Stoicism: Thought System of Champions.
“There is nothing good or bad other than thinking makes it so.” Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor and Philosopher
Performance and Positivity, two factors in clinching championships, depend on a sharp, clear mind directing human strength into the present moment.
Sports psychologists make the big bucks training world class athletes to keep their mind in the present. Tiger, Posey, Peyton, Lincecum, Federer all face the same challenge – shaking off the last bad putt, swing, throw, pitch, stroke to make their next is their best.
Buddhist Monks spend decades meditating to reach a similar zen-like state. New Age fruit-cakes rack up the air miles chasing the latest guru’s conferences. Yogis spend hours breathing and contorting their bodies.
Lucky for us Wannabe Biz Ballers, we have the Ancient Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers. They know all the short cuts.
Stoicism’s desired end-state is the Directed Mind. The Greek word is ‘Hegemonikon.’ While sounding like a video game or sci fi title, it literally means ‘commanding facility.’ Stoics believe the Directed Mind, or Hegemonikon, is the seat of the human soul. The Directed Mind is centered in the here and now. Its free from regret about the past, worry over the future, and all other related sources of neurosis. The human possessing a Directed Mind find their daily experiences full of positive energy, joy, and tranquility giving themselves power over transitory impressions, impulses, desires, and passions.
How do these “spiritual” qualities – positive energy, joy, and tranquility – put points on the bidness scoreboard?
First, the Stoic Baller’s judgment sharpens = better decisions. They can trust their gut instinct. Second, people feel good around the Stoic Baller. He or she feels mellow and chill. Networking, prospecting, client relationships, and deal closing all become easier. Third, the natural de-stressing improves work/life balance by lightening the psychological load.
And the super awesome thing about Stoicism is that you can be Stoic about being Stoic – as in you can learn about it and try it and not freak about mastering it cuz, well, freaking out ain’t Stoic. So you are free to chill when you have an un-Stoic moment. No biggie.
So, the down and dirty: Stoicism is a concise set of reflections on life and a few easy psychological practices aimed at freeing, and developing, the Directed Mind. Every human possesses the raw material of a Directed Mind. It’s an inborn gift of reason and tempered passion. To quote the Good Book book in Old English styles, the Directed Mind is part of the design package (I’ll work in some Evolutionary Psych later, too, the better to equally offend the Heathens and Churchians) for God made man “a little lower than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor.” The Stoics simplify that sentiment to the poetic “Divine Spark.” They say we are “meant to set free or perfect this rational element, this particle of the universal reason, the ‘divine spark’ in our human make-up so that it may campaign against and conquer pain, grief, superstition, and fear.”
The above is called a virtuous life. One that is lived in accordance with nature, meaning the natural order of things and human nature: “If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor.” In other words, wise = happy = successful.
Note that Stoicism is a counter-cultural philosophy to our modern day religion of Enlightened Hedonism, built upon the Holy Altar of Consumer Capitalism. This, our unspoken Orthodoxy, arguably takes more effort to pursue than Stoicism with far less true payoff: “The Enlightened Hedonist’s grand goal in living is to maximize the pleasure he experiences in the course of a lifetime. To practice this philosophy of life, he will spend time discovering, exploring, and ranking sources of pleasure and investigating any untoward side effects they might have.” In other words, normal Middle Class American Life. I think of it as Incremental Insatiability. The system tells you this shiny thing is all you need to be happy til it bores you then you need this other shiny thing. Marketers call this “Good, Better, Best.”
Note Part Two, Stoicism is not Ascetism. Stoicism calls for a simple life but allows for pleasures and luxuries. It heightens the enjoyment thereof by always being prepared to give them up. A Stoic savors every moment of luxury.
Stoic Reflections – Quotes from the Ancients*:
Change – “Pick me up and throw me where you will. Wherever I land I shall keep the divine spark within me happy, satisfied, that is, if attitude and action follow its own constitution.”
Loss – “Accept humbly, let go easily.”
Life Balance – “A man following reason in all things combines relaxation with initiative, spark with composure.”
Common Wisdom – “Socrates used to call the popular beliefs ‘bogies,’ things to frighten children with.”
Ambition – “Alexander, Julius Caesar, Pompey – What are they to Diogenes, Heraclitus, Socrates? These men saw into reality, its causes and its material, and their Directing Minds were their own masters. As for the former, they were slaves to all their ambitions.”
Fulfillment – “Every living organism is fulfilled when it follows the right path for its own nature.”
Time – “The present moment is equal for all; so what is passing is equal also; the loss therefore turns out to be the merest fragment of time. No one can lose either the past or the future – how could anyone be deprived of what he does not possess.”
Fame – “should mean nothing to philosophers and emperors who focus their attention on the present…it is only the present moment distinct from the abyss of the past and the future that should concern us…the past and future lie beyond our control…a person should act with an eye for precisely what needs to be done and not the glory of its doing.”
Wealth – “The poor lack much; the greedy, everything…we are unlikely to have a good and meaningful life unless we overcome our insatiability.”
Friendships – Pursue authentic relationships, don’t settle for shallow acquaintance. “If you are looking on anyone as a friend when you do not trust him as yourself, you are making a grave mistake, and have failed to grasp sufficiently the full force of true friendship…after friendship is formed you should trust, but before that you should judge…think for a long time whether or not you should admit a given person to your friendship…associate with people who are likely to improve you. welcome those whom you are capable of improving.”
Aging – “The man who looks for the morrow without worrying over it knows a peaceful independence and happiness beyond all others…Is it not living unnaturally to aim at imparting the bloom of youth to a different period of life?”
Anxiety – “The only true serenity is that which stems from the free development of a sound mind” with opposite being “a mind in ferment and mutiny…anxieties can only come from your internal judgments.”
Desire – “Limiting one’s desires actually helps to cure one of fear. Cease to hope and you will cease to fear. Fear keeps pace with hope. Their moving together should not surprise. Both belong to mind in suspense, to a mind in a state of anxiety through looking into the future. Both are mainly due to projecting our thoughts far ahead of instead of adapting ourselves to the present.”
Stuff – Attachment to any physical item weighs the human spirit down. “Only by living thus, and not setting too high a value on things which can at any moment be taken away from him, can he discover that true unshakeable peace and contentment to which ambition, luxury, and above all, avarice, are among the greatest obstacles.” Our accountant can sum our wealth – rather “than how to work out how much a man needs in order to have enough.”
Popularity – “Do not waste the remaining part of your life in thoughts about other people, when you are not thinking with reference to some aspect of the common good…I mean, thinking about what so-and-so is doing, and why, what he is saying and contemplating, and all that line of thought which makes you stray from the close watch on your own directing mind.”
Paradox – “The shortest route to wealth is contempt of wealth.”
Contentment – Seek to gain only what is essential, and beyond that, only what is enough. Then stop. Allow wealth, luxury, and fame to find you, instead of you, them.
Learning – “Extend your stay among writers who genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind. To be everywhere is to be nowhere.” In other words, read the great stuff more.
Communication – “Language, moreover, which devotes its attention to truth ought to be plain and unadorned…when you speak…be straight-forward, not pedantic. Use language which rings true.”
Anger – “What’s the use of overcoming opponent after opponent in the wrestling or boxing rings [or market] if you can be overcome by your temper. The miser, the swindler, the bully, the cheat, who would do you a lot of harm by simply being near you, are actually inside of you…an involuntary spasm and a momentary lapse of reason.”
Acceptance – “Love only what falls your way and is fated for you…one wonderful way to tame our tendency to always want more is to persuade ourselves to want the things we already have.”
Simplicity – “If you want to be happy, do little; the happy life depends on very little.”
Clarity – “Your mind will take on the character of your most frequent thoughts; souls are dyed by thoughts…the Directing Mind does not frighten itself or lead itself to desire. If anyone else can frighten it or cause it pain, let him do so: of itself, of its own judgment, it will not deliberately turn to such modes. Of itself the directing mind is without needs, unless it creates a need for itself: in the same way it is untroubled and unhindered, unless it troubles or hinders itself.”
Following is from the book “Guide to the Good Life” by William B Irvine. This guy is a real-life Philosophy Prof who realized all his knowledge wasn’t helping him live a happy life. He tried Zen and found it too laborious. So he cracked his Ancient Greek textbooks and stumbled upon Stoicism.
“In my research, I discovered nearly unanimous agreement among thoughtful people that we are unlikely to have a good and meaningful life unless we can overcome our insatiability…to persuade ourselves to want the things we have.”
The Ultimate End Goal of Stoic is to be Free and Strong by giving nothing external power over themselves while being connected to their fellow man.
Steps to Stoicism
1. “We will reconsider our goals for living. In particular, we will take to the heart the Stoic claim that many of the things we desire — most notably, fame and fortune — are not worth pursuing. We will instead turn our attention to the pursuit of tranquility and what the Stoics call Virtue – a state marked by the absence of negative emotions such as grief, anxiety, and fear, and the presence of positive emotions — in particular, joy.”
2. “We will study the various psychological techniques developed by the Stoics for attaining and maintaining tranquility and employ these techniques in daily living.”
3. “We will learn to take care to distinguish between things we can control and things we can’t control and will instead focus our attention on the things we can control.”
4. “We will recognize how easy it is for other people to disturb our tranquility, and we will therefore deploy Stoic strategies to prevent them from upsetting us.”
5. “We will become thoughtful observers of our own life. We will watch ourselves go about our daily business and will later reflect on what we saw, trying to identify the sources of distress in our life and thinking about how to avoid that distress.”
We start by living according to our nature. Look at ourselves. We hunger; nature’s way of making us eat. We lust; thus we reproduce. But so do the animals. What separates us is that we have psyche – Greek for soul – and so we have Reason. And we are social. Therefore, to live according to our nature as humans we must behave in a rational manner, connected socially to our fellow man. In this way we are reasonable and whole internally, while being connected to the external whole of humanity. The latter is an aspect of healthy human spirituality.
Self-Denial – Guarding against the dark side of pleasure. We should embrace involuntary moments of discomfort. This reminds us to better appreciate warmth, comfort, good food and drink, pleasurable company. Rather than bitching about the injustice of a temporary deviation from our otherwise perfect lives. A person who embraces minor discomfort grows stronger in their confidence they can face tougher circumstances = strength. We should avoid any pleasures that can capture us in a moment. Seneca called pleasures Wild Beasts, that when captured, could turn and tear us apart. Crack, Affairs, and Addictive Video Games and other such forbidden fruits come to mind. Pleasures, such as alchohol and tobacco should only be enjoyed to the extent we control them, not them us. Any pleasure which controls our life = weakness.
Grief – Vanquishing Tears with Reason – Life is loss. Better to have loved and lost. The Stoics believed that we should choose the period of our grief, then let our tears cease. We honor the loss by choosing purposefully to live and grow. Even better, is to have contemplated the loss in advance, so that every day with the beloved is maximized. Same for sickness or injury. These are times to learn new perspectives on life.
Anger – A brief insanity, or void of reason. Anger is not functional; feigned anger is. The former robs us of control = weakness. The latter is exercised from control = strength. When feeling angry, we should pause and consider the impermanence of the petty annoyance stirring our rage.
Fatalism – “Love only what falls your way and is fated for you. What could suit you more than that?” We have no control over the past or present; these are abysses. Wishing our current circumstances were different only breeds dissatisfaction – and how few of us have control over our circumstances. As a reminder, the Stoics were the leading over-achievers of their time – Prime Ministers, Thought Leaders, and Emperors. Fatalism centers the Directing Mind firmly in the moment, the only place a human can impact history, thus making that human ultimately powerful. They avoided the pursuit of Fame and Fortune and it instead found them. “We should adapt ourselves to the present” whether it involves luxury, and the full enjoyment thereof, or deprivation.
Negative Visualization – “He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand…misfortune weighs most heavily on those who expect nothing but good fortune.” Modern North American humans are stuck on the Satisfaction Treadmill. One anthropologist calls this Hedonistic Adaptation. We attain a good, service, or experience, that would previously been available only to Kings, and we are soon miserable if we don’t attain the next better one. The key to avoid this misery is to short-circuit Hedonistic Adaption through Negative Visualization. For several minutes a week, to reflect on the loss of our amazing job, car, house, status, fame, wealth, convenience, and even relationships such as family. A Father, reflecting on the loss of one of his children, whether to accident, college, or marriage, is motivates to more fully enjoy them in the present.
The Trichotomy of Control – Things we can fully control, partially control, and not control. Things we can, and must, control – our desires, impulses, passions, values,. character, and opinions. We also have complete control over what goals we set for ourselves. A Stoic wisely sets goals only in the area of things they can fully control. If they set goals in areas of life with partial control, they are sensible to try their best, and recognize the impact of uncontrollable forces. Sports: set a goal to play your best (an internal goal), as opposed to winning (an external goal), for you can’t control your opponent. Note that we still strive to win. Focusing internally to prepare our best to compete better positions us to win over the long term, as all competitors suffer setbacks. Only the psychologically strong win consistently. In dealing with people (partial control), we should seek to maintain our tranquility (internal goal) as opposed to managing their behavior (an external goal).
Daily Meditation – Each evening, we should review the tape – where was our tranquility disturbed and why? Did we succumb to Pleasure Enslavement? External Goals? Embitterment Towards Circumstance? Lose our Grip on the Moment?
Social Relations – Be Congruent to ourselves at all times. Define ourselves in solitude; maintain that identity with integrity when with the community of man. Be selective in who we befriend – positive energy only. Avoid whiny people and those prone to vices; parasites to tranquility. When we find ourselves in the presence of people with demonstrable shortcomings, we should take that as signal to reflect on our shortcomings rather than theirs. Never waste time allowing our minds to be filled with “sensual imaginings, jealousies, envies, suspicions, or any other such [negative social] sentiments.” Respond to insults with humor or with no response.
*The quotes in this section are primarily from Seneca’s Letters and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. Seneca was a Roman Prime Minister and Marcus an Emperor.
Marcus Aurelius – “He is one of those consoling and hope-inspiring marks, which stand forever to remind our weak and easily discouraged race how high human goodness and perseverance have once been carried and may be carried again.”
Towards the end of his life, he reflects on the totality of his experience: “All that you pray to reach at some point in the circuit of your life can be your now – if you are generous to yourself. That is, if you leave all the past behind, entrust the future to Providence, and direct the present solely to reverence and justice…If, then, when you finally come close to your end, you have left all else behind and value only your Directing Mind and the divinity within you, if your fear is not that you will cease to live, but that you never started a life in accordance with nature, then you will be a man worthy of the universe that gave you birth. You will no longer be a stranger in your own country, no longer meet the day’s events as if bemused by the unexpected, no longer hang on this or that.”