Ok, bear with us here, we’re about to convince you that a bunch of old Greek guys from the 3rd Century BC—The Ancient Stoics—had some pretty great ideas that can radically change the way you see life’s challenges.
These days, many people confuse the word ‘stoic’ with ’emotionless; it’s anything but! Stoicism is a school of philosophy (often called “The Most Practical Philosophy”) that teaches us how to be happy by accepting the present moment as it is. Sounds pretty basic, right? We’ve totally heard this one on a meditation app.
The issue with this general message is that:
- it can sound really simplistic, and
- it’s actually really, really hard to do (especially when complaining about the current moment/the weather/people online/tax season feels so good sometimes!)
But, it’s still 100% worth trying because those who embrace stoic values are happier, more resilient, and wiser when it comes to life’s ups and downs.
It’s like a tool in your emotional toolbox to use in the pursuit of perseverance, patience, clearer perspective, courage, and self-control. By understanding what we can change and what we can’t, we halve the number of things we need to stress about!
Rather than expecting a perfect, stress-free day, stoics accept that it’s chaos out there, and anything could happen. It’s our choice how we react to the circumstances around us, and if we can train ourselves to respond with calm acceptance, then external events can’t ruffle us.
In short, a calm mind is not achieved by trying to control our surroundings; it’s achieved by the way we think.
Stoicism is designed to be a practice, a part of your daily routine. Just like meditation, it’s like a mental muscle you build gradually until you get better at it and start to notice the effects seeping into your life.
So, to get you started, here are three simple stoic exercises you can do to dip your toe into this ancient philosophy. And if you find these helpful, check out the resources at the end of the article to dive even deeper.
1. Welcome & Practice Discomfort
Think about it – emotions many of us feel these days, like anxiety and fear, have their roots not in what’s happening but in our uncertainty about what might happen. And often, our fear is worse than the eventual experience itself.
The stoics taught that comfort is the worst kind of slavery because you’re always afraid that something or someone will take it away. That sounds a little extreme, but there’s something to be said for letting go of our comforts every so often, so it’s not so difficult if they get taken away unexpectedly.
Could you practice some form of light fasting in the mornings or once a week? Maybe volunteer to host a meeting when you’d typically hide in the background? What about walking instead of taking the car once in a while, even if it’s a chilly day? Writing a difficult email to a friend that upset you?
The idea is that anticipating that things might not always go your way is good. Still, if you can actively practice ‘misfortune,’ that’s even better because when unexpected things happen, they have less power to disrupt your mind and life. If the car won’t start or the train doesn’t arrive, you know “it’s ok, I can walk part of the way”; or if you miss breakfast because of an emergency in the morning, you know that getting to lunch on a glass of water isn’t the end of the world.
By practicing how it feels to be uncomfortable, your emotions are more balanced, you have a much better perspective, and you can move on with your day without unravelling.
2. The ‘Last Time’ Meditation
This one might seem a little dark on the surface. But it’s a beautiful and powerful way to savour and be intensely grateful for what you have and then refocus if you’re caught in a negative spiral.
Essentially, it’s all about imagining that this is the last time you’ll do something, even if it’s something you’re not enjoying or looking forward to. We leave things behind all the time as we move on in life. At some point, you played jump rope or Connect 4 for what was probably the last time. At some point, you’ll use a landline phone for the last time. Eventually, you’ll get into your own cozy bed for the last time. But because of the way life goes, we usually don’t realize it in the moment.
It’s late and cold, and you have to take the dog out for a walk. You do not love the idea. Take a moment to imagine that something happens to your dog tomorrow or that there’s a serious lockdown, and this is the last time you get to walk her. If you knew that in advance, how much more mindful would you be of all the details of that walk? How her tail wags; how the stars look; how she sniffs at the snow. You’d give anything in the future to have that walk back again.
OR, imagine you’re tired and you have to cook dinner for the family. What if something happens to the stove, or the house, or the family, and this is the last time you get to do this mundane task. How would you do it differently if you knew you wouldn’t get to do it again?
Try this little exercise next time you have to call your mom, or water your plants, or sit in traffic.
You don’t need to get into doomsday scenarios, but just a little touch of “how would this feel if it were the last time” can completely transform how you feel about daily tasks.
3. Dream Life & Delight
This one’s a combo because these two practices really complement each other.
Stoic practice encourages us to realize that we are living a dream life. It just might be that you don’t see it that way. Chances are incredibly high, however, that you are, right now, living someone else’s dream life.
Maybe you have a job your friend would adore. Perhaps your family is precisely the kind of family someone else fantasizes about. Very probably, the home you’re living in is the aspiration of a considerable chunk of the planet’s population.
It’s not about judging your mindset (just because there are starving children and people with cancer doesn’t mean you can’t be upset that you burned dinner). It’s more about keeping a check on our constant feeling that what we have isn’t good enough, that if we just get that job title/mascara/goal weight/loft apartment, then we’ll have a perfect life.
Keeping a gratitude journal is great, but keeping a list of delights is, well, delightful!
As children, we’re constantly delighted by the world, but somehow, that feeling gets muted as we grow up. Try to notice what gives you little moments of delight. A patch of warm sun on the rug, ice cream that you forgot was in the freezer, a colourful bird at the birdfeeder, extra soft toilet paper…
The more you look for them, the more they’ll pop up, we promise.
By cultivating delight like this, you start to realize that even if you’re not happy all the time (a noble but impossible goal), there are dozens of moments of ‘tiny joy’ in every day, and that truly is something to be grateful for.
Learn more about stoic philosophy by checking out these resources:
- Watch this nice little video
- Lots more on this website
- A great book on the subject
- Or try this podcast