Philosophies penned over 2000 years ago may not seem relevant today, but as Jacqueline Steele discovers, we can learn a lot from writings of the past. Learn more about how to practice stoicism in your daily life.
It was a Saturday morning and my first opportunity of the week to have a lie-in. But as I woke early, feeling the warm sun angle onto my head through the curtains, I instead chose to emerge from under my duvet and get an early start.
Rather than falling back to sleep, I rose before 5am and went on a two-hour bike ride in the beautiful English countryside. I watched the sun rise higher in the sky to begin the day, listened to the birds sing, felt the crisp morning air on my skin, and lived for my moment in time.
Seize the moment
Personally, it reminded me of what I had read – but not truly understood – many years earlier, as a student. In the words of the Roman Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius: “Life for each of us is a mere moment… a fragment of time: the rest is life past or uncertain future.”
His book, Meditations, is among my forgotten university texts which have been gathering dust for the past 17 years. It is only now, after living through the global pandemic and as I approach my 40th birthday, that I can see so clearly its relevance to the modern world. He writes with an underlying acceptance of the circle of life and the process of nature.
We are reminded that if you do not use your life, the opportunity is gone forever.
Teachings from the past
While the lives we live today are very different from those of the ancient Greeks and Romans, we still have a lot in common. This is why the lessons from Stoic philosophers are rising in popularity and are as pertinent today, perhaps even more so, than they were 2,000 years ago.
Stoicism teaches us that happiness can be found in acceptance, to be satisfied with what we have and to treat people well. It’s a concept adapted by modern gurus and life coaches who have repackaged the thinking into books and blogs guiding us to live well.
In modern English, the word ‘stoic’ means ‘without emotion’, but the ancient Stoics were not opposed to showing their feelings – only to negative emotions like anger, jealousy and fear.
Using stoicism today
Don’t worry about things you can’t control
One of the main principles of Stoicism is separating the events that happen in life with the way in which we respond to them.
“If we can accept that our own doing is the only thing within our control, then we can give ourselves permission to let go of the rest,” says the founder of Ryssdom Coaching (ryssdom.com), Aryssa Amin.
“The advantage of thinking in this way is that it promotes a feeling of self-confidence, resilience and peace of mind.”
We can control our thoughts, our beliefs, values and actions but we cannot control other people, nature and time. Once we realise these limitations, we can avoid being affected by outside events. True happiness comes from within.
Meditate in your own mortality
Roman Stoics were fond of the saying ‘memento mari’, which is Latin for ‘remember that you must die’.
This may at first seem like a depressing thought, but it is only once you become aware of your own mortality that you can truly embrace everything life has to offer. We’re all given an unknown amount of time on this planet; Stoicism is the practice of optimising our days.
Aurelius wrote about waking up early, with purpose, to make time to reflect on what the day might bring. Similarly, at the end of the day, he journaled as a way of reflecting on the day’s events and his responses to the challenges that he faced.
Be thankful for what you have
Greek Stoic Epictetus said that ‘wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.’
Aryssa explains: “Our need to keep on top of what everyone else has and our desire to spend vast amounts of money on things which give us temporary fulfilment are wasted. We can find equal pleasure in the simple things in life, such as healthy relationships, connecting with friends and feeling good about our health and wellbeing.”
“Stoicism guides us to appreciate what really matters whilst not taking a day for granted. The philosophy directs us to hone in on our thoughts and feelings to live a life where we focus from the inside out, rather than the outside in.”
Life in lockdown gave many of us permission to slow down, to appreciate daily walks, bike rides, movie nights, and spend quality time with our loved ones. We embraced the moment, were more present and mindful.
Be a good person
Reflect on what human traits matter: wisdom, fairness, honesty and self-control. These are the four cardinal virtues that will lead to a good life.
Epictetus said: “Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.” Stoics make choices based on the greater good and try to live by their own principles and moral code.
Mindfulness apps and workshops might seem like a contemporary trend, but Stoics have been preaching the importance of mindfulness since Zeno of Citium began the school of thought 2,000 years ago.
Look at life from a bird’s eye view
Aurelius would practise an exercise referred to as ‘taking the view from above’. By taking a step back and looking at life from a different perspective, we can see just how small we are in the grand scheme of things. “Taking a step back and questioning ourselves reminds us that our existence is so much bigger than us” says Aryssa.
“Just take a moment to observe your surroundings and you will see that the world was designed for a purpose.”
It’s clear to see why Stoicism has found a renewed popularity in recent years. It is about being able to meet the events of life well-prepared, not allowing outside events to crush you and recognising that happiness starts with you.
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