We’ve messed up bad.
As a species, we should’ve progressed towards a better future. One which would improve our quality of life. One where technology would support us enhance what we do. Where our neocortex would gain influence over our limbic mind i.e. we would prioritize reason and logic over emotion.
Instead, most people are shrouded 24/7 in anxiety and FOMO. They judge and outrage at the drop of a hat. They’ve become slaves to technology. They keep staring at our phones and running with no end in sight. (Many people don’t even know whether they have a path to run on.)
Negativity has become a religion, whose god says we we’ll go to hell if we don’t sacrifice our peace of mind.
And yet, an increasing number of people want to reclaim that peace of mind today. They want to take back control of their lives, rather than letting external circumstances dictate how they should live. They want to understand themselves and their surroundings better.
If you’re one such person, there is hope. It’s in form of Stoicism — a philosophy which can guide you to build a calmer and deeper spirit.
What is Stoicism?
It’s misunderstood, that’s what it is.
People think it’s about maintaining a poker-face in all circumstances, about not displaying emotions. They dismiss Stoicism saying it doesn’t apply to the modern era since it was written before Julius Caesar’s time.
They couldn’t be more wrong.
Stoicism is the ability to control the only aspects which are in your control — perceptions, actions and willpower. Anything outside this is beyond your locus of control.
“What? Not even my body?”
Tomorrow you could fall ill or suffer an injury, against your choice. But how you frame your thoughts during those times, is in your control. That’s what Stoicism can teach you.
Your perceptions of an event, more than the event itself, cause trouble. Stoicism trains you to develop a stronger perception and willpower to take better action. It teaches you to prioritize reason over pure emotion while responding to events. Epictetus called this ability our ‘reasoned choice’.
Stoicism originates from the Greek word stoa, which means porch. The porch is where Zeno, the father of Stoicism, revealed this philosophy to his first pupils.
This philosophy has played an important role in shaping my decisions over the last three years. I first read about it on Tim Ferriss’ blog. Since then, I’ve dug deep into the works of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus — the popular teachers of Stoicism. I’ve worked to imbibe their teachings in my life.
13 Deepest Lessons of Stoicism
The philosophy offers a thousand pearls of wisdom to help us improve our quality of life. I’ve condensed the most important ones into thirteen lessons.
1. Change Your Future
We complain about how difficult our lives are. We brood over why we can’t be happy because our surroundings won’t let us.
Look, I get it. You think having control over circumstances will make you happy. It’ll save you from future pain and misery. But that’s messed up. You’re trying to wage a war against something you can never defeat.
You cannot undo the pain you’ve suffered, or horrors you’ve endured in the past. But it doesn’t mean you must lead your entire life the way you currently do. You can change your future — by using the power you have in the present moment.
Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to choices that are my own. — Epictetus
Your problems will never stop following you. But you can address harmful thoughts which aggravate (or cause) them in. By doing so, you’ll become steady from within no matter where you are. This inner awareness will save you from surrendering to harmful emotions and people, and enable you to pursue a happier, meaningful life.
What happened last year, last evening or five minutes ago, is the past. You can restart whenever you like. That’s how capable your mind is.
2. What Do You Stand For?
When was the last time you sat back and pondered over the question, “Who am I?” When did you seek to clear the fog over what you stand for?
Clarity on these questions enables you to identify your path and stick to it. Stop comparing yourself with others. Instead, seek clarity on what you stand for. You’ll find your niche and discover the direction you want to move in.
“What is the cause of this back and forth? It’s because nothing is clear and they rely on the most uncertain guide — common opinion.” — Seneca
Clarity on what you stand for lets you choose which arena to fight in, and which ones to avoid. It enables you to fight for the right reasons and say no to the wrong ones.
3. Direct Your Efforts
We live cluttered lives and operate out of ‘instinct’. We take each day as it comes. But the day comes and goes, and we remain where we are. Why do many of us find it easier to wrestle a wild boar than improve ourselves?
When people don’t direct their efforts towards a purpose, they don’t know what to do day after day. As a result, they start forming Oiêsis (false beliefs). These oiêsis are responsible for internal disruptions which create havoc in their lives. They don’t know what to do and what to ignore. They tag themselves as failures and drift into oblivion.
“Let all your efforts be directed towards something…. It’s not activity that disturbs people but false conceptions that drive them mad.” — Seneca
Direct your efforts towards a goal. Visualize an end in mind. This doesn’t guarantee you’ll reach your goal. But it’ll make the journey enjoyable. You won’t get overwhelmed by external events. You’ll know when to move forward and when to change direction.
4. Just Begin
One feeling which resurfaces in people’s lives often is regret. Regret keeps them stuck in the past. They keep thinking, “If only I had tried, I would’ve been better off today.”
There’s no hack to get rid of regret. Your only option is to do something. Just begin. If you’re not dead, you can begin today.
“…. approach each task as if it is your last, giving up every distraction, emotional subversion of reason, and all drama, vanity, and complaint over your fair share. You can see how mastery over a few things makes it possible to live an abundant and devout life.” — Marcus Aurelius
Okay. Marcus Aurelius held himself to punishing standards. But you can perform each task, free of distraction by thinking of it as your last.
Just begin. Give whatever you do your 100 percent. Ask yourself, “is what I’m doing making me feel better?” If it isn’t, the action is not in line with your goal. Replace it with something which is. The new action itself will make you feel better.
5. The Importance of a Morning Ritual
Most successful people (and those on their way to success) have a morning ritual. It includes meditation, journaling, visualization, exercise, reading, reflecting, or all of the above. This helps them look inwards and set the tone for the day.
More than anything, stoics advocated quiet time to contemplate. They used it to ponder over deep questions and discover better answers, one morning at a time. At night, they reflected on the day, ruminating on what they could’ve done better.
“For this is what makes us evil — that none of us look back upon our own lives. We reflect only on what we’re about to do. And yet, our plans for the future descend from the past.” — Seneca
Take time out for yourself each morning. Visualize the day ahead and search for answers to questions which surface over and over again. At night, review your day: what you did, what you thought, and what you would like to improve.
Like most good things, this ritual won’t show immediate results. But it will steady your mind and prepare you for the success you deserve.
6. Deep Understanding
Today, most people run from deep learning like a cat runs from water. They would rather be jacks of many trades than masters of a few.
But mastery, not dabbling, lays the foundation for success, expertise and happiness. Hence, the trait of deep learning can help you stand out.
Don’t stop at the surface while learning something. Go deeper. Find out why it works the way it does. Find smarter ways to perform the same action. Keep doing consciously until till it turns into a habit.
“… not to be satisfied with a rough understanding of the whole, and not to be satisfied quickly with those who have a lot to say about something.” — Marcus Aurelius
Stay humble. Let go of preconceived notions. Apply what you learn to everyday life. Only then can you make real progress.
7. Learn From the Wise
A proven way to study deeply is to observe wise people. They serve as models and inspirations. They let you bounce your ideas off them and expand your horizons.
Pick someone, observe what they do and what they don’t, and emulate them. Ask yourself why they did (or didn’t do) something. Each time I find myself in a tricky situation, I ask myself, “What would Dhoni do?” Then I (try to) do the same.
“Without a ruler to do it against, you can’t make the crooked straight.” — Seneca
You will struggle at many areas. Let the wise guide you. Watch them closely, and you’ll find they provide answers for all your questions.
8. Control Your Emotions
We wear our emotions on our sleeves, especially the negative ones. Anger, jealousy and anxiety spill out faster than the speed of light. But would you let another person jerk you around the way your emotions do?
Getting angry is not a sign of toughness. It’s weakness. It’s the biggest hurdle in your way. The ability to control yourself, to not get rattled — that’s strength.
“Frame your thoughts like this….. you won’t let yourself be enslaved by this any longer, no longer pulled like a puppet by every impulse, and you’ll stop complaining about the present fortune and dreading the future.” — Marcus Aurelius
Conduct periodic checks on yourself. At regular intervals ask yourself, “Am I in control here? Or are my emotions winning?” You have the ability to control your emotions. Use it well.
9. Practice Having No Opinion
Today, having an opinion about everything is more fashionable than the latest Versace collection.
We spend tremendous amount of time reading about, and forming opinions on, events which we have little or no control over. We worry about what people will think if we utter the dreaded words, “I don’t know.” As a result, we have no time to invest in deep learning, understanding or contemplation.
But here’s the thing. If you say, “I don’t know,” London bridge won’t come falling down. The more you say it, the better you’ll learn to not worry about people’s judgment of you. You can train your mind to have no thought about aspects which matter to most people, to not give a damn. Just practice the ability to have no thought about something.
“We have the power to hold no opinion about a thing and not let it upset our state of mind — for things have no natural power to shape our judgments.” — Marcus Aurelius.
Invest your energy in emotional, physical and intellectual self improvement instead of shallow opinions. Your state of mind will improve, which will also improve your physical health.
10. What is Your Duty?
Imagine your partner asks you for something. But since you’ve just had a fight, you rudely turn down the request. They retaliate by not doing something you want. Soon enough they’re upset, you’re upset and the situation has blown out of proportion.
But if you step back look at events objectively, you’ll find reason in some of what they asked for. Once you do it, the rest of the task becomes easier and tension gets diffused. Or, if someone keep placing requests (‘demands’, actually), you can distance yourself from them.
“… [Y]our duties are the sum of individual acts. Pay attention to each of these as you do your duty… just methodically complete your task.” — Marcus Aurelius
Let emotion not get in the way of what you do. Let the weight of the goal not slow you down. Your duty is the sum of individual actions. Perform these actions. Focus on the process, and the outcome will take care of itself.
11. Be Present In the Moment
We keep thinking of the past or worrying about the future. As a result, we cannot give the present moment our all. This leads to a chaotic future. When this future becomes the past, it turns into a bad memory and stops us from giving the present our 100 percent. See the vicious cycle here?
Detach yourself from the desire for results. Attach yourself to action. Think about the past, but learn from it. Apply those lessons in the present. You’ll have a good future.
“Perform each task at hand with precise analysis, unaffected dignity, human sympathy, and dispassionate justice. Vacate your mind from other thoughts. Perform each action as if it were the last of your life.” — Marcus Aurelius
This is incredibly hard to practice, but equally rewarding. Think about the last time you performed an action without thinking about the outcome. What you experienced was the state of flow. This ‘flow’ is deeply fulfilling, and lets you be happy from within.
You owe happiness to yourself. Nobody else owes it to you.
12. How to Speak and Act?
You can jump into the far end of the pool and hope to learn how to swim. But you also can learn to swim in the shallow end and then upgrade. Which choice sounds better?
People expected Narendra Modi to bring about speedy reforms, precise analyses and deliver roaring speeches. They expected him to fix decades of mess in weeks. When he didn’t, the media and common man write scathing condemnations of him.
But did Modi give in to popular sentiment? It would be easy for him to get carried away and behave like Kejriwal. Instead, Modi prepares. He’s thorough. He understands the impact of short term pains for long term gains. He weighs his words and plans, and takes action when he’s confident that he should and act. Modi’s words and actions are less in quantum, but high in impact.
“I’ll begin to speak only when I’m certain what I’ll say isn’t better left unsaid.” — Plutarch, Cato the Younger
Can you do that? Can you only say something when it isn’t better left unsaid? Can you take action when you’re sure it isn’t better left not done? When you can, you’ll master your mind and the world.
13. Don’t Fear Self Assessment
In today’s noisy world, people equate self assessment to torture. They’re okay either overestimating or underestimating themselves.
But in doing so, they forget to focus on what’s in their locus of control. Instead, they focus on everything else. Consequently, they repeatedly make poor decisions and remain unhappy. For happiness, they turn to instant gratification, further pushing away from their real selves.
“Above all, it’s important for a person to have a true self estimate, for we commonly think we can do more than we really can.” — Seneca
“If you are irritated by every rub, how will you be polished?” Rumi asked. Don’t fear self assessment just because it’ll throw up unpleasant insights. You need these insights to create a better today, and tomorrow, for yourself.
Emotionally balanced people take time out at regular intervals to analyze their thoughts and actions. They work on their shortcomings. This helps them understand their capabilities, unlock their potential and handle tough situations with surprising grit.
True education is in understanding the fundamentals, and what’s in your power.
The more you desire, the harder you work to achieve it. You enjoy life less, and are less free. Stoicism can free you from desires. It can train you to protect yourself against false impulses. It can make you examine every belief you hold, turn it over, and decide whether to hold on to it or change it.
I won’t lie. This sounds terrifying! And in the beginning, it is. When the walls of what you believed in come crashing down, you wonder whether anything makes sense at all. But with Stoicism as a guide, you slowly start building those walls. This time, you make them sturdier!
Stoicism is teaching me to observe my emotions from a distance. It’s helping me build self-awareness, something I lacked until recently. It’s teaching me to take responsibility for how I think and behave.
It has been a tough but fulfilling journey so far. And I’m nowhere near the end. In fact, I’ve just begun to understand deeper aspects of this philosophy. I still have a hundred thousand miles to go. But the journey to a thousand miles starts with one step. I took that step, and continue to take one every day.
You don’t have to surrender to the whims of the world. You don’t need to make decisions you regret over and over again. You can lay the foundation for a better future today. You can build a life which makes you independent, happy and fulfilled.
The questions is: will you take the first step? I hope your answer is “yes”.
If you want a primer on Stoicism, Ryan Holiday’s and Stephen Hanselman’s The Daily Stoic is a good place to start. For this article, I’ve picked quotes and lessons from the book.