It is said that the human being is a creature of habit. The word “habit” is derived from a root word meaning what one wears.
So, one can imagine that as one carries out the daily practices of meditation, physical exercise and reflection, one builds a protective garb around oneself. This comes in handy when dealing with real life problems.
The stoics advocated the practice of thinking about all the ways things can go wrong. In mentally thinking of all the ways things can go wrong, one can prepare oneself mentally for worst case scenarios. One can even mentally prepare some measures to address such scenarios.
Similarly, exercising one’s body and eating healthy foods on a daily basis also prepares one to face any potential issues later in life.
One of the sure ways to know when I’m about to make mistakes is when I suddenly feel super-clever and feel like I can do anything. In most cases after such a feeling comes, I end up doing something I regret.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is the cognitive bias which makes one overestimate one’s own cognitive abilities. One needs to keep this in mind and watch for such occurrences. It could save one much embarrassment later.
Watching for one’s own ego (as it usually ends up harming oneself) should be one of the practices and routines one follows regularly as recommended by stoics such as Seneca.
Human beings on this planet are only one of the several species living on the planet. Also, planet Earth is a tiny speck in a large solar system, which resides in a huge galaxy, which is in turn part of a cluster of galaxies. All these clusters of galaxies form part of the observable universe.
Given this reality, it seems like a lot of hubris to imagine that our individual plans or ideas have a total certainty of working out. There are always a myriad of factors, many of which are out of our control, which interact with any of one’s pet projects or dreams.
A relevant poem:
The Indispensable Man
(by Saxon White Kessinger)
Sometime when you’re feeling important;
Sometime when your ego ‘s in bloom;
Sometime when you take it for granted,
You’re the best qualified in the room:
Sometime when you feel that your going,
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions,
And see how they humble your soul.
Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining,
Is a measure of how much you’ll be missed.
You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop, and you’ll find that in no time,
It looks quite the same as before.
The moral of this quaint example,
Is to do just the best that you can,
Be proud of yourself but remember,
There’s no indispensable man.
Keeping this reality in mind, the ancient Roman philosopher, Seneca, advises us to remain in the present moment and to live our lives to the fullest:
“So it is: the life we are given isn’t short but we make it so; we’re not ill provided but we are wasteful of life. Just as impressive and princely wealth is squandered in an instant when it passes into the hands of a poor manager, but wealth however modest grows through careful deployment if it is entrusted to a responsible guardian, just so our lifetime offers ample scope to the person who maps it out well.”
Philosophy oftentimes can become very abstract and otherworldly. This makes it out of reach for many people who would otherwise find it very useful.
The stream of what appears to be noise coming from ivory towers are not something very appealing to most people.
However, an ancient philosophy which is both practical and approachable is the one espoused by Epictetus who said:
Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it
Epictetus was an advocate of stoicism which is a simple, practical philosophy of personal ethics.
Marcus Aurelius and Seneca were two other famous ancient Roman stoics.
The writing of these philosophers is very reachable to everyone. The philosophy is also timeless because, as humans, we could always make use of such a well developed and robust system of personal ethics.
It is said in the Bhagavad Gita (chapter 2, verse 47):
yoga-sthah kuru karmani
sangam tyaktva dhananjaya
siddhy-asiddhyoh samo bhutva
samatvam yoga ucyate
A rough translation for this is:
Be steadfast in yoga, O Arjuna. Perform your duty without any attachment. Maintain an even mind in the face of success or failure. Such evenness of mind is called yoga.
Here, Krishna is instructing his student, Arjuna, to perform his duty while maintaining an even keel in the face of both success or failure.
Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations (chapter 6), says:
When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it.
The practice of equanimity could also be thought of as a practice of not spending one’s energy and time unnecessarily in being ecstatic upon success and morose upon failure, both of which are ephemeral in the long run.
For some, maintaining equanimity in the face of both joy and sorrow may seem like it is a form of unnecessary “repression”. Any form of discipline undoubtedly has a component of undergoing temporary discomfort for long term gain. Such discipline can not only be physical but also mental.
For example, in order to lose weight and gain physical health, one must repress one’s urges to eat twenty cakes a day. Similarly in order to train one’s mind to gain mental health and avoid the trappings of modern day “psychologists”, one must repress the urge to react at the drop of a pin.
A stoic response to fear and worry would be that it is not very fruitful. Seneca implores us in his letter to his friend, Lucillus, to value time above all else, as it is the most precious and non-renewable resource we have:
What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years be behind us are in death’s hands.
Therefore, Lucilius, do as you write me that you are doing: hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s.
Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations, states:
Though thou shouldst be going to live three thousand years, and as many times ten thousand years, still remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives, nor lives any other than thiswhich he now loses. The longest and shortest are thus brought to the same. For the present is the same to all, though that which perishes is not the same; and so that which is lost appears to be a mere moment. For a man cannot lose either the past or the future: for what a man has not, how can any one take this from him? These two things then thou must bear inmind; the one, that all things from eternity are of like forms and come round in a circle, and that it makes no difference whether a man shall see the same things during a hundred years or two hundred, or an infinite time; and the second, that the longest liver and he who will die soonest lose just the same. For the present is the only thing of which a man can be deprived, if it is true that this is the only thing which he has, and that a man cannot lose a thing if he has it not.
This phrase especially bears repeating as it is very poignant and real:
For the present is the only thing of which a man can be deprived, if it is true that this is the only thing which he has, and that a man cannot lose a thing if he has it not.
I find the philosophy of stoicism very useful and good for several aspects of life.
It’s precepts are a very good guide to life’s ups and downs.
It has helped many people overcome major crises or just face their world’s day to day happenings.
Seneca (bust pictured above), the Roman lawyer and stoic philosopher, faced his forced suicide with calm. He was one of the wealthiest people of his time. In spite of this, as part of his daily practice, he would imagine the worst possible scenario where he lost his health, family, wealth, and everything else and how he would accept such a scenario with peace.
George Washington was significantly influenced by Cato and other stoics. He overcame several apparently insurmountable problems with his own health among a host of other issues to become the father of the nation.
The Holocaust survivor and neurologist, Dr. Viktor Frankl, developed his theory of logotherapy while living in the concentration camps. Logotherapy is said to have influences from stoic philosophy. His story is a truly inspiring one. This interview with him is quite interesting.
The ideas behind the philosophy of stoicism are very interesting as they have a lot of overlaps with the practices of many Eastern systems such as Buddhism.
Stoicism is essentially a system of personal ethics.
One of it’s interesting teachings consists in not worrying about other things or people as these are not under our control. Instead, it is suggested that, since the only entity which can be changed is oneself, one should focus on improving oneself and making oneself more stoic and resilient.