A Stoic Guide to Reducing Suffering in Your Life

a-stoic-guide-to-reducing-suffering-in-your-lifeImagine that there’s an object that’s been irritating you and causing suffering in your life. It causes you to be unhappy, to be stressed, to procrastinate, to be distracted. It generates anger, dissatisfaction and much more. Sounds awful, right?

Now imagine there were techniques that could counteract this suffering. This is where the ethics and virtues of Stoicism can help.

Read on to find out more ….

Suffering, ethics and virtues

We don’t always think of ourselves as suffering, if we’re leading normal lives. But in fact, we’re suffering more often than we usually realize, just not necessarily suffering greatly. We suffer in small ways, and that affects our happiness, the happiness of those around us, and our actions and habits throughout the day. Stoicism can help with this, although often the ancient Stoics are often misunderstood. The terms they used pertained to different concepts in the past than they do today. The word “stoic” has come to mean “unemotional” or indifferent to pain. This is because Stoic ethics taught freedom from “passion” by following “reason”. Yet the Stoics did not seek to extinguish emotions. Rather, they sought to transform them by a resolute “askēsis“. This enables a person to develop clear judgment and inner calm. Logic, reflection, and concentration were the methods of such self-discipline.

Borrowing from the Cynics, the foundation of Stoic ethics is that good lies in the state of the soul itself. This is in wisdom and self-control. Stoic ethics stressed the rule:

One must thus strive to be free of the passions. But bear in mind that the ancient meaning of “passion” was “anguish” or “suffering”. In other words, passively reacting to external events, which is somewhat different from the modern use of the word. Stoics made a distinction between pathos (plural pathe). A translation of this is:

passion, propathos or instinctive reaction. An example of this is turning pale and trembling when confronted by physical danger.

Also:

eupathos, which is the mark of the Stoic sage (sophos).

The eupatheia are feelings that result from correct judgment in the same way as passions result from incorrect judgment.

The idea was to be free of suffering through apatheia (Greek: ἀπάθεια) or peace of mind (literally, “without passion”). This entailed being objective or having “clear judgment”. It also incorporated the maintenance of equanimity in the face of life’s highs and lows.

For the Stoics, reason meant not only using logic, but also understanding the processes of nature. This they termed the logos, or universal reason, inherent in all things. Living according to reason and virtue, they held, is to live in harmony with the divine order of the universe. By doing so it recognises the common reason and essential value of all people.

The four cardinal virtues of the Stoic philosophy is a classification derived from the teachings of Plato. These were:

  1. wisdom (Sophia)
  2. courage (Andreia)
  3. justice (Dikaiosyne)
  4. temperance (Sophrosyne).

Following Socrates, the Stoics held that unhappiness and evil are the results of human ignorance of the reason in nature. 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. This is to examine one’s own judgments and behaviour. By doing this you can determine where they diverge from the universal reason of nature.

Suffering and the doctrine of “things indifferent”

In philosophical terms, things that are indifferent are outside the application of moral law. This means that they are without tendency to either promote or obstruct moral ends. Morally indifferent actions are those that do not affect morality. The doctrine of things indifferent (ἀδιάφορα, adiaphora) arose in the Stoic school. It was a corollary of its diametric opposition of virtue and vice (καθήκοντα kathekon and ἁμαρτήματα hamartemata, “convenient actions”and “mistakes”). As a result of this dichotomy, this left large numbers of objects unassigned. They then went onto be regarded as indifferent.

Three sub-classes of “things indifferent” developed:

  1. things to prefer because they assist life according to nature;
  2. things to avoid because they hinder it; and
  3. things indifferent in the narrower sense.

The principle of adiaphora was also common to the Cynics and Sceptics. Philipp Melanchthon revived the doctrine of things indifferent during the Renaissance.

Suffering and spiritual exercises

Philosophy for a Stoic is not just a set of beliefs or ethical claims. It is a way of life involving constant practice and training (or askesis). Stoic philosophical and spiritual practices included:

  • logic,
  • Socratic dialogue and self-dialogue,
  • contemplation of death,
  • training attention to remain in the present moment (like some forms of Eastern meditation), and
  • daily reflection on everyday problems and possible solutions.

Philosophy for a Stoic is an active process of constant practice and self-reminder. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius defines several such practices. For example, in Book II.I:

Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of the ignorance of real good and ill… I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together…

To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering - Friedrich Nietzsche

To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering – Friedrich Nietzsche

These exercises help to remind us of the adverse nature of suffering and the power of compassion:

  • We spend most of our lives in a state of distraction. We are unmindful of the present moment, which is a form of suffering. If we weren’t suffering we could stay in the present much of the time and appreciate the moment as it happens. Instead, we’re thinking about the future because we’re worried about it. We’re obsessed with the past mistakes we’ve made. Self-compassion can ease these worries and instead practice mindfulness with each moment more often.
  • Throughout the day, things come up to stress you out. This is suffering, even if it’s usually at a low level (though sometimes it can get to high levels). The salve of self-compassion would reduce this suffering. It would allow you to deal with these situations more calmly and increase your happiness level throughout the day.
  • Little frustrations happen all the time and this is also suffering. Self-compassion can help you calm down from the frustrations, and handle these situations. You’d be less angry when you responded, which is likely to result in better outcomes.
  • Anger with others means you’re suffering. This can result not only in unhappiness, but in actions that hurt your relationship with others. Instead, apply self-compassion, and you can calm down. Then you can respond appropriately, even with compassion for the other person, who is also suffering. A distinctive feature of Stoicism is its cosmopolitanism. This believe that all people are manifestations of the one universal spirit. So, according to the Stoics, people should respect, care and help one another. In the Discourses, Epictetus comments on man’s relationship with the world:

Each human being is primarily a citizen of his own commonwealth; but he is also a member of the great city of gods and men, whereof the city political is only a copy.

This sentiment echoes that of Diogenes of Sinope, who said:

I am not an Athenian or a Corinthian, but a citizen of the world.

    • They held that differences like rank and wealth are not important in social relationships. Instead they advocated the brotherhood of humanity and the natural equality of all humans. Stoicism became the most influential school of the Greco-Roman world. It also produced many remarkable writers and personalities, such as Cato the Younger and Epictetus. In particular, they were noted for their urging of clemency toward slaves. Seneca exhorted:

Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.

  • There are a lots of reasons we feel bad about ourselves. This too is suffering, and it causes us to take harmful actions. Self-compassion eases this pain, and leads not only to more helpful actions but happiness. This is where Stoic Mindfulness (Prosochê) can help:

Throughout the day, continually pay attention to the way you make value-judgements and respond to your thoughts. Be mindful, in particular of the way you respond to strong emotions or desires. When you experience a distressing or problematic thought, pause, and tell yourself: “This is just a thought and not at all the thing it claims to represent.” Remind yourself that it is not things that upset you but your judgements about things. Where appropriate, rather than being carried away by your initial impressions, try to postpone responding to them for at least an hour, waiting until your feelings have settled down and you are able to view things more calmly and objectively before deciding what action to take.

  • There’s often a feeling throughout our days that we need to rush to the next thing. Walking, we go quickly. Working, we switch from one task to the next. This feeling of constant urgency is itself a source of stress. Self-compassion can ease this as well, and allow us to slow down, enjoy the moment, be happier in each moment.
  • We live distracted lives, wasting huge parts of our day. Distraction is a symptom of suffering. We go to distraction because of fear (we’re afraid of harder tasks, of missing out, of failing) and we think distraction is comforting. In turn, distraction tends to increase suffering. We feel bad about ourselves, we procrastinate on important things and make our jobs and lives worse. Self-compassion helps us see this suffering, ease it, and reduce the tendency to distraction.
  • We all procrastinate and like distraction, it is a symptom of suffering, of fear and thinking we can’t do something. Self-compassion can help with that suffering and reduce procrastination. It increases our creative output, helping us to take care of finances and work tasks.
  • We spend much of our lives in silent complaint, or sometimes not so silent. We are so unhappy with little things in our lives, which is a form of suffering. These complaints mean we’re missing out on what’s great about our lives. Self-compassion helps us to deal with the pain of these complaints. Instead turn to the amazing things we can be grateful for, which increases our happiness with life around us.

You can use most of these practices anywhere, any time. At work, at home, on the road, while traveling, while at a store, while at the home of a friend or family member. By getting into the habit of morning and evening rituals, you can frame your day in a virtuous attitude. And with practice, you can begin to do it throughout the day, and throughout your lifetime.

This, above all, with bring happiness to your life and to those around you.

How has Stoicism helped you? Leave a comment below:


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