such as the view from above, Hierocles’ circles, or the premeditatio malorum. You can find templates and links for those here. The last one is particularly useful if you are likely, in the immediate future, to face an especially difficult situation, like a job interview, or even the death of a loved one who is terminally ill. It needs to be done with caution, though, because it may be traumatic. The other two are ways to remind ourselves, respectively, of the vastness of the cosmos and of the interconnectedness of the human polis, both fundamental aspects of Stoic philosophy.

Finally, there are occasional exercises, which I do perhaps once a month or even less frequently (bottom portion of the photo). My favorite is the sunrise meditation, based on this bit by Marcus:

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. (Meditations, XI.27)

In a sense, it plays a function similar to the view from above meditation, but it comes with the added bonus of actually going outside and experience the world as it slowly wakes up in the morning. I try to do that especially when I travel.

Also, from time to time I engage in a retrospective analysis of my philosophical diary (see above), where I look for recurring patterns, or simply remind myself of what I was experiencing and thinking a year or two ago.

The last three exercises listed at the bottom of the photo, again carried out occasionally, are variations on the same idea: (i) get to a shopping mall or district, and then deliberately and slowly walk through most shops, look at the things on display, and get to the other side without having bought anything; or (ii) set aside an entire week, from Monday to Sunday, during which you will not buy anything other than the basic necessities (e.g., food); or (iii) wait until the new model of a computer, mobile phone, or tablet comes out, then buy the older model instead.

The point here is to remind ourselves of how externals are not important, that we can do without much of the stuff the clogs our lives in this hyper-consumeristic society. Incidentally, you save a bundle of money too! (I guess this means that Stoicism isn’t really good for capitalism. Oh well).

How many things are superfluous we fail to realize until they begin to be wanting; we merely used them not because we needed them but because we had them. And how much do we acquire simply because our neighbors have acquired such things, or because most men possess them! (Seneca, Letter CXXIII. On the Conflict Between Pleasure and Virtue, 6)

Again, while the above may seem a bit overwhelming, or strike you as taking a lot of your time, it really doesn’t. Many individual exercises last for only minutes, and just a few need to be done frequently. At any rate, remember, this is just my approach, you can adapt it and change it as you like, so long as it works in the sense that you feel you are making progress.

Finally, part of the right-hand side of the photo is a partial list of resources you can use to help you in your practice: the meditation links on this site (which include a set of audio meditations prepared by Don Robertson), and a couple of Stoic apps (here and here, currently only for iOS, but I’m advising an Android developer as well for the first one). Happy practice, everybody!

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