The Great, Great Grandfather of Self-Help
“It is the power of the mind to be unconquerable.” ― Seneca
What if I told you that there was an ancient yet tried and true method for dealing with life’s problems, anxieties and stresses all the while giving us the necessary tools to grow as individuals no matter our circumstances? While much has changed the past couple thousands of years, humanity has always looked for a way to deal with these day to day inconveniences. Luckily for us, there were a few individuals whose wisdom blessed us with the answers to our ordeals. And it can arguably be said that nobody did it better than the Stoics.
Stoicism is a practical philosophy that originated in Ancient Greece that embodies personal development as a way of life, a duty and a standard. Being a Stoic does not involve adhering to a religion nor a set of dogmatic creeds. On the contrary, rational thinking and clear self-introspection are both highly necessary in order to embark upon this journey of self-growth and personal development. Stoicism in its truest essence is the great grandfather of what we now consider to be self-help and its principles have been used by some of the most powerful and influential people to ever walk the earth.
Stoicism is accessible to any individual from any walk of life and to begin as a true student of the philosophy, only one prerequisite is required: You must begin by holding yourself completely and fully accountable for your progress in your self-development or lack thereof. It does not matter from where you begin, all that matters is that you accept your outside circumstances for what they currently are and make a conscious and firm resolution to begin to treat each and every day as a growing experience.
“A stoic is someone who transform prudence into fear, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation and desire into undertaking.” — Nassim Nicolas Taleb
Ultimately, the goal in Stoicism lay in our daily practice of being able to apply the philosophy towards the betterment of our lives while applying timeless principles that will ultimately provide a psychological framework of mental strength and resilience as well as inner peace and tranquility. Everyday is an opportunity to further better ourselves and the practice of Stoicism just happens to be the perfect vehicle on our journey towards our individual self-development.
“Objective judgement, now at this very moment. Unselfish action, now at this very moment. Willing acceptance — now at this very moment — of all external events. That’s all you need.” — Marcus Aurelius
A (Very) Brief History of Stoicism
While the history of Stoicism, it’s beginnings and its eventual decline in society would encompass a whole book in itself, it can be briefly explained as a philosophy that originated in Ancient Athens and was to be eventually widely practiced by citizens, soldiers and emperors throughout the eras of one of the most powerful and sophisticated civilizations of the past, the mighty Roman Empire. In today’s day and age, the usage and study of philosophy has changed dramatically from what it once was and has steered its way towards becoming synonymous with classroom discussions and academic theories, eventually being replaced by psychology and therapy in our modern day society.
However, one does not have to look far to see the influence that Stoicism has had upon our Western civilization. The creator of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Albert Ellis, directly credits Stoicism as a highly influential and powerful tool in his own life and the eventual forming of his treatment model, most specifically the teachings of the Greek slave turned philosopher Epictetus. While we have no actual recorded writings that stem directly from Epictetus, we were fortunate enough to have his teachings passed on by his student and disciple Arrian in his short book, the Enchidiron (translated directly to mean the Manual) and his much longer work, the Discourses of Epictetus. It is through these works that we are able to see how philosophy was not considered an abstract discipline but rather a framework for living a great life regardless of external events.
Epictetus taught that while we may not prevent outside events from occurring that are not within our power to control, our reactions to these events are what ultimately determine our passage in life. Unfortunately however, most of unconsciously respond to what happens to us and operate on auto-pilot instead of making conscious decisions. Epictetus believed that the practice of Stoicism should be the foundation for living and encourage us to make wiser decisions about our thoughts and actions and in the process achieve mental superiority over any kind of external circumstance.
“The essence of philosophy is that we should live our lives so that our happiness depends as little possible on external causes.” — Epictetus
Another highly infamous practitioner and student of Stoicism was the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, considered the last of the Great Five Emperors of Rome. Throughout his political and military campaigns, he wrote what is considered to be one of our greater sources of our current understanding of the Stoic philosophy in his self-addressed journal known simply as Meditations. The mere fact that such a man of great influence and power would use cognitive challenges learned from the philosophy to test his mental strength daily is the perfect example of the way of life that Stoicism calls for each one of us to pursue. With no intentions of releasing his journal, Meditations was a source for his own personal writings of introspection and his musings on self-development.
Fortunately, historians were also able to recover the writings of a very influential Stoic known as Seneca, who differed from the previously mentioned Stoics in the sense that he was a high ranking and wealthy financial clerk, a very talented essayist and a political adviser to one of the most notorious emperors in history, Nero. Not only did Seneca write essays concerning Stoicism and its use in day to day life, he was truly a student of Stoicism himself and used these principles to remain calm and calculated, regardless of his external circumstances or conditions.
These Stoic philosophers differ greatly from most other historical philosophical figures due to the fact that they practiced what they preached. Life was the test and Stoicism was the study guide. Maxims, or short sayings, were a highly impactful manner in which Stoics were able to constantly remind themselves of the tenets of the philosophy. The following four chapters encompass four Stoic daily practices that are meant to be applied in the same manner, to be memorized and practiced daily while never forgetting that without application, there can be no real growth nor true progress.
“There is a need, in my view…. a standard against which our character can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you wont make crooked straight.” — Seneca
First Stoic Principle: What is Mine and What is Not
“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 Frankl
A daily practice that constitutes a large domain of the Stoic philosophy is the wisdom and knowledge of discerning what lies within our control and that which does not. This practice can be used from the smallest annoyances all the way up to our biggest life decisions and should ultimately be the mental starting point for our self-development. Though the world may be chaotic and unpredictable, our responses are completely under our control and these responses include both our attitudes and behavior. Let’s say for example that you are dealing with a very troublesome individual at your place of work. While you may not be able to control his or her actions and behaviors, you are able to control the way you perceive, feel and react towards this individual. Everything else that is not within your sphere of volition should not be of any concern to you whatsoever. This individual at your workplace is but a practical philosophical test of learning in patience and self-restraint and when we can begin to look at all external events in this manner, every opportunity, obstacle and challenge provides a possibility for positive self-growth. Life can be rough but calm seas never made for a skillful sailor.
“When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles.” — Seneca
We will always grow and develop in proportion to the difficulty or obstacle that we are facing or willing to face. It is not in accomplishing our goals that make us truly successful but rather the individual that we grow to become. Always remember, true power comes only from self-supremacy. A proficient archer is not worried about the wind affecting his aim so much as he is with his ability to adjust his aim accordingly to his outside circumstances. And just as a professional poker player has learned to use what cards are dealt to achieve victory in a sport of “luck”, so can we achieve victory in the sport of life if we are able to grasp this incredible principle and its application. The mastery of being able to apply this practice to all areas of our life allows for a tremendous amount of tranquility and power and only through constant application can we firmly defend ourselves against external difficulties or annoyances and remain the true masters of ourselves.
“When you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?” — Marcus Aurelius.
It is through our daily struggles and tests that are we are able to grow in character. If somebody annoys us, we have the opportunity to grow in patience. If somebody hurts us, we can grow in strength by learning to forgive. If somebody anger us, we learn to maintain emotional equilibrium. If we are put in a tough situation, we are forced to grow tougher in order to face the situation. Stoicism is truly an embracement of life in all its wholeness. Unfortunately, modern day ”pop” psychology would have us believe that failure and unfortunate events are but the effects of some cause within us rather than having us use the opportunity to grow in a certain manner befitting of the situation. A gem cannot be polished without friction nor a man without his trials.
Viktor Frankl, the famed therapist and author who wrote about his experiences throughout his bondage at Auschwitz, famously wrote in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” that the last thing that can be taken away from a human being is the right to choose one’s own attitude, no matter the circumstance. He was able to observe first hand that the survivors of the Holocaust were not necessarily the strongest nor the smartest but they hung on to hope with resilience and persistence that pushed the borders of the extremity of the human spirit. This can be considered the ultimate essence of the incredible power of a philosophy such as Stoicism. A true test of a philosophy is not how well it can be debated among academics in classrooms but rather in its usefulness in providing us with the necessary knowledge and wisdom to survive and thrive throughout any given conditions or circumstances..
“Make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as it happens.” — Epictetus
Second Stoic Principle: Indomitable Self-Discipline & The Power of Focus
”You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realiize this and you will find strength” — Marcus Aurelius
Once one is able to easier distinguish the difference between what is under our control and what is not, it is much easier to maintain a high performance mindset, through self-discipline and focus, that will act as a bridge between you and your life goals. In Stoicism, self-discipline would actually be much more synonymous with training for life. We mentally train everyday to not fall victim to our fears and anxieties by using the power of focus to concentrate on what we can control: our thoughts and actions and ignoring that which does not matter. Without training, there can be no victory. And the ultimate victory lies in becoming the kings of ourselves.
Through self-discipline we are able to create powerful habits through the training of our actions by consistently focusing on what is most important to you- a decision you must undertake yourself and also completely under your control. Self discipline is something that you can learn by continuous practice, over and over, until you master it. Maintain your focus regardless of external events and never wait until you feel like doing something or you will never do it. Do it day by day and you will begin to see yourself beating the resistance that comes from fear and in the process create a powerful habit that will make your success seem almost effortless. Once you have mastered the ability to delay gratification as well as mastering the power of keeping your attention focused on the one thing which is truly the most important, there is virtually no goal that you cannot accomplish and no task that you cannot complete.
”It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.” — Seneca
Epictetus reminds us in the Enchidiron that no great thing is created suddenly and we should have patience with our progress in the eventual accomplishment of our goal. Once we use the power of self-discipline as well as our focus to build a strong habit, lack of will power ceases to be a cause for concern. Be not impatient in your advancement. If it takes time for a harvest to bear fruit and ripen, how much more so for the human mind and the betterment of one’s character and realization of one’s ambitions? The time will pass anyways, this is completely and utterly out of your control. What you can control is the choice of who you will become and what you shall accomplish once that time passes. Life is not about finding yourself, it is about creating yourself.
“Let all your activity be directed toward some end, let it have some object in mind.” — Seneca
While we can never control that which is outside of the scope of our power, we have the great gift of focus and self-discipline that allow for us to move forth in the course of our goals no matter the impediments . A true decision, which requires a great amount of self-discipline and resolution, is an incredibly powerful internal process that falls within the scope of what we can control. A decision to wake up in the morning and continue to follow our workout routine. A decision to break off a terrible relationship and go in search of a better one or find happiness in solitude. A true and firm decision to self-actualize in the manner that we best see fit. While fear may always find some sort of stealthy manner of creeping in and trying to halt our eventual success, the repeated courage to continue to remain true to what we intend to do and being indifferent to that which does not matter is the ultimate difference between those that fail and those who succeed. Our lives end up becoming self-fulfilling prophecies and are a reflection of the mental state that we choose to embrace. Who dares, wins.
Every new day is a new chance to make a decision that could lead us towards a great life and we must take the time to figure out and contemplate what is the most important goal in our life that will make the biggest and most positive difference. It is impossible to chase two rabbits and catch both. Narrow your focus as much as possible while constantly using the power of self discipline to take massive action so as to truly be able to master yourself and in the process create your circumstances according to your decision.
Another very important factor to consider that was of high importance to the Stoics is the fact that while we may be able to control our initial action towards the completion of our goals, the outcome is out of our control and though we may “fail”. we must accept graciously the result and use it as a learning experience. The Stoics used the practice of finishing their statements with “fate permitting”. If it so happens that we fail, it is through it that we are able to better ourselves and our strategies to better find the actions that are necessary to accomplish our desired goal.
”A man’s worth is no greater than the worth of his ambitions.” — Marcus Aurelius
Obstacles and other road blocks are solely life’s way of testing the strength of our decision while weeding out those who have not yet learned the true power that lay within our grasp. Our plans may not always be perfect and will usually require revisions but if you can find the will, the way will also surely appear. The greatest achievers in today’s society have no secret set of rituals that remain undisclosed to the common people. Take a look at somebody you admire and you will find that their process is actually quite simple. A decision is undertook to do something that usually causes others to doubt or ridicule yet their mental tenacity and absolute focus to stick to their aims until completion acts as an incredibly powerful catalyst that eventually leads them towards ultimate success.
Most importantly, Stoicism is a philosophy of action and through our power of self-discipline and decision making, we begin to consciously choose actions that will build habits that guide us along our paths towards success. Just as a boat without a destination will remain stranded at sea, so will you if you do not begin today to consciously choose what it is that you want from your life and build habits that lead you towards your aims. Only then can you begin to accomplish with ease and effortlessness that once you what may have not thought possible for yourself.
“Concentrate every minute like a Roman — like a man — on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can — if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you.” — Marcus Aurelius
Third Stoic Principle: Unshackling the Chains of Attachment
“To live the good life: We have the potential for it. If we can learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference.”
- Marcus Aurelius
We suffer from anxiety and mental pain because we attach ourselves to things that are out of our control and therefore we remain bound to events, circumstances and situations which lead us to feelings of hopelessness and despair. The choice to attach ourselves only to that which is truly ours and under our control is the ultimate method of true mental freedom from unrest and mental despair.
To be free of such conditions, Stoicism asks that we learn to accept the fact that everything that we attach ourselves to that is not of our control is impermanent and transitory. This does not mean that we are to be cold, selfish nor careless for our outside circumstances. Instead, we are to accept graciously the individuals, conditions and circumstances that life has given us but remain steadfast in the training of the things within our control.
“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.”
- Marcus Aurelius
A cruise ship can have many stops at different destinations of great wonders but all of us are called back to the boat once our itinerary calls for it. Likewise, the journey of life will lead us to many different places and bring many great things as well as people and experiences but we must learn to free ourselves from these attachments and remain committed to the itinerary which we have set for ourselves. Unfortunately, life gives to us but also takes away. The eventual passing of what lay around us should actually encourage us to more fully show compassion, love and happiness towards those that happen to be in our lives.
“Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature’s delight.” — Marcus Aurelius
Attachments and desires to material and external conditions outside of our control lead us to make terrible decisions and cause us unnecessary anxiety. Now more than ever, it is much more difficult for us not to become attached due to technology become an ever-increasing presence in our society. The influence of social media in our lives can be seen everywhere and shows absolutely no signs of slowing down in the near future. In the face of this, Stoicism calls for us to keep a daily practice of attaching ourselves only to that in our control and through that, be able to make wiser decisions. It is fabled that King Solomon, rumored to be the wisest individual in history, asked of his servants to construct for him a ring with an inscription in which he could look to for tranquility no matter the situation. The ring simply stated: “This too shall pass”.
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to thing the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and over this you have to power to revoke at any moment.” — Marcus Aurelius
One of the more commonly known stoic practices, negative visualization is an incredibly effective method of practicing gratitude for what we have in our lives. Stoic texts encourage us to use negative visualization in a manner that might seem quite extreme to the novice student in a mental practice in which we observe all the many things around us and realize that everything shall pass eventually, whether it be a material possession or a loved one. Not only does this prepare us emotionally for whatever may come our way, it is also a highly great way of not taking things for granted as we all so often do.
Negative visualization also allows us to better predict possible pitfalls and extraneous circumstances and in the process better prepare ourselves for whatever may lay ahead. A common human flaw in all of us is to want what we can’t have and when we have what we want, our desires only increase and thus never leave us satisfied nor feeling fulfilled. To want what one has is ultimately the greatest source of happiness. The practice of negative visualization will allow us to learn to begin each new day with a sense of true gratitude and fulfillment that will ultimately bring about a greater standard of living and appreciation.
“A wise man is he who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” — Epictetus
Fourth Stoic Principle: From Ashes to Ashes
“You live as if you were destined to live forever. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last.”
A highly prominent theme throughout Stoicism is the reminder of the fact that we are all dying. As highly negative is that may sound, this is probably one of the greatest ways to remember to live. The philosopher Epictetus equated it to the metaphor of comparing life to residing at a hotel. How long our actual stay is to be is not up to us and therefore we should enjoy our stay and never fear following our hearts before we one day check out. Steve Jobs, the tech genius who changed the world forever, reminded himself daily of his mortality before making any life choices because it was a great mental note of not falling into the illusion that we have anything to lose in this life besides life itself. Death helps us realize that every continued day is but another blessing, every breath a gift.
To be content with throwing days away doing things that do not make up a fulfilling existence is the ultimate ingratitude and we should continually strive to seize each day. It is not that we are not given a good lot of time to live but that we fall into the trap of being on auto-pilot and living without purpose. We spend the majority of our life never having truly lived. Stoicism would have us keep this reminder of our mortality in order for us to live life to the fullest. How many instances have we heard of where an individual is given X amount of time to live and suddenly ends up achieving his wildest dreams that others may not have considered possible? And why is it that we should wait for our time of death to be announced for us to start living? Everybody has an expiration date, some just so happen to know it.
“You are scared of dying, and tell me, is the kind of life you live any different from being dead?” — Seneca
Constantly reminding ourselves that we are living on borrowed time helps us to live without fear of pity, embarrassment, and other such negative impediments that prevent us from doing what we truly want. Once we are able to more deeply understand and accept this truth, we see our anxieties and mental troubles for the illusion that they are and we can begin to live in a much more productive, tranquil and conscious manner. And as each day comes our way, we should enjoy it without any impatience for what lay ahead nor for what has already gone. Life is loaned to us and therefore we should not complain but instead enjoy living in a standard of excellence.
“Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment…he can have no other life than the one he loses.” -Marcus Aurelius
This daily Stoic practice allows us to continue to better follow our previously explained Stoic practices by allowing for clearer focus, better choices, gratitude and a higher standard of living. In other words, if you knew that your life were ending soon, would you still be doing what you’re doing right now? If the answer is a continuous no from day to day, take a stand for your own individual human right to live a life that is befitting of your definition of happiness and success.