Stoicism – A Life Saver
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present”
So there I was yet again, curled up in the foetal position on the bedroom floor with tears flooding from my eyes. Outwardly screaming but all the pain directed inward. The only thoughts entering my mind were drastically negative; the distress I felt during these times was indescribable. My perception of life was I was nothing but a waste of space. A crumbling foolish disaster, with no hope of ever changing. An embarrassment to myself and a total fucking loser. For two decades these sporadic episodes of deep depression crippled any chance of serious productive activity and caused long absences from work.
To make things even more complicated, many times when I wasn’t depressed I was ridiculously happy – to the point of complete delusion! Life was just the most beautiful thing ever. I was amazing. I was going to be the most famous artist of my generation and people would soon be clamouring to buy my paintings. I would be walking on air, buzzing, tingling with excitement. Don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoyed these times but got totally carried away. The huge gulf between the highs and lows made the lows so much more devastating.
While trying to analyse my thoughts I noticed that external events never changed by any significant amount between each end of the emotional spectrum. It was my thoughts, or emotions that were controlling my state of mind and making my life an uncontrollable emotional car wreck. There was one thing that I picked up on that was changing each time. When I was buzzing I felt that everything I wanted was achievable. I was someone magnificent and was going to be wealthy and be able to do whatever I wanted. Everything I hankered after would soon be mine. When depressed the thoughts were the opposite. I was hankering after possessions and a life that was never going to materialise – so what was the point even continuing to live? What I needed was two things; an idea of where these emotions came from and a method for controlling them.
Sigmund Freud (if you didn’t already know) was an Austrian neurologist and the father of psychoanalysis. I’ll try and give the simplest and shortest ever first grade psychology lesson… he divided the psyche into three sections. Not physical sections and not quite distinct from each other. He called them the Id, Ego and Superego.
The Id is like instinctive part of the psyche. If you think of the emotional outbursts by a spoilt child or a angry chimpanzee, these are the emotions that the Id is trying to force you to feel. Instinctive, aggressive and jealous type emotions will also arise from here but also anxiety if the Id feels unsafe. These emotions tend to come suddenly and be powerful. The Superego is like your internal critic. This will try to raise emotions like self loathing, self criticising and gives rise to the perfectionist in you. Trying to control these two emotional geysers is the ego, or you. This is not what we commonly mean when we say “ego”, or that ego which Ryan Holiday rightly calls the “enemy” in his latest book. Those egotistical feelings are a combination of emotions from both the Id and Superego that combine to overpower you.
So, I now had a very basic structure to compartmentalise my emotions and see them as forces over which I had control, forces that I needed to start controlling. To stop having fear cripple me, stop letting dreams be my master (as Kipling put it), stop the jealousy, the anger, the absolute brutal self loathing and to find some sort of mental clarity and balance. I also wanted to stop thinking or worrying about the future or flagellating myself over the past. I needed a philosophy to partner the psychology – Stoicism was the perfect find.
When I found stoicism it was the first time I had come across a realistic answer for the pain, or what was causing the suffering. Most of the answers coming from my relatives or other lay people were to pray, hope and don’t worry. But I had run out of prayers, hope was ever changeable and worrying was the status quo. Reading ancient stoic writings from Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca or modern stoic works such as The Obstacle is the Way showed such honesty and they accepted that indeed life can be tough. But that it was our ability to remain level headed, in control and virtuous through the toughness that was what life was about. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb puts it “a stoic is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking”.
I was able to recognise that it was my own passions or desires that were the cause of most of the suffering. Passions and desires that originated in either the Id or superego, or both. Stoicism gives a stop-gap, a barrier, a first line of defence against what is most of the time, irrational emotions. Irrational emotions that if not controlled cause us great suffering. It teaches us to take a second or a short pause to look at the emotions rationally and to use reason, virtuous thinking and right action to keep the emotions in check. It teaches many other things but I will touch on four areas in which it has greatly helped me.
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.”
“Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you , realise your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it easier to maintain control.”
This is for me the most important stoic principle. With a mind that wanders and thoughts that spiral into both positive and negative territories, I have a constant job of monitoring and controlling my thoughts. It has got easier over the last few years due to practice and my impulse is now to take a pause rather than react immediately from my emotions. Questioning desires and opinions I have and trying to keep the mind sharp to control my irrational internal critic has all come from stoicism.
“And see that you keep a cheerful demeanour and retain your independence of outside help and the peace which others can give. Your duty is to stand straight – not held straight.”
“No wandering. In every impulse, give what is right: in every thought, stick to what is certain.”
How often do we complain and want things to change or improve but bluff ourselves into thinking we are doing something about it? We want others to do the work for us or expect help from them to ease our problems. Stoicism removes the complainer, the expecter and inserts a rational problem solving thinker. A thinker that is capable of facing his problems, finding solutions – with no excuses and taking full responsibility for the decisions and actions taken.
Have the “acts of a man with an eye for precisely what needs to be done, not in the glory of its doing”
“Anyone who likes may make things easier for himself by viewing them with equanimity”
“It is not the man who has too little that is poor, but the one who hankers after more.”
We dream about a fantastically rich and prosperous future and when things don’t seem to be going our way we get down and depressed about it. Stoicism teaches us to not expect anything in particular but to have a love of fate – amor fati. What usually arises will invariably be somewhat different from any expectations good or bad, that we may have imagined. This does not mean that we sit back and see what happens, quite the opposite, it means that we can try whatever we want to and have no fear of preserved success or failure. Treating the results of our efforts with indifference and not to get overjoyed with the “good” or depressed about the “bad”. This helps us stay focused on the present moment and tasks that need to be done and reduces our hankering.
“Death: there’s nothing bad about it at all except the thing that comes before it – the fear of it”
“Life is never incomplete if it is an honourable one. At whatever point you leave life, if you leave it in the right way, it is whole.”
I used to think about death incessantly and wonder if my life was worth continuing. Now I see it as the end in the way that it drives me to be better and to do better each day. Death is a major underpinning theme within my book, In the Centre Lies Virtue. Death, or our awareness of its inevitability, has a subconscious and sometimes conscious vice-like grip on our every action and our belief systems. The fact that death is indeed final should help us focus on the things that actually matter and to act with virtue in our dealings.
Stoicism is a philosophy that has transformed my life. I’m more mindful, thankful and grounded in my aspirations. Although when the deep depressive states do have a clutch on me I can still turn to the stoics for aid:
Whatever happens, happens such as you are either formed by nature able to bear it, or not able to bear it. If such as you are by nature form’d able to bear, bear it and fret not: But if such as you are not naturally able to bear, don’t fret; for when it has consumed you, itself will perish. Remember, however, you are by nature formed able to bear whatever it is in the power of your own opinion to make supportable or tolerable, according as you conceive it advantageous, or your duty, to do so.
Author, In the Centre Lies Virtue.