Three Calming 60 Second Breath Exercises

Observe, count, and meditate on impermanence

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

Every week we share two 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

Read this letter to learn three calming meditation exercises. Each simply focuses on the breath. All exercises can be done at any moment in just 60 seconds or so.

👁️ Observe

Focus on the breath without judgment.

Find where the sensation of the breathing feels the strongest (for some this is in the nostrils, for others it is in the stomach) and rest your attention there.

Notice the breath’s force, speed, and temperature – as many details as you can. Do this in a relaxed, yet focused way. Take this sense of calm focus with you into your day.

Objective judgment, now, at this very moment. Unselfish action, now, at this very moment. Willing acceptance—now, at this very moment—of all external events. That’s all you need.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

🔢 Count

For this exercise, count at the end of each in-breath. Build stable attention by counting the number of breath cycles you go through. See if you can get to 10 without becoming distracted. Most people cannot! If you do, you’re either unusually focused or not noticing what is actually happening in your mind.

When you become distracted, note what happened and then start over.

The point is to practice noticing distractions and then returning to the task at hand.

With this exercise, you can manage any distraction more gracefully – and hold your attention for longer periods of time.

Is any part of life excluded, on which attention has no bearing, any that you will make worse by attention, and better by inattention? Nay, is there anything in life generally which is done better by those who do not attend? Does the carpenter by inattention do his work better? Does the helmsman by inattention steer more safely? And is any of the minor duties of life fulfilled better by inattention?

Epictetus, Discourses 4.7

⌛️ Meditate on Impermanence

Everything comes and goes. The breath is an always present reminder of the fact that nothing lasts. Obstacles that arise will fall away. So much of what is important today will seem trivial tomorrow.

As you watch the breath: let it come, let it be, and let it go.

Take the same stance towards the events and thoughts that arise today.

Close to forgetting it all, close to being forgotten.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.21

🎯 Action

Pause and try one of these breath practices today:

  • Observe without judgment

  • Count

  • Meditate on impermanence

🔗 Links

📘 Check out Donald Robertson’s article on Stoic Mindfulness to learn more about the role of mindfulness in the philosophy. He opens it with a quote from the French philosopher Pierre Hadot about the importance of cultivating attention:

Attention is the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude. It is a continuous vigilance and presence of mind, self-consciousness which never sleeps, and a constant tension of the spirit. Thanks to this attitude, the philosopher is fully aware of what he does at each instant, and he wills his actions fully.

Pierre Hadot

🧘 Take a look at How to sit like a human for useful images and descriptions of the correct meditation posture.

🧠 This is a book on how to become enlightened. Whatever you think of the merits of that project (count me as skeptical), the first few chapters make for one of the best frameworks for meditations I’ve ever found. It takes a no-nonsense, practical, and empirical approach.

📖 The Marcus Aurelius quotes above come from Gregory Hays excellent translation.

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1 Referral — Cheatsheet on The Most Important Stoic Concepts— get access to our list of the most important Stoic concepts with links and instructions for putting each into practice.

3 Referrals – The Stoic Training Program PDF — in this 10-page guide, we share the three main ideas and practices that ground a Stoic approach to life.

5 Referrals – Five Stoic Meditations get five downloadable meditations to go deeper into your practice.

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