Modern Stoic Practices

Mark, modified 5 Years ago.

Modern Stoic Practices

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These practises are described in the book Stoicism And The Art Of Happiness by Donald Robertson who is a cogntiive behavioral psychotherapist (CBT).

I've mentioned Stoicism in some other threads and I'm still exploring it. The pragmatism and compatibility with my understanding of Buddhism stood out to me. These notes are very brief but might be of some inspiration to look further.

On a practical level is might be best to choose only a few daily practises e.g. 

Eat like a Stoic
Look for motivation through self-discipline rather than physical results. Socrates advised that we should “eat to live” not "live to eat”. Musonius argued that mastering one’s appetite is the very foundation of self control.

Exercise like a Stoic
Epictetus says ‘endure and renounce’. Endurance is linked to the virtue of courage and can be developed to some extent simply by learning to tolerate ordinary discomfort or fatigue. Getting up to meditate is perhaps a good example!

Contemplating the virtues
  • What potential virtues or strengths has nature given you and how do they apply to the situations you face, particularly life’s challenges?
  • What personal qualities or character strengths do you find most praiseworthy or admirable in other people ?
  • How do the virtues compare to each other? Are some more important? Are they all somehow related or not ?
  • What do you think would be the most important virtue
  • Review the previous day, what strengths or glimpses of “virtue” did you exhibit ? What opportunities were there to exhibit others?
Write a philosophical consolation letter
Read the consolation letters by Seneca, letters 63,93,99 to Lucilius.

Percentage control appraisal
  • Pick a problem/situation
  • Rate how much control I have from 0-100 percent
  • What is not under my control ?
  • What aspects are under my control ?
  • What if I focused on what I can control and accepted what is not
Dwelling in the here and now
Throughout the day practise bringing attention back to the present moment. Imagine seeing things for the first time. Remind yourself that the past and future are ‘indifferent’ to you, there is only the present moment.

Divide and conquer
See if you can alter your emotional response by dissecting things into components
  • Closed eyes spend a few minutes picturing a recent situation where you felt strong desires or emotions which you judge it would be rational and healthy to change
  • Describe the events without value judgements, inferences or emotive language - like a scientist taking notes, be impartial
  • Divide the situation into component parts - different sense, sensations, perceptions
  • Consider each and ask does this really justify those feelings ?
  • Focus on accepting each element as indifferent
If each component is bearable then why should you be overwhelmed by them taken together

Stoic acceptance exercises
Take a few minutes to practise radical acceptance by willing things to be as they actually are.
  • Imagine the universe is designed to give you opportunities to respond with virtue
  • Imagine you unconsciously chose and created your own fate to help yourself learn and grow
  • Contemplate the idea that events and your response to them could not have been any other way - they were determined
  • Tell yourself that nothing matters except your current voluntary response to events. Accept everything else, everything bodily or external, as being indifferent, absolutely trivial
Circles of Hierocles
Our relationships can be presented as a series of concentric circles, radiating out from ourselves. Attempt to draw the circles toward the center, voluntarily reducing the psychological distance. Practice can be like metta meditations.

Socrates’ Love Charm
It is more important to love than to be loved. Whenever you meet someone say from the outset “What are his assumptions concerning what is fundamentally good and bad in life ?” When someone acts like your enemy, insults or opposes you, remember that he was only doing what seemed to him the right thing, he didn’t know better and tell yourself “It seemed so to him”

What would the Sage do ?
Contemplate what character the ideal Stoic Sage, someone with supreme wisdom and virtue, would have. Before, during and after, certain situations or tasks, ask yourself “What would the ideal ideal sage do in this situation ?” Ask yourself what a true sage with perfect practical wisdom would do. Alternatively imagine you are being observed by a perfectly good and wise Sage. Ask yourself “What would the Sage do?” and “What would the Sage tell me to do ?”

Acting with the Reserve Clause
Pick a task to undertake with the reserve clause in mind. Focus your intention to act with integrity, while accepting the outcome with equanimity.
  • Plan something you’re going to do later today, with regard to external events.
  • Try to imagine the various obstacles and willingly accept that things could go against yourself.
  • Rehearse saying to yourself “I will do such-and-such”, adding the caveat “if nothing prevents me” or “fate permitting”
  • If thing don’t turn out as you may have wished focus on accepting the outcome
Dedicating action to the common welfare of mankind
  • Throughout the day before undertaking any action ask with regard to your internal attitude and your intentions “How does this accord with practical wisdom and moral excellence ?” and “How does this contribute to Happiness and fulfilment?”
  • In terms of external outcome “How does this action serve the community of mankind?” Even if some actions don’t appear to serve this higher purpose, at least they may be approved if they don’t conflict with the common welfare of mankind.
Premeditation of external events (decatastrophizing)
Make a list of the four or five worst catastrophes that could realistically befall you in life.
  • Write down the event in detail but just the facts in a detached way eliminate emotive language.
  • Close your eyes and imagine the catastrophe happening right now. Do this patiently and you will find distress naturally reduces over time. Continue until anxiety has reduced by at least 50 percent.
  • Ask yourself “So what if this happens?” Remind yourself that the essence of the good is human virtue and that external events are indifferent.
  • Also ask yourself “What happens next? How long will this catastrophe last?” Focusing on the temporary nature of most adversities can make them easier to endure.
Most distressing events might need to be reviewed for 15-30 minutes every day for a week or more. However 5 minutes a day if often enough for typical misfortunes without undue anxiety.

Contemplation of Stoic exemplars
  • Take time to study written accounts of how a Stoic hero coped in the face of adversity.
  • What virtuous attitude or actions might help them ?
  • Imagine being the person you’re modelling
  • Now apply the same virtues to misfortunes you might realistically face
The exercise of physical definition
Focusing attention on objective representations
  • Think of an event that you find mildly upsetting
  • Close your eyes and imagine you are in the situation
  • See if you can sum up the essence of things objectively in a brief label or description such as “Someone said something that I disagreed with”
  • Try to describe the physical properties of the situation in as much detail as possible
  • Avoid any value judgements or inferences just stick to the raw data, the facts of the situation. Don’t judge as good or bad.
Gaining cognitive distance
Practise withholding your assent, viewing the impression in a detached way, saying in response:
  • You are just an appearance and not at all the thing you claim to represent
  • We are upset not by things but by our judgements about things
  • External and bodily things are fundamentally indifferent with regard to becoming a good person
  • The Sage would rise above this, viewing it as indifferent
Leaves on a stream meditation
An exercise adapted from a form of CBT called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
  • Close your eyes and sit in a comfortable position and begin to observe your stream of consciousness
  • Picture a slowly-flowing stream or river. Imagine it is autumn and a few leaves are being swept past. Imagine you’re observing things from a distance, from high
  • From time to time you will be distracted. Rather than interpreting these as distractions accept your automatic thoughts as normal and harmless and incorporate them into the exercise as follows
  • When a thought intrudes catch it as early as possible and bring attention back gently to the image of the river
  • Turn the thought into an object. For example if words cross your mind imagine writing them on a slip of paper, if a memory or image pops up turn it into a photograph, if a feeling or bodily sensation comes up picture it as a colour or shape
  • Now place that object on one of the leaves and just let it drift downstream until it disappears from view
  • Keep catching and processing phenomena in this way
Stoic self-monitoring and postponement
Try to be continually mindful of your thoughts and feelings particularly how you respond to them. Later record information such as:
  • Where and when did problematic feelings arise, such as anxiety, anger or unhelpful desires ?
  • What emotions or desires did you experience ? Note any “early-warning signs” such as physical tension or bodily sensations
  • What specific thoughts or judgements were these feelings based on ?
  • What did you actually say or do ?What if anything did you avoid doing ?
Awaken like a Stoic
When you awake each morning, take a few moments to compose yourself then spend 5-10 minutes patiently rehearsing the day ahead. How can you progress a few steps closer to the ideal Sage ? How can you take appropriate action in the world, while accepting things beyond your control ?

How to sleep like a stoic
Before going to sleep take 5-10 minutes to calmly review the events of your day.
  • What did you do badly ?
  • What did you do well ?
  • What did you omit ?
  • Consider how things done badly could be done differently. What would the perfect Sage do ?
  • Praise yourself for anything well done
Contemplating the festival of life
Step back from the “rat-race” and begin to really notice life, being grateful for the “here and now”

Contemplating the view from above
  • Imagine leaving your body and rising higher upwards as you look down on yourself and things around you
  • Picture first all what you currently look like as if seen from the outside
  • Rise higher and imagine the surroundings
  • Rise higher looking down on the town or city. Contemplate how many different people are doing different things
  • Rising even higher imagine the whole country
  • Now imagine rising above the earth, see the polar ice caps, north and south and the land and oceans
  • Recall that your body lives down there, just one tiny occupant of  ahuge and diverse planet, but realize that your mind is able to grasp the concept of the whole of nature. Think of the transience and inter-action of all material things and imagine all things together as one thing, parts of the same whole.
  • Be aware of your life as part of the whole network of events on Earth below, just one of over seven billion.
Contemplating the vastness of time and eternal recurrence
  • Focus your attention on what you’re actually doing right here and now, become mindful of your actions in the present moment
  • Broaden the perspective on time becoming aware of the smallness of the present moment, each passing second.
  • Now think of the present instant within the context of your whole lifespan, the years behind you and ahead of you and how these few seconds are preceded and followed by countless millions, all different yet all the same.
  • Now think of your own life as just one among many, preceded and followed by the lives of billions of other people. Think of how many famous or important people have lived and died before you and will live and die long after you have gone.
  • Broaden the perspective to the whole history of the human race, as part of the natural history of the planet and how tiny mankind’s duration is compared to the lifespan of our planet.
  • Now think of the whole planetary history of Earth itself and how it was born from the debris of an exploding star, countless billions of years ago. Contemplate your own place right now within that vast cosmic epoch
  • Finally contemplate the whole history of the cosmos, how the present moment is infinitesimally small