Episode 5 of the energy series
Stoicism is my favourite discovery of the past few years and I have loved incorporating elements of this "practical" philosophy into my workshops and 1:1 coaching practice. I share this post with you as this philosophy has honestly re-energised my outlook on life and my hope is that it will do the same for others. It is a more quote loaded post than previous blogposts as stoicism by nature provides us with lessons that I would not wish to rephrase and risk altering any meaning.
A joyless reputation
Many of us are already familiar with the word stoicism and may have some idea of what it means. Here is a definition from the Cambridge dictionary:
the quality of experiencing pain or trouble without complaining or showing your emotions
The flaw with this and other definitions like it is that they are so narrow in their focus that they have unfortunately saddled stoicism with a rather gloomy image, with stoics being regarded as emotionless. This ancient philosophy is so much more than the impression given by such limiting interpretations and in recent years, stoicism has had a bit of a rebirth as writers put a modern spin on its core lessons to bring to a wider audience a message which was as relevant then, the days of the Roman Empire, as it is today.
Let go of what you can't control
The stoics did not let the actions of others impact them. They didn't expect things to go a certain way and their happiness was not dictated by a set of desired outcomes. This is the first of the stoic premises and a core energy giver. We waste so much energy worrying about things that we just can't control.
"Just keep in mind the more we value the things outside of our control the less control we have" Epictetus
Pause on that for minute and consider what YOU can control, what you can REALLY control: not the weather, not the moods of others, not the traffic, not the leaking pipe, or the price of fuel. We can mitigate certain outcomes - preventing getting wet by wearing a coat for example.
But all that we are really in complete control over is our thoughts, how we choose to react to a situation and how much energy we choose to expend in resolving it.
Let's be clear. We can certainly influence situations and if our energy levels are high we can be in the best frame of mind to work through a situation but we can't expect to be able to control the outcome 100% - and holding onto this expectation only leads to possible disappointment.
Strength from hardship
I love this take on recovering from situations and it has rescued me from the pits of doom on so many occasions
"Amor Fati" credited to the stoics but explicitly written by Nietzsche
Instead of why is this happening to me I can now look at how much strength I am gaining / have gained from situations - from child hood struggles, bringing up a child with additional needs, managing the general chaos of life - I am so much stronger and more empowered when I think what I have gained from it all rather than focusing on how hard it all is. Reflection is required here. Looking back after the situation has happened (in some cases for me many years after) and really thinking about how you have grown, what you have learnt, what positives you may have experienced. We are predisposed to focus on the negatives and when in the moment this is a natural instinctive reaction - so take the time after the initial shock or experience to reframe it. Giving memories a balanced review is hugely beneficial for our mental health.
"We can do hard things" Glennon Doyle
Don't expect it to go according to plan. Why me?
This is another huge lesson for me. I relate it here to my children as having children naturally took over my own self in terms of priority, I suppose, but it applies equally to any situations we as individuals might be faced with. Having children comes with the societal weight of hoping your children will follow a certain path, excel at school, find their passion, all the while being kind, considerate, etc etc. When you are thrown a curve ball, in whatever form, suddenly that path disappears. For years I struggled with coming to terms with how different my daughter's path might be until I discovered stoicism and then started asking the question "different to what?" Who defines the path we are supposed to take and who is to say there is a perfect path? There can be joy and thriving in so many directions. The twists and turns bring difficulties but have also challenged me and my family in so many positive ways. The abandoning of the blue print has led me to try to adopt this open mindedness for our whole family and I am so much calmer in dealing with changes to "the plan" now for all of us.
I wouldn't compare my life to others and would never undermine the difficulties that people experience within their own lives and with their children - difficulties possibly so much greater than my own. But for me, my change in perspective allowed me to reframe the uncertainty that lies ahead and it has actually freed my family (in the most part) from the pressures of a self imposed perfect vision.
Journal like a stoic
The stoics loved a journal - reflecting on their day, on areas for improvement, on lessons learned.
‘We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.’” John Dewey
The human pre-disposition to focus on the negative was born from a survival mechanism but is really more of a hindrance in our life today. Through journaling we can reflect, show gratitude, and generally collect and reframe our thoughts. The benefits of journaling are endless: better sleep, better communication skills, increased positivity, improved calm. It doesn't have to be written with a view to published. It just has to serve to allow you to collect and process your thoughts. I throw my journals away when I come to the end of the notebook as they have served their purpose after each entry. (Look out for another short future blog post on journaling)
Where stoicism and CBT meet
Cognitive behavioural therapy (a therapy that changes the way you think and behave and founded in the 1960s by Aaron beck) has strong links with stoicism. Shifting mindsets can be fundamental to shifting our energies. From the many daily encounters we may have with people to managing our daily task list, how we react to the people and situations we face defines our energy levels. A daily reminder of these quotes might serve you well:
“Any person capable of angering you becomes your master; he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him.” Epictetus
“Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will—then your life will flow well.” - Epictetus
The concept of fate
As discussed, this is one of the main premises behind stoicism - everything happens for a reason. But this idea doesn't always sit well in the modern world. Perhaps a more acceptable definition might be:
“To live according to cosmic nature, in modern terms, just means to accept the world for what it is, as distinct from what we would like it to be.” Pigluicci
But whilst the stoics believed everything is predetermined they also believed that there are many possible outcomes depending on the choices we make so there could be many paths that we follow. There are links here to other religions in that there is an element of free will dependent on how we live our lives. So the original concept doesn't need to be as hard to swallow as it might seem at face value.
Conditional happiness and the "I will be happy when" syndrome
I write this post at the start of a new year when goal setting is at its peak - the promise of a "new you", new habits etc. I actually love this time. I love an opportunity to embrace change, to redirect my energies, but not to the extent that the outcome will determine my "happiness" - I do it simply to shake things up a bit in my life. It is so detrimental to our wellbeing - our positive energy - to attach a state of happiness to an action that we must fulfil. I think this quote captures it perfectly:
"Happiness is simply the absence of desire... Happiness is not about the achievement of pleasure (which is joy or satisfaction), but about the lack of desire. It arrives when you have no urge to feel differently. Happiness is the state you enter when you no longer want to change your state." From Atomic Habits by James Clear
I recently read a wonderful book, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, whose message that life's alternative path (or sliding doors) isn't necessarily the rosy alternative, brings so many parallels with stoicism. I will leave you with a final thought in the form of a quote from the book
It is quite a revelation to discover that the place you wanted to escape to is the exact same place you escaped from. That the prison wasn't the place, but the perspective.
Blogposts in the energy series
Blog posts in the alcohol series
Suggested external reading
Ryan Holiday translates the stoic messages brilliantly into the modern vibe. He has published many best sellers including:
The Daily Stoic
The Obstacle is the way