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Soulful Sundays: Stoicism

"The trick is in what one emphasizes. We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same." -Carlos Castaneda


"People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive." -Joseph Campbell





I have recently been revisiting the teachings of the Stoic philosophers (Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, etc.) through the work of William Irvine and his A Guide to the Good Life. I would highly recommend this quick and easy read. What I like most about Stoicism is how simple and actionable its tenants are. It seems to blend the metaphysics surrounding Buddhism, the transcendent totality of the Abrahamic religions, and the empirical materialism of science into one philosophy. Plus, it can start working immediately in our pursuit of a joyful existence.


The underlying goal behind Stoicism is how to live a good life. A joyful life. A life that is worthy of living. It is a philosophy built on the practical application of philosophy to the day-to-day. It gets rid of the abstractions that plague other schools of thought. In seeking to accomplish this goal the Stoics separated the world into two categories. Category one is things that are within our control. Category two is everything else. Not surprisingly, there are only a few things that fall into the first category, and they belong to one unifying idea: our freedom to choose where our attention goes. This concept is the single most important realization we will ever make. Whether we are a practicing Stoic, Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, Christian, atheist, or naturalist, where our attention goes is by definition what we are choosing to emphasize. Values, opinions, and desires must all be acted upon in order to become manifest. When we choose to give our attention to certain things and not others, we have initiated the preliminary stages of action.


The Stoics took this one step further and said that for the highest probability of reaching a good life, we should place all of our focus on the things that are within our control, and no focus on those that aren't. So, instead of relying on external measures of success or fulfillment (like fame, fortune, or reputation), the Stoics would instead emphasize perfecting an internal locus of control. This reverberates with teachings of other wisdom traditions, like the Bhagavad Gita's "you have the right to work, but no right to the fruit of the work," or the famous Serenity Prayer. Do the best you can with what you have control over, and let the rest happen as it may. Stressing over what you cannot control is wasted energy. What we have control over is our attention and our actions, and little else.


Fortunately, the Stoics had specific daily practices in place for how to sharpen one's attention and instill resilience, as it were, in the face of a world wrought with challenges and potential disappointment. I could write an entire post on each of the practices mentioned below, but for the sake of length, I will briefly summarize the key points.


Negative visualization involves imagining worst-case scenarios so that we will not obsess over them. By planning exactly what to do once we reach rock bottom we can learn to fear failure less. Think of this as a kind of desensitization to negative outcomes. The other benefit of this practice is that it makes us appreciate our current circumstances (no matter how far from ideal they may be) all the more. Things can always be worse. The Stoics would often have a momento mori, or some kind of emblem or trinket to remind them that death is certain. A human skull was a common choice.


The next practice is the voluntary denial of pleasure. This is sometimes called "practicing poverty" because Stoics were encouraged to choose specific times when they would subsist on the cheapest of fare and the most basic lodgings and clothing. Again, they did this to innoculate themselves to the fear of loss, and to firmly remind them of how little is actually necessary to live. These forays into sub-standard living were always intentional and short-lived. Stoics had no issues with having wealth and influence, they only distrusted the effects that worldly pleasures could have on those who did not actively keep them in check.


The final practice can be summarized as amor fati, or a love of fate. In order to be fully present with each passing moment, we have to be at peace with the past. Any regret or denial of past events is energy wasted. Seneca once said, "It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it." Resisting past events takes away our power to shape future ones. We should learn from experiences, but not get stuck in reliving them. Easier said than done. Trust me I know.


Taking on just these four basic practices (internal locus of control, negative visualization, voluntary hardship, and amor fati) has had a tremendous impact on my own psychological well-being and sense of happiness. They have taught me that while I am not in control of every event in my life, I am in control of the interpretation of those events. I hope that you will take something meaningful from this post and start applying it right away in your own life.

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