Stoicism was an influential school of philosophy that had originated about twenty two centuries ago in Greece. Zeno of Citium was its founder. Stoicism eventually became one of the most famous and far reaching philosophies across the Roman world. The people who followed stoicism were, the politicians, businessmen, soldiers, artists. These men of action practiced their philosophy amid the busyness of life. The below definition of philosophy by a famous stoic gives us a clear understanding of what to look for in stoicism.
“Philosophy isn’t a parlor trick or made for show. It’s not concerned with words, but with facts. It’s not employed for some pleasure before the day is spent, or to relieve the uneasiness of our leisure. It shapes and builds up the soul, it gives order to life, guides action, shows what should and shouldn’t be done – it sits at the rudder steering our course as we vacillate in uncertainties. Without it, no one can live without fear or free from care. Countless things happen every hour that require advice, and such advice is to be sought out in philosophy.” -SENECA
Essence of Stoicism
It is important to know the meaning of the word “Stoic” before moving ahead. The Stoic word is derived from the Greek stoa, meaning portico, because that’s where Zeno first taught his students. Stoicism is a timeless wisdom that can be put into practice even in the modern era. I recently read the book, “The Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday that gave me a better understanding of the topic. In Ancient India, much before stoicism came into existence there were many great philosophers who well versed in the vedas. One among them was Chanakya whose aphorisms are famous even today in India. I found the stoic thinking had similar vibes.
It is interesting to note that some of the great stoic philosophers had gone through immense hardships at some point in their lives before turning to philosophy. Starting with Zeno, Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius the list goes on. In fact, history tells us that the trigger for Zeno to start stoicism was a shipwreck in which he had lost everything. Among the many who inspired Zeno, a major influence was Socrates who lived much before him.
“Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for.” -SOCRATES
Stoicism is a practical philosophy with the aim of living a meaningful life, and becoming one’s best self. The below saying from one of the stoics clearly shows us how practical it is.
“Won’t you be walking in your predecessors’ footsteps? I surely will use the older path, but if i find a shorter and smoother way, I’ll blaze a trail there. The ones who pioneered these paths aren’t our masters, but our guides. Truth stands open to everyone, it hasn’t been monopolized.” -SENECA
The first time i came across the word stoicism was in a podcast that mentioned the importance of journaling. I had mentioned about the journaling topic in one of my previous blogs as well. Let me delve deeper into the topic of stoicism starting with journaling.
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly.” -MARCUS AURELIUS
The emperor & stoic, Marcus Aurelius spoke about the importance of journaling in the morning in his book Meditations – this book was for personal clarity and not for public benefit. As seen in the quote above, he used his mornings to anticipate and combat getting frustrated by the curveballs life throws at self.
“I will keep constant watch over myself and-most usefully-will put each day up for review. For this is what makes us evil-that none of us looks back upon our own lives. We reflect upon only that which we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future descend from the past.” -SENENCA
At the beginning or end of each day, the stoics used to sit down with their journal and reviews: what he did, what he thought, what could be improved. By making the effort to record such thoughts one is less likely to forget them. This can help in tracking one’s own progress as well.
“Understand at last that you have something in you more powerful and divine than what causes the bodily passions and pulls you like a mere puppet. What thoughts now occupy my mind? Is it not fear, suspicion, desire, or something like that?” -MARCUS AURELIUS
Marcus knew about the distracting sinkhole like gossip, fear, suspicion, lust etc. Every human is being pulled by these internal and external forces that are increasingly more powerful and harder to resist. However, values and inner awareness prevent us from being puppets.
“We control our reasoned choice and all acts that depend on that moral will. What’s not under our control are the body and any of its parts, our possessions, parents, siblings, children, or country- anything with which we might associate,” -EPICTETUS
One more saying on the topic of self awareness by a great stoic Epictetus. A wise person knows what is inside their circle of control and what is outside it. According to stoics, the circle of control contains just one thing: Your Mind. Even your physical body is isn’t completely within the circle. This reduces the things needed to manage ,i.e., just your mind. So mind your choices and will.
“Keep this thought handy when you feel a fit of rage coming on – it isn’t manly to be enraged. Rather, gentleness and civility are more human, and therefore manlier. A real man doesn’t give way to anger and discontent, and such a person has strength, courage and endurance – unlike the angry and complaining. The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.” – MARCUS AURELIUS
Strength is the ability to maintain a hold of oneself. Every situation is made better by a cool head. Even powerful people who know that anger is a powerful and effective tool will tell you that there is a big difference between deliberately expressing your frustrations (to make a point, to motivate someone, to defend yourself) and flying into a rage. Without the ability to recognize and direct your emotions, you become a slave to them.
“Success comes to the lowly and to the poorly talented, but the special characteristic of a great person is to triumph over the disasters and panics of human life.” -SENECA
You can be lucky or born into advantageous circumstances and appear “successful” to most of society without making any actual progress on your own. On the other hand, the person who perseveres through difficulties, who keeps going when others quit, is really admirable. Because, success of such people is the result of fortitude and resilience.
“But what does Socrates say? ‘Just as one person delights in improving his farm, and another his horse, so i delight in attending to my own improvement day by day.'” -EPICTETUS
Self improvement is a lifelong activity. Keep striving forward in every moment to bring about all-round development, i.e., both personal and professional. If you always wanted to try out a new hobby why not start one today itself ? Whether it’s meditation, journaling or any new skill that can really help your mental or physical health. As the saying goes, a healthy mind in a heathy body, it is a good practice to go for periodic health check ups. Taking time at the end of day to reflect on the self can be really helpful too.
“Take a good hard look at people’s ruling principle, especially of the wise, what they run away from and what they seek out.” -MARCUS AURELIUS
Positive role models influence our actions and motivate us to strive to uncover our true potentials and overcome our weakness. Having them pushes us to make the most of our life. Be it the stoic era, the ancient Indian mythology, the recent history or our current household, there are many of whom we can look up to for positive influence. This can have a greater influence at an younger age wherein the mind is more open to new ideas. Positive influences at an young age will help to shape the personality of an individual.
Law of Karma
“Crimes often return to their teacher” -SENECA
What goes around comes around, is the saying. According to the law of karma, whatever activity you do should not be against the socio-ethical code of conduct of society. Socio-ethical code of conduct means, what you don’t want others to do to you, even you should not do to others. This actually happened with Seneca as well, as he finally paid the price for his instructions to the deranged young emperor Nero.
“Remember that you are an actor in a play, playing a character according to the will of the playwright-if a short play, then it’s short; if long, long. If he wishes you to play the beggar, play even that role well, just as you would if it were a cripple, a honcho, or an everyday person. For this is your duty, to perform well the character assigned to you. That selection belongs to another” -EPICTETUS
Our station in life can be as random as a roll of dice. Some of us are born into privilege, while others into adversity. Epictetus himself lived much of his life as a slave before becoming a successful philosopher. Even the law of karma states that, whatever role we perform in life should be done with utmost diligence. This is what the Bhagavad Gita preaches about karma.
“People aren’t in awe of your sharp mind? So be it. But you have many other qualities you can’t claim to have been deprived of at birth. Display then those qualities in your own power: honesty, dignity, endurance, chastity, contentment, frugality, kindness, freedom, persistence, avoiding gossip, and magnanimity.” -MARCUS AURELIUS
We are all blank slates when we arrive here on earth. We inherit a few things from our predecessors, but ultimately our futures depend on a lot of factors other than genes. There are plenty of brilliant people in the world who never amount to much, solely because they lacked the desire to refine their inherent talents and intelligence. And, on the other side of the spectrum, there are plenty of people who had the odds stacked against them and went on to do brilliant things.
“Think of the whole universe of matter and how small your share. Think about the expanse of time and how brief-almost momentary-the part marked for you. Think of the workings of fate and how infinitesimal your role.” -MARCUS AURELIUS
Consider this the next time you feel self-important, or worthless. You’re just one person among many, doing your best and that’s what matters. Don’t let any kind of praise or disappointments get into your head. There’s the sheer scale of things surrounding us ,i.e., our earth is millions of years old and there are millions of people inhabiting the planet. We are just a tiny speck in a huge ecosystem. And it definitely makes us feel humble.
Attitude of Gratitude
“In all things we should try to make ourselves be as grateful as possible. For gratitude is a good thing for ourselves, in a manner in which justice, commonly held to belong to others, is not. Gratitude pays itself back in large measure.” -SENECA
Studies have shown a wide range of physical and psychological benefits of gratitude. Practicing gratitude shifts your attention away from negative emotions to appreciation. Thus grateful people experience happier and healthier relationships, as they are looking for what’s right rather than what’s wrong. Also, gratitude is a powerful tool used to manifest your dreams and goals. You can practice gratitude from today by writing down in your journal three things that you are grateful for at the end of each day.
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