Peace of mind is something many look for, but few achieve. How wonderful it would be if we could be one of those fortunate souls that seem to be distrbed by nothing and nobody. People like Fred Rogers, the children’s television show host, who always seemed to have a serene expression on his face and a reputation for treating everyone he met with the utmost kindness and patience. The misconception with these types of people is that all of them are like that naturally, with little to no effort made on their behalf. While it is true that this equanimity comes more easily for some people than others, almost all of them are like this because they develop methods of emotional control and rationalization which they practice daily.
Rogers himself woke up at 5 a.m every day to spend an hour alone in reflection and prayer. This was what brought him peace in all other areas of his life and helped him to maintain a steady frame of mind. But this isn’t the only way that you can start to build up a foundation of stillness into your life, and Rogers certainly wasn’t the first person to see the value in drawing from certain lessons and rituals daily as a means of cultivating the inner peace that would serve him in all other areas of his life.
Nearly two thousand years ago, Stoic philosophers were also trying to find peace. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, made it a point to spend time alone with his journal every morning before dawn. Epictetus, the former slave turned philosopher, admonished his students to constantly keep in mind that “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.” For these men, practicing philosophy was a necessity. Something they could constantly come back to to remind themselves what was in their control and help them view outside events with more detachment. And this is why the writings of the Stoics have endured for so long and continue to teach people from all walks of life how to be less reactive, more reflective, and more level-headed.
With that in mind, here are eight Stoic lessons you can learn and apply to feel more tranquil, free, and at peace. No matter who you are or where you’re from.
Don’t Suffer Imagined Troubles
“There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” – Seneca
How often do we tie ourselves up in knots over imagined troubles? How often do we let anxiety and worry get the better of us? How much of our pain is real and how many of it is fear about pain that might or might not actually happen?
Seneca’s remedy is found in his letter “On Groundless Fears”:
“What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come. Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.”
Don’t let worry get the best of you. Stay in the present. Stay with your actual troubles—there’s plenty there.
Accept Your Own Mortality
“No man can have a peaceful life who thinks too much about lengthening it.”Seneca
Death is something that hangs over all of our heads. It follows us everywhere and yet we try to avoid even thinking about it. Turn on the news any night of the week and you’re sure to see a story reported of somebody who tragically dies before their time. The thought gives us so much anxiety that we do anything possible to shut it out. We’ll spend hours playing video games trying to keep ourselves unaware that our time is running out, minute by minute, and, second by second.
The only antidote to this malady then, is to accept our mortality. By accepting our own mortality we can make peace with the only thing in life that we can take for granted. We’re going to die, and so is everybody we love. Humans have been dying for tens of thousands of years and they will continue to die long after we’re gone. But this thought shouldn’t depress us, quite the opposite. It should inspire us. It should motivate us to live each day to its absolute fullest and to stop taking our current abilities to make our lives great for granted. And to not obsess over lengthening our lives but rather, use the time we do have to appreciate the gift of being alive. Only by turning death from a source of fear into a source of motivation
Remember Whose Opinion Matters
“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinions than our own.”-Marcus Aurelius
In a hyper-connected world, it’s never been more important to stop caring about the opinions of others than it is today. And there’s a simple reason for this. There are almost eight billion people in the world. All of them come from different backgrounds, all of them have different experiences, and all of them have different interests and priorities. If you were to try and take all eight billion of these opinions into account when choosing how you’re going to live your life, you’d go insane. And this is nothing new, two thousand years ago Seneca was admonishing his friend Lucilius to disregard the world’s opinion of him because it’s always “unsettled and divided.”
Seneca knew that the only things we should be focusing on are those that concern us and those that are right. And this is something we should all keep in mind as well. Instead of worrying what everyone thinks of us, we should only focus on doing what we know to be true. We should focus on being consistently kind, caring, patient, tolerant, disciplined, wise, and understanding. Because if we constantly keep these things before our eyes then we will always know that no matter what happens or what other people say, we were doing the right thing.
Schedule Stillness Into Your Life
“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.” – Seneca
In the 21st century, the pace of life seems to be accelerating more and more with each passing day. Most of us are on the move and in a rush from the minute we wake up. Rushing to do the things we need to get done and then filling in every spare moment with social media and cheap entertainment. We can’t stand to be bored and because of this we reflexively run from anything that entails reflection or solitude. Viktor Frankl once said “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” But we can’t have this growth and freedom if we’re so anxious over having a moment alone with ourselves that we have to resort to mindlessly checking our instagram news feeds every time we get the chance. So, instead of using every spare moment to try and suppress your thoughts, become friends with them. If you have a spare five minutes, go for a walk and practice experiencing the peace that can only come from being completely comfortable with yourself and accepting your lot, no matter what it is.
Find The Beauty In Everyday Life
“Observe the movements of the stars as if you were running their courses with them, and let your mind constantly dwell on the changes of the elements into each other. Such imaginings wash away the filth of life on the ground.” ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
No matter how much Stoicism can teach us about how to act in the world and how to treat our fellow human beings, it will never be able to explain why we exist or why the universe exists. For Marcus Aurelius, this wasn’t a source of stress or anxiety, in fact, it was the exact opposite. Although thinking about the nature of our existence isn’t what Stoicism concerns itself with, taking the time to appreciate what does exist is. It’s why there are passages all throughout the Meditations where Marcus appreciates the little things that most of us overlook so often. Like, “When a loaf of bread, for instance, is in the oven, cracks appear in it here and there; and these flaws, though not intended in the baking, have a rightness of their own, and sharpen the appetite. Figs, again, at their ripest will also crack open. When olives are on the verge of falling, the very imminence of decay adds its peculiar beauty to the fruit.”
The beauty of these observations is their simplicity. Despite being emperor, in no part of the Meditations do we find Marcus obsessing over luxury or over things that aren’t just as easily available to all of us. What we do find him consistently appreciating, though, is the vastness of the universe and all the things it contains. It’s why that particular passage ends with Marcus noting that those simple things are beautiful precisely because they, in their own unique way, contribute to the macrocosm that encompasses all of us. So, any time you feel anxious or stressed, try and take a moment. Even if it’s just two minutes. But take a moment to look at the sky and think of how many people look at the same sky as you. How many people draw peace from the same simple things. Whether it be a walk in the park or the smell of their mothers cooking. And let that thought comfort you.
Take The View From Above
“Think of substance in its entirety, of which you have the smallest of shares; and of time in its entirety, of which a brief and momentary span has been assigned to you; and of the works of destiny, and how very small is your part in them.”-Marcus Aurelius
When embroiled in our affairs and the events of our lives it feels like their the most important thing in the world. They feel like this because we rarely decide to step out of our habitual manner of looking at the world which, because of all the things we’re constantly dealing with, often revolves exclusively around our immediate surroundings. Because of this we forget just how much more there is going on in the world, not to mention the universe. And we also make the mistake of thinking that all of the things we habitually concern ourselves with actually have anything to do with us. In the second lesson of his phenomenal video course, Living From A Place of Surrender, the author Michael Singer urges us to consider the fact that the moment in front of us is 13.8 billion years in the making. Furthermore, he urges us to consider just how big the universe is; how many atoms, molecules, distant galaxies, and other humans exist. And just how much is going on right now that has absolutely nothing to do with us.
Doing this can have a powerful effect on the average human being because it puts all of our problems into perspective. It also makes us realize that our problems are only so big because we make them so. And it is something we can regularly think about and practice in order to benefit from the peace that results from becoming conscious of the fact that we’re all part of something so much bigger than ourselves as to be unfathomable.
Live By A Code
“If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.”-Marcus Aurelius
The best part of Stoicism is that it gives us a framework by which we can live our lives. If we decide to accept this framework then we no longer have to spend time on the daily decisions that normally tire us out throughout the day. The reason for this is that now, instead of considering whether we should give in to the temptation of caring what other people think or sleeping in when we have to work, things we know are bad for us aren’t even a question. If they don’t align with our moral code of conduct then we don’t even consider them. For some, this might seem like too restrictive a way of living, but for the Stoics, it was the opposite. Having this code released them from the anxiety and uncertainty that results from having to obsess over every little decision they made. And by doing this you can experience the peace that results from discarding everything outside the few things that you choose to focus on. Things that are, hopefully, right, good, and true.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”Socrates
Out of all the lessons we’ve laid here on finding peace this is perhaps the most important. If we don’t schedule reflection into our days then we risk falling prey to our basest impulses and bad habits. The way the Stoics did this was through journaling. Marcus Aurelius did it in the morning as a way to prepare himself for the difficulties of the day, and Seneca wrote in the evening noting that “the sleep which follows this self-examination is particularly sweet.” According to Donald Robertson, psychotherapist and author of How To Think Like A Roman Emperor, one of the main benefits of journaling is that it facilitates being able to look at your thoughts objectively, if done correctly. Indeed, scattered throughout the writings of the Stoics are their attempts to bring situations down to size. To decatastrophize them, as Robertson likes to call it.
Because by journaling and making it a point to not let anything that goes by us unobserved, then we can exercise the most important power a human being possesses. Our reason. And by constantly exercising this reason both in our reflections and throughout the day we’ll gain a greater level of awareness over what is and isn’t in our control and therefore, more peace.
There are so many ways the Stoics can teach us how to find inner peace, and we can only discover them all by continuing our study of this philosophy. But, for now, take these lessons to heart to get started on, or continue on, your journey for that inner peace we so desperately crave. It’s worth it.