Stoicism, in my opinion, is the most practical of all philosophies. If you are not familiar with the teachings of stoicism or the word ‘philosophy’ makes you cringe, don’t worry. Stoicism is a life-changing guide and once you've understood its principles, you will be saying to yourself, “Why didn't anyone tell me about this before?” As Thoreau put it: “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school…it is to solve some of the problems of life not only theoretically, but practically.” Stoicism focuses on the following major premises:
- How to become better versions of yourself
- How to live a fulfilling and happier life
- How unpredictable and brief our life can be
Stoicism was founded by Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early third century BC but was famously practised by the likes of Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. The philosophy heavily suggests that virtue is happiness and that our judgement should be based on behaviour, rather than words. It enlightens us that we can't control the external events, but only ourselves and the way we react to these events. It already sounds great, doesn't it? Who doesn't want to live a happier and more fulfilling life? Bill Clinton rereads Marcus Aurelius every single year, while Wen Jiabao, the former prime minister of China, claims that Meditations is one of two books he travels with and has read it more than one hundred times over the course of his life. Below are top 5 stoic principles that I live by and how I implement them in my everyday life.
1. Ethical Mindfulness
The word used by the Stoics for mindfulness was prosochē, which means paying attention. To lead a fulfilling life you must live in the moment, not dwelling on the past or daydreaming about the future. The mistakes of the past cannot be undone and the future is uncertain. Stoicism teaches us that our present moment is what really matters and that we should pay our utmost attention to the task at hand.
We have deadlines to meet, bills to pay and places to be. At the same time, we are required to wear different ‘hats' to get through the day. At work you are an employee, at home, you may be a father and a husband, and outside, you may be a friend or a volunteer of a community. Our lives are both busy and complicated, yet we manage to run it on auto-pilot. The stoic approach to mindfulness is to embody Epictetus' "role ethics"; whatever role you assume in life (businessman, cook, husband, wife, parent, son, daughter, friend, etc) you should play them at your best. Don't settle for mediocre work. In the end, how you do something is how you do everything
One technique I use every day is deep breathing as outlined in A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley, PhD. I take a deep breath in for 6 seconds, hold for 2 then exhale to 7. This purposeful effort allows the diaphragm to be activated (most shallow breaths do not), oxygenate the body adequately and reset the nervous system. Breathing is life and a source of energy. When I'm wearing a specific ‘hat' and realise that I'm not focused or performing my tasks on auto-pilot, I try to make a conscious effort to take deep breaths in and out. This seems to bring me back to the present moment with improved clarity and focus. As an added bonus, deep breathing techniques come with a handful of other benefits:
2. Self-imposed discomfort
This is an interesting one. The stoics teach us that the temporary loss of the good things in life, or the suppression of pleasure, makes us appreciate the good. The idea isn't to suffer for the sake of suffering, nor to do things that actually imperil one's health. Its intentions are to remind ourselves of all the things that we take for granted and prepare for those bad times by becoming more resilient and disciplined.
One method how I self-impose discomfort is by taking cold showers in the morning. Taking cold showers never gets easier and never really looked forward to it. But once I was done with it, I had a sense of accomplishment. From something so small, I was able to proudly tell myself that I'm both able and willing to be uncomfortable for personal growth (I find this very similar to ALWAYS making my bed first thing in the morning. It's a chaotic world out there. There are many random variables in life and by making my bed, I am able to start my day with a sense of control by consciously choosing to be disciplined and act on the things that are under my control). Now I start my morning looking forward to my cold showers because I know it makes me more resilient.
The hype of taking cold showers have been popularised by giants such as Tony Robbins and Tim Ferris and it turns out it comes with numerous health benefits as well. Dr Rhonda Patrick, founder of Found My Fitness and an all-around scientific guru posted a report on the topic called Cold Shocking the Body. It turns out that cold showers increase the release of the hormone norepinephrine to the blood which positively affects your mood, focus and clarity. Furthermore, cold showers can boost your immune system and lower inflammation in the body.
3. Learn to appreciate time as our most precious resource.
Time is the only non-renewable resource available to you. From Meditations, Marcus Aurelius tells us "Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able —be good.” Death and the transient nature of our existence are at the forefront of stoicism and their teachings. It provides a sense of urgency knowing that the number of hours ahead of you are not guaranteed as the ones you have lived. This thought humbles you and at the same time motivates you. Nobody wants to live a life of regret filled with procrastination, unfulfilled promises and forgotten adventures.
Advice such as ‘Treasure your time’ and ‘Many things aren’t equal but everyone gets the same 24 hours a day, 7 days a week’, may sound cliche, but they are true. During the time of drafting this article, I realised that today already marks the third month of 2017 (unbelievable!). Sometimes it’s scary to see how fast time passes us by.
I don’t have a personal ritual that I use to constantly remind me of my brevity. But whenever I’m in a tough situation, I remind myself that time will pass and it will do so at an alarming rate. I got this idea from ‘The Greatest Salesman In the World, by Og Mandino and ‘Obstacle Is The Way’ by Ryan Holiday. Whenever something bad happens, my first response is to objectively assess whether there’s something that I can do to alleviate the situation. If I can influence the outcome of an event, I will act on it. However, if it turns out that I do not have any control over the given circumstance (for example, my experience of losing money on UK investments due to Brexit), I simply tell me self, “this too shall pass.” I simply accept it, let it be and let it go. This way of thinking allowed me to defuse certain situations and circumstances in a much more graceful manner.
4.Reflect on what you spend the most time on
“A key point to bear in mind: The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Where your attention goes, your energy flows. Having a laser focus on your goals will bring you a step closer to extraordinary results and fulfilment in your work, career and life. Where do you want your life to be in the next 5 years? Are you ‘hoping' for a better job or a better relationship? Hoping can only get you so far. Instead, decide for yourself with laser focus intensity, what it is that you really want. Focusing on the right things will make your dreams become a reality.
I make sure that my resources are invested in the right things by keeping a journal (Here’s an article about my own set of Morning Rituals). I’m a huge fan of Evernote and here I make plans for the week, month and the year. As you can see below, I have a table of contents within Evernote which allows me to refer to my planner with ease. The constant reminder I get helps me to focus on the things that matter to me the most.
Furthermore, I keep a morning and evening 5-minute journal which is done on a daily basis. I learned this trick from Tim Ferris' most recent book "The Tools of Titans", and by doing so, I am able to closely monitor and review how I spent my time each day. (You would be interested to know that all my articles are drafted on Evernote as well! It is such a powerful tool. I strongly recommend you to consider using their services).
5. Apply Knowledge
Stoicism is not just for professors or philosophers, it is a guide to living an effective life for the common people. But just like any other knowledge, it only becomes effective when applied. To borrow the words of Jim Rohn, "if you let your learning lead to knowledge, you become a fool. If you let your learning lead to action, you become wealthy." I've been adopting various lifestyle changes as you've read so far and I'm very pleased with it. I feel more enthusiastic and happier. I have a stronger sense of control and I seem to face my obstacles better.
Related Post: 3 Steps To Overcoming Any Obstacles
If you are interested about stoicism, I would recommend Meditations and Letters from a Stoic as your further reading materials. But always remember that reading can only prepare your mind and maybe even help you avoid some mistakes; but in the end, knowledge must be applied in some way or another for you to experience an outcome. Be it a failure, a success or a lesson.