“That’s why the philosophers warn us not to be satisfied with mere learning, but to add practice and then training. For as time passes we forget what we learned and end up doing the opposite, and hold opinions the opposite of what we should.” – Epictetus
How do you think Mozart became such a good composer? How did Arnold Schwarzenegger win Mr Olympia 7 times?
Well, they practiced. They practiced hard. They practiced again and again and again and again. And then they became great.
So how do you become great at life?
Well... you practice. And how do you practice being better at life? By doing these Stoic exercises.
In the following article you will learn stoic exercises that will improve you both psychically and mentally. These exact exercises are the exercises that Stoic legends such as Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus did to become the admirable men they were.
These Stoic exercises are designed to turn you from who you are today into wise, courageous and humble warriors. But it will take repetitive execution. Which is why I've made it as easy as I can for you to take the advice and apply it straight away with video explanations and guided meditations.
I'll repeat it one final time: reading these exercises will do nothing for you. You need to actually do the exercises.
Unlike the name suggests, negative visualization is a Stoic exercise that will increase your default level of happiness.
You do the exercise completely in your head and you start by imagining what it would feel like if you lost certain things from your life. By doing this, you will prepare yourself for when these events, or similar events, happen to you.
Seneca was aware that everything that you are surprised by hurts twice as much. This is why you want to be prepared for anything that could happen.
“What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person’s grief. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events.” – Seneca
Some of the things that you could consider during the exercise are how it would feel to:
- Lose all of your possessions
- Lose a loved one
- Lose your sight
- Live in a third world country
- Lose all social status
This exercise can be also applied in a more practical, day to day sense. In the morning, as you are getting ready for the day ahead, imagine what could go wrong in any situation.
“When you are going to perform an act, remind yourself what kind of things the act may involve. When going to the swimming pool, reflect on what may happen at the pool: some will splash the water, some will push against one another, others will abuse one another, and others will steal. Thusly you have mentally prepared yourself to undertake the act, and you can say to yourself: I now intend to bathe, and am prepared to maintain my will in a virtuous manner, having warned myself of what may occur.” – Epictetus
When I first heard this I thought all that negative thinking would make my life worse but I was so so wrong. This exercise will not make you morbid or pessimistic, it will put things into perspective. Whenever you do this exercise you will feel a euphoric wave of gratitude embrace you. You will realise how lucky you really are.
But why does this work? Humans have a tendency to return to a default level of happiness shortly after positive or negative impacts on their lives due to something called the hedonic treadmill. As a person gains more and more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem so there is no permanent gain in happiness. Negative visualisation increases your gratitude, and with an increase of gratitude you will learn to enjoy every step of the journey, not just the destination.
A View From Above
‘You can rid yourself of many useless things among those that disturb you, for they lie entirely in your imagination; and you will then gain for yourself ample space by comprehending the whole universe in your mind, and by contemplating the eternity of time, and observing the rapid change of every part of everything, how short is the time from birth to dissolution, and the illimitable time before birth as well as the equally boundless time after dissolution’ – Marcus Aurelius
“A view from above” is an exercise that Marcus Aurelius, the most powerful man of his time, did frequently. The basic premise involves imagining yourself in the third person mindset. You no longer see through your eyes, rather from a view above you. This allows you to view objects, places and people with a more realistic perspective. This might sound very abstract and you might not see how this could benefit you but bear with me - this is the exercise that has brought me the greatest returns.
You first ‘zoom out’ of yourself and imagine what it would be like to view yourself from a camera within your room. After some time contemplating what your life looks like from this detached perspective, zoom out again, as if on Google maps, and you can see your house and everyone in it. Next you might zoom out even further to see the other houses on your road that surround your home. From there you may see your local city, then your whole country. You can take it as far as you want to really emphasize the point - zoom out until you see the whole earth and then solar system. The whole time imagining how small you are in the grand scheme of things.
This exercise enables you to see the so called “bigger picture”. This exercise is incredible at putting things into perspective. Often you can focus on little things and let them consume you. Over time you will realise how petty most of your problems are and will humble you on the daily.
It is important to remember you are important in this world, but only relatively important.
Don't End the Streak
For two months I tried, and failed, to keep a journal every single day. This plan failed instantly. I wanted immediate results and I hadn’t fully ‘bought in’ that the benefits would come after time. After struggling immensely, I came across this quote:
“If you don’t wish to be a hot-head, don’t feed your habit. Try as a first step to remain calm and count the days you haven’t been angry. I used to be angry every day, now every other day, then every third or fourth . . . if you make it as far as 30 days, thank God! For habit is first weakened and then obliterated. When you can say ‘I didn’t lose my temper today, or the next day, or for three or four months, but kept my cool under provocation,’ you will know you are in better health.” - Epictetus
This quote inspired me to do something similar. I opened a Calendar I was gifted but never used (we all have one lying around) and went to that day’s date. Each day, after I had finished journaling I would mark a big red X on that day of the Calendar. After a few days I had a streak.
Whenever I felt like not journaling I would look at the string of Xs on the Calendar and was instantly motivated enough to not let the streak end. Overtime, journaling has become second nature to me. I find it incredible that a technique that Epictetus used 2000 years ago can still help you keep habits that you know will make your life better.
As an added benefit, this habit is a double edged sword: you can also use it to remove bad habits from your life. For example, if you wanted to stop wasting your time on social media you could mark each day you didn’t waste time on Facebook with a big red X (trust me, it is the most satisfying and rewarding thing). This will add accountability and help to keep you away from bad habits.
Rise and Shine
Despite being the most simple exercise it does not mean that you should underestimate it. First thing on a Monday morning, when you want to press the Snooze button, read this:
“On those mornings you struggle with getting up, keep this thought in mind—I am awakening to the work of a human being. Why then am I annoyed that I am going to do what I’m made for, the very things for which I was put into this world? Or was I made for this, to snuggle under the covers and keep warm? It’s so pleasurable. Were you then made for pleasure? In short, to be coddled or to exert yourself?” - Marcus Aurelius
Even though each morning it would so much ‘nicer’ for you to just turn off the alarm, forget about your responsibilities and stay in bed for a little bit longer. But you can’t. You have a job to do. Not only do you have to pursue your personal calling, you also have to contribute towards nature, or the greater good and you can do neither of things from within the comforts of your blanket.
It’s comforting to realise that even the emperor of Rome sometimes struggled to have the willpower to get out of bed and face the world head on. So come on, get out of bed, and practice your virtues.
Everything is on Loan
‘Remember that all we have is “on loan” from Fortune, which can reclaim it without our permission—indeed, without even advance notice. Thus, we should love all our dear ones, but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever—nay, no promise even that we may keep them for long.’ – Seneca
To do this Stoic exercise you should meditate on the fleetingness of everything in your life, apart from your mind. Everything and everyone could be taken away from you in less than a second. Instead of being caught up on the fact that everyone you know could die at any moment, fully appreciate the time that you have with them.
It’s incredible how our brain works: we hear about misfortune all around us but never seem to imagine it actually happening to us until it is too late. To put it bluntly, this is naive ignorance.
When trying to shift my mindset I look at two different things:
- Is this new mindset closer to reality
- Will this mindset be more beneficial to my life than my old mindset.
By thinking of your body, possessions, friends and family as borrowed from nature you will
- See the world more clearly, as if a layer of fog has been removed. This is because it is the correct mindset - even if you purchase something it could be removed from you at any instant.
- Appreciate what you have and be less affected when things/people are taken from you.
In both ways, adapting this mindset is a win/win
How You do Anything is How You Do Everything
“Pay attention to what’s in front of you—the principle, the task, or what’s being portrayed.”
- Marcus Aurelius
It’s fun to imagine the future and it is easy to dwell on the past. It’s much harder to focus on the present moment and what is happening in front of you. Every singe day you drive to work and you think about the thousands of tasks you have to do that day. You wash your hands thinking and you're thinking about your ex partner. You work in a temporary job and think “this is just a job - my work doesn’t reflect who I am. It doesn’t matter if I try or not”. You are hardly every present to the moment.
If the past has already happened and the future hasn't happened then the only moment you have is the present moment, and if you're not even in the present then where are you?
Growing up my Mum would encourage me to make my bed first thing in the morning. When I reached a certain age, around 14, I stopped doing it. I didn't understand the concept - why "waste" time making the bed when I'm just going to get into it that very night? What I failed to see was it is not about the act of straightening out your covers, rather the habits that are created when you do it. If you start every day my making your bed you are starting every day with a reminder to take care of yourself.
How you handle today is exactly how you will handle the day that could make or break your career/relationship/life.
Ask yourself: how do I perform at work? What are my friendships like? How do I approach a challenge?
If you are lazy at work then there’s a high chance that this will carry over into your personal life. If you find yourself making decisions based on emotions in your relationship then this will carry over into your work life. Get the idea?
Everything is practice for the big show.
Travel Within Your Mind
People seem to have this idea that by jetting off on a plane when trouble strikes that the trouble will instantly disappear. I’m afraid this just isn’t true. As the Stoics found out thousands of year ago, peace of mind and freedom are things both that are found in the mind, not your location.
People use a holiday as a can be a distraction but is exactly the wrong attitude you should have. This sounds like you are running away from your reality. This is denial of reality! Pause, take a moment, no longer run from your problems but rather face them head on. The idea of going on a countryside retreat down the country for a “well needed break” is simply unphilosophical. The biggest retreat you will ever experience is diving deep into your soul. As Marcus Aurelius once put it:
“People seek retreats for themselves in the countryside by the seashore, in the hills, and you too have made it your habit to long for that above all else. But this is altogether unphilosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself whenever you please; for nowhere can one retreat into greater peace or freedom from care than within one’s own soul, especially when a person has such things within him that he merely has to look at them to recover from that moment perfect ease of mind (and by ease of mind I mean nothing other than having one’s mind in good order). So constantly grant yourself this retreat and so renew yourself; but keep within you concise and basic precepts that will be enough, at first encounter, to cleanse you from all distress and to send you back without discontent to the life to which you will return.”—Marcus Aurelius
Instead of booking that £500 flight to half way across the world. How about you take a minute and travel within your mind. All you need to do is give yourself 5/10 mins a day.
During yourself retreat remind yourself of these three things:
“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”
“Some things are within our power, while others are not.”
“Memento Mori” - One day you will die
Reframe Negative to Positive
Picture this: you’ve got a cold. It’s bad - real bad. You feel lethargic and you just don’t want to do anything today. Now try to put it into perspective. With the correct mindset, the illness is a blessing in disguise. You now have a stretch of time, alone, with little responsibilities. Instead of using this time to watch a film, use it to dive deep into your mind and analyse where you’ve been going wrong and how you can fix the problem.
You see, all negative things that happen in your life are simply the world giving you a chance to practice a virtue. You miss the bus - great, now you can practice patience. There is a flood - hooray, now you can practice courage.
The event is out of your control, but the way you decide to deal with the event is completely down to you.
“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.” - Epictetus
Epictetus was a slave. One day his owner broke his leg for no reason. Do you think he let this affect his life?
“Disease is an impediment to the body, but not to the will, unless the will itself chooses. Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will. And add this reflection on the occasion of everything that happens; for you will find it an impediment to something else, but not to yourself.” – Epictetus
Personify Your Perfect Person
“Choose someone whose way of life as well as words… have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make crooked straight.” – Seneca
This exercise will make it easier for you to make a series of right decisions that will lead you to being the man/woman you want to be.
There are two parts to this exercise. The first is identifying the qualities that make up your perfect role model. Pick characteristics that you wish to be like one day. Once you have come up with these, give this role model a face and a body so you can relate to him easier. This can be done only once and then you can move onto the next part of the exercise.
The second part is to do the work every day. It is your goal everyday to become just a little bit more like him. This is done by asking yourself ‘what would my role model do if he were in this situation’. While it is more difficult to come up with the qualities of a role model it is far more easy to come up with what he/she would do in any given situation.
When you are confronted with a difficult decision, picture your role model in front of you and don’t stop imagining him there until you make the right decision.
"But neither a bull nor a noble-spirited man comes to be what he is all at once; he must undertake hard winter training, and prepare himself, and not propel himself rashly into what is not appropriate to him" – Epictetus
This exercise will make you overcome the need for comfort. Setting and sticking to goals will be far easier. Life will become easier. You won’t be able to relate when people complain about being “uncomfortable”. You are hardening yourself up for anything life could throw at you.
To do this exercise you are going to put yourself through uncomfortable situations. In concept, this is very similar to negative visualisation but instead of meditating you are actually putting yourself through the ‘negative’ situations.
There are a variety of ways you could do this:
- Sleeping on the floor
- Take a cold shower
- Underdess for a cold day
- Lie down in a crowded street
- When buying a coffee ask if you could have it for free
- Cold shower
By purposefully making life harder for you, you make life easier for you. You will be comfortable with the uncomfortable and your comfort zone will expand like never before.
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence… If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.” – Seneca
Advise A Friend
By doing this exercise it will be easier to make the correct decisions when you are faced with adversity.
If your friend called and complained that she missed her train, what would you tell her to do? Chances are you would tell her to make the most out of the negative situation like reading a book or meditating.
Now think about if you missed your train and had to wait hours until the next one. How would this make you feel? Rather than taking your own advice that you gave to your friend, you will probably sit and think, “why do things like this happen to me” and “poor me”.
The moral is, if a situation happens to someone else then it makes no emotional impact on you and you will find it a lot easier to look at it objectively. Whereas when that same situation happens to you, your emotions run high and you waste your time being angry.
So, to put this into practical advice, next time you are confronted with adversity imagine a friend of yours is going through the exact same situation you are in. Next think about what your advice to them would be and follow that advice religiously.
This will separate your emotions from the situation and you will be able make the most out of what you can control in any situation.
In almost everything we do in life there is a portion that we can not control - there is a portion left to fate. You should acknowledge this when you are about to do a task. Seneca once said “I will sail across the ocean, if nothing prevents me”. The reverse clause that Seneca added to the end of the sentence is a reminder to himself that even if he does everything he can to sail across the ocean, there is still a chance his efforts are dwarfed by what he cannot control e.g. a storm.
This concept is popular throughout the world: in Islam there is "Inshallah" meaning "if Allah allows it". Deo volente is another reverse clause in Latin meaning "god willing".
When you are about to do a task, either in words or thoughts, you should add a reverse clause. By doing this you will be less disappointed when things do not go your way.
“Fate leads the willing, and drags along the reluctant.” – Seneca
The dichotomy of control states that you should only focus on what you can control. And you cannot control fate. Therefore, you have two options: to love and accept it, or to fight it.
Think of a dog that is tied by a leash to a cart. The dog represents man and the cart represents fate. The clever dog runs along happily next to the cart. The foolish man struggles against the cart and moans along the way - but he is still dragged next to the cart regardless.
You see, life is going to move on whether you like it or not. Fate will drag you along and the only movement you have is as far as the leash will let you. Accept this and run alongside fate, loving it unconditionally.
You need to accept that you cannot change a lot of the things that happen to you in life so the next best option is to love and accept everything that does happen to you.
When an event happens to you you must first ask yourself whether you can do anything about it. If you cannot, then you should accept and love it how it is. To resent fate is to wrongly assume you have a choice in what happened.
Day in Review
Put simply this exercise is just going over things that happened in the past.
For those well-versed in Stoicism there may be warning bells going off in your head - doesn’t Stoicism advise us not to focus on the past because it is not under our control? You’re right, you should not focus on the past, and especially not things that you could not have controlled. Instead you should focus on questions like: how did I improve throughout the day? What mistakes did I make today? When did I let myself become consumed by my emotions? Did I stick by my principles and morals? Did I overcome any struggles? Did I treat everyone like I would like to be treated?
You should complete this exercise daily and it is often done in the form of journaling. However, the exercise does not end here: every month/quarter/year do the same exercise but instead contemplate a larger time scale. Notice if you are still having the same problems that you did last month and constantly ask yourself how you can improve next month.
And again, I want to remind you that you must realise that “what’s done is done”. You cannot change the past so do not regret anything.
“Allow not sleep to close your wearied eyes, until you have reckoned up each daytime deed: ‘Where did I go wrong? What did I do? And what duty’s left undone?’ From first to last review your acts and then reprove yourself for wretched acts, but rejoice in those done well.” – Epictetus