As I worked through each day in Stoic Week 2015 I jotted down some thoughts. These were a quick and dirty stream of consciousness, my ideas and musings. The themes of each day unfolded, and I wrote. I found this exercise to be helpful in clarifying the suggested daily exercises. Reading these back, you could view these ponderings as almost a conversation with myself.
Minimal commentary, little cross-blog chatter, the barest whiff of a finished published work. These are almost pure editing…really just a way to quickly publish the “stuff” that popped into my brain as the week progressed.
Perhaps you’ll find them useful too?
Monday: Life as a project
Thinking about your life as a project means being able to accept failure. It also means accepting the discomfort of uncertainty too. But these shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction; they can be overcome. Over time I have learned to deal with them and so can other people. You have to decide what is important enough to focus on. Then find the motivation to achieve small, regular actions which allow you to achieve this purpose.
These small actions are important.
Often change can be overwhelming. Ask what small step can you take today that will move you in the right direction? These actions should be so easy that it’s almost impossible to fail.
Of course, this begs the question: what is your purpose? Use the “end of life” exercise to define this. If you were lying on your deathbed, reflecting back on your life what would you say that you’ve done which has provided meaning?
Another activity to turn into a habit is blocking out time at the start and end of the day for reflection. During this period think about what’s important, the things which will make positive changes happen.
When you believe that a person has said something which is unfair or mean then it’s really not about you, rather it’s about them. Perhaps they are confused, or scared, or have other desires or expectations. That’s up to them and not you.
The urges you get to deviate away from your purpose are normal. Perhaps you want to eat junk food, watch too much TV, not exercise or spend more time at work? Whatever it is then this is a physical sensation that will pass. This isn’t the be all and end all in life, rather it’s trivial. Be aware of these urges, and deal with them in a way that puts them into context. The small daily actions leading to a bigger goal are what’s important. But be mindful that sometimes our brains sabotage our progress.
So, what matters is deciding on your bigger purpose. Once you do, you learn that your life has direction and meaning. And remember: Being the best person you can be isn’t the same as being the best.
Don’t think that you’re in control of the future. If you think this then you’re wrong. Often we think that we have more control than we have. Life tends to turn out in a way which we haven’t planned. We set goals and then activities linked to the achievement of these goals. We then get frustrated when we don’t meet them, because an unexpected and unpredictable event gets in the way.
Acknowledge the fact that we don’t know much about the future, much less control it. Accept that the world is messy and complex.
Things which we think we can control, but can’t include:
- Our children: the choices they make as they turn into adults
- Our friends: they’re complex human beings with many unconscious or unsaid motivations and expectations.
- Our projects and goals: Obsessive planning doesn’t manipulate the world.
Embrace uncertainty and let go of the need for predictability. Deal with whatever life brings you and go with the flow. Things happen, accept them. Have faith in leading a life which is aligned with your values as opposed to wishing for a certain outcome or a certain goal.
If you can’t accept this way of living then that’s okay. But realise that you’re living with an illusion of control and it may be this that is making you feel discontented?
Do you feel like life is passing you by? Are you moving through the day waiting for things to happen to you? Its takes a while but as you age you realise that today is actually the most important day. Tomorrow may never arrive; there may be nothing better or more than today.
So how do you make the most of today? By being present, by being mindful. This is about being conscious of life as it unfolds around you. This will allow you to enjoy life more just by concentrating on one task at a time. By being mindful it is perhaps the best way to enjoy life to the fullest.
Taste your food more, listen to your friends and family more, savour your wine, anything that provides enjoyment … you’ll enjoy it more. Activities that you dislike such as housework, ironing, cleaning, sweeping, become more enjoyable. Even things you might think are dull and boring can be more interesting if you are present.
As the day progresses, build in small moments of stillness. Stop – come back to the present. Use mediation to help with this, to learn to be aware of the noise, the constant chatter of thoughts. Practice and repeat, in small easy steps. Savour each step. It helps you to find calm in the chaos of life’s traffic.
Virtue doesn’t have to be complex, after all:
The four cardinal virtues of the Stoic philosophy is a classification derived from the teachings of Plato:
Virtue is enough for happiness. Unhappiness and evil are the results of human ignorance of the reason in nature, see Sunday below. We spend a lot of our lives reacting to others or events. If someone is unkind, it is because they are unaware of their own universal reason, which leads to the conclusion of kindness. The solution to evil and unhappiness then, is the practice of Stoic philosophy. Examine your own judgment and behaviour and determine where they diverge from the universal reason of nature.
Our reactions tend not to always be the best course of action. As a result, they can make others unhappy, make things worse for us, make the situation worse. Reacting without thinking, without reason may be based on fear or insecurity? Its best then to respond, not react. When faced with frustrations, project yourself into the future and ask yourself how much the future version of you will care about what is causing the frustration. The majority of the time we stress over trivialities. Responding is observing the situation then deciding the next step using reason, compassion and cooperation.
It’s a choice we have to make. It’s not an easy choice but it’s one we have to decide upon continuously. There will never be a time where an external event won’t have the capacity to disturb us. So, be mindful and pause. Watch ourselves and pay close attention to how our minds react: breathe, use this few seconds allow the reaction to dissipate then calmly respond.
Who are the people you love to spend time with? How do you show this, for example do you spend time alone together and appreciate this? Do you listen, give and share? Sometimes you get irritated by the people you love. Mindfulness helps to put small niggles into context. Be aware of the things which could escalate if you don’t accept people for who they are, including the faults they have. Remember that nobody is perfect.
A stimulus never forces a behaviour. All stimuli are invitations to act in a particular way. It’s up to you to choose how you respond.
Some of this comes down to having realistic expectations. I’ve written about the should /could distinction before. Of course, having some expectations is okay but when you feel irritations creeping up ask, do I want to feel this way? Do I want to be doing what I am doing? If the answer is not particularly, then this may be an opportunity to lower your expectations.
If you have a concern with relationships look at the causes in this order:
- Is it you that is triggering the problem?
- What are the circumstances behind the situation?
- What is it that other people are doing or are not doing?
By focusing on a problem in this way you can take responsibility to do things differently so you get a more desirable outcome. This is instead of asking, what should others be doing?
Good communication, being honest without being attacking or blaming, should be at the heart of a good relationship. Desire win-win solutions, compromises, rather than an all or nothing demand for the other person to change. And finally, show gratitude and appreciation. Say thanks, and say it often.
Pain and hardship are facts of life. The more resilient you are better you can bounce back and move through difficulties. There is a path through pain to wisdom, through suffering to strength, and through fear to courage if we have the virtue of resilience.
There are several factors which develop and sustain your resilience:
- The ability to make realistic plans and being capable of taking the steps necessary to follow through with them
- A positive self-concept and confidence in one’s strengths and abilities
- Communication and problem-solving skills
- The ability to manage strong impulses and feelings
These factors are not inherited; you can develop them.
Perhaps the first step is learning to let go? To be able to forgive, so we can move on and be happy. I don’t think that this is about trying to forget your past. It doesn’t mean trying to change how others behave too (this is outside of your control). What it does mean is realising that you have a choice. You can choose to control your thoughts.
You can stop reliving the past and more on. After all, guilt serves no purpose; abandon it. Did you do something you regret? Say sorry and try to make amends. If the other person doesn’t want to accept your apology then that’s their problem and not yours.
But to do this you have to realise that this is your responsibility. You, and you alone, have to accept that the past is over. It only exists in your own mind. Acknowledge that from time to time you will think about the past and then bring your focus back to the present moment. What joy can you find in what is happening right now? Find the joy in life now, as it happens, and stop reliving what you can’t alter.
The ultimate Stoic goal is to achieve a state of mental tranquility via the achievement of virtue. Virtue means living in accordance with nature. Nature is rational and organized based on ascertainable laws. To the Stoics Nature is God, (a pantheistic philosophy) and the reason that governs nature is the way that God takes action. They believed that God is the universe. They thought that God is nature and the reason that governs everything:
The universe itself is god and the universal outpouring of its soul; it is this same world’s guiding principle, operating in mind and reason, together with the common nature of things and the totality that embraces all existence – Chrysippus
Humans are distinguishable from the other parts of nature due to our ability to reason and think. This is our unique characteristic. We live according to nature when we act consistent with this unique aspect of our being: when we do what reason directs. So we can think of ourselves as small parts of the reason that governs all things. By using that reason to understand things the way they are, we are living in harmony with nature.
- knowing what you are (a part of nature),
- what is and is not in your control,
- not allowing yourself to be disturbed by, desire or controlled by things not in your control
- respecting and honoring nature (God) and nature’s creatures, including other humans.
Refer to Thursday above for the virtues to exhibit when you live according to nature. At this point I believe that Stoic reason means more that logic. It means acting in a way which is consistent with nature as a whole and our place in the world. Knowing what is in and out of our control is wisdom, resulting in us being courageous (not controlled by things outside our control or those controlling them) and temperament (we don’t excessively desire or value things outside our control).
Yet, I do think that humans are capable of being ethical and moral without religion or a God. Humans are not either inherently evil or innately good, nor are humans superior to nature.
What did you learn from Stoic Week? Leave your thoughts and comments below:
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