A Brief Guide to Stoic Exercises

Six of the Best Practices for Emotional Resilience

Stoicism is experiencing a renaissance in popularity. This arguably started because it provided the philosophical inspiration for the pioneers of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1980s, CBT had become the leading evidence-based form of modern psychotherapy. However, around the start of the 21st century more and more self-help books influenced by Stoic philosophy began to hit the shelves.

My background is in both academic philosophy and CBT. I was among the first wave of authors to begin writing popular books on Stoicism. I focused on self-help techniques that combined ancient Stoic philosophy with modern research-based psychology. The Stoicism of ancient Greece and Rome contained a system of psychological therapy but there was also much more to it. It’s grounded in a philosophical worldview and a set of core ethical principles — what we call today a “virtue ethic”. However, even in the ancient world, people were often drawn to Stoicism initially because it held out the promise of relieving their emotional suffering and helping them to build greater mental resilience.

People are often still unsure how they’re supposed to practice the philosophy in daily life.

Although Stoicism is more popular now than ever, many people are still unsure how they’re supposed to practice the philosophy in daily life. “How exactly,” they ask, “does it promise to relieve our suffering?” I recently created a short email course to explain six of the most important psychological practices derived from ancient Stoicism. In this article, I’ll summarize and describe them for you…

1. Separating Thoughts from Events

This is probably the most important psychological technique in Stoicism but perhaps the hardest to describe. It’s summed up, though, in a very famous quotation from Epictetus:

It’s not things that upset us but rather our opinions about them. — Epictetus, Enchiridion, 5

This was widely-quoted by the founders of CBT because it happens to express what we sometimes call the “cognitive theory of emotion”. This is the view that our emotions are caused, to a large extent, by certain underlying thoughts and beliefs. As soon as we realize that our emotions are “cognitive” in nature, or derived from our thinking, we open up a whole toolbox of cognitive therapy techniques.

However, the most important and powerful of these techniques consists in reminding ourselves, and truly grasping, that our emotions are being shaped by strong value judgements, such as that something is “awful” or “catastrophic”, and so on. It’s a subtle technique but a very powerful one because viewing our emotions in this way tends to weaken their intensity, making it easier for us to see through them and exercise greater self-control.

2. Contemplation of the Sage

The Stoics believed that we could gain considerable insight into the goal of life by regularly contemplating and discussing the idea of a perfectly wise human being, known as the ideal Sage or Sophos. Whereas many other philosophies and religions claimed that their founder was perfect, the Stoics did not, and avoided turning into a cult as a consequence. Instead, they argued that we are all flawed — we’re all relatively foolish and vicious . Yet we are also capable of envisaging perfection because we are born with reason. The “seeds” of wisdom and virtue reside within us, in the form of our deepest moral preconceptions.

We’re often capable of being more objective when we take a step back and consider what it means for another person to exhibit wisdom…

When we turn our attention toward ourselves, our judgement tends to be distorted. We can see a small sliver of wood in our brother’s eye, as the saying goes, but not a huge plank of wood in our own. Indeed, we’re often capable of being more objective when we take a step back and consider what it means for another person to exhibit wisdom and other positive character traits. Once we realize this, we can potentially use it as a guide to life.

First, carefully consider the qualities you admire most in other people. Then ask yourself how it would affect your own life if you were to genuinely embody more of the same qualities. You can see Marcus Aurelius doing something along these lines throughout Book One of The Meditations, where he lists the virtues of about seventeen of his family members and tutors, the individuals he admired most in life.

3. Living in Accord with Virtue

In modern evidence-based approaches to psychotherapy, we often distinguish between clarifying values and living in accord with them. Contemplating the qualities you most admire in other people, and the concept of an ideally wise and good person, is one powerful way of clarifying your values, as we’ve just seen. However, it’s equally important to put these insights into practice in your daily life by actively living in accord with your most authentic values. (And to be clear, by that I do not mean that moral values are somehow subjective, and neither did the ancient Stoics.)

The Stoics do this in a number of ways, e.g., Marcus Aurelius repeatedly brings his focus back to the question of his fundamental goal in life. He repeatedly asks himself each day whether his actions, or even his train of thought, are truly necessary. By this he means: do they contribute to the goal of life? Do these actions bring me closer to wisdom… or am I drifting further away from it? We can also brainstorm activities that exemplify our values and plan small steps to incorporate them into our daily schedule — something modern therapists call “activity scheduling”. For example, if writing down your personal reflections on the meaning of life seems like it would bring you a step closer to wisdom then why not get into the habit of doing that each day? It takes effort at first to create new habits but remember that even small changes can have big consequences!

4. Stress-inoculation Training

Most people try to avoid thinking about upsetting things. Either that or they dwell on them in unhelpful ways, such as morbidly ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. The Stoics advise us to get into the habit of facing our fears and imagining all the most common misfortunes that may befall us in life: sickness, poverty, rejection, loss, death, and so on. They reasoned that by visualizing these setbacks as if they were already happening, we could potentially prepare ourselves in advance to cope with them better if they ever happen. It’s a very direct method of building emotional resilience, in other words. Seneca calls this premeditatio malorum, or the premeditation of misfortunes.

Modern psychotherapists teach their clients to do many things that resemble this. There are actually around five or six different benefits linked with picturing feared events in this way. From the perspective of Stoicism, the main thing is that we realize that it’s not the thing itself that upsets us but rather our opinions about it, i.e., that we separate our upsetting thoughts from these perceived misfortunes, as noted earlier. However, the Stoics also seem to have realized something that’s very firmly established by research in modern psychotherapy. When we repeatedly imagine upsetting events for a more prolonged amount of time than normal, emotional distress tends to naturally abate, or fade over time, if we allow it to do so.

This takes patience and a little bit of self-discipline but it’s a very robust way of overcoming anxiety, in particular. Donald Meichenbaum, one of the early pioneers of CBT, referred to a similar approach as “stress-inoculation training” (SIT). We inoculate people by giving them an injection that exposes their immune system to a small dose of a particular virus. We can do something similar with the things that cause stress or anxiety, exposing ourselves to them gradually, in small doses, so that we have a chance to build up our psychological coping ability, and emotional resilience. Face your fears in your imagination, therefore, and allow yourself time to patiently master them.

5. The Contemplation of Death

Of all the threats we face in life, death is clearly unique, being absolutely final in nature. The Stoics believed that our fear of death underlies most of our other fears. Seneca therefore says that to learn how to die is to unlearn how to be a slave. He meant that by overcoming our fear of death we liberate ourselves, potentially, from all other fears and attachments.

For this reason, the Stoics rehearsed the moment of their own death, as we’ve described them doing above with other misfortunes, such as poverty or exile. However, the contemplation of our own death plays a larger role in Stoicism. Seneca told himself each night, as he fell asleep, that he might not awaken in the morning. Learning to face our own mortality calmly, and with a philosophical attitude, can empower us to re-evaluate our priorities in life.

Things that seem important to the majority of people, often begin to seem trivial, in retrospect, when we face our own death. Accepting our own mortality can also help us to “seize the day” (carpe diem) as the Roman poet Horace said, and to act with greater integrity and self-awareness, from moment to moment, in our daily lives.

6. The View from Above

Finally, one of the most striking, memorable, and popular contemplative techniques found in ancient philosophy. The French scholar Pierre Hadot called this The View from Above and found evidence of it in the writings of philosophers from different schools of thought. However, it features prominently in Stoicism, particularly toward the end of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, where it’s mentioned a number of times.

Sometimes it consists in literally imagining things as if viewed from above, like the figure of Zeus, in Greek mythology, looking down on human affairs from Mount Olympus. Sometimes it’s more cosmological and involves imagining our place within the vastness of cosmic time and space:

How small a part of the boundless and unfathomable time is assigned to every man, for it is very soon swallowed up in the eternal! And how small a part of the whole substance, and how small a part of the universal soul, and on what a small clod of the whole earth you creepest! Reflecting on all this, consider nothing to be great, except to act as your nature leads you, and to endure that which the common nature brings. — Meditations, 12.32

In modern psychology, it’s well-known that emotional distress such as heightened anxiety tends to be accompanied by selective attention and narrowing of our focus onto perceived threats. This naturally distorts our perception of events, though. The Stoics realized that by doing the opposite and broadening our perspective we can train our minds to counteract the anxious mode of thinking.

What Next?

I’ve only been able to summarize these techniques here. There’s a lot more to say about each of them. However, I hope that by providing you with a brief introduction to some practical exercises, you’ll have a better understanding of Stoicism as a way of life and not merely as a “pen and ink” philosophy. If you are keen to learn more, check out my free email course A Guide to Stoic Exercises. (You’re also invited to join us on 27th July for a special live webinar hosted on our Instagram account where we’ll be discussing these techniques.)

You’ll learn more quickly by actually doing these exercises, though, rather than just reading about them. So get started putting them into practice to the best of your ability. As Marcus Aurelius once said: Stop arguing about what it means to be a good man and just be one.

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