What is stoicism
Zeno of Citium started Stoicism after he lost everything in a shipwreck. At the heart of stoicism is the idea that there are things around us we cannot control, but that we can control our perception of these things.
Do we as modern humans need a philosophy? The ancient Greeks deemed it one of the most important fields of study. What could be more essential than understanding life itself? It’s easy to get caught up in the chaos of modern life without guidance and perspective. I’m not suggesting to anyone that they should leave their life as they know it and become a stoic-sage-Gandalf, and leave everything behind to live in and around the nearest mountain. Just that you should put a little time into creating a philosophical blueprint for modern living; a way to keep happiness, peace, and virtue on the agenda.
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” — Marcus Aurelius.
You might die right now. That can be a quite scary proposition. It can also be a strong procrastination defense. Should I be watching videos of baby pandas on youtube right now? Remembering death can sometimes alter such behavior. Just remember to relax and allow for bullshit (panda videos) every once in a while. A new trend among stoics is to have a “memento mori” medallion (Memento mori is latin, and means remember death) on you, as a reminder of your inevitable doom.
If you’re opposed to allowing death to hang over you (maybe it’s a fear and source of anxiety for you) a related concept, which I sometimes apply, is to imagine a mentor in your presence. If someone you look up to was watching you right now, would you be doing what you’re doing?
“Wealth consists not in haing great possessions, but in having few wants. “ — Epictetus.
You want that car. A real specific and shiny one. You buy the car, and you love it. After a week, it still excites you when thinking about it and driving it. But then before you know it that car is just a part of your life. You hardly think about it, and it’s just there. You still use it, and it fulfills its function, but it doesn’t excite you anymore.
After a-not-appropriately-long-enough time you start thinking about that next car, and so it goes. Even if you’re not a car person, I’d wager you recognize this phenomenon. It’s called hedonic adaptation, which means that anything that you desire, once gained, ceases to give you pleasure. You adapt to your current situation. Happiness and excitement levels out, and the only thing that can change that seems to be more change and novelty. Here are two alternative ways to avoid hedonic adaptation:
It’s like watching Game of Thrones. Good things happen, then everything you’ve come to love gets taken from you.
When I first read about this practice, I couldn’t have been more certain it was written by someone with a ponytail and way too many leather bracelets. But I kept hearing about this concept from people I admired, so I decided to give it a try.
Every morning I would write down three things in my life that I am grateful for (I would usually try to explain why as well). This routine has profoundly changed the way I view life. The first time I started this practice, it coincided with me going back to school and then being out of work. It was incredible how content and happy I became. Having very little money along with practicing gratitude towards the few but important things I did have was the single most impactful change I have done to improve my life.
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” — Seneca
It’s crucial not always to be comfortable. Experience some sort discomfort to strengthen you and make future distress seem more bearable. After the fact, any comfort you have is going to be that much better. Some forms of discomfort:
- Fasting, i.e., not eating for extended periods (24 hours+)
- Cold exposure. Cold showers or walks with too little clothing (don’t get arrested)
- Dress in shitty and somewhat embarrassing clothing. (again don’t get arrested)
- Exercise. Try and mix it up if you enjoy exercise. Do something you suck at.
“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.” — Viktor E. Frankl
Not everything is in your control. Someone bumps into you on the way to the bus, and you drop your goods. Picking it all up takes time, so you have to run to catch the bus. You get there on time but the coach was early, and the driver hasn’t bothered waiting. It starts raining. These events were, to a large extent, out of your control. And every setback was an opportunity to get annoyed. But why? Letting your emotion run wild isn’t going to help you. It isn’t going to change anything.
Amor fati means love of fate. The idea is to, whatever happens, act with grace. Make adversity into opportunity. View your setbacks as a part of your journey.
Some things are out of your control. You can’t change the weather or when the bus driver arrives. Some things are partially in your control. You can try your hardest at winning a game of chess, but your opponent still might beat you. Other things are entirely in our control. How we chose to act, and what desires we adopt.
For things entirely out of your control, worrying is useless, since you cannot affect them. For things partially in our control, try and focus on what you apply to it as opposed to the outcome. For instance, you tried your hardest at winning at scrabble.
Embrace negative visualization
“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.” — Seneca
Most of us have negative thoughts; some of us quite regularly. For a long time, I viewed this as self-detrimental, and I still think it can be. Manically obsessing over things that might go wrong in your life isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of a healthy practice. But the Stoics would purposely meditate on bad things that could happen in their life.
First of all negative visualization can help against hedonic adaption, by not taking things for granted. What if you were to lose what you now have? Secondly, by intellectually simulating events, you can better deal with them if they happen. Contemplate the loss of friends, family, possessions abilities and freedoms. Contemplate our own mistakes.
It’s important to understand that this is not worrying. It’s a focused and mindful exercise that can help you appreciate life more.
“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.” — Epictetus.
Do away with pride. Anyone seeking true wisdom must concede how little they know, and as they learn more, how little they understand. Always ask questions and stay curious; learn from people around you.