Stoic vs. Buddhist Mindfulness by Mary Braun

Stoic vs. Buddhist Mindfulness

by Mary Braun


The first time I tried Buddhist meditation, I immediately felt my trachea shrink. Only a tiny, insufficient bit of air could move in or out. To learn Buddhist meditation, I had listened to a podcast. It said to notice and accept without judgement whatever happened. So, that is what I did. I noticed and accepted that my attempt to meditate had the effect of breathing powdered cement.

Being the diligent sort, I tried meditating again the next day. Again I got to notice and accept without judgement the sensation of being strangled. And again the third day.

I could not understand what was going on. I knew that I could not be getting into any physiologic trouble within two breaths of sitting down. I knew I should be able to sustain myself in a seated position, breathing comfortably for several hours. Using all my Stoic techniques that I did not yet know were Stoic, I convinced myself that I would sit for ten breaths regardless of how sure I was that I would suffocate. Ten breaths in and out. This was all I could manage for several days. With more practice of living with insufficient oxygen, I could go for twelve breaths, then twenty. Eventually I got to the point where it no longer felt like the Buddha was Darth Vader using the Force to strangle me from a distance

At the time, I was fresh out of medical school. My new situation allowed some scary thoughts to arise, such as, “you probably just killed Mrs. Smith by increasing her insulin.” Buddhist meditation allowed me to gain distance from these thoughts, and the added distance improved my equanimity. Even after the disturbing, rookie doctor thoughts stopped coming around, I found Buddhist meditation helpful for my overall equanimity, so I continued it.

As happens with many Stoics, my Stoic practice developed spontaneously as a response to difficulties in my life. I was orphaned when I was seven, causing the life I had known to evaporate. In order to survive this loss, using my own intuition I developed some potent Stoic techniques for tolerating difficult situations. Unfortunately, I did not develop any techniques for avoiding difficult situations. Thus my personal brand of Stoicism carried me straight from suboptimal foster care right into a bad marriage.

A couple of decades and several life changes later, my boyfriend introduced me to Stoic philosophy. I was shocked to discover how much of my self-developed philosophy of living and coping techniques those ancient Greeks had known about all along. Thus, well into middle age, I started the formal practice of Stoic philosophy. Those ancient Greeks had a trick or two to teach me. My life got even better with their help.

At this point, I rely on my Stoic techniques when things start to go wrong inside my head. Earlier this week, a dying patient was reviewing his life with me. He told me about how much he valued the teamwork he and his wife shared to raise their children. It is a beautiful story and my eyes start to fill with tears. No problem so far. I am not expected to be without feelings, but if my feelings take control of my thinking, I cannot focus enough to be a good doctor.

As I listen to my patient talk about how raising their children deepened his relationship with his wife, I realize the one thing I wanted most out of life was to raise my kids well. I married and had children with a man who always had his way and whose method of childrearing I disagreed with. I could not figure out how to challenge his child rearing ideas or how to divorce him for twenty five years. Now I am too old to have more children, and will never get to have the experience of raising a child with a partner. I didn’t get a father; I only got a mother for seven years. Life couldn’t even deliver me a decent husband. I don’t ask for much. My eyes are dripping tears now and I realize that I am not paying any attention to my patient.

I need to pull myself away from the attraction of self-pity and into the present. Even if I had the skills to turn my feelings off, that would not be helpful; I need them in order to take care of my patient. I remind myself of the Stoic maxim: “It seemed so to you at the time.”

I have a sense that I am shoving my foot in a slamming door. If I can keep the door from closing, I can maintain control of myself, and my equanimity will be only briefly disturbed. It feels as though the force of emotion that wells up must be countered with something forceful. If what I bring to bear on it is not forceful, it will fail. Once the tears start forming, my Buddhist practice has nothing to offer me. Once I have started to lose my equanimity, my emotions flood me if I attempt to use Buddhist techniques. I have found that only Stoic techniques overcome the waves of emotion. Buddhist techniques feel more general and unfocussed.

What my Buddhist meditation practice does offer me is a decrease in my overall reactivity. When I am meditating regularly, I am less apt to be bothered by the unavoidable emotional events of life. This pattern has repeated itself a dozen or more times. I fall away from my meditation practice. I become more easily riled. I recognize this and resume meditating. Things improve until I fall away from my meditation practice again.

I asked people on the Facebook Stoicism Group about their experiences, and learned this is typical. The only consensus was that Stoic mindfulness practices are useful for the immediately present threat to equanimity, and Buddhist mindfulness practices help strengthen equanimity overall.

It is not surprising to me that Buddhist meditation works well for us on a daily basis because it has been honed over thousands of years by hundreds of thousands of people. What is surprising to me is that it does not always work well for me and my Facebook friends. It surprises me that our Buddhist practice fails us in the pinch.

Why does Buddhism not include techniques like “Amor Fati” or negative visualization? Are these incompatible with the Buddhist philosophy? I do not know enough about Buddhism to answer that.

It seems to me that if there were a significant fraction of people whose needs were not being met by Buddhism, and that there were non-Buddhist techniques that met their needs, then Buddhism would have figured out how to respond to them. Either these techniques would have been incorporated into Buddhism or variant forms of Buddhism would have developed that were compatible with these techniques. I think it is more likely that the Buddhist techniques worked well enough for most people in the society in which Buddhism developed.

When I receive a disturbing impression and begin to formulate my response to it, Buddhism would say that I need to distance myself from that nascent thought and to examine it scientifically as I would someone else’s emotion. So far, this is very similar to the Stoic teachings on disturbing impressions as I understand them. Buddhism recommends that I next lean into the unpleasant emotion, to really examine it, get to know it and to realize that it will pass soon. This technique results in me wallowing in my emotion as I wait for it to pass. I become so attracted to it that I will grasp it firmly and become unable to function. Perhaps if I practiced this technique for decades, it would work, but the dying patient in front of me does not have decades while I grapple with my inner demons.

Stoicism offers me techniques that I can use right in the moment. Instead of leaning in, I counter the emotion with a maxim that I have prepared and have at the ready for whenever disturbing emotions arise. The part of my mind that is not wrapped up in my personal tragedy can recite Stoic maxims forcefully to counter the attraction of “I didn’t get and I want.” Stoicism gets between my mind and the idea it is about to grip onto and stays my grasp before it happens. For me, for the most disturbing impressions, this is what works.

There is an idea in neurology of over-learning. Things which one repeats thousands of times during one’s lifetime such as the ABC’s or the response to “how are you today?” are over-learned. When a person is demented and has lost the ability to think in any meaningful fashion, they can often still recite the ABC’s or other over-learned phrases. It seems to me that when I am caught by my deep feelings of deprivation and grief that I am like a demented person and can only say over-learned things. The little bit of my brain that is not sucked into the black hole of “I lack” can barely squeak out “It seemed so to you at the time.” If it can however, it breaks the spell and the attractiveness of the disturbing impression is diminished.

Another common observation is that Western culture has more emphasis on independence and individuality. It seems likely that this emphasis develops minds that are more likely to work with individually oriented techniques. Stoicism emphasizing my personal inner citadel rather than Buddhism emphasizing dissolution of myself feels more comfortable to me. When I am most in pain, standing steadfast against an ocean crashing against the seawall of my personal virtue makes me feel less pain whereas the paradoxical teachings of Buddhism simply frustrate me.

I find that Buddhist techniques on an ongoing basis combined with Stoic ones on an as needed basis work best for me to maximize my equanimity. I do not have a good explanation for why. I am more at peace, at rest and am flourishing more than ever before in my life.

This reminds me of another Stoic technique that I practice. It has a Buddhist analog: I am grateful.


Mary Braun, MD is a board certified hospice and palliative care physician. In her work she helps people make decisions about their medical treatment, helping them elucidate their values, preferences, and goals given the constraints of their medical situation and their limited time to live. Mary began practicing an intuitive form of Stoicism as a child. She discovered Stoic philosophy in middle age. She finds Stoicism essential, not only for her personal life, but also to avoid having patients, their loved ones, and herself becoming overwhelmed by the difficulties of taking care of the sickest and most fragile patients in the medical system.

International Stoic Week – Call For Events!

International Stoic Week – Call For Events!


International Stoic Week is an annual week-long set of events – coordinated by the Stoicism Today team, but involving many other people and organizations – aimed at encouraging public engagement with classical Stoic philosophy, by applying Stoic ideas and practices to the challenges of modern living.

This year – number five in its history – International Stoic Week is scheduled to run from Monday, October 17th to Sunday, October 23rd.  Just before it begins, of course, the one-day intensive conference, STOICON – with a whole host of speakers, talks, and workshops  – will occur on Saturday, October 15th.  So, October is indeed a month for all things Stoicism-related!

This year, the team (and in particular Daniel Robertson) has created a beautiful new website specifically devoted to Stoic Week, but we’ll also be publicizing activities, events, and resources here in Stoicism Today.

As the many past participants (more and more every successive year) well know, one of the main activities centering Stoic Week each year is the online course.  During Stoic Week, participants have the opportunity to live like a Stoic by following the seven-day Stoic Week Handbook.  This resource contains reading, audio, video, and group discussions. It includes daily practical exercises, which combine elements of ancient Stoicism and modern cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

But International Stoic Week also involves on-the-ground face-to-face events.  Last year, they occurred all over the world.  Just to name a few major gatherings – several occured last year in New York and in London.  It wasn’t just in major metropoles, though – Stoic week events, organized by those interested in discussing this classic philosophical approach, took place all over the place, from Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania to Milwaukee, Wisconsin – and many, many other locations worldwide.

This year, we’re asking those either interested in scheduling – or already planning – Stoic Week events to send listings of their coming events to us in advance so that we can publicize them here in Stoicism Today.  We’ll do that both ahead of time and during Stoic Week itself.  You can provide us with all the relevant information here, in this Typeform – and we’ll make sure that your event gets into our listings!

Members of the Stoicism Today project are also making themselves available to discuss Stoic philosophy, its modern applications, Stoic week itself, and other related topics of interest in interviews, podcasts, and other appearances.  So, if you’re looking for one of the project members to come speak at your event, reach out to them sooner than later!

Lastly, you can follow both Stoic Week and Stoicism Today on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. You can donate an amount of your own choosing to help support Stoic Week, via our PayPal form.

The Stoic Bookshelf by Sean O'Connor

The Stoic Bookshelf

by Sean O’Connor



Whether you are discovering Stoicism for the first time, or are a long time student looking to dive deeper into the philosophy, finding the right books can be difficult. The team at PocketStoic (who include as collaborators several Stoicism Today project members) has organized a giveaway to help you build your bookshelf and dive deeper into your practice.  You can enter the giveaway here.

We’ve been asked several times how we choose the books that we’ve included in the giveaway… So we thought it would be easiest to take them one by one and tell you why we think they’re worth reading.  

Let’s start with some recent works engaging with and interpreting Stoicism in a modern setting.

A Guide to the Good Life – William Irvine (Signed)

      • Why it’s essential: Perhaps the best-known introduction to Stoic philosophy, Guide to the Good Life is an immensely readable, jargon-free guide to Stoicism as a practical life philosophy. Covering a wide range of wisdom and techniques, Irvine lays out a modern framework with the goal of attaining tranquility and joy in life. While some traditionalists have criticized the book as re-interpreting certain principles, Irvine himself points out that the Stoicism is anything but static dogma. For those interested in Stoic philosophy, Guide to the Good Life is the place to start. It’s truly a modern classic.


Stoicism and the Art of Happiness – Donald Robertson

      • Why it’s essential: Drawing from the wisdom of the ancient Stoic philosophers, Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness is one of the most in-depth “how-to” guides for implementing Stoicism into daily life. Utilizing his background as a CBT therapist, Robertson includes a variety of exercises based on modern behavioral research, while never losing sight of the traditional practices and teachings of his Greek and Roman Stoic predecessors.


Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness – Epictetus and Sharon Lebell

      • Why it’s essential: While not a modern work per say, Sharon Lebell’s interpretation of Epictetus’ Handbook is a great read for those looking for a quick and effective dose of Stoic wisdom. Written in modern, colloquial language, each page of The Art of Living employs a single directive, followed by (sometimes liberal) interpretations of Epictetus’ timeless advice on living well. Lebell has crafted a great update for those looking for an uplifting read to keep on the bedside table.


A New Stoicism – Lawrence C. Becker

      • Why it’s essential: Though Becker’s treatise on Stoic ethics is admittedly more dense than the above titles, his defense of traditional Stoic ethics as a structure for living well in the modern world makes for a fascinating read. Written through the lens of modern science and psychology, A New Stoicism may not be a casual introduction, but it’s nonetheless great for those looking to enhance their understand of Stoic ethics and logic.


The Obstacle Is the Way – Ryan Holiday (Signed)

      • Why it’s essential: Found on the bookshelves of everyone from entrepreneurs to professional athletes, Ryan Holiday’s bestselling The Obstacle is the Way presents Stoic philosophy as a no-nonsense set of tactics for dealing with adversity and increasing mental toughness. Holiday illustrates these techniques through a variety of historical examples, recounting stories of figures who embodied Stoic ideals to triumph over personal and professional challenges. A more energetic introduction than Guide to the Good Life, those looking to build a powerful arsenal of Stoic techniques will find Obstacle the perfect playbook.

Ego Is the Enemy
– Ryan Holiday (Signed)

  • Why it’s essential: Although the word Stoic only appears a few times in this book, the philosophy of Stoicism is everywhere. Ryan does an amazing job of telling stories of how ego can impede decision making and blind you.


No Stoic bookshelf would be complete without these classic works of Late Stoicism:

Meditations – Marcus Aurelius

  • Why it’s essential: Marcus Aurelius never intended the Meditations to be published. Through his self-discourse we get to see inside the mind of one of the most powerful men in the world, and learn more about his struggles to lead a good life.


Discourses – Epictetus

  • Why it’s essential: The Discourses are compilations of the teachings of Epictetus. He taught that happiness is an attainable state of mind instead of an occurrence. Stoicism is a philosophy of choice, and Epictetus highlights every occurrence where we have the ability to choose our reactions.

– Epictetus

      • Why it’s essential: Epictetus believed that “no man is free who is not master of himself.” In the Enchiridion he dives into the practical precepts that are useful to apply to your everyday life.


Letters from a Stoic – Seneca

  • Why it’s essential: Seneca’s reasoning derived mainly from the Stoic principles. In his Letters he dives into the practical applications of his principles in spite of challenging circumstances. He conquers topics from the wisdom of the self-possessed person immune to overmastering emotions and life’s setbacks.


Essays – Seneca

    • Why it’s essential: In these Essays Seneca dives deeper into many of the topics that he covers in Letters from a Stoic. These essays will provide you with a systematic look into the philosophy of Stoicism. They have been referred to as the Stoic ‘Bible.’


Last but not least:

Stoicism Today: Selected Writings (Volumes 1 and 2) – Patrick Ussher

      • Why it’s essential: One of the most unique and enlightening reads on modern Stoic practice, Stoicism Today is a collection of essays from people across the world who have incorporated Stoic philosophy into their lives. The variety of viewpoints makes the collection instantly relatable, and many of the writings show Stoicism’s power in helping people find joy, tranquility, and in overcoming even the most difficult situations in life.

We believe these books are crucial to helping you dive deep into Stoicism. Many are books that we find ourselves returning to over the course of many years. You can enter the giveaway here →


Sean O’Connor has dedicated his career to helping people level up in life. He’s an edtech product manager and marketer who writes about philosophy every week with Stoic Sundays.  He is also a member of the PocketStoic team.

“Show Me Your Shoulders” – The Stoic Workout by Kevin Vost

“Show Me Your Shoulders” – The Stoic Workout

by Kevin Vost


Suppose, for example, that in talking to an athlete, I said, “Show me your shoulders,” and then he answered, “Look at my jumping weights.” Go to, you and your jumping weights! What I want to see is the effect of the jumping weights. –  Epictetus, Discourses, I, 4 [1]

Now there are short and simple exercises which tire the body rapidly, and so save our time; and time is something of which we ought to keep strict account. These exercises are running, brandishing weights, and jumping…But whatever you do, come back quickly from body to mind. –  Seneca, Epistle 15 [2]

And if you form the habit of taking such exercises, you will see what mighty shoulders you develop, what sinews, what vigour…. –  Epictetus, Discourses, II, 19 [3]


Body by Stoics

While the ancient Roman Stoics of the first century AD, such as Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Seneca, clearly championed the proper use of our human thinking capacities to attain inner peace and live virtuous lives in accord with nature, they did not neglect the fact that nature has equipped us with physical bodies of sinewy flesh. Epictetus lists our bodies among those things beyond our power which we cannot completely control, but while the care and development of our bodies should not be a primary goal, this does not imply that the body should be neglected and allowed to fall into disrepair or to grow to unseemly proportions. Self-generated physical problems can impede our capacities to participate in the roles the Playwright has prepared for us and can impair our cognitive capacities as well. Indeed, modern research suggests that the catchphrase “Use it or Lose It,” appears to apply to both physical and mental capacities throughout the course of our lives, and especially in our later years.

Hear Epictetus’ teacher, Musonius Rufus, on this matter of body and soul:

Since a human being happens to be neither soul alone nor body alone, but a composite of these two things, someone in training must pay attention to both. He should, rightly pay more attention to the better part, namely the soul, but he should also take care of the other parts, or part of him will become defective. The philosopher’s body also must be well prepared for work because often virtues use it as a necessary tool for the activities of life. [4]

Musonius then recommended the kinds of ascetic practices that would accustom our bodies to enduring heat, cold, hunger, thirst, and the endurance of other physical discomforts.


Personal Training Advice from the “Lame Old Man”

Epictetus called himself “a lame old man” later in life, apparently because of a broken leg suffered during the years of slavery in his youth, caused, according to some sources, by his master twisting his leg while Epictetus calmly warned him that in continuing to do so he could break it – and did. While Epictetus was certainly then no competitive athlete, he not only frequently used physical metaphors for training and growth in philosophy, he sometimes provided very useful advice for the training of the body, in terms of both why and how one should exercise.

For example, let’s look at this article’s first quotation. There, in Book 1.4 of the Discourses, Epictetus declares that progress in philosophy is shown not in the books one can read or write, or the Stoics one can quote, but from the results, the actual changes in a person’s life –  how one lives his daily life in terms of aversions and desires, choices and refusals actually in accord with nature. His example is from the realm of physical training and it is still so on target today. Epictetus wants to see the athlete’s “shoulders,” not his training equipment. In our time, exercise contraptions and workout programs are legion, with new ones devised almost daily it seems, but if you want to show Epictetus how you are progressing with your training, show him your latest exercise device or written workout program at your own risk, because he might well tell you to go jump in a lake!

What Epictetus would want you to do is roll up your sleeve and show the results of your training. The proof of your progress in physical training is indeed in the pudding of your bodily development, not only of course, in how your muscles look, but in what they can do, in terms of making you physically stronger, more enduring, and better at the athletic activity or physical labors of any sort that you choose to pursue. So then, one very wise principle of physical training we can glean from Epictetus is that to train our bodies rationally we must keep an eye toward the results we obtain (or the lack thereof) from whatever equipment or program we employ, so that changes may be made if progress is not shown.

Not only does Epictetus give us this sound advice to focus on visible, measurable results of bodily training, he starts us on the road toward the right kinds of training we ought to pursue. For example:

The athletes first decide what kind of athletes they want to be, and then they act accordingly. If a man wants to be a long-distance runner, he adopts a suitable diet, walking, rubbing, and exercise; if he wants to be a sprinter, all these details are different; if he wants to contend in the pentathlon, they are still more different. [5]

Now, bearing in mind that most readers of this article are probably not long-distance runners, let alone sprinters, or pentathletes, I will note again that it is of practical importance to all of us to keep our bodies strong and enduring, and will note for the first time, that the main focus of this article will be particularly upon the “strong” part, how to properly train our bodies for physical strength, without ignoring or impairing our capacities for endurance. This leads us to another great Stoic with some serious bodily impairments, but surprisingly sound advice on how to make our bodies strong.


Tremendous Training Tips from a Thin-Legged, Asthmatic, Short-Statured Stoic

Lucius Annaeus Seneca once wrote that he didn’t care that someone had joked about him being bald, with poor eyesight, skinny legs, and short, because “what insult is there in telling me what everybody sees?” [6] Apparently Seneca was quite content not to worry about things he could not control regarding his own body –  and what others might have to say about it! Still, Seneca has also provided us several golden nuggets of wisdom on the proper care of the body. His youth was marked by bouts of poor health, especially from asthma, it seems. He experienced such severe attacks of loss of breath that he described them as “preparations for death.” He even admitted to thoughts of suicide at times, which he would not pursue out of concern for his father.

In response to inborn physical frailties, as U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt would become famous for eighteen centuries later, Seneca undertook a regimen of rigorous physical training to compensate for his weakness and develop bodily strength and endurance, including such activities as swimming in frigid waters. Our primary interest here though is in the second quotation we used to start this article.

Seneca advised that the philosopher should not waste a lot of time on physical training, returning quickly from brief, efficient training, to the things of the mind. He notes that it is the rational capacities of mind that define what is finest in man, and regardless of how muscular and powerful a man might become, he’ll never be a match for a first-class bull! Fortunately for man though, precisely because of those reasoning abilities he can craft rational and efficient training programs to maximum strength and fitness attainable by human beings. So what about those short, simple, time-saving exercises Seneca recommended? He mentions “running, brandishing weights, and jumping,” which suggests to me that we jump ahead 1900 years from Seneca’s time to the modern exercise world of HIT and HIIT.


How the Stoics Hinted at HIT (and HIIT) 2,000 Years Ago

It was in the 1960s, almost exactly 1,900 years after Seneca’s death that an eccentric self-taught genius, inventor, and big-game hunter named Arthur Jones developed the Nautilus line of exercise equipment and became the foremost exponent of the idea of High Intensity Training (HIT for short), whether or not one used his machines to build strength. HIT principles are founded upon what Epictetus astutely observed: that different athletic events and goals require very different kinds of training. Indeed, as Epictetus contrasted the distance runner with the sprinter, Jones did just the same for those involved in strength-related sports, at that time primarily weight lifting, powerlifting, body-building, and to some extent, American football. [7]

Jones asked those seeking strength to look at the legs of a long-distance runner and those of a top-notch sprinter. The distance runner performs for long periods of time at a moderate level of intensity of effort, and the greatest marathoners, for example, are extremely light and lean, with rather small leg muscles. The legs of an experienced sprinter tell a very different story, a story that was dramatically illustrated during the last Olympics when coverage of the 100-meter dash immediately preceded that of the 5,000 meter race (about three miles). The sprinters bristled with muscles and looked like lithe and lean bodybuilders in both their lower and upper bodies, while the milers had that extremely lean, almost emaciated look. This is not to disparage distance runners in the least, for they have physical goals of their own, but to provide a powerful lesson for those who seek to build healthy and usable bodily strength and size.

Jones argued that the crucial mistake made by people who train for strength is to train like the long-distance endurance athlete, rather than the sprinter. In other words, it is the measured use of very hard and brief (e.g. “high intensity”) bursts of effort that stimulate muscle growth, not prolonged bouts and repetitions of only moderately difficult exertion.

To sum up a huge body of knowledge and give a few practical tips to readers, this high intensity (HIT) manner of training calls for:

  • High intensity, that is, using a weight suited to oneself so that one “fails” or cannot complete any additional repetitions at the end of a set of the desired number of repetitions.
  • Progressive resistance, so that when one succeeds with a targeted number of repetitions with a certain weight, the weight is increased slightly in the next workout, until the goal is achieved with the new weight. In this way, intensity always remains high. [8]
  • Limited duration of workouts, doing no more than one intense set per exercise after warm-up, because that one set to failure will trigger a growth response, and additional sets will hamper the body’s ability to recover. Jones used to say “You can work hard or work long, but not both.”
  • Limited frequency of workouts, training a particular exercise as infrequently as once per week.
  • Proper rest to allow for growth. Strength training breaks down muscle tissue and alarms the body to produce more muscle in adaption to that stress, and it can take several days before the damage is repaired and additional muscle tissue has been gained in the process called Indeed, as a person grows stronger, he may require more rest between workouts because of the greater demands each workout will make on recuperative capacities.
  • Proper form in the execution of strength-training exercises, because quick, jerky movements, for example, can call in the forces of momentum, while a purposely slower movement, in protocols varying from 2 seconds lifting and 4 seconds lowering the weight to even 10 seconds or more in each direction, ensure that only muscle action moves the weight.
  • Focus upon a limited number of compound exercises in which involve the rotation of more than one joint and which activate large masses of muscles, for example, squats, leg presses, dead lifts, bench pressing, overhead pressing, chinning, and rowing motions, because of the way such exercises stimulate the production of growth hormone and testosterone that lead to overall body development with a minimum of time investment.

A workout such a this could consist in as little as three exercises, what I call “a push, a leg, and a pull,” to involve almost all the major muscles of the body, with a few other “isolation exercises” involving rotation around only one joint like curls, leg extensions, etcetera, for those who would care to do them. Let me flesh out an example:

A Suggested Simple, Sample, “Stoic” Strength-Training Workout


Exercise Sets/Repetitions per Set
“A Push” (Choose one of the following: barbell, dumbbell, or machine bench press, incline press, or overhead press; or pushups, parallel bar dips, or handstand pushups.) 1 set to failure or stopping at the last complete repetition when failure seems likely on the last one. For machines or weights this would likely be in the 5 – 12 repetition range, but could require higher repetitions for freehand exercises like pushups.
“A Pull” (Choose one of the following: barbell deadlift, barbell, dumbbell, or machine row, machine pulldown or chin-ups.) 1 set to failure or stopping at the last complete repetition when failure seems likely on the last one. For machines or weights this would likely be in the 5 – 12 repetition range, but could require higher repetitions for freehand chin-ups for very strong individuals, (though chins can be intensified by moving more slowly up and down removing all momentum, and in fact, this method can be used to intensify all bodyweight only movements.)
“A Leg” (Chose one of the following: Barbell Squats or Front Squats, Leg Press, Bodyweight deep knee bends.) 1 set to failure or stopping at the last complete repetition when failure seems likely on the last one. For machines or weights this would likely be in the 5 – 12 repetition range, but would require higher repetitions for deep knee bends without addition weight.
Optional Extras: (If so inclined, add 1 – 5 additional exercises targeting muscles of interest such as curls for biceps, triceps, abdominal, neck, or calf exercises.) Same set and repetition scheme as above, though many people prefer higher repetitions of up to 20 or more for exercises with short ranges of motion, such as those for abdominals and calves.

All exercises are to be performed in a slow, controlled manner with proper form and natural breathing, striving to increase if possible by one repetition or a few pounds more on each exercise in each subsequent workout. This workout can be performed as infrequently as one time per week, in as little as 20 minutes. And how will you know if it is successful? Well, look at your shoulders! That is, see if you are progressing in the amount of weight you can use, the number of repetitions you can perform, the shape and size of your shoulders (and other muscles) and whether or not you feel fitter, more energetic, and better able to face whatever physical tasks are a part of your daily life.


From HIT to HIIT

A few decades after Jones’s work in strength training, we saw a similar development in the realm of intense endurance training that I’m sure would leave Seneca smiling as well. Japanese researcher Dr. Izumi Tabata found that very brief, infrequent episodes of traditional endurance-type, cardiovascular, or aerobic training also produce superior results to easier, but longer, steady-state training.   The original protocol called for 5 minutes of warm-up on a piece of equipment like an exercise bicycle, 8 intervals of only 20 seconds off all-out maximum pedaling, followed by 10 seconds of rest after each interval, and 2 minutes of cool-down. If I’ve done my math right, that’s an 11-minute workout, including both warm-up and cooldown, with four minutes of actual interval training, and 1/3 of that spent in rest! Dr. Tabata found VO2max [9] improvements in fit college PE majors who did this protocol 5 days per week exceeded those of students who did traditional 5 traditional steady-state sessions per week lasting 60 minutes each.

I will note as well that since that first reported study in 1996, many others have had success with other High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) protocols of varying interval and rest durations and frequency of workouts. The key finding being, as Seneca notes, that there are indeed, “short and simple exercises that tire the body quickly” and let us get back to the things of the mind!

And to be fair, for Seneca even the philosopher could certainly indulge in more leisurely physical and long-lasting physical pursuits at times, noting, for example, that “we should talk walks outside so that the mind can be strengthened and refreshed by being outdoors as we breathe the fresh air.” In Letter 15, He tells Lucilius he does not intend for him to live bent over his books and his writing implements, but to intersperse reading and riding with bouts of mild exercise like walking or riding, in addition to the higher-intensity exercises he mentioned above.


The Virtues of Fitness for Everyone

Of the Roman Stoics of the 1st century AD, it appears from the extant remnants of Musonius Rufus’s lectures or post-lecture Q & A’s appearing in subsequent sources that he may have been the Stoic who placed the most emphasis on what have become known as the cardinal virtues.[10] While Musonius preached virtue in general, as opposed to vice, he also championed sophrosune (temperance or self-control), andreia, (fortitude or courage), phronesis (prudence or practical wisdom), and diakaiosune (justice).

Medieval philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, borrowing from Aristotle, and in generally in accord with the Stoics, has noted that “virtue, inasmuch as it is a suitable disposition of the soul, is like health and beauty, which are suitable dispositions of the body.” [11] And further, “if a man uses exercise, food, and drink in moderation, he will become physically strong and his health will be improved and preserved. It is the same with the virtues of the soul – for instance, fortitude, temperance, and the other virtues.” [12]

So how might the cardinal virtues relate to training the body?

  • Fortitude provides the capacity to endure hard things for worthwhile goals, making it a most fitting virtue to assist those who would endure the physical pain and discomfort involved in performing both high intensity strength training and demanding endurance training. And indeed, as Musonius has noted, when we train our bodies to endure hardships, we also train the soul.
  • Temperance, applies most directly to the self-control involved in following the proper kind of diet that will sustain our training efforts, preserve our health, and preserve us from the kind of gluttony that distracts and weakens the soul.
  • Justice involves giving each person his or her rightful due, and in the realm of fitness, this might involve showing our concern by providing advice and examples of healthy living for all those around us, perhaps with special attention to the unique fitness goals and training needs of members of various groups of people, like the young, women, and the elderly.
  • Prudence is the virtue that gets the job done, finding the right means to obtain the worthwhile ends of bodily strength and fitness, in a safe and efficient manner that leaves us with plenty of time and energy to focus on the things of the soul that matter the most.

So then, would the Stoics have us all become Milos, philosophers bristling with as much brawn as brain? We have seen that Seneca would answer no, that strength and fitness are not the most important goals for human beings, though they are still worthy or some time and effort. Further, if our age, genetic constitution, or some physical injury or defect prevents us from attaining the heights of physical perfection should we not still train to improve our bodies as best we can, if we are physically able? As for Epictetus’s answer, I’ll let him respond to both of these last two questions in his own words:

Epictetus will not be better than Socrates; but if only I am not worse, that suffices me. For I shall not be a Milo, either, and yet I do not neglect my body; nor a Croesus, and yet I do not neglect my property; nor, in a word, is there any other field in which we give up the appropriate discipline merely from despair of attaining the highest. [13]


Please note the caveat that any suggestions for exercise in this article are intended for healthy men and women. Even people without known health problems are advised to consult with their physician before starting a new exercise program.


[1] Epictetus, Discourses, Books I-II, trans. W. A. Oldfather (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 31. (First published 1925).

[2] Seneca, Epistles 1-65, trans. R. Gummere (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 97-98. (First published 1917).

[3] Oldfather, 347.

[4] Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings, trans. Cynthia King (, 2011), 63, Lecture 6.

[5] Oldfather, Epictetus Discourses, Books III-IV, 169. (Book 3, chapter 23).

[6] Cited in Richard Mott Gummere, Seneca the Philosopher and His Modern Message (Bibliobazaar, 2008), 54. (Originally published in 1922.)

[7] While strength training was pooh-poohed by most coaches and trainers in those days and even in the 1970s when I began training, due to the myth of becoming “muscle-bound,” Jones argued most vociferously that muscles are the body’s engines and that if all other factors are equal, “the stronger athletes will always win.” Today we see everyone from baseball players to golfers lifting weights to acquire the kind of strength they need to complement their skills and maximize their performance.

[8] The ancient Greek Olympic wrestler Milo of Croton (6th C BC) is credited in legend as the Father of Progressive Resistance Strength Training. The story went that when Milo was a young boy he lifted a young calf every day, and as they calf gradually grew into a bull, so too did Milo grow into a bull of a man! Other legends tie him to philosophy as the husband of Pythagorus’ daughter, and Milo is mentioned in the writings of Aristotle, Cicero, and even Epictetus, as we’ll see later in this article. A man of many legends, one holds that near at the end of his life Milo tested his remaining strength by prying open the halves of a split tree trunk. When his strength gave out his hands were trapped and he was eaten by wolves!

[9] A measure of maximum oxygen update measured in milliliters by kilogram of bodyweight per minute.

[10] From the Latin cardine for “hinge” since the other virtues hang form and swing form them, so to speak.

[11] Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 55, art. 2.

[12] C. I. Litzinger, OP. trans. St. Thomas Aquinas Commentary on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (Notre Dame, Indiana: Dumb Ox Books, 1993), p. 89. (Commenting on Aristotle’s Book 2, chapter 2).

[13] Oldfather, 25. (Discourse 1.2).

Kevin Vost, Psy.D., a former competitive powerlifter and Highland Games heavy events competitor, is the author of over a dozen books including The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living (Angelico Press, 2016) and Fit for Eternal Life: A Christian Approach to Working Out, Eating Right, and Building the Virtues of Fitness in Your Soul (Sophia Institute Press, 2007).