Stoic philosophy? Sounds boring.
That was my reaction when I first heard Tim Ferriss talking about it on his podcast. Every few episodes he would mention how some guy Seneca wrote letters to some guy Lucilius 2000 years ago and how the advice he was giving his friend still applies to modern life. I couldn’t see how it could possibly apply to me so I ignored it.
Also, I thought, isn’t Stoicism just the word for being unemotional? Maintaining a stiff upper-lip and not reacting to anything? Yeah, sounds boring.
But Tim Ferriss was persistent. He kept talking about these letters, he kept introducing modern Stoics like Ryan Holiday and Massimo Pigliucci, he kept publishing blog posts like these:
- Stoicism for Modern Stresses: 5 Lessons from Cato
- Stoicism 101: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs
- On The Shortness of Life: An Introduction to Seneca
- The Practicality of Pessimism: Stoicism as a Productivity System
I had read the 4-Hour Workweek and the 4-Hour Body, was a regular listener of the Tim Ferriss Show and a reader of the blog. Through experience I had come to trust Tim’s recommendations, so inevitably I would end up giving Stoicism a chance.
I read Seneca’s letters. I listened to an interview with Ryan Holiday (episode 4!) and read The Obstacle is the Way. I listened to another interview with Ryan Holiday and read Ego is the Enemy.
After hearing it recommended more than once, I read A Guide to the Good Life. That was when it started to sink in – I’ve been a Stoic all along without knowing it. So much of what I read in William B. Irvine’s book aligned with behaviors and values I had developed naturally, such as:
- Anticipating worst-case scenarios to prevent them or lessen their impact
- Being mindful of the shortness of life
- Not being too attached to material possessions
- Working hard but accepting the outcome whatever it may be
My philosophy of life suddenly made more sense. Or more accurately (and more comforting), I realised I had a philosophy of life.
The book also served to debunk misconceptions I had about Stoicism, for example:
- Stoicism is not stoicism- upper or lower case ‘S’ makes a big difference!
- Stoics don’t seek to remove all emotions, they seek to limit negative ones
- Stoicism is not an individualistic philosophy focusing only on self-discipline. It focuses on the social responsibility of helping others.
I was later surprised and spirited that Derek Sivers (who I was also introduced to via The Tim Ferriss Show) had the same experience as me after reading A Guide to the Good Life. This is the introduction to his notes on the book:
“Almost too personal for me to give an objective review, because I found when reading it that the quirky philosophy I’ve been living my life by since 17 matches up exactly with a 2000-year-old philosophy called Stoicism. Mine was self-developed haphazardly, so it was fascinating to read the refined developed original. Really resonated.”
By now you might be thinking that this is another glowing reference for Stoicism. Good old Stoicism, the answer to all your problems, the only thing you need. Well, not exactly. While there’s a Stoic response to any life situation you can imagine, I prefer to think of it as a framework or cornerstone than a one-and-done solution to everything.
It’s the foundations of your mental citadel. It provides solid ground on which to build.
It’s just one raw material, one input, albeit the most important one, among unlimited others that can be processed to produce the desired outputs of increased resilience, contentment and usefulness, and reduced anger, anxiety and reactivity.
In other words, the inputs aren’t as important as the outputs:
“Let our mind do this: let it hide all the things it has made use of, and exhibit only what it has produced.”Seneca, Epistles 84.7
With Stoicism as a baseline, with its core principles always in mind, I’m always hungry to find and use wisdom that complements these principles. To add tools to the toolbox and not feel constrained to exclusively accept the teachings of figures who comprise an unchanging list.
Stoicism, after all, was based on the moral ideas of the Cynics and molded with newer ideas through its early, middle and late phases. It was even initially known as Zenonism after its founder. So it’s not hard to argue that the Stoics would be open to examining and adopting new ways of thinking provided there was no conflict with their own philosophical virtues, provided the desired results were achieved.
This freedom to learn is why I’m often confused when I see passionate criticism of Stoicism.
People who criticize seem to assume staunch adherence; a rigidity to even the oldest ideas that allows no room for the evolution that has obviously been prevalent. It would be so much easier to ignore Stoics than to attack their practice of a philosophy that is benefiting them. Then again, good Stoics are unmoved either way. 🙂
So what complements Stoicism well? Presumably anything adhering to the virtues of justice, courage, wisdom or temperance. But let’s take a look at some specific examples based on my own experience. We’ll work back from the desired output to the inputs.
Output: Increased resilience
Improving our ability to quickly recover from difficulty is something the Stoics took very seriously. The better we get at it, the less life can perturb us with the unexpected.
- Stoics seek the value in whatever happens
- Stoics lessen the impact of events by visualizing them beforehand
- Stoics view adversity as essential in building strength
We can build on the Stoic baseline by employing techniques to prepare us for potential adversity and also to deal with it when it arrives.
This is just one example of many behavior therapies that can be used to help overcome situations that we know through past experience will impact us negatively in the future.
Systematic desensitization is a three step process. It works by identifying a “fear hierarchy” – a list of anxiety-inducing stimuli, ranked by severity of response. Coping mechanisms, such as deep relaxation, are then learnt in a very deliberate way before finally they are gradually applied to the list of stimuli starting with the least severe.
I have found that, like anything, the more I practice it the more effective it is. Learning deep relaxation (tensing and relaxing of different parts of the body) gives greater control over our physical responses to certain situations. Even the knowledge that you are making an effort to tackle such fears can help build resilience.
This technique is very much aligned with the Stoic notion of seeing a problem for what it is. The aim is to “get to the heart of the real thing” as Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations (6.13), which we can achieve by seeing our thoughts and beliefs with detachment. In his book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Donald Robertson offers several cognitive distancing techniques derived from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy:
- Writing down your thoughts concisely when they occur and viewing them on paper
- Writing them on a whiteboard and looking at them “over there”—literally from a distance
- Prefixing them with a phrase like “Right now, I notice that I am thinking…”
- Referring to them in the third person, for example, “Donald is thinking…,” as if you’re studying the thoughts and beliefs of someone else
- Evaluating in a detached manner the pros and cons of holding a certain opinion
- Using a counter or a tally to monitor with detached curiosity the frequency of certain thoughts
- Shifting perspective and imagining a range of alternative ways of looking at the same situation so that your initial viewpoint becomes less fixed and rigid. For example, “How might I feel about crashing my car if I were like Marcus Aurelius?” “If this happened to my daughter, how would I advise her to cope?” “How will I think about this, looking back on events, ten or twenty years from now?”
- Speaking to your thoughts and feelings, for example, “You are just a feeling and not what you claim to represent.”
I like the distance I get from writing down my thoughts. Suddenly they are static, in front of me on a page and no longer whizzing around in my head. They can be viewed instead of chased, which makes them much less intimidating.
Output: Increased contentedness
Epictetus advised that we should fortify ourselves with the “impregnable fortress of contentment.” (Fragments 138) According to the Stoics, the path to this contentment is simple – it’s the realization that we don’t need much to live a happy life.
- Stoics know that obtaining the object of their desires doesn’t tend to grant the satisfaction imagined
- Stoics try to have preferences instead of desires
- Stoics try to want what they already have in order to maintain their appreciation of it
Ideas that complement Stoicism in seeking contentedness are those that encourage us to be grateful for the things we have and that limit our desires for things we don’t need.
If you’re unfamiliar with it, you could be forgiven for conflating minimalism with asceticism. You might think you need to renounce all worldly possessions and pleasures to be a minimalist. Not according to Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who are otherwise known as The Minimalists. Their brand of minimalism encourages simplification through careful consideration. It’s fine to own things, even to acquire more things, they say, as long as those things add value to your life.
The Minimalists’ philosophy is encapsulated in their motto, “Love people, use things. Because the opposite never works.”
Minimalism has helped me in minimizing attachments to material possessions. There’s a sense of freedom that comes from defeating a desire to buy something that I don’t need. As Anthony de Mello wrote in The Way to Love: “As well search for water without wetness as for an attachment without unhappiness.”
One practical tip for preventing impulse buying is to write desired items down on a piece of paper when they first come to mind then put it to one side. I often find when I check it a week later I no longer have the same desire for them.
Following on from minimizing desires for things we don’t need, we can also learn to better appreciate the things we already have. Practicing gratitude goes a long way in preventing us taking life for granted. A simple way to start is to use prompts such as:
- I’m grateful for three things I hear:
- I’m grateful for three things I see:
- I’m grateful for three things I smell:
- I’m grateful for three things I touch/feel:
- I’m grateful for these three things I taste:
- I’m grateful for these three blue things:
- I’m grateful for these three animals/birds:
- I’m grateful for these three friends:
- I’m grateful for these three teachers:
- I’m grateful for these three family members:
- I’m grateful for these three things in my home:
Practicing gratitude has made me less interested in prolonging the novelty of shiny, expensive things and more interested in reclaiming the novelty of free things. Because it’s true what they say, the best things in life really are free.
Output: Increased usefulness
Contrary to some misconceptions, rather than being individualistic, Stoicism is a philosophy that promotes social responsibility. The feeling of contribution that ensues when this responsibility is acted out often means the contributor benefits as much as the beneficiary.
- Stoics believe humans exist for the sake of one another
- Stoics seek to help others without seeking to be rewarded
- Stoics strive to learn new things
Increasing our usefulness means making the best of ourselves by maximizing our own potential and then using our abilities for the greater good.
Research suggests that altruism can improve your attitude and make you healthier, happier, and less stressed – otherwise known as the “helper’s high.” Doing an act of kindness is gratifying, but there’s an added layer of satisfaction that comes with doing it anonymously.
Here are some ideas:
- Leave a suspended coffee
- Donate to a GoFundMe or JustGiving campaign
- Pick up litter around your local area
- Send a letter to let someone know you admire them
- Pay for the person behind you in the drive-thru
Every now and again I try to do a good deed and tell no one, not even the person it was done for. I keep the memories of each one with me as something personal to look back on and be proud of.
In his book Lost Connections, Johann Hari draws the conclusion that every social and psychological cause of depression and anxiety scientists have discovered is a form of disconnection. He goes on to offer seven separate means of reconnecting depending on what a person has lost. One of these connections in particular increases our sense of usefulness – the connection to meaningful work.
As Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.”
I find that just writing articles like this feels like meaningful work. I don’t know for certain if it’s useful to others but at least that was my intention. What passion are you neglecting that would allow you to do meaningful work?
Output: Reduced anxiety
The Stoic teachings arm us with ways to chip away at anxious thoughts by reminding us to learn from the past, plan for the future and live in the present.
- Stoics focus only on what they can control, which removes a lot of unnecessary worry
- Stoics try to appreciate the present moment
- Stoics try not to dwell on the last or obsess over the future
Many modern methods of combating anxiety attempt to reprogram our habitual thoughts; if we can internalize the Stoic notion that people and events don’t harm us but our thoughts about them do then we can start to change those thoughts.
StressControl.org offers a number of techniques for taking control of your thoughts. “Stress affects the way we think,” says Dr Jim White, who provides the material for the site. “And the way we think affects stress. This helps keep stress alive. So, controlling your thoughts helps you to control your stress.”
One such technique is called the Court Case. It involves challenging your thoughts like a court case where the jury has to weigh the evidence – “on the one hand, but then on the other” – and come up with a balanced judgement. You start by questioning what’s worrying you – “Am I right to think that….” – and go from there. This often results in a realization that things aren’t as bad as you thought.
Much like the other inputs for increasing resilience, I think of techniques like this as part of a toolkit. It’s reassuring to know that I have these tools at my disposal and that they require no skill to use.
An underestimated way to help reduce anxiety is to look at other people. Not to compare your life to theirs, which can have the opposite effect, but to understand how they have dealt with situations similar to yours. “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes,” said Otto von Bismarck. “The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”
If you look in the right places, you can find a wealth of wisdom from people who have overcome the same difficulties that you are now facing. For example, in Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig tells of his experiences living with Major depressive disorder and Anxiety disorder. There’s a nice chapter entitled “Things that (sometimes) make me better” which is simply a list of those things:
Reading this inspired me to start compiling a list of things that usually make me feel better. This way I can refer back to it in future when I’m feeling a bit “meh” and find things I might have forgotten about.
Output: Reduced anger
The Stoics saw anger as a particularly damaging negative emotion. Seneca even wrote a whole essay explaining anger and offering therapeutic advice on preventing and controlling it.
- Stoics try to observe an emotion before acting on it
- Stoics are aware that not every matter requires an opinion
- “If you will look at the effects of anger, and the harm it has done, no plague has been more costly to mankind.” – Seneca
Overcoming anger can be helped by putting distance between a triggering stimulus and your response. Training ourselves to observe our thoughts before acting on them can be key in avoiding the mistakes that are made as a result of acting on anger.
There are many ways to meditate and really no right or wrong way. You can use apps like Calm and Headspace, or you can simply sit in silence for a few minutes. In the deliberate time spent meditating, you learn to observe your thoughts without judgment, a skill you can then use in everyday situations.
Mindfulness meditation (the type Calm and Headspace use) is growing in popularity but there are many other types you can try.
Exercise is a great release for the mind and an essential component of both physical and mental health. Pent-up anger that would end up being inflicted in more harmful ways can be channeled into workouts, team sports or anything else that gets the blood pumping. Here are some ideas:
- Cardio – running, cycling, dancing, jump rope, swimming, rowing.
- Strength – lifting weights, resistance bands, push-ups, sit-ups, squats.
- Games – organized team sports, fitness video games, boxercise, obstacle courses.
I have tried both Calm and Headspace and would recommend either, though they are subscription services and I would stress that you don’t need to pay to be able to meditate. Exercise is something I try to vary, a good mix of cardio and strength training keeps things interesting.
Output: Reduced reactivity
The most common misconception about Stoics is that they seek to be emotionless, passive creatures who take everything life has to throw at them, never reacting to anything. This is confusing Stoicism with stoicism. In fact, Stoics don’t seek to suppress all emotion, they work to minimise negative emotions.
- Stoics question common judgments in favour of seeing things for what they are
- Stoics examine criticism – if it is just then they accept it and learn from it
- Stoics know they aren’t insulted by a person but by their opinion that an insult is insulting
Reactivity is defeated by pro-activity – being prepared and, as a result, not being taken by surprise. Having our tools sharpened in advance of the events that befall us means they are ready to be used when needed.
Positive daily practices are obviously beneficial, especially when they replace negative ones, but we need to shake them up and refresh them sometimes to maintain our engagement in them. Varying our daily practices exposes us to new activities and, as a result, helps us to be less reactive to new stimuli. It might sound like a lot of effort, but we can simplify this process by categorizing our daily practices.
James Altucher has four categories for his – physical, spiritual, mental and emotional. He attributes his happiness in life to attending to each of these categories every day.
For example, a successful day could look like this:
- Physical – Exercise for 30 minutes
- Spiritual – Meditate for 10 minutes
- Mental – Write down 10 possible solutions to a problem that has been bothering you
- Emotional – Offer support to a friend who is having a hard time
So, how does this categorization help shake up our daily practices and keep them fresh?
By categorizing our practices we give ourselves scope to vary how we attend to those categories. For example, to complete the physical category for the day, we can change the type of exercise we do every week. Or to complete the spiritual category we can do different types of meditation or practice gratitude or explore prayer.
Ticking off our categories each day gives us purpose and fulfills our various needs, while finding new ways to tick them off keeps us mentally stimulated and fresh.
In her book, Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach talks of The Sacred Pause. In response to situations we can’t control, she explains, we have the option of simply pausing. Brach describes a pause as “a suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving towards any goal.” The intention is to give ourselves the space to see the wants and fears that are driving us. Then it becomes possible to accept the situation that we can’t control.
It’s simple and anyone can do it. What better way to be less reactive than to not react at all?
Daily practices help me feel more prepared to face the inevitable challenges that come up during the course of a day. For example, knowing that my spiritual practice has been taken care of gives me a calmer, less reactive mindset. And knowing my mental practice has been completed gives me more confidence that mental challenges won’t overcome me. Having the Sacred Pause at the ready as a fail-safe is also reassuring.
Other Inputs Of Modern Stoics
Looking at other modern Stoics, I see a similar pattern of inputs and outputs. While they adhere to and promote Stoic values, they also plumb the depths of other sources of wisdom to find compatible tools for living a good life. Here are some examples:
Author of several books on Stoicism and member of the Modern Stoicism steering committee
As a psychotherapist, Donald has learned about many mental exercises that can help to retrain our natural responses to certain difficult situations. It was through Donald I became aware of systematic desensitization:
Donald also uses a technique popularized by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) that involves repeating a thought aloud very rapidly for about a minute. Doing that tends to make the words feel meaningless and it creates a sense of cognitive distance. In ACT the concept is called “verbal defusion”.
Founder of The Daily Stoic and author of the book of the same name
Powered by his voracious reading habit, Ryan has a knack for finding gems of wisdom in largely forgotten ancient texts and repackaging them for a modern audience.
His books The Obstacle is the Way and Ego is the Enemy were mainly inspired by Stoicism, but for the third book in the trilogy, Stillness is the Key, he drew from a wider field. From Eastern to Western philosophy, historical to contemporary figures, the output of “stillness” was more important than the inputs. By taking that approach, he was able to present a plethora of techniques for finding that stillness in the mind, spirit and body.
Stoic author and blogger at Living in Agreement
As an author, Brittany was able to apply Stoicism to the challenge of parenting with her book “Tranquility Parenting: A Guide to Staying Calm, Mindful, and Engaged.” She has also combined Stoicism with other inputs to achieve this same mindfulness and engagement. One such input is the discipline of yoga – Brittany developed her own Stoic practice which you can follow here.
Author, podcaster and high-profile proponent of Stoicism
There is no better example of multiple inputs to achieve multiple outputs than Tim Ferriss. The self-described human guinea pig is a perpetual experimenter who is open to trying almost anything. He then doubles down on what works and shares his recommendations with his followers.
Here are just a few examples of inputs that have stuck for Tim due to their benefits:
Beware Of Input Overload
Although I have presented a lot of input options in this post along with their potential benefits, a note of caution is in order. Don’t take in too much. There’s a limit to the number of inputs that any system can take in and process at any one time and we as humans are no different. Trying to meditate, journal, exercise, read and write before starting work every day is probably going to lead to burnout or at the very least a drop in motivation to continue.
As I covered when discussing daily practices, I think a better method is to have categories. Have an input for each category and attend to each category every day. When you feel like an input has run its course, substitute it for a new one within the relevant category. It becomes easy to limit your inputs, easy to focus, by limiting your categories.
Another thing to be wary of is getting caught in an echo chamber, particularly on social media. If you follow a lot of accounts in the same domain you’ll start to feel like you’re getting hit over the head with the same message day after day. Instead of being motivating it becomes anxiety-inducing.
Many will post about their success in doing x, y and z which will inevitably make you feel like you should be doing x, y and z too. Stay disciplined. Limit your inputs. Remember, a large follower count isn’t necessarily an indication of expertise, it’s just the number of people who clicked “follow.” Concentrate on what’s working for you, keep it simple, just try to improve a little each day.
“Because most of what we say and do is not essential. Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?””Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.24
As long as we have a base layer of Stoicism, we are fortified against much of the adversity that will come our way. With regular practice we can continue to strengthen this base layer and widen our comfort zone.
Then, by carefully selecting additional inputs to add to our armory, we build colorful new layers of protection. These layers can be swapped in and out as required, keeping us versatile and ready.
As everything comes together, practice remains key. The better we prepare our various inputs, the better they will serve us as outputs.