The beauty of Stoicism lies in its simplicity and accessibility. Rather than a philosophy that requires a PHD to understand, it offers clear concepts that can be used to create a fulfilled and happier life.

 

What is Stoicism?

The concepts of stoicism teach us to be ready for anything, to be disciplined and in control of ourselves and to constantly monitor and reflect on the way we react. It gives perspective on the importance of everything in our ultimately short existence, and that there are no good or bad events, just our own perception that gives these events meaning.

 

Who are the key Stoic teachers?

Seneca (4BC – 65 AD):

Seneca was a statesman, philosopher, writer and the tutor and adviser to a rather infamous Roman Emperor: Nero.  He is known for his accessible writing style and clear presentation of stoic ideas. He finally met his end when Nero, his own student, politely requested that Seneca kill himself in front of his family and friends over a rather unlikely suspicion that he took part in an attempt to assassinate him.

Epictetus (55 AD – 135 AD):

Having been born a slave, Epictetus became an admired teacher after being banished to Greece.  He set up a school of philosophy, which went on to attract people from around the world. Most of his lessons were taught through conversations and lectures with his students but he never actually published anything. Luckily, one of his students decided to publish his full class notes, exposing his teachings to a significantly wider audience. Epictetus’ teachings later inspired a great Roman Emperor – Marcus Aurelius – who often referenced his work in his own writings.

Marcus Aurelius (121 AD – 180 AD):

Marcus Aurelius was the Roman Emperor from AD 161 until his death in AD 180. He is known as the last of five ‘good Emperors’ and is also a key stoic philosopher. Rather than sharing his ideas though lectures and writing, Marcus applied his knowledge of Stoicism to aid him in making key decisions as an Emperor. He would regularly write notes in his battlefield tent, not just as a form of meditation and reflection, but as a guide – based on experiences and ideas – to help him in the future. These notes were later compiled into a book called ‘Meditations’.

 

Key Philosophies:

We all die, we cannot take anything with us and we will all be forgotten:

A truth we often choose to forget, or to see as something that affects the old or the unfortunate. Stoicism makes a point of bringing our own demise into our everyday lives, highlighting that it can happen at any time.

“Death ought to be right there before the eyes of a young man just as much as an old one – the order in which we each receive our summons is not determined by our precedence in the register” – Seneca

This is arguably the most painful of the philosophies to accept, but also perhaps the one that has the power to create the biggest change in the way we see and understand the world. It highlights the opportunities we have in the present. It teaches us to not wait and put things off until tomorrow. It teaches that it is important to see death not as a bad thing, but as a natural progression and a part of life. Without death, we would not value the time we have been given.

“Death you will think of as the worst of all bad things, though in fact there is nothing bad about it at all except the thing which comes before it – the fear of it” – Seneca

“To pass through this brief life as nature demands; to give it up without complaint. Like an olive that ripens and falls. Praising it’s mother, thanking the tree it grew on.” – Marcus Aurelius

Death is not a positive or negative thing, it is just something that happens to us all: the rich, the poor, the influential and the unnoticed.  Which leads us on to the second point…

There are no good or bad events, just our own perception of them:

If you lost your job today, most people would usually see that as a bad thing. However, ‘bad’ is simply a definition or feeling that we choose to assign to the event. Loosing your job is just an event. It is your choice how to perceive it. What if instead, you decided to perceive loosing your job as an opportunity for change in a situation where you had felt trapped for years? What if the loss of your job now left you free to pursue a dream?

Once you have managed to detach your immediate emotional response to things that happen, you can build a logical framework and choose to assign the correct perception to each event. Take ownership of events and take responsibility to derive happiness and advantage from them.

“It is not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem. Our duty is therefore to exercise stringent control over the faculty of perception, with the aim of protecting our mind from error” – Marcus Aurelius

“Choose not to be harmed – and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed – and you haven’t been” – Marcus Aurelius

“Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinion about the things.” ― Epictetus

Do not be surprised that a fig tree produces figs:

When you undertake any action, be aware of the nature of that action. Do not go to Oxford Street in London on the last weekend before Christmas and get annoyed when people push past you in the crowd. Likewise, do not ride your bike in the rain and complain when your clothes get mud and dirt splattered up the back.

If you decide to do something, you decide to accept the consequences that come with it: Busy shopping street at Christmas = crowds.

By understanding the ‘nature’ of the places you go to and the actions you take, you start to build up useful expectations. A selfish person will do selfish things, an old car will break down and driving at rush hour will lead to traffic jams.

By accepting the bad and the frustrating that comes with each action you will remain calm in any situation. Save yourself the raised blood pressure and find calm where everyone else sees chaos.

“One has to accept life on the same terms as the public baths, or crowds, or travel. Things will get thrown at you and things will hit you. Life’s no soft affair” – Seneca

“Remember: you should not be surprised that a fig tree produces figs” – Marcus Aurelius

Wealth, possessions and social position:

Seneca was known for his great wealth and beautiful properties. It is safe to say he was a rich and powerful person. Yet despite his great wealth and power he recognized the true source of his happiness as his thoughts, his values and his philosophy. Stoicism does not suggest that it is wrong to be wealthy or to have nice things; it just assigns a different level of value on them. The aim of a stoic philosopher is to have everything or to have nothing and to let neither situation affect his or her happiness.

“Any man who does not think that what he has is more than enough, is an unhappy man, even if he is the master of the whole world” – Seneca

“Anyone entering our home should admire us rather than our furnishings” – Seneca

“What I really want to learn is how to loose the lot and still keep on smiling” – Seneca

“With regard to whatever objects either delight the mind or contribute to use or are tenderly beloved, remind yourself of what nature they are, beginning with the merest trifles: if you have a favorite cup, that it is but a cup of which you are fond of—for thus, if it is broken, you can bear it; if you embrace your child or your wife, that you embrace a mortal—and thus, if either of them dies, you can bear it.” – Epictetus

 

How can we use Stoic ideas for our own growth?

Voluntary discomfort:

Voluntarily enduring discomfort in our everyday lives keeps us from being bound to and reliant on pleasure and comfort. Release your need for comfort and possessions; instead look inside for happiness and contentment with what you have. If you do this, you may realise just how little you need to be happy and how scarcity doesn’t need to be intimidating.

“Soft living imposes on us the penalty of debility; we cease to be able to do the things we’ve long been grudging about doing” – Seneca

Some examples of voluntary discomfort used by stoic philosophers are:

  • The cold plunge (or shower):

Seneca was known for taking a cold plunge every morning either in his own pool or the canals of Rome. It seems this didn’t only serve as his daily dose of hardship: there are also modern day studies that suggest cold showers have a lot of benefits to our health, so it’s an all round winner …read more here

  • Face your worst case scenario:

Seneca suggests confronting your fear of ‘the worst case scenario’ by actually choosing to live it for a period of time. He suggests that we should spend a night away from our comfortable bed, wear cheap and unflattering clothing and eat plain and tasteless food. Remove the comforts and the luxuries from your life and ask yourself “is this really that bad?”

So find ways to step outside of your comfort and luxuries regularly. Feed off these moments to build your strength, resilience and character. Stay sharp, hungry and wild. Grow from each moment of minor adversity. Then go about your day feeling hungry and alert while others are docile, lazy, and sluggish.

Meditation and reflection:

In order to implement a more stoic mindset, we need to constantly monitor our success and failings in the way we conduct ourselves. Are we letting our emotions dictate our reactions? Are we viewing events in a consistently negative manner? What will we change in future events, and how do we want to act?

Every morning, spend time contemplating how you will conduct yourself throughout the day. In the evening, scrutinise how things went, how you reacted and if you acted in accordance to the person you want to become.

“Carry out a searching analysis and close scrutiny of yourself in all sorts of different lights” – Seneca

 

“Continually remind yourself of the many things you have achieved. When you look at all of the people out in front of you, think of all the ones behind you” – Seneca

Avoid excess:

Unfortunately we don’t seem to have changed in our love of excess since Seneca observed that “some people boast about their failings: can you imagine someone who counts his faults as merits ever giving thought to their cure?”

Binge drinking has become a point of misplaced pride, where we boast about how drunk we were at a party. We spend beyond our means, eat far beyond our needs and spend more time building muscles in the gym than we ever do using them in the real world. We are programmed to believe that better clothes, more possessions and bigger houses will make us happy.  But unfortunately even 50 Cent was no match for excess and eventually filed for bankruptcy.

“ First she began to hanker after things that were inessential, and then after things that were injurious, and finally she handed the mind over to the body and commanded it to be the out and out slave of the body’s whim and pleasure” – Seneca

In our quest to have everything we can end up creating huge amounts of worry, depression and anxiety. This can stem from feeling that everyone else has more than you and a need to keep up.

“The life of folly is empty of gratitude and full of anxiety” – Seneca

It is a mark of want of intellect to spend much time in things relating to the body, as to be immoderate in exercises, in eating and drinking, and in the discharge of other animal functions. These things should be done incidentally and our main strength be applied to our reason.” – Epictetus

Stoicism doesn’t ask that you give up drinking, eat only plain rice and that you walk around in a toga all day every day. Instead it suggests that we remain in control of our urges and desires. To take ownership of our lives and make sure we spend our time in a way we would be proud of; Rather than coming to the end of life and realising that all it amounted to was hangovers, poor health and the burden of a huge pile of junk that you cannot take with you.

“The ideal limit with things you desire is not the amount you would like but the amount you ought to take” – Seneca

Read, learn and think regularly:

Make time for reading and personal development. Spend time with people who are ahead of you in their journey and let them pull you forward. At the same time look at those around and behind you to offer a helping hand. Look at the people in your ‘inner circle’: the people you respect the most or who you spend the most time with.  Make sure you have an equal balance of those who can pull you forwards and others who you can help.

“Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those whom you are capable of improving. The process is a mutual one: men learn as they teach.” – Seneca

Truly digest what you read. Think it through and take time to understand its meanings, implications, relations to other topics and potential in your life:

“After running over a lot of different thoughts, pick out one to be digested thoroughly that day” – Seneca

Take advice from those that have gone before you and learn everything you can from the experiences of others. Once you have truly understood these lessons, look for ways to improve upon them. Blend ideas from multiple sources, question fundamental beliefs, and finally, add your own ideas, cut a new path and teach them to those behind you.

“Yes indeed I shall use the old road, but if I find a shorter and easier one I shall open it up. The men who pioneered the old routes are leaders, not our masters” – Seneca

 

“Assume authority yourself and utter something that may be handed down to posterity. Produce something from your own resources” – Seneca

Be ready for anything

Just like a Boy Scout, being prepared for anything and everything will keep you calm when others are freaking out. Understand all potential outcomes of any situation and come to terms with it.

“I look for the best and am prepared for the opposite” – Seneca

Despite preparation for events, do not fear their arrival or spend your time worrying about it. There is no point worrying about things that you have no control over. If you can influence the situation, then do it. If you can’t, then it won’t be resolved by worrying: you will just be adding to the stress.

“I don’t know what is going to happen; but I do know what is capable of happening – and none of this will give rise to any protest on my part. I’m ready for everything” – Seneca

 

“ All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes; we should be anticipating not merely all that commonly happens but all that is conceivably capable of happening” – Seneca

Carefully curate what you put into your head

Be wary of what you put into your head: it will start to spill out through words, thoughts and actions. These define your character. If you fill your head with positivity, education and beautiful experiences then this will flow out when you interact with others. If you fill your head with negativity, vices and ill intent, then this too will flow out in interactions with others. Who do you want to be? How do you want to be seen? How do you want to be remembered? Once you have the answer to these, you can start to decide what to filter out.

“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts” – Marcus Aurelius

 

Suggested Reading:

If you are interested in finding out more, I recommend the following books:

  • Seneca – Letters From a Stoic: Keep a highlighter handy and forgive an aging Seneca for his letters being less concise as you progress. Most of the gems are early on, but there are great ideas and advice throughout.
  • Marcus Aurelius – Meditations: Learn from the inner thoughts of a great leader. Slightly less concise and some repetition, but then it was never meant to be a published book.
  • Epictetus – Enchiridion: You can read this in a weekend or even an afternoon, and will probably want to read it again and again.

And for something a little more modern:

  • Ryan Holiday – The Obstacle is the Way: Ryan is the marketing and PR brains behind American Apparel’s success and a huge fan of the Stoic philosophy. You will see influence from all of the above authors, whilst being written in a more modern and digestible way.
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