What is stoicism?
The purpose of Stoicism is to choose to deliberately pursue and create a good life, or at least a better life than your current life situation. It is a method to increase your personal control and achieve growth as a being of consciousness, which stoics believe is the underlying common purpose of all humanity. However before we can purposely grow, we have to accept and be aware of our current life situation, which is our current baseline of happiness and then we make the decision to improve our lives from that position. The primary tool that Stoics for this is the question, “what are we in control of?” and more importantly, “what do we not control?” It is the question that we ask first in any situation for the very simple reason that it is only worth putting effort into and awareness towards those things that we do control, if we do not control it any effort we put into trying to is by definition a waste, and most of us waste a huge amount of energy.
If we had an infinite amount of energy, time and effort, this waste would not matter, but these are precious and limited resources, that should be used wisely. If you allow them, your attention and awareness will wander like a dog in a circle with no particular place to go, chewing on anything that might vaguely be tasty and playing with their toys. You have to decide to take ownership, where that dog goes is under our control, and Stoics make the choice to take full responsibility for anything that is under their control. That is what stoicism is, the repeated choice to keep on taking full responsibility to make better choices and increase our awareness of the choices that we are making in our lives.
We start with accepting where we are, no matter what the disadvantages you have, the inherent unfairness or lack of opportunities. Stoicism can not give you forgiveness, compensation or remedy. It does not say your life situation does not matter, rather it is just accepting that no amount of energy will ever change where you are starting from. The only useful thing you can do with that energy is to change your life situation, the act of acceptance frees your energy for that purpose, it transfers the energy from something you do not control to the thing that you do, and by taking full responsibility for where your energy goes, you take the power away from the past and give it all to your actions to the moment you are currently experiencing, the present is the only path to a better future. This shift of where you direct your energy can be transformational, giving the current moment your full attention means you are able to make better decisions and take higher quality actions.
However we also have to be careful, the energy does not leak into the future either, our expectations, attachment to results and fears, we cannot change the future by worrying about it and any energy we use doing so is again a complete waste, only action changes the future. Whilst our hopes and dreams, certainly give us a direction to move towards, what matters is what we are doing in the moment to achieve them, what resistance we are currently experiencing and whether our actions are sparking joy for us. Having a purpose we are moving towards gives us something to align our actions with, and having a reason for doing what we are doing makes the actions easier, we can endure anything for a purpose.
That is why Stoics take on full responsibility and greedily look for more opportunities to do so, because we realise that actions are more satisfying when they have a meaning. The first thing to take responsibility for is always yourself, your actions and reactions. Counter-intuitively, it is in fact the most altruistic action you can take, being able to turn up for other people as the best version of yourself with your full energy and resources, is not just a little bit better than just turning up, it is exponentially better, it is simply a higher order quality of action, is that not something truly worth taking responsibility for, as the airline say you put your own oxygen mask on first so that you can help others.
The first responsibility you have is being fully aware of how wonderful your life is right now (and if you are reading this, you have internet access, you have a tool that can teach you how to be better version of yourself and the wonder of the entire knowledge of the human race in your hands right now). We teach ourselves how to be grateful, we practice gratitude towards our lives. The mind is a comparison machine and it is amazing at it, give someone the choice between two options and they will make up their mind in seconds, you do not even have to tell them that they should choose the one that makes their life better, we know that by instinct. However when it comes to our happiness, the mind does the same thing, it compares now to the recent past and decides whether it is better or worse, if it is better, it will create the feeling of happiness and if it is worse (and incredibly importantly even just the same) it will produce feelings of unhappiness.
The lack of our ability to be happy when things are the same is what stoicism tries to tackle, though it should be pointed out first, that the design flaw is there is due to natural selection that meant unhappy people were motivated to take action that led to their survival. Whilst it initially saved our lives, it means that left to its own devices the mind will make you unhappy due to the inherent impossibility of our lives being continuously better everyday, and every moment to the next. Any mathematician will tell you that infinite growth is not just difficult in practice but it is impossible even in theory, and as we know from experience there are natural ebbs and flows in our lives, we can have high energy one day and low the next, without any rhyme or reason to as to why. We have to take responsibility for being happy, it is a choice that has to be repeatedly taken and when happiness comes from the inside instead of from external events, that is a combination of happiness and trust, that is completely reliable. The soul or inner self, knows the difference between external happiness which is not in our control, and internal sources of happiness that are under our control, when we are able to trust the source of happiness, we end up with a much stronger form of happiness that we call joy.
Whilst we are building that trust in the short term, we can use the minds own fault to our advantage through negative visualisation. That is by visualising how much worse our lives could be, we can imagine how lives would be different if we could not see, hear, how we would feel if we lost a leg, hand or even a loved one. We touch on these feelings without lingering on them which gives the mind a quick and powerful negative comparison, a scenario worse than our current moment and then the mind does what it does, it compares the present to our imagined reality which produces the feeling of gratitude and joy, because the present is better than what we have visualised and to our minds what we visualise is as real as reality in the moment that it visualises it.
And because real life experience is more powerful than just thoughts, we reinforce them with voluntarily discomfort. It again uses our comparing mind, we act in a way that initially feels worse, a brisk walk, a cold shower or missing breakfast, we experience a temporary loss either of convenience or comfort, and then we experience the return of that comfort, we feel gratitude for and we have a powerful and real comparison that makes us feel happy. It is understanding that link between gratitude and happiness that is so important, they are both effects of the comparing mind, being grateful for what you have produces happiness because it is comparing better with worse.
The combination of these two gratitude practices is to convince the mind both with thought and real life experience that life is good, and it cannot resist this simultaneous assault, it has to admit that you have a life to be grateful for, which changes the climate of your mind, your base emotions rather than the weather of your feelings. Emotions, feelings and thoughts are what drive your character and nature, and if you can change them, you can change who you are and anything you can change is under your control, and anything under your control is both your full responsibility and where your energy and resources should be devoted.
Though this is not a selfish philosophy, you might only have responsibility for your own actions but there is an overriding assumption made by the ancient Stoics that by nature we wish to help our societies and communities, and to act against this nature creates a self-destructive unhappiness, and to do so is the cause of so many problems to both society and even more so to yourself. Being out of alignment with your nature is the root cause of our unhappiness, the negative emotions of greed, anger, jealousy and envy are created by acting out of self-interest rather than the collective well-being. In the modern era, capitalism and individualism have been powerful agents promoting the idea of acting purely out of self-interest for the good of all, whilst it was very logical its weakness is the assumption that we are actually individuals, and not simultaneously individuals and part of something greater than ourselves. It is actually in our self-interest to help others because it aligns with our nature.
Whilst there is plenty of science that has demonstrated that this is true, that giving your money and time to others is more satisfying than shopping for toys, that we feel other people's pain more intensely our own and that we need the company of others to maintain our sanity (solitary confinement is the worse punishment a civilised society can inflict on someone). The only science that really matters is your own experience, by running self experiments we find out what is true for us and we can only truly experience and observe what we are aware of, by taking on the responsibility for the things under our control, we take on the responsibility to increase our self-awareness and ability to observe ourselves.
The primary tool Stoics used for this is meditation, the act of self reflection and observation by the development of awareness, what is measured can be changed. To be able to understand ourselves we have to observe our own reaction and how they made us feel, what was the process of thoughts that led to our action, and it is only by understanding ourselves that we are able to understand others. Ancient Stoics encouraged people to reflect upon their actions and to measure them against a standard of perfect action, the Buddhist called this taking right action with right mind. Perhaps the most important part of meditation is the act of empathy, it is by observing how muddled and contrary our own thoughts are, how much we only think of ourselves and how much time we spend just reacting rather than observing what is actually happening, and we change this by acting with grace, ease and joy towards ourselves and other. It is by forgiving ourselves for being imperfect we are able to forgive others for acting as imperfect human beings.
By understanding ourselves, by reflecting on our actions we can learn to understand others better and are able to increase the quality of our empathy with them. Where we do not just recognise suffering in others or share the feeling of their suffering, but by jumping straight to effective empathy where you take the action that is in your control to help them (whether it is giving time, money or loving kindness). That is why meditation is so important, by observing, increasing our ability to be self-aware, by watching what is happening rather than being involved, we are able to forgive ourselves and others for being less than perfect. We practice meditation so that we can use meditation to decide clearly and quicker on what our right action are given our wish for a right mind. This is only possible if you are acting both from your self-interest and the interests others (which when you realise those interests are intertwined and indivisible means that they are come into alignment), and for that you need empathy, and an understanding others are as imperfect as you.
When your motivations and interests are in alignment with what is best for society, you are able to act with purpose. When you know responsibility gives your life meaning, you can welcome them with open arms, of course it is important to choose your responsibilities carefully, whether it is your family, friends, students, saving the planet or creating art. It is worth bearing in mind that the underlying purpose of life is to grow as a being of consciousness, that is why we get so excited whenever we find an opportunity to grow, whether that is minimalism, yoga, meditation, reading, financial independence. These can all feel like the answer to all life's problems, we becoming enthusiastic about and may even preach about them, however what is really happening is that we are experiencing life and growing as people, we are living a better life than we were previously, but it is the growth that is important not the particular idea or system.
Stoicism itself is just another way of growing, it a method to teach us how to grow and gives us a common language to help each other grow. It is a practice whose purpose is to act as our personal guide and constant companion on our journey as a growing being of consciousness, but it is at the end of a day just a mental tool to enable and keep us on track. If we were naturally in alignment with our goals at all times, stoicism would be unnecessary, however life is inherently out of balance and constantly changing, that is the nature of energy and time. A static system that never changes is effectively dead, life is change and yet we put so much effort in to trying to make it the same, we strive to preserve what we have, our money, property, loved ones and our own lives. That is despite the overwhelming evidence all around us that everything is temporary, nothing remains unchanged for infinite amount of time.
This is a big cherry to swallow in one go, that is why stoicism brings us back to the moment, it deals with one thought at a time, one situation after the next and how you are acting at this moment, who you are choosing to be. It repeats the same question, what am I in control of in this moment? As when you start taking full responsibility for your actions in the moment, you have to accept that you cannot control what someone else does, that things change and you are only in control of your reaction and actions, other people's business is their own, they are the one in control of their life and responsible for their actions. It is up to you, whether it matters if you act better this time round, you have to decide whether you want to take leadership of your action, if you want to improve them and grow as a being of consciousness. That is the key, the internal wish to be better and we do that by dropping our illusions and distortions of thoughts.
When we know that the quality of our thoughts matter, we start embracing change as a good thing, we have the opportunity to improve because of that change. We lose things through change but we also gain, and we can embrace the opportunity that the whole of our lives give us to grow, when we recognise that as the purpose of our lives and how we find meaning in each of the individual actions that make up our lives. It gives us a simple compass of how we should live our lives, how to live a good life, when our words and actions are guided by the principle that we want to grow into a person whose actions are better, we set up a life where we are constantly learning and growing, and helping others to do the same. How you manifest that in your own life, will be different not just from how I do it but how everyone else does it as well, we are all unique with different life situations and we will all have our own set of unusual solutions. We create and curate a life situation where we try and live today in a manner closest to our perfect normal day, whilst accepting that we are imperfect. The enemy of the good is the perfect, so try for better, do one thing each day to move you closer to your goals or improve your life.
That is the game to find the best solutions given the set of cards that have been dealt to you, and surrendering in equal measure to both the benefits and disadvantages of the cards you hold at this moment. Through this act of accepting, you let go of so many things you cannot control, you let go of the illusion that life is fair, we do not start life on equal footing, we are unique and different and it does not feel like a bad thing, we get to have our own story and even better than that is that it is part of the greater story. However it is not a story without suffering, and it would be impossible without that suffering. We suffer when we act against our nature, when we limit the growth of others by forcing them to act against their natural growth, when we try to control them. Suffering occurs when we try to keep things the same, when we have attachments, expectations and unthinking reactions, it is our greatest teacher and we increase our suffering when we are not willing to learn from it. Suffering is there for us when we ignore the resistance in our life.
However suffering is ultimately there for us to rise above it, to teach us that there is a better position for us to hold, sacrifice means giving up something for a better position and we have the option to give up our sense of self so that we lose our attachment to suffering. There is the opportunity for us to step away from the drama, from being completely absorbed in the story, and instead take leadership in our lives by having leadership detachment. What the Buddhist call the objective view point or the watcher, the thoughts you are having are not who you are and neither are your actions (especially when they are reactions).
Most of our thoughts are random and contradictory, they are the mind's suggestions of what could be true, not what is actually true. The voices that we hear are the three year old voice of what we want, the seven year old voice of what we should do and the adult voice that decides between them. The trouble begins when we think we are those voices, when in fact we are the observer of both the voices and the world. We are spiritual beings having a human experience, the watcher is the spiritual part and our minds and experiences are the human part. The human part feels more real and define, but when it is out of alignment with our spiritual part, it lacks any depth or meaning.
When we take full responsibility for our experiences and who we are, we move back towards the spiritual part of us. The act of observing and being self-aware, that is intrinsic to taking responsibility, as it is impossible to change what is not measured, we actually bring ourselves into alignment at the same time with the spiritual part of us, and once you start having the experience of observing, you begin to realise that it is the most empowering and comfortable way to experience reality, the human experience. When you start to sidestep the poorer kinds of human experience, when you start reacting less, when you are not controlled by your emotions and instead are able to feel them fully as they are happening, you are able to appreciate their beauty, that they are energy in motion and they only cause harm and suffering when we hold onto them. Like a bee trapped in a glass, the energy that is in motion becomes intensified and amplified when we contain it, it struggles to be free and it becomes fearsome, we say we can not release it because it will hurt us, and yet the moment you take the glass away, it simply resumes its flight without a second thought.
That is the gift of suffering, once you learn to remove the glasses, it disappears, once you realise that all things past, everything changes, winter is coming but so is summer. Bad things past and so do the good, your point of view changes, you start to realise that beauty can only be appreciated in the moment, you take control. Life is what is happening now, what decisions you are making now are always the most important decisions of your life and that taking no decision is in is fact itself a decision. It is always you who is deciding whether you are happy now or sad, and more importantly, you are deciding in this moment whether you are a little bit better or worse than a moment ago. That is why stoicism is so simple because life only happens one moment in time, so we control one thing at a time, we might not know everything we are in control of, we are always searching for more things to be in control but we are always in control of something and wherever that might be you always get to choose to be in control of what is in front of you.
And it is of great comfort for me, that those who have truly faced reality, those ultra athletics of the mind who have done tens of thousands of hours of meditation and have experienced enlightenment have reported that base reality is actually beautiful. They have gone through suffering and on the other side is a “Oneness” that is the collective consciousness of the whole of humanity, god, source, or however you wish to label it, that confirms the stoic idea that we are happiest and have a good life when we focus ourselves on the good of all, our families, friends and community. When we do not just focus on ourselves but turn towards and help others we are in alignment with this underlying “oneness” and whilst we might not all experience the sense of “oneness”, by using stoicism as a guide to our small actions in the moment we can use it as a compass to guide us through life, without having to understand the magnetic field that makes it point north.
Stoicism keeps us on track without having to worry about the big picture, however it is worth considering what this big picture means at an everyday level. If we are part of an “oneness” it means that we are acting as part of something bigger than ourselves at all times, we can act in alignment with it by listening and being aware of the language it uses, one of emotions, feelings, joy and resistance. “Oneness” does not use words, it speaks with silence and that silence manifests as joy and resistance within us. Unhappiness happens when we ignores these guides, they are our internal emotional compasses, which we use with the mental compass of whether something is in our control, and we can not hear them when our minds and thoughts are too loud, but they will always make themselves heard in the long term, even if they have to use depression and unhappiness to do so.
It implies that as people have internal guides, any attempts by others to overrule those guides are ultimately harmful, which leads us to the idea that we should minimise our use of force (physical, social, emotional, financial) against others, whether as parents, bosses or politicians, as they will in the end backfire. We should lead by serving and empowering others rather than using a stick, and it is in fact our duty to protect those who are weaker than us and stand up to those who are stronger. If we are able to protect others from force we should do so as when we care, nurture and act with compassion towards others we are in fact putting energy into a feedback loop that benefits ourselves in the long run, there is a real individual benefit in having shared benefits even if on the surface it might benefit others more than yourself in the moment. It means that our society is not static or preserved in a golden age rather it is itself on the same journey of growth that we are on ourselves, it means that we march with the arrow of time towards a more caring, empathic and less self-centred society, that can appear softer but is in fact richer and stronger.
However you are not responsibility for the whole of society just how you act within it, and if you want a better society start with a better you. Act to grow yourself as a being of consciousness, reflect on your actions and ask if that was the best possible action considering what would be in alignment with a right mind, take responsibility for your actions, try to not use force on others, stand up to the strong, protect the weakness and if in doubt, mind your own business. Not because you do not care but because you realise that words are easy to forgot or ignore, but your actions speak louder. Children do not listen to what their parents say but what they do, and the same is true for everyone else, act in the way you think is best and if those ways work for you other will then decide for themselves if they want to follow in your path, and your path might not be for everyone, but that do not means it is not a worthwhile example to give to others.
Especially when you do start improving, making better decisions one at a time, reacting less, feeling more and letting that energy remain in motion rather than trapping and keeping hold of it. This does not happen by magic, it happens because where you direct your energy matters, energy changes the things that can be changed by your actions. It can not change the past or future or those things that are our of your control, but anything that is in your control can be changed and you have to make that the choice and not making a choice is still a choice, just one that you are not aware of. What stoicism does is help you to become aware of what is in your control and keeps you on course, as life is a series of little decision and you need a simple compass to keep you on the path. It is up to you to keep ask is this in my control and if it is, am I bring my full energy and resource to improve my control, you have to decide each time to take full responsibility for that control, to learn how to exercise more control and if you can not do that for yourself, do it for the people you love because they deserve the best version of your even if you do not believe that you do.
I hope stoicism helps you to be a better you, because it helps me everyday and I want to share that with you as it how I am choosing to pursue a good life by helping others to grow, learn and ultimately make a better world. So thank you for reading and listening as by doing so, you are helping me to make a good life for myself, and one where I keep on asking questions.