Three Lessons From Three Stoics | How to conquer life
Word Count: 2431 Importance: High Read Time: 12 minutes Coffee: Not Needed
The wisdom to deal with the crises that inevitably show up in the lives of Man has been recorded by various intellectuals and philosophers over the centuries . Modern Man disregards the wisdom of our greatest sages, often believing their words to be archaic and not fit for our time. What could these old men possibly teach us about our world? Our world is much different to theirs. We live in an age that has things that were never dreamt of in their philosophy. Why should we listen to them?
Despite the enormous influence that technological advances have had on civilisation, mankind is still plagued by the same inner conflicts. These conflicts have been on the minds of Man since time immemorial. It doesn’t matter if you lived two thousand years ago or if you live now, you will still feel: fear, love, greed, jealousy, happiness, melancholy. So in regards to these timeless conflicts we can still learn a lot from those who lived before us. Remember that the outside world changes at a faster rate than our biology.
In regards to our day to day conflicts, who better to learn from than the Stoics? Stoicism is a branch of philosophy that tends to deal with the more practical aspects of life. A school founded by Zeno of Citium, built on the principles of virtue, and living a life that is aligned with divine reason. The ethos of Stoicism is most notably celebrated by the big 3; Marcus Aurelius (emperor of Rome), Seneca , and Epictetus.
Let us look over three lessons that we can learn from these giants.
Lesson one : True Happiness | Seneca
Do not get confused and think that Seneca is telling us not to pursue our grandest goals, this is not the case because Seneca himself was a wealthy and successful man. His quote is an admonition against a lack of presence, it’s a warning against those who are unable to enjoy the moment for what it is. You can not live your life always thinking about the future or remembering the past. The future is uncertain and the past is often distorted by the mind. The only truth is found in the present moment.
We have become so distracted. Social conditioning has made us believe that we can only attain happiness through expansion. We must get the next biggest toy, we must get faster, bigger, and smarter. The pursuit of happiness is analogous to a mouse stuck in a wheel. We are too busy to pay close attention to our course and hence never reach our destination. This is because many of us have learned to accept societies ideologies as truths, instead of taking time to investigate deeper.
Case study 1 | The Prodigal Son
A young boy wants an Xbox for his birthday, his parents give it to him in order to make him happy. The plan clearly works for a couple of months as the kid won’t get of the dam thing. Fast forward a couple of years and the Xbox has lost its gimmick. The boy hopes to rekindle the spark through buying a new gaming PC. He believes the gaming PC is far superior to the Xbox, the specs tell the story!
Inevitably the pattern carries on into adulthood. The boy who is now a man looks for fulfilment through bigger and more expensive toys. He often works 60 hour work weeks in order to save up enough money to buy his dream car, a white BMW X6. He eventually buys the car and is stoked, the car makes him very happy for the first 2 years before the gimmick runs out yet again. The man begins dreaming about owning his own helicopter, and so the cycle repeats itself.
Presence is key
True happiness can not be found in anything outside yourself. Material things are transient in nature and can only offer temporary excitement. As we have seen the excitement wares off and we are often left looking for more ways to expand. We end up spending so much time day dreaming about the future and all of its perks that we forget to enjoy the life that we are living right now.
Learn to enjoy the present moment fully, by bringing your attention to it. Learn to appreciate life in the moment because the future is not guaranteed. No man knows the day or in which land he will be buried, so do not live your life dreaming about an uncertain future.
You can still pursue great accomplishments in the future while being present to the moment. You simply enjoy the moment for what it is and work on what you need to do to ensure the future is great as well. The secret is to not escape the present moment by daydreaming about a better future. Dedicate yourself to the NOW and create a great future through it.
Lesson two: You have Power over your mind | Marcus Aurelius
In Shakespeare classic play ‘Hamlet‘, Hamlet tells his friend Horatio that
No truer words have been said. The world we live in is incredibly complex, its size and scope imponderable to the human mind. The universe not only expands outwards, but also can be magnified inwards. They say that there are more stars in the sky than there are grains of sand on planet Earth. They also say that a grain of sand has 50 quintillion atoms (50, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000) within its crystal structure.
We live on a small blue planet in a insignificant corner of a sublime universe. What hope do we as humans have of controlling outside events? You can not predict the future no matter how certain it may seem, just like how you can not always predict the weather. The nature of the universe is chaos, there are too many variables at play at any given time. There are variables that science is still ignorant of that influence outside events in the background. If you want to maintain your sanity let go of the need to control or understand everything.
You still have power however, you have power over your mind. Humans have been given the gift of consciousness ( The awareness or interface between subject and object). This gift allows us to choose our response to the hand life deals us.
Everything is perception, there is no objective reality. To someone without ears there is no such thing as sound, to someone who is blind there is no such thing as light. Our minds form our reality.
In your life many things will happen. You will have your ups: making friends, finding love, feeling fulfilled, being happy, and having peace. You will also have your downs; losing friends, depression, being broke, and dealing with the death of loved ones. In the grand scheme of things the only thing that will help you through the vicissitudes of life is your perception of the events.
Case study 2: A dark night of the soul
Ben loses his mother to cancer, and is devastated. Ben has always thought of himself as a victim in life, everything bad seems to happen to him. His mothers death was the tipping point which lead him into a deep depression. Ben’s friends and family try to help him out of his rut, but he insists on living in solitude. Deep melancholy becomes Ben’s default state in life. For the rest of Ben’s life he feeds his depression by finding the negatives in every event that happens, in the end he take his own life in order to escape.
Tash loses her mother to cancer, and is devastated. Although Tash mourns her mother she understands that death is natural part of life. Tash chooses to celebrate her mothers life, and be grateful for the time she was able to spend with her. Tash decides that she wants to study medicine, and hopefully be able to help find a cure for cancer one day. She is able to pass all her classes with distinctions because of her passion for medicine. She goes on to help treat many other patients with cancer.
Ben and Tash were both exposed to the same situation, the difference in their outcomes came through their perception of events.
You always have a choice
Victor Frankl a holocaust survivor in his book ‘A man’s search for meaning‘ famously said,
“between stimulus and response there is a space. in that space is our power to choose our response. in our response lies our growth and freedom“. There are no right or wrong responses in life, there are only responses that will empower you and those who that will disempower you. Always choose that path that will lead you to your growth.
Lesson Three: Mastering Oneself | Epictetus
Are you the master of yourself or do you live every day in reaction to outside circumstances? You will never truly be free until you learn to control your mind and body. Many of us live in free nations that allow the right to the freedom of choice, however we often hold the invisible shackles of mental slavery.
If you wish to quit smoking but can never commit to it, you are in a form of slavery to the cigarettes. If you wish to work on your project but can never seem to get started, you are a slave to procrastination. Whenever your desired action is impeded by some resistance which you are unable to overcome, you are a slave to that resistance.
The goal for The Realized Man and Realized Woman is to be able to bring a greater level of awareness into the inner workings of their minds and bodies. You need to be able to understand that we are animals and are subject to the baser nature of beasts. With the right work we are able to transcend primal impulses, and live at our fullest potential.
In order to have self mastery you need to understand how your mind works, below is a brief outline of some useful areas to investigate.
Warren Buffet once said “The Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”
Many of our actions are habitual. Automating the things we have to do frequently on a day to day basis is a way in which the mind saves energy. Imagine having to think about what to do before brushing your teeth everyday, you will waste mental energy that could be used on other things.
Naturally our habits are supposed to support us, however we can pick up bad habits and the results can be disastrous. The little dessert every now and then becomes a daily ritual. Before you even know what has hit you, the ritual has made you gain 4 shirt sizes. It is crucial for those serious about their self-mastery to be able to understand the mechanisms behind what creates habits.
A very useful model to understand how habits operate is the habit wheel from Charles Duhigg book ‘The Power of Habit“.
Cognitive Biases and Heuristics
If your salary was to double from $50 000 to $100 000 you would be very happy. After doubling if your salary was to go down to ($65 000, still $15 000 net gain) you will feel devastated. The magnitude of the pain of losing money far exceeds that of gaining money, this happens because of the ‘loss aversion’ cognitive bias.
There are hundreds of cognitive biases and heuristics that help us make decisions. These operate as logical shortcuts that help us make sense of the world. These same Biases that are meant to help us in making logical decisions can influence us into making flawed decisions. The simple fact is that some of these biases might have been effective in a more primal world, and are clearly not as reliable in our modern world.
Do yourself a service and try to understand some of the common biases that hinder your progress to self-mastery.
Willpower and Energy levels
Unlike what many popular self help gurus will tell you, you can not just muscle your way through exhaustion to produce effective work. We are all subject to ‘ego depletion’, and must be aware of our energy levels. If you truly want to maximise your output you need to understand that you are human, and are not a machine that can work effectively for hours on end.
Self-mastery demands that you understand how much energy you generally have on any given day. You need to understand the conditions in which you are able to operate at your peak performance. What food do you need to consume in order to maintain your energy levels? What morning ritual must you do in order to ensure that you are in the right frame of mind? These are all questions that you should have the answer to.
Awareness of these things allows you to break down your big goals into manageable bits. Rome was not built in a day, Epictetus understood this when he said “nothing great is created suddenly”.
Case study 3: Prometheus’s rock
Catherine has been trying to lose weight for the past seven years with little to no success. While browsing the web she finds a new hit diet that promises fast results. The diet is endorsed by many celebrities so Catherine decides to try it out( falling for the ‘social proof’ cognitive bias). She begins by working out 2 hours every day, and not allowing herself any cheat meals.
Two weeks pass and Catherine job demands that she work more hours and as a result she begins to skip some of her workouts ( Ego depletion has started to kick in). Three weeks go by and Catherine is back to square one, she did not implement exercising into her daily routine for a long enough duration to ensure that it became a habit.
She was unable to stick with her training routine because it was too strenuous. Catherine overestimated her energy levels and hence burned herself out by trying to do too much. Not being able to correctly gauge your energy levels can leave you feeling like Prometheus tied up to his rock with the eagle eating his liver.
I highly suggest that you guys look into some Stoicism. It is a philosophy that can actually benefit you tremendously with dealing with the adversities of life. A Stoic learns to flip the script on life and turn obstacles into ways of self-growth. I recommend you checkout these three books if you want a better understanding of Stoicism.
- ‘Meditations‘ by Marcus Aurelius
- ‘On the Shortness of life‘ by Seneca
- ‘Enchiridion of Epictetus‘ by Epictetus
Also make sure you checkout this video on Stoicism from Therealizedman youtube channel.