Can Stoicism benefit health conditions?

I am interested in exploring how different philosophical approaches can benefit people with chronic health conditions. I believe that Modern Stoic meditations could be useful in a similar way to Mindfulness and Zen meditations. Some people call it Roman Buddhism.

Stoicism originated in Ancient Rome and Greece and is generally seen as a philosophy rather than a religion, although the traditional form does include belief in fate, destiny and the Logos.  Remains of ancient stoicism can be seen in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy today.

Most CBT practitioners will be familiar with the famous maxim of Epictetus, from the Stoic Enchiridion (Handbook), that states,

It is not the things themselves that disturb people but their judgements about those things. (Enchiridion, 5)

How can stoicism be helpful?

The practices that can stuck your daily routine are the morning meditation, right now mindfulness bell and evening meditation.

(The suggested meditation starts around 8.00 min)

Thinking about the universe first thing in the morning is very helpful. Your problems seem insignificant in the greater scheme of things.

Chronic illness can leave you feeling fairly useless and unfulfilled. In Stoicism, virtue (self worth and morality) is based entirely upon your response to your circumstances. The ethos of identifying what you have control over can enable you to not waste valuable spoons.

It is difficult

Stoicism is not a cure for chronic illness and is not likely to relieve symptoms unless there is an indirect effect due to reduced stress.

The distinction between what we can and can’t control is very complex, so that very little is either completely in our control or out of our control. And if you don’t believe in fate or destiny, it can be harder to accept your situation because potentially you could influence change in everything and nothing has been preordained.

To give you an idea of the breadth of Stoic practice, Donald Robertson [1] created a bullet-point list of some of the techniques found in the literature…

  1. Contemplation of the Sage: Imagine the ideal Sage or exemplary historical figures (Socrates, Diogenes, Cato) and ask yourself: “What would he do?”, or imagine being observed by them and how they would comment on your actions.
  2. Contemplating the Virtues of Other People: Look for examples of virtues among your friends, family, colleagues, etc.
  3. Self-Control Training: Take physical exercise to strengthen self-discipline, practice drinking just water, eat plain food, live modestly, etc.
  4. Contemplating the Whole Cosmos: Imagine the whole universe as if it were one thing and yourself as part of the whole.
  5. The View from Above: Picture events unfolding below as if observed from Mount Olympus or a high  watchtower.
  6. Objective Representation: Describe events to yourself in objective language, without rhetoric or value judgements.
  7. Premeditation of Adversity: Mentally rehearse potential losses or misfortunes and view them as “indifferent” (decatastrophising), also view them as natural and inevitable to remove any sense of shock or surprise.
  8. The Financial Metaphor: View your actions as financial transactions and consider whether your behaviour is profitable, e.g., if you sacrifice externals but gain virtue that’s profitable but, by contrast, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses himself.”
  9. Accepting Fate (Amor Fati): Rather than seeking for things to be as you will, rather will for things to be as they are, and your life will go smoothly and serenely.
  10. Say to External Things: “It is nothing to me.”
  11. Cognitive Distancing: Tell yourself it is your judgement that upset you and not the thing itself.
  12. Postponement: Delay responding to things that evoke passion until you have regained your composure.
  13. Picture the Consequences: Imagine what will happen if you act on a desire and compare this to what will happen if you resist it.
  14. Cognitive Distancing: When something upsetting happens to you, imagine how you would view the same thing if it befell someone else and say, “Such things happen in life.”
  15. Empathy: Remember that no man does evil knowingly and when someone does what doesn’t seem right, say to yourself: “It seemed so to him.”
  16. Contemplate the Transience of all Things: When you lose something or someone say “I have given it back” instead of “I have lost it”, and view change as natural and inevitable.

The Stoic worldview can be challenging, but take some time to think about choice, and fate.


[1] Donald Robertson is a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, author and trainer and an inspiration for stoicism.

All images, quotes and audio content below are from Modern Stoicism

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