I discovered stoicism at a time not long after my partner walked out on me a while back. I remember feeling depressed at the time. I thought I had lost everything. It was as if my world was coming to an end. It certainly felt like it. Anyway, it didn’t take me long after that to stumble upon Stoic philosophy, which serendipitiously came to my rescue. It helped me deal with my situation at the time, and thus I was able to come out of it quickly and move on with my life.
I learned an important lesson as a result of that experience: We cannot depend on others for our happiness and well-being. All we can do is love others; being loved in return is out of our control.
Despite being a major setback at the time, I eventually came to think of that experience as a positive one, because I came out stronger on the other side. It helped me remove my dependence on others for my well-being. It made me realize there are only a few things we truly have control over.
Thinking about that relationship in hindsight for a second, there were a number of red flags along the way that I ignored, because you tend to lose objectivity when “you’re in love”. I refused to acknowledge the inherent value differences in that relationship at my own peril. I thought our situation would improve despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I went against my instinct and paid a heavy price for it.
Sometimes we learn things the hard way, as I certainly did. That said, there are times when things happen to us for the best, no matter how bad they might seem in the moment. Of course, we only realize this in hindsight.
I am not alone in feeling this way. A lot of people have said in retrospect that going through some difficult situation in their life was the best thing that could have ever happened to them. In fact, they were even grateful for the crises in their lives. If that is indeed the case, why are we so afraid of the challenges in our life?
I have come to believe nothing outside of us can make us truly happy. We have everything we need within us. We don’t need anything or anyone from outside.
This reminds me of those who pursue hedonism as a way of life, often feeling empty when they are no longer able to get the pleasure they’ve become accustomed to. They need others to fill that void within themselves, and ergo, they are forever dependent on things outside of them. Not the best situation to be in.
It’s a fallacy to think we need something outside of us to complete us. This is not to say that you should’t have relationships in your life—but depending on them for your well-being would be unwise.
Stoicism is an ancient philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium around 300 B.C. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, it was about living a life worth living by using reason to improve society and make this a better world for both yourself and others. They called it ‘eudaimonia’, which is often confused with ‘happiness’ but is more accurately translated as ‘flourishing’ or ‘prosperity’.
The goal of Stoicism was to live in accordance with nature. That means living in agreement with virtue (the highest good based on knowledge). It means flourishing and living to one’s potential by way of practical wisdom. To live in harmony with the divine Reason, and to remain indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune, as well as to pleasure and pain. To know our character is more important than any of our external successes or failures.
We should take human nature seriously to decide the kind of life we want to live. There are two fundamental components to being human:
- We are the eminent social animals who thrive in social groups.
- We are far more capable of reason than any other species on the planet. Whether we use it always is a matter of contention.
The Stoics rejected the notion of any difference between selfishness and altruism. They believed when we do something for ourselves, we are automatically doing things for others (and vice-versa), because we are highly integrated social beings.
In order to live a good life, the Stoics maintained practicing four cardinal virtues:
- Practical wisdom: to navigate complex moral situations, and navigate tradeoffs.
- Courage: to do the right thing.
- Justice: to treat others the way you want to be treated.
- Temperance: doing things in the right measure—for instance, drinking wine, but not getting drunk.
Most people value fame and/or fortune. For instance, they acquire wealth to seek social status, and strive to become the object of admiration/envy. The Stoics, however, realized how futile these pursuits of achievement and wealth are, yet which so many people engage in.
I have long believed there is no greater success in the world than rightful living. There is nothing to achieve in life. It makes you wonder when others are focused on short-term outcomes (such as getting promoted at work, etc.) and thereby losing sight of the bigger picture. Often times, we don’t realize this until much later in life, when it’s too late. At that point, all we’re left with is regret.
Stoics were known to make the best of any given situation. For them, nothing outside themselves could cause any trouble. Nothing else was able to disturb their peace of mind except for the choices they made. They would treat the two impostors—external success and failures—the same. They would never let success get to their head or take failures to heart.
The Stoics had a profound realization: Most of the negative emotions we experience are caused by other people. It’s ironic that most human suffering is self-inflicted. We concern ourselves with others. We make others’ problems our own. We get stressed/anxious about things that are not in our control. But why do we worry about things we have no control over? We forget that we can only be upset by the choices we make.
I am reminded of what Seneca, a Roman Stoic philosopher, has aptly said:
No servitude is more abject than the self-imposed.
The Stoics were quite adept at dealing with insults, overcoming grief, avoiding anger, and took great delight in the world they inhabited. Above all, they valued tranquility, which was about becoming a better person by keeping negative emotions (anger, grief, envy, anxiety, fear) to a minimum and embracing positive emotions (joy, delight, etc) as much as possible.
In some ways, Stoicism can be thought of as a western equivalent to Zen Buddhism. Like the Buddhists, the Stoics advocate taking the Middle Path. They wouldn’t dwell on the past, nor would they get anxious about the future. For them, the present moment was all there was.
Unlike the Buddhists, the Stoics will not eschew their passions, while also not being enslaved by them. They are not pleasure seekers, but they don’t shun pleasure either.
You don’t need to retreat to the mountains to practice Stoicism. You could be in the busiest city, or in the highest-stress environments, and still use it to not only survive, but thrive. You can be anywhere on the socio-economic spectrum and still practice it; you can be anything from a peasant to royalty and still practice Stoicism as a way of life.
Contrary to popular belief, Stoicism is not about suppressing emotions, being robotic, or being indifferent towards others, as it’s usually made out to be. In other words, Stoicism is not about being “stoical”. In fact, the Stoics were quite emotional. Their philosophy entailed keeping the negative emotions in their lives to a minimum, while embracing the positive emotions as much as possible. Feeling delight. Feeling joy. Enjoying the disembodied feeling of gratitude.
Stoicism is not a silver bullet that you practice today and expect everything to change overnight. It takes a while to internalize the lessons learned before you can claim to be a Stoic. But when you practice it over time, it becomes a way of life for you.
Eventually, you become an acute observer of yourself. This increases your self-awareness to unprecedented levels. It helps you be proactive. You learn to challenge your own perceptions/thoughts/opinions.
Its central teaching may remind you of the Serenity Prayer, but you can think of it as being more systematic. Practicing it doesn’t make you passive, but rather helps you be calm and less prone to overreacting. Above all, it helps you focus your energies on things you can control and accept things you can’t.
Here are some ways we can practice Stoicism as a way of life:
The most important Stoic lesson we can practice every day is to distinguish between things that are in our control and things that aren’t. We must focus our energies on the former, and let go of the latter. This might sound trivial and obvious, but the only thing that’s truly up to us is our judgement and decision-making process, not the outcome.
This is also consistent with one of the lessons from The Gita, which is that we are only ever truly entitled to labor, but never to the fruits of our labor.
For instance, if you are looking to apply for a job, the only real thing in your power is doing your best to prepare for the interview. Whether or not you get the job is not within your control. Stop worrying about what’s going to happen, and only think about what you can actually do about it.
While you may not have control over the result or outcome, you do have control over the work you do, which is about all you can do. You never try to achieve something, but you do your best to achieve something. If you have done your best, what more is there to do?
You can love others—and generally try to be a loving person—but whether they love you back is not in your control, so it’s more important to love than be loved, because that is all you can do.
Life is difficult. Things will routinely go wrong. The question is, how do we deal with it? We need to turn our problems into opportunities for improvement/growth. We need to embrace life’s challenges—in fact, we need to revel in them. Remember, the struggle is the point.
What matters most in life are not the situations we encounter, but how we think about them. The only thing we should ever worry about is our own judgment about what is good. We have to play the cards we’re dealt to the best of our abilities.
In other words, do what you can, with what you have got, with where you are. This is the heart of the Stoic philosophy.
Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher, wisely said:
It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them.
As Stoic practicioner and teacher William B. Irvine says, you can take a beautiful picture and put it into an ugly frame, and it’s going to be an ugly picture. You can take a pretty good picture, placed in just the right frame, and you can transform it into a beautiful picture. The same is true for dealing with life’s setbacks. Remember, the reason we have challenges in our life is so we can overcome them and grow.
Living in the present is essential to living a good life. The past is gone and the future is not here yet. The present is all we have, so it’s best we live in the here and now, rather than dwell on the past or get anxious about the future. We can only ever truly live in the present.
Periodically contemplate impermanence. It is important, say the Stoics, to keep in mind that however bad your situation is, it could almost certainly be worse. (In doing this, of course, we are engaging in negative visualization). Look for the silver lining in every cloud.
Allow yourself to have a flickering thought for how your current situation could be. Think about what it would be like to lose something in your life. I am not sure how this is different from practicing daily gratitude, but I am sharing this exercise here nonetheless.
The point of the exercise is not to dwell on the possibilities of loss, but rather to contemplate them. The Stoics suggest practicing this a few times a day, with each time lasting only a few seconds.
When things were going well, Stoics would pursue things that were difficult to do, simply to keep them tough and resilient, and to be always ready for life’s challenges to come. They would simulate worst-case scenarios like living in poverty, or surviving on minimal food, and so on. This goes back to the idea of “sweating more in training so you bleed less in war”. Of course, this is easier said than done.
Comfort can be the worst kind of slavery, so we must practice misfortune to continuously expand our comfort zone. We need to make discomfort our compass. For instance, one of the things we can do is, say, underdress for winter weather to increase our tolerance levels. Then when you actually experience such a situation, it’s not so bad.
Learn to appreciate things that others take for granted. It’s easy to take what you’ve already got for granted. That’s what we need to fight against. We can learn to truly appreciate the weather, the chirping of the birds, the annual monsoons, or a bright sunny day.
You can either take things for granted, or you can live as if everything was a miracle. If you learn not to take things for granted, you enhance your existence enormously. Appreciate things in life, because they can vanish in an instant. You have control over your expectations but not over what you get.
View things from above. It’s worth thinking about the number of small things we sweat about every day, which aren’t worth thinking about. Distance yourself from things to get a more objective viewpoint. For instance, we are but a speck on the planet, which in turn is only a speck within our galaxy, which itself is merely another speck floating in the endless ocean of the cosmos. Whatever issues we have pale in comparison.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying life’s pleasures, as long as we are not enslaved by them. While we are enjoying them, we should also prepare ourselves to be deprived of those things, as we may very well be having that experience for the last time. This could be meeting a friend, or eating a restaurant you like, or what have you.
Craving leads to discontent. But, if you are easily satisfied, it’s a blessing. It’s the connoisseurs that box themselves in a corner. For instance, if you are okay with drinking any black tea, then that’s great. But if you want a specific brand of black tea, without which you “can’t” have your breakfast, then you’re putting yourself in a corner.
By the same token, there will be a last time you do everything. When doing any one thing, realize and make a mental note that you may be doing that thing for the last time, whether it’s listening to a music track, watching your favorite film, or spending time with a loved one.
Rather than thinking of it as a depressing thought, appreciate what you’re doing in that moment. Savor the experience with the realization that it may never happen again.
Stoics invented something they called the philosophical diary. The purpose of writing this diary was to reflect on their days:
- Think about what you did right (and wrong).
- Learn from the experience without dwelling on it.
- Ask yourself what was it today that disrupted your tranquility or peace of mind.
The goal was not about becoming perfect, but about being better today than yesterday.
One of the prompts I like to complete in the evening during my daily reflection is, “I felt unrest when…”
Irvine suggests we remove ourselves from what he calls the “social hierarchy game”. One of the ways to practice this is to overcome your self-promotional tendencies. This can be quite subtle.
You don’t need validation from others if you are a nice person. Let go of this need of wanting implicit approval from others and to reaffirm yourself. It’s like patting your back in the presence of others; I know how ridiculous that sounds. Be wary of yourself looking good in the eyes of others. Focus on being a good person rather than making others think you are a good person. As a result, we would care less about what others think of us.
I remember how I used to share my writings with others without them asking for it, anytime they were talking about something I’d written about—not realizing I was self-promoting. Now, if something comes up in our conversation, I simply say, “I wrote about this” without feeling the need to share unless they ask. I guess this goes back to refraining from offering unsolicited help.
Another way to remove yourself from this game is to stop playing the comparison game. Irvine argues that we naturally devote our time and attention to improving our position on the social hierarchy.
One way we do that is buying things because they carry a certain social prestige, not because we have a real desire for that thing. We may buy houses, cars, watches, etc. to become a center of admiration or envy. This is because we are playing the comparison game.
Irvine says that if we lost our interest in our social standing, we would stop playing this game, and our material wants would change drastically. This will have a profound effect on our desire for having “stuff”. We will no longer feel the need to win the approval of others, implicit or otherwise.
I once had the desire to own a few mechanical watches in my lifetime, but it didn’t take me long to lose that desire, despite the fact that I loved them so much. I am now looking to have just one timepiece I can use all my life.
Withdrawing from the social hierarchy is not to be confused with withdrawing from the world. It’s important to keep relationships with people.
Yet another way to remove yourself from the social hierarchy game, Irvine says, is to practice “insult pacifism”. He says insults only hurt when you let them hurt. When someone insults you, the best thing you can do is to ignore them. Would you get angry if a stupid dog barks at you? Shrug off any insults. Your internal response to an insult matters more than an external one. Of course, there is more to it than I am sharing here, as it’s beyond the scope of this piece.
The Stoics would keep their mortality front and center. They were prepared to die as if any moment could be their last. We need to practice the art of dying. One way to do this is to have some kind of physical artifact that reminds you of your mortality.
For instance, I have a sticky note in my study with the question, “What do you want your tombstone to read?” This makes me think about whether the thing I am about to do is what I really want to do.
I hope this piece has given you plenty to consider for getting started in your own practice. Stoicism isn’t a perfect philosophy by any means—if such a thing even exists—but I think it gets a lot of things right. It won’t take long (maybe a weekend) for you to know if you resonate with it.
I know that for me, when I practice Stoicism, I am much more focused on my own actions rather than thinking about what is wrong with the world. For me, the shoe fits, so I continue to wear it.