One of the things I admire about the Stoic philosophers is that they embodied the wisdom that they preached. Seneca, one of the three notable Stoics (along with Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus), used the philosophy of Stoicism to navigate the turmoil and uncertainties during his life.
Although he maintained a high status in ancient Rome as a politician and financial clerk, Seneca was forced into exile by Claudius, and ordered to commit suicide by his former student – the tyrannical emperor Nero.
In a typical Stoic fashion, on his death bed, Seneca urges his friends, family and followers not to fear death. Dying with dignity and courage, he argues that it is only through death and the ephemeral nature of our existence which gives life meaning. It is not the duration of one’s life that is of significance Seneca claims, but rather the endeavours and meaningful pursuits that one engages which makes life worthwhile.
In his consolation to his friend Marcia over the death of her son, Seneca writes that we should always be prepared for the unknown, directly confront our fears and cherish our existence. Nothing should be taken for granted.
That person has lost their children: you too, can lose yours; that person received sentence of death: your innocence too, stands under the hammer. This is the fallacy that takes us in and makes us weak while we suffer misfortunes that we never foresaw that we could suffer. The person who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.
Seneca, On Consolation to Marcia
Letters from a Stoic
One of the more notable works left behind by Seneca is the Letters from a Stoic. Near the end of his life, Seneca wrote 124 letters to his friend Lucilius offering philosophical insight and consolation, highlighting many of the key themes in Stoic philosophy.
My favourite in this collection is Letter 13 – On Groundless Fears. In this letter, Seneca encourages Lucilius to practice resilience providing questions to consider when assessing the validity of his fears.
Many of our fears Seneca notes are unfounded. We can not control the external world, but we can control our interpretation of it. Much of what we fear are fabrications produced by our mind which, if properly evaluated and critiqued, have no basis in reality.
Even if unfavourable events do come to fruition, we do not know what the future holds. It may perhaps be a blessing in disguise.
To expand and identify these key ideas these I created a graphic which summarizes the questions and maxims Seneca urges us to consider when we are faced with anxiety or fear. In the thought bubbles are direct quotes from Seneca’s letter which speak to these concepts.
If you want to listen to an audio version of these letters I highly recommend Tim Ferris’ Tao of Seneca.
“Don’t be ashamed of needing help. You have a duty to fulfill just like a soldier on the wall of battle. So what if you are injured and can’t climb up without another soldier’s help?”
Below is part 2 of my interview with Vanessa from Your Mind Matters, hope you enjoy.
1. With the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have been forced into isolation. We can of course connect with our loved ones through technology, but this time may also offer us an opportunity to practice solitude. How can we cope with and feel a bit more comfortable being alone?
This is such an important topic. It’s been eye-opening (but not surprising) to see how many people are totally uncomfortable with the idea of being alone with their thoughts and are doing anything they can to avoid their own company and feeling comfortable with it without any distractions.
The problem with a lack of distractions is that it exposes pain we maybe didn’t know we had. The problem with that is that it’s painful and hard. But, it’s also important and worthwhile. I think the only way to feel more comfortable being alone is to spend more time alone. Humans can adapt very well. If we put ourselves in a situation enough times, eventually we’ll learn to deal with it.
Something I’ve really learned in this time is that isolation does not mean lack of connection. They’re two different things and you can still feel connected to others while being physically apart from others. When people lack a strong sense of connection and security in their relationships with others, being physically isolated or by themselves will make them feel lonely and disconnected because they need the physical presence of others to feel socially connected.
Know that just because you’re on your own in that moment doesn’t mean that you don’t have anyone and that you shouldn’t feel connected to others. It’s still important to reach out and you can still ask for help in this time.
In short, we become more comfortable being alone by being alone more. It’s such a beautiful experience to spend time with ourselves, get to know ourselves and learn more about ourselves and then learn to love ourselves and develop that important relationship with ourselves. We need more of that and so I guess that’s one benefit of the situation we’re experiencing.
The relationship with yourself sets the tone for all the other ones in your life and it’s the only one that lasts from the day you’re born until the day you die. You might as well work really hard on that one and make it a strong and loving relationship. Learning to like yourself is the most important thing you’ll ever do and once you do, you’ll never feel disconnected again.
2. Broadly put, one of the tasks of philosophy is about using logic to continually challenge existing assumptions, thoughts and beliefs. Can this approach be helpful in dealing with mental health issues?
Logic isn’t exactly my best friend, being someone who struggles with mental health issues and is considered to be emotionally volatile, but logic is absolutely helpful when dealing with mental health issues for many reasons.
One thing I learned in therapy that has made such a big impact on me is called “wise mind” and it’s basically the principle of combining our emotional mind and our rational (or logical) mind into what’s called our “wise mind”. It’s merging emotions and logic at the same time to come up with a new state of mind and thought process that is both rooted in logic while also recognizing the emotions that come with it.
A type of psychotherapy used to treat many people with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is literally rooted in the concept of using logic. It comes from the idea that our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are all connected and that what we think influences how we feel and in turn affects how we act.
The premise of CBT is to use logic to examine the facts (using reason and logic) of a situation that is causing us distress or evoking uncomfortable or painful thoughts and emotions. It’s important to note that while logic is helpful when it comes to mental health problems, emotions are still valid and serve a purpose and so it’s therefore essential to combine the two and allow both to co-exist and serve you.
3. Lastly, any final thoughts, resources or advice you want to share?
Something I want to say about the current situation we find ourselves in: it’s uncomfortable but also an opportunity to look inward with minimal distractions. I’d take that opportunity every time. Get to know yourself and learn to love yourself. Build those solid foundations and watch how beautifully the rest of your life unfolds and how all the other aspects come together so nicely. Just know that there’s no right way to cope with this and whatever you’re managing is enough and you’re doing okay.
I also want to note that self-awareness is important and so is doing the inner work necessary to grow, but no matter how hard it is it’s always a worthwhile pursuit. Sometimes, it gets discouraging and we wish we could just shut it off and stop overthinking and instead fall into distractions so that we forget about our pain and suffering, but it’s not adaptive. It’s always a better option to sit in the discomfort and use it for growth and learning because pain is always the best teacher. And the best thing about pain is that it’s temporary. It doesn’t last and always passes.
With respect to authenticity, being yourself is the most outward display of vulnerability and is always incredibly beneficial and necessary. Vulnerability is the biggest strength. I always say to err on the side of radical openness and transparency because that’s when we see the biggest benefits as human beings. Showing your human is the most compelling and inviting thing you can do.
And one final thing: have empathy. For others and for yourself. It is truly life altering to learn to listen to others and try to understand them on multiple levels. Learning about what makes someone who they are and what lights their fire is exceptionally rewarding, especially when it’s you learning about yourself.
Take this time to listen to others and to yourself. If you truly try to understand a person and find out why they are the way they are, you’ll always find that if you were them, if you were in their shoes and knew what they knew and had what they had then you would be the exact same. With that realization comes empathy and with empathy comes so much connection, intimacy and the possibility of love.
This sort of thing truly has healing powers. I cannot recommend it enough and particularly recommend the work of Brené Brown if you want to learn more about vulnerability and how to practice it and why you should.
In terms of resources, I have to plug Your Mind Matters first. Our website www.yourmindmatters.ca and Instagram @yourmindmattersorg has tons of resources and information about all things mental health and mental illness.
In some earlier blog posts I have written about the rising concern of the mental health crisis in modern societies. In particular, I argued that the malaise and discontent we experience in our culture can be partially attributed to the individualism and consumerism that is promoted and admired in the West.
On a broad level, our sense ‘common purpose’ has fractured, as we have become more polarized and divided by our politics and individual differences. The social glue that once held us together has begun to fade.
Modern societies are facing a set of interwoven crises which Professor John Vervaeke says are symptoms of our loss of meaning and connection to the world, and to others. We’ve seen the following mental health issues scattered through the news headlines over the past few years. 
These existing issues of course will be compounded by the current COVID-19 pandemic.
So, how can we cope during this difficult time? What insights can we learn from ancient wisdom and modern psychology?
I asked Vanessa from the mental health-based organization Your Mind Matters for some clarity. Part 1 of the interview is recorded below.
1. Tell me a bit about your organization and how you got started.
Your Mind Matters is a non-profit organization and mental health platform for mental health awareness, education and support. We provide information and resources to educate people about mental illness and provide peer support to individuals struggling, particularly youth.
I started it when I was in my undergrad at the University of Toronto and I was really struggling with mental illness and my own mental health problems and saw that so many others around me were as well. I then decided to start a student group on campus to raise awareness, inform students about mental illness and the prevalence for youth especially in a university setting, and provide resources on campus relating to mental health.
In doing this, I realized how important this work is and decided to practice mental health advocacy beyond university, so I turned Your Mind Matters from a student mental health awareness club into a non-profit organization.
It goes without saying, but my own struggles with mental illness fueled my passion for mental health advocacy and pushed me to start this organization.
Although mental illness sometimes knocks me down and pushes me around, it inspires me to make a change and keep pushing forward despite it all. It also keeps me going knowing how many people out there are struggling, and my own experiences have made me realize how hard it is and I never want people to feel that way, so I’ve decided to do what I can to help others.
2. In my personal experience, a lot of internal tension comes when you act in a way that does not align with your core values. What does the concept of authenticity mean for you, and how can we live a life that is congruent with our deepest belief?
Authenticity is so important to me and something I value very deeply on a personal level. To me, authenticity is stripping yourself down and taking off the mask and all those external layers and getting to the root and true essence of who you are, unapologetically and without shame or fear.
Think of it like an onion: you peel the layers one at a time and it makes you cry. But, when you strip all those layers and get to the root of who you are, you’ll find our who you are at its core and hopefully learn to accept and love that person underneath all the layers.
Authenticity and to be fully yourself is the most vulnerable form of bravery, but to me it’s the only option. It means knowing who you are and what you stand for and not straying from it or compromising yourself or your values. It’s having a clear sense of what your values are and upholding them however and whenever you can. To live a life that is congruent with our deepest belief, we first need to dig deep and learn about ourselves.
We need to fully understand what these beliefs are and why we have them. We need to discover our intentions and our deeply rooted core beliefs about ourselves, others and the world. And then we need to decide how we’re going to live a life that is congruent with our beliefs. It means doing things for yourself and not fearing judgment or ridicule and letting go of shame and guilt. Some people will not agree with us or like us for who we are, but that is okay. It is better to be who we are than to transform into someone we’re not just to satisfy someone else.
This means getting to know yourself and liking the person you are and then it’s being that person as much as you possibly can. It requires not really caring what anyone else thinks because your foundation is so strong and your values are so clear and concrete that no one can shake the core of who you are.
Authenticity is doing things because we’re intrinsically motivated, not extrinsically motivated. It’s not having ulterior motives except being who we are and doing what we believe in on a fundamental level. It’s saying, “this is me, take it or leave it” and not caring if they “leave it” because you know that it’s their loss and that decision is more about them than it’s about you.
Being authentic is so hard these days and not easy to come across, but being an authentic person is such a valuable and coveted feat. There’s something so empowering, so powerful and so attractive about someone who knows who they are and sticks to it at all costs. We do this by learning to love ourselves and the person we see in the mirror and then being as much of that person as we can no matter what.
To use another metaphor: it’s like a tree with roots that run so deep and that are extensively intricate and no matter how hard you try and shake the tree, it will not move. It is so strongly rooted and firmly planted in the ground that no external factors can shake it. That’s authenticity to me.
Having such a strong foundation that no one and nothing can shake. When you have roots that strong, it’s hard to be inauthentic. I think it’s important that we start appreciating authenticity as being the strength that it is, because it’s not seen often but it is needed so badly to create a world of more honesty, compassion and deeply rooted and upheld values.
3. Social media has us constantly comparing ourselves to others. It is easy to fall into the trap of judging our lives and our accomplishments in comparison with our peers. Do you have any advice on how we can be more accepting and kinder to ourselves?
As a disclaimer, I’d like to state that I should not be the authority on this topic because I absolutely am one to fall into the trap of comparison via social media. However, it’s something I am trying to unlearn. Self-compassion and acceptance are two big focal points of most of my therapy sessions and have probably become the overarching theme in most of them.
One thing I learned and have implemented that’s pretty life changing is talking to myself the same way I’d talk to a friend. It’s not easy, but if you think of it I’m pretty sure you’ve said some pretty mean things to yourself that you’d almost never say to a friend or someone you love. So then the question is, why do we say these things to ourselves? We need to start holding ourselves up to the same standard and treating ourselves with the same love and respect as we treat those we love.
I also think learning to forgive ourselves is an important part of this equation. We tend to be really hard on ourselves and are our own worst critics. It’s important to remind ourselves that we’re doing the best we can with what we have and know and that’s enough. We’re bound to make mistakes and be imperfect. What matters is that we learn from them and move on. Let yourself let go of the idea that you are inferior or less-than for whatever made up reason you’ve concocted in your head.
Also, a note about social media: it’s all fake and nothing is at is seems. Trust me, I used to post nicely filtered pictures of me travelling and eating and acting all happy and like I was “living my best life” (a myth that I will not get into right now because then I’d never stop talking) when really on the inside I was hurting so deeply. It’s important to note that what’s on social media doesn’t actually represent people’s real lives at all and it’s harmful to think it does. The grass isn’t greener on the other side, it’s a filter. And one last thing while we’re on this topic: comparison is the thief of joy. Don’t do it.
You can compare yourself today to who you were yesterday and that’s it. Comparing yourself not only to someone you’re not but someone you’re only seeing little curated and filtered snippets of through a screen is a recipe for unhappiness and low self-esteem. Look in the mirror often and learn to like what you see (and I’m not just talking about looks). Look inward. That’s where you find love and acceptance and self-compassion. Don’t expect anyone else to do this work for you.
 Of note, I won’t get into the statistics here, but I will link to the relevant studies if your interested that show these trends.