This quote has become my mantra. It is one of the keystones of the philosophical school known as Stoicism, which is regaining popularity in recent years. Here is a brief history of Stoicism and the three pillars of the philosophy.
A short history…..
The foundation of stoicism can be traced to Zeno of Citium around 300 B.C. in Greece. In his teachings, Zeno emphasized that goodness and peace of mind can be obtained by living a life of moral excellence in accordance with nature. We do not control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses to external events. We only have control over two things; our thoughts, which takes daily work to gain that control, and our actions. Everything else is uncontrollable. Stoicism doesn’t concern itself with complicated theories about the world, but with helping us overcome destructive emotions and act on what can be acted upon.
The three best-known figures of Stoicism are Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. The most interesting for me is Marcus Aurelius who while he was writing “Meditations” which was his daily journal, he was the emperor of Rome and the most powerful person in the world at that time. Stoicism has been studied and practiced by many historical figures in history such as Frederick the Great, Montaigne, as well some of the United States’ founding fathers. George Washington was introduced to Stoicism by his neighbors at age seventeen, and afterward, put on a play about Cato The Elder to inspire his men in that dark winter at Valley Forge. Thomas Jefferson had a copy of Seneca on his nightstand the night he died.
Three Pillars of Stoicism
Confront your fears head on. The obstacle is the way. Say for example you have a fear of losing money or you worry about money all the time. A Stoic method to confront this fear would be to practice poverty. Seneca, who enjoyed great wealth as the advisor of Nero, would have suggested that you ought to set aside a certain number of days every couple of months to practice poverty. Eat little food, wear your worst clothes, and get away from the comfort of your home and bed. Put yourself face to face with want. You will then say “Is this what I used to dread?” Speaking from personal experience back in 2008 like many people I lost everything. Now when I worry about certain financial obligations, I remember that all material possessions were once lost and I survived and I will again if that should happen again.
The second is to train your perceptions to avoid labeling things as either right or wrong. This isn’t moral ambiguity, but that you can always find a silver lining in any cloud. Or as Marcus Aurelius said “Choose not to be harmed, and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel hurt and you haven’t been.” It is similar to the Buddhist concept of Emptiness. Which is that things, objects, and events that occur around you don’t have any inherent meaning. We project meaning on to them.
The third key element is to embrace the fact that everything Is impermanent. Nothing lasts, and none of us will get out of here alive. We are all equal in the end. Again I return to Marcus Aurelius for guidance in understanding this, “Alexander the Great, and his mule driver both died, and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.” This principle also emphases humility and grace. If you want to ground yourself ponder this. Most of us after about two generations won’t even be a memory. If you find yourselves getting too upset about anything, think of this and let it go.
As you begin absorbing the lessons of Stoicism and creating the habits to implement them in your life, you will discover that it will nourish you mentally during the grueling days. For our lives are formed by our thoughts. I am where I am today because of the thoughts I had yesterday. Our thoughts become our actions. Our actions become who we are. Therefore, change your thoughts, change your life.