A Stoic’s Response To Anxiety

“True happiness is to enjoy the present without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied, for he that is wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not”

Seneca

Anxiety is a silent destroyer of lives. A demolishing internal wrecking ball that can leave even the best of us incapacitated. But it doesn’t have to produce such obvious devastating effects to cripple our potential and produce unhappiness. It can just simmer under the surface continuing, unknowingly in many cases, to have an effect on our JUDGEMENTS, our ACTIONS and our WILL. These three things require an anxiety-free mind for us to reach our potential and flourish as human beings.

Anxiety can be produced due to our thoughts about the past, what we are thinking about at present or thoughts about the future. Let’s look at each:

The Past

“All this hurrying from place to place won’t bring you any relief, for you’re travelling in the company of your own emotions, followed by your troubles all the way”

Seneca

You may be anxious about what you did, what you didn’t do, or what you should have done. It may be some past ‘failure’, a bad relationship, an interview, a public embarrassment or worse still some form of physical or emotional abuse. You may be ‘running away’ from the past while still letting it hurt you. But one of the main principles within stoicism is differentiating between things that are under our control and those things not under our control. Can you change anything from the past? Do you have any control over things that have already happened? – The answer is of course NO!

We must then willingly accept the past and refuse to let it have any impact on us today. What is done is done. We have only so much energy and effort to draw from in a day so why waste it on the uncontrollable. Also, these thoughts of the past are only perceptions; these perceptions are not facts – there is no need to treat them as such.

The Present

“Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.”

Seneca

 

“Caretake this moment. Immerse yourself in its particulars. Respond to this person or that person, this challenge, this deed. Quit the evasions. Stop giving yourself needless trouble. It is time to really live; to fully inhabit the situation you happen to be in right now. You are not some disinterested bystander. Participate. Exert yourself.”

Epictetus

What Seneca was talking about is an amazing ability we have as human beings of decoupling our cognition. Decoupled cognition is our ability to think of something that has happened or will happen all while still being aware of our surroundings. It also encompasses our ability to have a complex interaction with another person (even an imaginary one) at another time and place – within our own minds. We can also place ourselves ‘within other people’ imagining what they think and how they would respond to us. We can see how useful this skill is for social interaction and planning but it is also is the source of all our woes.

We have come to be in a perpetual state of decoupled cognition – never truly being in the present moment. How often do we truly immerse ourselves in activities at hand without ‘one eye’ either in the past or the future? How often do we have conversations with people while not even listening or driving the car and when we get to our destination don’t even remember the journey? This lack of mindfulness is usually because we are so busy being anxious about the past/future or angry or hankering that we don’t even know what it is actually like to be present, to just – be.

“No one confines his unhappiness to the present” – if we continually work to bring your thoughts to the present moment, increase our mindfulness; we will find unhappiness and anxiety are impossibilities.

Marcus Aurelius said we needed three things for a happy life and they all involve the present moment:

  1. Objective JUDGEMENTnow at this very moment
  2. Unselfish ACTIONnow at this very moment, and;
  3. WILLing acceptancenow at this very moment of all external events.

The Future

 

“He suffers more than necessary, who suffers before it is necessary”

– Seneca

 

“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens”

– Epictetus

As with the past, the future lies within the realm of things we do not control -things not in our “power”. Clearly distinguishing in our minds that the future is indeed unknowable, helps us realize how ridiculous it is to waste any time worrying or hoping about it. The meditation for November 16th in The Daily Stoic book is ‘Hope and fear are the same’. They are both the ‘enemy of the present moment’ and we will come to truly understand how any enemy of the present moment – is an enemy of ours!

It is obvious how fearing the future would make us anxious in the present but hoping is much more subtle, more cunning in the way it can produce anxiety and cause unhappiness. Hoping about the future causes us to want things to turn out a certain way and so ‘living a life in opposition to amor fati’. It is also this wanting and hoping that is actually causing us to worry about certain outcomes – causing our anxiety. Remember amor fati (the love of fate) and remember to stay within the present doing what you can with what you have – right now. We will all have our ‘ups’ and ‘downs’, our ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ in the future but as in Rudyard Kiplings’ poem ‘If’;

“…meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same”


Vincent Kennedy, Author ‘In the Centre Lies Virtue