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Three Disciplines of Stoicism as Cogwheel

A Framework for Greater Peace of Mind

By understanding the Stoic disciplinespracticing and applying Stoicism to your life becomes way easier. They are the backbone of Stoicism's practical application. Preparing yourself for life's adversities by practicing the three Stoic disciplines will lead to strength of character and a resilient, unshakable mind. So, when you actually have to deal with a setback or challenge, you're ready and well-prepared - like an athlete competing in the Olympics.

What Are The Three Stoic Disciplines?

"There are three topics in philosophy, in which he who would be wise and good must be exercised. That of the desires and aversions, that he may not be disappointed of the one, nor incur the other. That of the pursuits and avoidances, and, in general, the duties of life; that he may act with order and consideration, and not carelessly. The third includes integrity of mind and prudence, and, in general, whatever belongs to the judgment." Epictetus, 

While the philosophical system of Stoicism was divided into logicphysics, and ethics in its origin, the Stoic disciplines introduced by Epictetus provide another theoretical framework to practice Stoicism. If you want to embark on the journey to eudaimonia but don't know where to start, you can use the three Stoic disciplines as guiding principles.

The three Stoic disciplines are:

  1. Desire: Our guide to learning where we want to focus our time and energy. It's about accepting fate and letting go of our resistance. 
  2. Assent: Our guide to making rational judgments. It's about being mindful of our thoughts and the ability to question them.
  3. Action: Our guide to living harmoniously with other people and living beings. We align our actions with the Stoic virtues to benefit the whole.

The Discipline of Desire

"Wipe out imagination; check desire: extinguish appetite: keep the ruling faculty in its own power." Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.7

As human beings, we encounter a ton of desires each day. Some are strong, others weak, some are visible to us, while others hide themselves in our unconscious mind.

Not all of the desires are for our benefit. Just think about strong cravings for sweets or fast food, leading to overeating and an unhealthy lifestyle. The desire to smoke cigarettes is also more harmful than beneficial. On the other hand, the desire to eat is essential to survive.

"Freedom is not procured by a full enjoyment of what is desired, but by controlling the desire." Epictetus, Book 4.1 Of Freedom

Desire can also cause chains of desires. The desire to eat, for example, can lead to the desire to look into our fridge. But the fridge is empty, so we form a desire to find the car keys and drive to the supermarket (or fast food restaurant).

Desires are literally everywhere and always there. We can't be free of desires, but we can learn to master them. Our task as practicing Stoics is to learn to distinguish between the good ones and those that just cause harm.

The same goes for aversion, which is just the desire to avoid something. Some things will definitely happen. People will die. You will die. Cups get broken, maybe even your favorite one.

Accepting the universal truth of the impermanence of everything helps us let go of our resistance and aversion against those. Imagine you're standing at a wall. You want to start walking to get away, but you're bound to a resistance band. It's pretty challenging to get forward, right? Now, strip off the resistance band and start walking. It's a lot easier.

"Demand not that events should happen as you wish; but wish them to happen as they do happen, and you will go on well." Epictetus, Enchiridion 8

It's the same with our desires and dislikes for things outside our control. Life becomes as easy as floating downstream on a peaceful river, where every obstacle seems to effortlessly pass by when we focus our energy on things we can control.

The Discipline of Assent

"Such as are your habitual thoughts, so also will be the character of your mind. For the soul is dyed by its thoughts." Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.16

Just because the obstacles seem to pass by effortlessly doesn't mean they actually do. So, we have to ask: How can we navigate this peaceful river? The answer: The discipline of assent. 

We must carefully keep watching for obstacles. Some we can ignore with a clear conscience, but others we need to navigate around. Translated to our task as Stoic practitioners: We must carefully observe and evaluate our judgments about the world around us before giving assent or agreement to them. This discipline guides and encourages us to question our initial impression, considering it based on reason and virtue.

A faulty judgment can quickly lead to misalignment with virtue, wrong action, and thus negative emotions and unhappiness. By assigning a value to the things around us, we give them a lot of power over our state of mind. Naturally, nothing has a value. Things just are as they are. But as rational animals, we tend to add value with our judgment. The discipline of assent is about refusing to accept within oneself all representations other than objective or adequate, as Donald Robertson points out in his book "Stoicism and the Art of Happiness".

Neutral thinking can help master this discipline and see things clearly without emotionally overloaded judgments. Furthermore, mindfulness, understanding the dichotomy of control, engaging in reflection, and embracing radical openness are components for enhancing your expertise. You gain a clearer and more rational understanding of the situation by training yourself to analyze initial thoughts and impressions. Consequently, you reduce emotional suffering and increase serenity by making proper value judgments.

The Discipline of Action

"First, do nothing inconsiderately, nor without a purpose. Second, make your acts refer to nothing else than to a social end." Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 12.20

This pillar is all about aligning our actions and behavior with the Stoic cardinal virtues (wisdom, temperance, justice, courage). It's the application of Stoic ethics which defines what is good, bad, and indifferent. Furthermore, Stoics believe that humans are social creatures. As Marcus Aurelius said, when we separate ourselves and do something selfish or unsocial, we cut ourselves off from the body we belong to. That's why we should direct our actions to benefit the whole. We can only achieve eudaimonia, a flourishing and happy life, by virtuous action to benefit the common good. Then, we fulfill our nature.

"If you ever saw a hand cut off, or a foot, or a head, lying anywhere apart from the rest of the body, such does a man make himself, as far as he can, who is not content with what happens, and separates himself from others, or does anything unsocial. Suppose that you have detached yourself from the natural unity – for you were made by nature a part, but now you have cut yourself off – yet here there is this beautiful provision, that it is in your power again to unite yourself." Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 8.34

Adding a reserve clause to your actions and embracing your life with the Stoic archer's mindset can help you master this Stoic discipline. As Stoics believe that humans are made for each other, you should act with kindness and cultivate active and empathetic listening skills. This will enrich your relationships, and you will more likely become akin to the wise Stoic sage. Additionally, you can write Stoic mantras to help you remember how to act virtuously. As a consequence, you develop an excellent character or, as Stoics would say, arete.

"No one can have a happy life if he looks only to himself, turning everything to his own advantage. If you want to live for yourself, you must live for another. This sense of companionship links all human beings to one another; it holds that there is a common law of humankind, and if carefully and reverently preserved, it contributes greatly also to the maintenance of that other companionship I was speaking of, the one within a friendship. For he who has much in common with a fellow hum, an will have everything in common with his friend." Seneca, Moral Letters, 48, 2-3

Final Thoughts

With the three Stoic disciplines, Epictetus has left us a powerful framework for the practical application of Stoicism. Mastering the Stoic disciplines can strengthen our character and make us more resilient. Finally, we live a happier life.

It's your turn now. What's your focus today? Which of these disciplines of Stoicism do you practice today?

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