“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” – Marcus Aurelius
We humans are absolutely hilarious. One minute we are nicknaming ourselves homo sapiens (“wise man”) in honor of our spectacular logical brain function, the next we are finding every existing excuse not to do moderately difficult things like math or starting a business or learning a new skill, instead opting to procrastinate by napping, curling up into the fetal position in fear, or watching Netflix because starting a business or learning a new skill to get you further in life is hard. And we’ve got all these opposable thumbs to help us do said difficult things, yet we still try tirelessly to find shortcuts to even the simplest tasks.
I get a serious kick out of this, though like all humans, I am not perfect and I sometimes catch myself brainstorming for the next chapter in the book of “Poor Me”, but I’ve gotten into the habit of giving that mal-evolved dialogue a trachea-crushing throat punch as soon as I see it coming. If you’ve spent any time around me or reading my stuff, you’ve probably guessed that I have this thing (genetic mutation?) where I like doing difficult things and being uncomfortable, in fact, I thrive on it, and I really didn’t think this was a big deal until people around me, even people I had looked up to to a certain extent, starting asking me how I do it. I was absolutely baffled. Here I was doing my absolute best to blend into the background minding my own business when in reality my indifference, no, love for the challenges and suffering that life hands you sometimes was making me stand out like a sore thumb. Goddammit.
It wasn’t always this way. I spent several years of my adult life traumatized and timid, like a small woodland creature cowering with my back to a young maple sapling, crying, feeling sorry for myself and waiting to either die or be rescued. But I’ll spare you the details because everybody has their own story (surely you have one, and that’s why you’re here) and I’d rather count the steps I took out of that wretched place than dissect and dwell on the sad events that got me there in the first place.
As I found out through a lot of reading, I follow a philosophy that one might describe as a sort of warped modern version of Stoicism….. an ancient system of philosophical thought of Greek origin founded by Zeno of Citium but most famously written about by Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca. Its main takeaways are that we should realize how little we are in control of and that we have options other than feeling sorry for ourselves and wallowing around in our own misery when things “go wrong”. Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it?
“How do I get started?“, you ask. While I highly recommend doing some reading on the three well-spoken philosopher badasses I mentioned, there are a few things you can make a habit of doing to more closely align yourself with the Stoic way. Brace yourself: this stuff can be pretty hard too. It’s easier to skip your practice exercises and say you’ll do them later. Don’t do that. Seriously. That’s a step backward. These are just a few of the habits that I recommend to the people who ask me for advice. And yes, I walk the walk. These are exercises that I do every single day.
Stoic Exercise #1: Wake up and reflect.
Congratulations! You woke up today, probably in the same state of health as you went to bed in. Be thankful for that. While you’re being thankful, let it sink in that it is entirely possible that you might die today, because you are a mortal, and mortals die. Pick a goal for today. It can be a “doing” goal (such as rolling out of bed and doing 20 push-ups) or a “not-doing” goal (like making a conscious effort to not complain for the day). Think of this as a sort of cultivation: you’ve planted the seeds in your mind and now it’s up to your body to nourish the seeds into fruition before bedtime. This is like making a plan, keeping in mind that plans can’t really take into consideration all of the plagues, locusts, and demons that the universe might throw your way today. So what? Work towards your goal anyway.
Stoic Exercise #2: Make a point of reminding yourself of how small and insignificant you are in the grand scheme of things.
Yes, I said it. You don’t really matter. Neither do I. The sooner you realize this and make it a part of your living blueprint, the sooner you can get started with serving others and the “greater good” so you can at least add a teeny weeny speck of an island representing your life and times onto the map of the universe. I find this thought to be truly relieving since it reminds me that I really don’t have a reason to care about what other people think of what I’m wearing or how badly I fucked up winging my eyeliner this morning. This isn’t about godliness or religious redemption. Quite the opposite! It’s about being a good person during your time here on earth, regardless of what happens after you are dead. Truly good people sacrifice themselves and their resources for those who are less fortunate while pushing forward with their own goals and they don’t complain about it, even though it’s hard. Fact.
My favorite way to exercise this concept is to sit at a park or coffee shop somewhere and do some serious people watching. Watch couples and individuals and groups of people. See if you can gauge how people are feeling by their body language and the expression on their face. Can you guess some of their stories? Make sure you remind yourself that all of these people would still be doing the same thing if you weren’t there to see it. I also find it effective to stand at my picture window at night with a cup of tea or coffee and look at the expanse of lights spreading out toward the horizon. The universe is huge, and I and my stuff and all the things I think I want don’t matter.
Surrender to that, and do your best to help others during your time on earth. I think some people call this philanthropy, but I don’t think it needs a name. It just needs to be done.
Stoic Exercise #3: Go to bed and reflect.
I love this exercise, and I make a point of doing a few rounds of box breathing at the same time. Your morning reflection focuses on what will happen, and your bedtime reflection focuses on what did happen. As an added bonus, you can continue to spoon or be spooned by a significant other while you do this (if you’ve got one).
I like to rewind my day in my head and play it from the beginning, watching the events unfold and checking in with how I reacted to situations and whether or not I achieved my goal for the day (if I’m very tired I sometimes don’t make it all the way through before falling asleep, but I still reap the benefits).
Ask yourself: Was my behavior representative of how I would like to be viewed? Did I add value to someone else’s day? Did I cultivate the seeds of the goal I was hoping to achieve today? What could I work on?
If you didn’t achieve your goal but you took steps toward making it a reality, that’s okay. Don’t lie awake worrying. Get your rest and start again tomorrow. You can’t change what has already passed. Accept the good and the bad, and move on.
These three exercises are the most basic and most convenient to get started with if you are interested in embracing a less turbulent and reactive, more proactive life blueprint as a stoic. Start with one and work up to all three, or jump right in and see how these exercises can change your outlook. It’s hard, but it’s super worth it.
*This post can also be found on my blog at wildamyblog.com