On practicing Stoicism

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”  Marcus Aurelius

WHY WOULD anyone want to practice Stoicism today? Most people think that Stoicism is about enduring pain or adversity without complaining. If that was the case, I could not imagine a less appealing philosophy of life. Things appear to be much more interesting though.

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It is true that building resilience and self-control are significant parts of Stoicism, but that is only the surface of a much deeper philosophy of life. After practicing for some years, I have found it to be a very useful and adaptable way of life. Traveling and working overseas I never run out of opportunities for practicing, and for finding out what works for me. So far, I could list twelve points in favor of keeping up the practice:

An antidote for a modern malaise

Most people living today have better access to healthcare, information and technology than a Roman emperor ever dreamed of. Yet, modern man seems to live radically dissatisfied, sometimes in a permanent state of anxiety. For thousands of years our ancestors survived to all kinds of extreme situations, life or death challenges that made their minds and bodies sharper and resilient. But with the emergence of technology and other advancements, we are becoming soft-minded and weak. We have created a civilization based on consumerism, entertainment and the worship of new gadgets and celebrities. Paradoxically, many of the so-called luxuries and modern comforts are not only not indispensable, but impediments to a god life. Advertizing is designed to create new “necessities”, to make us feel incomplete, ever dissatisfied, to make the worst appear to be the best. We are part of this society, but we don’t have to be part of its frenzy. Stoicism is  about developing strategies and habits of training and self-discipline, for times of excess as well as for times of hardship. It is not about being detached from the world, but about approaching it in a radically different way.

The most valuable things

When I am traveling, I try to apply  the Stoic maxim Omnia mea mecum porto “I carry with me all that is mine”.   Our most valuable possessions are those that go with us all the time, our moral character, our freedom to choose, our knowledge. Peace of mind, and integrity, are far more valuable than wealth or reputation. Therefore, we should never trade an internal good for an external one. According to the Stoics, external things are to be regarded as “indifferent”, meaning only valuable if used for virtue. It is easy to understand that in theory, but when I observe my reactions and behavior when I am under some pressure, I realize that I trade my inner goods too cheaply, too often. In many situations, specially while traveling, I have to remind myself that the content of a lost suitcase, for example, has no value if compared with my inner tranquility. When something stressful happens, I find helpful to ask myself: is this argument/car accident/lost object, more important than my peace of mind? Is this person’s opinion of me, more important than my opinion of myself?

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Most things are not up to us

The Stoics made a sharp distinction between the things we can control and the things we cannot. We have some influence in keeping our health, acquiring wealth or gaining reputation, but those can be taken from us by external circumstances that lie outside of our control. They used to compare life with sailing. When sailing we have no control over the elements. We can choose the direction of our journey, decide when to set out, observe the waves and currents and adjust the sails according to the winds, but we are at the mercy of the sea. If we want to arrive safe to a harbor, we must cooperate with the sea. Changes of fortune and unexpected disasters constantly occur, and many times, the only thing we can do is to accept them, gain experience from them, and use them as training for life. Yet we suffer and waste a great deal of energy for things that are not in our control. Stoicism has been very influential to modern disciplines such as CBT and Logotherapy. “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” Viktor E. Frankl

Building an inner compass

Nothing reveals our true character as the choices we make in real life, especially when we are under pressure. We may collect hundreds thoughtful maxims or read volumes of philosophy books, but theory is of little use unless it meets practice. When we expose ourselves to new challenges and difficulties opportunities for self-knowledge and growth appear. Stoicism is all about practice, you begin by paying attention to simple things, such as what triggers your anger, or if you can keep calm in a traffic jam, moderation at the dinner table, if your actions show concern for the well-being of others.

In ancient times philosophy  offered their students not only sets of concepts and ideas, but also a way of life, a worldview, and useful techniques for facing the problems of everyday existence. By internalizing the rules and principles of their schools, the students had to be able to make use of their philosophy in practice, as an inner compass, to help them take decisions, and navigate through life.

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Negative visualization

One of the most effective and interesting meditation techniques used by ancient Stoics was the practice called praemeditatio malorum  “the premeditation of evils”  or “preparing the mind in advance to cope with adversity”. We should spend some time imagining that we have lost the things we value— that our partner has left us, that we have lost our job, our house has burned down, or that a doctor has informed us that we have only six month to live. The reason to do such thing is that we tend to be quite forgetful and ungrateful creatures. By doing so, we remember and value what we have right now, and are more prepared  when something negative happens in reality.

Marcus Aurelius wrote on his private book, “Meditations”, a daily practice: “Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”

Reducing negative emotions

Ancient philosophers knew that a great deal of our suffering is self-inflicted, and that we can be very creative in doing so. Negative emotions, such as hate, anger, bitterness, fear or jealousy would rarely improved the quality of our existence. They are unavoidable parts of life, but it is up to us to amplify them or not. Stoics insisted that we are disturbed not by the things themselves but by the views we take towards them. We may not be able to control our emotions, but we can at least try to reduce them, and perhaps transform them into something more positive. We can try to transform our fear into prudence, our anger into determination, our pain and sadness into self-knowledge.

The joy of simplicity

“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?”  Following Seneca’s advice, I regularly spend some days living as simply as I can. During a week I try abstain from anything that I consider not essential. I keep a frugal diet, based mostly on vegetables, watch no TV, nor internet, use no elevator, nor warm water if possible. My experience is that, the so-called life of comfort is not as comfortable as we tend to think, and the simple life is not as harsh as it appears to be. After an ascetic week I begin to feel healthier, and sharper in mind and more focused. I regain time for reading, painting, putting my thoughts in order, or just being. Stoics followed the Pythagorean maxim that said: “choose the best way to live, however rough it may seem, custom will make it agreeable.”

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Freedom from useless things

We live in the age of constant distractions, our attention, a most valuable part of our being, is continuously pulled in so many directions. Billions of dollars are spent worldwide in advertising, carefully devised to make us desire stuff we probably don’t need, or that is negative for our health or human development. Excess of information and news become noise, rarely ending in knowledge. Fewer distractions mean more freedom, and more time for deep and sustained focus, spent in meaningful activities.

“Freedom cannot be won without sacrifice. If you set a high value on her, everything else must be devalued at little.” Seneca

When traveling for long periods, I got accustomed to carry all my belongings in one suitcase, and I find it to be a good exercise in self-restrain. We tend to acquire stuff we don’t need, which takes time, resources and space out of our lives, and getting irrationally attached to material things. Getting used to travel light develops a different relation to material things. “Material things per se are indifferent, but the use we make of them is not indifferent.” (Epictetus, Discourses II, 5, 1)

Living according to Nature

“Live according to Nature” was the motto of the Stoic school of philosophy. In reality they meant to live according to Reason, to the innate human capability for reasoning. But today we can re-frame that maxim for confronting the biggest problem of our time. It is an undeniable fact that our lifestyle is causing an unprecedented alteration of the ecosystem, resulting in dreadful long-lasting consequences for life on earth. The pollution of the atmosphere and the countless tones of plastic that end up in the oceans everyday are the result of an irrational way of thinking, of unreasonable values and habits of consumption.

We of the developed countries have most of us got far, far away from nature. A new form of Stoicism, or Epicureanism may help promoting a change of values and lifestyle that could help solving the biggest challenge of our time. Stoicism was an evolving philosophy more than two thousand years ago,  and still evolving today, in a time perhaps most needed of its recipes than ever.

Reading the classics

We live in a very different world from that of the ancients Greeks and Romans, our problems and challenges differ radically from theirs. But if one learns anything after reading Seneca’s Letters, Epictetus’ Discourses or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, is that human nature has changed very little in the last two millennia. In a time when slavery, exile, political assassination, war and plague were the norm, the Stoics thought that it was possible to live a good and serene life, regardless of the external circumstances.

A classic, unlike a best-seller, is a book to be read and re-read, and never ceases to give you something new. The classics, are books that have been read by different people in different periods of history, by different generations, in different languages, and have delivered something true, beautiful or meaningful.

Rehearsing death

It is a paradox that thinking about death could make our life better. A life of security and comfort may appear to give us happiness, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the human spirit than the numbness produced by it. It seems that,  to meditate about our own death once or twice per month, helps us remember that what we have is transitory, and that we should spend more time with relatives, and tell them how much we love them. Meditating regularly about death can help us live more authentically“Rehearse death” To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom. A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Seneca

Rehearsing death helps us putting things into perspective, problems that felt heavy before become lighter, we begin to see opinions, material things, as they really are, almost nothing. “By contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world, we are forced to recognize that every time we do something could be the last time we do it, and this recognition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent . We will no longer sleepwalk through our life”  Irvine. A Guide to a Good life.

A good flow of life

The goal of life, for most Graeco-Roman philosophies, was to achieve Eudaimonia, meaning a flourishing life, a good spirit, or well-being. Zeno, the founder of the Stoa, said that happiness consisted in “euroia biou” or a Good flow of life. As a philosophy, Stoicism aims at removing the obstacles that prevent us from flourishing as human beings. But pleasure and happiness are not the aim, they are the by-products of a meaningful existence, they should not be pursued directly. Instead our actions should aim at Areté (virtue or moral excellence); the act and habit of living wisely

Seneca once wrote, “The happy life is to have a mind that is free, lofty, fearless and steadfast—a mind that is placed beyond the reach of fear, beyond the reach of desire, that counts virtue the only good, baseness the only evil, and all else but a worthless mass of things, which come and go without increasing or diminishing the highest good, and neither subtract any part from the happy life nor add any part to it.”

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