Stoicism is renowned to be the most practical of all philosophies. If you are not familiar with the teachings of stoicism and the word "philosophy" makes you cringe, don’t worry! Stoicism is not one of those eerie fairy-tales or rituals but a life-changing guide! A practical guide to help you live a life of virtue. 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:
- How to become a better version 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 and was practised by the likes of Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. 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 (Tim Ferriss is also a huge fan of stoicism! I recommend reading his materials: Stoicism 101: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs) Below are my 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. Living in the present moment is a practical way of living a life of effectiveness. Your current life situation is a net product of your past thoughts and decisions; your actions today are responsible for your future. Stoicism teaches that there is no use in dwelling in the past or daydreaming about the future. What's most important is now and you should pay attention to the task at hand.
We have deadlines to meet, bills to pay and places to be. 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 you may be a friend or a volunteer of a community. Our lives are 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. 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.
- 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. Whenever I catch myself unfocused and running on auto-pilot, I try to make a conscious effort to take deep breaths in and out. A conscious breath is synonymous to life and the act of breathing is to give life to the present moment. By breathing into the moment I become more present with improved clarity and focus. Energy flows where attention goes! As added bonus, deep breathing techniques come the following benefits:
- Make you calmer
- Relieve pain
- Increase heart capacity
- Strengthen organs
- Improve digestion
- Improved energy levels
- Detoxify body
- Improve posture
- Stimulate lymphatic system
- Regulate weight
- Make you happier!
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 become more appreciative for the good. The idea isn't to suffer for the sake of suffering nor is it to do things that endanger us. It is to remind ourselves of all the things we take for granted; to become more aware of all the small/big miracles that we fail to acknowledge in our everyday lives.
The stoics would practise this by purposefully imposing discomfort on themselves. Purposefully denying access to luxury and comfort. This boosts gratitude, you become more resilient and develop further self-discipline.
One method how I self-impose discomfort is by taking cold showers in the morning. I HATE taking cold shower. It never gets easier and I never look forward to it. But once I am done with it, I have an immediate sense of accomplishment. From something so trivial, I am able to tell myself that I'm both able and willing to be uncomfortable for personal growth (I find this very similar to making my bed first thing in the morning. It's a chaotic world and there are too many random variables in life that I don't have any control of. By making my bed, I am able to start my day with a sense of control, consciously choosing to be disciplined and act on the things that are under my control).
The hype of taking cold showers have been popularised by giants such as Tony Robbins and Tim Ferris and it turns out that cold showers come 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. The report shares that: cold showers increase the release of the hormone norepinephrine to the blood which positively affects mood, focus and clarity. Furthermore, cold showers can boost 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. There is a sense of urgency in knowing that the hours ahead of us are numbered. The future is not guaranteed as the past we've already lived. This truth humbles and at the same time motivates me. Nobody wants to live a life of regret filled with procrastination, unfulfilled promises and forgotten adventures.
Quotes 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! (and here am I on 2018 Feb updating this article). Sometimes it is frightening to see how fast time passes by.
I don’t have a personal ritual to constantly remind me of my brevity on Earth, but whenever I’m in a tough situation, I remind myself that this will too pass. In the grand scheme of the cosmos and the Universe, my time here and the problems that I face is so minuscule that it doesn't really matter. My problems have been already dealt with by many others. My problems are not unique and my time is limited, so let's accept it and deal with it.
Whenever something bad happens, my first response is to objectively assess whether there’s something I can do to alleviate the situation. If I can influence the outcome of an event, I will act on it. If I do not have any influencing power to a situation I will simply tell myself, "this too shall pass". I simply accept it, let it be and let it go. This way of thinking allowes me to defuse negative situations and circumstances in a much more graceful manner than before.
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 Ferriss' 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 remember, reading can only prepare your mind. It may help you avoid some mistakes but in the end, knowledge must be applied in order for you to experience an outcome.