This Is How You Get Tranquility

Marcus Aurelius said that pain either affects the body or the soul. Only one of them do you have any say over. “The soul can choose not to be affected, preserving its own serenity, its own tranquillity. All our decisions, urges, desires, aversions lie within. No evil can touch them.” Pierre Hadot’s metaphor for this was the “inner citadel.” Marcus worked to create a soul, a core, an inner fortress, Hadot  said, that fate, chaos, hysterics, vice, and outside influences could never penetrate or break down. 

Ada Palmer—a historian, professor, and novelist—knows the importance of building an inner citadel. In addition to the tumult of academia, publishing, and constant deadlines, Ada is also disabled and suffers from chronic pain. She says, sounding not unlike Hadot, that “Stoicism is about achieving interior tranquillity.” Hadot said that Marcus wrote to himself to strengthen the walls of his citadel, to achieve interior tranquility. In our interview with Ada for DailyStoic.com, we asked her about how she does it: 

I use a variety of different techniques to battle the gloom, “morbid thinking,” and other mental effects of chronic pain. I self-monitor carefully, keeping an inner lookout for when I find myself dwelling on something that’s upsetting me, and I have a sort of triage of responses. I ask myself (A) can I find an actionable solution to the problem? If not (B) can I get myself to stop worrying about the problem and let go? Can I laugh at the problem? Can I ask myself whether this will really matter in a year or five years?  Sometimes that alone can break the spell, but if it doesn’t this is where I find the maxims, especially the vivid images, often help. 

One of my favorites is the stoic image of life as being like being a guest at a banquet.  Many great platters are being passed around for you to take from, but occasionally one arrives already empty, everyone else has already taken it all.  It’s easy to be angry, and it is unfair, but the food wasn’t yours to begin with, it was a gift from your host, and you didn’t really need it, there is plenty of other food. Sometimes just thinking about that can make me less upset by something. It’s amazing how that kind of reframing, zooming out, or changing perspective can sometimes dispel the stormy thoughts that are really what are causing one’s unhappiness. 

Cultivating your inner citadel doesn’t mean reaching a point where one is immune to life’s disturbances. It’s about having your systems in place, your battle-tested line of defense ready to fend off those disturbances when they inevitably show up. For Marcus, it was journaling. For Ada, it’s stopping, reframing, changing perspectives. What is it for you?

P.S. This was originally sent on November 12, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism. 

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