The other morning, as I was going down the porch stairs loaded with plates, my neighbor called out: προσοχή! (attention). To make sure I didn’t fall and break something, I needed to pay attention. So I concentrated and carefully climbed down the stairs. Without even knowing it, I was practicing a spiritual exercise.
Προσοχή (Prosochē) is the art of attention, the practice of being aware of the moment and focusing on it. For the ancient Greeks who wanted to live their life philosophically, this attention was one of the main spiritual exercises.
Scholar Pierre Hadot carefully studied the ancient Greeks being especially attentive to philosophy. To be a philosopher was one thing but to live life philosophically was something else. Theory only has value if it can be put into practice. Like studying a foreign language—at a certain point, you stop studying and start speaking. You move from abstract to tangible. Otherwise, what’s the point of studying.
In the ancient world, philosophy was used as a means of knowing oneself and of making self-transformations. Spiritual exercises were needed to ensure transformation. And the most important exercise was that of attention a.k.a mindfulness.
Liberating the self’s focus on past or future is necessary so that we can fully immerse ourselves in the present. Because experience is created in the present. To train the mind to Be Here Now, below are two “connecting to the moment” exercises:
- concentrating on our breathing as we inhale and exhale
- if we are, for example, washing dishes, we must be totally involved with the activity both physically and mentally thinking of nothing other than the plates we are washingAnother important spiritual practice is that of learning to dialogue which, during Greek times, was the main means of propagating of ideas. Dialogue provides us with a means of interacting with others. By learning how to dialogue with others, you learn how to dialogue with yourself and vice versa.
Every spiritual exercise is dialogical in that it communicates the self to itself. Thus to dialogue with one’s self is a spiritual exercise.
Another spiritual exercise is “the view from above” meant to provoke your perception. Looking at something from a different viewpoint will give you a new point of view. Imagine yourself lying on the bed looking around your room. Then imagine yourself flying around your room. What you see over the bed is not the same as what you see in bed.
Plotinus wrote that one should go inside the self and take a good look. And, if you don’t see what you like, then you need to do as the sculptor does with a statue—chisel and polish until you get the look you want. Never stop sculpting your own statue.
Diary writing can also be considered a spiritual exercise. Because it gives you the possibility of focusing in on the moment and of creating a dialogue with yourself. It is a way of collecting and organizing your thoughts.
Our thoughts make us and thus thinking transforms us. And it’s the way we think that determines whether or not we are happy. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, the happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts. And keeping a diary helps us keep track of those thoughts and the direction they take us in.
Bibliography: Philosophy as a Way of Life video + What is ancient philosophy? Online text + Hadot, P. Philosophy as a Way of Life. Malden, Mass. Blackwell Publishing. 1995 + hypomnemata, writings meant to assist the memory, became popular in Classical Greece