Stoicism is a Hellenic philosophy founded by the ancient Greeks and Romans. It is a philosophy intended to be lived, not studied.
The practice involves evaluating the quality of our thoughts and actions in pursuit of the virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice.
Famous stoics in the past were the likes of Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aerelius who was the most powerful man in the world when Emperor of Rome.
The basic principle of Stoicism is to ‘live in accordance with nature’. The term ‘live in accordance with nature’ comes from the Greek word ‘physis’ which simply means to change and grow.
From studying Stoic literature, I interpret that Stoicism is about acceptance to the flow of life, inner peace and self-actualisation to be continually evolving into your best self because that is what you’ve been designed to do.
This can have a different meaning for different people; your best self and your potential simply means a life that suits you best and the human that you are.
The capacity to do this lies within you, the choice as to whether you do so is down to you.
How I misinterpreted Stoicism
Since first discovering Stoicism several years ago, it has had a profound impact on how I think and act.
Reflecting on Stoic literature like the text below was mind blowing when I first read it.
“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality”Seneca
“What upsets people is not things themselves, but their judgements about these things.”Epictetus
The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.Marcus Aurelius
“The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts.”Marcus Aurelius
However, these quotes are only surface deep. My experience applying this philosophy taught me several unhealthy ways that I misinterpreted the meaning of Stoicism.
Things like suppressing emotions, avoiding social interaction leading to social isolation and being unconsciously elitist and inconsiderate to others at times.
These unhealthy ways may have appeared Stoic but actually drained my energy and left an empty feeling.
They misinterpret and are not acting out the true meaning of Stoicism.
With this self-awareness, below are 3 ways I invite you to protect your energy by applying Stoicism.
Emotional awareness and control
Emotions are a fundamental part of the human experience. Without emotions we are no different than robots.
Stoicism is about bringing awareness to an emotion, acknowledging it, and realising that you have power of your own mind to minimise the number of unpleasant emotions and not let emotions control you.
It’s important to say that unpleasant emotions like anxiety, fear and desires like social status and fitting in are all natural based on evolutionary survival. They were good for us back in our hunter gatherer days as they made sure we would not be killed or be thrown from the tribe. So there is nothing wrong with feeling this. We are hardwired to feel this in order to survive and our ancestors have passed on these genes to us.
We are often told if we feel anxiety or fear that we are broken and need fixing. But this is not the case. So it’s important not to resist these feelings, but to acknowledge them and realise that these feelings will pass.
You also feel those emotions as a consequence of thoughts passing through your mind. That’s where awareness has to do its job. Because you are not your mind, you are the observer (awareness) that is aware that you are thinking or feeling a certain way. It’s the mind that is triggered, not you.
We see the world, not as it is, but as WE are – or; as we are CONDITIONED to see it.Stephen Covey
It doesn’t matter if you feel unpleasant emotions. All that matters is that awareness must have the last say; awareness that it’s natural to feel what you are feeling over years of evolutionary survival, awareness that it’s your minds judgement that has triggered it (but that you are not your mind) and awareness that these feelings will pass.
This is where breathing, meditation and journaling are great ways to let it all out and write down your thoughts and emotions to help gain perspective. The Stoics often practiced these daily.
Also, having a conversation with someone always helps gain perspective. The whole goal of Stoicism is to be a better human being so that you can better serve others and your community as well as yourself. It’s not about isolating yourself. Just become aware to associate with people who are likely to support or improve you rather than bring your energy down.
Bringing this awareness and control to our emotions doesn’t mean everything will be perfect and you’ll be instantly happy. But having this emotional awareness helps to aid our ancestral brains to find inner acceptance and protect our energy.
Goals are important, but inner contentment is more so
Stoics phrased a term called ‘hedonic adaptation’ which basically says that once we get what we want, we then lose desire or need a grander goal.
If you achieve a goal you will have temporary exhilaration before returning to the base happiness you were before once you get used to it. And so the cycle continues.
Having goals is important in life, but they are not the end goal of life. The Stoics knew that inner peace and joy in the present moment is the ultimate goal.
We should never place all our happiness on external goals out of our control.
There is no point not being content now because of a goal, if and when achieved, you will lose interest in anyway because that’s how we are psychologically hardwired.
The Stoic solution is to work on bringing up our baseline level of inner contentment first.
One Stoic way to help do this is negative visualisation. Simply imagining the things we value are no longer around then come back to reality to appreciate those things. It might sound negative to visualise this but it will also allow us to have gratitude for what we have.
Once we have a baseline level of contentment, we can pursue goals but also be able to respond to life from a place of inner peace and awareness, rather than always reacting and having inner anxiety.
Embrace your fate and what you can control
Most important choice we make is whether to concern ourselves with those things external to ourselves or internal.
We don’t control what happens to us in life, what we do control is how we respond and what actions we take.
Having the mindset of this is happening for me, rather than to me, is key to see all challenges as opportunities for growth.
This is much easier said than done! It is a process and a journey, not a tick boxing exercise.
Focusing on internal things like our values, thoughts, goals and habits give us an empowering feeling. We can also focus on things somewhat in our control like creating a business, but again the success of the business isn’t the end goal. The end goal is inner contentment simply for choosing to start creating a business. Because that is what you can control through your thoughts, emotions and actions.
We can have amazing things and experiences but if not content inside will not appreciate it. This has happened to me where I’m so stuck in my own head worrying or feeling anxious I can’t enjoy the present moment. Conversely, if we are calm inside, bad things can happen externally but will be of much less importance if we have more inner peace.
In the end, everyday we are faced with something, whether minor or major, that stands in our way or disrupts our energy. In viewing these obstacles as a gift for us to learn and grow through we are becoming a little more Stoic.