For more than 2,000 years, wise men and women have relied on an ancient philosophy known as Stoicism to guide them through their days.
It’s been a tool for the ordinary and the elite alike — from slaves to emperors — as they sought wisdom, strength, and the “good life.”
Here are 7 stoic passages and exercises, pulled from “The Daily Stoic,” with the idea of creating the perfect week — seven days of stoic thinking to help you live better, more resiliently, and more peacefully.
“On those mornings you struggle with getting up, keep this thought in mind — I am awakening to the work of a human being. Why then am I annoyed that I am going to do what I’m made for, the very things for which I was put into this world? Or was I made for this, to snuggle under the covers and keep warm? It’s so pleasurable. Were you then made for pleasure? In short, to be coddled or to exert yourself?” — Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations,” 5.1
Nobody likes Mondays. So it’s comforting to think that even 2,000 years ago, the emperor of Rome (who was reportedly an insomniac) was giving himself a pep talk in order to summon the willpower to throw off the blankets and get out of bed.
From the time we’re first sent off to school until the day we retire, we’re faced with that same struggle. It always seems nicer to shut our eyes and hit the snooze button a few times.
But we can’t — because we have a job to do. Not only do we have the calling we’re dedicated to, but we have the larger cause that the Stoics speak about: the greater good. We cannot be of service to ourselves, to other people, or to the world unless we get up and get working — the earlier the better. So c’mon. Get in the shower, have your coffee, and get going.
“When you first rise in the morning tell yourself: I will encounter busybodies, ingrates, egomaniacs, liars, the jealous, and cranks. They are all stricken with these afflictions because they don’t know the difference between good and evil. Because I have understood the beauty of good and the ugliness of evil, I know that these wrong-doers are still akin to me … and that none can do me harm, or implicate me in ugliness — nor can I be angry at my relatives or hate them. For we are made for cooperation.” — Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations,” 2.1
You can be certain as clockwork that at some point today you’re going to interact with someone who seems like a jerk (as we all do). The question is: Are you going to be ready for it?
This exercise calls to mind a joke from the 18th-century writer and witticist Nicolas Chamfort, who remarked that if you “swallow a toad every morning,” you’ll be fortified against any other disgusting thing that might happen that day.
But there is a second part to this, just as there is a second half of Marcus’ quote: “No one can implicate me in ugliness — nor can I be angry at my relative or hate him.” The point of this preparation is not to write off everyone in advance. It’s that, maybe, because you’ve prepared for it, you’ll be able to act with patience, forgiveness, and understanding.
“Let all your efforts be directed to something, let it keep that end in view. It’s not activity that disturbs people, but false conceptions of things that drive them mad.” — Seneca, “On Tranquility of Mind,” 12.5
Law 29 of “The 48 Laws of Power” is: Plan all the way to the end. Robert Greene writes, “By planning to the end, you will not be overwhelmed by circumstances, and you will know when to stop. Gently guide fortune and help determine the future by thinking far ahead.”
The second habit in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” is: Begin with an end in mind.
Having an end in mind is no guarantee that you’ll reach it — no Stoic would pretend otherwise — but not having an end in mind is a guarantee that you won’t. To the Stoics, oiêsis (false conceptions) are responsible not just for disturbances in the soul, but for chaotic and dysfunctional lives and operations.
When your efforts are not directed at a cause or a purpose, how will you know what to do day in and day out? How will you know what to say no to and what to say yes to? How will you know when you’ve had enough, when you’ve reached your goal, or when you’ve gotten off track if you’ve never defined what those things are?
You cannot. And so you are driven into failure — or worse, into madness — by the oblivion of directionlessness.
“How many have laid waste to your life when you weren’t aware of what you were losing, how much was wasted in pointless grief, foolish joy, greedy desire, and social amusements — how little of your own was left to you. You will realize you are dying before your time!” — Seneca, “On the Brevity of Life,” 3.3b
One of the hardest things to do in life is say “no.” To invitations, to requests, to obligations, to the stuff that everyone else is doing. Even harder is saying no to certain time-consuming emotions: anger, excitement, distraction, obsession, lust. None of these impulses feels like a big deal by itself, but run amok, they become commitments like anything else.
If you’re not careful, these are precisely the impositions that will overwhelm and consume your life. Do you ever wonder how you can get some of your time back or how you can feel less busy? Start today off by utilizing the power of “no” — as in “No, thank you,” and “No, I’m not going to get caught up in that,” and “No, I just can’t right now.”
It may hurt some feelings. It may turn people off. It may take hard work. But the more you say no to the things that don’t matter, the more you can say yes to the things that do. This will let you live and enjoy the life that you want.
“The task of a philosopher: We should bring our will into harmony with whatever happens, so that nothing happens against our will and nothing that we wish for fails to happen.” — Epictetus, “Discourses,” 2.14.7
A long to-do list seems intimidating and burdensome — all these things we have to do in the course of a day or a week. But a get-to-do list sounds like a privilege — all the things we’re excited about the opportunity to experience. This isn’t just semantic play. It is a central facet of the philosopher’s worldview.
Today, don’t try to impose your will on the world. Instead, see yourself as fortunate to receive and respond to the will of the world.
Stuck in traffic? A few wonderful minutes to get to sit there and relax. Your car broke down after idling for so long? Ah, what a nice nudge to take a long walk the rest of the way. A swerving car driven by a distracted, cell-phone-wielding idiot nearly hit you as you were walking and soaked you head to toe with muddy water? What a reminder about how precarious our existence is and how silly it is to get upset about something as trivial as being late or having trouble with your commute.
Kidding aside, it might not seem like there’s a big difference between seeing life as something you have to do versus seeing life as something you get to do, but there is. A huge, magnificent difference.
“We should take wandering outdoor walks, so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed by the open air and deep breathing.” — Seneca, “On Tranquility of Mind,” 17.8
In a notoriously loud city like Rome, it was impossible to get much peace and quiet. The noise of wagons, the shouting of vendors, and the hammering of blacksmiths all filled the streets with piercing auditory violence. So philosophers went on a lot of walks — to get where they needed to go, to clear their heads, and to get fresh air.
Throughout the ages, philosophers, writers, poets, and thinkers have found that walking offers the additional benefit of time and space for better work. As Nietzsche would later say: “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”
Today, make sure you take a walk. And in the future, when you get stressed or overwhelmed, take a walk. When you have a tough problem to solve or a decision to make, take a walk. When you want to be creative, take a walk. When you need to get some air, take a walk. When you have a phone call to make, take a walk. When you need some exercise, take a long walk. When you have a meeting or a friend over, take a walk together.
Nourish yourself and your mind and solve problems along the way.
“I will keep constant watch over myself and — most usefully — will put each day up for review. For this is what makes us evil — that none of us looks back upon our own lives. We reflect upon only that which we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future descend from the past.” — Seneca, “Moral Letters,” 83.2
In a letter to his older brother Novatus, Seneca describes a beneficial exercise he borrowed from another prominent philosopher. At the end of each day, he would ask himself variations of the following questions: What bad habit did I curb today? How am I better? Were my actions just? How can I improve?
At the beginning or end of each day — and in this case, at the end of the week — the Stoic sits down with his journal and reviews what he did, what he thought, and what could be improved.
It’s for this reason that Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” is a somewhat inscrutable book — it was for personal clarity, not public benefit. Writing down Stoic exercises was and is a form of practicing them, just as repeating a prayer or hymn might be.
Keep your own journal, whether it’s saved on a computer or on paper. Take time to consciously recall the events of the previous day.
Be unflinching in your assessments. Notice what contributed to your happiness and what detracted from it. Write down what you’d like to work on or quotes that you like. By making the effort to record such thoughts, you’re less likely to forget them. An added bonus: You’ll have a running tally to track your progress.
Sign up here for a FREE 7-Day Course on Stoicism.
This highly curated 7-Day Guide will expand your knowledge and provide actionable tools and ideas to make you stronger, more resilient and happier.
Originally published at journal.thriveglobal.com