As I continue to write posts for the 7 Things blog a number of them will be on Stoic philosophy. Stoic philosophy or Stoicism has been a big part of my life since I discovered it while recovering from a nervous breakdown at the age of 19. In 2010 I wrote my first book called “Greeks To Geeks: Practical Stoicism in the 21st Century”, and earlier this year I updated it and re-released it as the second edition on my website and Amazon. Stoicism is a practical philosophy developed in Ancient Greece and then Rome that is designed to empower you and give you the tools necessary to take control over how you feel regardless of what circumstance you find yourself in. This is a big subject, one which I’ll be coming back to in order to focus on the individual facets of the philosophy over time. And so for this post I simply want to introduce you to two of the main concepts of Stoicism as well as give you something that you can take away after reading and immediately apply in order make your life happier!
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease
worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will”
The practical and therapeutic aspect of Stoicism comes from two important truths:
1 – That the only thing we have full control over in this world is our ability to form opinion.
2 – That it is not what occurs to us that makes us feel how we feel, rather it is the opinions that we form about the occurrences that create our emotional state.
If these statements are true you must realise the power that they imply. If the only thing we can control is our opinion and the only thing that controls how we feel is our opinion, then ultimately and with a little practice we can take full control over our emotional state regardless of outside circumstances! But before we get too far ahead let’s put these concepts to the test.
Concept 1: That the only thing we have full control over is out ability to form opinion, to judge, to prefer, or be averse to, to form belief systems and thought processes. Well we don’t control the weather, we don’t control the actions, thoughts or words of any other person, and we don’t ultimately control our bodies, for at any moment an accident could occur leaving your body injured without your permission and intention. While we have the power to attempt to influence, we don’t ultimately control our physical health, our wealth, our status, our reputation. Anything that relies on a force outside of us is not fully within out power to control at all times. Only our ‘Ruling Faculty’, our ability to form opinion relies, always and only, on us and remains within out control at all times. People can attempt to sway our opinion, but only with our permission can our opinion be changed.
Concept 2: That it is not the incident that causes the reaction, it is in fact the opinions and beliefs held about the incident that cause the feelings and emotions. This one’s easy to prove, let’s take the classic example of a sports game. If you take a soccer final for example, you will notice that the crowd, for the sake of this demonstration, is made up on one side of red shirts, and blue on the other. Everyone in the audience is witness to the exact same series of events, albeit from slightly different angles, yet their reactions could not be more polarized! When the red team scores a goal, the red supporters jump for joy while the blues slump in their seats deflated. It is not the event that causes our reactions, but the opinions and beliefs we have formed about the event.
I could go into more examples of both concepts but this is merely and introduction and I think those examples illustrate the point well enough for now. So now that we have established that it’s not the event but our perception of the event that causes how we feel, and that we control that perception, let’s put it to the test! The practical application of these concepts comes from replacing irrational and untrue beliefs with rational and true ones. For this next example let’s imagine you are walking home from the shop, big bulging shopping bags in hand, when suddenly the bottom of one of the bags splits wide open and the contents are sprawled over the pavement. Your pasta sauce has smashed, your oranges and apples are rolling down the street and the milk has sprung a leak, spraying white liquid over the rest of the shopping on the ground. The accident has occurred, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Your reaction to the event now comes down to your opinion about it.
Let’s look at one potential though process, that of the “Awfuliser”: “This is awful! My parents are coming for dinner! I’m such an idiot, I should have been more careful! Those morons should really make the bags stronger! This is just the worst, why me, and today of all days! This is so humiliating, everyone thinks I’m an idiot. I’m going to have to do all the shopping again, but I don’t have time! And what a waste of money. What an idiot I am, I can’t do anything right. Looks like I’ll have to cancel the dinner.” What kind of emotional reaction do you think this will lead to? It will of course lead to feelings of anger, frustration, shame, rage, embarrassment, self-loathing and so on. This is not a nice state to be in, and we don’t make our best decisions in this state either. So the dinner is cancelled and our poor character is feeling like crap, probably for the rest of the day.
Let’s now take a look at how our model Stoic would react to such an accident. The exact same event has just occurred, let’s see how our Stoic deals with the situation. “Well this is unfortunate, I certainly didn’t ask for this to occur. But the deed is done, it’s already happened, nothing I can do about it now. These kinds of accidents happen to the best of us, it’s nobody’s fault. I was looking forward to cooking for my parents, and I’m sure they’ll be disappointed but they will be understanding once they know what happened. I’ll call them and take them out to a restaurant instead. I’m not happy about the money I’ve lost thanks to this accident, but at same time I’m not going to let it ruin my whole day. Deep breath, salvage what I can of the groceries, get home, have a hot shower and enjoy a nice evening out.” And what do you think will be the physiological result of this kind of way of thinking? Irritation sure, but calmness overall, and an understanding that ‘these things happen’. Our Stoic moves on quickly and calmly ready to enjoy the rest of the day, while our unfortunate ‘Awfuliser’ wallows in depression and self pity for the remainder of the afternoon and evening.
These are extremely simplistic examples of course, but I hope that you have grasped the basic concepts of how Stoicism, when practiced, can be a powerful tool in controlling your emotional state, reducing stress and depression and making life a whole lot nicer. I can’t begin to express the positive effect it’s had on my life, the radical change in my inner dialogue from self-critical, destructive and depressive thought processes to a landscape of rational, positive empathy. So the next time something goes wrong, before your habitual beliefs kick in, try shifting things up a bit in the opinion department and see what effect it has on your emotional state, on how you feel inside.
I will of course go into more detailed explanations of how to practice and exercise Stoic Philosophy in future blogs, but I hope this introduction has been intriguing and inspiring. You have the power to control how you feel regardless of outside circumstance, doesn’t that idea fill you full excitement? What do you think about Stoic philosophy, would you be willing to try it out?
Thanks for reading
ps. If you are interested in delving deeper into Stoic philosophy check out my ‘Shop Page’ by clicking HERE, where you can read about and purchase my Stoicism book “Greeks to Geeks: Practical Stoicism in the 21st Century”
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