From reading the Stoics we notice their emphasis on spiritual “training” to strengthen the character and enable one to endure difficulties with equanimity. What exactly did they mean by this training, also referred to as spiritual exercises? Is it enough to read the Stoics and apply what we learn there to situations as they arise? Or is there a particular regimen that would more effectively train the mind and help it absorb the principles laid out in the Stoic texts?
Hadot on Stoic Exercises
Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault has been invaluable as I try to sort through the various types of Stoic exercises.  Hadot divides them into four groups, noting Philo of Alexandria as the source of a few descriptive lists of Stoic exercises in his works Who is the Heir of Divine Things and Allegorical Interpretations:
first attention, then meditations and “remembrances of good things,” then the more intellectual exercises: reading, listening, research, and investigation, and finally the more active exercises: self-mastery, accomplishment of duties, and indifference to indifferent things.
I will focus on the first two categories in this blog post; the third category, reading and research, seems more self-explanatory; and the last category of active exercises I hope to tackle next in a guest post for another blog. (Update: that post is here.)
- Attention (prosoche)
It is fitting that this should be a category in itself, as without prosoche none of the rest would be possible. The passage that comes to mind when I reflect on this phenomenon is from Marcus Aurelius:
Concentrate every minute like a Roman–like a man–on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. (Med., 2.5, Gregory Hays translation)
Although I’m not an ancient Roman man, Marcus Aurelius’s self-reflections are still relevant to my life. It is helpful to consider what “being a man” and “being a Roman” must have meant to the ruler of the Roman Empire at the time: be courageous, be rational, be imperious with regard to improving on your weaknesses.
What is key in this passage is concentrating on what is in front of you. This is a mental adjustment in itself and is the sine qua non in one’s ethical development. Hadot writes that it is “the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude. It is a continuous vigilance and presence of mind, self consciousness which never sleeps, and a constant tension of the spirit.” As prosoche is not a discrete Stoic exercise but rather a pervasive state of mind, I will not belabor it here, but will instead direct you to a very well-researched essay by Chris Fisher that is full of great quotes from the ancients as well as our contemporaries on the meaning of this Stoic mindfulness.
- Meditation/exercises and memorization – Stoic formulae – writing as a memory aid
Hadot writes that “The exercise of meditation allows us to be ready at the moment when an unexpected – and perhaps dramatic – circumstances occurs.” In a footnote he recounts his hesitation at translating melete as meditation; the Greek melete and its Latin equivalent meditatio denote “preparatory exercises.” The English “meditation,” he notes, is close to what we now call “an effort to assimilate an idea, notion, or principle, and make them come alive in the soul,” but he advises us not to “lose sight of the term’s ambiguity: meditation is exercise, and exercise is meditation.” Of course, since this idea of tension of the spirit (tonos) noted above is central to Stoicism , even Stoic “meditation” is not necessarily relaxing.
It appears that one would be ill-served by jumping into certain Stoic exercises without first having memorized, internalized, or otherwise habituated oneself to those stalwart Stoic truisms. I don’t mean to trivialize them by reprinting some here in shortened form–there are things that are up to me, and there are things that are not up to me; virtue is the only good–but merely want to demonstrate that if something happens that shakes the spirit, you might not be thinking clearly enough to recite an entire Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus passage, but you might be able to recall short phrases. Hadot writes, “What we need are persuasive formulae or arguments (epilogismoi), which we can repeat to ourselves in difficult circumstances, so as to check movements of fear, anger, or sadness”; these “fundamental principle[s]” should be “formulable in a few words, and extremely clear and simple, precisely so that [they] may remain easily accessible to the mind, and be applicable with the sureness and constancy of a reflex.” Another useful Greek term is that these principles should be procheiron, or “at hand.”
I have created a short list of brief aphorisms from my reading of the Stoics, and I intend to solidify these in my memory by copying them out from time to time. This is another means of solidifying learning and making progress; Hadot cites the Meditations as “the example par excellence of this” and quotes Horace on the topic: “When I have some spare time, I amuse myself by writing these thoughts down on paper.” 
- Morning and evening exercises (and exercises while you’re asleep?)
Hadot describes a morning exercise in which you look at the day ahead of you and resolve to meet it with Stoic aplomb. This exercise never fails to remind me of the passage in the Meditations in which Marcus Aurelius assures himself that he will certainly come across boors and buffoons that day, but they are only like that because they haven’t discovered virtue.
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own–not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. Med., 2.1.
I commute to a job in New York City, so I can particularly relate to the feeling upon waking that my delicate sensibilities are in danger of being trampled on before I even make it into the office. I can attest that reminding myself every morning that other people’s behavior is not up to me, and that I can only focus on my own thoughts and actions, does provide a measure of tranquility. It frees the psyche to approach the day proactively in terms of how I want to be, instead of reactively by wasting energy getting irritated by people jostling me with their huge backpacks or walking at a snail’s pace in front of me while playing Candy Crush. (I could name many other things which absolutely don’t irritate me, but I’ll refrain.)
Similarly, an evening exercise in which one looks back on the day and evaluates how one comported oneself outwardly and inwardly can be very instructive. This gives the day a sense of closure and could even prepare you to absorb or come to a greater understanding of difficult Stoic precepts in your sleep (if you believe in that sort of thing. In fact, according to Plutarch, Zeno believed that we should examine our dreams to determine our progress. ) Given the problems many people have sleeping through the night, there have been a multitude of articles lately about the importance of having a nighttime routine involving winding down and settling your thoughts. This Stoic exercise certainly would qualify. I have difficulty with this one, though, because after I put my son to bed I tend to be too tired for coherent thoughts and can’t remember what I thought or did during the long day.
- Premeditatio malorum (“premeditation of evils”)
You may have already read about premeditatio malorum, an exercise in which one imagines suffering, poverty, illness or death to shore up the soul in the event those things should occur–or in the case of death, does occur. I have to confess that I am squeamish about imagining terrible things happening, especially when imagining them happen to those I love. To me, these sorts of “exercises” usually take place at 3 in the morning, have no uplifting resolution, and involve no Stoic truisms. Perhaps that’s why my Stoic practice has stalled; I’m good on reading the ancient Stoics and modern commentaries, but when it comes to practicing, I’ve hit a wall. But there are no squeamish Stoics, so back to work I go.
The key is not simply to imagine bad things befalling you or those you love, but rather to move expeditiously in your thoughts to a visualization of yourself overcoming circumstances (not without grieving as any normal human being would, but after this process) and returning to a focus on virtue as the sole good.
When I think of this exercise, I draw an analogy to physical exercise. When one undertakes a physical workout, it is with the knowledge that it will come to an end. So, you suffer, but you know that the suffering is far from endless, and it is ultimately going to make you stronger. Finally, you reap the rewards of your workout, consciously or not, every moment of the day. I personally very rarely think about how horrible the workout was after it’s over, or if I do, I don’t relive it, but rather am sort of amused by it.
Similarly, we can set aside a few minutes a day (not at 3 a.m., but a suitable time) to meditate on bad things that might happen, go over in our minds how we can approach it with the help of Stoic principles, and wrap up the exercise and get back to our lives. Even if we don’t think much about the possibility of getting sick, losing all of our money, or dying, it’s quite possible those fears are present, but repressed. (I’m drawing on my reading of Carl Jung; his thesis was that when people suppress what is in their unconscious, it can emerge in disturbing and unexpected ways.) By exploring these fears in a controlled manner, and rehearsing how one might draw on ancient precepts to work through a tragedy and even move forward from there, I suspect anyone’s anxiety levels would decrease.
It is clear that the Stoics were believers in the transformative potential of philosophy. Just as a physical workout builds strength, so with the mental workouts that their precepts can facilitate–but only for those who practice. Going for a run once a year is not likely to have any effect on your fitness level, and likewise, reading Seneca once in a while may not give you the strength you need to meet the challenges of daily life, not to mention the more serious crises such as illness or death of a loved one, to which none of us is immune.
In a press conference that Leonard Cohen gave about a month before his death, when a reporter asked him about lyrics from a song on his last album: “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my Lord,” Cohen explained,
“That ‘hineni’ [Hebrew for “here I am”], that declaration of readiness no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul. We all are motivated by deep impulses and deep appetites to serve, even though we may not be able to locate that which we are willing to serve. So, this is just a part of my nature, and I think everybody else’s nature, to offer oneself at the critical moment when the emergency becomes articulate. It’s only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate that willingness to serve.” 
This is why I’d like to strengthen my Stoic practice: to be ready to be the best version of myself in any emergency. Only in a constant state of tension (tonos) would I then be able to relax, because unconscious fears would have been exposed to the light, and I would know I was doing my best to live up to my potential and serve my fellow humans: “Nature designed rational beings for each other’s sake: to help–not harm–one another, as they deserve.” (Med. 9.1.)
- See Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life (Blackwell Publishing, 1995), Chapter 3.
- See ibid., Ch. 3, fn. 24. Interestingly, he writes that relaxation (anesis) is Epicureanism’s central concept.
- See ibid., Ch. 3, fn. 49. The Horace quote is from Satires.
- See ibid., Ch. 3, fn. 46, citing Plutarch, How One May Know One is Making Progress in Virtue: “One has made real progress if he no longer dreams that he is giving in to some shameful passion, or giving his consent to something evil and unjust . . . and if, instead, the soul’s faculties of representation and affectivity, relaxed by reason, shine as if in an ocean of diaphanous serenity, untroubled by waves.”
- “Three Iconic Musicians on Artistic Creation — and Its Importance Now,” Wyatt Mason, T Magazine, March 1, 2017.