How to Actually Practice Stoicism

Use these Three Simple Techniques in Daily Life

Use these Three Simple Techniques in Daily Life

Stoicism has experienced a surge in popularity over recent years, especially during the pandemic. It can provide people with a philosophy of life that holds the promise of greater emotional resilience. Today, the original Greek philosophy is known mainly through the works of three famous Stoics from the Roman imperial period: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. It’s also been popularized by modern authors such as Ryan Holiday and Massimo Pigliucci. I’m the author of several books that compare Stoic advice to techniques used in modern cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). So my focus is on how we can all benefit by applying Stoicism in the modern world.

Many people are unclear about how the philosophy is meant to be lived.

There is already a huge amount of Stoic self-help advice available on the Internet but I still find many people are unclear about how the philosophy is meant to be lived. It’s partly because Stoicism is quite a complex philosophy, with a lot of literature. That can make it confusing for people looking for a place to start applying it in daily life. So let’s keep things as simple and practical as possible in order answer the common question: How do I actually put Stoicism into practice in daily life?

1. The Dichotomy of Control

Epictetus was the most influential Roman Stoic teacher. He never wrote anything but his thoughts were transcribed in four volumes of Discourses by his disciple Arrian, who also published a short summary of his key teachings called the Enchiridion or Stoic Handbook. The Discourses open with a talk called On the things up to us and not up to us. The very first sentence of the Enchiridion emphasizes the same distinction:

Some things are up to us and other things are not. — Enchiridion, 1

In other words, we can see this was the starting point of Epictetus’ teachings on Stoicism. It’s also where we should begin if we want to apply Stoicism today. Epictetus didn’t use this term but people today like to call this the “Dichotomy of Control.”

It might seem like this is just a bland truism. Some things are obviously under our direct control and other things are not. That’s like saying some things are big and other things are small. However, human nature predisposes us to blur this distinction.

For example, as a cognitive therapist, I specialized in treating anxiety disorders. People who suffer from severe psychological problems typically struggle too hard, on the one hand, to control involuntary aspects of their emotion, such as trying to conceal or suppress their shaking hands, and other physiological symptoms of anxiety. They’d be better to accept these sensations and stop trying to fight against them. On the other hand, they tend to neglect aspects of their emotion that are actually voluntary, such as the amount of time they spend consciously ruminating and worrying about future events.

What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens. — Discourses, 1.1

This basic Stoic teaching appears to have inspired The Serenity Prayer made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous and other forms of the 12 Step Program.

God, give me the Serenity
To accept the things I cannot change
The Courage to change the things I can
And the Wisdom to know the difference.

Simply reminding ourselves of this basic distinction and drawing a clearer line between our actions and the events that befall us can help many people to cope better with stressful situations. You can do this simply by asking yourself: “What’s directly under my control in this situation and what isn’t?”

If you have more time, sit down and draw two columns on a piece of paper. Mark one “Not up to me” and the other “Up to me”. Complete the “Not up to me” column first, listing those aspects of a situation causing you stress that are not completely under your control. When you’ve listed the aspects that you worry most about, or that strike you as most important, complete the second column, “Up to me”, listing the aspects that are completely under your control.

It’s the distinction between what you do and what merely happens to you.

Epictetus makes it clear, in the remainder of the passage, that, in a nutshell, the only things truly “up to us” are our own actions. He means our voluntary actions, and he’s including the things we choose to say to others or to ourselves, our voluntary thoughts, under that heading. Our own voluntary thoughts and actions are “up to us” and everything else is, at least in part, “not up to us”. It’s the distinction between what you do and what merely happens to you. The Stoics practiced a form of “mindfulness” called prosoche in Greek, which consists in continually observing our own thoughts and actions. This means learning to pay more attention, not just in stressful situations, but throughout the rest of life. You can begin by observing, whenever possible, the distinction between what you are actively doing and what you are passively experiencing.

This is the most fundamental Stoic psychological strategy for developing emotional resilience. The next strategy is slightly more advanced, and provides the foundation of modern cognitive psychotherapy. The third strategy, though, takes us beyond self-help and psychotherapy, into the realm of ethics. As we’ll see, Stoicism is not just a therapy but a whole philosophy of life and set of moral values.

2. Cognitive Distancing

Ancient Stoic philosophy was the original philosophical inspiration for cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), the leading form of modern evidence-based psychotherapy. Cognitive therapies are based on cognitive models of emotion, which hold that feelings such as anger, fear, and sadness, are actually based upon underlying beliefs. For instance, someone who is afraid will typically believe that something catastrophic is about to happen, and that they won’t be able to cope when it does. They might be mistaken about this in a number of ways, such as over-estimating the probability or severity of the threat, or under-estimating their ability to deal with it. Most people assume that their feelings are separate from their thoughts. However, countless research studies have shown that when people change the relevant beliefs their emotions tend to change as a result.

When the originators of CBT were looking for a way to explain this to clients, they remembered another famous quote from near the start of Epictetus’ Enchiridion.

It is not events that upset us but rather our opinions about them. — Enchiridion, 5

We can tell this doctrine was fundamental to the Stoicism of Epictetus because he frequently talked to his students about it. Marcus Aurelius, who was greatly influenced by Epictetus, also mentions the same idea many times, applying it in a variety of different ways.

As you’ve already seen, Epictetus says we should focus more on our own voluntary thoughts and actions. Building upon that, we are now asked to realize that our thoughts shape our emotions, more than we normally realize. So we should pay close attention, whenever possible, to the interaction between our thoughts, actions and feelings, especially the way that our underlying value judgments, or beliefs about what is important, affect our emotions.

What if you’ve been looking at the world through “catastrophic” lenses?

Aaron T. Beck, one of the pioneers of cognitive therapy, used the following analogy. Imagine that you have a pair of colored glasses, e.g., rose-tinted spectacles, or for our purposes, perhaps, gloomy dark-blue ones. Suppose you’ve been wearing them so long that you don’t even realize anymore and just assume the whole world looks gloomy and blue — as if that’s just the color things are in reality. One day, though, you take the glasses off and look at them instead of looking through them. You now realize that the lenses were blue, not the world. You’ve separated the blueness of the lenses from the external events you were looking at through them. What if you’ve been looking at the world through “catastrophic” lenses? Noticing this means separating or “distancing” your thoughts (or lenses) from the external events to which they refer.

Early cognitive therapists believed it was important for clients to realize how their thoughts and beliefs (“cognitions”) were influencing their feelings. That meant they could potentially view the same events in alternative ways, and experience different emotions. This separation of our thoughts from external events is called “cognitive distancing”. Cognitive distancing was initially thought of as a necessary precursor to cognitive disputation, the process of questioning our own beliefs, by examining the evidence for and against them, and so on.

However, the next generation of cognitive-behavioral therapists discovered that it could help people even if they did not go on to dispute their underlying beliefs. Gaining cognitive distance tends to dilute the intensity of our emotions and it also increases our cognitive flexibility, our ability to view things from different perspectives, which usually leads to better problem-solving and better coping in general. We don’t need to disprove our unhealthy beliefs, in other words, as long as we are able to loosen the grip they have over our minds.

The Stoics already knew this, though — over two thousand years ago! Simply bearing in mind Epictetus’ famous maxim that it’s not things that upset us but rather our opinions about them can be enough to help us create distance between our thoughts and the external events to which they refer. Marcus Aurelius also refers to the “separation” of thoughts and events in this way many times. Epictetus also mentions a related technique, similar to ones found in modern psychotherapy.

Straightway then practice saying to every troubling appearance, “You are just an impression [or thought], and not at all what you claim to represent.” — Enchiridion, 1

In other words, we should address our upsetting thoughts in the second person, as though we’re talking to them, and tell ourselves that they are just thoughts or impressions and not to be confused with external events. For instance, if you lose your job and feel as if something catastrophic has happened to you, you might say: “You are just the thought ‘Something catastrophic has happened!’ and not the event itself.” In modern therapy, we often ask clients to practice saying: “I notice right now that I’m having the thought ‘Something catastrophic has happened!’” Of course, you would substitute whatever thoughts are troubling you at the time.

This was a ongoing practice for ancient Stoics. Indeed, being always mindful of our thoughts in this way, and noticing how they influence our emotions, can help us to gain more cognitive flexibility. Particularly if you sometimes feel overwhelmed by your emotions, it’s a good idea to train yourself to identify the thoughts involved and to practice viewing them as if they were someone else’s thoughts, i.e., from a more objective point of view. Think of it as though you’re stepping away from your upsetting thoughts and viewing them from one side, rather than becoming so immersed in them, that you view reality through them.

3. The Goal of Life

As I mentioned earlier, Stoicism is more than just a psychological therapy — it’s also an ethical philosophy. In the ancient world, as today, though, many people were first attracted to the philosophy because it offered them a way of coping with stress and improving their emotional resilience. In a sense, we have to manage our desires and emotions first, before we can reason clearly about the goal of life.

The real core of Stoicism is its ethical teaching that “virtue is the only true good”.

The real core of Stoicism is its ethical teaching that “virtue is the only true good”. The goal of life, according to the Stoics, is for us to achieve our true potential, as rational beings, by living consistently in accord with wisdom and virtue. Marcus Aurelius, for instance, constantly reminds himself to avoid distractions and focus his attention on his real goal, the most important thing in life. For Stoics that’s arete, which is usually translated as “virtue”, but I prefer to describe it as moral wisdom.

The Stoics employed several philosophical arguments to support their doctrine that moral wisdom is the only true good. The most important, though, goes back to Socrates, their main forerunner. In Plato’s dialogue called Euthydemus, Socrates asks his interlocutor to define “good fortune”. (This is a much simplified account of the dialogue.) He is told that wealth, reputation, noble birth, health, good looks, and so on, are obviously what most people consider to constitute good fortune in life. Socrates proceeds, though, to argue that none of these things are inherently good or bad, but rather they’re indifferent or morally neutral.

He begins with the easy example of wealth. Sure, if you give a lot of money to someone wise and virtuous, that seems good, because it allows them to do more wise and virtuous things —having access to more money can give them more influence over their environment. However, what if you give a lot of money to someone foolish and vicious? Won’t it just allow them to do more foolish and vicious things as a result, and to cause more harm in the world? Wealth, in itself, is neither good nor bad, but what matters is the use we make of it, which may be either foolish or wise, vicious or virtuous. Money gives us certain practical advantages but that can allow bad people to do more evil, or good people to do more good. You could say that it is merely a means to an end, rather than something good in itself.

Socrates goes on to say that this applies to all of the external goods that his friend listed. All of them merely give us more power to influence the world, which is used well by the wise, but badly by the foolish. Socrates therefore concludes that the only truly good thing is the wisdom or knowledge that allows us to use external advantages well, and folly or ignorance in this regard is the greatest evil that afflicts mankind.

The Stoics likewise believed that most of our problems are caused by confusing these external advantages with our true goal in life. In modern psychotherapy, one of the leading evidence-based treatments for clinical depression (called “behavioral activation”) is based on a similar idea: that depressed people tend to place too much importance on the outcome of their actions, such as gaining wealth or reputation, and not enough on developing certain character traits they gain fulfilment from, such as being a good friend, or exhibiting courage, etc. When people focus more attention, and more effort on embodying their core values, they tend to become less depressed.

Marcus, for example, frequently asked himself before undertaking an action whether doing it was unnecessary in relation to the supreme goal of life, the goal of attaining moral wisdom.

For the greatest part of what we say and do being unnecessary, if a man takes this away, he will have more leisure and less uneasiness. Accordingly, on every occasion a man should ask himself, “Is this one of the unnecessary things?” Now a man should take away not only unnecessary acts, but also unnecessary thoughts, for thus superfluous acts will not follow after. — Meditations, 4.24

We’re constantly distracted, throughout life, by things that aren’t really important, and neglect the things we all believe, on reflection, to make life worthwhile. Nobody, lying on their deathbed, has ever said: “I wish I’d spent more time arguing with strangers on social media!” We need to consider very deeply what we want our lives to stand for and then make a conscious effort to keep dedicating our activity, each day, to that goal.

When you’re about to do something that you think might potentially be a distraction or waste of your time: stop and think. Ask yourself: “Will this contribute to my long term happiness and well-being?” Or will it perhaps even lead you in the opposite direction? Strictly speaking, a Stoic would probably ask “Does this action contribute to living in accord with Nature?”

Be content if you shall live the rest of your life in such ways as your nature wills. Observe then what it wills, and let nothing else distract you. For you have had experience of many wanderings without having found happiness anywhere — not in syllogisms, nor in wealth, nor in reputation, nor in pleasure, nor anywhere. Where is it then? In doing what man’s nature requires. — Meditations, 8.1

When the Stoics describe the goal of life as “living in accord with Nature”, that can seem a bit obscure to modern readers. What they mean is in accord with man’s higher nature, as a reasoning animal, i.e., living rationally. We’re told that for Stoics it was synonymous with living wisely and virtuously.

A related technique, described by Galen, Marcus Aurelius’ physician, involves beginning each day by imagining two paths ahead of you — as though you’re standing at a fork in the road. On the left would be your day ahead if you allow yourself to be guided by the unhealthy passions, such as fear and anger, which the Stoics opposed. On the right would be the same series of events if you were to exercise wisdom, fairness, kindness, self-discipline, endurance, or whatever character strengths or virtues reason tells you are worth admiring.

These three exercises are only a small part of ancient Stoicism. However, I think they provide a good basis for Stoic practice today. They’re relatively easy to learn and less confusing than trying to do everything at once. I think the ancient Stoics would recognize them as some of the foundation stones of their whole philosophy of life.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Stoics, though, and the other techniques that can be found in the ancient writings, my books How to Think Like a Roman Emperor and Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius provide many examples. Of course, you’ll also potentially gain a much deeper understanding of the ancient Stoic texts if you spend some time each day practicing these Stoic exercises.

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