What is Stoicism?
My initial introduction to Stoicism came courtesy of my wife, Schuyler, who often calls me “stoic” due to my somewhat unflappable demeanor in response to chaos and adversity. Someday there will be a portrait of me working assiduously at the kitchen table while my three daughters and a baker’s dozen of their friends whir the blender and throw slime at me.
The unemotional endurance of hardship, however, belies the true nature of Stoicism, which is best described as a dynamic philosophy of personal ethics founded by Zeno of Citium in the 3rd century BC.
I won’t delve too deeply into the history of the Stoic philosophy here, but, at its core, Stoicism is a system of logic and rationality applied to virtue. Stoicism lays out a path to eudaimonia — Greek for flourishing or well-being. Eudaimonia is achieved through living an ethical life, one in accordance with nature and practicing the cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, courage and moderation. I untangle these virtues at some length in the program.
The exercises in my Stoic Meditations course — a few of which I will address here in this essay — are loosely framed around three critical disciplines that are central to Stoicism: Perception, Action and Will. By refining the discipline of perception, we find mental clarity. By engaging in action that is ethical and just, we find purpose. And by exercising will, we learn how to identify and manage the things we cannot change, attain discernment and find the resilience to deal with life’s challenges.
Stoicism is rife with aphorisms often derived from the oratory and screeds of the three most famous Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. In fact, the repetitive recitation of these aphorisms is part of instilling the Stoic ethos. So, the program — and Stoicism, in general — is laced with wise maxims that can serve as mantras. Sometimes, I find it helpful to repeat these adages quietly to myself to establish neural networks around them. The feeling of these axioms begins to sink in through their repetition.
Stoic meditations are more like active contemplations versus Buddhist mindfulness practices like Vipassana. While meditation should not be confused with the cessation of thought, one of its goals is to tame the “monkey mind”: the notion that branches are thoughts and you are swinging wildly from one to the other like a runaway primate. I think we can all point to moments where we feel a lot cognitive chaos. Meditation can reduce and slow down the number of cars on your mental highway such that you can simply witness each thought appear and dissipate without assigning it any valence or salience. In contrast, Stoic practices are more about concentrated attention on one thought or idea such that a positive emotional state arises.
On the surface, many Stoic contemplations can appear grim and morose in nature. Generally, humans feel a certain uneasiness in reflecting on their own mortality or imagining the loss of something treasured. We’re just not trained to emotionally confront death or loss or grief. If anything, we are taught to ignore thoughts that elicit discomfort. But, of course, at some juncture, we must confront them.
Some people refer to Stoic practices as negative visualizations. I consider them perspective enhancements, for in the process of untangling these thought experiments a clear and galvanizing perspective on life emerges. You really begin to focus on what makes life worthwhile in the first place and this remembrance begins to punctuate your life through the behaviors you start to adopt.
While I do suggest engaging in the following Stoic practices in a quiet place where you can focus, you don’t have to get too sanctimonious about constructing a crystal-laden puja or buying the right incense. You can practice these contemplations on a plane or in a taxi or while you wait in line at the grocery store. Personally, I love walking while working through Stoic practices.
In the end, you don’t want these ideas to be simply confined to your sacred time. You want them integrated into your quotidian life, to internalize them as part of your character.
Marcus Aurelius penned this exhortation in his famous personal writings known as Meditations, “This is the mark of perfection of character — to spend each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, laziness, or any pretending.”
So, in this spirit, let’s get into some of the practices.
Meditation 1: Wanting What You Have
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” – Epictetus
Despite the myriad differences we may have, we all share one goal: We all want to be happy. In our inexorable search, happiness can so often appear as something incessantly “out there” — something that we are chasing. We might think, “If only, and only if, I get that house with the gargoyle statue or the lead role in that rom-com or that dashing bachelor with the man bun, well, then I’ll be happy.” But, of course, once one does attain that thing it doesn’t take long for a shiny new object to appear on the horizon. And the hedonic treadmill churns away once again.
There seems to always be a gap between one and one’s happiness. One way to eliminate that gap is by continually chasing the desired things. But, as we’ve seen, this solution provides only ephemeral results. There is always another conquest as the chasm of desire gapes back open. The other method of eliminating the gap is the focus of this meditation. We concentrate on wanting what we already have.
One way to do this is by envisioning something you cherish that you currently have. This could be a job or an heirloom or even a loved one — and then imagine losing it or him or her. Again, this sounds like it could be somewhat morose. But, as you contemplate the preciousness of what you have, you will notice how your appreciation for it swells and gratitude wells up from inside of you. The gap between you and your happiness begins to dissipate when you start to love what you already have.
Find something in your life you cherish. It could be a physical object or a relationship or something you do. After you have chosen it, really examine it. How does it make you feel? What memories does it invoke? Does it conjure certain smells or tastes? Does it give you ease? Take a moment to write down a description of this object or activity or person.
For example, I grew up playing tennis and became quite an advanced player. I still play and delude myself into thinking I’m 20. I remember my dad feeding me balls as a kid. I remember sitting in the back of our steaming, hot station wagon as my mother drove me to summer clinics. The olfactory memory of the elixir of sun, sweat and new tennis balls makes me feel carefree. I am so fortunate to still be able to get out of my head and just hit yellow fuzzy spheres around with friends.
Now that you have identified your treasured item or activity or bond, for just a minute, imagine losing it. Feel the grief associated with it not being there. Imagine how you might have treated it differently if you had known it would someday vanish from your life. Spend a little time in this feeling.
Eventually bring yourself back to the triumphant reality that this thing remains present to you. How will you cherish it now? How will you nurture it? Notice the gratitude you feel for it. Notice how happy you are when you want something you already have.
“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” – Epictetus
Meditation 2: Know What You Can Control
Stoicism’s discipline of will addresses our attitude to things that are outside our control. Stoicism has influenced many religious and philosophical traditions including modern Christian thought. “The Serenity Prayer” written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr encapsulates many core tenets of Stoic philosophy.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
According to Stoicism, we don’t control the world around us, only how we respond.
Of course, we all want to influence the world in which we live. The best way to do this, the Stoics would argue, would be by living a life of virtue — in other words — to concentrate on your own actions.
Marcus Aurelius wrote, “You take things you don’t control and define them as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ And so, of course, when the ‘bad’ things happen, or the ‘good’ ones don’t, you blame the gods and feel hatred for the people responsible — or those you decide to make responsible. Much of our bad behavior stems from trying to apply those criteria. If we limited ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to our own actions, we’d have no call to challenge god, or to treat other people as enemies.”
Until we miraculously reify utopia, there will always be unfairness and cruelty. Witnessing or experiencing unscrupulous behavior can trigger emotions like anger and indignation. And, while resentment can be motivating at times, chronic anger will degrade your health and your capacity for good discernment.
When you are angry, your amygdala, a small almond-shaped cluster of neurons in the medial temporal lobe of your brain, becomes activated. The amygdala is famously associated with “fight or flight,” your body’s involuntary response to external threat. Amygdala activation triggers the release of cortisol, a neurotransmitter that heightens alertness. This hormone had a lot of utility on the Serengeti. However, protracted anger or what I sometimes call “amygdala hijack” can lead to a chronic release of cortisol, which can heighten blood glucose levels and cause dysbiosis in the gut. Amygdala hijack also reduces your ability to leverage the pre-frontal cortex, the brain’s locus of reason.
And, remember, when you feel angry, YOU are the one experiencing the discomfort. The instigator of your anger is off bowling or drinking pints at the pub. So, instead of focusing on the purveyor of injustice, concentrate on your own actions such that they are wise, just, courageous and moderate.
Think about going outside in the freezing cold. While the bitter temperature elicits discomfort, you are keenly aware that you do not control nature’s thermostat. So, you put on a sweater and a knit hat and you feel more at ease. You’ve exercised a simple form of perception, action and will.
Now take a moment and meditate on a circumstance in your life that provokes a negative emotion or a negative judgment. Perhaps you’ve been betrayed by someone for whom you cared or you’re enraged by the unseemly behavior of a public figure. Perhaps you have suffered from a traumatic event in your childhood. And maybe you’ve spent nights tossing and turning, furtively plotting revenge. Perhaps you’ve clutched an ember of vengeance waiting for just the moment to throw it … but now realize, that all that time, it was you who was getting burned. The unethical actions of others are often like the cold. You have no influence over them. But you can control your response.
Marcus Aurelius said, “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one!”
We cannot change the past deeds of others, but we can influence the future by taking action within our own lives in the present moment.
Think of a big circle that consists of all of life’s vicissitudes — good and bad, pleasurable and hurtful. And within that space there is a smaller circle labeled “things I can control.” Focus your will on the actions that address the contents of the smaller circle.
As Aurelius wrote, “Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.”
Meditation 3: Memento Mori
In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote, “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
Memento mori is the practice of acknowledging your mortality or literally “remembering death.” This practice is central to numerous philosophical and spiritual traditions including but not limited to Stoicism.
In Buddhism, there is a practice known as Maraṇasati, Sanskrit for mindfulness of death. The 11th century Buddhist scholar Atisha developed contemplations specifically focused on death awareness. These meditations concentrated on death’s inevitability, its unpredictability and its many causes. And they remind us that, at the time of death, our material resources are of little use. Even our loved ones cannot keep us from passing.
In Greek antiquity, the philosopher Democritus built perspective and resilience by going into solitude and frequenting tombs.
There is even an entire genre of 17th century art called Vanitas that is designed to remind the viewer of their own mortality. Still Life with a Skull, a famous piece by the French painter Philippe de Champaigne features the three essentials of existence: the tulip representing life, the skull signifying death, and the hourglass indicating time.
Meditating on your mortality is only morbid if you fail to see the point. It is a praxis for creating priority, meaning, perspective and urgency. Death doesn’t make life pointless but rather purposeful. We’ve been gifted this precious, beautiful, imperfect fleeting life. What will we make of it? Will we waste our time on the trivial and vain? Or will we live courageously and strive to align our actions with our highest principles?
The good news: We don’t have to die to do this. But the reminder that someday we will serves as a reminder to move closer to living the life we want.
You’ve likely engaged in this thought experiment perhaps over a glass of wine (or three). What would you do if you only had 6 months to live? What relationships would you mend? To whom would you apologize? What new experiences would you try?
Create an inventory of the things you would do if death was imminent. Actually write them down. This is your new to-do list. Don’t fret the small stuff. Returning emails or playing Minecraft can wait! (Do people still play Minecraft?)
Seneca wrote, “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.”
The awareness of our inevitable and unpredictable death should serve as motivation to live a full and virtuous life.
To go deeper into Stoicism and its practices, you can take my program “Stoic Meditations” for free with a 14-day trial to Commune. Learn more here.