Stoic Lessons: How To Act And How To View Death

What then can escort us on our way? One thing, and one thing only: philosophy. This consists in keeping the divinity within us inviolate and free from harm, master of pleasure and pain, doing nothing without aim, truth, or integrity, and independent of others’ action or failure to act. Further, accepting all that happens and is allotted to it as coming from that other source which is its own origin: and at all times awaiting death with glad confidence that it is nothing more than the dissolution of the elements of which every living creature is composed. Now if there is nothing fearful for the elements themselves in their constant change of each into another, why should one look anxiously in prospect at the change and dissolution of them all? This is in accordance with nature: and nothing harmful is in accordance with nature. (Marcus Aurelius)

According to Marcus Aurelius, philosophy, more specifically Stoic philosophy teaches two things in particular: How to act and How to view death.

Living requires a lot of decision making. So many decisions that it’s easy to be overwhelmed. It’s even more challenging now than it was in the time Marcus Aurelius lived, for there is an abundance of choices in our current age. Far too many paths in life. Far too many ways to think, behave and act. It’s no wonder why the world is full of self-help gurus who instruct other people about how to live their lives.

Stoic philosophy simplifies action. “Doing nothing without aim, truth, or integrity,” as Marcus Aurelius put it. Although a simple notion, this advice is difficult to follow because it requires self-reflection. To figure out your aim, your truth and your principles, you have to know yourself. You have to know that humans are part of nature, which means each individual had “divinity” inside them, according to the Stoics. This divinity means that you have to hold yourself up to a higher standard, to demand more out of yourself. To go beyond what is expected of you.

Part of acting also involves “accepting all that happens and is allotted to it as coming from that other source which is its own origin”. Meaning, the outcome is not in your control. All you have control over is your attitude and reaction. There is freedom in this understanding. Concentrate on what you can control.

The Stoic view of death is similar to that of fate: Acceptance. Death is a part of nature and so it must be accepted as such instead of fearing it. “And at all times awaiting death with glad confidence that it is nothing more than the dissolution of the elements of which every living creature is composed”. Stoics often practiced an objective point of view.

For example Marcus Aurelius would remind himself that the food he was eating was simply a dead body of a fish of another animal.

How good it is, when you have roast meat or suchlike foods before you, to impress on your mind that this is the dead body of a fish, this the dead body of a bird or pig.

This was done in order to strip away the glamour and to get to the core of the matter because you can dress up the food however you like and add whatever spices you want but in reality what you are eating is just flesh and meat, carcass of something that will soon rot. Similarly, death can seem grand in our head but in reality its just a “dissolution of the elements”, a dissolution which “is in accordance with nature: and nothing harmful is in accordance with nature.”

 

Stoic Lesson: Meditating On Death and Life

An ordinary journey will be incomplete if you come to a stop in the middle of it, or anywhere short of your destination, but life is never incomplete if it is an honorable one. At whatever point you leave life, if you leave it in the right way, it is whole.” (Seneca, LXXVII)

What would be an honorable life?

One that is not wasted. A life where each day is used to its maximum. Where nothing that can be done right now, at this moment, is left for tomorrow. A life where you show love and appreciation for others. Gratitude towards your loved ones who have helped make your life a little easier. A life where you help others, ease their burden, aid their pain and suffering, improve someone else’s life. A life that is full of action which is directed towards a meaningful outcome. Achieving the outcome is secondary, the effort is primary. A life that can be viewed as an example, whether it be an example of what man can accomplish or if it’s an example of what man can endure or how to balance the complexities of life or how simple life can be. A life that brings joy to others. A life that is full of attempts, failure, and attempts again.

All of these seem to me as honorable aims.

What matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is. It is not important at what point you stop. Stop whenever you will — only make sure that you round it off with a good ending. (Seneca, LXXVII)

Whats a good ending?

When those who love and care for you know that you love and care for them. Your emotions and feelings are relayed to them so clearly that when the end comes there is never a doubt. A good end is also knowing when it’s enough, knowing what is enough for you. There isn’t a maddening attempt to hold on to the past and you’re able to step away from the “limelight” and allow another to take an attempt. There is no honor nor is it good to try and cling on to the glory days. A good ending would be one where you have acted in such a manner that your actions can relay to others what your character was about, what you were about, who you were. There is no need for explanation. Lastly, acceptance of the trials and tribulations, the ups and downs and the finality at the end.

All of these seem like a good ending.

Stoic Lesson On Growing Old

Well, we should cherish old age and enjoy it. It is full of pleasure if you know how to use it. Fruit tastes most delicious just when its season is ending.

It is quite telling that Seneca dedicated an entire letter to aging. It shows how little we, as people, have changed or evolved from our ancestors. For the most part, the same daily concerns that circulated in the minds of Romans are the same ones that trouble us now. One of these concerns being the natural aspect of life: Aging.

In our current age perhaps this concern is more prevalent than before or at least it seems that way with social media. There are so many different surgeries that attempt to give you a youthful appearance, so many companies that sell products to keep you young and beautiful, or so they claim, and so many people who actively seek remedies to aging.

However, the Stoic advice on this matter is similar to their advice on many topics: Acceptance, emotional/attitudinal control and a change of perspective.

Aging is a natural part of life so by accepting it, it can change your perspective from viewing aging as negative to view it as positive. Another Stoic principle is to control one’s attitude. We always have a choice in how we react. Our attitude is one of the few things we control in this life. Once more it is a matter of perspective. We can either see aging as something terrible and sad or we can view it is a new experience, a chance to see the world from a different manner, a chance to transition into a different phase of our life and even live differently. With this perspective change, you can then see the benefits of aging.

As Seneca says:

In my opinion, even the age that stands on the brink has pleasures of its own.

Not only is there a need to accept the natural aging process but also to accept our lack of control over it. It’s easy to see the self harm some people cause through plastic surgeries as they attempt to stop what is natural. Aging can be used to practice a virtue like grace. To age gracefully instead of fighting and manipulating yourself to cling on to what is long past.

Of course, the biggest concern associated with aging is death. The fear of death whether consciously or unconsciously is at the root of a lot of people’s attitudes and actions. However, the Stoics don’t see death as something terrible. Just as with aging, death is also natural.

If God adds the morrow we should accept it joyfully. The man who looks for the morrow without worrying over it knows a peaceful independence and a happiness beyond all others. Whoever has said ‘I have lived’ receives a windfall every day he gets up in the morning.

The Stoics almost recommend a daily reminder of death in order to lessen its impact if it does appear. The reminder is also there in order for you to live the present moment to its fullest extent. In this way, as one ages and death becomes more of a concern, the Stoics could see that as a blessing. By confronting that possibility we can then prepare our attitude and action towards it and in the meantime, enjoy the time we have left for when you truly acknowledge death, then each moment becomes more precious. We soon come to see what matters, what we truly desire, what makes us happy and fulfilled and on what things and with whom we would like to spend our time. So, aging can be viewed as a blessing to clear away all that doesn’t matter so we can focus on what does.

For the Stoics, any hardship is an opportunity to exercise our wisdom and the strength of our character. For some, aging is a hardship and so, for those people, aging can be viewed as an opportunity to practice the right attitude, practice our control over our attitude and to practice the right mindset.

Book Referenced: Letters From A Stoic By Seneca

 

 

 

Stoic Lesson: The Importance of Journaling

Our current age is so fast-paced and there is so much information out there that it feels like you are just jumping from one thought to another without completely digesting the message. We get all this information which we never unpack and see if it’s useful or not.

For Marcus Aurelius, who was a Roman Emperor and a Stoic philosopher, this unpacking of information was done through his writing. He kept a journal that we now know as his book ‘Meditations‘. The book is essentially comprised of personal notes, each one reminding him of something that he considered to be important, some principle to remember and live-by. Rather than adding information, Marcus Aurelius refined what he knew and tried to live by it.

Which is the point of philosophy. Philosophy isn’t simply to contemplate whether we exist or not or what logic means but rather, philosophy is about how one lives and for Aurelius, he was able to embody his philosophy by constantly reminding himself of what was important.

From the point of view of the imminence of death, one thing counts, and one alone: to strive always to have the essential rules of life present in one’s mind, and to keep placing oneself in the fundamental disposition of the philosopher, which consists essentially in controlling one’s inner discourse, in doing only that which is of benefit to the human community, and in accepting the events brought to us by the course of the Nature of the All. (Pierre Hadot)

The essential reason why Aurelius wrote was to control his inner discourse. By that, it is meant his thoughts. If you allow your mind to be completely free, it is likely to fill your head with anxiety and fears or, it’ll distract you from the right action by leading you towards some immediate gratification. But by repeatedly reading and writing the principles that you want to live by, you bring those ideals to the forefront of your mind and then your action follows.

It is not enough to reread what has already been written. Written pages are already dead, and the Meditations were not made to be reread. What counts is the reformulation: the act of writing or talking to oneself, right now, in the very moment when one needs to write. (Pierre Hadot)

This is an important thing to understand. If one reads the ‘Meditations’ what they will find is that Marcus Aurelius is basically repeating the same handful of principles over and over again. The reason for this is that the book was never meant for public eyes. Rather it was his personal journal. But what we can understand from this action is that we need reminders. We need to remember to stay on the right path. This is done through daily practice. Every day you have to hammer it into your mind what you want to be, how you want to act, how you want to represent yourself. Writing is one way to do this. Because the act of writing alone causes you to concentrate on the thoughts which are formulating into the words in front of you.

Marcus writes only in order to have the dogmas and rules of life always present to his mind. He is thus following the advice of Epictetus, who, after having set forth the distinction between what does and does not depend on us —- the fundamental dogma of Stocisim —- adds:

It is about this that philosophers ought to meditate; this is what they should write down every day, and it should be the subject of their exercises (I, I, 25).

You must have these principles at hand both night and day; you must write them down; you must read them (III, 24, 103). (Pierre Hadot).

These principles depend on the individual. For the Stoics, the main principles were to understand how little control we have in life, how we do have control over our reason and attitude, how death can approach at any moment and how we must align ourselves with the universal purpose.

This may not be how you wish to live. But whatever you consider to be important, whatever principles you wish to follow require constant attention. You just have to remember to reinforce these principles on a consistent basis.

The practical nature of stoicism is one of the reasons why this philosophy is still relevant. It acknowledges how easy it is to be overwhelmed or to stray off the path but it also provides a solution in the form of journaling. Simply by writing for ten to fifteen minutes in the morning and maybe even in the afternoon, it can act as a reminder and help you to carry yourself with grace, to think of the right things and to act in the correct manner. The repetition of such can then slowly transform your character to the point that you begin to embody the philosophy by the way you live as it did for Marcus Aurelius.

Book referenced: The Inner Citadel by Pierre Hadot


Stoic Lesson: Aim For Internal Growth

Stoic Lesson: How To Keep Yourself Accountable

Stoic Lesson: The Right Mindset For A Happy Life

Stoic Lesson: Concentrate On What You Can Control

Stoic Lesson: You Have To Acknowledge Your Sickness Before You Can Be Cured

Stoic Lesson: Epictetus On Progress

Stoic Lesson: An Exercise In Being Grateful


Youtube: Learned Living

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/learned_living/

Poem: The Old Rebel

Article: Montaigne On How To Be A Well-Rounded Thinker

Short Story: The Bus

 

Stoic Lesson: Aim For Internal Growth

A change of character, not a change of air, is what you need […] whatever your destination you will be followed by your own failings.

In life, we often look for some external change which we hope will bring us fulfillment. If only I got that promotion or if only I can lose another five pounds or if only that girl had said yes or if only I can travel more, I’ll be happy and so on. Always looking for something other than ourselves. However, it’s also true that when those external things we wished for come true, we only find temporary relief, if that, before we crave something else.

Seneca would say the reason for this repetitive living is that you’re not aiming to improve your character, so no matter the circumstances, you are still stuck with yourself, with your own thoughts and feelings.

And if you want to know why all this running away cannot help you, the answer is simply this: you are running away in your own company. You have to lay aside the load of your spirit. Until you do that, nowhere will satisfy you. 

I believe that a lot of us know that we can do more but lack the work ethic and discipline. So you’re left with this itch that keeps reminding you of what you can become while you distract yourself with external concerns and, in this day and age, distraction through social media.

I know I’m one of these people. It’s hard to find happiness and joy in life when you’re internally unbalanced.

Recognition of this is just the first step. The passive understanding will not do. Action has to follow this understanding.

A consciousness of wrongdoing is the first step to salvation.

For myself, there are two things that have helped bridge the gap between who I am and who I wish to be, and that’s self-reflection and voluntary hardship.

Often self-reflection and meditation go hand in hand, but I’m yet to find benefits of meditation. However, another form of self-reflection is writing. Through journaling, I’m able to remind myself to stay on the path as cliche as that sounds. The reminders are necessary. Also through writing, I’m able to work through all the noise that’s in my life, all the different things grabbing my attention, in order to concentrate on what I want to do with my time. Working out what I want to do and who I want to be has certainly helped bring more stability to the internal me, which has taken the focus away from the external cravings.

Voluntary hardship is another way to “lay aside the load of your spirit” as Seneca said. The idea is that you consciously move towards something that makes you uncomfortable, something that pushes you into the zone of proximal development where you will have to grow in order to overcome some challenge. This doesn’t have to be a great struggle. If you can only run a mile, going to a mile and a half is an accomplishment. If you can’t run at all then just walking half a mile is something that can help you grow. The little steps of discomfort strengthen your internal resolve and make you internally proud. In this way, you don’t have to seek external validation to feel good.

Once you have rid yourself of the affliction there, though, every change of scene will become a pleasure. You may be banished to the ends of the earth, and yet in whatever outlandish corner of the world you may find yourself stationed, you will find that place, whatever it may be like, a hospitable home.

When the inner state is in balance, then you see the brilliance of life in everything. The mundane, everyday life seems unique.

So–to the best of your ability—demonstrate your own guilt, conduct inquiries pf your own into all the evidence against yourself. Play the part first of prosecutor, then of a judge and finally of pleader in mitigation. Be harsh with yourself at times.

By holding yourself accountable, by holding yourself up to an inner standard, you experience true growth. External standards and cravings come and go. They change like the weather and your left thinking whether you have actually grown which brings feelings of disappointment and shame. But when you consistently meet the internal standards then you can compare the previous you to the present you, you see your development. In this manner, we get closer to internal peace and with it true fulfillment and happiness.


Stoic Lesson: How To Keep Yourself Accountable

Stoic Lesson: The Right Mindset For A Happy Life

Stoic Lesson: Concentrate On What You Can Control

Stoic Lesson: You Have To Acknowledge Your Sickness Before You Can Be Cured

Stoic Lesson: Epictetus On Progress

Stoic Lesson: An Exercise In Being Grateful


Youtube: Learned Living

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/learned_living/

Poem: Four Swordsmen

Article: Indirect Battle Strategy and How It Can Help Us Overcome Our Own Obstacles

Short Story: Everything Work’s Itself Out

Stoic Lesson: Concentrate On What You Can Control

In the course of our life, we face many obstacles. Financial hardships, relationship problems, disruptions in our plans, moments of weakness, environmental barriers, cultural barriers and many more.

To Epictetus, almost all of these disruptions fall into the realm of things that are out of our control. Except for moments of weakness. We have influence over such a thing because Epictetus believed that we have the power to control our positive and negative impulses. The power to make good use of impressions. Impressions being things that have an effect on the mind.

The ability to reason allows us to controls these impressions. With reason comes judgment about what is good for us and what is bad for us. Reason allows us to plan a course of action that is the most beneficial for us. Reason can also halt any negative temptations, for we always know what the right thing to do is, while the right action is what can be troublesome and can cause moments of weakness because the right action can be difficult. However, reason can show us that it is the correct path.

Reason is twofold: It can analyze other objects but it can also analyze itself and see whether or not we are applying the correct reason or if decisions and actions based on reason are correct. Because reason can correct itself, it is considered to be one of Man’s greatest gifts. For Epictetus, the ability to reason is superior to other abilities like writing or music for example, because words cannot tell you if it is a good thing to write them or music cannot tell you when is the proper time to play an instrument. Reason, on the other hand, can analyze itself and tell you what the proper use of itself is.

Rather than worrying about things we have no influence on, we must dedicate our thinking to what we can control, such as our ability to reason. Another thing under our control is our attitude.

Attitude towards the hardship one faces in life can be the difference between moving forward or allowing the hardship to break you. Death and your dying are not under your control but your attitude towards it is. We can face our mortality by either being weighed down by the inevitable or by making use of the limited time they have. It’s an attitude towards life and time that needs to be practiced.

Epictetus referred to this practice as the practice of what is necessary. What is necessary is the use of reason, control of one’s emotions and molding an attitude towards life. Practice is the key term here. By using such a word, Epictetus puts forth the notion that we need to develop, hone and enhance the things under our control. That you are not innately born with the ability to make use of what is in your control. We have to use life and the obstacles it presents as opportunities to improve upon our reason, attitude, and control.

An example of someone we can emulate is Agrippinus. He was well aware of the lack of control he had over his life and was not bothered by things which were out of his control. So much so, that he would often say that he did not add to his own troubles. Which is the right attitude. Life will add many troubles, it doesn’t need your assistance.

And so, one should learn from Agrippinus and try to emulate his reason and behavior for he had this to say of his exile and eventual death:

I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived — and dying I will tend to later.

Stoic Lesson: You Have To Acknowledge Your Sickness Before You Can Be Cured

I see in myself, Lucilius, not just an improvement but a transformation, although I would not venture as yet to assure you, or even to hope, that there is nothing left in me needing to be changed. Naturally, there are a lot of things about me requiring to be built up or fined down or eliminated. Even this, the fact that it perceives the failings it was unaware of in itself before, is evidence of a change for the better in one’s character. In the case of some sick people, it is a matter for congratulations when they come to realize for themselves that they are sick. (Letters from a Stoic, Seneca)

How many among us walk around with sickness without realizing it? Part of the issue is the everydayness of life. People have to look after their children, work most of their waking hours, pay bills, sit in traffic, be surrounded by people they don’t like and so on. Just the simple act of smiling can be tough let alone the need to take care of oneself physically. Just exercising for 30 minutes can be seen as a win. After all of this, where do you get the time to take care of yourself mentally? To be reflective? To realize that you may be sick?

I think many of us understand that we could be better than what we are but just don’t know how to navigate life properly in order to become better. The day to day breaks us down, grinds us into these beings who aren’t fulfilling their potentials.

We accept this individual that life has made us and believe that person is you. We tell our children about growth and change while we stay the same. We feel as if a word like ‘potential’ is reserved for those who haven’t been molded by life.

However, such belief and acceptance is usually the result of not being reflective, of not controlling your mind and allowing your mind to control you. Your mind is great at manipulating your thoughts to rationalize the person you are. It doesn’t want you to grow because that requires effort which is accompanied by struggle. The mind wishes to be comfortable, the path of least resistance and so, we too walk this path and will keep on walking this path.

Life would be so much easier if someone could come along and fix all your issues with a snap of their finger. A genie of some kind but that’s not how life works. In reality, apart from your close family and friends, no one really cares what you are going through. That’s because everyone is going through something. So, if you want to improve, regardless of the stresses of your life, the first step has to be reflective, to acknowledge that you are sick.

One way to achieve this reflective nature is by cleaning your room, as Jordan Peterson often says. Too many times people point the finger outwards and blame others for the way their own life is. You can’t improve as an individual if you are constantly blaming others. Once you turn the eye inwards, look at yourself, see the mess in your room, see the symptoms of sickness and start to take ownership for them, you can slowly see the change in your character.

In the same vein as clean your room, Jocko Willink‘s concept of extreme ownership also makes you confront your own actions. Extreme ownership essentially says that everything that isn’t right in your life is your fault. This may be harsh and perhaps untrue in some cases but by taking on this responsibility you feel a sense of control. If it is all your fault then you are also able to change it. Your actions caused the sickness, your actions can cure it.

Another way can be through mental warfare. To go to war with yourself, as David Goggins did, to push your limitations through such extreme pressure that you only have two choices: Improve or quit. Goggins initially did this through his rigorous studying schedule which included writing out whole textbooks by hand over and over again in order to overcome his learning deficiencies. Discipline and work ethic built through such a task then helped him physically overcome the barriers of Navy Seal training and ultramarathon running.

Goggins was able to shape his mind through work but it was only after he understood that he was sick and that the only person that can cure him was himself.

Perhaps the end goal is to become a friend to yourself. A good friend, a true friend call you out on your mistakes, tells you you’re acting poorly, makes sure you know that someone cares for you, that someone is holding you up to a certain standard, someone who is pushing you past your perceived limitations and that someone can be you. You can keep yourself in check if you are strong enough mentally. But before strength comes the acceptance of weakness, before you can get the medicine, you have to know that you are sick. But once that is known, you must also understand that you are the strength, the cure, the medicine.

What progress have I made? I am beginning to be my own friend.’ That is progress indeed. Such a person will never be alone, and you may be sure he is a friend of all. (Seneca)