Advancements in technology have made modern life in first-world countries somewhat of a breeze in comparison to the lives of those who lived just a couple hundred years before us. We can zip around the globe in cars and planes, we have developed cures to diseases that not too long ago were automatic death sentences and we can order the majority of everything we could ever want or need through a supercomputer that fits in the palm of our hands. Yet even with all of these modern luxuries, so many people find themselves feeling internally vapid.
Fulfillment, needless to say, is not an external thing that can be handed to us. The irony is that satisfaction comes from doing difficult things that are meaningful to us. Some of the most meaningful aspects of our lives, more often than not, come along with a special strain of shit sandwich that we accept because the payoff feels intrinsically worth it.
The stoics were all too aware of this. So much so that they built an entire philosophy around this concept of enduring difficulty in pursuit of greater life satisfaction and personal growth. Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy that posits that through living in harmony—rather than in opposition with—the laws of nature (i.e fate) and by holding an attitude of indifference to pleasure and pain, one can live a meaningful life. The four pillars of stoicism are courage, temperance, justice and wisdom. Key figures in this school of thought include emperor Marcus Aurelius, playwright and political advisor Seneca, and slave-turned-teacher Epictetus.
Over two thousand years later, the teachings of stoicism are still incredibly applicable. Here are a few ways that we can weave the principles of this ancient philosophy into our modern lives.
Train yourself to love the grind
The realization of our grandest goals, whether they entail graduating from college, starting a business, adopting a new lifestyle, or raising a child, all require a substantial grind as a kind of down payment that secures our success in the endeavor. This down payment is not a one-time transaction, but rather a daily expenditure that comes along with the merit of any given goal.
One of the basic notions of stoicism is the practice of focusing on that which you can control and surrendering to that which is out of your control. In regards to a specific goal, we can control the effort that we exert into the realization of a goal, but the outcome is generally out of our control. By learning to appreciate the difficult or painful aspect of working toward an outcome, what we are capable of achieving expands tremendously and most notably, we can find joy in a journey wherein the struggle is almost always guaranteed but “success,” depending on how one chooses to define it, is not.
Challenge yourself physically each day
There are few better ways to train ourselves to love the grind toward our non-fitness related goals than to subject ourselves to the physical burn of exercise on a daily basis. Seneca viewed misfortune as an opponent that gives us the opportunity to show others and ourselves what we are capable of doing. By challenging ourselves physically, we are essentially giving ourselves the gift of an opponent to rise up against each day. This can take on the form of a workout that leaves you breathless and drenched in sweat or a 3-minute cold shower that brings to your awareness the simple rapture of a hot shower. Physically arduous tasks present us with a straightforward way to expand what we believe we are capable of doing/withstanding and thus mold us into stronger, more resilient humans.
Cut out something that doesn’t serve you
Temperance, one of the four virtues of stoicism, can be described as the sweet middle between lack and excess. Abstaining from excessive pleasure in exchange for greater long-term joy and satisfaction is a central stoic practice. In our modern lives, this doesn’t mean doing away with pleasure altogether, but it does mean holding back from overindulging on creature comforts and earning our indulgences.
We all have our vices that we turn to for comfort when life gets overwhelming. For me this manifests in the form of late-night Netflix binges and the tendency to bury my woes in a pack of Newman O’s. However, the satisfaction that I derive from this is fleeting and by the time morning rolls around, I find myself bloated and worse off than before. By abstaining from the temporary pleasure that I receive from overindulging, I in turn receive the greater satisfaction that comes from allowing myself the space to feel my feelings and rest.
Journal before bed
“If, at some point in your life, you should come across anything better than justice, truth, self-control, courage—it must be an extraordinary thing indeed.”
Journaling allows us to tap into the pillars of stoic philosophy—justice, truth, self-control, courage—and thus exercise our ability to bring such stoic principles into our daily lives. It also provides us with a bird’s eye view of our lives and further insight into how we are showing up on a daily basis. From this broader viewpoint, often referred to by stoics as “Plato’s view,” we can evaluate what is working, what isn’t, and then we can consciously choose where we would like to head next. In a sense, journaling grants you with the perspective necessary to become the captain of your own life and thus steer the trajectory of your life ship in the direction that you desire instead of floating aimlessly.
Stoicism is a practical philosophy, one designed to be applicable to everyday life. I view the principles of stoicism as a sort of open buffet where everyone is free to take what works for them and leave what doesn’t. Over the years I have certainly taken bits and pieces of the philosophy and used it to create a greater sense of fulfillment and inner peace in my own life. Overall, approaching life with a stoic mentality can help us to become more conscious and resilient humans who enjoy the journey a little more because we stopped getting so hung up on the final destination.
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Photo: Rachel Strong via Unsplash; Wikipedia Commons