Stoic Control: the Overlooked Factor You Must Know About

Stoicism teaches that you should accept things you cannot control or change. But how exactly do you know what you can and can’t control or change? And what is the one often overlooked reason which can lead to success? In this post I’ll explore some ideas and techniques that have been helpful to me. They could be helpful to you too? If they are, please consider leaving a comment.

Control and Change

I’ve created more positive changes in the last 10 years than I can count. I’m healthier, fitter, more mindful and happy. I’ve increased my productivity and found a person who I love, and who loves me back. Reflecting back on these events I now realize there were many important factors which created them. I’ll run through these below.

While doing so it occurred to me that there was one cause that most people overlook. This is how you feel about change. For example, do you feel like taking small steps to work out what you can control and change for the better? If you don’t, then you won’t. This may sound obvious. But if you don’t have a sense of motivation and excitement then you won’t take even a small step in the right direction. If you take a break, make a mistake, miss a few days or get discouraged, then you have to feel like continuing. If you don’t feel like it, then all your hard work will come to a grinding halt

It’s easy to get stuck in a negative mood, where you don’t think you can do it and give up caring. But it is possible to feel great about the changes and want to keep going. For me, this is about attitude. And this in turn is influenced by an understand of what is or is not in your sphere of control. It’s all linked. Your mood, and your feelings about making beneficial changes is affected by your daily attitude.

Focus on the process, ignore the rest

As mentioned above, one huge factor here is your perception on what you believe you can control. I’ll explain further: there are things that are not under your direct, obvious control. A Stoic may say that you can’t control external circumstances. This is because these external circumstances are beyond your immediate sphere of control. As I understand it, Stoics would use the word ‘control’ for that which is, or seems to be, in direct volitional control. This boils down to internal mental factors like evaluation and intention. What is key is to not concern yourself with a possible outcome of a beneficial change. This is because that depends on things you can’t do anything about. Instead, concern yourself with your own efforts towards making a beneficial change. This is regardless of what outcome might be.

So, in other words, focus on the process. Ask what can you do, as opposed to what you would like the outcome to be. The outcome depends on things besides your own efforts. An example of this is the parable of the Stoic archer:

The ideal, of course, is to hit the centre of the target, though accomplishing this is not entirely in the archer’s power, for she cannot be certain how the wind will deflect the arrow from its path, nor whether her fingers will slip, nor whether (for it is within the bounds of possibility) the bow will break. The excellent archer does all within her power to shoot well, and she recognises that doing her best is the best she can do. The Stoic archer strives to shoot excellently, and will not be disappointed if she shoots well but fails to hit the centre of the target. And so it is in life generally. The non-Stoic views their success in terms of hitting the target, whereas the Stoic views their success in terms of having shot well (see Cicero, On Ends 3.22).

Once you grasp that things that happen in the world, including the way other people act, are not wholly in your power, you come into possession of a wonderful gift. Now you can engage in your affairs with serenity, a peace of mind and an empowering confidence.

Of course, all processes have periods of advancement and periods of regression. There are times, especially at the beginning, where it will seem as though you aren’t making any progress at all. At this point there is a danger of becoming discouraged and abandoning your efforts. So, try to find people who can give you support. People who help you to be strong when you mindfully notice your desire want to quit. If you can then this will make all the difference. And as with any other attempt, your persistence will be rewarded with the steady and inevitable acquisition of the benefits. One you begin to recognize the benefits and the rewards that come with it a reciprocal effect occurs. It gives encouragement and motivation to continue.

Act with Reservation

An associated technique if trying to ‘act with reservation’. As you concentrate on the process you’ll find obstacles that may prevent a successful outcome. The Stoic attempts to foresee each obstacle, and so keeps equanimity in all circumstances.

Seneca says:

The wise man sets about every action with reservation: ‘if nothing happens which might stop him’. For this reason, we say that he always succeeds and that nothing unexpected happens to him: because within himself he considers the possibility that something will get in the way and prevent what he is proposing to do.

And again:

The safest policy is rarely to tempt [Fortune], though to keep her always in mind and to trust her in nothing. Thus: ‘I shall sail unless something happens’; and ‘I shall become praetor unless something prevents me’, and ‘My business will be successful unless something interferes’. That is why we say that nothing happens to a wise man against his expectations.

Outcomes and Value Judgements

It’s like driving your car. If you drive too fast on the highway, you will topple, so you better maintain your speed. Life is similar to that, and that’s the way you have to control your head. – A. R. Rahman

The Stoics would say that an outcome is neither good nor bad. It only seems bad because you are making a value judgment to that effect. Before you even begin to think about changing the way you think or value things, it might be good to focus more on this idea. This is that it’s not the outcomes themselves that are bad, but only your judgments of them. Every time you catch yourself attributing goodness or badness to an external situation, correct yourself and attribute it instead to your judgment of the situation. Just this small shift in the attribution of the source of a thing’s value can go a long way in improving your situation.

Try to restrict your concern to what is under your own control, then you will be more effective in influencing outcomes. Focus on optimising the influences to an outcome that you can control. Don’t waste waste time or energy on the rest. By understanding and adopting this then you become less prone to disturbance. This is because your sphere of control no longer includes the whims of chance and fate. Your well-being no longer depends on how those things happen to turn out. This Stoic approach is not a pessimistic call to inaction. Rather the Stoic approach is a realistic way of improving the effectiveness of your actions while minimizing unnecessary emotional burdens.

This sphere can be further split into what is under your immediate control, in the here and now, and what isn’t. By doing this you concentrate less on long, drawn-out projects and become more mindful about the present. This doesn’t mean that you should try to plan but when you do break down long term goals into smaller parts. As Marcus Aurelius says:

‘Do not disturb yourself by picturing your life as a whole; do not assemble in your mind the many and varied troubles which have come to you in the past and will come again in the future’

The answer to this problem is to concentrate only on present actions, and on present difficulties. These then become an easier burden to bear, as they are isolated to the present moment only. And by doing this you can exert volitional control towards accomplishing each present action, one after another. By managing the small volitional actions of each moment of experience, you actually optimize the overall functioning of intention. The combined effect of many tiny, momentary volitional acts can be quite considerable.

Think of it like tying a small stone to an object floating in the ocean. The small stone is your intention and the waves of the ocean are everything beyond your control. The action of the stone is to make the object sink. Sometimes an ocean wave will come that tends to lift the object upwards. That’s no concern to the stone. As long as the stone is doing its job, moment-by-moment, of exerting a small but constant downward pull on the object, it is doing everything it can and it will eventually win out.

To Conclude

In the end, none of this is easy. But by shining a light on these ideas, you can examine  your feelings. You can take them from an overlooked area that may be holding you back, to something you can explore with curiosity and wonder.

Have I missed an important point? Something else to add? Please leave a comment below:

Photo credit: Pensiero via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND


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