This article is part 2/2 of our journey through Stoicism. If you haven’t already read the first part and would like to know what Stoic philosophy is, how you can benefit from its teachings, and learn a few maxims to help guide your everyday life, please refer to part 1: Command Yourself.
(All relevant sources will be linked at the end.)
It’s time for action.
It should be no secret by now that Stoic practices can significantly impact your life for the better. In our previous article, we covered the golden tidbits hidden behind Stoic ethics; in this one, we’re going to put them to work.
Below you will find a list of Stoic exercises that have been adapted to suit the needs of the modern individual. Some come directly from the Stoics, others from psychology, psychoanalysis or even physiology. Each exercise comes with an in-depth explanation of its logic and a separate section with ideas on how to implement it.
Even if you have heard about some of these before, I invite you to read about them anyway. Not only will the added repetition solidify your understanding, but I also hope that I have been able to provide at least somewhat of a different angle on them. You guys will be the judge.
Without further ado, let’s begin.
I. Premeditatio Malorum
Let’s start with the most famous exercise of all. If you follow our Instagram page (@projectimpero) then you’ve already heard of this practice before. Let’s go over it once more in more detail. Premeditatio Malorum is latin for “pre-meditation of evils” or “pre-meditation of the troubles to come.” As the name implies, it’s an exercise that requires you to think about what could go wrong before it happens. The Stoics loved it, and it was one of the main tools in their arsenal. The legendary statesman Seneca described the practice as follows:
“What is unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of event. Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.”Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
This practice is particularly powerful for three main reasons.
The first one is the most obvious: thinking about what could go wrong helps you prepare in advance. Whether you’re working on a project at work or you are planning a trip with your family, you should try sitting down and seriously considering what could go wrong. Learning to map out scenarios in your mind, as well as your possible responses to them, is most of what good strategy is about. As the old saying goes…
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”Benjamin Franklin
The second has to do with mental toughness. It does not matter how much you try to prevent some things from happening — many will probably happen anyway. Here is where Premeditatio Malorum starts becoming particularly powerful. Even if the very worst happened, a practicing Stoic would have already lessened the negative impact of the event by having previously considered it. He or she will be tougher —and, consequently, more dependable— than those who haven’t taken the time to think this through.
In this sense, negative visualization has a similar function than nightmares do. Some scientists believe that nightmares have been crucial for human evolution because they pre-exposed us to fears and anxieties that could otherwise have been paralyzing. Similarly, because your brain has a hard time distinguishing between imagination and reality, seriously considering a worst-case scenario will soften the emotional toll it takes on you.
Last, though most definitely not least, is the fact that negative visualization can make you significantly happier by promoting your capacity to be grateful. We humans are largely insatiable and tend to start taking things for granted very quickly. In psychology, this phenomenon is known as hedonic adaptation, and it’s described as the “observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive events or life changes.” In other words: our expectations tend to rise to our current situation (e.g. you bought a new phone, you were ecstatic for like a month, and then you started to take it for granted… or even wishing for a better one).
But hedonic adaptation does not only concern products — its effects are even more dangerous when we talk about relationships. How many of us take our most precious relationships for granted? Your family, partner and friends… have you assumed they will always be here with you? And have you glanced over all their good attributes and started focusing on their flaws instead?
“Most of us are “living the dream” — living, that is, the dream we once had for ourselves. We might be married to the person we once dreamed of marrying, have the children and job we once dreamed of having, and own the car we once dreamed of buying. But thanks to hedonic adaptation, as soon as we find ourselves living the life of our dreams, we start taking that life for granted. Instead of spending our days enjoying our good fortune, we spend them forming and pursuing new, grander dreams for ourselves. As a result, we are never satisfied with our life. Negative visualization can help us avoid this fate.”William B. Irvine, The Good Life
A regular practice of Premeditatio Malorum will make sure you i) are more prepared to tackle the unexpected, ii) better deal with worst-case scenarios and iii) stop hedonic adaptation right on its tracks without inhibiting your ambition.
You can either integrate this practice into your life in small bursts, and/or actually allocate specific times in which to practice it (e.g. a few times a week). The first method values frequency more than intensity, whereas the latter does the opposite.
For instance, a man practicing the first method could consider that, whenever he kisses his wife goodbye, it might be the last time he ever sees her. He is not supposed to sit with the thought and actually dive into it, but just to simply contemplate for a second that this is a possibility — because it is. Not only will this make the kiss be more genuine and deliberate, it will also make sure he finds a deeper joy in seeing his wife again later that day — something which he usually takes for granted.
This, in turn, will push them towards spending more quality time together, perhaps he will buy her flowers for no particular reason, or they will decide to finally go see that theater play they’ve been putting off. And even if his worst fear came true (i.e. that kiss was actually the last one he gave to his wife) he could at least find some comfort in knowing that he made the best out of the time they had together, and he will be less crushed by the unexpectedness of it all.
The second method is a little more intense. I’ll give a personal example for this one.
Around a year ago, I found myself being disturbed with scary thoughts throughout the day. More specifically, I was being haunted by the thought of my father dying. Every time it popped into my head, I pushed the thought aside by distracting myself with something else. Alas, as you can imagine, it did not take long until the fear started knocking on my door again. This occurred again and again, for days on end, and it was starting to make me very anxious. Eventually, I got tired of looking away and decided it was time I welcomed the thought, sat down with it and talked to it.
So, I did just that.
I went to my bedroom, turned off the lights, laid on my bed and made the effort to imagine —as vividly as I could— that specific scenario taking place. I considered every detail: the death itself, the reaction of my family, the funeral, the grief… everything. It did not take long until I started feeling genuinely sad and felt an unmistakable desire to stop. But rather than yielding to it, I dove deeper into the sensation and, soon enough, started crying like a baby. However, I quickly realized that those tears did not come from anxiousness, anxiety or despair — they came as a manifestation of a deep-rooted love, care and respect for my father. By willingly switching the script and visualizing my nightmare, I went from its victim to its adversary and, eventually, to its friend.
That fear never crossed my mind again.
II. Phantasia Kataleptike
Have you ever considered how utterly absurd everything is?
Right now, at this very moment, I am sitting on what’s basically a bunch of chopped up trees, pressing square buttons made of hardened oil derived from the remains of decomposed animals that lived millions of years ago. An infinitely-complex cluster of neural connections stored inside my skull is sending electrical signals to my fingertips and causing them to spasm and press individual buttons with weird symbols on them — symbols which we all unknowingly agreed to be individual units of a written communication system we somehow invented. To top it off, all of this is happening because I arbitrarily decided that, when the giant floating rock that I am living on reached a specific point and rotation relative to the gargantuan gamma-ray radiating sphere of hot plasma around which it circles within a seemingly infinite and ever-expanding vacuum called space, it was “time” for me to “sit down” and “type.”
We have all experienced moments in which we realized existence made no sense. For brief burst of time, we understood that all of human history is made up of people just like yourself, acting and pretending like everything has a meaning. This overwhelming realization was famously described by Jean-Paul Sartre as nausea in his book by the same name. Although it is not inherently bad, it is certainly true that anyone with a sound mind wants to avoid living a nauseous life, and should therefore work on developing a personal system of values.
However, rather than wanting to dive into Existentialist philosophy here, I decided to use Sartre’s example to help understand the Stoic practice of phantasia kataleptike, or objective representation.
The Stoics were great at punctually using the absurdity of existence to their advantage. Every now and then, they decided to describe the things they were attached to in great detail and as objectively as possible. By doing this, they were able to put even the most appealing items into perspective, and consequently detach themselves from their gripping influence. Here is Marcus Aurelius on how a Stoic should remember to perceive dinner:
“When we have meat before us and other food, we must say to ourselves: “This is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig, and again, this [wine] is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool died with the blood of a shellfish” … so that we see what kinds of things they are. This is how we should act throughout life: where there are things that seem worthy of great estimation, we ought to lay them bare and look at their true worth and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
These words were written by a man who lived trapped among absolute luxury. He was, after all, the most powerful man on Earth at the time. But rather than mindlessly indulging in every pleasure he had access to, he had the fortitude to remember that most things are just that… things. By consciously working to make objective descriptions of the luxuries that surrounded him, he quickly realized that they had a lot less power over him than he first thought. Marcus was deeply aware of the power that comfort and affluence have over us, but used the sheer absurdity of it all to his advantage and became a stronger man because of it.
“The things you own end up owning you.”Tyler Durden, Fight Club
Ask yourself: which things that you own —or wish to own— have power over you?
Perhaps it’s that fancy pair of shoes, a brand-new convertible, a fountain pen or a particular food. Whatever it is, realize which external items have power over you and do your best to describe them as objectively as possible. This is particularly useful when dealing with things you want but know that you shouldn’t. Let’s face it: we don’t need to buy most of what we indulge in. You already have too many t-shirts piled up in your closet. You already have a myriad of forgotten videogames stored on your shelf and in your console. You already have a perfectly working smartphone.
Once you have identified a few target items, you can implement the practice of objective representation just like you did with the negative visualization. At random times throughout your week, take a second to consider how actually worthless and genuinely absurd some things are. Alternatively, try sitting down with pen and paper and really facing a particular aspect or item you would like to perceive differently. This will give you some perspective and, paradoxically, allow you to enjoy life more: because by valuing luxurious things a lot more than the rest —even when they genuinely don’t deserve it— you are indirectly de-valuing all those similar things that stand below it.
Those sneakers you are dying to buy? They’re actually just a pair of overpriced and oversized clumps of cheap fabric in which you’ll stick your sweaty feet to drag them around dirty streets as you secretly crave mildly impressing people you don’t even know and use their fleeting validation to suppress the growing cognitive dissonance that’s tainting your soul from knowing you are parading yourself like a copy-pasted mannequin that’s actually wearing a regular pair of shoes on which an underpaid, alienated and borderline-suicidal Chinese teenager sewed a corporate logo.
Sorry, I went a bit too far. But you get the idea.
Let me make something clear though: If you have a genuine passion for any of these things (i.e. you care about their craft, history, recent developments, etc.) then there is no real problem at play here. However, if the reason why you are indulging in them is because you are letting the ever-present opiate of consumer culture dictate your needs and distract yourself from facing the meaninglessness of your existence, you could benefit a lot from this exercise. Phantasia kataleptike is not supposed to make you hate the things you own, just as it is not supposed to make you love them. The goal here is to, every now and then, try to view things as they are by stripping them of all the vacuous sugar-coating that surrounds them.
III. View from Above
Continuing with our theme of “thinking of things from a different perspective” comes one of the most calming Stoic exercises: the View from Above. This meditation exercise is particularly useful to those of you who tend to be quite anxious and/or have sporadic anxiety attacks. I’ll let Marcus explain this first:
“You can rid yourself of many useless things among those that disturb you, for they lie entirely in your imagination; and you will then gain for yourself ample space by comprehending the whole universe in your mind, and by contemplating the eternity of time, and observing the rapid change of every part of everything, how short is the time from birth to dissolution, and the illimitable time before birth as well as the equally boundless time after dissolution.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Okay, Marcus, that’s a little deep — but you do have a point.
The Stoics were Cosmopolitans. No, I don’t mean this in the cocktail sense, nor in the “The 55 Most Bubblelicious Butts on Instagram” kind of way (God save us). In philosophy, Cosmopolitanism is the belief that all citizens —regardless of their political beliefs— belong to a single community. The Stoics in particular thought that the universe (cosmos) should be thought of as a unified city (polis) ruled under the laws of nature and reason.
The View from Above takes this theoretical concept and puts it to work. During this visualization exercise, you are supposed to imagine yourself in third person and slowly zoom out from above (hence the name) until you are able to fully contemplate the scale of the universe and the rather insignificant size of your problems within it. Let’s go through an example together.
Here is a brief representation of how a View from Above session could look like. Remember that you could (and should) carry this exercise with much more scrutiny; I’m just giving you a taste here.
Whenever you feel anxious, frustrated or overwhelmed, sit down comfortably on a chair and begin by taking a few deep breaths. Feel the air fill up your lungs and then softly escape through your nose. Allow yourself to become aware of the physical sensations that manifest through your body. Perhaps your neck is a little sore, or your leg a little itchy. Whatever it is, try not to judge it, change it nor ignore it. Just be aware of it.
Now, close your eyes and breathe naturally again. Then, slowly begin by picturing yourself from a third person perspective. Just as if you were someone lazily walking around you, try to imagine everything you would see. What does your facial expression look like? What color are your clothes? What posture are you in? If you can’t picture yourself vividly, it’s okay — just try to do it anyway.
Once you have a better sense of your scale and position, it’s time for you to start zooming out. Imagine watching yourself from above, in great detail. You can see the top of your head, the chair you are sitting on and the floor that surrounds you. Then, slowly pull that view backwards, as if you were zooming out a celestial camera that stands right above you. You start seeing your room and all the furniture that’s within it. You notice where your table is and how close it stands next to your bed. You notice the pattern on your floor and the texture of the rug that lays above it.
You keep gently pulling backwards. Now you see your house or flat in its entirety. You see how the rooms are distributed, where the kitchen is and how the bathroom looks. As you slowly zoom out more, you observe the entirety of your surrounding area. People walk on the cobblestone streets. Cars wait patiently on a red light. Cyclists do their thing.
You continue to move upwards, and people soon become as small as ants. You start to see the shape of your neighborhood, with its complex street layout in which hundreds of people interact every single hour. Then you can discern the entirety of your city and, soon enough, the borders of your country — perhaps surrounded by blue water, forests or neighboring deserts.
You don’t stop there; you keep rising up. Eventually, you are able to appreciate the entirety of planet Earth, filled with imposing oceans and vast portions of land rising above them. You notice the constant movement of the clouds that dance around its curves. You see the sheer brightness of the polar caps reflecting the solar rays that bathe half of our planet.
An overwhelming sense of grandeur starts to rise within you, and you start to put things into perspective.
You realize that almost 8 billion people live on this planet, and that they communicate using more than 7.000 unique languages. You learn that a new-born baby comes crying into the world every quarter of a second. You realize that this same baby, like yourself, descends from a single common ancestor that lived 200.000 years ago, and that over 180 billion people have walked across our Earth ever since: each with their individual dreams, fears, worries and anxieties — but each no different than yours.
I think that’s enough for you to get a sense for it.
Trust me, we could keep going. Anyone practicing this exercise could zoom out more and put even those incredible figures themselves into perspective (like, for example, how the universe is almost 14 billion years old, and we have been a part of it for 0.001% of that). To be fair, though, you don’t even need to know about these figures to realize how powerful this exercise is. Simply contemplating the scale of your existence can give you a sense of how ultimately tiny even your biggest problems are.
Seriously, give it a go.
IV. Daily Discomfort
Here’s a question: what would you say the opposite of fragile is? Most people answer by listing words like robust, strong, durable or tough. These are all wrong.
Imagine you were sending two packages to your cousin in Siberia. Package A contains wine glasses and package B contains titanium ingots. After packing them in, you proceed to write something like “Fragile: handle with care” on the outside of package A, so as to help protect your precious wine glasses during the trip. When it comes to package B, however, you don’t feel the need to write down any warning, because you know the contents are very robust, so they’ll probably survive the journey just fine.
Here’s where the problem becomes evident. Something fragile is something that breaks down with external stress (package A). But the opposite of that is not something that can absorb it just fine (package B). The exact opposite would be something that benefits from external stress and becomes stronger because of it. If you had some magic wine glasses that were the opposite of fragile, you would want them to be mishandled as much as possible — because the more external stress they received, the stronger they would actually become.
This enlightening example is given to us by philosopher and professor of risk engineering Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile. In it, he points out that not a single dictionary on Earth has got this distinction right, because we don’t even have a name for that concept to begin with (hence him having to invent the term antifragile). If we placed these concepts on a scale with regards to how they respond to external stress stimuli, we would put fragile as negative, robust as neutral and antifragile as positive.
Later in the book, Nassim describes that ancient Mediterranean civilizations (e.g. the Greek, the Romans) were much more antifragile in their way of thinking, and that the most antifragile of all —that is, those that were able to become the strongest thanks to external stressors— were the Stoics. Consider this famous phrase by Marcus Aurelius:
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
This represents a purely antifragile mindset. No matter what obstacle the Stoics faced, they were able to emerge out of them stronger than before. They didn’t just endure hardship, they became better because of it — just like the mythical creature Hydra, that grew two heads for every one that got cut-off. This idea is echoed in other philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously said that “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” It is also, perhaps unsurprisingly, rooted in biology. Let me explain.
In many ways, your body is antifragile — and, in many ways, you already know this to be true. Let’s say I came to you asking for advice on how to gain muscle mass. What would you recommend me? I’m guessing you’d tell me to perform some sort of resistance training (e.g. lifting weights or bodyweight exercise). But why would this cause me to gain muscle? Well, most people know that, when training, you are basically damaging your muscles, and that your body is able to recover and grow stronger because of this external stress. Doesn’t this ring a bell? Hypertrophy —that is, the process of building muscle— is a perfect example of antifragility (it also applies to other things like your bones and your immune system, by the way, but we won’t get into that now).
Quick sidenote: story time.
It wasn’t until I lived in China that I realized the true implications of biological antifragility. One of the things that shocked me the most whilst being there —besides how delicious 生煎包 are— was the fact that many elders were in killer shape. You barely saw them walking around with canes, let alone on wheelchairs. Instead, you often saw them at the parks doing group dancing activities, fast pace walking and even bodyweight training. I used to train calisthenics there with some friends and, every single day, between 18:00 and 19:00, a group of around 5 old men joined our sessions. The youngest of them was 60 years old and he was better at doing pull-ups than most people I know.
Because they moved so much, because they used their muscles so often and because they avoided comfort, they were much stronger than most Western elderly people. Here in Europe, we unknowingly inhibit antifragility through comfort. Most people spend their time sitting down and develop pains in their hips, knees and lower back. So what do they do? They sit down and rest more. But the more they sit down, the worse their pains get; and the worse their pains get, the more they sit down. It’s an endless cycle.
The paradox of antifragility is beautifully summed up by a quote Ido Portal (a famous training and movement enthusiast) brought up during an interview in which they asked him about what sort of shoes people should wear; he simply said:
“High-tech shoes — low-tech feet.”Ido Portal, London Real
By this point I imagine you might be wondering: “okay, this is fairly interesting, but what do I do with it?”
Well, now that we have established that you are actually antifragile and that comfort can be poisoning, we can actually start having fun… or rather, the very opposite. It’s time to suffer a little bit.
The exercise of Daily Discomfort is more a rule than a specific practice. Here’s the bottom line: every single day, you must do at least one thing that causes discomfort. It is precisely now, today, when things are going well and you have the time to stop and read this article, that you will benefit from doing this the most. As Seneca said:
“It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. […] If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.”Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius
Here are four ways (actually, many more) through which you can cultivate your antifragility. Some of these are just too juicy for me to explain them in detail now, so I will be brief (and probably dedicate them an article of their own one day)
Let’s start with one of my (least) favorite ways to do this: cold exposure. Even though the practice has become increasingly trendy nowadays, cold baths/showers have been around for centuries. The Finnish have a tradition known as avantouinti (winter swimming); Spartans thought that hot water was for weak people; Athenians and Romans took really cold plunges in public baths; Russians… well, did Russian things.
The benefits of cold showers are clear: they strengthen your immune system, improve circulation, increase fertility in men, improve your metabolism and help you burn more fat, keep your skin and hair healthy and have even been shown to help combat depression. Most importantly, though, they suck — which is precisely why you should take them.
Another type of stressor that can have profound benefits on your physical and mental health is fasting. The practice of Intermittent Fasting (IF) has also become quite popular nowadays, but the origins of fasting date back to pre-Biblical times. Plato said he fasted for greater physical and mental efficiency and Plutarch said that fasting was often better than medicine. Nowadays, however, you often hear that you should eat many times a day (you shouldn’t) and that breakfast is the most important meal of the day (it isn’t).
Fasting, of any sort, can act as a good stressor for your body. An intelligent practice of fasting will increase energy levels, mental clarity, fat burning and cellular repair; it will also reduce risk of diabetes, cancer, chronic inflammation, Alzheimer’s disease… should I go on? Additionally, just like with cold showers, fasting sucks — I’d much rather eat. Alas, it is precisely in a world of overwhelming comfort and abundance where practicing discomfort can truly make a difference.
Further, as we previously touched on, exercise is one of the most effective ways to foster your antifragility. Exercise is technically absurd. Why would you go on a run and suffer when you could stay indoors? Why would you want to feel like your head is about to burst when deadlifting? Why would you go to a martial arts class to get your ass kicked? We all intuitively know the answer to these questions: because it makes us better.
Pushing your muscles makes them tougher. Stressing your heart makes it stronger. Challenging your joints and bones makes them healthier. If you’re not working out in one way or another, look for a practice that you find particularly enjoyable. If you’re already working out, shake things up with even more discomfort: try going on a run when it’s cold or when it’s raining — precisely because it’s harder.
A fourth way to increase your resilience through hardship is to incite criticism and social awkwardness. Cato the Younger —one of the most famous Roman Stoics— would sometimes wear ridiculous clothes in public (e.g. a tunic of a very distasteful color) in order to strengthen his ability to handle criticism of superficial things. Bestselling author Tim Ferris says he sometimes walked around uber-liberal San Francisco wearing a cowboy hat, or around uber-conservative Utah wearing flamboyant floral-pattern party pants.
Just like Cato, he was deliberately setting himself up for ridicule and criticism, and whilst in the midst of it, he would ask himself what Seneca wrote two thousand years ago: “is this the condition that I so feared?” There are many ways in which you could take advantage of criticism. I’ve heard people swear they’ve overcome social anxiety by simply laying down on the floor at a Starbucks or in front of the subway. Others recommend for you to sing in public. Little things like these that would make you cringe beyond control are, as you can imagine, the ones you should do the most.
Finally, consider all the small tweaks you can implement into your life to leverage antifragility. Learning a new skill often makes us feel very incompetent — which is why we should do it. Passing up on a nice glass of wine or some sweet pastries, for no real reason, is much harder than indulging in them — which is why we should do it. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator requires a lot more effort — which is why we should do it. Take some time to think about all the small little changes that you can integrate into your life so as to make things just a tiny bit harder (every now and then).
Practicing Daily Discomfort is by far the most effective way to increase your mental toughness. There is simply no way a person that willingly goes through these practices will not become exponentially tougher, more respectable and a lot more Stoic over time. If things are going particularly well in your life, then you would be wise to engage in as many of these as possible. As the old saying goes: “the more you sweat in times of peace, the less you bleed in times of war.”
V. practicing poverty
At the young age of 28, a recent physics and economics graduate was determined to change the world; he had big plans for his career and was ready to help shape the future of humanity through the power of technology. However, he also knew that the life of entrepreneurship was extremely difficult and could drown even the brightest innovators in debt.
So, in order to kick-start his journey, he decided to run a little experiment. For an entire month, the young man lived on a budget of only $30 USD for food and minimized all other expenses. He survived buying hot-dogs and oranges in bulk, and every now and then indulged in the luxury of a plate of pasta with tomato sauce. Once the 30 days were finished, he reflected on the experiment and said that, if he could live for a dollar a day for food, he would be okay no matter what.
That man was Elon Musk.
Groundbreaking, right? Well, the practice of poverty has been around for centuries. What makes the Stoics so unique in their approach to it, however, is that they never did it because they believed it was sinful to enjoy luxuries (like a Christian priest might have). Just like Elon Musk did, the Stoics viewed this practice as a way to prepare themselves against the uncertainty of the future (yes, this is a recurring theme). Here’s Seneca describing this particular exercise to a friend of his:
Do you think that there can be fullness on [living on less than a penny]? Yes, and there is pleasure also – not that shifty and fleeting pleasure which needs a fillip now and then, but a pleasure that is steadfast and sure. For though water, barley-meal, and crusts of barley-bread, are not a cheerful diet, yet it is the highest kind of pleasure to be able to derive pleasure from this sort of food, and to have reduced one’s needs to that modicum which no unfairness of Fortune can snatch away. Even prison fare is more generous; and those who have been set apart for capital punishment are not so meanly fed by the man who is to execute them. Therefore, what a noble soul must one have, to descend of one’s own free will to a diet which even those who have been sentenced to death have not to fear! This is indeed forestalling the spear-thrusts of Fortune.”Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius
The idea of Fortune is ever-present in Stoic philosophy. We might think of it as “fate” or “luck”. The Stoics believed each and one of us is currently borrowing from Fortune all the things that we enjoy, and that it might knock on our door to get them back soon. Practicing poverty is a great way of countering that. It also has some other benefits.
First of all, willingly practicing poverty is the perfect way to, well, save money. Rather than framing your goal as “I need to stop spending so much money” consider switching it to something more like “I’m going to practice poverty when it comes to X or Y” — this way you’ll be framing a boring burden into a motivating challenge. Secondly, as Seneca points out in his letter, it will also help you become more grateful for your regular non-poor meals (yes, this is also a recurring theme). Finally, from a neuroscientific perspective, lowering your dopamine levels will help you reset your dopaminergic basal activation level to a more sensitive one . In other words: it will make coming back to non-poor habits feel better than ever.
“There is a noble manner of being poor, and who does not know it will never be rich.”Seneca
You can get pretty creative with this: forcing yourself to use public transport instead of driving/taxi/uber; switching to cheaper household products for a while; dressing in simpler and cheaper clothes; turning off your heating for a week, sleeping on the floor instead of your bed… you name it. If you’re looking for a bigger challenge you could even try sleeping at your local shelter for a weekend (edit: having discussed this with other people, this particular example might not be a a great idea. If you decide to do it, make sure you are not denying resources to any of the residents; similarly, consider making a donation to both compensate for your trouble and help their charitable services prosper) or live one night as a homeless person (sounds hardcore, but it’s actually not that uncommon among people who enjoy backpacking).
The most obvious and straightforward way to willingly practice poverty, however, is by deciding to eat plain food for a certain period of time. Perhaps you could eat rice and beans for a whole week/month or save up all the extra money you spend on pastries and sugary goodies. Or both.
If you want to go full ancient Greece style, you could even prepare a “mouth-watering” melas zomos, also known as black broth. This particular dish was a staple of the Spartan diet and it was made by mixing (get ready) boiled pigs’ legs, blood, salt and vinegar. Spartan soldiers (which by the way were actually quite well-off) ate this day-in and day-out. According to legend, a man from a city called Sybaris, famous for its absolute luxury and gluttony —which is where the term sybarite comes from— once tasted the Spartan black broth and famously said:
“Now I know why the Spartans do not fear death.”
An absolute wussy
I’m kidding — sort of. You don’t have to go that far, but this goes to show how closely related i) being someone with absolute mental toughness and resiliency and ii) willingly and regularly going through discomfort actually are.
VI. Mourning Pages
This particular exercise is one of my favorites. I discovered it in a period of my life during which I became particularly obsessed with wanting to complain less. Even though it is not a Stoic exercise per se, I thought it fitted the Stoic theme very nicely. After all, Stoicism is the anti-complaining philosophy par excellence. I seriously considered making a fifth maxim in our previous Stoicism article that said “Stop Complaining”, and I would have if it weren’t because the whole thing was arguably too long already. On the bright side, we get to talk about it here. Our friend Marcus once said:
“Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable… then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
If you can endure it, stop complaining. If you can’t endure it, stop complaining. It’s that simple.
Even though we should not be quick to judge those around us based simply on what they say, I know I’m not alone in thinking that excessive complaints truly speak of one’s character. Nothing screams “I am weak” and “I am a victim” as much as excessive complaining does. It is true that, on certain occasions, complaints can be quite cathartic, comedic, or even revelatory (e.g. protests). That’s fine. For all other instances, though, complaining really is a waste of energy. It’s sophisticated crying. It’s a marker for meekness, resentment, entitlement and, worst of all, self-pity.
(Wait… did I just complain?)
The exercise of Mourning Pages was put forth by the delightful and multidisciplinary writer Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. You can actually watch a short video of her explaining the practice here. She explains that the exercise is actually called Morning Pages (without the extra “u”) because it’s a writing exercise that should be done in the morning. However, she also says that it should be called Mourning Pages because:
“[Mourning Pages] are really a farewell to life as you knew it; and an introduction to life as it’s going to be.”Julia B. Cameron
The exercise is very simple, but it has profound implications. Basically, you are supposed to sit down for a few minutes every morning and unload the petty, whiny, constant chatter of your mind onto a page — without thinking too much. You simply grab pen and paper and write whatever is on your mind. It doesn’t have to be artsy; it doesn’t have to be well-written; it doesn’t even have to make sense. In fact, the less artsy, well-written and structured it is — the better.
The benefits of the exercise are threefold. First, it will quieten your mind. Julia explains that it’s as though you had vacuumed the corners of your consciousness with a dust buster. This newfound mental silence will, in turn, allow you to become more creative (that’s the reason why she came up with the exercise in the first place). Finally, it will also allow you to become acquainted with the dark parts of your psyche. As Julia explains:
“Think of it in Jungian terms: you are meeting your shadow and taking it out for a cup of coffee. When you put the negativity on the page, it isn’t eddying through your consciousness during the day.”Julia B. Cameron
Remember how we just said that complaining sucks? Well, we are about to become total hypocrites here, because the exercise of Mourning Pages pretty much consists in whining as much as possible.
Every morning after waking up, instead of grabbing a trendy Gratefulness Journal or reciting affirmations, you are going to grab your Petty Journal. Then, your only goal will be to pour 2 to 3 pages of thoughtless writing onto the page. It’s important that you do not think too much, for that will cut the stream of cloudy consciousness that we are trying to run dry. Here’s an example of what a Mourning Pages paragraph might look like:
“Good morning. I say “good” because of habit, but to be honest right now I feel pretty damn bad. I’m tired, my eyes are puffy and my shoulder hurts. I must have slept funny. I can’t wait to brew a nice cup of coffee. Isn’t it sad that I need a specific fuel to get me to work? I’m basically a car. Also, I can’t forget about that stupid appointment with a client that I have tonight. I swear, every time we meet to discuss business over dinner I just want to mush his face onto the bowl of pasta. I don’t know what it is about him. It’s not that I hate him as a person, but there’s something about his face that’s just begging to be imprinted on a plate of spaghetti. Spaghetti. Who the hell came up with that term anyway? It’s such a bizarre name. If I ever opened a wellness spa center on a poor neighborhood I would call it Spa Ghetto. I actually think that the singular for spaghetti is technically spaghetto. So like, one single strand of spaghetti is called a spaghetto. Does that mean that a single cofetti is actually a confetto? This exercise is so stupid.”
What’s beautiful about doing this practice in the morning is that it will empty your “complaining quota” for the rest of the day. Once you reach those 2 to 3 pages of writing and close your diary, it’s over. You’ve already whined, you’ve already been annoying on paper. You’ve probably said things you don’t actually mean — and that’s perfectly fine.
Personally, I notice that whenever I write down Mourning Pages, they always end up on a good note. I complain at first, but then I slowly (and unconsciously) drift towards “what can I do about this?” and end up with quite a bit of motivation to tackle my day. What starts as a whiny temper tantrum slowly turns into an action plan.
Have you ever noticed how kids are able to fall down and cry in absolute despair, only to get up and keep playing a few seconds later? This type of emotional discharge is what we are trying to achieve here. Doing this practice regularly will slowly but surely silence your “monkey mind”, so that deeper and more profound patterns of thought become available to you — and a less unreasonably-whiny version of yourself becomes available to everyone else.
VII. stoic silence
I know, I know. It’s very easy for me to tell you all about silence when I’ve been rambling about for about a billion words. In all seriousness, I thought it would be a good idea to end the list of exercises with one that tells me to shut up a little. This idea is far from being only Stoic, but it was particularly revered by the ancients. It’s also not uncommon to find the expression “stoic silence” in the English language. We tend to think of exercises as an active process, but some inactive ones like keeping quiet can be just as challenging and rewarding. Marcus Aurelius once wrote:
“Be silent for the most part, or, if you speak, say only what is necessary and in a few words. Talk, but rarely, if occasion calls you, but do not talk of ordinary things –of gladiators or horses races or athletes or of meats or drinks– these are topics that arise everywhere. But above all, do not talk about men in blame or compliment or comparison.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
For those of you who have met me (friends and family), you know I struggle to find a balance with this. In social situations, I’m either very silent or I don’t shut the hell up. If the topic of conversation really interests me, or if I have the chance of teaching/explaining a particular topic (one of my biggest passions), then I often find myself talking way too much and even diluting the message I was trying to convey. If you can recognize yourself in the above, then this exercise is also for you. We’re in this together, my talkative friend.
In the legendary book The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene’s law #4 is “Always say less than necessary”. He provides this short explanatory paragraph with it:
“When you are trying to impress people with words, the more you say, the more common you appear, and the less in control. Even if you are saying something banal, it will seem original if you make it vague, open-ended, and sphinx-like. Powerful people impress and intimidate by saying less. The more you say, the more likely you are to say something foolish.”Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power
Another reason why silence is an incredibly powerful tool is that everyone has inherent narcissistic tendencies; in other words: people are primarily interested in themselves, not in you. If you want to make a killer first impression, you should let the other person do most of the talking. Get people to talk about themselves/things they are passionate about and they will paradoxically think you are extremely interesting. Doing this, of course, requires you to put your own ego aside and become a spectator (or even better, an agitator) of their own self-interest.
Further, consider that talking less is actually a legitimate Stoic exercise for a very simple reason: once the words you say leave your mouth, they are completely outside of your control. This is Stoicism 101. Once you speak, you are at the mercy of the listener — and the more you do, the more you are opening yourself up for trouble. On the flipside, saying less does not only give other people less ammunition to use against you, it also creates an enrapturing aura of mysteriousness around you. The more laconic your speech, the more imposing your presence.
Not a lot of people know that the word laconic actually comes from the Spartans, and that a quick look at its history can show us how gloriously powerful silence is.
The ancient city of Sparta was, at the time, known as Lacedaemon, and it thrived in the region of Laconia (which is where the famous Λ symbol on their shields representing the Greek letter lambda, or latin “L”, comes from). Other than being famous for their incredible physical prowess and obsession with warfare —as well as their proclivity for disgusting food— Spartans had a reputation for being very blunt and concise in their speech. Socrates described them as follows:
“[Spartans] conceal their wisdom, and pretend to be ignorant, so that they may seem to be superior only because of their prowess in battle. This is how you may know that I am speaking the truth and that the Spartans are the best educated in philosophy and speaking: if you talk to any ordinary Spartan, he seems to be stupid, but eventually, like an expert marksman, he shoots in some brief remark that proves you to be only a child.”Socrates, Plato’s Protagoras
Honestly, they were kind of badass. There are plenty of famous records that prove this to be the case; some of the most famous sentences in history come from them. Spartan women were famous for saying they were “the only ones who give birth to men” and telling their husbands to return from war “with their shield, or on it”. Already the baddass-meter is pretty high, but man does it get higher.
You are all familiar with the Battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 brave Spartan soldiers (and around 7.000 other Greeks btw) faced the colossal army of King Xerxes, about 100.000 men strong. In this famous encounter, one beautiful moment took place. After having arrived on the Hellenic hills and seeing that he faced some apparently laughable opposition, King Xerxes approached the Greeks and gave them a long speech about his grandiosity. Eventually, he decided to act benevolently and told them to lay down their weapons so he could spare their life. Spartan king Leonidas gave a legendary reply: μολὼν λαβέ (molon labe), in other words:
“Come and get them.”King Leonidas
If you think it can’t get any more laconic than this, you’re mistaken. Years later, Macedonian King Philip II (Alexander the Great’s father) was conquering the entirety of Greece and eventually set his eyes on the city of Sparta. He sent them a menacing and rhetorical message, asking them whether he should visit Sparta as a friend or as an enemy. The Spartans replied with “Neither.” Furious, Philip made his way to Sparta and told them:
“You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and erase your city.”Philip II, kind of losing his temper here
The Spartan council replied with a single word:
“If.”Spartan Ephors, Plutarch’s De Garrulitate
Neither Philip II nor Alexander the Great ever attempted to conquer the city.
Follow this link for a detailed example on how you can effectively implement this into your life.
Before you click away, a quick word of caution.
As you went through these practices, you might (understandably) have gotten the impression that I am advocating for a sort of benign masochism towards life. This is not entirely true. If you have followed Project Impero for a while, you probably know that I’m all for a Camusian enjoyment of existence as well. The discipline, rationality and prudence of Stoicism can coexist with the liberation, irrationality and indulgence of Epicureanism or even Hedonism. Sometimes, Apollo and Dionysus can shake hands.
These exercises are extremely effective tools for a very specific job: building up your inner Stoic. Trying to use them all at once will most likely not be sustainable. Instead, I recommend that you pick a few of them and integrate them into the next 30 days, as if it were a challenge. As the days go by, try to get a feel for them and don’t be scared to make adjustments. Even better: now that hopefully you have a much clearer idea of what Stoic exercises should look like, you could even come up with some of your own.
With all of that out of the way, I wish you stress, pain and discomfort for the days to come. 😉
Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
Letters from a Stoic, Seneca
Moral letters to Lucilius, Seneca
Antifragile, Nassim Taleb
The Good Life, William B. Irvine
The Fasting Cure, Upton Sinclair
The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene
Skill With People, Les Giblin
World population (cumulative)
Fasting and inflammation
Fasting and oxidative stress
Fasting and cancer
Fasting and cellular repair
Cold showers and immune system
Cold showers and metabolism
Cold showers and depression
Meditation and anxiety
Brain imagination vs reality
Brain imagination vs reality 2
A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard