Living a Stoic Life
I first came across Stoic Philosophy when I read a book called, The Wisdom of Groundhog Day. The book is based on the well-known film, Groundhog Day, starring the wonderful Bill Murray. Long before the book came out I had been quoting the film and its main character, Phil Connors, on various training courses with both adults and young people. Are you familiar with the film? After being ‘stuck’ over and over in the same day for years, Phil gradually learns to take better control of his emotions, his habits and his character. He transforms himself from being arrogant, self-centred and apathetic to becoming a multi-talented, popular and benevolent man. He achieves this transformation through experimenting with different ways of thinking and behaving. Little did I realise that Phil was mostly applying a philosophy called Stoicism.
Inspired by the film, I have read quite a bit about Stoic philosophy. It has many useful applications in modern life. Stoicism offers a simple guide to living life with less stress and more purpose. I’m going to try to explain in plain English, without any reference to jargon, what this philosophy is about and some of the exercises that Stoics undertake to develop themselves. It can help people who suffer from anxiety, or those who have trouble dealing with anger or just that sense of feeling stuck in your life.
What is Stoic Philosophy?
If you’re completely new to Stoicism, here are the basics. It’s not a religion or some sort of cult, it’s a philosophy that is over two thousand years old, founded at the end of the 4th century BC by Zeno of Citium in ancient Greece. The most famous Stoics, though, lived during the time of the Roman empire: Seneca the Younger, Epictetus, and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Sadly, there is a lot of confusion around Stoicism. A lot of people equate the word ‘stoic’ with ‘miserable’ or 'dour'. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Stoicism is a philosophy with a specific set of ethical values or ‘virtues’ that, when developed, help you to live a happier more fulfilled life. These virtues take time to build. But with daily practice, mastering them can help a person to become more emotionally resilient and less easily upset by events in life.
Although Stoicism is a pretty big subject, it is about how you should live your life after all, I’ll try to summarise the main ideas behind it. So what would living a Stoic life look like?
To Stoics, what matters isn’t what happens to us but how we respond. Or in the words of Marcus Aurelius, one of the most successful Roman emperor and perhaps the greatest of the Stoic philosophers: “If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your judgement of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgement now.”
Stoics train themselves, on a daily basis, to take more responsibility for their own actions. The Stoics realise that we do not have control of external events. So they don’t think any external events are worth getting upset about. The only thing that really matters is our own character and how we choose to deal with the things that happen to us. On our courses we teach E + R = O. It stands for Event + Response = Outcome. The formula teaches us an event doesn’t necessarily cause us to become angry or anxious. For example, we can't control the weather but how we respond to it by what we wear will affect how we cope or even enjoy the day.
Stoics don’t complain. The Stoics were movers and shakers, they built things, explored, wrote books, and lived their lives to benefit the whole of humanity. They also realised that we human beings are not entitled to anything. This is hard to get your head around. We're conditioned in societies like ours where advertising is so prevalent to believe that we should have so much. Stoics teach us to try to make the best of things, not to expect or demand things (events) always go well and calmly get on with our lives when things don’t go as we had hoped.
Stoics don’t dwell on the past. To some extent we all think about past events. But morbid rumination about the past is bad for us. Unfortunately, this is a common trait among people suffering from severe depression. Some people find it really hard to move on from what has happened in their past. They’re still living it. And yet a person's past or their personal story, can be successfully changed through what we call an editing process. We have the ability as human beings to create our own story. So why not learn to create a story from your past that works for you rather than against you?
Some Stoic Exercises
Stoics employ lots of different psychological exercises to help themselves cultivate a mindset that enable them to live well. Below are just three examples of the many exercises that Stoics practise throughout their lives.
Journaling - Keeping a Journal helps us to slow down, ‘look inside’ and examine our beliefs. All of us hold beliefs, things we think are true about us and the world we live in. However, some of those beliefs may not actually be true. Holding a few false or irrational beliefs is often not a problem. But when our beliefs hold us back or make us unhappy we need to examine them. Journaling can help us to do this. Through slowing down and considering certain questions many of us can adopt more helpful and liberating beliefs. As writer, Sharon Salzberg, explains:“It’s not the existence of beliefs that is the problem, but what happens to us when we hold them rigidly, without examining them, when we presume the absolutely centrality of our views and become disdainful of others.”
Remember, everybody has their own unique perception of things. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you find out that you are holding on to some irrational beliefs. Those beliefs that give you comfort and help you cope better with life are fine to keep. But becoming conscious of those that are causing you more stress than is needed, are the ones that will be worth ditching. Spending five to ten minutes each day writing a Journal can also help you to prepare for the day ahead and reflect on the day that has just passed. On our course we get people to ask themselves certain questions and spend some time writing their responses to them. For example, we find that these three questions, reflected on at the end of each day, can lead to some interesting revelations.
What did I do today that I was proud of and happy with?
What could I have done better?
How could I be a better version of myself tomorrow?
Being more Objective - We’re all subjective - we look at the world through our own unique lens. If we look at the world through rose-tinted glasses everything might look very different than if we look at events through gloomy dark lenses. One way Stoics try to remind themselves of this is by describing events to themselves in very objective language, avoiding any strong value judgements or emotive rhetoric.
Learning to describe things as they really are rather than as we think they are enables us to ensure we don’t turn a setback into a major drama. Getting in the habit of describing things more objectively helps us to get some distance from a problem and think more about how the problem can be solved than worrying about its possible effects. Learning to objectively describe an event can help us to come up with a better response – one that is more in keeping with being a calm, emotionally stable person.
Avoiding making judgements - Once of the principal Stoic philosophers Epictetus. He wrote: “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgement about these things.”
Stoic philosophy acknowledge that life can be hard sometimes. Stoics believe that there is no such thing as good or bad, there is only perception. Stuff happens. We then make judgements about what happens. If we judge that something really bad has happened, then we might get upset, sad, or angry, depending on what it is. If we judge that something bad is going to happen then this can also trouble us. All of our emotions are the product of the judgements we make.
However, we cannot always judge whether a situation is good or bad at the time it happens. I’m not talking about matters such as someone dying or becoming seriously ill. I’m talking about things that might seem big at the time but when we look back you realise that they’re not as big as we thought they were. This can include falling out with a friend, failing a test or being overwhelmed with work. So, when something is causing you some anxiety, ask yourself these questions:
· Are things making you anxious or are you making yourself anxious?
· Might this problem not seem as bad in a few days, weeks, years?
· How would your role model or an imaginary friend deal with this problem?
The last question is a particularly good one. It can be a useful exercise to bring other people to mind when you’re feeling anxious and imagining them giving you advice. Your role model could be a friend, a hero or even a fictitious character. How might they deal with this problem? This sort of exercise might help you to get some distance from the problem and start to question your own story.
Living a Stoic Life can help you better navigate life's ups and downs. It can help you to reframe your personal story so it works for you. It can help you take more control and ensure that you don't waste precious time and energy.
Author: Andy Griffith, Director of Malit in the Community
What Next? If you’re interested in learning more about Stoicism there are loads of free resources available out there. But, if you like what you have read and think that you would like to explore this deeper, why not try going on a course led by skilled trainers from Malit in the Community? There you can learn to apply Stoic philosophy to your own life.