Deep down we all know that there is more we could do and be. Indeed, most remorse comes from knowing that we could’ve handled a particular situation better than we did. We flip out on our kids over something minimal and then torment ourselves with guilt over it for days after. We have a deadline for a project due at school and we procrastinate on it until we have no choice but to pull an all-nighter, feeling nothing but anxiety the whole time we’re getting it done. None of this is new; humans have been putting off things they need to do, obsessing over things outside their control, and giving in to counterproductive emotions for literally thousands of years.
Around this time of year many of us also tend to become more reflective. We start thinking about how the year started, where we are now, and how much we have or haven’t changed. We reflect on what we could’ve done better, how we treated others, and the things we left undone. Because of this, we make resolutions. We say that starting next year we’re going to stop smoking or start working out. The new year starts and then inevitably, at the first sign of difficulty we cave in and resort to our old ways. We light that cigarette, we lash out at our spouse, and continue to endure the negative emotions associated with disappointing ourselves..
This isn’t to say that keeping any of these resolutions is easy. Changing our habits almost never is but that doesn’t change the fact that this needs to be done. The Stoics knew this and their writings were full of them constantly reminding themselves to act virtuously. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius were originally titled Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν, or, To Himself. The point is that self-improvement is a constant practice and the opportunity for practice is everywhere. And these opportunities aren’t worth wasting. With this in mind, here are a few Stoic practices that can help us all in every facet of our lives, no matter where you’re from or what your circumstances are. In the words of Epictetus “How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?”
Find Heroes to Emulate and Who Inspire You
“Invoke the characteristics of the people you admire most and adopt their manners, speech, and behavior as your own. There is nothing false in this. We all carry the seeds of greatness within us, but we need an image as point of focus in order that they may sprout.” -Epictetus, The Art of Living
There is a reason that the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius begin with him giving thanks to all those that played a part in the development of his character. None of us start out knowing everything we need to do to be our best selves. Indeed, before we know how to do anything we learn by observing those around us which is why Marcus gave thanks to, among many others, his grandfather for teaching him “good morals and the government of my temper.” And to his mother for teaching him “piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts.”
Now, not all of us have the privilege of being physically surrounded by people who are a constant source of inspiration for us. But luckily, we live in an age where the wisdom of the greatest people to ever live is available at our fingertips. All we have to do is seek them out and we’ll learn all about what it means to live with justice, purpose, strength, courage, and joy. If you want to learn more about what it means to be calm under pressure this coming year, seek out the teachings of Marcus Aurelius. When you’re faced with a tribulation in your life and aren’t sure how to respond, ask yourself what he would do, and do your best to respond accordingly. If you need a more modern example for say, mental toughness, learn more about David Goggins.
The point is, that by emulating them you are practicing what you preach and by definition, paying it forward to others in need. In seeking to be more like the people we use as positive examples in our lives, we ourselves become positive examples to others. And the world will always need more positive examples.
“Give yourself time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around.”
The single greatest shortcut to learning about the people we wish to emulate is by learning to read. Period. It is perhaps the shortest path to self improvement. Especially today, when access to almost all the knowledge in the world, some of it dating back to literally millions of years before our existence is available at our finger-tips. The knowledge that humans have been around for 200,000 years and most of us have experienced similar things should itself be a source of comfort. It serves as a reminder of our own ephemerality and why it’s so important to not waste any of the short time we have on this earth. There’s so much knowledge that’s been laid down for us over the millenia that there’s no excuse for not mining it for all its usefulness. The key word here is “useful”. Like Seneca said in a letter to his close friend Lucilius:
“Be careful however that there is no element of discursiveness and desultoriness about this reading you refer to, this reading of many different authors and books of every description. You should be extending your stay among writers whose 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.”
Seneca’s words are still relevant today. In a world where the pace of life seems to be accelerating more and more each day, it may seem like there’s no time to read. Indeed, most of us have more pressing concerns. The pressures of school, work, being a parent, they all weigh on us. But wouldn’t it be nice to learn how to not let them weigh on us as much? The Stoics left us with a foundation of knowledge that has aided people over the course of at least two thousand years. And we have so many options for acquiring this knowledge today. Most of the great books are available digitally, many of them free, and most of them under ten dollars. We can also listen to audiobooks on audible while doing something otherwise mindless, like commuting to work or washing dishes. Not to mention being able to find many great books lighty used and at a low cost from websites like Thriftbooks. Or, if you have a smartphone, there’s plenty of articles you can read here at Daily Stoic or at other educational sites like Brain Pickings.
The point is, that life can get overwhelming for all of us, change comes quick and we could all benefit from finding a way to better equipped for it. We all make mistakes. But save yourself a very large amount of them by learning from the mistakes of others. We can all steal five minutes to read while waiting in line somewhere and five minutes is much better than nothing. And if it’s been a while since you read and you don’t know where to start, feel free to check out Ryan Holiday’s practical philosophy books list. Any one of these, particularly the best of the Stoics, is a wonderful place to start.
With that being said, even those five minutes will be wasted time if you don’t use the rest of your time to put what you learn into action.
Practice What You Read
“You say, “Men cannot admire me for the sharpness of my wits.” So be it: but there are many other things of which you cannot say, “I am not formed for them by nature.” Show those qualities then that are altogether in your power: sincerity, gravity, endurance of labor, aversion to pleasure, contentment with your portion and with a simple life, benevolence, frankness, no love of superfluity, freedom from trifling magnanimity.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
The purpose of studying Stoic philosophy is to improve every other facet of the way we live our lives. Stoicism is, after all, perhaps the most practical of all philosophies. Its doesn’t concern itself with debating whether there is such a thing as free will or other complicated theories about the world but with helping us overcome destructive emotions and act on what can be acted upon. It’s purpose is to keep us calm under pressure and focusing on our ideals to the exclusion of almost all else. But there’s no point in reading Seneca’s letters if we aren’t going to immediately apply them to our own lives. In the above quote, Marcus Aurelius observed that there really aren’t that many things we have to practice in order to become the best version of ourselves. These things can be learned through theory, but only fully absorbed through experience. You don’t completely realize the power of letting go of your anger, until you do just that in the most difficult situations. Until you see how much peace doing that will bring you. All of this is making you more and stronger and more capable of enduring the future trials we will inevitably be subjected to.
“That’s why the philosophers warn us not to be satisfied with mere learning, but to add practice and then training. For as time passes we forget what we learned and end up doing the opposite, and hold opinions the opposite of what we should.” – Epictetus
The books are there to keep you from being all over the place, unable to learn from experience, and therefore repeating the same mistakes. They are there to refer to whenever we need counseling, whenever we need to remind ourselves how to deal with anger, and how to embrace difficulties instead of getting emotional over them and making them worse.
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
The single greatest determinant of our destinies lies in the way we react to what happens to us. Not in the things themselves. Think about the people you admire the most, it’s the ones who have overcome tremendous difficulty and allowed it to make them better and stronger. Whenever something bad happens, don’t let your first instinct be to shirk from it. Let this be an opportunity to learn, and to bring out the best in yourself. The more difficulty you overcome, the stronger you get. In the words of Seneca, “There is no one more unfortunate than the man who has never been unfortunate. For it has never been in his power to try himself.”
On a similar vein the ultra-athlete David Goggins has observed “The nice comfortable environment we are in right now makes us create lofty goals. What are you going to do when your New Year’s resolution was to run every day and when you wake up, look outside and see that it is snowing and -2 degrees?” Every year, we make resolutions and the reason we don’t keep them is because we give in to the easiest course-of-action at the first sign of hardship. It’s very easy to make a resolution to not give in to anger, when nothing is making you angry. But the only thing sure to make you better is keeping the promises you make to yourself. Difficulties don’t have to be some big event or tragedy, we all experience little difficulties in every-day life. Are you going to let the fact that there was a traffic jam and your commute took an hour longer than normal ruin the rest of your day or are you going to use that time to practice patience and presence? These are the little events that test us but they are also the little bits that make up the fabric of our lives. If we fly off the handle over something as insignificant as getting cut off in traffic, then we are ill prepared to keep the reins on ourselves when it’s most important.
We can take comfort in knowing that the little tests we experience in our daily lives are universal, no one is exempt from them. Even Marcus Aurelius, a man with an amount of power unfathomable to most of us, had trouble getting up in the morning. But he knew that nature sets a limit on everything and that all painful periods end eventually. Maya Angelou had a saying, “Every storm runs out of rain.” If we tell this to ourselves enough times we’ll start to see that all the difficult times are doing is making us appreciate the good times. But we can only reap the benefits of this practice if we practice it regularly by embracing, rather than shirking, from difficulty. By doing this we allow ourselves to be grateful for every moment, for the lessons that it teaches us.
Protect Your Time
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” – Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
One of the worst things about not keeping to our resolutions is the regret that accumulates as the years go by. Then we come to the end of our lives and realize how much time we wasted, how much we got in our own ways. We realize all the times that we gave in to anger when it was within our power not to, and how much this negatively impacted our lives.
By making a commitment to practice Stoicism we make sure that, when our time comes, we are proud of what we did with the slice of time allotted to us. Because making the best use of your time doesn’t just mean finding ways to keep yourself busy all the time, it means making the best use of every moment as it comes. It means using each moment as an opportunity to practice presence and gratitude. And in this way, we’ll come to the end of our lives knowing that we spent as little time as possible being negative or jaded over our circumstances. Our time wasn’t spent mindlessly scrolling social media or giving in to our impulses for immediate gratification, it was spent doing work we care about, bettering ourselves, and being of service to our communities.
Making the best use of your time means remembering what’s in your control and acting upon it to the best of your ability. It means leaving nothing that needs to be done undone. And by doing this we can reach the end of our lives resting satisfied not full of regrets but thankful for all the opportunities we used. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, “Pass then through this little space of time conformably to nature, and end thy journey in content, just as an olive falls off when it is ripe, blessing nature who produced it, and thanking the tree on which it grew.”
“It’s your job to comport yourself humbly and to consistently hew to your moral ideals.”-Epictetus, The Art of Living
The Stoics believed that our ability to become our best selves lies in direct proportion to how often we practice the four key pillars of virtue. Wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. By making the pursuit of wisdom one of our main goals in 2020 we can rest assured that no matter what happens, we’ll be equipped to learn from everything that happens to us. By practicing courage we’ll face every one of these situations with strength and never give up no matter how difficult they may seem. By practicing temperance, we’ll keep ourselves from giving into excess and never let our emotions get the better of us when it’s most important. And by practicing justice we’ll know that no matter the outcome of our trials, we were always trying to do the right thing.
This won’t always be easy, that’s not the point. The point is that practicing these virtues regularly is the most surefire way to self-improvement and to becoming our ideal selves. So make it a point to keep these virtues at the front of your mind any time life gets a little difficult or your resolutions get tested this coming year.
In life, we will constantly be coming into contact with people that test us. As Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius knew this all too well. Dealing with charlatans and liars was part of his job description and it wasn’t always easy to rein in his impulses for revenge. But in these situations he would always remind himself that the best way to avenge himself was “to not be like that.” He knew that he we would never be able to become his best self if he was constantly dwelling on the wrong actions of others. He also knew that the only thing he would gain from letting himself give in to his anger was being reduced to their level. Moreso, he knew that by not practicing forgiveness with these people over things that really didn’t matter in the long run, he would be making it much more difficult to forgive himself in the moments that he made mistakes himself.
It’s a natural human tendency to dwell on when someone did us wrong or when we did ourselves wrong. But this prevents us from moving forward. If we don’t forgive those who have wronged us, we risk coloring all our future interactions and relations with the scars of those who hurt us. And by not forgiving ourselves, we don’t allow ourselves to move forward and become our best selves. To forgive is to let go of the past and it is only by letting go of the past that we can stop being slaves to it and become our ideal selves.