“To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden.”
Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus — the teachings of these three men became the pillars of what the modern world knows as Stoicism. In a nutshell, Stoicism can be seen as a practice of deliberate discomfort, but as a philosophy, it is so much more. I am convinced that following the stoic doctrine alone is enough to live a good life. The fact that the movement of modern stoics is on the rise supports my conviction. The time to resurface Stoicism has come.
Here is my string of pearls of stoic wisdom, some of which you might decide to integrate into your personal philosophy. Let’s try to answer the question: “How to be a Modern Stoic?”
#1. Define Freedom.
“No man is free who is not master of himself.”
No matter how desperate is the situation you find yourself in, you are always faced with the dilemma of choosing between an immediate reaction to an external stimulus and a controlled response. You can either take your time and decide on the best course of action or engage without a plan in mind. You may speak up or keep silent. You can hold your current position or retreat. Let people stay in your life or let them go. It is always a choice — your choice.
One must take responsibility for the development of his own EQ. The essence of emotional intelligence is not so much understanding of the emotions and their origin as it is an ability to take a pause. Sometimes, a conscious choice not to engage is what makes the difference between destruction and reparation. ReaCting versus Creating. A two-letter swap might seem negligible yet it leads to two drastically different outcomes.
The life of a stoic is a constant cut-off of sources of external control. Placing your body in desired environments, speaking in heartsease, focusing your attention on what is truly important at will — that is real self-mastery and that is real freedom.
#2. Outline the Circle of Influence and Circle of Concern.
“Make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as it happens.”
This simple picture illustrates one of the most powerful instruments of Stoicism. Two circles that you see represent things that are under your control, and things that you can’t influence yet still worry about.
The Circle of Influence includes things like:
- Where you work
- What you buy
- What you read
- What you learn
- What people you meet
- Your attitude toward life
The Circle of Concern includes:
- Political views of other people
- Natural disasters
- Wars, armed conflicts, terrorists’ attacks
- Sex lives of celebrities
- What other people think
Both lists can be continued further. The question that you should be asking yourself is: “What change does this thing that is gripping my attention at the present moment create in my life?” This question is the turning-point. This is where it is decided whether you grow or fall. The moment you make a conscious decision to stop caring about the things you cannot control, the mental weight that was hindering your movement toward your goals drops.
It may seem that stoics who have clarity on what their circles comprise are emotionless, and that is simply not true. It is not that stoics are heartless. They simply deploy a displacement of focus. For a stoic, things that dwell outside of his Circle of Influence are also excluded from the scope of his attention. Stoics intentionally refuse to feed unproductive and disturbing concerns with their energy. What is perceived as a lack of compassion is, in fact, the quality of a different caliber. It is indifference.
#3. Choose discomfort. Challenge yourself.
“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”
Being a stoic means welcoming discomfort, cherishing it. A true stoic seeks discomfort because he knows that even the slightest sign of uneasiness is the indicator of growth. It takes a great deal of discipline to be a captain of your ship, to live by your own rules, to make yourself a person who will be of use in this world.
The imposition of discomfort on a body and a mind can be accomplished by many methods:
- Physical exercise
- Cold showers
- Giving public speeches
- Early rising
- Long sessions of deep work
Life works in interesting ways. Stress-resistance is developed through the deliberate decision to undergo stress. Gratitude is developed through deprivation. You learn the most about yourself in the moments when the desire to give up is at its peak.
Nothing feels easy at the beginning of any new challenge but you can be damn well sure that if you make it through the person who will emerge on the other side of the challenge will be hungry for more. Daily self-cultivation is like any other job of work — it has bitter root but sweet fruit.
#4. Envision and execute.
“First, say to yourself what you would be, and then do what you have to do.”
Can you move a pen with the power of your thought? Yes, you can. Stretch out your hand. Take the pen in your hand. Move it. Voila! You have just become a person who moved a pen with a power of thought, isn’t that just amazing?
I know it’s a silly example yet it serves the purpose of illustration of how uncomplicated the thought materialization conceptually is. We must never forget how powerful we are in our ability to shape the physical reality around us.
Some of our projects are grand-scale. They possess greater inertia and hence require a longer time to acquire manifestation. Other ideas can be executed promptly coming to instantaneous fruition. However, regardless of the complexity of the conceived plan, the principle of materialization remains the same as in the above-mentioned example with the pen:
If you want to materialize a thought, you’ve got to reach out.
An intention to reach a qualitatively new level of personal development presupposes action. The more fundamental is the desired transformation, the more perseverant and well thought out the action must be.
In general, our ability to visualize ourselves works unidirectionally — the images of our past selves are rather clear in our memories, however, the images of what we might become dodge clarity. This is when the stoic mindset comes into play guiding us into our not so distant future. Similarly to all your past selves, all of your future “I”s are confined within your present self. Everything you now only wish to be already exists within the present you. Do not treat your forthcoming identities as strangers. Instead, create a relationship with your future selves, welcome their arrival as if they were old friends. After all, what they are will soon become you.
#5. Embody your philosophy.
“Waste no time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
~ Marcus Aurelius
No way to change the outer world is inherently direct. A palpable change of the exterior circumstances can only occur through the initial change of mind. It is obvious that external reality and psychic reality are inextricably intertwined. Those who understand this redirect their energy from the former to the latter. Rumi a famous Sufi mystic said it best: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
Having a stoic mentality means making sure that everyone who happened to touch your life leaves it with an impression that would nudge him into goodness. Being a stoic means being on an explicit mission of living an outstanding, exemplary life. Indeed, your capacity to make an impact on other people’s lives is directly proportional to your own standards. We bring out the best in others in the process of becoming the best of us.
A stoic continually grows in compassion for the suffering of humankind. Defying his impulses to fix other people, he finds that the best way to be of help to others is restless self-improvement. He understands that becoming a better person is not following some externally imposed morality, it is winning the internal argument with his own conscience.
All good there is to you deserves to be surfaced. Even if there will be only one person who will find inspiration in your knowledge, all your hard work is well worth it. And there is no better way to walk your life journey than to be a person to whom others look up to. Elevate the minds. Make those who know you proud of the fact that they know you.
#6. Be on a Mission.
“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”
I guess we all have some general understanding of the various aspects of life that a personal mission statement must have covered.
- Grow a tree. Build a house. Raise a child.
- Love your partner. Take care of your parents. Cherish your friends.
- Build your business. Make a difference. Leave your mark on this world.
Regardless of what your personal mission represents in written form, sooner or later we all reach one definition:
A Mission is an awakening to the realization of what is the purpose of your arrival on this planet.
Those who developed a great sense of mission inevitably come to the conclusion that ultimately a personal mission is unachievable. A mission is not the goal that can be carried to completion, but rather the possibility that drives you in a certain direction. A mission is a vector of becoming. In the words of Steven Covey, it is “focused on what you want to be (character) and to do (contributions and achievements), and on the values and principles upon which being and doing are based.”
What you write in your personal mission statement is not carved in stone. Your mission will undergo many modifications growing and evolving, as you do. Keeping you steadfast, it will serve as a guidance that will help you not to deviate from the chosen path. The goals may change. The Mission remains the same.
The paradigm of being on a mission gives a whole new perspective on life. It requires you to unlock the potential of your intentionality and find out what gives you your edge. One of the most important things that having a mission guarantees is an awareness of the fact that the scale of a man is measured by the ambition of his mission and the means he uses to actualize it.
The realization that your life has no more value than a handful of sand is a self-consistent outcome of some uncomfortable soul-searching. Yet that doesn’t mean that you should belittle yourself. On the contrary, thinking of yourself less refocuses your attention to the matters of true importance: the impermanence of life and its certain finiteness. The imminence of your own mortality puts you in the face of the relevant question: “What will you leave behind after you are gone?” And the only way this question can be answered is dedicating your life to fulfilling your mission on earth.
#7. Be a lifelong student.
“As long as you live, keep learning how to live.”
One day I asked my 82-year-old Grandma: “When did you learn about life?” “I still do,” she replied. Despite all her knowledge and wisdom, she has succeeded to preserve her inner inquisitive child for whom the fleeting time of a transient human life is just not enough. The secret behind her inquisitiveness and openness to new knowledge is simple — humility.
A desire to be humble is the spark of all virtue. Rabindranath Tagore wrote: “We come nearest to the great when we are great in humility.” Now, in the age of unprecedented exposure, when many take pride in what is used to be seen as shameful, we need more reminders of why one must live a modest life.
True humility is the ability to see every person you meet in life as your teacher. Once you acknowledge that you have no power over choosing your teachers, you’ll learn from everyone. Even people who seem to be tainted by evil irreversibly serve the purpose of understanding of who we truly are. By their example, we are able to see how a false ego can blind us to our flaws and weaknesses. Detecting defective qualities such as anger, greed, and jealousy in others makes it easier to recognize them in yourself.
It takes humility to learn from your mistakes but also it is the failure that humbles. Through defeat, we learn that being too big to ask questions is not the most effective approach to living. One can never escape from the lessons life aims to teach but what one can do to is to remain a student attitude. Read, live, make mistakes. Figure out what works for you.
#8. Do not imitate happiness. Be happy.
“The essence of philosophy is that we should live so that our happiness depends as little as possible on external causes.”
Happiness is not so much a condition for our mental wellbeing as it is its consequence. A sense of harmony does not develop randomly; it is a logical product of the right attitude towards facts of life. A simple recognition of the existing reality reveals the truth that we must never lose sight of — life unfolds as it does regardless of the degree of our acceptance.
By making sure that your belief system is in concordance with the objective reality you can avoid a great deal of disappointment. A lot of useless struggle results from the painful proclivity of our mind to create personal biases. Adopting wrongful preconceptions about the world causes the distortion of what is really happening, deteriorating your calmness. To put it simply, the collision between reality and your worldview occurs only when the latter is filled with flaws and false assumptions.
In most crisis situations, stress can be minimized by carefully choosing the way to respond and act. You are distressed only when life falls short of your expectations. Once the expectations have been lowered, it becomes really easy to avoid the delusions of hope.
Our mind plays tricks on us. If we don’t make a conscious effort to bring our perception under control, we single-handedly jeopardize our inner peace. Happiness is hence a matter of choice that requires exercising good order and self-discipline. Being a man for whom the state of mind is not something that can be dictated externally is a virtue that lies between patience and integrity. The attitude of mind is something that is ought to be controlled from within.
#9. Implement minimalism.
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”
Imagine that you are visiting someone’s home, and all of a sudden the host shouts at you: “Get out of my house! Right now!” Certainly, such unpleasant in the tone and manner demand would catch anyone off balance yet it seems unlikely for you to get mad at the oddball host and dispute against your departure. Why would you? After all it is his place. His home — his rules.
Now, imagine the opposite scenario in which you are hosting a guest who out of the blue orders you to leave the apartment. What would your reaction be in that situation? Pretty pissed off, I suppose. Anger seems like a natural response: “What the hell is he thinking?! This is my home!”.
I wrote this example to illustrate the point: many of us are used to live and behave as if this planet belonged to them. They get angry when the time to admit the transiency of human life finally arrives. The only proper way of living your life on earth lies through adopting the mindset of a respectful guest.
Do not get attached to material things.
Nothing belongs to you here. Nothing has and nothing will. You are here temporarily.
Currently, this planet is your home, however, other “tenants” are coming after you: your children. When the time comes, in what condition will you pass on your home to them?
At the end of life, you won’t be able to take your possessions with you. Stuff stays here. Be ready to lose it at any moment without regrets because this is what you will have to do in the end. This may be a frightening thought but it serves as a sobering reminder that the best things in life are not things at all.
Make this world a better place while you are here. Take on the responsibility to decrease your footprint by living a minimalist life.
#10. Keep it light.
“He who laughs at himself never runs out of things to laugh.”
The good news about the sense of humor is that once developed at an early age it remains the same for the rest of your life. Well, it is fair to say that when you have to deal with the sort of people whose jokes are embarrassingly awful this news is rather bad. A good sense of humor is a great asset in life, a bad one is a liability.
It is worth noting that the capacity to laugh at one’s own misfortune is a great measure of one’s intelligence. Life is all comedy after you give yourself time to do some serious thinking. The way our brain ideates is amusing, situations that we create and then place ourselves in are often absurd. Being a human being is doubtlessly fun. You might not entirely agree with these presuppositions but thinking that increases your effectiveness.
Keep it light. Learn how to find positives in any situation and don’t take yourself too seriously. Sometimes we fall in unreasonable behavior and that’s fine — we live and we learn. We are not to be judged by our mistakes as long as we strive to work those mistakes through. It is our flaws that make us human and the way we deal with our flaws is what gives us an opportunity to extend the definition of what a human is. Do not fear to face what your dark side might reveal when you pull yourself inside out, but rather fear not to find the courage to pull. No matter what you are going through, do your best. Laugh at the outcome. Carry on.
Thank you for reading my book “Meditations of the Millennial”.
If you want to support me on my mission, please, share this book with someone you love. Maybe they will find what they seek on its pages.