This is a guest post by Monil Shah
Today, as our societies are growing, it seems like the line between good and bad, moral and immoral, just and unjust, is getting blurrier. We’re focusing a lot of our energy in getting that new car, hoping our kids’ picture gets a hundred likes and telling our friends about the wonderful things our boss told us that one day.
As all of this is happening, we are, in a very real sense, spending little to no time in a rather Socratic domain: self knowledge. We don’t know who we are, let alone understand the world around us. We’re terrible at understanding (let alone sympathising with) our thoughts and feelings. Our actions, then, are less driven by reason and more by temptation.
And so, being a “good” citizen has stopped being a priority for us.
We’ve forgotten that goodness and virtue are their own rewards. As Epictetus put it, “So, you say, what good do I get [from virtue]? But what more good do you want than this? Instead of being a shameless man you will become a dignified man, instead of chaotic you will become organized, from being untrustworthy you will become trustworthy, instead of being out of control you will become sane.”
Below are five simple ways we can practice goodness today rooted in Stoicism, which has been (and always will be) a school that is dedicated to shaping good citizens.
#1 Learn to Manage Your Emotions
With the rise in social media, people have more than enough opportunities to pose an opinion about our lives. Our Facebook pictures tend to speak more about how we’re doing, and all of this makes our emotions even more out of balance.
Someone of us are anxious, some- depressed, while others are lost in the depths of anger, wondering “why them”.
Unfortunately, our emotions have the opportunity to not only affect our health but also (more importantly) our actions, decisions, judgements, and perceptions.
Thus, in order to practice goodness, we need to learn how to manage our emotions. Here are some powerful stoic exercises that can help:
a) Premeditatio malorum:
Roughly translated to “premeditation of the evils to come“, this exercise makes us think about every possible negative situation that we’re dreading, making us (in a way), “prepare” for them.
Let’s say you have a messy roommate and he makes you pretty angry. You’re tired of telling him to organise his stuff, and every time you come home, you can’t help but notice the mess. Now, clearly, the two of you need to talk. However, you know that’s going to make you extremely pissed and you don’t want to say things to him you’d later regret. So, what do you do? First, you engage in premeditatio malorum, where, in your journal, you think about possibly everything that can go wrong during this conversation, so, you a) exactly define your fears, then- you think about how you can b) prevent it and c) repair it (in case these fears come true).
Tim Ferriss recently gave an excellent talk about this exercise.
What this exercise does is help you prepare for this difficult conversation, so, you’re less swayed by emotions. Thus, after engaging in the exercise, you’d probably not talk to him when you’re hungry (because you’re aware that you’re likely to feel anger), and would rather do it on a nice Saturday morning with a cup of coffee.
It’s rather surprising to see how a simple exercise like closing your eyes and being conscious of your breaths (or a mantra, in case of TM) can have so many benefits.It can help us “see” our emotions, helping us disassociate ourselves from it.
That changes everything.
So, instead of saying “I am angry”, one would say “that built up of heat in my chest..hmm, that’s anger”. Further, this gives us the choice of not giving in to our emotions and acting out. Because we’re no longer “it” (so to speak), we have the freedom of stepping out and just watching, curiously.
No wonder why Marcus loved it himself-
“People try to get away from it all—to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you want. By going within. Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul.”
Something additional we can learn from his words is to keep the practice very simple. We don’t need to buy expensive mats or clothes, instead, all we need to do is close our eyes and focus on our breath for a given period of time. As long as we do that, consistently, it’s enough.
#2 Evaluate your decisions
Emotions, biases, presumptions- they can all fatally affect our ability to make rationally sound decisions.
Now, although being good (and practicing goodness) doesn’t necessarily entail getting rid of these imperfections, it does, however, mean trying to be aware of them. Awareness can help bring us clarity. So, only once are we aware that these factors are likely to impact our decision making ability, can we reduce their power by taking them into consideration every time.
In order to achieve that awareness, we can use some stoic principles.
To read about how you can use it, check out this post.
#3 Let your Role Model Watch Your Every Move
We all have people in our minds who we aspire to be like, these people (either fictional or real), in a way, inspire us to do our very best. However, sometimes, in the midst of rage (when we’re evaluating whether or not to act out), or, in the midst of giving in to temptation, we forget about these role models.
In a very real sense, we think that we’re alone and so it’s easy to do something immoral, something against your nature, or rather, easy to not think about the right thing to do.
However, What would you do, if, your role model and/or mentor had the ability to watch your every move, choice, and action? How would that change the way you live?
Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler. (Letters to Lucilius, XI, On the Blush of Modesty, 10)
Place in mind a role model, someone whose character you greatly admire. Then, imagine they looked at every decision you took, imagine what would they do in that tough situation you faced at work. This will exercise your mind, helping you shape a better character of yourself.
Victor Frankl once said that man is pushed by his desires but pulled by his values. Let your role model remind you of them, every time you’re inclined to do something against your nature.
#4 Acknowledge This: To be good doesn’t require a lot
We derive our idea of goodness from science fiction movies, Marvel and DC super heroes. Now, although that’s exciting for a rather virtual world, in reality, it clearly doesn’t help. Although we obviously don’t expect to grow superhuman powers, there is something similarly irrational we expect of people who follow goodness- that, as much as they can, they will try to control things outside of themselves.
This includes other people’s opinions, beliefs, and actions. Somehow, we think that’s what a real world superman does- deals with others shit.
Fortunately, that’s not the case.
There is a concept that is the centre piece of Stoicism: Dichotomy of Control.
Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. (Enchiridion 1)
Thus, you don’t really have to worry about dealing with anyone’s shit—all you have to do is focus on you. Your beliefs, your opinions, your actions and your choices. Surprisingly, once we derive what’s in our control in any given situation, we’ve done our job, our duty to be good.
Nothing more, nothing less.
You ask, “But what if I care about others people’s choices? What if it affects me?”
Well, here’s a prayer used by certain 12-step organisations (Alcoholics Anonymous, for example):
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
Lastly, to read more about the dichotomy of control and how we can connect it to our modern lives today, read this post by Massimo.
#5 Educate yourself
Being and doing good requires us to first understand what good means. We know that nothing’s black and white and so that gives us all the more reasons to get equipped with the necessary attitude and knowledge required to do good.
Now, Dichotomy Of Control is just one of the many concepts the Stoics used, and, the only way we can a) know other ideologies and b) learn how to apply them in situations is by increasing our knowledge.
When was the last time you read an entire book? Cover to cover? It’s no supine that once were done with formal education, we spend little to no time in learning.
“Why should we, when we’re well settled with a job?!” You ask.
Well, were equipped with certain biases and skills, things, that, we got first hand from our lives until now. Education, however, opens these barriers. It makes us see others ways of doing something, a new technique on noting our thoughts and feelings (to give you an example).
So, educate yourself. If you’re confused about what’s right or wrong in a given situation and what exactly your role is, well, look for answers. Literally look for them, and, I promise, you will find them. Here are some educational stoic tools that can help you:
1) How to Be a Stoic
3) Daily Stoic
Let’s bring back goodness, let’s (as Marcus brilliantly puts it), consider ourselves dead, and, live the rest of what’s left, properly.
Monil Shah is a blogger and a philosophy enthusiast, aiming to make life a little less overwhelming and a little more sane. You can find him on facebook.com/mindandtheheart.