“If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.”– Marcus Aurelius
The key to Stoicism is plain and simple perception. Consider that two people can view a horrific car accident in different ways. One person can see it as a chance for a new car, while the other might only focus on the damage itself and assignment of guilt.
Perception is how we decide what events mean to us. Our perceptions can be like a lead ball chained to our feet, holding us back and making us weak, or they can be a great source of strength like a magical elixir.
How we see the world around us and how we interpret what happens to us makes a massive difference in how we get to live our lives. What we already learned from the Stoics is that they see external events not as good or bad but as indifferent. So it’s not these events, because they are ultimately indifferent, but your own judgment of these events that matters.
This makes you responsible for your life. You don’t control external events, but you control how you choose to look at them and then respond to them. And in the end, that’s all that matters. As the famous Stoic turn of phrase says, you can turn an obstacle upside down. This means to look at even a negative occurrence as something that will ultimately benefit you later on or as a learning moment.
We are disturbed or delighted not by events but only by our judgment and perception of those events. What the Stoics tried to do was not get carried away by their initial impression about external events.
Something happens and we automatically get an impression about it. We can’t do much about that. This is our emotional reaction, but it does not have to be our overall response.
So look at what happens objectively and dispassionately—it might be raining. And then choose your best reaction. The world won’t end, and the activities you had planned for outdoors can be done another day. How might the rain force you to get creative or explore other untapped potential? What are the alternate perspectives you can adopt, rather than one of sadness or frustration? These alternate perspectives always exist, and you should train your ability to see them.
The truth is that you always have the ability to respond in a way that amounts to rolling with the punches. How might this obstacle become an opportunity, if only an opportunity to practice your sense of resiliency and patience?
It’s not so simple as flipping a switch to turn the obstacle upside down and realize that your emotions are coming from entirely within you and under your control.
To be frank, most of our lives are too cushioned and comfortable for that to ever occur naturally. We have too many expectations and entitlements, and some of them are even justified. So what then?
The Stoics argued that if all we know is comfort, then we would be fragile and brittle when forced to inevitably experience pain or discomfort. By periodically practicing discomfort, we adapt and become stronger for those situations. We are able to understand that pain and discomfort are not things to be feared so much. This makes us emotionally more even-keeled.
Growth only occurs to those who are able to mentally and physically withstand discomfort. Stoicism might be the first philosophy to preach the maxim of “no pain, no gain.”
Stoics were not masochist or anti-pleasure. They still enjoyed the fruits of life, but they recognized that proper perspective is needed to be non-reactive and also appreciate the good things.
Seneca puts it best:
Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.
To have a chance of keeping it together in the face of adversity, you must practice. Toughen up before you need to, and you’ll be prepared for anything.
Seneca suggested living as a pauper for a period of time. Wear old, unflattering clothes, eat sparsely and only plain food, and even attempt to sleep on the floor. There are various degrees to try this. You can go for a week with only simple food such as bread and soup. You can spend a month on a tight daily budget. Maybe you want to drink only water for a couple of days.
Training your discomfort muscle makes you view hardship in a different light. Been there, done that, what’s the big deal? This allows you to detach from the circumstances and move on more quickly. You’ll gain the confidence in yourself that you can handle adversity and also appreciate what you have in a powerful way. These perspectives make it difficult to overly react to negative situations.
Seneca reminds us, “It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress…
Instead of putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, you can also purposefully say no to pleasurable situations.
None of this makes life harder; in fact, it makes it easier. By undertaking acts of discomfort, you harden yourself against future misfortunes. If you only know comfort, then you might be traumatized when you are forced to experience pain or any other sort of discomfort in the future, as you surely will eventually. Optimally, you’ll be immune to discomfort.
Take away some comfort from your life and it’ll remind you of how comfortable and happy your life actually is. By purposefully forgoing some of our pleasures and comforts, we can create a greater sense of gratitude. Voluntary discomfort lets us enjoy more of what we already have. And maybe it takes away some of our cravings for more.
Another way of training your non-reactivity and sense of gratitude is to practice negative visualization.
Stoics recommended to periodically spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value most. Imagine you have lost your family, your health, or your job—whatever you place a high value upon. Deliberately reflect on each value as if it has disappeared. Think about what you would be missing and how that would impact your daily life. Think about the despair you would feel.
Negative visualization is a powerful counter to human desire. Suddenly, you will be forced to realize that you already have what makes you happy beyond measure. You will realize and appreciate what you have in your life, and you will also find that the desire for more has completely halted.
When you spend time deliberately realizing that everything you love and cherish could be taken from you tomorrow by some sick twist of fate, you feel humbled. You realize how many gifts and blessings you truly have. You see the real worth of everything surrounding you. This is a difficult state of mind in which to be consumed with desire and worry.
Focusing on What You Can Control
Remember the first line of Epictetus’s Enchiridion?
This is deemed the Stoic circle of control. We must carefully distinguish between what is within our own power and what is not. Up to us are our voluntary choices, namely our actions and judgments, while everything else is not under our control. This means that right off the bat, you must accept that you have no control over 90% of your worries and concerns. No matter what you do or how virtuous you are, you cannot affect the outcome. So why keep your concerns dangling in your mind?
We only control our own actions and thoughts, and we have no choice but to accept the outcome. From our end, we can ensure that we are doing our best and putting our entire effort into something. But if we have done everything within our power, that’s where our control really ends.
The things that are up to you, your thoughts and your actions, are the most important things in life. The most appealing aspect of Stoicism is that we are responsible for our flourishing because all that truly matters in life is up to us.
So the key lesson to take away here is to focus our attention and efforts where we actually have control and then let the universe take care of the rest. This turns out to be a very small subset of actions and thoughts, which is comforting in itself. Where a to-do list was once 10 items, you will find that it can easily be shaved down to three items.
The Stoics used the archer analogy to explain what to stop wasting your time on. An archer is trying to hit a target. He has done his best to prepare for this moment. He has practiced and trained, carefully selected his bow and arrow, and is in a state of intense mental focus. He can control each and every moment, right up until he looses the arrow. And then?
Whether or not he hits the target is not up to him. As the arrow takes flight, any number of things could happen, some predictable and some not. He could simply have not prepared very well and have poor aim. But a gust of wind could also disrupt the arrow’s path, a bird could fly into the arrow’s path, or the target itself could be jolted. Another person might also shoot the target first or sabotage the archer.
None of this reflects on the archer himself. He did his best and left the rest to the flow of nature. This is all we can ever do, so the outcomes we get should be equally accepted. Amor fati.
Epictetus went on to state,
Check your impressions and ask yourself whether it’s up to you or not. If it’s up to you, then do something about it. If not, take it as it is. It was already written in stone before you got there, and it will be written in stone after you leave. Nothing you could have done would make a difference. Picture someone who prefers chocolate ice cream but you serve them vanilla ice cream—you may have slaved over the vanilla ice cream, but that simply doesn’t matter. It was never up to you, despite your efforts and planning. There is nothing left to do but move forward.
Think of your day and think of the things you have complete control of, things you have some control of, and the things you have no control of. You should eventually come to the realization that the only thing you have complete control of is yourself. The only thing we control entirely is our self, our will, and our intentions.
You can’t control if the sun will come out tomorrow; you can plan for it, but why worry about it? Focus on your own actions and improve them as you can; give yourself the best opportunity for success and the outcome you want. But in the end, a hurricane could come and destroy everything. So why worry?
Stoicism is a life philosophy that anticipates hardships. When good things happen to us, it’s easy to feel strong and resilient. But it’s only when we face hardship that we shape the narrative of our lives. Just like our emotions, the way we view our lives comes exclusively from us internally and doesn’t really have any correlation with the reality that we live in.
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