Practising stoicism can offer you many positive things. You’ll learn how to stay focused and committed, even in difficult times. You’ll establish habits of lifelong learning and self-improvement. Most of all, you’ll build up a mental fortitude that’s unshakeable.
The practical application of stoic principles is the most important thing. You can read tens or hundreds of books on the subject. But, just like any other form of knowledge, if it is not applied in the real world, then it won’t truly benefit you. You need to take action to achieve any kind of results.
Here we will look at 3 practical stoic exercises you can use to build a strong mind.
Method One: Zoom Out
“You can rid yourself of many useless things among those that disturb you, for they lie entirely in your imagination; and you will then gain for yourself ample space by comprehending the whole universe in your mind, and by contemplating the eternity of time, and observing the rapid change of every part of everything, how short is the time from birth to dissolution, and the illimitable time before birth as well as the equally boundless time after dissolution”
— Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius advises us to take a holistic view of our world. Envision yourself as a part of everything, starting out small and then continuously zooming out.
For instance, the first part can be just looking at your own thoughts from a third-person point of view. You should begin to notice certain things about them, such as the thoughts being sad or happy, and your general state of mind. Next, you can zoom out to you and your family, how you interact together and how that affects those around you. A few more levels up and you’re looking at things on the global level, how the actions of world leaders affect other nations and how our actions as humans affect all other living creatures on earth.
The purpose of this exercise is to get a perspective of scale. By zooming far out, we’re able to see how insignificant our problems really are. You feeling sad or angry one day might seem terrible, but it doesn’t really affect anyone beyond you. The world is so vast that our small, petty problems look minuscule.
The purpose of this exercise is not to dismiss your problems, but rather to put them into a more accurate perspective. It’s not worth getting worked up over small things. They have little effect on your life in the long run. You’ll likely even forget them after a period of time.
How many of the problems that you had as a kid do you still remember? Probably very few if any. In hindsight, they are always small. It will be the same with your current and future problems too. There is comfort there, in knowing that they will all go away in due time.
Method Two: Negative Visualisation
“Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation, nor do all things turn out for him as he wished but as he reckoned — and above all he reckoned that something could block his plans.”
The exercise of negative visualisation works by imagining what could go wrong, mentally accepting it, and then moving forward with your new mindset. For example, some things you might imagine that could go wrong could be:
- Losing your job
- Getting dumped by your girlfriend or boyfriend
- Losing money in the stock market
- A member of your family dies
This exercise isn’t meant to be sad or morbid. It’s meant to show you how lucky you truly are, while preparing you mentally for the worst that could happen.
When you look at all the things that could go wrong, you become more grateful for what you have now. You learn to smile at all that goes on in your life, simply because you have it now. You’ll live your life to the fullest knowing that every moment is one to cherish and enjoy.
On the flip side, you also prepare for any future hardships. In reality, you could lose your job tomorrow, or get dumped, or experience many other horrible things. This is life and it’s harsh. But with this exercise, you’re already mentally preparing yourself. You’re saying “this might happen one day and it would suck, but I’m going to be OK, and thrive.”
Method Three: Voluntary Discomfort
“But neither a bull nor a noble-spirited man comes to be what he is all at once; he must undertake hard winter training, and prepare himself, and not propel himself rashly into what is not appropriate to him”
Epictetus is describing the importance of preparation in all that we do. In that preparation, he’s suggesting that we purposefully endure hardships. It’s called voluntary discomfort.
Voluntary discomfort is about deliberately putting yourself in uncomfortable situations. It’s not that the stoics liked to beat themselves up or make their lives hard. In fact, this exercise will make your life a lot easier.
Here’s a few discomforts to practice:
- Taking cold showers
- Doing 5 AM runs
- Fasting for 16 hours
- Sleeping on the floor
Notice how all of these discomforts are not that horrible. It’s not like they’ll make you sick or set you back. They’re just meant to train you.
This exercise will change your relationship with comfort — you’re getting comfortable with discomfort. So when you do inevitably face real discomforts and challenges, you’ll find them a lot more bearable since you have experience in such conditions. You’ve gotten used to facing challenges and overcoming them.
This is what Navy Seals go through for training. They’re pushed to the very limit so that when they’re out there in battle, the situation doesn’t look so crazy. It actually becomes quite bearable.
Things will get tough at times and will be uncomfortable. But if you’re trained for that, trained to push through discomforts, then you’ll have no problem thriving in that environment.
Stoicism is a mindset and approach to life that can be applied by anyone. It’s a practical way to build mental fortitude and handle everything that life can ever throw at you. You can build a strong mind with these 3 practical stoic exercises:
- Zoom Out: take a holistic view of the world and your life. In the grand scheme of things, you’ll find that many of the small, everyday problems that trouble you aren’t so bad after all.
- Negative Visualisation: Visualise all of the things that could go wrong — today, tomorrow, and in the future. Doing so will mentally prepare you for whatever could go wrong, so if anything does happen, you can handle it and thrive.
- Voluntary Discomfort: Voluntary discomfort is the act of purposefully introducing small challenges in your life. By doing so you’re training yourself, mind and body, to endure tougher things. That way, you gain experience and skill in pushing through challenges and succeeding in all conditions
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
The Discourses by Epictetus