Stoicism (n). An ancient Greek school of philosophy founded at Athens by Zeno of Citium. The school taught that virtue, the highest good, is based on knowledge; the wise live in harmony with the divine Reason (also identified with Fate and Providence) that governs nature, and are indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain.
In it’s rawest form, stoicism is a school of philosophy. Not quite a religion, but more of a way of living. A way of thinking. A way of being to allow yourself to be the best possible version of you.
Some of the most famous people throughout history have known to practice stoicism. From the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, through American president Teddy Roosevelt and to present day Tim Ferris, Bill Gates and Tom Brady.
All have been known to have some form of exposure to the stoic way of life.
On a personal note, I would say becoming more stoic in my daily life has been one of the key reasons for an improvement in my mental health. I can directly correlate it to finding less ‘noise’ in my mind and I also find myself being less troubled by things.
So let’s explore some of the key teachings, and how you can take some small lessons from the ancients stoics to make a big difference in your life.
Memento Mori – Remember death
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”
I’ve talked about this phrase many times across both this blog and my twitter page. Memento Mori is my favourite phrase. Period.
The closest translation from Latin to English is ‘remember death’.
The whole concept of memento mori is not about the depressing and upsetting side of death. It is more so about becoming more present in the now and not wishing your life away. We all have such little time on this earth, wishing it away only goes to waste the time you do have.
In the book Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (probably the most famous book on stoicism) he says “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think”. Powerful stuff.
Actionable tip 1 – Remember Memento Mori. Think about mortality often and let that drive your decisions and your way of being.
Is this within my control
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .”
If memento mori is my favourite phrase, this is my absolute favourite change to my lifestyle. Once you fully grasp that not everything is within your control the change in perspective is absolutely incredible.
Now, every time something happens that affects me either directly or indirectly, I consider if it is in my control before I let my reaction take hold.
For example, just last night we had problems with the internet at home. We were trying to watch a TV show but Netflix just kept buffering. My partner was getting more and more stressed until eventually, we stopped watching. I don’t dispute the annoyance of the stop-start nature, but there is nothing I could do to change it. So why even let it raise my blood pressure?
A very 21st Century/first-world problem look at a Latin way of being, but it works the same.
Actionable tip 2 – Next time something doesn’t go your way, before reacting first ask yourself. Is there anything I could do to control what has happened? If there isn’t just let it ride.
Remember – It’s All Ephemeral
“Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both.”
Always remember how small your time is relative to almost every other thing in the universe. To clarify, ephemeral means to last for a very short time.
Anything that happens to you, good or bad. Achievement or failure. They are all with you for just a fleeting second. So what effect can this have on your life?
It’s helpful to remember that all the can matter is how you are right now. Knowing that anything that can or will happen to you will only be there for a short period, drives you to be the best version of yourself at this exact second.
Actionable tip 3 – Always be aware of the things around you and how you are acting right this second. Are you being the best version of you right now?
Take The View From Above
“How beautifully Plato put it. Whenever you want to talk about people, it’s best to take a birds-eye view and see everything all at once — of gatherings, armies, farms, weddings and divorces, births and deaths, noisy courtrooms or silent spaces, every foreign people, holidays, memorials, markets — all blended together and arranged in a pairing of opposites.”
Whenever you have decisions to make or have something on your mind, it can help to have some perspective. Whether you are bickering with your significant other or having a hard time at work just take a second and ‘zoom out’.
Imagine the world as if you can see everything in it. All the people, the animals and the plants. All the good and the bad, the suffering and the happiness. Only then do you get a true picture of how relatively small your problems actually are?
It re-orients you and re-frames whatever situation you are in right now.
It will not make the problem go away, nor will it give you an instant solution. What it will do, however, is give you a little more clarity of mind.
Actionable tip 4 – When faced with a problem, take a second to ‘zoom out’ and imagine all other thing in the world.
Premeditatio Malorum – The pre-meditation of evils
“Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation, . . . nor do all things turn out for him as he wished but as he reckoned—and above all he reckoned that something could block his plans.”
The pre-meditation of evils tells us to imagine all the things that could go wrong, or could be taken away from us, and think through the solution.
This might cause a little bit of anxiety in some people, I know thinking about the worst case scenario is something my mind is fantastic at.
But rather than just thinking about the worst case scenario, append to that a thought about what the solution would be if that situation does happen to arise.
You could get stuck in traffic and be late for work? Well then you will just work a little bit later to make up the time
Your flight back from a far off country gets delayed by 18 hours? Well just use that time in the airport to relax, read and improve yourself in some way.
With a bit of thought, there aren’t many situations that are as bad as they first appear.
Life is full of setbacks, that is inevitable. But being ready to tackle them all head on. That can only help to build your resilience and strength.
Actionable tip 5 – Be prepared for any disruption, challenge or situation the world can throw at you.
Amor Fati – Love everything that happens
“A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.”
For me, this was one of the most difficult stoic philosophes to pick up and take on board. No matter what happens to you, love it. The quote above from Marcus Aurelius is a great one to understand Amor Fati, but to add a little more I have a couple more quotes here from other great stoic thinkers.
“Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.”
“That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backwards, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it….but love it.”
I find the one from Epictetus the most compelling. Never wish for things to happen a different way, wish for them to simply happen exactly as they happen. If that isn’t a quote worth of changing your way of thinking, I don’t know what is.
Making the best out of every situation is a sure fire way to keep yourself happy. No matter what happens, find the positives. Find the one thing you can take away, no matter how small.
If you take on board everything that is thrown your way; every challenge; every obstacle; then nothing can bring you down. Everything becomes fuel to your body and mind, no matter the positive or negative feelings.
Actionable tip 6 – Embrace and love everything that happens. Never wish for it to change, wish that it happens as it happens.
Are you going to become more stoic?
Before closing out this article, I just want to quickly summarise the key takeaways again. Seeing them all in a list really helps to understand the immense power of taking on board just a couple of these philosophies.
- Remember Memento Mori. Think about mortality often and let that drive your decisions and your way of being.
- Next time something doesn’t go your way, before reacting first ask yourself. Is there anything I could do to control what has happened? If there isn’t just let it ride.
- Always be aware of the things around you and how you are acting right this second. Are you being the best version of you right now?
- When faced with a problem, take a second to ‘zoom out’ and imagine all other things in the world.
- Be prepared for any disruption, challenge or situation the world can throw at you.
Read through that list a couple of times. Now go away and attempt to take on just a single one of the philosophies (I’d recommend number 2) and apply it to your everyday life.
If you’re interested in learning more about stoicism, there are some fantastic resources out there.
- https://dailystoic.com/ – A fantastic website regarding all things stoic
- The Obstacle is the Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage – A great book by Ryan Holiday on stoicism in the 21st Century
- Meditations (Penguin Classics) – Meditations by Marcus Aurellius is the bible of stoicism. A collection of the wisest words from a Roman Emperor
- Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium (Classics) – A translation of letters writen by Seneca. The letters are more like essays than what we would consider a traditional letter. But packed full of wisdom.