Rational Love: A New Spiritual Exercise
What to expect in this post:
Introduction to spiritual exercises
Theoretical description of how I developed a new spiritual exercise
Instructions for doing the exercise
What is a Spiritual Exercise?
Many of you are familiar with the philosophical concept of spiritual exercises, popularized in the mid-20th century by the French scholar Pierre Hadot. One of Hadot’s insights was that many ancient philosophical texts weren’t meant to be read as systematic treatises, as is the norm today. Instead, Greek philosophy took place within a living tradition that included oral transmission from teacher to student, dialogue and discussion between philosophers, and the cultivation of a particular way of life. Philosophical schools during the Hellenistic period flourished not only as ideas but as places. Texts supplemented many of these scholarly activities, but philosophy extended far beyond the written texts themselves. Philosophy was seen as a lifestyle and lifelong project, not just a set of ideas compressed into pages (or scrolls, as the case may be).
Philosophy as a way of life is one of the animating principles behind the modern Stoic movement today. Most of us are here because we want to live a good life, and philosophy is still the best way to do that. Now, as in ancient times, we can look at philosophy as consisting of two “poles,” as Hadot (2001, p. 177) calls them. One pole is philosophical discourse, which helps us figure out what we believe and understand all the conceptual implications (all the interlocking pieces) of our philosophy. The other pole is action, where we implement these principles in every aspect of our lives.
In a philosophical life, the two poles are mutually dependent, and it wouldn’t make sense to have one without the other. We might say that every philosophical practice contains some element of theory in it, and every philosophical principle contains some element of practice. We can’t completely separate theory from practice, but we can (for purposes of clarity) speak of a given aspect of philosophy as being more theoretical or more practical.
The question and challenge for everyone attempting to live a philosophical life is how to ensure that the two poles, discourse and action, or theory and practice, are fully compatible and consistent. Most people find it far easier to accept a philosophy on theoretical terms than to consistently apply its principles in daily living. And Stoicism is generally acknowledged to be one of the most demanding philosophies out there. Even in ancient times Stoics were known not just for conceptual rigor and theoretical coherence, but for exceptionally high moral standards.
In order to bridge the gap between theory and practice, ancient philosophers devised exercises that would help their students cultivate a truly philosophical way of life. In their illuminating work Philosophy as a Way of Life, Matthew Sharpe and Michael Ure identify 10 features that characterize practical philosophy through the ages. These include intellectual exercises, spiritual exercises, the use of meta-philosophical metaphors, and discourse on the sage, among others. All of these techniques contributed to the life of happiness toward which the philosophical student aspired.
Spiritual exercises are of particular interest because they are a crucial link between our rational understanding of philosophical principles and our everyday disposition. Anyone who has ever tried to “practice” philosophy knows how hard it is to live your principles every day. We get stressed out, we get caught up in emotions, and we forget the philosophical principles we just read about. This is where spiritual exercises come in: they transform our innermost self, our character, our prohairesis (to use Epictetus’ term)—in other words, our spirit.
Hadot explains why the descriptor spiritual is the most appropriate term for these exercises, despite the inevitable religious connotations. Related terms like psychological, moral, ethical, mental, or soul don’t fully capture the aim of these exercises, which is to elevate the individual from a personal, incomplete point of view to a universal, comprehensive perspective on life (Hadot, 2002, p. 21). For the ancient Greeks,
The philosophical act isn’t located only at the level of knowledge, but at the level of “self” and of being…It’s a conversion that overturns one’s whole life, that changes the being of the person who achieves it. This experience allows us to pass from an inauthentic state of living, obscured by lack of awareness, racked by worry, to an authentic state, in which the individual attains an awareness of self, a true vision of the world, peace, and inner freedom.(Hadot, 2002, p. 21)
For Stoics in particular, with our extremely demanding view that virtue is necessary and sufficient for happiness, spiritual exercises are the means by which we transmute our theoretical understanding of philosophy into our lived experience. As Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius are always reminding us, sharpening your theoretical grasp of Stoicism will not improve your life unless you find a way to make it part of your “interior climate,” to borrow a phrase from Hadot (2002, p. 31).
The ancient Stoics were masters of these psycho-spiritual exercises, and modern Stoics still rely heavily on ancient techniques. We find many of them presented in the extant writings of the Roman Stoics, many of which have been extracted into contemporary books on Stoicism, as well as cognitive-behavioral therapy. These include "meditation, memorization, contemplation, premeditation of evils and death, distinguishing what does/does not depend on us, withholding assent to uncertain, uncritical beliefs" (Sharpe & Ure, p. 340).
But there may have been many more unrecorded practices that have not come down to us today. Perhaps they weren’t recorded because they were simply taken for granted as part of the philosophical life. Perhaps the texts were lost. Or perhaps they were of a nature not easily captured in print. Stoic practitioner Elen Buzaré, for example, believes the ancient Stoics had their own system of meditation. In her fascinating book Stoic Spiritual Exercises, Buzaré reconstructs a potential Stoic meditation in the style of Samatha-Vipassyana meditation (from the Buddhist tradition) and the Hesychastic Prayer (from the Orthodox Christian tradition). For those interested in exploring this side of Stoicism, I highly recommend Buzaré’s work.
But what I’d like to share with you today is not an attempted reconstruction of an ancient practice, or even a translation of a spiritual exercise from another tradition. Rather, it’s an amalgam of existing Stoic exercises, informed by my study of psychology and practices from other traditions. I think it will seem familiar to you, but also different. I hope it will help you advance in your own Stoic practice and find flourishing in your life.
Below, I'll first review how and why I developed this exercise, and then I'll introduce the exercise to you with instructions for practicing it yourself.
Developing a New Spiritual Exercise: Theoretical Basis
This spiritual exercise is based on rational love and the good emotions (eupatheiai) identified by the ancient Stoics. While we don’t hear too much about the eupatheiai in our extant Stoic sources, I’ve found this concept essential in my own progress toward virtue. What Stoicism asks us to do—accept the world and everything in it—is so difficult, I think it can only be done with a very strong positive motivational pull. We need to visualize virtue as producing the purest possible distillation of human happiness. When we learn to see the world in all its truth and beauty, when we welcome events and people with open arms, when we understand who we are and our place in the world, those correct judgments result in exquisite inner peace and joy.
Now, according to Stoic theory, only a sage can experience these perfectly good emotions, because only a sage has perfectly good judgment. Furthermore, we must take care to remember that our goal in these exercises (and in Stoicism in general) is not to generate positive emotions themselves. Our goal is always to cultivate correct judgment. But because of the integrated nature of our minds, judgments and emotions are very closely linked. So we know that by developing a sagely disposition—or coming as close to it as we can—we are also developing a sagely propensity for these boundless positive emotions.
Just to reiterate, the purpose of this exercise is not to develop the eupatheiai themselves, because they cannot be cultivated for their own sake. They only result from properly cultivated judgments. So what we are doing here is developing the proper mindset or attitude to make correct judgments about the world. We are putting ourselves in the appropriate frame of mind to implement our rational principles—in this case, rational love—at every level of our lived experience.
It may sound strange to speak of love as a mindset or attitude, but keep in mind that English lacks a really good vocabulary to speak about these emotions with precision. We tend to make just one word (love) stand in for dozens, if not hundreds, of specific emotional registers. So here I’m speaking of “rational love” to indicate not an emotion arising in response to a certain external stimulus (the common English meaning of love) but a particular attitude or mindset (I’m tempted to call it a matrix of judgments) we generate within our own minds. This type of love isn’t dependent on any specific external stimulus; it is internally generated and depends only on us. That’s why it’s rational.
[Theoretical Note: I see rational love as arising from the prohairesis, while involuntary types of love arise from the hegemonikon. In my interpretation of Stoicism (following Long’s [2002, p. 210-220] reading of prohairesis in Epictetus), our hegemonikon includes irrational and subconscious aspects of our mental experience, while our prohairesis includes only those aspects under our voluntary control (which is why it’s translated as will, volition, or choice). Hegemonikon encompasses all our cognitive activity, including instincts, proto-emotions, and involuntary cognitions, which Epictetus refers to as “imagination” (Discourses, 3.24, 108). The actively-generated positive mindset we are working toward here is within our voluntary control.]
Broadly speaking, this overarching mindset called rational love might be directed at three classes of objects: the self, other people, and the world at large. Following the ancient Stoics, I find it extremely valuable to think in terms of these three classes of relationships, which more or less correspond to the three Stoic disciplines of logic, ethics, and physics. (Read more about my perspective on these three relationships here.) Perhaps these relationships don’t capture everything that could be said about living a good life, but they come pretty close.
So in order to make my inner climate correspond to my rational beliefs about each of these relationships, I try to cultivate rational love in each of these areas. Here are the attitudes I’ve selected for each area:
Self > Respect
Other people > Cherish
World > Welcome
You’ll notice that the words I’ve selected do have an emotional tenor, but they are also verbs with a strong active component. That’s because it’s extremely important for our contemplation and attention to be focused on action. We don’t want to feel that the world is doing something to us which we must reluctantly accept. On the contrary. A truly Stoic attitude is one of active respecting, welcoming, and cherishing. Instead of grudgingly following our fate, we welcome the people and events around us with open arms. Not passive acceptance, but joyful, rational love.
My choice of words was inspired by ancient lists of eupatheiai, which include welcoming (aspasmos) and cherishing (agapesis). At first, I tried to exactly match my practice to the three genera of positive emotions presented by Andronicus: wishing, caution, and joy. But I realized, thanks to Christopher Gill’s insightful exposition of the eupatheiai in "Positive Emotions in Stoicism--Are They Enough?", that there seems to be flexibility in how we aim for the positive emotions in our lives. As he puts it,
Taken as a whole, there is quite a high degree of fit between the usage of the Meditations and the handbook, confirming that this terminology for wise emotions formed a recognized part of Stoic teaching. On the other hand, it is also clear, from the limited handbook evidence, and the rather flexible and varied usage in Epictetus and Marcus, that this kind of vocabulary was not as rigidly codified as some other aspects of the vocabulary of Stoic ethics. (Gill, 2016)
Both Marcus and Epictetus used the vocabulary of eupatheiai, but not necessarily in the same ways it was represented in the doxographical sources (e.g., Andronicus, Diogenes Laertius) we often lean on. It therefore seems to me that, while staying reasonably close to ancient sources, we have license to use these terms in ways that make the most sense for our own language and culture. What’s important here is cultivating the proper attitude, not pedantically copying the language.
Gill (2016) identifies multiple instances throughout the Meditations where Marcus Aurelius uses the terminology of eupatheiai in striving for virtue. For example, Marcus typically uses welcoming (aspasmos) when referring to “events, often seemingly unwelcome events, which are accepted as forming an integral part of nature (an idea linked with “cheerfulness,” euthumia.” This makes perfect sense to me, which is why I’ve linked welcoming with our response to the world at large (physics).
Regarding our attitude toward other people, we have a number of richly evocative positive terms to choose from: good intent (eunoia), goodwill (eumeneia), and cherishing (agapesis) are among them. Of all these I selected cherishing because it fully conveys an attitude of deep and sincere love for the people around us. It is also (in my opinion) the strongest and most active of the terms associated with wishing others well.
When it comes to our relationship with our self, things are a bit trickier. The eupatheiai directed toward the self involve caution, lest we let down our guard and do something unwise. But in order to cultivate a mindset of goodwill toward the self—while also maintaining a cautious stance—we need something different. Respect seems to me the best candidate. We respect ourselves by setting high standards and demanding the best from ourselves. We respect ourselves when we strive to fulfill our true and highest nature.
So there you have the focus of this spiritual exercise: respecting your self, cherishing other people, and welcoming events into your life. You might not think it makes sense to boil down all of Stoic philosophies into three short mantras, but this is pretty much the purpose of a spiritual exercise. Simplicity is key. We don’t have time to launch ourselves into a discourse on philosophical minutia at those moments when bold courage or wise words are called for. As Pierre Hadot puts it, we need to have “a fundamental principle, extremely simple and clear, formulated in a few words, precisely so that it will remain readily available to the spirit and can be applied with the guaranteed immediacy of a reflex” (2002, p. 27).
For me, these three concepts are extremely clear and simple representations of Stoic theory that help me remember my principles at crucial moments. They are a shorthand for the more complex principles that I understand rationally, enabling me to translate theory rapidly into everyday life. If that makes sense to you, then I invite you to join me in the exercise below.
A New Spiritual Exercise: Rational Love
This exercise has two complementary parts. The first part is contemplative, designed for morning or evening reflection. In this part we prepare our minds for what we might encounter in the day ahead, cultivating an attitude of rational love. The second part is the attention (prosoche) we devote to maintaining that attitude throughout the day. This is definitely the hardest part, which is why we have Part I to prepare us for Part II. Without the preparation, consistent attention is extremely difficult; and without the consistent attention, the preparation is basically meaningless. They need to be practiced together.
Part I: Contemplation
As the sun rises (or anytime), sit in a comfortable position and focus your mind on the phrase I welcome. Turn over the word welcome in your mind. Envision yourself reaching out to welcome the new day, like welcoming an old friend or a new book. Review past welcomes you have given and received. Feel the warmth of those welcomes, first in your smile, then slowly filling your mind, then slowly spreading throughout your body. You are warmly welcoming the present. Hold this warmth in your mind and body for as long as you like.
Now extend this warm welcome to events you’re likely to encounter today. Envision yourself welcoming the burned toast, the traffic jam, the difficult assignment, the painful migraine, the burdens of your past. You are welcoming them all, with the same warmth you welcomed the new day. All of these things form part of your life right now, and though you may work to get rid of some of them, right now they are here in your life. So welcome them as they come, but be ready to say goodbye when the time comes.
Next, repeat these two steps with cherishing and respecting. First, focus on the words I cherish. What does cherishing feel like to you? Bring to mind a person you cherish, visualizing your cherishing as a light and positive energy you send outward to that person. See the warm glow of rational love passing from yourself to the other person. Dwell on their good qualities and your affection for them. Continue on to another person, then another, seeing the inner light passing from yourself to each person. Take time to cherish as many people (or even animals and other living things) as you like.
Now extend this cherishing to a challenging person you may encounter today. Focus again on your inner light, passing this rational love to this person. (If cherishing seems impossible, think in terms of sending good wishes. This is still very positive but not as demanding as cherishing.) Hold that person in your mind, setting aside your dislike for a moment, instead bringing to mind one of their good qualities. Try to cherish them as a human being, sending them positive regard and positive energy.
Next, turn your mind to respect. Now we turn inward, focusing our respect on all that may arise within ourselves. Breathe deeply, feeling your own breath coming into your body, circulating within you, and then breathing back out. As you breathe, consider how you respect yourself, first or all as a human being. You are just as worthy of love, care, and respect as every human on the planet. You possess worth and dignity by virtue of being right here, right now. You are worth working hard for. You show respect to yourself by striving for virtue and meaning in your life.
Then consider how you respect yourself as an individual. What qualities within you are worthy of respect? Identify at least one moral quality you are proud of, and focus your mind and breath on this quality. Breathe deeply and visualize your breath as respect, circulating throughout your body. Continue breathing respect in and around yourself for as long as you like.
Part II: Attention
Now the challenge is to carry this mindset of welcoming, cherishing, and respecting with you throughout the day. This requires attention and noticing what your mind is doing. Whenever you experience a challenge or notice your mind going down the wrong path, hold one of these phrases in your mind.
In difficult circumstances: "I welcome this." You can welcome this event as part of your life right now. The next step is determine what action to take as a result of this event. But remember, you can take action while welcoming the event into your life.
With difficult people: "I cherish this person." You can cherish this person as a human being, while recognizing they might be misguided in their beliefs or actions. You can take appropriate action to deal with the person while holding an attitude of cherishing (or at least well-wishing) in your mind.
When an unhealthy thought arises in your mind: "I respect this." You can respect that this thought or this aspect of yourself is a part of your life right now. Then decide how to deal with it. If it's an untrue thought, one that does not accurately portray the world as it really is, eliminate it. Remember to respect yourself enough to expect the truth from yourself.
I hope you’ve found this new exercise, and the theory that explains it, very useful for your own life. Remember to practice rational love in a way that makes sense for you, modifying the exercise as needed. I'm considering making a guided meditation of this exercise, so if you think that would be helpful, please like this post or leave me a comment so I know people are interested.
Buzaré, E. Stoic Spiritual Exercises. Lulu, 2011.
Gill, C. (2016), ‘Positive Emotions in Stoicism: Are They Enough?’, in R. R. Caston and R. A. Kaster (eds.), Hope, Joy, and Affection in the Classical World, Oxford: 143-60.
Hadot, P. Exercises spirituels et philosophie antique. Paris: Albin Michel, 2002.
Hadot, P. La philosophie comme manière de vivre: Entretiens avec Jeannie Carlier et Arnold I. Davidson. Paris: Albin Michel, 2001.
Long, A.A. Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Sharpe, M., & Ure, M. Philosophy as a Way of Life: History, Dimensions, Directions. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.