Stoicism In A Nutshell: How To Manage The Difficulties In Life
The stoics managed their emotions extraordinarily well
Before I discovered stoicism, I was plagued with the particular teenage angst most of us have experienced. I can’t remember how I came across it — probably because Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is in every self-improvement book club.
While I have not become cured of negative feelings and I still hit lows, stoicism has definitely provided tools and equipment for me to deal with it.
So what is stoicism?
Let’s start with urban dictionary’s definition of a stoic.
Someone who does not give a shit about the stupid things in this world that most people care so much about. Stoics do have emotions, but only for the things in this world that really matter. They are the most real people alive.
Group of kids are sitting on a porch. Stoic walks by.
Kid — “Hey man, yur a fuckin faggot an you suck cock!”
Stoic — “Good for you.”
I started with this definition not only because its satire is hilarious, but also because stoicism isn’t well defined. Even within practitioners of the stoic philosophy, there is no agreed definition.
There are however, some common characteristics in what they believe.
Before I depict the ideas delivered by stoicism, I’d like to introduce you to a few characters who are defining figures in the stoic community.
The Stoic Fathers — Our Mentors in Life
Marcus Aurelius — our kind, generous and forgiving Roman Emperor who ruled from 161–180 AD. Spending most of his reign on the edges of the empire, he followed the stoic philosophy deeply to maintain his sanity. Unbeknownst to him, his nightly journal was published into a book after his death as the now famous Meditations — arguably the most significant source of ancient Stoic philosophy.
Seneca — tutor and advisor to Nero (yes the same one who forced him to commit suicide) and a celebrated rhetorician, satirist, author and playwright. He is perhaps the modern day entrepreneur. He was quite the rich man of his time.
Epictetus — was born a slave. He knew how to endure torture and created a framework to battle it. He later turned on to become one of the most sought after philosophers — even directly tutoring the great emperor Marcus Aurelius. His teachings were written down and published by his student Arrian in his, Discourses and Enchiridion.
Stoicism was perhaps the unofficial religion of the Roman world. It was founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens and made its way all the way to Rome.
It was widespread from the emperor all the way to peasants. It was practical and didn’t bully you into believing that you’re silly for finding life difficult. The stoics were extremely grounded in reality.
Stoic Beliefs — Life Is Not Easy
When life is difficult, the stoics wouldn’t tell you to ‘cheer up’ or ‘be happy’ if you’re down. They never told you to be more positive.
In fact they propagated the opposite.
They believed that you shouldn’t try to have hope for the future, but rather eradicate hope. To the stoics, hope was the heroin of emotions — the higher you’re lifted, the deeper you’ll fall.
Often the stoics would tell you that bad things will happen. That yes, your partner might leave you, your car might get hijacked, you might go to prison — but that it’s going to be okay. They would tell you that life is filled with misfortune and you’re going to get through it.
They declared that negative emotions are the product of mistaken judgements. That our expectations for reality were incorrect and we should live in accordance to reality.
To the stoics, a good mental state is determined by its capacity of reason and virtue. A unanimous belief in the stoic community is that we shouldn’t be driven by emotion, but rationality. This doesn’t mean to stamp out emotions altogether.
It means to take emotions out of the driver’s seat and place them in the passenger seat.
Perhaps controversial in our hedonistic modernity is the belief of living in accordance to nature. This means that food is strictly for survival and health (goodbye Instagram food indulgences) and that sex is for reproduction only (crazy for my millennial brain to wrap my head around).
They believed that the possession of material goods would end up possessing you. That buying more things will only lead to the worry of maintaining those things.
Almost nothing material is needed for a happy life, for he who has understood existence. — Marcus Aurelius
Even more controversial is their belief in suicide. They believed that a man should be allowed to take his own life. In fact, when Seneca was asked to commit suicide by his student and now emperor Nero, he didn’t bat an eye. While his wife and children held onto him crying, he calmly declared “What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.”
Can you no longer see a road to freedom? It’s right in front of you. You need only turn over your wrists — Seneca
So now that you know a little bit about what the stoics believed, I hope you’re wondering how you can apply any of this to your life.
Here are some techniques that the stoics used.
The Stoic Equipment — Tools To Live A Better Life
Negative visualisation is the act of imagining the loss of what is important to you.
It‘s most commonly used by the stoics to eradicate their fear of loss and to lessen the impact when loss actually happens. If you’re afraid of losing your wife, imagine that she has already left you. If you’re afraid of losing your car, imagine that you have just crashed it into a pole. If you’re afraid of running out of money, imagine living on the streets.
And ask yourself: ‘Is this really the condition that I fear?’
The premise of negative visualisation is that if you imagine the loss of things, when they actually happen the emotional impact will be much lesser. You will have already expected it. Because despite our authentic efforts to prevent bad things, they happen.
Misfortune weighs most heavily on those who expect nothing but good fortune — Seneca
Most of us live in hedonic adaption — where we chase our desires only to realise that we have now adapted to the new state and now we have more desires.
Negative visualisation reverses the hedonic adaption process. Instead of desiring things we don’t have, it helps us desire the things we already have. Visualising the loss of a limb, our partners or our material goods establishes a certain gratitude towards them.
The stoics asserted that while enjoying our loved ones, we should periodically reflect on the possibility that the existence of our loved ones disappear.
Epictetus provides us with the advice that whenever we kiss a child, remember that she has been given to us “for the present, not inseparably nor for ever” and that we should reflect on the possibility that our enjoyment of this child will end.
Worry only of what you can control
Epictetus proclaims that our most important choice in life is to decide whether to concern ourselves with the external or internal.
Most of us choose the former. We believe that our environment possesses what is good and what is bad.
The stoics believed that all benefits and harm come from inside of us. That we must give up rewards of the external world to gain tranquility, freedom and calm.
They believed that desire by default makes us unhappy because we want something we don’t have. That happiness and desire for what is present is impossible.
The technique they used to manage this unforgiving truth is to change your desires, not the world around you. To convince ourselves out of desires in our environment, the stoics pronounced that our primary desire should be to prevent frustration from forming desires we won’t be able to fulfil.
Epictetus illustrated this idea with a model named the ‘Dichotomy of Control’. The dichotomy is a simple truth quite easily forgotten — that some things are up to us and some things aren’t.
Only focus on the things that are in our control.
Offer yourself to fate
Most of us have expectations for what we want in the world. And when those expectations don’t come true, it may feel like the universe is against us.
The stoics advised us to take reality — or fate as we go along. According to Epictetus, we should keep in mind that we are actors in a play written by someone else — the fates.
We can’t choose our role in this play. So instead of desiring things that didn’t happen, desire events to happen as they do happen.
It is a great consolation that it is together with the universe we are swept along”— Seneca
Marcus Aurelius dictated that anything else would be rebelling against nature. That we should love the people that the fates have bestowed upon us, welcome whatever responsibilities fall onto us and accept reality as we go.
Keep in mind this is the same man who spent most of his time responsible for the wars he had to battle.
Seneca asserts that we should periodically reflect on the daily events that have happened and how you can improve (coincides heavily with the self-improvement genre).
He got this idea from his teacher Sextius who proclaimed that every night he would interrogate his mind with the same question:
“What ailment of yours have you cured today? What failing have you resisted? Where can you show improvement?”
Seneca tells us a few tales of situations in which he has implemented this. One of them is the following:
When he was too aggressive in reprimanding someone, rather than to declare the person for being weak-willed or whatnot, he gave himself advice instead. He decided that if he was to give constructive criticism, he should not only consider whether the criticism is valid but to also consider whether the person can stand to be criticised.
Personally, I do my reflections in a journal every night. The two questions I ask every night are:
What am I grateful for today?
How could I have improved today?
We have a lot to learn from the stoics. Many of their techniques for living a healthy emotional life can be applied daily. Their practicality and well-grounded attitude never ceases to amaze me.
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