What do successful people have in common? They’re hardworking, sure. They’re motivated. They have a vision. Interestingly, an overwhelming number of them also have a morning routine. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Square and the founder of Twitter, meditates every morning and then jogs six miles. Jeff Bezos refuses to accept early morning meetings, preferring instead to have a healthy breakfast with his family. Our morning routines are what guide us through the rest of the day, and the Stoics knew this too.
In Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, he writes, “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” We’re allotted an unknown amount of time, and with our mortality being ever-present, optimizing our days becomes our paramount responsibility. So many of us rush to get ready in the morning, frantically pulling ourselves together just to be stressed the rest of the day. The Stoics saw mornings differently; As opportunities for training and improvement. We’ve spoken quite a bit about the benefits of journaling and reading. But how can we tactically implement Stoicism each and every morning? Below are four Stoic principles designed to help us do just that.
GET OUT OF BED AND GET GOING
“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”
—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.1
At the beginning of Book 5 in Meditations, Marcus reminds himself of the difficulty all of us each face every morning in getting out of bed. The warm blankets shielding us from the cold air of the day, the heaviness of our eyelids as we struggle to keep them open. These blankets, this overwhelming warmth, do they help us? No, they spoil us. They make us undisciplined and keep us from doing what we’re meant to do.
“So you were born to feel nice?” Marcus writes, “Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being?” Stoics are always trying to live according to nature. Our nature as human beings, Marcus argues, is to fulfill our duty—to work. The beauty in this statement is that every creature on earth is doing the same thing. Bees are busy pollinating. Trees are busy giving us oxygen. Cows, horses, and goats alike are fertilizing our soil. The sun is giving us light and life, while the moon takes the night shift. And what are we doing? We can’t even get out of our warm bed.
Marcus recognized that human beings are not exempt from this rule. We all work in the warehouse of nature. Every single lifeform is serving and working, working and serving. It’s our duty not only as human beings but especially as Stoics, to keep this in mind when we feel like sleeping in or not contributing. Even Marcus, the Emperor of Rome and one of the most powerful people in antiquity remembered the duty he owed to his country and the world. He could have slept in, he could have been just like the other Emperors who served before him, selfish and self-destructive. But no, Marcus got out of bed. He made it a point to serve.
We should too.
REFLECT ON WHAT THE DAY WILL BRING
“What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events…”
They say the punch that hurts the most is the one you don’t see coming. The Stoics meant the same thing when they wrote about the premeditation of evils or Premeditatio Malorum. Every day, we should take a moment to acknowledge the potential that something unexpected or unwelcomed may come our way. Maybe we’ll get a flat tire on our way to work. Maybe we’ll tank on a test, or underperform at work. All of these occurrences are within the realm of possibilities. Those who aren’t familiar with or misunderstand this tactic often mistake it as a morbid, or highly negative practice. The point of this exercise isn’t to promote negativity or pessimism at all. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. By visualizing what may go wrong, we’re preparing our minds for the inevitable. We’re taking an objective look at our day and approaching with a sense of realism. Nature, on occasion, brings us misfortune. And that’s ok. In visualizing the worst that can happen, we limit devastation and maximize our ability to think positively in the face of adversity.
After we’ve jumped out of bed and decided to fulfill our day’s duty, we must take a moment to think about what the day will bring. We can do this as we sit on the edge of our bed, or while we’re making coffee. Seneca famously wrote “Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.” These are the same words inscribed on the back of every premeditatio malorum challenge coin. So do exactly this. Exile, torture, war, shipwreck. Say it out loud. Though, in the modern-day world, it may go more like: Traffic, Jerk, long staff meeting, homework.
“Here’s a lesson to test your mind’s mettle: take part of a week in which you have only the most meager and cheap food, dress scantily in shabby clothes, and ask yourself if this is really the worst that you feared. It is when times are good that you should gird yourself for tougher times ahead, for when fortune is kind the soul can build defenses against her ravages. So it is that soldiers practice maneuvers in peacetime, erecting bunkers with no enemies in sight and exhausting themselves under no attack so that when it comes they won’t grow tired.”
There’s a popular saying in law enforcement and military circles: Embrace the suck. It’s usually recited during training exercises, or while executing a difficult task. But what does it mean to embrace the suck? Well, modern Stoics know that life is unpredictable. We know how to enjoy life when it’s good, and accept the hits we anticipated were coming. Embracing the suck means making the most of your situation. One way that the Stoics trained themselves to do this was by engaging in what’s called voluntary discomfort.
The exercise is simple. Every day, in order to properly train your mind and body for the turmoils of life, voluntarily engage in some kind of discomfort. For Cato, it meant walking through the streets with ragged robes and barefoot despite his status as a well-respected Stoic. For Zeno, it meant his teacher Crates spilling soup all over him in front of a jeering crowd so that he could learn to dismiss the opinions of others. No matter what you choose to do, embracing discomfort prepares the modern Stoic for the inevitable roller coaster that is life.
One modern method of voluntary discomfort is starting each morning with a cold shower. Of course, this is the last thing from pleasant, but contemporary studies on the health benefits of taking cold showers are more than convincing. Implementing cold showers into your daily routine can not only build the mental and physical fortitude that Stoics strive for, but they also promote fat loss, reduce depression, lower stress, and improve circulation.
We can also embrace discomfort in other ways too, as Epictetus suggested. Fasting, sleeping on the floor, living on a dollar a day for a week, and so on. The more we push ourselves, the more we increase our threshold to tolerate discomfort. We learn to overcome the challenges of existence by challenging ourselves. If we want to become true Stoics, we have to wake up like them. And if we want to wake up like them, we have to subject ourselves to the uncomfortable.
PAY ATTENTION—BE MINDFUL
“We need to master the art of acquiescence. We need to pay attention to our impulses, making sure they don’t go unmoderated, that they benefit others, that they’re worthy of us. We need to steer clear of desire in any form and not try to avoid what’s beyond our control.”
—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.37
The Stoics were undoubtedly fans of the ancient aphorism, te nosce ipsum, or “know thyself”. It was Marcus who said that it’s not the events that upset us, but more accurately our opinions about them. We need to know ourselves in order to make proper judgments about others and the various events that life throws at us. That’s why the Stoics spoke frequently of moving through life with prosochē. The word describes a sort of mindfulness, always being aware of our present desires, actions, and impressions. Keyword: present. Many of us get caught up in anticipation of future events or dwelling on events prior, but neither of which is useful to us in the present moment. Prosochē is nothing more than keeping a vigilant watch on all things that affect our ability to make rational decisions here and now. In paying extra attention, we push ourselves one step closer to mastering our opinions about the world.
Mindfulness has been a buzz topic for years, especially in the last decade. Meditation apps and workshops are becoming more and more prevalent as well. Although this appears to be a contemporary trend, the Stoics have been preaching the importance of mindfulness since Zeno officially began the philosophy school more than two thousand years ago. How can we implement this into our daily routines? The mere awareness that we should be aware of our impressions, desires, and actions is good in and of itself. But if we learn to ask ourselves these questions each morning (and throughout the day), we’ll be far more mindful and able to overcome what the day brings:
What are my present impressions? How are we thinking about the day ahead? Is our day truly stressful, or is it our opinions that are making it stressful?
What desires do I have? What do we wish to happen? What are our impulses? To have abundant wealth, to drink plenty, to eat more than we should? All affect our ability to make moral decisions and live in accordance with virtue.
What do my current actions say about me? Are we following Marcus’ advice, to stop debating what it means to be good, and remembering to actually be it? Do our actions align with our principles?
WAKING UP LIKE A STOIC
The road to mastery is a difficult one, but that’s also why it’s worth pursuing. Having the discipline to implement the strategies listed above will train our minds and bodies to withstand the many hardships we all experience. Nervous about seeing your parents over the holidays with whom you have a complicated relationship? Reflect on what lies ahead. Struggling to keep up with your workload at school or the office? Can’t be worse than the ice-cold shower you took this morning. A morning routine isn’t designed to be easy and soft. Far from it. It’s to prepare our mind and body for the war that is each day. Former Navy SEAL and best-selling author Jocko Willink captures this the best. Every morning, he posts a picture on Instagram of his watch. What does it say? 4:30am. The caption? Usually something like “Earn the sunrise”. This is what we have to do as well.
We have to earn the sunrise.