So, how can you learn to be a Stoic?
Stoic philosophy is an excellent framework for creating stability, peace of mind, inner stillness, and meaning in your life. Stoic philosophy is one of the very few ancient philosophies still practiced today. It’s logical approach, practicality, and effectiveness have acted like armour against the sands of time that so often erode many of the other philosophies of the ancient world.
If you’re new to Stoic philosophy and want to find out how it’s lessons and practices can help you live a more stable and happy life, you can find an introduction here.
The Stoics have many different practices that help solidify their practical philosophy. To begin, here are 3 Stoic practices I think give the most value for the time they take:
Spartan Agoge and Deliberate Discomfort
Daily Stoic Journal:
Marcus Aurelius rose from his bed in the dawn light of Serinium, in what is now modern day Serbia. It is around 170AD, and the Emperor of Rome was busy planning campaigns of war against the Germanic tribes to the North.
At dawn, in the cresting sunlight of the old world, he would rise early from his sleep, sit at his desk and write, organising his thoughts, detailing his Stoic philosophy, and preparing for the day ahead. Through his practice of journaling, the Emperor found a practice of meditation, a reflection of the thoughts he was having about himself, his relationships with other people, the world around him, and his place in it. This private journal would later be published and would turn into one of the worlds most prominent works of Stoic philosophy; Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.
“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”
~ Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Aurelius was not the only philosopher of the ancient world who used journaling as a way to organise and observe his thoughts. The great Stoic philosophers Seneca the Younger and Epictetus both praised journaling and its ability to help us develop into the people we wish to be.
Seneca enjoyed journaling in the evening to reflect on how the day had gone. He would ask himself whether or not his actions had been virtuous, and whether there was anything he could have done better. He wrote;
“When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent, aware of this habit that’s now mine, I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by.”
Epictetus instructed all of his students to write their philosophy, rehearse it, read it out loud and discuss it with others:
“Every day and night keep thoughts like these at hand, write them, read them aloud, talk to yourself and others about them.”
At its core Stoicism is a philosophy of practicality. Its existence is to provide its practitioners with the tools needed to live a happy life, resilient to the things that threaten to disturb their peace of mind.
The practice of journaling reflects Stoic practicality. It gives us the opportunity to articulate our thoughts, reflect on how we handle different situations, and clarify the way in which we wish to approach life.
We lay bare our thoughts and mental chatter, and in doing so we are able to more clearly see how we think, behave, and perceive.
However, journaling isn’t simply the practice of keeping a diary. It targets specific areas of your life, and in doing so helps you reflect on the past, pay attention to the present, and prepare for the future. It helps you to meditate on your own personal philosophy, reminding yourself of the things you have learned from mentors and teachers, and provides a tool for us to realign with the person we want to be when we feel like we are wandering from that path.
The more we write, the more our philosophy ingrains itself in our character, and the less we will find ourselves forgetting the wisdom that we have come across in the past.
Life these days has a high potential to cause stress, anxiety, and worry. There is so much around us that keeps us distracted, stimulated and fighting for our attention. It can be difficult to keep a clear head. The structure of this book is specifically designed to efficiently guide you through areas of thought that have the greatest potential to cultivate more favourable perspective and resilience. The more you reflect on these areas of thought, the more you will become immune to the things around you that disturb your peace of mind.
Journaling is like bathing. It’s an ongoing process, we can’t expect to do it once and continue to see the benefits.
Daily Stoic Meditation:
Meditation is one of those things that seems to be shackled to a number of unfortunate stereotypes. You may thing it’s for new age hippies, or for topless yogis sitting in silence for years.
While it has definitive been applied in those areas, it also exists outside them. Meditation is simply the practice of shifting your awareness to a specific area of thought. This could be meditating on the events of the day, on your thoughts, feeling, or simply the breath in the present.
The practice of Stoic meditation is similar to that of journaling, the difference being that one is written, the other is simply contemplative.
For the Stoics there were a number of areas that are useful for meditation:
Identify what thoughts are arising in the present moment, whether there are any desires or emotions that could be destructive or have a negative impact on your peace of mind. Observe them without judgement, and understand that you may not be able to control what enters your awareness, but you can control how these things affect you. You have the ability to decide how to act and respond in any given moment.
Contemplate who you would like to be, and imagine what virtues and behaviours you would need to adopt in order to get there.
“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do. To the rational being only the irrational is unendurable, but the rational is endurable.” – Epictetus
In the morning find somewhere to sit comfortably and reflect on what you are to do during the day. Think about how you fit into the order of things, what is your place within the whole. Imagine what you will face during the day, and how you would like to tackle each milestone. Remember that we can’t always control what happens to us, but we can always decide how we respond.
In the evening, reflect on the events of the day. How did you act? Were you happy with how each interaction went? Did you respond how you’d like? Reflect on the things you did well and what could be done better.
Contemplate your own mortality. Memento Mori. You won’t be here forever. What are you taking for granted? How are you using your time?
We can also reflect on whether or not we are acting with virtue. The Four Virtues were core aspect of one’s character that helped guide the Stoic in their journey through life. If you’re interested to use them for yourself, you can find them here.
Stoicism & Deliberate Discomfort:
The practice of deliberate discomfort was common amongst the ancient Stoics.
At an early age the emperor Marcus Aurelius began to design a deliberate lifestyle to include the Greek practice of agoge.
Agoge is most commonly used to describe the harsh and brutal training regime employed by the Spartans to develop endurance, resilience and strength of will.
When he was a boy, a young Marcus Aurelius would wear basic clothing, sleep on the ground to embrace the Greek practice of building endurance. The Roman collection of biographies, Historia Augusta, contains the following about Aurelius:
studied philosophy intensely, even when he was still a boy. When he was twelve years old he embraced the dress of a philosopher, and later, the endurance — studying in a Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground. However, (with some difficulty) his mother persuaded him to sleep on a couch spread with skins. He was also tutored by Apollonius of Chalcedon, the Stoic philosopher […]
These things help us remain grounded and better able to endure discomfort. These days we’re so eaily gratified and comfortable that when we experience true discomfort it’s a shock to the system, and many of us throw our toys out of the pram like a child (no access to wifi is a good example).
Aurelius wasn’t the only ancient philosopher to practice voluntary hardship. Seneca the Younger, the Stoic statesman and adviser to the emperor Nero was also known to have participated. He took cold baths, made a habit of swimming in the cold waters of the Italian river Tyber during winter, and eating plain dry bread.
Diogenes the Cynic had his own practice:
In the summer he used to roll in the sand, and in the winter embrace snow-covered statues, using every means to train himself to endure hardship…
These days there is no need to hug snowy statues or roll in hot sand. However, we can develop our own version of the ancient Agoge.
Here are a few examples:
Take cold showers
Sleep on the floor every now and then
Embrace difficult sessions of exercise
Begin contact martial arts (Wrestling, Jiu Jitsu, etc)
Eat plainly and out of necessity rather than pleasure
All of these things don’t have to be daily practices, however they are all things that help build discipline, resilience and appreciation for many of the things we take for granted.
Build your own agoge, see if it helps.