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5 small steps to a stoic life

Ole Ditlev Nielsen
Mar 21 · 5 min read

Have you heard of the term stoic calmness? Sounds nice, doesn’t it? That you can feel calmer and relaxed and stand firm when the storms of life unsettle us. In a hectic and confusing time like the one we live in, where there’s enough to get frustrated, upset or stressed about, calmness can serve as a shelter in the wind. And that’s where the stoic philosophy comes into play.

But what is stoicism all about? What is stoicism and how can it serve as an inspiration in our busy everyday life? How are we going to live a stoic life and how can it possibly be relevant in 2020?

As far as I am concerned, I can say that it is relevant. It is the philosophical direction that has meant the most to me and which I try to navigate through my everyday life. It has served me as a compass and directed me to move from being an employee to becoming a writer and being self-employed, and — more importantly — to keeping me upright when the earth begins to rise beneath me. And it does so from time to time, for all of us. I do not believe in a painless life, and stoicism has been an essential part of this realization.

A stoic life means to separate reasoning from your emotions

Roughly speaking, stoicism, a philosophy from antiquity, is about separating your emotions from your reasoning. Among the most famous stoics were people like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca the Younger and Epictetus.

Common to the stoic believe is the idea that we should make our choices based on reasoning alone and not let ourselves be guided by emotional influence. If you are the perfect stoic, you are not affected by adversity. No matter what happens, you stay calm, exude firmness and don’t change your behavior. It therefore can be extremely helpful — e.g. when the boss says something that makes no sense in a business meeting or when you are in the middle of an argument over the dishes at home.

It’s about separating what we can control from what we can’t control.

Living a stoic life is not like downloading an app that makes you more productive. It is not like doing 20 push-ups every morning or starting to go on a paleo diet and everything becomes wonderful in an instant. There’s so much of that kind of advice out there. They promise us a better, more beautiful or richer life, but that is not always the case. Perhaps we need a more fundamental system to follow. You could call it principles, realizations, or doctrines. What we call it is not important, but these 5 steps are a good guide to get started.

1) Reasoning is the starting point

Don’t make big decisions when you’re excited and under the influence of your emotions. Nature is guided by rational principles. Let your life be guided by the same thing.

2) The emotions are inside yourself

Influences can come from outside. Something your boss has said, lack of recognition from your partner, an idiotic politician, the rain, the morning traffic. What’s at the core is how we react inside ourselves. The fellow driver who fails to comply with his duty of care may very well be a fool, but he is not the one who makes us angry. We do it to ourselves. The feeling of anger is inside us and we can recognize that it is there. That it comes from within and that we have the power to simply let it pass by. The more we are aware that emotions are something we carry inside ourselves, the better we can control them and find our inner peace.

3) Accept that there are certain things that will cause pain

Life isn’t always easy. Sometimes it sucks. A person you care about gets sick. Your favorite team loses an important game. Maybe you’ll get a diagnosis yourself. Maybe there’s a new project at work that you think is downright stupid. Those things cause pain, but it’s also conditions we can’t always change. It helps to see these things as a temporary condition, just like the sun that rises every morning and the dew that falls every night in the meadow out in the wild.

4) There is a life after you have made mistakes

We all make mistakes. They cannot be avoided, so we must learn to move on. Rise up when we’re down. It’s possible and lets us learn from the mistakes we made and by our defeat. We can learn from them and see them as part of our lives.

5) Remember that time is your most important resource. Life is perishable

Look at this quote of the Roman stoic Seneca.

Seneca the Younger Quote
Seneca the Younger Quote

It is 2,000 years old, but still applicable today. Life is about what we do with the time available to us. Nothing more. Nothing less.

A stoic lifestyle in your everyday life

If you want a good and easy-to-understand guide to how you can implement stoicism into your daily life, this wikihow provides a good and comprehensive introduction. There are pages on the web that give you examples of how you can live a stoic life so you can quickly google your way forward. Even more inspiring, however, is to read from the stoics themselves. A good place to start is with Seneca and his thoughts on the shortness of life. It’s not a comic to read, but taken a little at a time, it will provide you with many perspectives and rewarding words that will give you thought for many days.

One question you might be left with is whether life will get boring with all this sanity? Do you lose the spontaneous, fun things that make life interesting and unpredictable? That is a good question, but my experience is that having a compass like this to navigate can in fact create freedom. If by living your life according to stoic principles you find peace to deal with pain and adversity, it lifts other aspects of your life. It’s like lifting a heavy backpack off your shoulders. You’re going to spend more of your time on what you find meaningful and important. It won’t make you a millionaire or a rock star, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s not about getting rich; it’s about living a rich life. The stoic principles and the five small steps above can help you achieve that.

Ole Ditlev Nielsen

Written by

Ole Ditlev Nielsen is a Danish author, teacher and public speaker. He has written well reviewed books about teaching, stress management and slow living.

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