Stoic Spiritual Exercisesby Elen Buzaré
Richard Lewis reminded us in The Price of Tranquillity and Taking Advantage of Adversity that it was one thing to study the principles of Stoicism, but another to apply those principles in our everyday lives. He then mentioned some techniques he experimented with to help us. My goal in writing this essay is an attempt to further this work.
Every Hellenistic school of philosophy, including the Sceptics, had their own spiritual exercises (askesis, meletê), i.e., personal and voluntary practices designed to bring about an inner transformation. Clearly, the Stoics distinguished philosophy, understood as the living practice of the virtues, from philosophical discourse, that is, the theoretical teaching of philosophy.
Despite the fact that many texts refer to those exercises, no systematic treatise exhaustively codifies a theory of askesis and practice, for this teaching was probably transmitted orally. However, Pierre Hadot proposes that some treatises on such exercises existed which are now lost.
A. The Different Forms of Exercise
We know little about ancient Stoics practices: In fact, only a helpful little treatise written by Musonius Rufus has survived in which he distinguishes two main categories of exercise:
Firstly, exercises peculiar to the soul. This first category is itself divided in two subsections:
(1) Those consisting in always keeping in mind (or meditating upon) the school’s fundamental teachings which aim at developing a different outlook upon things. Here, the ancient Stoics required their students to learn by rote a summary of their doctrines in the form of short sentences logically and harmoniously linked together. Stoics were famed for their rigor among the other schools of philosophy.
(2) Those consisting in examining the purity of intention. What I call the ‘aproptôsia' exercises are a good example of this. (See below.)
Secondly, exercises peculiar to both the soul and the body. The goal of this second category of exercise is to get used to cold, heat, hunger, frugal food, an uncomfortable bed, etc. In doing so, the student’s body becomes insensitive to pain, and consequently the soul itself is fortified and becomes courageous, disciplined and ready for action.
This essay will focus on the first category of exercise, that is, those peculiar to the soul. However, I do not underestimate the value of the second category of exercise, for it is obviously difficult to resist different kinds of desires if, for instance, one never leaves the security of a cosy house or has always been accustomed to expensive food or the luxury of beautiful and warm clothes. There may be real value in practising such exercises today. I nevertheless believe that modern Stoics should be careful always to ask advice from physicians before undertaking exercises along these lines, for I suppose that this training was not an easy one. However, I think that a good beginning would be to regularly practice some form of physical exercise along with a healthy diet. A good idea would be to ask one’s physician to create a special programme.
B. The Different Ways of Meditation
Pierre Hadot has made an approximate reconstruction of the way Stoic philosophers used to meditate. Such a reconstruction is difficult, although not impossible, because of the lack of sources. Nevertheless, he has been able to distinguish, as far as Stoics are concerned, the ‘writing meditation’ from the mental one.
1. The Writing Meditation
Pierre Hadot has shown that the ‘writing meditation’ was a spiritual exercise in itself, especially for the Stoics of the imperial era.
As I explained above, ancient Stoics advised their students, day and night, to recall to mind their doctrines with the help of summaries composed as memorable maxims. Students were probably asked to write their own ‘journal’, using the given summaries as models and starting points.
Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations should be understood in this way. In his work, the Emperor formulates for himself the dogmas of Stoicism. However it is not enough merely to re-read words. On the contrary, the important thing is to continuously reformulate the doctrines and the sentences which invite action of a particular character. What is really important is the art of writing, of speaking to oneself.
The ‘writing meditation’ is not a summary like a mathematical formula that one should re-read and apply mechanically whenever one so pleases. Its aim is not to solve abstract and theoretical questions, but to put oneself in such a situation that one feels obliged to live as a Stoic. This is why Marcus Aurelius so many times appears to repeat the same thing in various ways in his Meditations, as you have probably noticed.
This form of exercise is typically Stoic, and its use extended through the centuries. In his Exercises (or Askemata), Shaftesbury, a modern Stoic living during the eighteenth century, still respects this tradition.
2. The Mental Meditation
Meditation is a form of mental development. To meditate means learning to be attentive to every single action, thought or sensation one may have or feel at the very time they appear. Developing this ability requires some training.
The mental form of meditation was very common during antiquity. For instance, the Stoic Cleanthes used to reproach himself out loud. However, the meditation could also be silent: Socrates used to practise it standing up and immobile, while Epictetus preferred to walk.
The meditation, in Stoic tradition often comprises ‘inner discourses,’ as I call them, and of course could be practised at any time, that is, each time we need to question an ‘impression.’ It may even be plausible that some breathing control techniques existed whose aim was to develop concentration and help the mind to focus on the inner discourses.
As we can see, the Stoics invented various ways to practise meditation, but we should notice that, apparently, no techniques of meditation comparable to Buddhist practice were ever developed. However, David Fontana remarks that although meditation techniques developed in many different cultures (and not only in oriental ones), the techniques in themselves are similar everywhere. Furthermore, a very similar notion to Buddhist reincarnation was well known in Ancient Greece, probably after having been introduced from India via Thrace around the sixth century BC. I suppose that meditation techniques could have been introduced together with the concept of reincarnation.
Bokar Rimpotché, a Tibetan Lama, states that although a beginner necessarily has to retire to a quiet place, to adopt a specific posture and to follow specific procedures, a more advanced individual is able to meditate in every circumstance: while walking, eating or even speaking.
Consequently, I think that we may reasonably suppose that Stoic teachers also progressively taught their students the meditation technique. In this case, Socrates’ and Epictetus’ way of meditating would correspond to an advanced level. Unfortunately, this knowledge is now lost and that is why it may well be useful to find inspiration from other cultures, such as the Buddhist meditation technique which largely consists of breathing exercises, or at least involves focusing on one’s breathing.
Note that Seneca advises us regularly (probably daily) to take some time to be alone with ourselves in a quiet place. Nevertheless, Stoics always aimed at living within society and, as Seneca reminds us, the goal of meditation, whatever its form, is to induce us to come back to society; and in return, society will urge us to meditate anew.
C. The Exercises as a Constant Application of Logic, Physics and Ethics
Despite the loss of treatises by Zeno and Chrysippus, it is possible, with the fragments we have, along with Cicero’s, Marcus Aurelius’, Seneca’s and Epictetus’ works to understand the main features of their teaching.
In Stoicism, logic, physics and ethics are not only theoretical disciplines but also constitute three themes of exercises for students which must be concretely applied by those aiming at living as a philosopher.
It appears that there is a certain correspondence between the three parts of the philosophical teaching and the three disciplines as applied by Epictetus in the Discourses and the Handbook (the focus for these disciplines being hypolepsis, orexis and hormê).
For instance, the discipline of desire (orexis), which may be understood as passivity or acceptance when confronting Fate, may be perceived as a concrete application of physics. The discipline of impulse (hormê) is a part of ethics, (the active application of the ‘duties’). And lastly, the discipline of judgement (hypolepsis) is of course the direct application of logic.
I am now going to describe in detail the different types of existing exercise. I do not pretend to offer an exhaustive list, and I have relied heavily on Pierre Hadot’s various researches on this subject.
Firstly, I will, focus on practical logic, secondly on practical physics, and finally on practical ethics.
II. Practical Logic
A. The Discipline of Judgement
The discipline of judgement is also known as the proper use of impressions or representations. Before introducing this major Stoic spiritual exercise, it is well worth studying the concepts of representation (phantasia), of judgement (krisis) and of assent (sunkatathesis). I will try not to take too long, as I suppose that most people reading this journal are already acquainted with these fundamental notions.
Every living being acts according to ‘impressions’ stimulated by the sensible world on the different senses: consequently, they are able to respond to these impressions and search for food, for example, and also run away from what appears to be menacing (among a wide range of actions).
Human beings are, like other creatures, guided by their sensible impressions. However, because humans have a capacity for reason, we can control our responses with the help of inner discourse. This is the very same inner discourse I referred to earlier in this essay: when someone engages in such a discourse they formulate a judgement (krisis, hupolepsis, dogma) that represents the situation as they understand it. It is at this stage that the passions may arise if the discourse is not conducted properly.
Epictetus gave many examples, both in the Discourses and the Handbook. A very famous one concerns the journey by sea: You are on a boat and you can see the sea and the sky, and you can feel the wind. On this occasion, you may formulate an inner discourse: ‘There is some wind,’ or ‘I can no longer see the harbour.’ Judgements such as these may constitute a case of mild consternation. However, other representations may rise from the subconscious but not be stimulated by the reality you have right before your eyes. Therefore, the initial discourse becomes different, and you may say to yourself: ‘What a terrible sea!’ or ‘It will be a horrible death!’ and a passion like fear may consequently appear.
So, according to Epictetus, not every representation or impression is provoked by outside objects, but also by all sorts of images created by the mind. The only way to control our passions is not to give our assent to such representations. Pierre Hadot explains that Stoics named some impressions ‘phantasia kataleptiké’ or ‘comprehensive representation,’ a representation that was free of any value judgement. This is an objective and primary impression in which no subjective interpretation is present.
The aim of most Stoic spiritual exercises is to train oneself to resist subjective representations, to reach psychological invulnerability. They insist on the fact that what is in our power is the correct use of representations.
B. The Aproptôsia Exercise
This exercise is called aproptôsia, and constitutes the Stoic virtue of not assenting too quickly to judgements that correspond directly to representations. The concrete application of the discipline of judgement is realised in two steps.
Firstly, the reaction to a representation or inner image which troubles or terrifies us because of its harshness must be resisted.
The second step consists in ‘adding something’ to what the impression initially implies. This second step is called epilegein by Epictetus, which means ‘saying something more.’ The inner discourse, or dialogue with oneself I referred to above, appears at this stage. These mental images give rise to our desires and impulses and are often accompanied with terrifying or alluring value judgements, as I explained above.
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. Is this thing in your power? If it is in your power, it can be either a good or an evil. If it is not in your power, it is not an evil (though neither can it be a good).
Epictetus imagines that representations ask us questions, and that is why the epilegein is a form of inner dialogue.
I should add here that I do not think that the aproptôsia set of spiritual exercises forms what could be called a genuine meditation (i.e., including a focus on breathing). Comparing it with Buddhist practice, I would prefer to classify it as a technique designed to bring about a brief respite. On the other hand, meditation is designed to realise long term change in one’s temperament. However, properly done, aproptôsia certainly is of real value in preparation for deep meditative work or simply to put oneself in a good disposition for the coming day.
We are now going to see how the Spiritual exercises apply to Stoic physics and ethics.
III. Practical Physics
A. The Discipline of Desire (and aversion)
How should we define the discipline of desire?
Epictetus advises those wishing to practise this discipline to bear insults, to drink wine with moderation, to refrain from eating a cake or having sex with a beautiful girl, not to be afraid of poverty, illness or death, or again, not to pursue honours or riches.
Desires correspond to the attraction we have towards what we believe is good and of which we can be deprived, and aversions correspond to the repulsion we feel towards what we believe is evil, and consequently fear.
Thus, the discipline of desire is concerned firstly with things that affect us and secondly with the search for a certain state of mind by reaching for a good or avoiding an evil. That is why this discipline is seen by Pierre Hadot as passive, for in exercising it one simply hopes to receive what is good or hopes to be spared what is evil (in contrast to the discipline of impulse, which is active, since in exercising it one intends to act). When someone fails to reach their goal, another state of mind arises such as the passion of sadness, fear or anger. For this reason, Epictetus also calls the discipline of desire, the discipline of the passions.
1. The Aproptôsia Exercise as Applied to Desire
In the handbook, Epictetus insists on the fact that his students should stop having desires.
This seems surprising. One may perfectly understand that Epictetus forbids the desire of things which are not ‘up to us,’ because we might loose them and as a consequence fall prey to a ‘passion.’ But how could it not be right to desire things which are ‘up to us’ and which conform to nature? How could it be possible not to desire moral goodness, being capable of right judgement and right action, that is, to desire eudaimonia?
The reason is simple.
Here we should recognise one of the most powerful ancient spiritual practices (later adopted by the Christians): you should not pretend that you can immediately reach a high state of perfection without ascetic preparation. You should start with aversion for irrational behaviour and learn to identify your flaws. Desiring an inaccessible perfection before ‘cleansing your soul’ would create sadness and discouragement.
2. Examples of Epilegein in Desire
a. Physical Definition
This exercise is a typical example of epilegein. It consists in precisely defining what it is one is attached to, and what one wishes to keep. The definition will enable one to clearly distinguish subjective and affective judgements from the objective representation that one should have about it.
Thus, Marcus Aurelius says:
Always define or describe whatever presents itself to your mind, so as to see what sort of thing it is when stripped to its essence, as a whole and in its separate parts; and tell yourself its proper name, and the names of the elements from which it was compounded and into which it will finally be resolved.
The discipline of desire implies successfully reducing desire for material possessions or social position. Consequently, this exercise must apply to everything that surrounds us and we must try to see them as they truly are. Try to apply it when you wander down streets full of very attractive shops: I can assure you that it is quite efficient!
Of course, the goal of the physical definition is learning to get inwardly detached from what we love, and it has to be practised progressively. Your ‘self’ will tend to feel separated from everything, both to feel free and to foresee one’s own death.
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, a Stoic outlook on those 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. So when you are about to lose your life or some possession, or when you learn that a person that you cherished has died and that you feel sad, the following sentence should immediately come up to your mind: it is a ‘restitution.’
In sum, we should get used to the idea that we will lose everything that we love: as you may guess, this little exercise is designed to instil detachment from everything that for the non philosopher is supposed to have value, and is ultimately a means to reach inner freedom.
B. Meditation Exercises as Applied to Physics
Practical physics is completed with various forms of exercises that may have taken multiple aspects in practice.
Ancient Stoics were Pantheists, and consequently a form of meditation could have been designed to educate the Stoic student to appreciate the link which binds all living beings on this earth. Ultimately, they will understand what their place is in this constantly ever-changing universe. In this sense, Stoicism in undoubtedly a spiritual path for it develops in students a deep love for the world which created them and everything which surrounds them.
It is possible, but there is no evidence at all, that these practices included visualisation techniques. Reconstruction of these types of exercise will require much imagination and meditative practical knowledge from us. This will take some time I am afraid, but is necessary, for I believe Stoicism will remain incomplete without this aspect of the philosophy.
A good beginning for understanding what modern Stoics could believe today is found in reading and trying to apply some of the pantheist exercises proposed by Paul Harrison in his book The Elements of Pantheism: Understanding the Divinity in Nature and the Universe, which is truly interesting.
A good example of applied physics is the exercise called ‘universal metamorphosis.’ In this exercise the Stoic trains themselves to observe how things constantly change.
Marcus Aurelius describes it in this way:
Acquire a method to examine systematically how all things are transformed from one to another, and direct your attention constantly to this area of study, and exercise yourself in it, for nothing is so conductive to elevation of mind.
Look carefully at every existing thing and reflect that its dissolution is already under way and it is in the course of change and, as it were, of decay or dispersal, or is dying in whatever way its nature appoints.
This exercise is undoubtedly an exercise of attention. In this sense, ‘universal metamorphosis’ is a meditation exercise, as opposed to the aproptôsia style exercises.
In this case, this meditation could involve visualisation techniques. For instance, you may try to visualise a tree and try to follow its evolution through the seasons. Or again, you can visualise a human body through the stages of life, then its death and decay. In fact, a large variety of objects are suitable subjects for this meditation. Finding appropriate subjects for the ‘universal metamorphosis’ exercise could contribute to its effectiveness for the Stoic apprentice.
IV. Practical Ethics
A. The discipline of Impulsion
1. The Aproptosia Exercise as Applied to Impulsion
The discipline of action should be added to the rigorous discipline of desire but should be practised with measure and reservation.
As many of you probably know, ‘acting with reservation’ is a technical expression: someone acts with reservation when they realise that it is very likely that they will meet obstacles that are independent of their will in the course of their action that might well prevent success.
The Stoic foresees (or tries to foresee) every obstacle, and so keeps his equanimity in all circumstances because this will help him to remain faithful to his choice of life.
2. Examples of Epilegein in Impulsion
It is not enough to agree to accept events once they happened, but a Stoic student should learn to anticipate such events.
One of the most important Stoic exercises is that of the praemeditatio, in which the Stoic student prepares themselves for enduring unpleasant or painful experiences.
It consists in a representing to oneself anything which may occur in the course of daily life: difficulties, setbacks, sufferings or even death, for instance. Of course, practising 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.
In fact, we should not be afraid to think about what other people consider to be evils. On the contrary, we should think about these often to remind ourselves, firstly that future evils are not evils because they are not yet present, secondly that events such as disease, poverty and death are not evils because they are not in our power, and consequently have no bearing on morality.
One important thing is to note that 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:
At every hour devote yourself in a resolute spirit, as suits a Roman and a man, to fulfilling the task in hand with scrupulous and unaffected dignity, and love for others, and independence and justice; and grant yourself a respite from all other preoccupations. And this you will achieve if you perform every action as though if were your last, freed from all lack of purpose and wilful deviation from the rule of reason, and from duplicity, self seeking, and dissatisfaction with what is allotted to you.
This exercise is intimately linked to the discipline of desire, because when a Stoic acts he foresees every obstacle, and consequently nothing really happens against his will, and his moral intention remains unchanged.
b. Wand of Hermes
The ‘Wand of Hermes’ exercise is another way not being dominated by one’s impressions. When something ‘bad’ happens to you, you should immediately distinguish what is up to you from what is not up to you.
Epictetus refers to that exercise in a whole discourse: moral intention finds in every occasion the ability to exercise virtue. 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. Death obliges you to conform your will to Nature’s own will.
Stoicism is, I think, a very realistic but optimistic philosophy: life may not be easy, but it is up to you to see things differently and to obtain strength from this outlook on life.
B. Meditation Exercise as Applied to Ethics
1. Prosoché (attention)
Prosochê is the exercise of self-attention. The student practising this exercise progressively learns to be conscious of the present moment and constantly mindful. Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations describes this exercise as follows:
There are three things of which you are composed: body, breath and mind. Of these, the first two are your own in so far it is your duty to take care of them; but only the third is your own in the full sense. So if you will put away from yourself – that is to say, from your mind – all that others do or say, and all that you yourself have done or said, and all that troubles you with regard to the future, and all that belonging to the body which envelops you and the breath conjoined with it is attached to you independently of your will, and all that the vortex whirling around outside you sweeps in its wake, so that the power of your mind, thus delivered from the bonds of fate, may live a pure and unfettered life alone with itself, doing what is just, desiring what comes to pass, and saying what is true – if I say, you will put away from your governing faculty all that accretes to it from the affections of the body, and all that lies in the future or in time gone by, and make yourself, in Empedocles’ words, ‘a well-rounded sphere rejoicing in the solitude around it,’ and strive to live only the life that is your own, that is to say, your present life, then you will be able to pass at least the time that is left to you until you die in calm and kindliness, and as one who is at peace with the guardian-spirit that dwells within him.
What does it mean to be ‘constantly mindful’?
Mindfulness means being attentive to everything you do, your actions and even what you say in your daily life (be this private, public or professional).
Whether you are walking, sitting down, standing up, crouching, sleeping, eating, drinking, etc., you should be fully conscious of what you are doing. This means that you should live in your present action. This does not mean that you should forget about the past and the future. On the contrary, you have to think about other times, but in relation to the present, and your present action, and when it is necessary.
However, be careful: prosoché does not means that you should actually think: ‘I am doing this’ or ‘I am doing that.’ The danger in thinking ‘I am doing this’ arises when you become conscious of yourself and, consequently, you do not live in the action but in the idea of ‘I am,’ and the peace that Marcus refers to in his meditation would not be secured.
The same attention should be applied to every feeling or sensation you may have. In fact you should be able to observe yourself as a scientist would do. It is strange to note that a person who gets angry usually does not realise that she is angry. As soon as someone makes her realise her emotion, she becomes quieter and often somewhat uneasy. Attention to thoughts and sensations is, I think, the most difficult to practise. Buddhists are right to say that usually we are not conscious of what we think. We think a great deal without realising that we are thinking.
It is clearly said in the Discourses that attention, or prosoché, is the foundation needed for the practise of all the spiritual exercises I have talked about above. All of them require one to be fully conscious of the present: without prosoché there can be no aproptôsia (the discipline of desire), which requires this mental ability to be mindful at all times.
2. Stoic Meditation Compared with Buddhist Meditation
Having found a very interesting quotation in the Discourses, I am convinced that the ancient Stoics had their own system of meditation:
The soul is like a vessel filled with water; and impressions are like a ray of light that falls upon the water. If the water is disturbed, the ray will seem to be disturbed likewise, though in reality it is not. Whenever, therefore, a man is seized with vertigo, it is not the arts and virtues that are confounded, but the spirit in which they exist; and, if this comes to rest, so will they likewise.
At first sight, it appeared to me that Epictetus describes a typical meditation technique that seems to be similar in many respects to the Buddhist’s Samatha-Vipassyana (Sa-Vi). This basic Buddhist meditation technique is seen as a process in which one aims to re-educate one’s mind. The state one wishes to reach is one in which one is fully conscious of everything that happens in one’s immediate experience, exactly in the way that it happens, exactly when it happens with a total consciousness of the present moment.
To accomplish this, the Buddhists teach a technique to pacify the mind, which is called ‘Samatha’: to be sure that their students will understand the goal of meditation, they often compare the mind to a pool of water in a very similar way to Epictetus’ analogy, which is really stunning.
In his Discourse, Epictetus refers only to the contemplation of impressions. In fact, it appears that our whole mind is ‘made up’ of impressions reflected by our mind ‘like a sun ray that falls upon the water.’ Consequently, we should be able to observe them carefully.
For what purpose, then, have we received reason from nature? To make a proper use of impressions. And what is reason itself? Something compounded from impression of a certain kind: and thus, by its nature, it becomes contemplative of itself too.
It is consequently very plausible to think that the Stoics taught the pacification of mind in their meditation system because such a contemplative work would really be impossible without active attention
After having pacified the mind, the Buddhist progressively learns to observe all phenomena (thoughts, emotions, physical sensations) which arise in the minds: this is the ‘vipassyana’ component of their meditative system. It is the capacity to have an awareness of something without being captivated by it.
For example, it means being aware of a thought without thinking the thought. Or again ‘seeing’ a thought, emotion or sensation as one would observe a car passing on a motorway.
I suspect that the hegemonikon could be this ability, for I found some interesting quotations in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I need to work on this further, but I think that I need to improve my own meditative practice before trying to propose a workable solution.
Furthermore, I would be very interested in any comments you may have.
V. Concluding Thoughts
It really important to understand that I have tried to give only an overview of Stoic meditative practices in this short essay.
Some may criticise the extensive use I made of Pierre Hadot’s theories: I recently learnt that they are the subject of controversies, especially regarding his interpretation of the theory of knowledge and the treatment of impressions.
In the same way, some may not agree with the view that the discipline of desire should be seen as a ‘passive’ one.
I nevertheless chose to rely on Hadot because I felt in reading some of his various works that there is some sort of spirituality which arises from it. Furthermore, in my view, his interpretation of ‘impressions’ can be easily incorporated in a comprehensive meditation system.
I myself went through a considerable evolution on my way to understanding these practices.
My Buddhist studies have been of great help: I came to the conclusion that it is very likely that Buddha’s followers strongly influenced not only Stoicism but also Greek philosophy in general. There are too many similarities, particularly in the use of analogies, in both systems for it to be otherwise.
I also thank Keith Seddon for the considerable time he spent correcting my awkward English grammar and for his assistance in explaining some philosophical concepts.
(Elen Buzaré is an attorney for a large insurance company and resides in Lyons, France.)