This exercise will help you connect with your fundamental values by contemplating the nature of virtue, in the Stoic sense. You should do this at least once per day during this week, although you may want to do it more often or continue throughout the rest of the course.
Contemplation of Virtue
We can call this “contemplating virtue” or “contemplating the good”. It’s based on a very simple and general-purpose technique developed by Prof. Herbert Benson, at Harvard Medical School. It’s been found effective as a method of physiological relaxation in a number of scientific studies, although we’re going to use it more for its contemplative value.
The Benson technique mainly involves repeating a word in your mind each time you exhale. It seems that any word will do, you could just repeat the number “one”. However, you may wish to repeat a word that relates to your Stoic practice. Perhaps the English word “good” or a Greek word like “aretê” (virtue) could become your “centring device”, the thing you focus your attention upon, during meditation.
- Adopt a comfortable position, close your eyes, and take a few minutes to relax, e.g., sit in a chair with both feet flat on the floor and your hands resting on your lap.
- When you’re ready to begin, focus your attention on your breathing, breathe naturally, and mentally repeat the word “good”, or some other word of your choosing, each time you exhale.
- Repeat this for about 10-15 minutes, or longer if you prefer.
- Don’t try to block out distractions but simply notice when thoughts or feelings intrude or your mind naturally wanders, and gently return your attention to the exercise as if you’re saying “So what?”
Benson’s research suggested that this attitude of detached acceptance toward distractions was one of the most important factors in meditation. During this exercise, contemplate which aspects of your conscious experience are under your direct control and which are not. Practice accepting, with Stoic “indifference”, any intrusive thoughts or feelings (“impressions”) that automatically pop into your mind. See if you can focus your attention on the concept without allowing your mind to wander into internal discussions about its meaning. You can save that for later. Before and after the contemplation exercise, use your values clarification questions to help yourself gradually achieve a clearer idea of what you mean by “virtue”, or the names of your core values.
Breathing with Virtue
Here’s an alternative contemplative exercise, you may wish to try. Let’s call this “breathing with virtue”.
- This exercise involves sitting quietly and comfortably, with your eyes either open or closed. Take 3-4 minutes, or more, to contemplate the meaning of virtue, or your most important core values.
- How could you flourish in terms of your character? What would it mean for you to improve as a human being and become more like the type of person you aspire to become?
- If it helps, you can imagine that with each inhalation of breath you’re drawing more of the positive quality you want to possess into the core of your being and with each exhalation it’s radiating through your body, and permeating through your actions, and being expressed toward the world around you.
- For example, you might imagine drawing more courage into your body and mind on each in-breath and strengthening that quality in your character, while imagining that on each out-breath you’re feeling more courageous toward external events and other people in your life, and more able to act that way.
- Likewise, you may wish to imagine that you’re breathing like someone with the virtue you want to possess, if that makes sense. For example, you could imagine that you can feel “courage” slowly spreading into the rhythm and pattern of your breathing and your bodily posture, facial expression, etc.
Don’t worry if that doesn’t seem natural to you, as you can always try another approach of your own. The main thing is that you take time to connect with your values, and contemplate their meaning, even if that’s in the form of symbolic imagery.
The Stoic Handbook
Sign up today for our free email course on the Stoic Handbook. You'll receive weekly emails with my commentary on passages from Epictetus.