To Think or Not to Think

Different kinds of Stoic meditation

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share three emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

The last letter introduced mindfulness meditation as a useful tool for Stoics.

However, mindfulness meditation isn’t the only contemplative exercise. As the philosopher Pierre Hadot has documented, the Stoics developed their own set of practices too.

The Stoa app includes a range of these ancient and modern techniques. Recently one user sent me the following excellent question:

I’m relatively new at meditation and newer still with the Stoa app. Meditation other than Stoa seems to strive for a quiet, non-thinking practice. Some of my initial Stoa sessions seem to encourage thinking and reflection. Is this an accurate observation and can you help me understand better?

Stoa User

So what's the core difference between mindfulness meditation and these other practices?

In mindfulness meditation, you're training awareness and attention. This involves focusing on the breath or other sensations. The goal isn't to reduce thought – just to be aware of everything in a nonjudgmental way. When you do this, you build the ability to see things as they are and accept them.

Stoics also practice visualization exercises. There are a number of practices like this, the most popular is the contemplation of the sage, view from above, and evening review meditations.

These involve imagining a role model, inquiring into what you value, or picturing possible circumstances you may face. The point of these exercises is to: clarify your values, understand your place in the world, and visualize performing better. In these meditations, you mimic the athlete meditating on how to improve their game and then visualizing following through. Instead of training awareness and attention, one actively pictures moving through the world.

For example, when practicing the contemplation of the sage meditation, we start by choosing a role model, like Cato the Younger. We can imagine how we’d act if Cato was observing us, simulate advice he would give us, or rehearse how he would act in our place. Each of these tactics puts us in a relationship of emulation. With meditation, we can become more like our models.

All we’re able to control are our decisions and judgments. Through mindfulness meditation, we train the mind to make more space for intentional choices and thought. Instead of reacting to sensations, we can pause and consciously respond. With increased powers of attention and awareness, comes more control. With visualization meditations, we improve our ability to exercise that control well. By imagining what we will do (or what a role model would do) in a particular circumstance, we determine what the right decision is and ensure that we make it when the time arrives.

Both of these kinds of exercises are invaluable. They are not exclusive or exhaustive. Stoics also practice Socratic questioning – the central technique of traditional philosophy – but that’s for another day.

🎯 Action

Consider how you can integrate the principles from mindfulness meditation or visualization exercises into your day. Ensure you have a training program to:

  • Make more space for what is up to you

  • Improve your ability to exercise what is up to you well

🎺 Free Book

We’ll be writing more about Cato the Younger, but the best way to learn more about the Stoic role model is to read Rome’s Last Citizen.

It is the best book on the life of Cato the Younger – hands down.

And we’re running a giveaway of the book this month. To win a signed copy, refer The Stoa Letter to 7 people who would find it useful. If you do that, we’ll send you send you a free copy.

Learn more about our referral rewards below.

🔗 Links

🎥 Listen to a short lesson on how to practice the contemplation of the sage exercise well here. It includes an introduction to the exercise and then ends with important considerations for getting the most out of the exercise:

📽️ And if you want to try a different exercise, here’s a view from above meditation:

📜 A number of readers were surprised that I sourced the following quote to anonymous rather than Viktor Frankl:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.


I have sourced this quote to Viktor Frankl before – as have hundreds of others at this point, including many well-read and bestselling authors. It aligns perfectly with his philosophy. But, as far as I can tell, no one really knows who originally said it. If you’re curious about the story quote investigator has a nice write up here.

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