The first, and perhaps most important, lesson of Stoicism is that we don’t control the world around us, but we do control how we see and perceive the world around us. “Indeed, no one can thwart the purposes of your mind,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “for they can’t be touched by fire, steel, tyranny, slander, or anything.” By controlling our perceptions, the Stoics tell us, we can find mental clarity. We may be impeded or disrupted, but the mind always retains the power to redirect the path.
Learning to control our perceptions, building our mental toughness and resilience, however, is not always easy. Which is why we were thrilled to have the opportunity to interview Dr Tara Swart. Dr. Swart is a neuroscientist who works with leaders all over the world to help them achieve mental resilience and peak brain performance. The only top-tier leadership coach with both a PhD in neuroscience and a former medical career as a psychiatrist, Dr. Swart is also a longtime fan and student of Stoicism, even applying it to her work with clients and her new book The Source! In our interview below, Dr. Swart tells more about her interest in Stoicism, her new book, and shares several techniques anyone can start practicing today to build mental resilience and improve their ability to manage stress, regulate emotions and retain information. Please enjoy our interview with Dr. Swart!
What was your first encounter with Stoicism and why did the philosophy resonate?
I learnt about Stoicism at high school and although it is a Hellenistic philosophy there are threads of stoicism in many other philosophies including the ancient eastern philosophies that are my cultural heritage, so it always felt innate. I recalled it during my time as a medical doctor when I witnessed massive amounts of human suffering (both mental and physical) and had to find strategies to make meaning of this in my life, and my work with patients and their families. Many of my clients have asked if I researched Stoicism as part of writing The Source. I reviewed all the ancient philosophies and drew out what resonated with the message of the book with much overlap from Stoicism.
Do you bring it up in your work with your clients?
The Stoics came to me in my work! In my client work as an executive advisor primarily for financial services, I was working with a CEO Judy, who was feeling increasingly stressed in her role and inter-personal relationships. During this time, she received a copy of The Daily Stoic in the mail and assumed it was from her mother-in-law to whom she was close. Separately a colleague of hers asked me if I knew of any reason that Judy had not thanked her for the thoughtful gift during a tough time. I put two and two together and was able to let Judy know that it was indeed Maria that had sent her the book. Six months later after our work together was complete, Judy sent me a copy of The Daily Stoic as a gift and re-ignited my connection to Stoicism. I use this case story as a way to bring up Stoicism in my work with clients because there are not many of them that do not need it. It was also another example, in my book, of an age-old philosophy that is re-energized by modern breakthroughs in cognitive science.
What key principles do you find are the most beneficial in your line of work that you share with clients?
The neuroscience behind being present (mindfulness), meta-cognition (using our own mind to understand our logic and thinking as well as that of the world) and emotional mastery are key tenets of my client work on mental resilience and that I have shared in my new book. These have strong parallels to the Stoic ethic. It is important to be aware of what you can and cannot change but sometimes fear tells us that we can’t change things that we actually can. I help people achieve clarity around this.
Your focus is on mental resilience and peak brain performance and you have worked with leaders all over the world. Before we go into the nitty-gritty, why did you get into this line of work? What piqued your interest?
I had been a medical doctor specializing in psychiatry for 7 years; I also had a PhD in neuroscience; In 2007 when I decided to change career there was a global financial crisis erupting and I found a niche consulting for leaders suffering unprecedented levels of stress and uncertainty. I felt I could add value to people who potentially had a huge positive influence on teams, organizations and society.
How do you personally define mental resilience? And what specific skills do your clients seek to develop and how exactly do you help?
I define mental resilience as the ability to endure and bounce back from adversity as well as to embrace change and uncertainty in the quest for lifelong learning and self-improvement. My clients mostly seek to build resilience to stress and to develop emotional mastery. I use the analogy of language use and dis-use within the foundation of neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to grow and change) to help them develop new desired skills and over-write old habits and behavior patterns that are holding them back.
What is an exercise you can give to our readers so they can develop mental resilience?
Exercise: Learn how to STOP
I used this exercise when I was working as a child psychiatrist. It’s a technique that is often used by family therapists with children who get into uncontrollable rages. I used it again, more recently with executive clients.
Close your eyes and allow yourself to feel what it’s like when you’re overwhelmed with fear/anger/shame etc. Remember something that makes you feel like this and allow it to fill your whole body. Feel the emotion on your skin, in your chest, your mouth, your muscles, and your mind. Once you feel full of it, imagine holding up a big, red STOP sign in your mind and allowing the feeling to dissipate completely, relax your muscles and let the angry feeling leave you. Practice this until you feel you can use it in real life scenarios to stay calm.
Self-reflection and introspection—such as journaling and having an evening routine to reflect on your day and behavior—was very important for the Stoics. You’re a huge proponent of journaling—Can you talk about your journaling habit, why you do it, and share some tips you might have for getting the most out of journaling?
I find journaling to be the single best way to stay in touch with and hone my intuition. I revere it as a habit and use a beautiful leather-bound journal and favorite pen to engage my senses of vision, smell and touch. I write about certain situations and explore my emotions around them. I get the most out of it by reading back over three to six month periods to identify repeating patterns, changes or improvements, and to see where managing my emotions and trusting my gut have been useful or to highlight in my mind the consequences of not doing so. I also keep my gratitude and accomplishments lists in my journal.
Your new book The Source is about the connection between how the brain functions and the powerful impact this has on one’s life. Can you tell us more about it? What do you hope people learn about mastering our minds?
The Source is a practical guide, based on science to help people who read it and do all the exercises in it, to create the life that they dream of based on the principles of neuroplasticity and abundance. I hope that people will learn how to master their emotions, trust their gut, know themselves better, make good decisions and stay motivated to reach their goals. People have told me that the science behind visualization and vision boards has compelled them to take action.
Which exercise or idea from the book do you see readers find the most benefit from and rave about?
The creation of an action board. There is an early chapter on the science behind setting your intention and how the laws of attraction work, especially abundance and manifestation. Later there is a practical chapter on how to create a powerful action board filled with images that accurately represent the life you dream of. It is not about sitting back and waiting for these to come true but about priming your brain to seize opportunities that may otherwise have passed you by. I am already receiving images via Instagram from people who have successfully create their action board.
Have you read much of the Stoics? If so, can you tell us about your relationship to the philosophy, or philosophy in general? Any favorites? Favorite quotes?
I could never read enough of the Stoics! I believe that the ancient philosophers held all the answers and it is actually amazing how relevant their thoughts are in the modern world. It is our responsibility as humans to re-connect to these, but we are stuck on a treadmill of doing rather than being. I find different quotes resonate at different times in life but here are a few of my all-time favorites:“Waste no time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” Marcus Aurelius Click To Tweet “Progress is not achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself daily.” Epictetus Click To Tweet “We suffer more often in imagination than reality.” Seneca Click To Tweet “The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say, or think, or do. Only what you do.” Marcus Aurelius Click To Tweet
What other books and authors have shaped you the most?
The genres of triumph over adversity and self-actualization have always fascinated me. My favorite books and authors in the realm of human nature are as below and they have all shaped both me and the writing of The Source: