3 Stoic Exercises to Achieve Tranquility and Inner Peace

View International Space Station Earth Space Night – https://www.maxpixel.net

In this last blog post on the philosophy of Stoicism I want to explore 3 practical Stoic techniques that I have found particularly useful for attaining confidence and tranquility of the mind.

  1. Meditate on the Vastness of Time and the Universe   

If you take a step back and look at your life from a cosmic perspective you will realize how small and insignificant you are compared to the enormity of the universe.  Consider this – the universe is 13.8 billion years old. It is estimated that the human species evolved about 200,000 years ago. In the television series Cosmos, Carl Sagan condenses time in a calendar year to put human history into perspective. The Cosmic Calendar reveals that January 1 would represent the Big Bang and each minute accounts for 30,000 years. Humans only come into the picture on 10:30 pm on December 31st.

The Stoics taught that we should look at our lives from a cosmic viewpoint. Modern Stoics called this exercise ‘The View from Above.’  Taking this approach will allow us to escape our internal biases and assess things from an objective standpoint.

 How often do we ruminate on petty and trivial problems? Why do concern ourselves with externals that will soon perish shortly after we are gone? From this vantage point, our efforts for immortality through fame, wealth and social status are surely misguided.

Carl Sagan reflects on this sentiment in his work on Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space,

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Looking our lives from this is allows us to put events in perspective. Furthermore, it is not supposed to lead to nihilism but rather the contrary. We can add meaning and purpose to our lives explicitly because we are only here for a short time.

2. Look at Challenges as Opportunities

On the occasion of every accident (event) that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use……  If labor (pain) be presented to you, you will find that it is endurance. If it be abusive words, you will find it to be patience. And if you have been thus formed to the (proper) habit, the appearances will not carry you along with them.  

Epictetus, Discourses

In my last blog post I spoke about how we always have the opportunity to reframe events – even in the most dreadful circumstances. In many cases we fail to learn the lessons we need to if we live a life of ease and comfort. Failure humbles us. It shows us our blind spots.  It provides us with opportunities to evolve, grow and expand our thinking. 

This Stoic lesson will allow us to view every challenge we endure as an opportunity. For instance, if you get fired from your job, you can redevelop yourself and learn new skills. This situation will enable you to develop resilience and perseverance, two skills which are essential in a rapidly changing world. Every difficult situation we are placed enables us to overcome challenges and strengthen our will.   

3. Memento Mori

You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

The Stoics taught that we should always be self-aware of our own mortality.  Life is unpredictable, and death lurks around the corner. Reflecting on this fact is not meant to put us in a state of dread, but rather humble us. We may not know what the future holds so let us ensure that we leave nothing behind – live life with abandon.  

Conclusion  

If you follow the 24/7 news cycle and are an avid consumer of current events, it is easy to be filled with a sense of fear and despair. Rising political polarization. Populism. Climate change. Brexit. Donald Trump. Identity politics, extremism and the culture wars. The list goes on and on.

What Stoicism can do is help us detach from external events, and help us focus on cultivating our inner lives. We can not control what happens around us but we always the choice to change our beliefs and our viewpoint. Regardless of all the noise, tranquillity is available to us, and Stoicism can help to get us there.

Hope you enjoyed this post on Stoicism. The next few posts will be dedicated towards mindfulness.

Till next time,

AA

Marcus Aurelius: On Humility and Duty

We ought to do good to others as simply as a horse runs, or a bee makes honey, or a vine bears grapes season after season without thinking of the grapes it has borne.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book Five

In this day and age it is far too easy to become addicted to our ego. Through the internet and social media, we long for instant gratification and praise. Consequently, we become consumed by the notifications, the ‘likes’, and the comments as we continually search for validation. We are inclined to boast our feats, our good deeds and accomplishments to others. However, through this, we lose perspective of the original intentions of our actions.

The Stoics looked to nature and assessed how the world natural operates to understand how humans should act. It follows from this that humans are rational and social animals. As human beings, we flourish through our collective efforts in society not in isolation. In fact, the degree in which we are able to cooperate and collaborate to build complex and sophisticated civilizations is uniquely human. This trait sets us apart from other species.

In this quote Marcus Aurelius recommends that we perform good actions not for the sake of praise or adoration, but for there own sake. Selflessly working towards improving the lives of others is what being a human living in a society requires of us. It is in our nature, just as it is in the nature of a bee to make honey or a vine to produce grapes. Therefore, we must not demand recognition or compensation for our good deeds or seek external validation.

In his book The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw profiles the lives of World War II Veterans who sacrificed their lives in pursuit of freedom. These soldiers were not motivated by fame or acclaim, but rather fought because it was ‘the right thing to do’. They performed their duty to their country and to their fellow citizens with honour and humility, not with pride.   

Humility is not a sign of weakness but rather a virtue. It demands that an individual be honest about their own abilities. Furthermore, it requires one to be content with their own self-worth and refrain from comparing themselves to others.   

Follow Marcus Aurelius’ advice and do what is expected from you, not because you will profit form it, but rather because it is the right thing to do.

AA

Philosophy as a Way of Life: Stoicism

The Stoic Emperor: Marcus Aurelius

It is a simple question, yet one many of us seriously reflect on. How can we live a good life, a life that focuses on continuously improving one’s character, a life akin to virtue.

Few of us think philosophy is of any value anymore. Having taken philosophy courses in my undergraduate degree I have spent hours discussing this issue with friends and family. This is one of the reasons I have started this blog, as a way to demonstrate how philosophical ideas can provide us with an antidote to deal with some of the issues we face in modern society.

One of the reasons many people dismiss philosophy is because contemporary philosophy no longer focuses on cultivating and practicing wisdom. Rather it emphasizes discourse and semantics retreating from the original ideals of the Ancient Greeks who viewed philosophy as a way of life. Philosophy has moved away from the public square into the ivory tower. Pierre Hadot concisely summarizes this sentiment in the quote below:

“Philosophy—reduced, as we have seen, to philosophical discourse—develops from this point on in a different atmosphere and environment from that of ancient philosophy. In modern university philosophy, philosophy is obviously no longer a way of life, or a form of life—unless it be the form of life of a professor of philosophy.”

Pierre Hadot

Stoicism

When someone first hears the word ‘Stoic’ they may immediately picture an individual who is able to endure hardship or pain whilst demonstrating little emotion. However, this is a widely held misconception of the Stoics. They taught that one should not supress the emotions but rather have proper and rational judgements about them. Furthermore, Stoicism is a complex and sophisticated philosophy and can not be simply reduced to these modern stereotypes.

Stoicism is a school of philosophy that originated from ancient Greece in early 3rd century BC and spread to Rome during the period of the Roman Empire. Stoicism can provide us with a series of practical exercises that we can incorporate in our day to day lives. It can assist us with navigating the complexity of modern life, dealing with hardships and setbacks, and provide us with a framework to continuously improve ourselves. Its greatest proponents included Epictetus (a former slave), Seneca (a Roman statesman) and Marcus Aurelius (an emperor).   

In How to be a Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci summarizes the 3 stoic disciplines, which captures a lot about the key themes and lessons of Stoicism:

  1. Discipline of Desire : Deals with what we should and should not want 
  2. Discipline of Action : Addresses ethics and focuses on how we should act  
  3. Discipline of Assent :Focuses on how we ought to react and respond to situations

The central tenant of Stoicism is something that you may be familiar with as it resonates with many wisdom traditions as well as religions. The ‘dichotomy of control’ is described by Epictetus in his Discourses,

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.”

Epictetus

The core idea of cultivating what you can control and accepting what you can not is also echoed in Christianity in Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr

We cannot control external events, but we can control how we react to situation. Likewise, we always can change our perspective of the scenario.  An artist or musician may be very talented at what they do, practice diligently and put their efforts in promoting their art. However, success or fame as an artist often requires something more than what is directly under our control. Perhaps some useful connections, a lucky break or ‘being in the right place at the right time.’

This is not to say that the artist should simply quit, but rather acknowledge what is in their control (cultivating their skills) versus what is not (fame, recognition, stardom etc.). Viewing things in this perspective will help them avoid a lot of unnecessary frustration or disappointment.

Let me give a personal example that may be familiar to a lot of commuters in Toronto. I take the subway daily to work and occasionally I experience subway delays or route closures. Being stuck on a crammed train and potentially being late for work is not pleasant. However, in these situations I can apply the ‘dichotomy of control’ here to put my mind at ease.

Under my control Not in my control
be aware of any closures or delays be listening to news beforehand the duration of the delay
e-mail my manager to inform them of the delay how other commuters react around me (ie. Frustration, anger etc.)
refrain from expressing anger or frustration  
make use of this time to learn something new and expand my knowledge through a book or podcast  

In a fast-pasted world that is constantly changing, applying the ‘dichotomy of control’ to our lives can help us put situations or circumstances in a new light or perspective. We can apply this exercise from everything to our health, work and personal lives.  

I’ll continue to write about Stoicism for the next few articles, but in the meantime,  I want to share some excellent resources if your interested in learning more about the philosophy.

Stoic Resources:

https://modernstoicism.com/

Daily Stoic: dailystoic.com

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3STjOKmuJhc (Daily Stoic- You Control How You Play)

Till next time,

AA