For those of you who aren't familiar with Stoic Philosophy, The Stoic School began with Zeno of Citicum in Greece and moved West to Rome where it was popular in the first few centuries A. D. The Stoics, including Zeno, Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and others developed a practical philosophy for increasing happiness and virtue, which they called The Art of Living.
Stoic thought is currently enjoying a modern revival as some of the core practices align with those of cognitive behavioral psychology, as well as various elements of Eastern thought which resonate with modern readers. Stoic Week is an experiment of sorts where this pragmatic philosophy is applied through daily practice to see if it makes the participants happier and more content with their lives.
I participated in Stoic week last month, and it was a great experience. Here are the top five lessons that I have learned from this 2300 year old philosophy:
1. Stoics Meditate and Stoic Philosophy is the "Western Buddhism"
Stoic philosophy may actually be more pragmatic for native Westerners, because unlike the Eastern monastic traditions such as Buddhism, Stoicism is a philosophy for living. The ideal Stoic Sage is not a cloistered monk, but the average person deeply involved in the world: the parent, the worker, the statesman, etc. Anyone can seek Stoic excellence regardless of roles or social position.
The Stoics used a form of meditation or reflective practice. While much of what was written about Stoic reflective practice was lost to history, what is known is that they used a system of morning and evening meditation which may have been borrowed from the Pythagoreans. Stoic Week participants were encouraged to do these morning and evening meditations.
The morning meditation consists of taking 5-10 minutes upon waking up to show gratitude that we are alive, and that we have another day to be thankful for. We also may rehearse for the day ahead, planning on how to make our self a better person, or focusing on challenges that may arise.
The evening mediation consists of reflecting back on the day's events while focusing on what we did well, and perhaps what we didn't do so well in terms of our conduct, with a mind to do better next time. Stoics are encouraged not to morbidly ruminate or berate themselves for mistakes, but to simply to do their best and improve daily.
2. "Virtue" is Somewhat Offensive to Our Modern Sensibilities
The four primary Stoic virtues are wisdom, moderation, justice and courage. These are usually translated from Greek as one word equivalents. Some posters on the Stoic Week forum had difficulty with these concepts, and another poster on the forum pointed out that the reason these concepts may not be so palatable to us today is the translations into English are too simplistic:
"Digging into the original Greek concepts, you start to find the translations utterly lacking. First I got my head around sophrosyne (moderation), which describes a quality for which there is no single word in English. Sophrosyne contains elements of "knowing the middle', not going overboard, tempering your emotions and your appetites; not eating too much, not getting drunk; showing poise; showing decorum and carrying yourself with pride and gravitas; self-restraint. As such, many of the posters here who can not make their value set congruent with the 4 stoic values may find a lot of surprises. 'Andrea' is commonly translated from Greek as courage, but it also contains elements of 'motive force', 'power to get up and do things'. When viewed that way, andrea becomes a lot more applicable than merely being brave."
I didn't devote myself to virtue/excellent character until I was around 31 years old. Before that time I was focused on the usual things: my intellect, my ego, my looks, clothes, travel, pleasurable living, etc. However we need to ask ourselves if these things that our culture is typically concerned with are really tantamount to living a good life.
3. Some Things Are Within Our Control, Others Are Not
It always bugged me that the Stoic philosophers considered health to be something beyond our control or a preferred indifferent (meaning that you can be happy without good health). Certainly your health/body, your property, etc., are not entirely out of your control. We can control what we eat, exercise habits, how well we maintain things, etc.
But as one poster on the Stoic Week Forum noted, "the important thing is they [health, property, reputation] are not entirely within your control either. You can control whether you decide to smoke, but if you get cancer, you get cancer. That is out of your control. You control your property, until the state expropriates your land or someone steals your car. You control your social role to a small degree, until someone runs a smear campaign. "
The power of Stoic philosophy lies in bearing hardships with equanimity. Its easy to be happy when times are good, less so when things are going poorly or when conflicts arise. When we realize that much in life is beyond our control, it frees us from suffering.
"Remember too on every occasion which leads thee to vexation to apply this principle: not that this is a misfortune, but that to bear it nobly is good fortune. " - Marcus Aurelius
4. Wish With Reservation
I was surprised by this information, since this almost exactly what I have been doing in my life and not knowing it was Stoic. Usually when I wish for something out of my control, I wish for "the best possible outcome," with respect to the interconnected sequence of events or fate. (Fate...now there is a concept that is unpalatable to modern readers!)
I wish with reserve both because something may prevent my wish from being fulfilled, and also because the sequence of events could actually offer up something better than I could plan or wish for myself.
If events transpire in a "negative," way, or not as I wanted, I try to use it as an opportunity for me to practice gratitude for what is actually going right in my life, or try to exercise forbearance. If I don't get what what I wish for, I usually assume that fate required things to transpire as they did. This makes disappointments easier to accept.
5. Focus on the Good Qualities of Your Family and Friends
"Whenever you want to cheer yourself up, think of the good qualities of those who live with you: such as the energy of one, the decency of another, the generosity of another, and some other quality in someone else. There is nothing so cheering as the images of the virtues displayed in the characters of those who live with you, and grouped together as far as possible. So you should keep them ready at hand". - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.48
Epictetus implores us to remember that when someone does something that we don't agree with that "it seemed right to him." This is an easy thing to say to yourself rather than ruminating on the causes of someone's poor behavior.
"Do not yet expect Plato's Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes well, and consider such an event to be no small matter. For who can change men's opinions?" - Marcus Aurelius
You May Also Like:
The Secret to Happiness: Stoic Gratitude and the Art of Living
Quick Guide: Applying Stoic Ethics in Modern Life