Stoicism is a practical philosophy. That means that the theory is not to be considered for its own sake, but only insofar as it aids practice. Then again, practice without theoretical guidance not a philosophy would make! Which is why at the latest Stoicon, in Athens, one of us (Massimo) ran a workshop based on some exercises we developed together and published in our A Handbook for New Stoics (The Experiment, published in the UK as Live Like a Stoic, Penguin). Three of these exercises, one from each of Epictetus famous three disciplines, are detailed below. If you wish, you can download exercise-specific sheets from the publisher’s web site, to help you in your practice.
Each exercise has the same basic structure: it begins with a hypothetical vignette illustrating a potential real life situation. We then look at a pertinent quote from one of the ancient Stoics, which inspires the exercise. The theoretical context of the quote is explained, and then the actual exercise — meant to be carried out for at least a week — is presented. We hope this will be useful for your daily practices!
Discipline of Desire & Aversion: Discover what’s really in your control, and what’s not
It’s easy to think that we have control over our lives when things are going the way we want. But what happens when we experience uncertainty? Consider Alice, who faces this question at her job. Her quarterly performance review is coming up, and though she’s been doing well, a familiar anxiety floods her body as negative what-if scenarios cross her mind. Could learning more about what’s really in her control help Alice? What effect would that have on her psyche?
Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1
Epictetus’s words may be more familiar to you in the form of the famous Serenity Prayer adopted by a number of twelve-step programs:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
The prayer was written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1934, but it reflects wisdom that is common to Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist traditions, and of course to Stoicism. Indeed, the underlying concept is central to Stoic practice and is often referred to as the “dichotomy of control.” Epictetus begins the Enchiridion — his manual on Stoicism — with it, and it is one of the most cited Stoic sayings, having countless applications in daily life.
Let us first understand exactly what Epictetus means by his words. He is dividing the world into two big chunks: the set of things under our (complete) control and the set of things not (completely) under our control.
The basic idea is that it is imperative to use our mental energy to focus on what is under our complete control, while regarding everything else as indifferent. For those things that are not under our complete control, it isn’t that we stop caring about them, but rather that we come to a deep understanding that we cannot guarantee that these indifferent things will turn out the way we wish them to. The way we come to this understanding is through constant practice. This practice is the path toward ataraxia, the Greek word meaning serenity. We become serene by training ourselves to only want what is completely in our control — so in a very real sense, we’ll be serene because we always get what we want! This is the promise of the Discipline of Desire.
Taking a closer look at Epictetus’s categories, what does he say is in our control, and what is not? Under our control, according to him, are “thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing.” We need to be careful here, because these English words don’t necessarily carry the same connotations as their original Greek counterparts. Moreover, modern Stoics (such as ourselves!) may want to take into account advances in the cognitive sciences that were not available to Epictetus, and so we may arrive at a somewhat modified list of what truly is under our control. To understand what Epictetus is getting at, let’s break down the process further, starting with “thoughts” since it is listed first (for good reason).
“Thought” here is the English translation of hypolepsis, literally “grasping under” or “taking up.” More figuratively, this means “judgment” or “opinion” (similar to scooping up an idea or viewpoint — you’re grabbing under it to grasp or cradle it). These can be types of thoughts, and are not necessarily fully conscious ones. Epictetus may have listed “thought” first as it’s the first step in how we upset ourselves: we judge things to be inherently good or bad. Sometimes these judgments are explicit (e.g., thinking to yourself That guy’s a moron!). But they don’t have to be. For example, if you get angry at a person, you are implicitly judging the person’s actions as bad, even if the words “that person is doing a bad thing” never cross your mind.
Next comes “impulse” (horme in Greek). This is an impulse to act, but not necessarily in a base or automatic way (what we may think of as impulsive). Pulling your hand away from a hot stove and screaming is not an impulse in the way Epictetus uses the term. Instead, impulses come about from the first step of “thought” or “judgment.” If you judge something to be good, you’ll want it. If you judge it to be bad, you’ll want to avoid it. Impulses are then urges to act based on value judgments.
From thought (the judgment) and impulse (the desire to act) comes the “will to get and to avoid.” We decide if it is worth spending the energy, time, and money. For example, we consider these expenses when buying a brand-new car, reflecting the value judgment that possessing it is a good thing. Then we go about and make complex plans to acquire the new car. So our complex, conscious actions come about from value judgments and impulses to act.
Epictetus claims that all three of these things (thoughts, impulses, and the will to avoid and to get) are ultimately under our control. It is no accident that these three areas of complete control correspond to Epictetus’s three disciplines: you work with thoughts in the Discipline of Assent, impulses in the Discipline of Action, and the will to avoid and to get in the Discipline of Desire. In this way, Stoic practice trains you to master all areas of what in theory you can control. That’s Stoic training in a nutshell.
Just because these things are in your control doesn’t mean that they aren’t sometimes influenced by external factors (such as other people’s opinions) or by internal ones (such as your physical sensations or more automatic urges, like a craving for a snack). But, ultimately, they are under your control because you can make a conscious decision to ignore your cravings or to override the opinions of others when it comes to your own choices.
What about the sort of things that Epictetus says are not under our control? They include “the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.” This is a very large set that essentially comprises all things external to our conscious mind. Our body can get sick despite our best efforts at taking care of it; we may lose our property because of accident or theft; our reputation may be ruined due to circumstances we cannot influence; and we may lose our job through no fault of our own.
You may object that the sort of things we just mentioned are, however, under our partial control. They are not similar to, say, the weather, about which we can truly do nothing at all. Of course, Epictetus knew this! What he is saying here is akin to a “best bet argument”: if you bet your peace of mind on things not completely in your control, you’re willingly forfeiting part of your happiness to random chance.
This exercise will help you explore the dichotomy of control. Take time now to choose when you’ll do the exercise each day for the rest of the week. Try to place the exercise toward the end of the day. You can plan to do it at a specific time (e.g., at 9:00 pm) or after an activity you do every day (e.g., brushing your teeth at night).
Sit down at this time Monday through Saturday of this week and choose something that happened that day to write about. It can be anything from seeing a friend for lunch to a meeting at work. We suggest that you choose an event that wasn’t too emotionally upsetting, which could make the exercise more difficult, and you’re just starting out! List what aspects of the event were completely in your control and which weren’t. It may help to add some quick reasons why the thing was or wasn’t in your complete control.
If you have trouble with the exercise, you can use Epictetus’s suggestions of separating out value judgments, impulses, and what you wished to avoid or obtain, as things under your complete control. You can also try separating aspects of the event by “internal” factors (thoughts, desires, wishes) and “external” factors (results), since we can mostly control what goes on inside our heads, and much of what we can’t control happens in the outside world. Don’t feel shackled to these categories. Part of the goal of this exercise is to see whether Epictetus’s suggestions hold true to your experience. Perhaps you’ll find he was correct, and perhaps not.
By doing this exercise daily, looking at specific events in your life, you’ll start to internalize what is really under your complete control and what isn’t. This exercise will also give you a clearer picture of what exactly you should focus your desires and aversions on to achieve peace of mind.
On the seventh day of
the week, after you’ve practiced exploring the dichotomy of control, set a
timer for 5 to 10 minutes and write your impressions down. Was this exercise
useful to you? How? Did you discover anything about yourself or your world? Did
you find it useless? Is there any way you could tweak your approach to make it
easier or more useful in the future?
Discipline of Action: Cut Out Busyness
Many of us live in a culture where being busy is a badge of pride. Having full days means you get things done. This signals that you’re a productive member of society and value hard work. However, being busy has its downsides. Consider Liam, who lives a productive professional and family life. His days are always packed. He often has to turn down spending quality time with friends, and also loses out on time for himself. While the Stoics valued making the most of your time, can taking things on be taken too far?
“You will hear many of those who are burdened by great prosperity cry out at times in the midst of their throngs of clients, or their pleadings in court, or their other glorious miseries: ‘I have no chance to live.’ Of course you have no chance! All those who summon you to themselves, turn you away from your own self. . . . Check off, I say, and review the days of your life; you will see that very few, and those [that are] the refuse . . . have been left for you. . . . Everyone hurries his life on and suffers from a yearning for the future and a weariness of the present. But he who bestows all of his time on his own needs, who plans out every day as if it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the morrow.” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life, 7)
Time is the only thing that, once loaned, can never be paid back, and therefore the one resource we really need to be careful to apportion wisely. Seneca was writing two millennia ago, but he may as well have been speaking in the twenty-first century: our lives are becoming ever busier, but not necessarily more meaningful. The first question a Stoic would ask of someone who is too busy is whether they have their priorities straight. Are we paying sufficient attention to what is most important in our lives, or are we being distracted by inconsequential or downright destructive pursuits? The second issue is one of quality versus quantity, as we moderns would put it. While the phrase “quality time” is more than a bit overused, it gets to the idea that we cram too much into our days, which is not a good recipe for life, or even to get those things done. There is empirical evidence that beyond a certain threshold, more hours spent on a task can actually be deleterious. The reason is simple: human beings need rest and a variety of stimuli in order to keep their minds focused.
There are two other aspects of busyness that Seneca focuses on and that are worth mentioning. The first is that there are few days left, and those are the “refuse,” that is, the lowest quality ones. Seneca is referring to people who have lived long enough that they begin to sense the final stretch. Looking back at their lives, they realize that their time has not been used well. We certainly don’t want to get to that stage only to find that we’re out of time, do we?
Second, we should plan each one of our days as if it were our last. This is another example of Stoic motivation: awareness of death gives value to life. Imagine for a moment if today really were your last day. We bet you would spend it very differently, focusing on things that are important to you, not on trivialities. Of course, you don’t know which day will be your last, or how much time you may have ahead of you, so you should feel the same sense of urgency every day.
Don’t fret about the future, and don’t regret the past. The future hasn’t come yet, and the past is outside of your control. It is the present that demands your attention — a demand that requires you to make important decisions about how you are going to spend this day, and every day, in the moment.
The Discipline of Action can be as much about culling useless actions as it is about cultivating virtuous ones. With this exercise, we encourage you to “check off your days” in order to see if there are any actions that should be cut.
Take some time each night to review how you spent your day, and whether your activities satisfied two factors: they served “your own needs,” that is, helped build character, and they were truly important.
At the end of each day, write up to three activities you did and ask yourself if doing them helped preserve or build your character and whether they were important. Would you still do them, or something like them, if you knew your life were to end soon? The things you list can be short and trivial (e.g., browsing social media, having a beer, or texting a family member) or long and significant (e.g., working on a major project or running a marathon). A mix of both types of activities will be useful, since those that only take a few minutes can add up to huge chunks of time over a lifetime!
The Discipline of Action is ultimately about one goal: to act intentionally to become a better person. This exercise allows you to see how many of your current actions help you in this pursuit. With this in mind, you can make more informed, deliberate decisions about how to act, in order to improve as a person.
After spending a week
cataloguing your actions throughout the day, take some time to reflect on them.
Review your notes from the week, then write about any trends you’ve noticed. Did you discover any recurring activities that aren’t fulfilling, and don’t improve your
character, or help you carry out your responsibilities? Did you discover some
actions that you’d like to keep, or do
Discipline of Assent: Analyze Anger
We are told that we should pause before acting when we are angry. But while pausing is a useful first step to cope with anger, it’s only the first step. What should one do after pausing? Zhang Wei chose a cognitive approach. When he found himself getting angry at his son for misbehaving, he paused and then used this exercise to assess the situation more logically.
The greatest remedy for anger is delay; beg anger to grant you this at the first, not in order that it may pardon the offense, but that it may form a right judgment about it. If it delays, it will come to an end. Do not attempt to quell it all at once, for its first impulses are fierce; by plucking away its parts we shall remove the whole. . . . Some offenses we ourselves witness: in these cases let us examine the disposition and purpose of the offender. Perhaps he is a child; let us pardon his youth, he knows not whether he is doing wrong. Or he is a father; he has either rendered such great services, as to have won the right even to wrong us, or perhaps this very act which offends us is his chief merit. . . . Suppose that it is a disease or a misfortune; it will take less effect upon you if you bear it quietly. . . . Is it a good man who has wronged you? Do not believe it. Is it a bad one? Do not be surprised at this; he will pay to someone else the penalty which he owes to you — indeed, by his sin he has already punished himself.Seneca, On Anger, 2.29–30
Seneca picks up the theme of pausing while angry, arguing that delay is, in fact, our chief defense against anger. Do not try to dominate anger, as it escalates quickly and easily overcomes reason in the heat of the moment. Counterintuitively, avoidance, not confrontation, is the winning strategy. Seneca then goes further by advising us to pick apart the causes of our anger; to examine them calmly and carefully, as if on an operating table (but not while you are angry). You need to consider who or what is the cause of your anger. It makes no sense to be angry at a child, for example, since they are incapable of using reason correctly. The better response is to patiently teach them how to behave more reasonably. Perhaps it’s an adult who is causing offense, maybe your own father. In that case be tolerant of his misstep, because he has done so much for you in the past. Or maybe he is right in what he is saying and you should be listening and learning, rather than going off in a huff.
What if you are angry at an inanimate object, or a natural phenomenon, such as a disease? What sense is there in that? Is getting upset and yelling at your computer going to make it apologize to you and stop glitching? We bet that your reaction is more likely to make things worse, not to mention make you look foolish. Diseases and other calamities are part of life, and, again, attacking them isn’t going to help you; you’ll simply feel worse than you might otherwise. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to fix your computer or cure the disease. On the contrary, reacting calmly and reasonably is far more likely to help you accomplish those goals than outbursts of rage.
Seneca adds two important concepts for our consideration: not only should you not be surprised that some people do unethical things, but take comfort that they will likely get what’s due to them. And in acting unethically, they are already hurting themselves. The first superficially sounds similar to the Stoic version of karma: Logos keeps track of people’s deeds, and in the long run balances out the ledger. Is Seneca somehow saying that we should put faith in karma? We don’t think so.
More likely, Seneca is deploying the Stoic notion that human beings are inclined to virtue by nature, or, as we moderns would put it, we evolved a tendency toward prosocial behavior. This means that most people will object, and sometimes react, to wrongdoing. So, the person who is hurting you today is likely (at least statistically) to get his due at some point in the future. This implies that virtuous behavior is a good bet for flourishing, which is an argument that some modern virtue ethicists, such as Rosalind Hurthouse, make as well.
The second claim, that the wrongdoer is actually hurting himself, derives from the Stoic notion that virtue is the only true good because it is the only thing that can only be used for good. It follows that vice is the only true evil, while everything else is a preferred or dispreferred indifferent. We also know from the dichotomy of control that our judgments of what is good and bad are entirely up to us. So the man that Seneca describes is doing wrong of his own volition, and, as a result is staining his soul or his character, depending on your perspective. This is the worst thing someone could do, according to Stoic philosophy. The joke is on the one who is doing wrong by you. There’s no reason to get upset.
With this exercise you will practice pausing when angry, but also take things one step further: recognize where your anger is pointed, and then counter the anger by analyzing it rationally. You can try this on paper for the first few days of a week, but we encourage you to do this on the fly if you’re able.
Seneca gives a few common objects of anger along with ways to rebut them. To warm up, identify objects of anger and possible rebuttals. Writing your analysis and rebuttals out on paper may help you get the hang of things, but with repeated practice you’ll be able to do this even better in your head.
Now that you’ve warmed up, here is the technique to practice whenever you feel the stirrings of anger:
- Pause, using whatever method works best for you.
- Name the object of your anger.
- Rehearse and meditate upon a rebuttal for the causes of your anger.
Feel free to revisit your rebuttals in your head over the course of a week. It may help to mentally rehearse some possible rebuttals to angry thoughts when you have the time and inclination.
This exercise tackles the root cause of anger: our thoughts. Remember, the Stoics believed that it’s our own thoughts that cause our anger, and our thoughts happen rapidly. With enough practice, the stirrings of our anger will turn less and less frequently into full-blown passion.
Excerpted from A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control © Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez, 2019. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold.
Greg Lopez is a practicing secular Buddhist and Stoic, founder and facilitator of the New York City Stoics meetup, co-host of Stoic Camp New York, Director of Membership for The Stoic Fellowship, and co-organizer of Stoicon 2016. He also runs a nonprofit that uses cognitive behavioral therapy, which is what led to his interest in Stoicism. His professional and academic background is in pharmacy and basic science. His other interests include psychology, statistics, philosophy, and swing dancing.
Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His books include How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (Basic Books) and the second edition of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (University of Chicago Press). He blogs at FigsInWinter.