A Stoic Approach to Fear

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Seneca: A Stoic Life

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 from 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.  

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The Awesomeness of Awe

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I can still vividly remember the crisp morning air, and the mountain range that faded far into the horizon. Miles away from the busyness and obnoxious sounds of the big city, I was on a vacation in Banff, Alberta.

It was on a hike in beautiful Lake Louise where the anxieties and trivialities of modern life faded into the abyss. Gazing at the crystal blue water, I was filled with a sense of wonder and reverence for the beauty of the natural landscape.

We often fail to find the right words to describe these temporary encounters with the sublime, however one term that does come to mind is ‘awe’.

Be it the grandeur and beauty of a medieval cathedral or the peaceful solitude of spending time in alone in nature, many of us have had moments which leave us speechless. Moments which jolt us in to the present moment and connect us with something greater than ourselves.

It is only after these experiences we can more deeply appreciate the seemingly esoteric language of the great poets and mystics. For the transcendentalist writers (Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson) of the 19th century, the divine was to be found in the natural world.

As Emerson famously writes in his essay Nature,

Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed in the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I become a particle of God.

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So, what exactly is this feeling of awe, and why does humanity yearn for these ecstatic events? 

While the moments and events which elicit awe differ from person to person, the psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner classify two key attributes which one feels during an experience of awe – the need for accommodation and vastness.

Need for Accommodation

Breath taking moments of awe shatter our existing mental models of the world. They force us to shift our perspectives to accommodate these new cognitive paradigms

This temporarily puts a pause our rote automatic thinking we have been accustomed to in our adult lives. We are filled with a sense of wonder, and as Michael Pollan puts it, “precisely the kind of unencumbered first sight, or virginal noticing, to which the adult brain has closed itself.”’    

Vastness

Looking at earth miles away in space, astronauts have reported that seeing the planet from this vantage point is a highly transformative, and one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. From this perspective, one reveres in the beauty of our planet, is overwhelmed by its vastness and is more deeply connected to all the species which inhabit earth.

As Yuri Artyushkin from the Russian space program notes,

The feeling of unity is not simply an observation. With it comes a strong sense of compassion and concern for the state of our planet and the effect humans are having on it…. You are standing guard over the whole of our Earth.

                                                                

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Philosopher Frank White coined the term the ‘overview effect’ to define the shift in awareness and perspective astronauts describe when they glance as the earth from space.

Overwhelmed by emotions and feelings of self-transcendence – many space explorers note that words are inadequate to describe what their feeling.

Our attention shifts from inwards towards the broader environment evoking a religious or spiritual sense of connectedness to the outside world.

This is akin to the mind of a child, a truly ‘Zen-like’ experience.

Humility

While connecting more deeply to the external environment, our egotistical self-interests seem a little less important. We feel small in comparison to the vastness of the cosmos. Consequently, studies have demonstrated that feelings of awe are associated with pro-social behaviour including greater altruism, and an overall increase in well-being.

In a time where our individualistic society increasingly drives us towards narcissistic tendencies, perhaps a bit more awe is just the right medicine we need.

Mental Health in a Time of Crisis: An Interview with Your Mind Matters

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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. [1]

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.

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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.

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.


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.

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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.

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.


[1] 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.