The Stoic Rulebook on Living and Happiness
The Stoics had a rulebook on how to live and how to be happy.
They always made sure they uniquely differentiated between what was in their control and what wasn’t. The Stoics lived by this rule – that only you have power over your mind – while no external event can control your attitude.
Because the truth of life is that you will come face to face with adversity and change. Obstacles and bad luck will come your way. Emotions will be swayed and things will go wrong.
Maybe today, or tomorrow, or the day after that something bad will happen. You will be surprised. Maybe you feel fear, sadness or anger, but it should not deter you from making the best of it anyway.
It is what we have to accept.– Susan David
We don’t get to have success without stress and discomfort.
It is the price of admission to a meaningful life.
The Stoics accepted adversity
We can be guided by the Stoics on how to master our mental state and well-being. Because they knew that worry was not useful for anything:
If you can control it, great. Then you don’t have to worry about it.
If you can’t control it, great too. Because then you don’t have to worry about it
So even though the struggle is real, know that emotions are part of this dynamic world that we live in – and absolutely nothing can be changed about that.
“To achieve freedom and happiness, you need to grasp this basic truth: some things in life are under your control, and others are not.”– Epictetus
In other words, The Stoic Way of Living is to learn how to deal with your emotions. Making nobody other than yourself responsible for achieving and maintaining your sense of happiness, called Eudaimonia.
This capacity to face adversity and change is what the Stoics knew to be the key to living a meaningful life. To always maintain a positive and upbeat mental state.
The Stoics released the need for control
Stoics were fully aware that they did not have total control. As a result, they were able to rise above the situation by taking a higher perspective.
Although total mental control in all situations is unrealistic, we can still practice and take charge of our attitude. We can work on how we respond to any given situation. In this sense, take on the Stoic philosophy as a way of thinking, but also as a way of doing.
Define what is in control and what not
We can divide our emotional state into three categories.
Either we are emotionally regulated and nothing is wrong
Or we feel impartial (unsure yet how our emotional state is affecting us).
In the worst case we feel submission to our emotions.
The green circle signifies total emotional regulation with conscious control of our emotions.In this state, you clearly see what is required of you in any situation and you know how to act in the right way.
“Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed, and you haven’t been.”– Marcus Aurelius
The grey circle signifies impartiality, which means that you’re in the grey zone, contemplating if you’re going to submit. During these situations, emotions can prohibit the full utilization of our mental bandwidth. but we can recover and counterbalance the negative emotion with a positive one.
When you learn to control what’s in your control it becomes easier to create a mind with tranquillity and peace when you feel anger growing. To summon calmness in times of confusion. To find reasons for it to be alright when you have worries.
The red circle implies that emotions have successfully infiltrated and distorted our thought pattern, which leads to a negative emotional state that dictates our behaviour. In this case, our mind is unable to detach itself from the emotions.
Emotional pressure and behaviour
In each mind state our behaviour will adapt accordingly. The element that varies our level of control is the perceived emotional pressure of the situation, which can be outlined on a continuum:
Instinct behaviour is the strongest expression of emotional self control. You feel in the zone. Having the world on lock-down. Nothing can hurt you and the path of action is clear. You don’t stumble and go with the flow, without any hesitation or insecurity. Reality is unfolding in front of you and you are in-tune with the moment, undistracted by emotions.
The extraordinary freedom of instinctive behaviour is that it never locks you into one path, because there is always a sense of intuition can be followed. This is what deactivates all emotional pressure in the situation because you simply know what to do, while not necessarily worrying about the how.
The subconscious part of our brain is engaged, being ultra receptive to feedback, creating responses in a split second while managing any situation. This leads to the courage to act with conviction.
Contemplated behaviour is expression under slight pressure. It doesn’t feel natural because of the increased self-awareness in the situation. But it is a temporary state of behaviour, until you manage to re-gain full control or submit to the emotion you feel. This really depends on the mental strategies you employ and how effective they are to regain full control.
Emotional behaviour implies that control is lost due to the increased pressure. Once control is given up, recovery is often only possible by letting the dust settle and letting the emotions come to pass.
Emotional behaviour has two sides. Either the emotions are blocking behaviour or forcefully driving behaviour.
When emotions block behaviour it is known as analysis paralysis. You become paralyzed and you start to over-think the situation. In this case, trying to figure out the right thing to do is impossible due to the complexity of information in the environment. This can lead to fear, doubt and anxiety taking the upper hand. You shut down as a result.
When emotions forcefully drive behaviour it is characterized as a hostile takeover. In this case, emotions are actually driving your actions to an extreme degree. Anger, frustration and fury lead to destructive thought patterns and a reactive attitude.
In both situations where emotional control is lost, identification with the pain body is taking place. According to Eckhardt Tolle in his book The Power of Now, the pain body is a life form that feeds off emotional pain. It is like a parasite, living in you and feeding on you physically, mentally, and emotionally. But the pain-body only has as much power as you give it;
“The pain that you create now is always some form of nonacceptance, some form of unconscious resistance to what is. On the level of thought, the resistance is some form of judgment. On the emotional level, it is some form of negativity. The intensity of the pain depends on the degree of resistance to the present moment, and this in turn depends on how strongly you are identified with your mind.”– Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment
Identification with the pain body severely limits us and obscures our connection to the larger and subtler dimensions of life. The threat we feel takes over our stream of thought. This in turn creates a set of defensive attitudes and patterns of behaviour that preserves the threat or anxiety that we feel. As soon as the pain body takes over the mind, an internal dialogue starts, with the pain body distorting interpretation and judgement.
Releasing the ego
The Stoic Way of Living means that you actively practice releasing the ego. It means that you fight against emotional pressure of any given moment. It means that you recognize that it won’t be easy, but you’re going to try it anyway.
If you’re interested to know more about the Stoics and the tools they used to rise over any situation click here.
Grover, T. 2014. Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable
Tolle, E. (2004). The power of now: A guide to spiritual enlightenment
Special thanks to Ryan Holiday for all his content, emails and books on Stoicism.