In this post I look a simple series of questions which can help clear your mind for rational thinking. And to suggest how simple changes in language can lead to tranquility and an anxiety free life.
A Simple Truth
Stoics, understood a simple truth. It’s important to distinguish between what is under our control, and what isn’t. By doing this the level of anxiety, depression and frustration you feel will reduce. Only your own thoughts and actions are under your control. Meet the things outside of your control with courteous indifference.
Daniel Gilbert said much the same thing
The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless and depressed.
Often the way we perceive control and how we react to events is because of the way we think about them. Sometimes this thinking is correct, but often it isn’t. Events are not good or bad in their own right. It’s how we interpret them that drives our emotions; refer to the quote above.
The best way to consider this is to split the mind into two, as shown in the image below:
One part, the emotional mind, is more reactive. If we feel threatened or we are in danger, then the emotional mind responds. The rational mind is more about using facts and data to decide the truth. Being able to calm the emotional mind, if we need to, and then reconcile the two, is where Stoic principles can help.
How to cultivate a Stoic mind
I use the following four questions to help ground my thoughts in a more Stoic way:
- What is factual and true? Attempt to establish what is happening by gathering information and determining facts. Then challenge your beliefs based on evident truths. Distress to both the rational and emotional minds occur when it is difficult to determine what is true. You may convey this ambiguity in anger and irritation. By approaching a situation in a non-judgmental way then you are unlikely to take the actions and beliefs of others as a personal attack.
- Are my emotions well placed? If prompted by emotions to react, then challenge these by searching for proof of validity. Ask, if I act on this emotion right now then will later reflection lead me to regret it?
- Have I kept this in context? Place the event or situation in context. Use the View From Above technique. Remember, everything comes and goes. Ask, how important is this in the grand scheme of things? Will people still be talking about this in 100 years’ time?
- Am I using balanced judgement? All or nothing thinking leads to unsympathetic judgement. View life in shade of grey. Often there are facts that you won’t be in possession of, so defer judgement for now.
Also, try to use daily meditations help you to question if you have acted morally to events, regarding them as “matters of indifference”. Another important aspect, which is sometimes overlooked, is the importance of language.
Choose Your Words Carefully
Once I started to appreciate what I could and could not control, I made some changes in the language I used. For example, I reduced the amount of times I used the words, “must” and “should”. I replaced “must” with “might” and “should” with “could”.
So what? What difference does this make? Well, for example, instead of saying, “My children SHOULD clean their bedrooms”, I now say, “My children COULD clean their bedrooms”.
Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are in our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible. — Epictetus
The subtle differences between the two sentences is that the word “should” triggers a sense of judgement, a demand. The word “could” evokes an option, a choice, a possibility.
If I believe that my children’s bedrooms should be clean, when they aren’t then it’s probable that I’m going to feel annoyed, irritated or upset. In reality, my children don’t have the same standards and ideals as me. Nor do they live their lives in a way that always corresponds to my beliefs. Once I accepted this and replaced the word “should” with the word “could” I ended up with a truth which was easier to deal with. If the bedrooms are not tidy then I’m not saddened or shocked.
So the next time you feel levels of anxiety creeping upwards, consider if you’ve used language appropriate to the amount of control you have. Let go of the things you can’t control and focus on the things you can.
Consider this quote:
Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life. — Moral letters to Lucilius by Seneca, Letter 101. On the futility of planning ahead, 10.
This suggests that leading a life where you are true to yourself, reflecting on progress, and making regular changes for the better can start now.
Dr Steve Peters in his book, The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Management Programme to Help You Achieve Success, Confidence and Happiness, suggests that you could take the time to decide what would provide you with a fulfilling life. What do you believe your life is about and, how should you live?
For those who are religious then perhaps faith will provide this? Yet, what happens if you have no belief in a God? What then?
The exercise that Dr Peters recommends is to imagine you are on your deathbed, with minutes left before you pass away. Your great-grandchild visits and asks you, “Before you die, tell me what I should do with my life?”
How would you answer?
This doesn’t need to be a complex reply. For example, my response to this is, “Do your best for those you care about, without compromising your own happiness.” The achievement or otherwise of this is within my power. This is a significant idea within Stoicism. It does not rely on anyone but myself to make this a reality.
If you need some inspiration on formulating your own response then read this article, The top five regrets of the dying.
Answering this question reveals what is important to you and guides your actions and behaviours. This then begs the question, “Are you living by your own advice?” If not then you are living a lie. Yet, Seneca suggests all is not lost.
You can choose to start to follow your own counsel, today. It is up to you.
Remember that the mind is a wonderful thing. It’s also a complete liar that tries to convince you not to take actions we know are good for us. It has the ability to stop many great changes in our lives. The mind wants comfort, and is afraid of discomfort and change. The mind is used to its comfort cocoon, and anytime we try to push beyond that comfort zone very far or for very long, the mind tries desperately to get back into the cocoon. At any cost, including our long-term health and happiness.
Following your own counsel may seem too hard, we may think we can’t stick to the change. We don’t believe in ourselves. Counter this by realising that many other people no more capable than us have done it. Push yourself into more discomfort than we let ourselves believe. We can be a bit cold, instead of needing to be at the perfect comfortable temperature. We can do hard exercise, instead of needing to lay around on the couch. We can write that thing we’ve been procrastinating on — it might be hard, but we can push through that. When our minds seek comfort, don’t let them run — push a little bit outside the comfort zone, and begin to be okay with a bit of discomfort.
I think about this during the time I set aside each day for reflection. It provides a reminder that I could choose to live my day to the best of my abilities, or otherwise. When today becomes yesterday and tomorrow becomes today, I try to have no regrets. After all tomorrow may never arrive.
Have the points I’ve raised in this post triggered any thoughts? If so, please consider leaving a comment below: