Exercises Stoicism

An Ancient Stoic Meditation Technique

When I wrote The Philosophy of CBT, about eight years ago, I tried very hard to provide a totally comprehensive overview of all the major psychological “techniques” that I could identify in the surviving Stoic literature.  This was made easier for me by the seminal work of the French academic Pierre Hadot, who documented many “spiritual exercises” in Hellenistic philosophy.  I interpreted these from my perspective as a cognitive-behavioural therapist, and spotted a few more.  Over the subsequent years, I kept studying the Stoic literature, looking for things that I may have missed.  However, I was disappointed.  I only found a few minor variations of existing techniques.  One was a passage where Epictetus mentions that the Stoic Paconius Agrippinus used to write eulogies to himself about any hardships that befell him, focusing on what positive things he could conceivably learn from them.  If he developed a fever or was sent into exile, for example, he would write himself a letter about it from a Stoic perspective.  Now, we already knew that so-called consolation letters were an important part of the Stoic tradition.  They were normally addressed to another person, like a kind of psychotherapy, using Stoic arguments to help them cope with the suffering caused by events such as bereavement.  Agrippinus, however, appears to have had a practice of writing similar letters but addressing them to himself.

Aside from a few observations like that, I came across nothing new.  One day, however, I suddenly realised that another sort of ancient Stoic meditation technique was potentially hiding in plain sight, right before my eyes.  The Stoic philosopher Athenodorus Cananites, a student of Posidonius, was personal tutor to the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, formerly known as Octavian, in the latter half of the first century BC.  We know fairly little about Athenodorus’ life or philosophy, aside from a few isolated remarks in the ancient literature.  We do know that he was held in high regard as a philosopher and that he was friends with Cicero, and perhaps assisted him in writing On Duties.  (And he features in an ancient ghost story.)  What interested me about him, though, was that according to Plutarch, he taught the Emperor Augustus a very specific mental strategy for coping with anger:

Athenodorus, the philosopher, because of his advanced years begged to be dismissed and allowed to go home, and Augustus granted his request. But when Athenodorus, as he was taking leave of him, said, “Whenever you get angry, Caesar, do not say or do anything before repeating to yourself the twenty-four letters of the alphabet,” Augustus seized his hand and said, “I still have need of your presence here,” and detained him a whole year, saying, “No risk attends the reward that silence brings.” (Moralia, Book 3)

Now, on the face of it, this seemed like relatively familiar and trivial advice.  Like advising someone “count to ten each time you get angry”, before doing or saying anything.  It was several years after reading this passage before it occurred to me that it could, and perhaps should, be viewed somewhat differently.  It started with a simple observation.  Athenodorus is talking about the Greek alphabet.  Greek has twenty-four letters; the Latin alphabet used in ancient Rome had twenty-three.  Unlike the letters of the modern English alphabet, all the letters of the Greek alphabet have names of two or more syllables: alpha, beta, gamma, etc.  So reciting those takes a bit more time and effort than just counting to ten.  If we assume that it’s not meant to be rushed, because the subject is trying to cope with anger, then it’s natural to repeat each letter slowly, on the outbreath.  Most people take 12-20 breaths per minute, so that would normally take about a minute and a half on average.  Now, although it might not sound like it, that’s actually quite a long time to stop and think, by most people’s standards.  Try closing your eyes right now and doing nothing for ninety seconds, or just breathing normally and counting twenty-four exhalations of breath.  One day, I did that, as Athenodorus suggested, and noticed something that should perhaps have been obvious: it requires a little bit of patience.

The point is that we potentially have an exercise that takes enough time to constitute a proper contemplative experience.  If you repeated that type of count ten times, it would take fifteen minutes on average.  The thing that seems to me to most resemble is the meditation technique developed by Herbert Benson, author of The Relaxation Response (1975).  Benson was a professor of physiology at Harvard Medical School who carried out physiological studies on self-hypnosis and many different relaxation and meditation techniques, in the 1970s.  The simplest method he found was the mantra yoga of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation school.  The good news for the TM people was that Benson found their technique of simply repeating a Sanskrit mantra on each exhalation of breath was effective at reducing nervous arousal, and triggering the physiological relaxation response.  Even better, it worked as well as other relaxation methods but was much simpler and easier to teach than, say, progressive muscle relaxation or self-hypnosis.  The bad news for them, however, was that Benson found that it made no real difference what phrase was repeated: you could pick more or less any word or short phrase and get the same result.  So that removed any mystical or philosophical ingredients from the technique, at least in terms of its ability to evoke a beneficial physiological effect.  

So we have a Stoic technique, which, is basically monotonous enough to require patience for a couple of minutes.  That’s still not meditation.  However, what I realised was that it makes a whole world of difference what attitude one adopts to something as mundane as repeating the letters of the Greek alphabet.  That is, in order to understand this procedure we surely have to interpret it within the context of Stoic philosophy and psychology.  We have to take into account what the Stoics actually say about the attitude they tried to adopt in response to anger and other passions.  Indeed, what the Stoics did say about this is very remarkable:

Let the ruling [hegemonikon] and master faculty of your soul be unchanged by any rough or smooth motions in the body.  Do not let it mingle with them but instead draw a line around it and set a boundary limiting those affects [i.e., proto-passions] to where they belong.  However, when through a sympathetic reaction [passion] these tendencies spread into your thinking, because it is all occurring in the same physical organism, you must not try to suppress the feeling, as it is natural, but rather see that your ruling faculty does not add any judgement of its own about whether it is good or bad. (5.26)

What Marcus notes here is perfectly consistent with the writings of earlier Stoics, such as Seneca’s On Anger or The Discourses of Epictetus.  We should view our minds as if there’s a fairly sharp dividing line between two domains: what we do, and what happens to us.  Modern psychologists would call that the distinction between “strategic” or voluntary cognitive processes, and “automatic” or involuntary ones.  It’s a very simple distinction but one that, for some reason, people tend to continually blur.

What Marcus says here is that when we spot the early-warning signs of distressing or unhealthy “passions”, by which the Stoics mean either desires or emotions, we should maintain a sense of detachment from them, viewing them as from a distance.  Modern cognitive-behavioural therapists call this “cognitive distance” or “verbal defusion”.  It’s basically the ability to view our own thoughts and feelings as merely events in our stream of consciousness, without getting too caught up in them, or confusing them with reality.  Marcus says two crucial things here.  First, when these involuntary thoughts, sensations, or impressions (which the Stoics call propatheiai or “proto-passions”) arise in our minds, we should view them with detachment, like a scientist, or natural philosopher, calmly and objectively observing a natural phenomenon, such as a rainbow.  Second, we should not struggle against these experiences by trying to block or suppress them from our minds, because they are natural.  Despite being the seeds of potential emotional distress, as they stand they are neither good nor bad, but indifferent.  This is a more sophisticated way of putting something Epictetus repeats over and over again in The Discourses.  Indeed, it’s the meaning of the very first line of his Stoic Handbook: “Some things are up to us and some things are not.”  This is the subtle attitude that Stoics must strive to maintain throughout life, and especially during contemplative exercises of this kind.

So to return to Athenodorus, how should this exercise be practised in relation to the observations from Stoic psychology above?  Well, first of all, we can assume it doesn’t make much difference whether we repeat the Greek alphabet or the English (modern Latin) alphabet.  You could just as well count from one to ten, repeating each number in your mind on each outbreath.  You could repeat the days of the week or the names of the Seven Dwarves.  If you wanted you could just repeat “alpha, beta, gamma”, “one, two, three”, and then start at the beginning again.  Or you could just repeat the same word on each breath, such as “alpha”, although more or less any other short word would do just as well.  One advantage to counting, or repeating the alphabet, or any series of words, is that you’re more likely to notice when your attention inevitably wanders because you’ll probably lose your place.  That’s helpful.  Rather than being annoyed, just (figuratively) shrug, respond with indifference, and start the process again with the first word or number.  It doesn’t matter.  The same goes if you fall asleep: when you wake up just continue as if nothing had happened.

The point is that you’re deliberately engaging in an excruciatingly simple procedure: merely saying the alphabet, or counting to ten.  That frees you up to focus all of your attention on the way you do it, the attitude of mind that you adopt toward the procedure.  Stoics like to divide that into two dimensions.  You should notice that many involuntary thoughts and feelings pop into your mind.  That’s completely natural.  The first part of your job is therefore to view everything that automatically enters your mind, as Marcus says, with total indifference, as neither good nor bad.  In fact, consider this an opportunity to train yourself in an attitude of indifference toward all such things, whether you suddenly feel irritated or notice a pain in your shoulder, etc., everything except the procedure itself, and the way you’re doing it, is indifferent to you right now.  Viewing things with indifference – and it’s important to bear this in mind – means accepting them, as opposed to trying to get rid of them or block them from consciousness.  Benson described this as a “So What?” attitude and he said it was the main factor that he found to correlate with success among individuals learning techniques to control their relaxation response.  Pretty much anything that could potentially be a distraction or an obstacle to you during meditation is grist to this mill, merely another opportunity for you to train yourself in indifference.

The second part of the procedure is what you’re actually doing strategically and voluntarily: the way you repeat the words or numbers in your mind.  You should do that simple task with what the Stoics call excellence or “virtue” (arete).  The Stoics tell us to focus our attention on the present moment and completing whatever task is before us to the best of our ability, in accord with virtue.  During this meditation we can train the mind and study that attitude more easily because the task itself is exceptionally simple and mundane, making it easier to focus on the way we go about it.  The Stoics tell us to ask ourselves continually what virtue, or characteristic, a particular task demands from us.  In the case of this sort of meditation on a repetitive stimulus, perhaps the most obvious virtue would be patience or even endurance, which, incidentally, was considered part of the cardinal Stoic virtue of courage (andreia).  

I’d say another important factor is that we don’t allow our awareness to narrow in scope, which is symptomatic of anxiety and other forms of emotional distress, according to modern research in cognitive psychology.  The Stoics said that all virtue entails a quality called magnanimity, literally having a great soul, or expansive mind.  One simple way of maintaining that is to remember that you’re not trying to block anything from awareness.  When a distracting thought or feeling comes to your attention, go back to the repetition of your word, or the alphabet, but allow awareness of the intrusive thought to remain there, as it were, in the background.  Your attention should be focused on the word you’re repeating, sometimes called a mental “centering device” but not to the exclusion of everything else.  Rather you should be able to “walk and chew gum”, to repeat your phrase while still allowing room for other things to cross your awareness, albeit in the distance.  What you’re trying to avoid is what the Stoics called the tendency to be “swept along” with intrusive thoughts and feelings, to go along with them, rather than just noticing them, in a detached way, and doing nothing.  

Another key element of ancient Stoicism, perhaps the most important element, which many modern students of Stoicism nevertheless tend to neglect, is the role of natural affection (philostorgia).  That’s the reason why we do things: “for the common welfare of mankind.”  Buddhists call this compassion, (karuna) but Stoics dislike that word because etymologically it denotes colluding in another’s passions or emotional distress –- like the word “commiserate”, to share in another person’s misery.  Our primary goal in meditation, as in life, is to cultivate virtue, by perfecting what is up to us, or under our direct control.  However, as Zeno said, that’s meaningless unless it refers to an external target or outcome.  Cicero portrays Cato explaining this by the famous Stoic analogy of the archer.  His goal is to notch his arrow and fire it skillfully from his bow.  Whether or not it hits the target is indifferent to him, insofar as, once it’s in flight, it’s no longer under his direct control.  Nevertheless, he does aim at an external object – he has to point his arrow at something.  Stoics live, and therefore meditate, for the sake of their own virtue, but also for the common welfare of mankind, although the latter can only be wished for with the caveat we call the “reserve clause”, which says “if nothing prevents it” or “God Willing”.  In meditation, each moment is both in the service of virtue, and, fate permitting, in the service of the rest of mankind, because the closer we come to wisdom and virtue ourselves, the more able we are to benefit other people.  

My advice would therefore be to try Athenodorus’ technique for yourself.  I’ve been using some version of the Benson technique more or less every day for about the past fifteen or twenty years or so.  It’s a very simple and versatile method, with many hidden benefits.  If you can’t repeat the Greek alphabet, use the the English alphabet, or just count to ten.  Say one word or number in your mind with each exhalation of breath, and then start again at the beginning when you’re done.  Repeat this for about ten or twenty minutes, once or twice each day.  Before you do so, contemplate the passage from Marcus Aurelius above.  Think always about these two dimensions of the Stoic attitude: indifference toward indifferent things, including automatic thoughts that pop into your mind; and continually acting with virtue, dedicating your action affectionately to the common good.  Was this how Caesar Augustus said the alphabet, when he noticed himself getting angry?  I don’t think we’ll ever know.  But it seems to me that the method is psychologically sound and it makes perfect sense in terms of the Stoic literature on the passions discussed above.

Exercises Stoicism Stories

The Emperor Meditates Before Battle

The year is 167 AD, the Pax Romana, the state of political peace and stability that once united the Roman Empire, is beginning to crumble. For years, the empire has been ravaged by a mysterious plague brought back from Persia by exhausted Roman troops. With the Roman army devastated, continual barbarian incursions have taken their toll on the northern frontiers. Finally, the combined forces of the Germanic Quadi and Marcomanni tribes smash through provincial Roman defences, cross the Danube, and descend upon Italy laying siege to the Roman city of Aquileia. A state of emergency ensues; the Marcomanni war begins.

The emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, a highly disciplined Stoic philosopher and accomplished military leader, mobilises his surviving legionnaires and marches them northward to drive back the invading hordes.  Struggling to find troops and finance the war, Marcus takes radical crisis measures that send shockwaves through Roman society.  First he auctions off his own imperial treasures to raise emergency funds for the war effort.  Then he closes the amphitheatres and conscripts the gladiators into his army.

Nevertheless, the Roman army remains vastly outnumbered and the campaign they reluctantly embarked upon has proven to be long and arduous. It is now deep midwinter, and after years of bitter fighting, they are encamped upon the southern banks of the river Danube, having cut a bloody path into the deeply-forested heart of Germania. Their beleaguered forces clash with tens of thousands of tribal warriors across the icy surface of the frozen river in a battle that will decide the fate of Rome, and shape the future of European civilisation…

Late at night, in his battle tent, Marcus kneels before the miniature silver statuettes of his private shrine and patiently enumerates the virtues of his gods and ancestors, vowing to imitate their best qualities in his own life. He prays to bring his own daemon, the divine spark within him, into harmony with universal Nature, and the Fate determined for him. Following his Stoic principles he prays to Zeus, not for victory in battle, but for the gods to grant him the strength to act with wisdom and integrity, like the ideal Sage.

Like Scipio Africanus the Younger, the famous general who razed Carthage and secured Roman dominance, Marcus trains his mind using an ancient cosmological meditation in order to compose his perspective before battle. He pictures the battlefield from an elevated, Olympian point of view in order to imagine himself entering the mind of Zeus. Looking down upon the battle lines from high above, he imagines what it feels like to see things as a god. He contemplates the world itself, the vastness of time and space, the transience of material objects, and the unity and interdependence of all things. In so doing, he reminds himself of his own mortality, whispering beneath his breath the words of the famous Roman maxim: memento mori —“remember thou must die.” Withdrawing into deeper contemplation, he murmurs the slogan of the great slave-philosopher Epictetus whose teachings he has committed to memory, “endure and renounce.” With these words he reaffirms his vow to renounce materialistic and egotistic cravings and to secretly forego the fear of pain and death.

Finally, Marcus takes out his personal meditation journal and slowly records, in a few words, the philosophical idea that’s been circulating through his mind all day long:

Plato has a fine saying, that he who would discourse of man should survey, as from some high watchtower, the things of earth.

He finishes writing, closes his eyes, and sits back in his chair.  His attention turns within: to his breathing and the sensations of tension throughout his body, which he patiently begins willing himself to relax away…  He retreats within, relaxes, and then does nothing for a while…  he waits…  he watches the thoughts that pass through his mind, with studied indifference…

Then he slowly shifts his attention…  He imagines looking at his body from the outside…  at his facial expression… his posture… his clothing…  He pauses for a few moments to adjust to this new perspective…  Then he imagines floating serenely upward… looking down at his body still before him in the chair, eyes closed…  He imagines the tent around him disappearing as his mind, his spirit, floats upward, high above his body…  He looks down on the camp around him…  He sees himself, in his mind’s eye, and he now sees the tents and soldiers around him…

Floating higher and higher… his perspective widens to take in the whole area, the clearing, and the surrounding forests…  He thinks of the animals, the birds, the fish in the rivers…  He thinks of the paths through the woods… the villages nearby… and the people who live there…  going about their lives… interacting with each other, influencing each other, encountering each other in different ways…  Floating higher, people become as small as ants below… He patiently talks himself through the images and ideas as he contemplates them…  He’s done this a hundred times before…

Rising up into the clouds, you see the whole of the surrounding region beneath you… You see both towns and countryside, forests, rivers…  where one country ends and another begins…  and gradually the coastline comes into view as your perspective becomes more and more expansive… You float gently up above the clouds, above the rain, and through the upper atmosphere of our world… So high that you eventually rise beyond the sphere of the planet itself, and into the region of the stars… You look toward our world below and see it suspended in space before you…  silently turning…  majestic and beautiful…

You see the whole world… the blue of the great oceans… and the brown and green of the continents… You see the white of the polar ice caps, north and south… You see the grey wisps of cloud that pass silently across the surface of the earth… Though you can no longer see yourself, you know that you are down there far below, and that your life is important, and what you make of your life is important… Your change in perspective changes your view of things… your values and priorities become more aligned with reality and with nature as a whole…

You contemplate all the countless living beings upon the earth. The millions who live today… You remember that your life is one among many, one person among the total population of the world… You think of the rich diversity of human life…  The many languages spoken by people of different races, in different countries… people of all different ages… newborn infants, elderly people, people in the prime of life… You think of the enormous variety of human experiences… some people right now are unhappy, some people are happy… and you realise how richly varied the tapestry of human life before you seems…

And yet as you gaze upon the planet you are also aware of its position within the rest of the universe… a tiny speck of dust, adrift in immeasurable vastness… Merely a tiny grain of sand by comparison with the endless tracts of cosmic space…

You think about the present moment below and see it within the broader context of your life as a whole… You think of your lifespan as a whole, in its totality… You think of your own life as one moment in the enormous lifespan of mankind… Hundreds of generations have lived and died before you… many more will live and die in the future, long after you yourself are gone… Civilisations too have a lifespan; you think of the many great cities which have arisen and been destroyed throughout the ages… and your own civilisation as one in a series… perhaps in the future to be followed by new cities, peoples, languages, cultures, and ways of life…

You think of the lifespan of humanity itself… Just one of countless species living upon the planet… the race of mankind arising many thousands of years ago… long after animal life had appeared… You contemplate history just as if it were a great book, a million lines long… the life of the entire human race just a single sentence somewhere within that book… just one sentence…

And yet you think of the lifespan of the planet itself… Countless years older than mankind… the life of the planet too has a beginning, middle, and end… Formed unimaginably long ago… one day in the distant future its destiny is to be swallowed up fire… You think of the great lifespan of the universe itself… the almost incomprehensible vastness of universal time… starting immeasurable aeons ago… Perhaps one day, at the end of time, this whole universe will implode upon itself and disappear once again…

Contemplating the vast lifespan of the universe, remember that the present moment is but the briefest of instants… the mere blink of an eye… the turn of a screw… a fleeting second in the mighty river of cosmic time… Yet the “here and now” is important… standing as the centre point of all human experience… Here and now you find yourself at the centre of living time… Though your body may be small in the grand scheme of things, your imagination, the human imagination, is as big as the universe… bigger than the universe… enveloping everything that can be conceived… From the cosmic point of view, your body seems small, but your imagination seems utterly vast…

You contemplate all things, past, present and future… You see your life within the bigger picture… the total context of cosmic time and space… You see yourself as an integral part of something much bigger, of cosmic Nature itself… Just as the organs and limbs of your own body work together to form a greater unity, a living being, so your body as a whole is like a tiny part in the organism of the universe…

As your consciousness expands, and your mind stretches out to reach and touch the vastness of eternity… Things change greatly in perspective… and shifts occur in their relative importance… Trivial things seem trivial to you… Indifferent things seem indifferent… The significance of your own attitude toward life becomes more apparent… you remember that life is what you make of it… You learn to put things in perspective, and focus on your true values and priorities in life… You embrace and follow nature… your own true nature as a rational, truth-seeking human being… and the one great Nature of the universe as a whole…

He takes time to contemplate things from this perspective.  Then he guides himself, with his words, back down to earth…  toward the real world, and the present moment…  toward Germania… toward the tent in which his body remains seated, comfortably, in repose…

His mind slowly returns to his body… back behind his eyes… his awareness runs through his body… his arms and legs… reaching out to his fingers and his toes…  He feels the chair beneath him once again… and his feet resting on the floor… He takes a deep breath and begins to slowly open his eyes… moving his fingers, his toes, and starting to shift a little in his chair… he opens his eyes and looks at the things before him…

He stands up slowly, and takes a step forward.  His mind still feels enlarged, somehow lighter and more free than before.  He feels prepared.  He knows that he has work to do tomorrow that will require great patience, presence of mind, and equanimity, and he puts his trust in philosophy, once again, to guide him.


Video: Stoic Attitudes Meditation Recording


Stoic Meditation in The Earl of Shaftesbury’s Philosophical Regimen

The following passages from the Earl of Shaftesbury are based on his reading of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.  He describes a common Stoic and Platonic meditation exercise, which essentially involves trying to contemplate the whole of space and time, as if entering the mind of God:

View the heavens. See the vast design, the mighty revolutions that are performed. Think, in the midst of this ocean of being, what the earth and a little part of its surface is; and what a few animals are, which there have being. Embrace, as it were, with thy imagination all those spacious orbs, and place thyself in the midst of the Divine architecture. Consider other orders of beings, other schemes, other designs, other executions, other faces of things, other respects, other proportions and harmony. Be deep in this imagination and feeling, so as to enter into what is done, so as to admire that grace and majesty of things so great and noble, and so as to accompany with thy mind that order, and those concurrent interests of things glorious and immense. For here, surely, if anywhere, there is majesty, beauty and glory. Bring thyself as oft as thou canst into this sense and apprehension; not like the children, admiring only what belongs to their play; but considering and admiring what is chiefly beautiful, splendid and great in things. And now, in this disposition, and in this situation of mind, see if for a cut-finger, or what is all one, for the distemper and ails of a few animals, thou canst accuse the universe. (Shaftesbury, Philosophical Regimen, Deity, p. 19)

After quoting Marcus Aurelius, “To conclude, always observe how ephemeral and worthless human things are”, Shaftesbury wrote concerning the grand vision of the history of the universe, and the flux of things:

Consider the several ages of mankind; the revolutions of the world, the rise, declension and extinction of nations, one after another; after what manner the earth is peopled, sometimes in one part and then in another; first desert, then cultivated, and then desert again; from woods and wilderness, to cities and culture, again into woods; one while barbarous, then civilised, and then barbarous again; after, darkness and ignorance, arts and sciences, and then again darkness and ignorance as before.

Now, therefore, remember whenever thou art intent and earnest on any action that seems highly important to the world, whenever it seems that great things are in hand, remember to call this to mind: that all is but of a moment, all must again decline. What though it were now an age like one of those ancient? What though it were Rome again? What though it were Greece? How long should it last? Must not there be again an age of darkness? Again Goths? And shortly, neither shall so much as the name of Goths be remembered, but the modern as well as ancient Greeks and Italians be equally forgotten. […]

Such is the state of mankind; these are the revolutions. The tree sprouts out of the ground, then grows, then flourishes awhile; at last decays and sinks, that others may come up. Thus men succeed to one another. Thus names and families die; and thus nations and cities. What are all these changes and successions? What is there here but what is natural, familiar, and orderly, and conducing to the whole? Where is the tragedy? Where the surprise or astonishment? Are not these the leaves of the wood carried off with the winter blast, that new ones may in the spring succeed? Is not the whole surface of the earth thus? and are not all things thus? Is it not in these very changes that all those beauties consist which are so admired in nature, and by which all but the grossed sort of mankind are so sensibly moved? The sum of all this is, that be this what season soever of the world, be it the very winter that thou livest in, or be it in the spring, all is alike. (Shaftesbury, Philosophical Regimen, Human Affairs, pp. 70-71)