In Stoic philosophy we have something special. Stoicism is not so much a ‘philosophy’—as one might think of an academic discipline—but a practical guide for living.
This guide for living has been so effective and resilient that it’s been used by some of the most powerful, successful and wise people in all of history. From Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors of Rome to Epictetus, a former slave, it’s a philosophy designed for extreme abundance and adversity alike. It was the favorite of leaders like Cato (who challenged Caesar), Bill Clinton and Theodore Roosevelt, writers like Seneca and Ambrose Bierce, painters like Eugene Delacroix, entrepreneurs like Elizabeth Holmes and Tim Ferriss, sports teams like the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks, soldiers like Frederick the Great and James Stockdale, and countless other practitioners over the centuries.
Why? What did it do for them? Well, most of all it provided them a framework for behavior and mindset in an inherently unpredictable world. In fact, if we were reducing stoicism down to a single sentence we might say: “It teaches us how to respond well to a world outside of our control.”
Some people have called stoicism an ‘operating system,’ which is a great way of putting it. But for someone just starting out, or someone looking to try this operating system for the annual Stoic Week (#stoicweek), where should they start? Below are 20 hacks—or exercises—from some of the stoic greats that will make your life better right now.
So try them!
[*] Take cold showers. Not only are there health benefits, but part of stoicism is about finding these luxuries or dependencies and seeing if you can do without them—if only temporarily.
[*] Don’t travel. We think travel is the magical cure—all when too often it is simply an escape. The way to deal and face your problems is to stay put. To actually be in yourself for a minute.
[*] Practice premeditatio malorum (a premeditation of evils). Everyone talks about positive visualization. The stoics practice negative visualization. Think about what could go wrong, accept that it is a possibility, prepare for it, proceed anyway. Don’t be caught by surprise by misfortune, be ready for it.
[*] Remember: There is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ event—those are just labels we put on stuff that happens. Really remember that (and believe it).
[*] Be grateful. The first book of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations? It’s nothing but thank yous to all the people who made him who he was. Be grateful for everything, even the people who have hurt or harmed you. They too have helped make you who you are.
[*] Contemptuous Expressions. Don’t get distracted by the trappings our society puts on things. Expensive food is still dead plants and animals. Fancy clothes are made in sweatshops by children. Rich people still go to the bathroom like everyone else. Strip things, as Marcus Aurelius wrote, of the legend that encrusts them.
[*] Study philosophy. As Seneca said “Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs.”
[*] Stay in the present moment. Forget what came before. Definitely don’t get consumed with what’s going to happen next. Just focus on what’s right here in front of you.
[*] Practice misfortune. Seneca advised taking a day a month to practice bad stuff—maybe you don’t eat, or you sleep outside or you don’t touch certain luxuries. Why? So you can realize that losing these things is not as bad as we fear. You’ll be fine with or without them.
[*] Do it because it’s the right thing. Detach yourself from the outcome: A thank you, a reward, recognition, fame. If it’s only worthwhile because of those external factors, then it is probably not the right thing.
[*] “The best revenge is to not be like that.” Marcus Aurelius
[*] Journal. At the very least at the beginning or end of the day—preferably both. (that’s what Meditations is, a private journal)
[*] Meditate. Pierre Hadot reminds us that stoic philosophy is a set of spiritual exercises. Not something you learn or hear once and remember, but something you think of and practice on a regular basis.
[*] The stoics say: Every situation has two handles—one that will hold weight and the other won’t. When you try and fail at something, just realize you grabbed the wrong handle.
[*] “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly.” Marcus Aurelius
[*] Ask yourself: If other people knew I was doing this, would I be embarrassed or ashamed? If so, it’s probably not a good thing to be doing (to say nothing of being a poor use of your time)
[*] Don’t get stuck with dogma. There are plenty of non-stoic philosophers and philosophies worth borrowing from. As Seneca wrote “I don’t mind quoting a bad author if the line is good.”
[*] Eliminate your attachments. Attachments make you a slave. It puts your fate in the hands of other people or external things. Remember: “The first truth: You must choose between your attachment and happiness. You cannot have both.” Anthony de Mello
[*] Focus on something bigger than yourself. Seek out that “oceanic feeling”—from nature, from history from being part of team—that reminds you that you are not the center of the universe.
[*] Meditate on your mortality. You are going to die—you know that right? Stop pretending you won’t—and more importantly, stop pretending that it’s a horrible scary thing. You won’t be around anymore. That’s it! So live while you can.
All of these exercises will help. But let’s say you’re too busy. Maybe you don’t have room in your life for them. Ok, well then just remember this single one. It is stoicism embodied. Let it guide your life
“Objective judgement, now at this very moment.
Unselfish action, now at this very moment.
Willing acceptance—now at this very moment—of all external events.
That’s all you need.”