Stoic Exercise: Mealtime Gratitude (4 Ways You Can Appreciate Eating and Your Life More)

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Do you feel grateful at mealtimes or do you begrudge them?

As you might have heard, humans need to consume a certain amount of nutritious matter (known as ‘food’) per day to stay alive and be healthy. Most of us break this process into several stages throughout the day, e.g. breakfast, lunch, dinner, and supper. Mealtimes are an excellent target for our gratitude because they are so repetitive and because they are so fundamental to our existence. Moreover, practising gratitude about one thing is practising gratitude, period – over time, the seed of gratitude will germinate and ramify into the rest of our lives.

It is common for a religion to have some practice of mealtime gratitude, appreciation, or mindfulness. However, it doesn’t need to be a religious practice. For example, you don’t need to thank a deity to express gratitude for your food.

I will provide background and motivation for this exercise as a Stoic and then describe the exercise itself.

Background and Motivation

What is this Gratitude?

By gratitude here, I mean:

  • Looking for the positives in the situation rather than dwelling on the negatives, including reframing negative judgments as neutral or positive judgments.
  • Bringing yourself back to the present moment and being aware of what you are doing rather than mentally wandering around somewhere else.
  • Recognising that everything in this world is impermanent, hence you won’t have what you have forever.
  • Feeling grateful.

Why Should I Be Grateful?

Well, you don’t have to be grateful, but practising gratitude is one of the most effective ways to enhance life. I say ‘practice’ because being grateful is a habit, and all habits are formed by practice.

Gratitude allows us to:

  • Enjoy what we have more.
  • Complain less. Complaining can ruin our lives, dragging down others with us.
  • Be satisfied more easily. If we don’t appreciate what we have, we are likely to seek greater and greater external sources of satisfaction, leading to insatiable desire. Insatiable desire is otherwise known as greed.
  • Be more aware of those who don’t have what we have.
  • Be more grounded in the real world. Being grateful requires thinking through what we are doing and how that came to be, as opposed to acting thoughtlessly.

Continue reading

Stoic Exercise: Negative Visualisation (How to Prepare for Adversity and Seize the Day)

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Life is unpredictable. Many difficult things will happen, that is an absolute given.
Much of the sting we feel upon encountering difficult events comes from the idea that ‘I did not expect this!’. The ancient Stoics accepted the inevitability of trying circumstances, but not the inevitability of reacting badly. They realised that we can summon our intelligence and imagination to prepare ourselves to face our fears.

As such, here is another Stoic spiritual, philosophical, moral, psychological, exercise, the premeditatio malorum. Premeditatio malorum is Latin for ‘premeditation of evils’. William Irvine in A Guide to the Good Life names it ‘negative visualisation’. Donald Robertson in The Philosophy of CBT calls it ‘philosophical premeditation’.

Whatever name you prefer, it means mentally preparing yourself for adversity by visualising difficult events, logically analysing them, and mentally rehearsing a healthy, constructive, response. If continually practised, we may 1) lessen our anxiety in the present about possible or inevitable future events, 2) have better composure if or when the event occurs, 3) be prepared to act decisively and make the most of the situation. In summary, the premeditatio malorum is training to reduce anxiety and enhance right action.

Also, by imagining losing what we have, e.g. safety, someone’s company or love, fun, we can use this exercise to re-align our priorities and savour the present rather than take our blessings for granted.

Outsmarting Fate

I said that life is unpredictable. This is true in that we cannot predict everything which will happen in our lives. We can’t even predict most of what will happen, our developed deterministic scientific understanding aside. But we can predict some things with varying degrees of certainty, and by exploiting this limited certainty about our future, we can, in a way, outsmart fate.

Of course, you can never outsmart fate. Fate will always get the better of you because you are a small creature in an incomprehensibly big world. But you can at least train yourself to be reconciled with fate. As Seneca translated Cleanthes, ‘fate leads the willing and drags along the reluctant.’ Continue reading

Stoic Exercise: Expanding Circles of Concern (How to Love Yourself and Others)

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We are all in this together. Though each of us experiences life as a single, individual, mind, we share this vast universe as our home. We depend on one another for survival, for enjoyment, for care, for learning. It is so easy to become wound up in our own desires and to get lost in ourselves, particularly when we are having some trouble or feel wronged by others.

Thus, it is important for us to regularly gain some perspective from outside our own bubble, to deliberately summon goodwill, to challenge ourselves to care about more beings than we might at present, to remind ourselves of what we have in common.

The Expanding Circles of Concern come down to us from fragments of the Stoic philosopher Hierocles in the 2nd century CE. However, Albert Einstein articulated the essential matter perfectly when they said:

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He [sic] experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

What is It?

The Expanding Circles of Concern are:

  1. A Stoic ethical framework
  2. A meditative exercise

It is used to expand our goodwill and thus expand the magnitude and range of our benevolent activity.

My main goal here is to present the Expanding Circles of Concern as a meditation which you can do regularly. Before I do that, I will provide some helpful background.

Drawing the Circles

The expanding circles of concern are very intuitive. Day-to-day, we have different amounts of care for and obligation to different people. For example, all of us care most for ourselves. We are primarily occupied with tending to our own needs. This is not necessarily because we are nasty and greedy, but because being inside our own skulls we are best positioned to pursue our own interests.

After that, we care most, perhaps, for our close family, romantic partner(s), and best friend(s). We can visualise this as a circle representing ourselves, and a layer outside representing our closest loved ones. Indeed, we often talk of an ‘inner circle’ in common speech. We can imagine further circular layers, for example, our work colleagues and classmates, our neighbours, the bus driver, a passerby, a stranger living in an adjacent province, a stranger living on the other side of the planet, and so forth.

Typically, we aren’t particularly concerned with the stranger walking past us on the path. We don’t wish them any harm, we might wish that they have a good day, but we don’t spend most of our time thinking about them or trying to help them. Whereas if, say, we have an infant, we are specially obligated to tend directly to their basic needs and we have a greater natural fondness for that child than a passerby.

The idea of circles of concern is an application of the Stoic psychological theory of oikeiosis, whereby we generalise our natural self-concern to more and more things external to us.

Our de facto circles of concern might look something like the following:

expanding circles of concern Continue reading

Stoic Exercise: The View From Above (On Being a Wondrous Speck in a Vast Cosmos)

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The View from Above is a Stoic exercise in perspective. We can get so tangled inside ourselves, and the more we worry the more we can fixate on ludicrously small issues. But even if we are worrying about something non-trivial, getting greater perspective will help us be more calm and clear-minded, to make better decisions and suffer less from anxiety. Taking a more impersonal view of our situation can make it seem simpler and focus us on what really matters, not so inundated by your own clinging emotional impulses.

One technique is to get spacial perspective, to see how tiny you and your problems are in the grander scale of our universe. There many ways to do this, one is described below in detail. The process is simple: 1) move higher and higher, 2) try to see yourself, 3) ask yourself how severe, important, or troubling, your problems are, or if they are they really problems at all. Continue reading

Stoic Exercise: Keep a Philosophical Journal

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You have seen that on the Will to Freedom I regularly write a series called A Stoic Journal. Here I will discuss why you might want to keep a similar journal and how you would do that.

Why Keep a Journal?

Keeping a journal takes time and effort so let’s establish why it is worthwhile.

Here are the four main reasons:

  1. Reflect on life and record lessons so you don’t forget your insights and repeat mistakes.
  2. Be able to express yourself completely honestly.
  3. Verbalise and make explicit your thoughts and feelings.
  4. Motivate and inspire yourself.

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Exercise: Eat a Chili Pepper

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Can I just tell you, you are probably reading the only blog to list discuss eating a chili pepper as a philosophical exercise. Yes this is a funny one. Who said a philosophical or spiritual exercise had to be deadly serious?

I began doing this recently and want to share with others. The method is simple:

Eat a hot chili pepper whole. Chew carefullyDo not drink until the heat has naturally faded away.

Why Do This?

Why on Earth would a person do this? One answer is that I like chili peppers a lot and I like doing zany, slightly stupid and perverse, things.

Another answer is that I think there are surprisingly good benefits to eating a chili. Continue reading

Zen Sitting Meditation

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I was practising Zen sitting meditation long before I consciously applied Stoic spiritual exercises. I think it is an immensely beneficial and important exercise which I am keen to integrate within Stoic practice.

We only have about 1% of what the Stoics wrote, so we can’t really know what exactly the ancient Stoics did. My impression is that the emphasis is on using rational thought to solve problems and improve life generally. This is an emphasis I like. However, sometimes the appropriate thing to do is to stop thinking, a third option rather than better thinking or worse thinking. Also, I think we can learn a lot about ourselves and the world by paying attention to our direct experience of it.

Ultimately, Zen cannot be said, it can only be experienced. This can sound like waffle but it isn’t. However, I will explain the basics. There are many kinds of Zen sitting meditation, and even more kinds of Buddhist sitting meditation. There is so much to say about Zen and Buddhism, and it can be tricky to explain, so this is a to-the-point, super-fast, introduction. I just want to get you interested and practising something. If you want to learn more, there are much more detailed resources available on the internet, as much as you can take. Continue reading

Bedtime Meditation #1 – Be at Peace and Sleep

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It is good to close the day deliberately, with some ceremony, regularity, and thoughtfulness. After all, each day is like a miniature life. This can help us feel more connected to the world, conscious, and understanding of ourselves. Most of all, it helps us to let go.

To be read immediately before attempting sleep.

The day is nearly done.

Today I deduced, felt, aspired, complained, smiled, was disappointed, focused, tried, feared, refined, overcame, appreciated beauty, guessed, got distracted, realised, repeated, stressed, discovered, soared, was confused, grew, died and was reborn thousands of times, and many other things it would take eternity to explain.

What hurt I have I will survive. What lessons I learned I will retain. What meaning I found is enough.

My vices are in the past now. Tomorrow, if fortune has it that I shall wake, is an opportunity to live even better.

But for now, I will sleep. Now, I will feel the Good welling inside me, I will be at peace, and I will go to sleep.


See more spiritual exercises here.

Stoic Exercise: Cold Showers (Will Make You Wake Up and Toughen Up)

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I take cold showers. I will explain why, and how that has anything to do with Stoic philosophy or qualifies as a spiritual exercise.

There are many reasons to take cold showers but I will not talk about skin health or energy and water bills. I use cold showers as a training exercise, to build my resistance to discomfort, to conquer my fear of pain, to have greater agency, to wake myself up and feel alive.

Taking a cold shower is simple as long as you have cold water. If you live in a very hot country, this might not be easy or possible to do:

Turn on the water. Turn the temperature knob down until the water is cold enough that you feel like cursing. Step into the water stream. Wash yourself as usual.

Is this not a bit grandiose? Or is this not just punishing yourself? Mea culpa, mea culpa, freeze me with water! Continue reading

Stoic Exercise: Sleeping on the Floor (To Be Down to Earth)

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I’ve taken to sleeping on the floor in the past week. My bed sheets were being washed and I didn’t want to sleep directly on the mattress and get sweat on it. Then when my sheets were ready, I slept on the floor anyway. I consider this to be a spiritual exercise.

Why do I sleep on the floor? The short answer is that I like it in an odd way.

The longer answer is that it is an exercise in being at peace with discomfort. I think the more you are able to tolerate discomfort, the freer you are. As I said in a post about cold showers, the point is not self-punishment. Freeing yourself from attachment to comforts is an act of love and growth. Continue reading