What do Tim Ferriss, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius have in common? – An ancient philosophy that stood the test of time.
Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy, founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC.
Today, Stoicism is a tool that we can use to overcome difficulties and adversity, to become less emotionally reactive and to better resolve conflicts. I believe that stoicism is more relevant than ever, because of the highly stressful environment and information overload we’re confronted with today. And if we don’t learn how to cope with stress, anxiety, and things that affect our everyday lives, we are set out for disaster (like burnout, depression, and low self-esteem).
In this blog post, I’ll teach you how to use ancient stoic practices in our modern days to reduce stress and to become more mindful. I discovered this philosophy two years ago and it helped me a lot when I was facing setbacks in my own life. I believe it can help you too.
The first practice, voluntary discomfort, will help you practice gratitude and to learn to appreciate the things that you already have in your life. Seneca was Nero’s advisor, who enjoyed great wealth.
Still, he suggested to set aside a certain number of days each month to practice poverty. While doing this, he advises to ask yourself the question:
Is this what I used to fear?
There are several ways to go about this. Voluntarily discomfort means that you take away something from your environment to make it a little bit harder for you to operate in your day-to-day life. This can be taking a cold shower, fasting or not using electricity for a day or turning off the internet for a week. You can also wear your worst clothes, get away from the comfort of your home or bed and sleep on the floor.
In our case, we sold our couch in our studio apartment because we wanted to downsize to have more space. However, the new couch will only arrive in 2 weeks, which means that we have to find other ways to relax or sit on the floor. What this exercise does to you is that it keeps you grounded, making you appreciate all the little things that you have. And the more you practice discomfort deliberately, the more resilient you will be when unplanned discomfort occurs.
Let me ask you this:
How many times do you actually feel grateful for the things that you have?
Tim Ferriss famously practices stoicism by doing a 3-day-fast every month, and by taking cold showers to remain grounded and not to take everything in his life for granted. Try to do a similar exercise at home and let me know in the comments below how it went!
The second stoic practice is called negative visualization. What would it feel like if you lost your job today? Or you lost all of your possessions in a fire? How would you feel if you lost a loved one today? What would you do if you just realized that you’re paralyzed and won’t be able to move anymore?
One thing we all have in common is that we all face challenges. Some of you might have experienced some of the things that I just mentioned. But even if you did, it could always get worse. Did you lose a parent? What if you lost your entire family? And so on…
This exercise does two things. It prepares you for the worst case scenarios, some of which might even happen to you at some point. And it helps you put things into perspective and to practice gratitude.
It also keeps Hedonic Adaptation under control. Which basically means that we constantly get used to the things we have and then begin to take them for granted.
Negative visualization is a simple exercise that can remind us how lucky we are. This is how it goes: Just imagine that bad things have happened, or that good things have not. You decide the scale of the catastrophe, I mentioned some before. But you can also imagine how situations that you are about to embark in will go wrong. Just ask yourself:
What is the worst thing that could happen if I did this?
Dichotomy of Control
And the final stoic practice is the dichotomy of control. Stoicism teaches you that the only things you can control are your thoughts and your actions. Everything else is outside of your control, or as Epictetus called it: our reasoned choice. Therefore, whatever is outside of your control is not worth the energy you spend on worrying about it.
This is a highly debated concept and my explanation might be oversimplified, but let me give you an example to illustrate this point.
You are in the waiting room of the doctor’s office and even though you made an appointment, you still have to wait a long time to see the doctor. Many people in this situation pick a fight with the receptionist, who has done absolutely nothing wrong to deserve this.
You sit there uncomfortably, spending a very long time in your own negative thoughts about how badly you’ve been treated. Or you check social media to distract yourself, which might even have a worse effect on you, as everyone else seems to have a grand old time, while you’re sitting at the doctor’s office doing nothing.
But having to wait is outside of your control. There’s nothing you can do to speed up the process. So what is in your control now? Your attitude. How about you take a deep breath and appreciate that you only have a cold instead of having a fatal disease. How about you see the waiting time as an opportunity to just observe your environment or catch up on reading what you otherwise don’t find time for?
When something happens in your life, consider whether it is under your control or not. If it is, then assess the situation and act on it. But if not, and it is something that has already happened or is currently happening, then accept that it is outside of your control and move on. This exercise helps you not to get triggered and not to act on impulse.