Stoic Exercises and Practices

Elen Buzaré - Stoic Spiritual Exercises

Practical Logic

The epochê exercise

This exercise consists of doubting the inital impression, to wonder whether it is in fact a false one. The concrete application of the discipline of judgement is realised in two steps. First, the reaction to an impression or inner image which troubles or terrifies us because of its harshness must be resisted. This supposes a 'retreat from our projections' which prevent us from seeing 'what is'. An important element of the ancients' therapy is epochê, 'to bracket'; looking at something, somebody, an event and 'to put it in brackets'. We do this in order to 'suspend our judgement', not to project onto the object in question our fears, our desires, and all our 'packets of memories'. Seeing clearly, primarily is to see what is; what is, and nothing else. Epochê concerns emotion as well as judgement and thought. It supposes a great freedom in relation to our reactions. Epochê provides a very important moment to allow us to get away from 'our own point of view' and our conditioning before assenting to a phantasia. This is the beginning of clear vision. The second step consists of 'adding something' to what the impression initially implies: This second step is called epilegein by Epictetus, which means 'saying something more'. The inner discourse appears at this stage. The goal of the Stoic epilegein is to establish the truth about the impression by distinguishing what is in our power from what is not in our power.

Practical Physics

Praemeditation malorum

This exercise consists in representing to oneself anything which may occur in the course of daily life: difficulties, setbacks, sufferings or even death, for instance. Practicing the praemeditatio, the Stoic wishes to smooth the impact of unpleasant events (but not to escape from them) and above all to restore his peace of mind. The constant thought of death radically transforms our way of living, for it makes us realise the sheer value of every single moment of time.

Physical definition

This exercise is a typical example of epilegein. It consists of defining in precise terms what it is that one is attached to, and therefore wishes to hold on to. The definition will enable us to distinguish clearly subjective and affective judgements from the objective representation that we should have concerning the things to which we are attached. The goal is to acquire an inner detachment from the things around us, including the things we love (but also the things we are afraid of), and it has to be practised progressively.


One of the core teachings of Stoicism is understanding that everything you possess (riches, honours, as well as the people you love) may be taken from you at any time. Consequently, the Stoic outlook on these things is always to see them as being mere loans, because a loan must always be returned to its true owner one day or another.

Impermanence or universal metamorphosis

In this exercise the Stoic trains themselves to observe how things constantly change. This meditation could involve visualisation techniques. For instance, you could visualise a human body through the stages of life, then its death and decay.

Wand of Hermes

When something 'bad' happens to you, you should immediately distinguish what is up to you from what is not up to you. Our hêgemonikon finds in every occasion the ability and the opportunity to exercise virtue by way of correct judgement. In fact, it is like the wand of Hermes, which has the power to change everything to gold. The one who insults you gives you the occasion to exercise patience. Illness gives you the occasion to exercise courage and serenity.

The view from above

This exercise consists in looking at things with detachment, distance, and objectivity, as if you were seeing the Earth from space. From there, the borders which people erect between each other should appear ridiculous, armies invading territories should look like ants fighting over a narrow space, and so forth. The goal is to change our judgement on things concerning luxury, power, war, borders and the worries of everyday life, by re-situating them within the immensity of the cosmos and the vastness of human experience.

Practical Ethics

Defining the planned action

It is important that we remind ourselves of every turn of event that may possibly occur as a result of attempting to complete our activities.

Acting 'with reservation'

Someone acts with reservation when they realize that in attempting to fulfill their action it is entirely possible that they will meet with obstacles that are independent of their will, and that may well prevent success. The Stoic tries to foresee every obstacle, and so keeps their equanimity in all circumstances, because this will help them to remain faithful to the way of life they have chosen.

Matthew Sharpe - Pierre Hadot

The Figure of the Sage

The philosophical Sage, in all the ancient discourses, is characterized by a constant inner state of happiness or serenity. This has been achieved through minimizing his bodily and other needs, and thus attaining to the most complete independence ( autarcheia) vis-à-vis external things. The Sage is for this reason capable of maintaining virtuous resolve and clarity of judgment in the face of the most overwhelming threats, from natural catastrophes to "the fury of citizens who ordain evil . . . [or] the face of a threatening tyrant" (Horace in WAP 223).

The Stoic Sage who has realized that external things do not depend upon his will, for instance, is prompted to accept these "indifferents" with equal benevolence or equanimity (the famous amor fati, or love of fate, later adopted by Nietzsche).

The perception of the Sage constantly views things with the wonder of seeing the world for the first time (PWL 257-8), or as others see things only when a sense of their mortality, and therefore the unique singularity of each moment and experience, is imposed upon them (PWL 260).

Spiritual Practices

Askesis of Desire

Practices deliberately aimed at addressing the student's larger way of life, and demanding daily or continuous repetition: practices of attention (prosochê), meditations (meletai), memorizations of dogmata, self-mastery (enkrateia), the therapy of the passions, the remembrance of good things, the accomplishment of duties, and the cultivation of indifference towards indifferent things. Premeditation of Death and Evils

The students are exhorted to present to their minds, in advance, the possible evils that may befall them in the course of their upcoming endeavors, so as to limit the force of their possible fear, anger, or sadness, should these evils occur. Galen recommends that at the beginning of each day individuals try to call to mind all they have to do in the course of the day ahead, envisaging the ways things may go awry, and recalling the principles that should guide them in their actions. Concentration on the Present Moment

We must learn to calm our passions so we can clearly assess what is happening to us at any given moment, rectify our present intentions, and accept with equanimity all that is occurring which does not depend upon our volition.

The View from Above

Writing as Hypomnemata, and The Inner Citadel

The formal peculiarities of Marcus Aurelius' text dissolve when we situate the text itself as the exemplar of a type of spiritual exercise recommended in the Stoic heritage to which Marcus belonged: namely, as a hypomnemata the philosopher was enjoined to keep always at hand (procheiron), whose production and rereading was recommended as a means for to keep alive at all times the key Stoic principles (kephalaia), independent of whether anyone else should read them.

Mneme Manual

Ten Principles

  1. Choice. Live a chosen, considered life.

  2. Non-attachment. Do not be attached to things, feelings, or the results of actions.

  3. Non-harming. Do not harm anything without good reason.

  4. Simplicity. Live simply; shed excess.

  5. Control. Of things, some are in our power and some are not.

  6. Presentness. Live right here, right now.

  7. Brevity. Life is short; each day matters.

  8. Nature. Nature is all; there is no supernatural.

  9. Environment. To encourage virtue, setting matters.

  10. Resolve. Self-mastery requires the patient renunciation of small desires.

Morning Exhortation: This day is mine only by fortune; It is unique, different from all other days; When past it is gone forever; There is no assurance that fortune will grant me another; Today is an opportunity to live a virtuous, rationally excellent life.

  1. May I remember that which is in my power and that which is not in my power.

  2. We are not disturbed by events but by our opinions about events.

  3. The Universe is change. Life is opinion (‘Life is what you make of it').

  4. Do not act as if you had ten thousand years still to live…rather while you still can, while there is still time, make yourself good.

Hypomnemata: The Philosopher's Journal

With repetition comes experience, depth, and another kind of learning. Ideas become a part of consciousness, and we know. That's the value of the hypomnemata exercise. Thats how Stoic principles stick with us wherever we go. From my own experience I have found that the easiest way to get started in your "Philosopher's Journal" is to start paying more attention to your life. Before long, you will habitually note anything that made an impression on you that day. It doesn't have to be a specific event, however; it can be a general theme. Make notes spontaneously when events occur, then set them aside until you can develop them more fully on a scheduled time or day of the week. Keep your philosopher's journal handy. You could enter all your ideas directly into a computer file, but sitting down at a computer and waiting for a great idea is a tough way to do this kind of work. Ask any professional writer. Take your journal with you wherever you go – home, school, work, in the car, on vacation. Make this a challenging and rewarding exercise or it will quickly become drudgery. You should be looking forward to developing your own hypomnemata style. Do this exercise as often as you can to bring and keep your philosophy alive at the forefront of your consciousness. It will make you a better Stoic.


Meditation is the discipline that gives us practical experience in mastering our judgments about impulses that give rise to emotions. With practice we increase our ability to remain calm and serene in our reactions to incoming impulses that may lead to irritation or other rising passions. Anger, jealousy, sadness, arrogance, fear, and lust – all emotional states are treated the same in meditation as heat, cold, aches, pains, tickles and itches. Remain equanimous. Observe these states without desire or aversion. Simply observe what they are, how they feel. It's important to remember that remaining equanimous is not the same as repression. Repression is stopping the mind from thinking about whatever it is that annoys you. What you do in meditation is exactly the opposite. It's acceptance, not rejection, not repression. You are accepting an irritant, either external or internal, either desired or disturbing, accepting it for what it is, neither good nor bad, but indifferent. If you can do that for a half hour in meditation, you will be more mentally prepared for all the ups and downs the rest of your day.