Stoicism for Anxiety and Modern Living: Goals, Challenges and Tranquility
What is Stoicism?
Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy, founded in Athens by Zen of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. The Stoics taught that destructive emotions came from an internal state of mind rather than external factors. The philosophy is also concerned with the relationship between cosmic determinism and human freedom, and the belief that it is virtuous to maintain a will (called prohairesis) that is in accordance with nature.
Ok, how does this apply to modern living?
Stoicism is not all about a stiff upper lip and emotional detachment. If this stereotype were correct, I would not encourage the use of the philosophy for modern life. Instead, Stoicism emphasises the cultivation of joy, benevolence and well-wishing.
William B. Irvine, in his book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, emphasises the frequent fear that we have not lived our lives to their full potential. Stoicism can help us realise what we really want in life, and guide us towards achieving it.
Another valuable result of stoicism is that it can give our lives structure or coherence, as it emphasises the importance of a life based on a well-grounded ethical framework. This can moreover help us understand our goals.
Stoicism can also help free us from negative emotions, by encouraging mental tranquility and ambivalence towards negativity.
As a result, we can deduce that Stoicism is not merely a philosophy of theory and argument, like many other philosophies today. Rather than studying it, we can actively work to apply it to our own lives. We have a wealth of information from ancient philosophers such as Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca that can guide us in this.
What techniques can you recommend?
Below I'll list some techniques and practices you can follow, even in an average working day.
- Meditate. We hear this over and again, I agree. However, it is so valuable to take time to gather your thoughts, especially when preparing for a day ahead. Sit quietly and turn your attention inward, or isolate yourself and do something in a silent, peaceful environment (walking can be effective). Alternatively, you can observe - or simply imagine - the rising sun and daybreak, and consider the whole cosmos and your place within it.
"No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than into his own mind, especially if he can dip into thoughts there which put him at immediate and complete ease: and by ease I simply mean a well-ordered life. So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself." ~ Marcus Aurelius
- Create "internalized goals", says William B. Irvine. Rather than wanting to win a game of tennis, aim to play the best you possibly can under the circumstances. By doing so, your happiness and sense of accomplishment is not based on external factors, but rather your own perceptions (that you control). By striving to play your best rather than win, your chance of success may even be higher. In a similar way, aim to do the best you can in exams, or submit the best job applications you can. When anxious about things we cannot possibly change, it is useful to consider the following quote:
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will. ” Epictetus
- Consider any possible challenges you may face today and plan to not get upset, for reactions stem from your judgement, rather than the situation itself. If you believe you will have to deal with difficult people, consider this famous saying by Marcus Aurelius:
"Today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All of this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own - not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong."
- Negative visualisation. This is similar to the last technique. If you periodically contemplate perceived "catastrophes" such as grief, poverty, sickness and your own death, you can mentally rehearse facing them with composure. Yes, these things are upsetting, but usually there is nothing we can do to change them. As a result, we must accept the uncertainty of the future, prepare ourselves for unwanted (although often inevitable) experiences, and enjoy the value of the present.
- View fame and fortune with indifference, for it won't be long until we too are forgotten and all our belongings are destroyed. If fame and fortune come to us, then so be it, but there are other goals more valuable to strive towards.
- Remind yourself that it is your judgement that upsets you if you are unhappy, anxious or discontent, rather than external events and the actions of others. Try delaying your response until you feel more composed, or consider if there is really anything you can do to better your situation. If there is, by all means do it if (it doesn't negatively affect others or yourself), but if there isn't, try to strive for acceptance.
- Become an insult connoisseur by responding to them with self-deprecating humour. If someone calls you lazy, you may respond that it's a wonder you're even out of bed. Some believe this shows that you are impervious to such insults, or even find them amusing, although it's important not to accept the insult (beating yourself up would certainly have a negative effect!). If this is too difficult, simply ignoring insults can be just as effective.
- Imagine yourself as part of the whole universe, as a little cell that works alongside others to form the body. Every individual has their own role, emphasises Marcus Aurelius: while the ant must build, so must we get out of bed, be social, and provide something for the world. Considering yourself as a tiny part of the universe can also help you to rationalise worries.
- At evening time, contemplate the day. Rationally consider what virtues you showed (e.g. patience or kindness), what mistakes you made that you'd prefer not to repeat, and what could be done better if similar situations arise.
Stoicism: The Original Self Help? (Jules Evans)
Interested? Here are some relevant books:
Discourses and Selected Writings by Epictetus
Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
Philosophy for Life: And Other Dangerous Situations by Jules Evans. A fantastic book that considers the positive effect of ancient philosophy on mental health and wellbeing.
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine
- Guardian Article: Be stoic for a week (stiff upper lip not required)
An article that discusses modern Stoicism and 2012 Live like a Stoic! Week
- Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans
A highly useful blog that often discusses Stoicism for modern living.