Life can feel difficult.
Sometimes bad things happen — this is an inescapable truth.
The ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism suggests that hardship should be dealt with through knowledge and reason. A Stoic endures acts without complaint to achieve tranquillity.
What can we learn from this philosophy?
The stoic would suggest people are not necessarily disturbed by events but by their interpretation of the event. A subtle shift in your interpretation of events; no single event will be able to bring you down so easily.
The primary aim of Stoic philosophy is to help individuals live a meaningful life and become the best version of themselves.
This philosophy is powerful.
There is a lot of misconception surrounding Stoicism. Many believe it is cynical. A common misrepresentation of Stoic individual is that of an individual whom lacks emotion. This is a false notion. Stoicism is not about pessimism, but about neutrality.
At its core Stoicism’s focus is equipping you to not only survive, but thrive, in high stress situations. This is done by learning to ground yourself in logic and using intellect, the faculties which differentiates us from non-sentient beings.
What if I told you where you are currently at in life, right now, is a direct result of the sum total of every decision you have ever made.
If you are happy with your current circumstances, it is likely you have a successful “operating system” to handle life’s obstacles. I believe many people are unable to explore their full potential because they lack an operating system to guide their thinking.
Ultimately, practising Stoicism, you train yourself to be less reactive and more proactive.
So, what are these amazing techniques?
Below I have presented them within a simplistic format, dividing Stoic practises into 3 levels of difficulty. As complexity tends to be the enemy of execution, keep it simple at least to begin with.
“Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation” — Seneca
How often do we take the people in our life for granted, or roof over our head, or food we enjoy at each meal? By taking a moment to visualise the loss of that which you hold dear, you immediately experience gratitude for that which you already have.
Taking this a step further — make an effort to visualise negative scenarios which could potentially occur during your day. This simple exercise will prepare you to handle any obstacles which may arise.
This may sound counter intuitive, due to the general advocacy shaped by the popularity of books such as ‘the secret’ and many others within the self-help industry advocating positive thinking.
Positive thinking alone is an easily sold message and, to be honest, unrealistic. Many books in the self-help industry provide a feel-good experience and give the reader blind hope that — If they just think positive — their dreams will unravel at their very feet. Don’t get me wrong, positivity is a helpful tool and the world needs more positive people, however alone it is insufficient to deal with all of life obstacles.
Personally, I do my negative visualisation first thing in the morning, as It gives your mind more time to think of solutions. It can also be done while you exercise, or as a way of transforming idle time such as your commute or whilst you shower. This technique is incredibly easy to implement, and it is where you should begin if you plan to incorporate stoic practises into your daily routine.
Try to incorporate all of your senses while visualising, The more lucid, the more unfair an advantage ( and greater confidence) to crush whatever stands between you and your goals.
“Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself”. — Marcus Aurelius
“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinions of himself than on the opinions of others.” — Marcus Aurelius
Achieving tranquillity is difficult. Friends, family and co-workers can easily disturb you if you do not have a philosophy to guide your interactions.
This isn’t to say you should isolate yourself from the influence of others. Rather, you should actually seek negative experiences and gather insults from others — as opportunities to practise your Stoicism.
When faced with insults, typically the impulse is to retaliate with a counter-insult. This is not a stoically appropriate method of dealing with insults, by retaliating you have fallen into their trap and lowered yourself allowing emotions to control you.
Instead, experiment with self-depreciating humour. Suggest matters are even worse than the other is implying. This doesn’t validate the insult but shows a confidence and indifference to the comment: its laughable. In addition, this will likely frustrate provocateur more, which is always a bonus.
Trichotomy of control
The Stoics believe, in life, there are things which you have no control, complete control or some control over.
They also suggest It’s wise to concern yourself only with the latter two.
Concerning yourself with things outside of your control induces anxiety and wastes time.
To make distinctions between each you must become a psychological fatalist.
If you find yourself often lost in wishful thinking, or reminiscing about the past, this would fall under “no control”. It’s healthier to accept the past no matter what, and fully embrace the present.
For any goal you may have, stop thinking about the outcome and focus entirely on the process. You can’t be sure that you will win a competition; reach a certain level of mastery; ace that interview — but you can be certain that you worked your hardest and prepared in advance for the event.
This is especially true during these uncertain times. Many people are struggling with unemployment and emotions such as anger and anxiety. Internet media is well practised at infecting people with wishful thinking and political divisiveness- how many people changed the world with a retweet? Instead, why not focus on learning a new skill? Be proactive; use this time to become a person better equipped to deal and influence the world you live in.
Ask yourself how would a Stoic react to a time like this?
Laugh at your anger
Stoics teach us anger is a manifestation of stupidity.
Anger is the antagonist of joy. Expressing anger offers a release for negative energy in the moment but can be followed by regret.
Dwelling on angry thoughts about an individual that has done you wrong will exacerbates your pain, but is not a solution. Besides, it doesn’t even necessarily hold accountable, or punish, the person who has done you wrong.
If harnessed properly anger can act as a great fuel for action, but this anger must be controlled. It must also be tempered with knowledge and reason.
It could be said that anger stems from having the wrong ideas about life.
When it rains, do you shout and get angry? (I hope not). This is because we have learnt to expect rain. This approach should be generalised to life. Don’t be surprised by events such as betrayal, greed & spite. A wise individual will reach a state of mind where nothing disturbs him as every perceived tragedy has been factored in.
As cynical as this sounds, there is an antidote: humour. Laugh at events and view life as a large, random drama. By laughing you’re telling yourself there is nothing to worry about.
Walk towards discomfort, yes you heard that right. Sounds strange right, considering the fact that stoicisms objective is to achieve a tranquil existence.
So then why deliberately walk into a psychological firing range?
You may have heard the phrase “The more you sweat in peacetime, the less you bleed during war”. Performing acts which cause psychological disturbance provide an immunisation jab for when it’s really time to step up, only this time you won’t be crippled by your mind due to your comfort with discomfort. You’re equipped to confront, and hopefully vanquish, the fear of failure.
This may sound intense; but I find it useful to picture it as a battle within your very own psyche. There is your lower nature self, which seeks the path of least resistance. It is a simple-minded pleasure seeking self. This self is not your friend it- is your enemy. You are seeking dominance over this self that’ll only be achieved by continuous voluntary discomfort.
A large price to pay, but not as costly as missing a life dictated by your own values rather than a lack of discipline.
Seneca advised we voluntarily periodically live as if we are poor. You could fast, sleep on the floor, or go out in the cold under dressed.
I recommend, to kickstart this, take a cold shower first thing in the morning. This simple act will demonstrate the power of deliberate suffering. The effects of winning this battle over your lower self-first reaffirms who is in control, and sets you up for a day well-lived.
Simplifying your lifestyle
Almost nothing material is needed for a happy life.
‘Overcome the desire to be impressed by others, external trappings’
Try dressing down. Wear a cheap t-shirt from a thrift shop. Can your ego handle it? By Inducing, and thwarting, what you perceive as shame at inappropriate things, you are training yourself to only feel shame for the truly appropriate actions.
Perhaps this is the antidote for consumerism. People can’t suppress the unsuitable desire for more goods. Become a dysfunctional consumer. Imagine being content with the joy a simple life brings- and the freedom of financial security rather than material things!
Stoicism has so much to offer and I personally make use of many of the techniques and beliefs. It is not a perfect discipline and I wouldn’t advise you to put yourself in a box and call yourself a Stoic. There’s no need to start wearing Stoic t-shirts and chastising those whom don’t practise it. Associating anything at the identity level can be dangerous.
Rather, I believe it is best to explore many disciplines and integrate that which you find valuable to construct your own personal approach to life.
William Irvine’s book, A Guide to the Good Life