It was a dye-merchant who founded Stoicism.
Zeno of Citium was not a philosopher, to begin with, but a Phoenician merchant whose ship sank near the Athenian port of Piraeus. Zeno survived, but after that, he never left Athens. He studied with various philosophers for twenty years before launching the Stoic school of philosophy, around 301 BCE.
Since then, Stoicism has served as a beacon to guide people on how to live virtuous lives and die without regrets. Of course, being a Stoic sage is a lifelong process. But how would you live now if you were a Stoic today?
You could show Stoicism in small, simple acts. This post is a list of such exercises—pick one Stoic act to practice today.
18 Stoic Exercises For Practice In Modern Life
These Stoic exercises can help us invite order and calm into the chaotic and uncertain life we live today. It is fairly easy to work one exercise in a day. When you practice more of these every day, you become more of a Stoic. Lets’ begin.
1. Make a Stoic affirmation
Start your day with this Stoic affirmation:
Repeat that affirmation a few times, slowly. Look at your reflection in the mirror during this exercise. It is a simple 10-second act. You could do it every day without too much effort or thought.
You may not immediately feel how it affects your approach to life. But when you make it a habit with regular practice, its deeper meaning seeps into your way of daily living. It is then you start to think and live a bit like a Stoic.
It is then that you stop carrying your agitation and discomfort of the negative events through your day. When something sabotages your smoothly planned day, you feel disappointment but do not let it hang over your head like a dark personal cloud.
You see it as it is. The hard drive failed. Okay, it failed. It is inconvenient at the moment, but getting angry at others does not fix it. So, why waste your precious time and mental resources on it?
A far better way is to see it as it is, feel the emotions it brings, and then go out to do what you must do to fix it. You learn from it. And then you let it go.
The “cognitive theory of emotions” says our emotions arise mostly out of our thoughts and beliefs. When we understand our upsetting emotions are brought on by our judgments of situations and people, we can discard those prejudices. This helps us wield greater control over how we feel about a thing.
It’s not things that upset us but rather our opinions about them.— Epictetus, Enchiridion, 5
When someone speaks ill of you, you let yourself feel anger, but you do not accept it or act on it. You feel the negative emotion and then release them.
With that affirmation for enough days, you change your attitude towards unforeseen negative incidents. With that, you get to keep your mental serenity when someone, or life itself, throws muck at you.
In time, you learn not to allow people and situations to dictate your thoughts and actions. You get better at marking bold lines between outside events and your judgments about them—and discarding the latter. You stop others from dictating what you think, how you act, where you spend time.
Keep in mind the advice Emperor Marcus Aurelius gave himself on waking up:
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him.— Meditations, 2.1
2. Keep death in mind
The Stoics kept the inevitability of death in their mind in everything they did. They did each thing with virtuosity and sincerity as if it were the last thing they were doing before death crept upon them.
Keeping death in their thoughts makes people remember they cannot escape their deaths no matter how famous, wealthy or powerful they are. So they should live their lives with humility and morality, without acting out of hubris or taking undue advantage of others, and not postpone doing good things till “tomorrow.”
Of this, Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself: “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” (Meditations 10.29)
And Seneca wrote to Lucilius, “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”
Stoics believe our fear of death underlies all of our other fears. When we overcome this “ultimate” fear, we free ourselves from all worldly attachments and fears of losing them.
To get a glimpse of what the ancient Stoics thought of death, read these 21 Unforgettable Stoic Quotes on Death.
Why, every day, you must tell yourself this ☛ “Memento Mori“
3. Eat as a Stoic would
The Stoic practice was to eat sparsely. They followed Socrates’ idea of eating to live, not living to eat.
Musonius Rufus (30-95 CE), one of the four great Stoic philosophers of the Roman Empire, and the man who taught Epictetus held controlling one’s appetite is at the foundation of self-control.
Rufus, the Stoic sage, taught his followers that they should prefer foods that are modestly priced, easy to come by, and healthful to eat. His idea was to not spend too much time either shopping for or making food.
Rufus asked them to avoid eating slaughtered animals, and instead, sustain on grains, fruits, vegetables, milk, honey, cheese, and the like. He also advised against overeating and eating mindlessly or hurriedly. He frequently reminded the Stoics to eat in moderation, with self-control, and with mindfulness.
The person who eats more than he should makes a mistake. So does the person who eats in a hurry, the person who is enthralled by gourmet food, the person who favors sweets over nutritious foods, and the person who does not share his food equally with his fellow diners.— Musonius Rufus, Lecture 18.4
Zeno, the first Stoic, ate only small loaves and honey, or at least tried to subsist on whatever he could eat uncooked.
Zeno thought it was best to avoid gourmet and fancy food, as they spoil one’s appetite. Once that happens, they get triggered to crave expensive, uncommon, and hard-to-get foods. And then they lose their ability to enjoy simple foods.
Even Marcus Aurelius (read his most inspiring quotes here), the powerful Roman emperor and the last great Stoic of antiquity, seemed to eat sparsely. In one of his letters, he wrote:
Then we went to luncheon. What do you think I ate? A wee bit of bread, though I saw others devouring beans, onions, and herrings full of roe. We then worked hard at grape-gathering, and had a good sweat, and were merry and, as the poet says, still left some clusters hanging high as gleanings of the vintage.— Marcus Aurelius to Fronto (144 – 145 CE), The Correspondence of M. Cornelius Fronto
- So, why not try fasting today? A modern way of fasting is Intermittent Fasting (IF). In this, you keep a gap of 14 to 16 hours between the last meal of your day and the first meal of the next day. IF has some proven biological benefits.
- Another thing you could do is this: When you eat your food today, make it a point to chew it for a long time. Note the taste of every morsel as if you are tasting each particle. This is mindful eating.
- One last idea on the Stoic way of eating: Try sitting with the food you know is unhealthy for you. Just sit there for a long while. Don’t eat it. Think deeply about why you should not eat it, and how it would harm you later. Then trash it, however alarming that idea may seem — drop it into the dustbin.
4. Work at your own worth
Do you fix your worth based on what others think of you? As a practicing Stoic, it does not matter if others admire you, laugh at you, like you, or hate you. Even if they love you, they might not even think much about your goals and dreams.
And when they dislike you, of course, they would not care about your values and strengths.
They will never understand who you actually are. So, why steer your life based on what their views are about you?
Instead, why not work to raise your own worth? Why not turn to yourself and grind out excellent quality at whatever you do, rather than working to win their validation?
You do not need to set your targets on a bounty to do meaningful work that builds your worth. You can choose one piece of work today and give it your best focus, skills, and dedication. What this would do is discipline you for a higher level of personal excellence.
The Stoic principles warn that your possessions, however high-priced, will lose their shine after a while. Then you would start taking them for granted. They would be as good as forgotten.
The same holds true for people as well. So, do not resent others for what you do not own. Or try living a life chasing the same things as they have.
Do not deride other people for their share of appreciation they receive. If you cannot applaud them, then you should neither whine about how little acclaim you have in your own life.
Instead of striving for their kind of approval, turn your focus on being as virtuous as you can with what you control — your thoughts and actions.
Work on building your own worth using the tools you have. To flourish, let go of what is not helping your growth, and get a better grip on what sharpens your skills. Seneca sagely advised,
“Every night, before going to sleep, we must ask ourselves: What weakness did I overcome today? What virtue did I practice?”
And you always have the option to have no opinion about anything. You do not need to judge yourself because someone else did so. You do not have to slot yourself into a category because everyone else is doing so. Stand on your own and fix your self-worth.
5. Write a journal to yourself
Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), the Roman emperor, was the most powerful Stoic to have ever walked this earth. He wrote a journal for guiding himself in life. He wrote it by his own hand, even when he was at the war-front.
The strange thing was, he did not want it to live on after he died. He made it clear he wanted it destroyed at his death, since he wrote it only for himself, as a diary. But it survived, and we are thankful it did, for we can now buy it as the book Meditations.
Writing in a diary was a widespread daily Stoic habit. The Stoic way of journaling was to write in the morning about the things they wanted to do that day. Then, at night, they came back to it and analyzed their day—how it went against how they wanted it to go.
The Stoics wrote to bring order to their thoughts, ideas, and memories. Writing a personal journal helped them navigate better through their hard times. It reminded them to do things that are of virtue, correct their mistakes, learn how to respond to demanding situations, and examine their actions.
Epictetus (55-135 CE) also journaled. He wrote, “These are the things [the distinction between what one can and cannot control] which philosophers should meditate on, which they should write daily, in which they should exercise themselves.”
So did Seneca: “I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve said and done, hiding nothing from myself, and passing nothing by.”
Do you know about the Stoic shortcut to thinking clearly and deciding quickly?
6. Detach yourself and practice Amor Fati
Amor fati means loving your fate, but without leaving your goals.
Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius wrote on the Stoic idea of accepting one’s destiny. Later, it came to be known as Amor fati—a Latin phrase that translates to love of one’s fate or passionate acceptance of everything from the past in one’s life.
It was Nietzsche, the revolutionary philosopher who boldly uttered God is dead, who gave the phrase to the world:
My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary – but love it.— Nietzsche
Amor Fati is not about trying to erase anything from the past. Rather, it is about accepting the past wholeheartedly—both the good and the bad, all the failures and the successes.
Amor Fati means doing the most that we can, putting in our best efforts to make the world a better place, without worrying about what results from our practices, and accepting the outcomes with gratitude and strength.
When we worry, we mostly think of an expected outcome. We get anxious that the future might unfold in a way we do not imagine it to do. But can we really control all parts of the results? No.
As we embrace the Stoic philosophy of Amor Fati, we embrace our future, our fate, whatever it may be. But it does not mean to be nihilistic or pessimistic — doing nothing or expecting the worst for the belief that nothing is going to be worthwhile.
It means working towards what you mean to and intend to do without attaching yourself to the results. It is to accept the outcome, whatever it is, as you can only control the process, not what it throws up in the end.
The Stoics believed the entire cosmos was organized rationally, including the order of events in its entire time.
Nature has preordained everything to happen the way they happen. Fighting against this cosmic fate can only cause unhappiness. So, the better option was to embrace the result with love and work to make the best of it.
Think of it as if you are setting an arrow aimed at a target, with your best technique and balance, but not much worried about where it finally stops. Accept with serenity wherever it ends up. Then keep going at it better and better with each next shot.
As Epictetus’ Enchiridion advised, “Don’t demand that things happen as you wish; rather, wish that they happen as they do happen: then you will be happy.”
7. Read a passage from a Stoic classic
It is an easy and yet powerful exercise to read a passage from a classic book from an ancient Stoic. You could read a few lines, if not a full passage, from Seneca, Epictetus, Musonius Rufus, or Marcus Aurelius.
For busy beginners, Marcus Aurelius’ immortal self-reflection journal Meditations is the go-to book. It is easy to read, understand, and keep in memory for the day.
Marcus ascended the Roman throne at 40 years of age, with twenty-odd years of philosophical training and practice behind him. He is rightly called the philosopher-king. Though he studied Cynicism, Epicureanism, Platonism, and ideas from other schools of philosophy, Marcus is held as the quintessential Stoic.
Marcus Aurelius mostly wrote from the war front, during his last decade on earth, between 170 and 180 CE. Here are a few inspiring passages:
▪ Do external things distract you? Then make time for yourself to learn something worthwhile; stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions. But make sure you guard against the other kind of confusion. People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time—even when hard at work. (Meditations, 2.7)
▪ Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see. The span we live is small—small as the corner of the earth in which we live it. Small as even the greatest renowned, passed from mouth to mouth by short-lived stick figures, ignorant alike of themselves and those long dead. (Meditations, 3.10)
▪ People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that the people who remember them will soon die too. And those after them in turn. Until their memory, passed from one to another like a candle make, gutters and goes out. (Meditations, 4.19)
▪ Nothing happens to anyone that he can’t endure. The same thing happens to other people, and they weather it unharmed—out of sheer obliviousness or because they want to display “character.” Is wisdom really so much weaker than ignorance and vanity? (Meditations, 5.18)
▪ If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance. (Meditations, 6.21)
▪ To feel affection for people even when they make mistakes is uniquely human. You can do it, if you simply recognize: that they’re human too, that they act out of ignorance, against their will, and that you’ll both be dead before long. And, above all, that they haven’t really hurt you. They haven’t diminished your ability to choose. (Meditations, 7.22)
Get yourself a modern translation of Meditations (or one of these books), and make it a point to read yourself out a passage from it every morning. You can do it before you start your day, or before you begin your workday. Spend a few moments reflecting on the passage. You can highlight or pencil-mark the passages you get most inspired by and come back to them in some time.
8. Do A Good Act Today
Do a simple good act each day. Any small thing that could make another person benefit from it.
The Stoics maintained that the only thing that contributes to eudaimonia or happiness is Virtue. They kept it clear and strong that doing good for its own sake was the highest virtue of human life. A Stoic does a good act because it is good to do so. Period.
Living with virtue was the way of the good life of a Stoic. In a sentence, a Stoic is a person who lives with virtue and in agreement with nature.
The four cardinal virtues of Stoicism are 1. Wisdom — knowing between the good and the bad. 2. Justice — morality, fairness, impartiality. 3. Temperance — moderation, self-control, self-awareness. 4. Courage — bravery, grit, resilience.
The Stoics believed their primary goal in life is to live in agreement with nature. By this, they meant living with that unique quality that makes us human above all animals — our ability to reason.
So, do a friendly act for another person today—carry a meal to a homeless guy, write a thank-you note to the office staff, take a break to watch a movie with your partner—while expecting no praise.
Now comes the vital bit: if you get praised, accept it without the littlest bit of arrogance. But if you get told off or shooed away for doing any of it, treat their terrible behavior with the utmost indifference.
Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.— Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Statesman and Stoic philosopher (4 BCE-65 CE)
9. Take another person’s perspective
A Sage is a person with perfect wisdom, as the Stoics believed. The good thing is, the Stoics also held no one can ever be an ideal Sage, as all humans are flawed by nature.
So, what they suggested was to take time to think deeply about what a Stoic Sage would do in a particular situation, and how they would carry themselves. This was to find the perfect behavior pattern, even when they are imperfect themselves, and emulate it. This was to get over the biased logic of “my way of doing things” and do what the Sage would do.
The idea is playing at the back of our minds, “What would Marcus do in this situation?” It can be a quick guide to living a good life and making virtuous decisions. With this, you do the right thing, whether or not anyone is watching.
Marcus Aurelius says, “When a man has done you wrong, immediately consider with what opinion about good or evil he has done wrong. For when you have seen this, you will pity him, and will neither wonder nor be angry. For either you yourself think the same thing to be good that he does or another thing of the same kind. It is your duty then to pardon him. But if you do not think such things to be good or evil, you will more readily be well disposed to him who is in error.” (Meditations 7.26)
10. View from above
The idea of The View From Above appeared in many schools of thought but featured remarkably in Stoicism.
In this, a Stoic imagines they are seeing things from high above, as if from the sky or from a high mountain. It serves to remind us how tiny we are and how minuscule our problems are in the vastness of the cosmos.
It changes our perspective from being narrowly focused on our anxieties looking at our issues on a cosmological scale.
Marcus Aurelius mentioned it a number of times in his Meditations.
“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, Meditations 9.32)
11. Speak little and well
The Stoics favor remaining silent over speaking out whatever comes to mind. When we listen to a person, we should do only this: Listen.
We should not jump to offer them our opinion, point out their mistakes, or offer a similar story from our lives. Our silence serves them better than our unasked-for advice.
People who were actively listened to, as researcher Harry Weger Jr. found, felt more understood than those who received advice or simple acknowledgments. Furthermore, those given active listening responses were more satisfied with their talk and thought the listener was more socially attractive.
Don’t talk too much, don’t speak ill of others, don’t speak about what you don’t know. Zeno said something that still carries wisdom, “We have two ears and one mouth, therefore we should listen twice as much as we speak.”
Ryan Holiday writes, “The Stoics knew how damaging our words could be if we said the wrong thing too often. It’s why Zeno, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus all wrote about the importance of well-thought-out speech.”
Epictetus said of this,
“Be for the most part silent, or speak merely what is necessary, and in few words. We may, however, enter, though sparingly, into discourse sometimes when occasion calls for it, but not on any of the common subjects, of gladiators, or horse races, or athletic champions, or feasts, the vulgar topics of conversation; but principally not of men, so as either to blame, or praise, or make comparisons. If you are able, then, by your own conversation bring over that of your company to proper subjects; but, if you happen to be taken among strangers, be silent.” (Enchiridion XXXIII.2)
12. Acknowledge other people’ virtues
People are basically good. Believe it and live by it.
Marcus Aurelius says of this, “Whenever you want to cheer yourself up, consider the good qualities of your companions, for example, the energy of one, the modesty of another, the generosity of yet another, and some other quality of another; for nothing cheers the heart as much as the images of excellence reflected in the character of our companions, all brought before us as fully as possible. Therefore, keep these images ready at hand.” (Meditations, 6.48)
13. Speak without judging
Our judgments attack the person we are speaking to. Even if we do not use judgmental words in our conversation, our tone and nonverbal expressions reveal our intentions.
Epictetus says of this, “Does anyone bathe in a mighty little time? Don’t say that he does it ill, but in a mighty little time. Does anyone drink a great quantity of wine? Don’t say that he does ill, but that he drinks a great quantity. For, unless you perfectly understand the principle from which anyone acts, how should you know if he acts ill? Thus you will not run the hazard of assenting to any appearances but such as you fully comprehend.” (Enchiridion XLV)
14. Meditate on the cosmos in the morning
Marcus Aurelius says, “The Pythagoreans say, ‘Look at the sky at dawn’ — to remind ourselves of the constancy of those heavenly bodies, their perpetual round of their own duty, their order, their purity, and their nakedness. No star wears a veil.” (Meditations 11.27)
15. Deal with mishaps as if they happened to others, not you
Epictetus says of this, “The will of nature may be learned from those things in which we don’t distinguish from each other. For example, when our neighbor’s boy breaks a cup, or the like, we are presently ready to say, “These things will happen.” Be assured, then, that when your own cup likewise is broken, you ought to be affected just as when another’s cup was broken. Apply this in like manner to greater things. Is the child or wife of another dead? There is no one who would not say, “This is a human accident.” but if anyone’s own child happens to die, it is presently, “Alas I how wretched am I!” But it should be remembered how we are affected in hearing the same thing concerning others.” (Enchiridion XXVI)
16. Remind yourself of the impermanence of things
Epictetus says, “With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.”(Enchiridion III)
17. Respond to insults with humor
Epictetus says, “If anyone tells you that such a person speaks ill of you, don’t make excuses about what is said of you, but answer: “He does not know my other faults, else he would not have mentioned only these.”” (Enchiridion XXXIII.9)
18. Apply virtue to every situation
This is the central axis of Stoicism. A Stoic is nothing if not a person of virtue. They live and die by the principle of virtue. The Stoics believe the things we get in life through integrity and virtue are our only true earnings.
C. S. Lewis famously said, “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.”
The Stoics have been doing the same; they do the right thing every time, even when there is no one to watch them over.
Epictetus says, “With every accident, ask yourself what abilities you have for making a proper use of it. If you see an attractive person, you will find that self-restraint is the ability you have against your desire. If you are in pain, you will find fortitude. If you hear unpleasant language, you will find patience. And thus habituated, the appearances of things will not hurry you away along with them.” (Enchiridion X)
Zeno’s Stoicism borrowed from Socrates and emphasized living a good life and finding happiness through the 4 cardinal virtues of wisdom, this is, justice, courage, and moderation. Later, Chrysippus of Soli, the second founder of Stoicism, formalized its doctrines in a challenge from the Academy. It allowed the Stoics to make crucial advances in maths and science.
The early Stoics believed their philosophy was more a way of life than a subject for discussions in the elite classrooms. Stoicism started on the streets. Many of its teachers taught their students in a marketplace. So, a commoner passing by could stop by for a few minutes and listen to at least a part of a lecture.
And so it has remained through the ages. Even 2300 years later, Stoicism is still relevant and popular.
The Stoic way to happiness is quite a practical path for us in the modern world. A Stoic is not a person devoid of emotions, as construed erroneously by many, but a person not ruled by his emotions.
Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.— Epictetus, a master of Stoicism philosophy who was born into slavery, The Enchiridion.
More often than not, your opinion or judgment of an event disturbs you more than the event itself. You end up believing what you hold as a viewpoint is what is actually happening. And it makes you suffer and lose your calm.
Stoicism can help you live with a certain inner peace in times riddled with anxiety, worrying, and overthinking. It can help you keep in mind what you only control is how you think about the events, not the events themselves.
So, in an intensely chaotic world today, how can we respond with some Stoic wisdom?
What is the core idea to practice Stoicism?
We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control our response towards each situation with reason and virtue.
Practicing this core idea of Stoicism – through repetition by speaking and writing – and putting it to use in daily lives is the surest step to Stoic practice.
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Do you know why the Stoics talked of Memento Mori—a phrase that made them live a life of the highest good?
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.
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