Last week The Guardian Newspaper published an article with the results of a poll they conducted for ‘word of the year’. Individuals who partook in the poll were asked to summarise ‘how you felt about 2020 in a single word’
Unsurprisingly the number 1 word, and excuse the language, was “shit”, followed closely by “fucked”, then “challenging”, coming in closely at number 4 was “exhausting”, and finishing the top 5 was “clusterfuck”.
In the same poll, readers were also asked ‘how they think 2021 will be in a single word’. Interestingly, readers were more optimistic about 2021, with the most frequent response being “better”, with “hopeful” coming in second, “worse” third, and “hope” coming in a close 4th
As we teeter on the edge of the New Year, and Pandemics aside, we have no idea what is going to happen in 2021.
In what we would consider ‘normal’ years in the past, there has always been a host of social, economic, health, political and environmental challenges, problems and hurdles that we’ve had to face, not only within ourselves, our own families and closer network, but within our state and country – given also that we’re so connected these days, global issues can tend to have a far greater (and often unnecessary) impact on our psyche, influencing how we react and communicate.
Now I consider myself novice-level when it comes to this, but the main reasons why I passionately invest (and advocate) a lot of my time in reading philosophy, particularly early Greek, Stoic and Buddhist philosophies, is that they guide and help me question myself better, and thus frame the problems I experience in a way that I can work through them, and ultimately make better choices for myself…kinder choices, and kinder ways to think.
The more I head down, up, around, over and through this bumpy, challenging, joyful, and quite frankly hilarious journey, is that, I believe, we all need to, guided by our own values & virtues, find our own philosophy, to be used as a personal operating system to improve our cognitive processing, and our output.
Given it’s nearly the New Year and we all tend to use this time to cogitate on self-improvement, resolutions etc, I’m going to premise this article with this:
If our ability to be as healthy, happy, and as resilient and fulfilled as possible solely relies upon the content of what is in our head, then shouldn’t we do everything we can to support a daily practice, a lifestyle routine whereby, ‘most of the time’, we befriend ourselves and do what friends do…and that is do what is best, and look after each other?
Why Greek, Stoic and Buddhist philosophies?
For me, Stoicism, early Greek & Buddhist philosophies are not only very similar, but the advice & guidance they offer I find both incredibly practical & simple…simple to understand, not necessarily simple to enact…consistently.
Investing in this ancient wisdom offers strategies, insights and pragmatic tools to a) improve ones self awareness, befriend myself and b) promote the importance of resilience and calm, via the installing and practicing acts self-kindness…or to use Buddhist terminology maitri
Stoicism and Buddhism are two remarkably similar philosophies.
They were created independently, thousands of miles apart, and roughly at the same time.
Buddhism was founded in present-day Nepal around 500 B.C
Stoicism began in Athens, Greece around 300 B.C.
They both advocate seeking happiness from an internal source, so that the ups and downs of life will not be your masters… As philosopher and author Nassim Taleb once wrote on the similarities between the two: “A Stoic is a Buddhist with attitude.”
“Every hour focus your mind attentively…on the performance of the task in hand, with dignity,
human sympathy, benevolence and freedom, and leave aside all other thoughts.
You will achieve this, if you perform each action as if it were your last…”
-These lines from Marcus Aurelius would resonate with any Buddhist practitioner
Sure, both of them differ in their explanations of how our world works. But the critical part is this: both of these systems of thought can be used to improve your life and make you a calmer and wiser human being.
But there’s a catch – you have to live in alignment with your virtues & values.
And it’s here where I am going to handover to Stoic philosopher Epictetus, one most influential, wisest men to offer some advice on how we can better prepare ourselves to not only cope, but thrive.
Not just in our day to day, but when we’re faced with those unexpected (and to reference The Guardian) challenging problems, fucked-up scenarios, dealing with exhausting people, finding ourselves in clusterfuck situations, or having to work your way through shitty circumstances.
Who Was Epictetus?
Epictetus was a Greek Stoic philosopher born 50AD in Hierapolis, Turkey and died 135AD in Nicopolis, Greece
He was born a slave
His given name is not actually known. Epictētos is Greek meaning “acquired.”
Epictetus was concerned with ethics and moral authority. He emphasised practice, not theorising.
His two books The Discourses and Enchiridion are rooted in common experience and common sense, which helps explain, though teachings from nearly two millennia ago, they continue to inform and shape the lives of present-day readers.
6 Life Lessons from Epictetus
The Art of Differentiating Between What is Up To Us & What is Not Up To Us
“Our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control,
but the choices I make regard to what choices I make with regard to what I do control.
Where will I find good and bad?
In me, in my choices.”
He would call that which is out of our control as ‘externals’ and that which is in our control as ‘internals.’
The only thing that matters, the only thing we should concern ourselves with, are the things in our control (in our sphere of choice), or the internals.
Epictetus believes most problems in a human’s life stem from the inability to distinguish the two and allowing externals to take precedence.
Practiced daily, this single skill will change your life forever.
What’s in your control and what is not?
Stop wasting your time on unwinnable battles
Epictetus teaches us that each individual is responsible for their own good or their own evil; their own fortune or their own misfortune; their own happiness or their own own anguish. There is no such thing as being the ‘victim.’ Suffering is self-inflicted and can be cured through a discipling of the mind. It is not things that upset us, but our judgements about those things. “When we are frustrated, angry or unhappy,” Epictetus explains, “never hold anyone except ourselves – that is, our judgments – accountable.”
Sobriety & Journalling
Practice and remind yourself of this one life-lesson, everyday and watch your world not only slow down and simplify, but calm down.
Two key aspects to reminding yourself to do something for the long term requires a sober, clear mind and tools to reinforce the values and skills we’re wanting to hone – journalling helps greatly.
Talk Less, Listen More
“Nature hath given humans one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak”
Avoid Opinion Ping-Pong
Listening is an art form and a powerful skill, that, these days, is sadly getting quickly forgotten.
We are all too eager to butt-in and express our (often) social-media, sound-bite generated opinion.
Listening improves your conversations
You learn more when you listen
Listening, really listening (and asking supporting questions) is one of the greatest acts of kindness and a wonderful compliment to the other person.
Anyone can talk.
Anyone can pretend to listen.
Only a few can hear well…seek to understand, rather than to be understood
Purposefully practice shutting the fuck up now and again (more often)…try it…it’s hard.
Listen, ask questions and motivate the other person to talk more with words and sound of encouragement…like mmm, or ahhh, or ‘go on….tell me more about your doily collection’.
Contentment is Wealth
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants”
Unfortunately by our human nature, we are never satisfied or content. However we can re-wire our brains to find contentment in life— by appreciating what we have.
Epictetus was asked who is rich, and his reply...”He who is content.”
Wealth is not just money.
Wealth is mindset, nothing you gain will bring you happiness unless you practice daily the art of contentment: the art of being happy with what you have, while in the pursuit of what you want.
Practice appreciating all the awesome things you have in your life that you take for granted.
Seek the small pleasures in and around your world – treasure them, amplify their enjoyment by ritualising them by slowing down and getting ensconced in what you’re doing.
When you get up in the morning say thanks to the bed, the shower, the hot running water, the tea kettle, the gas or electricity supply, your coffee and give thanks to those that grew the coffee beans…say g’day to the fridge and thank it for keeping your produce fresh.
This simple but very effective tactic helps generate appreciation for what you have & how lucky you are. It diverts your thoughts and thinking away from the past grievances or future anxieties, by keeping your focus and attention present.
Plus it puts a smile on your dial
I got caught saying good morning to my bike the other day…neighbour thought it was hilarious…he said ‘Good morning’ to his car 15 seconds later.
To Learn, You Must Be Humble
“it is impossible for a person to learn what they think they already know.”
Learning can sometimes be challenging, especially when we’re confronted with things that contradict what we think we believe is true…just because we think it’s true, doesn’t necessarily mean it is.
Our ego gets in the way, our pride and our existing belief systems often slams the the door shut – this closed mindset makes it harder to correct knowledge and self-awareness ‘gaps’.
If you wish to learn, be humble, and accept what you don’t know, and be open not only to being taught but to being corrected. It’s only as personal as you allow it to be.
Be humble in learning.
Start, if you’re not doing it already, and prioritise education of ‘entertainment’.
Seek, write down and fully understand your own personal values, and then research and educate yourself and start living more inline with what is important to you, whilst protecting those values from actions, behaviours, thinking and others that may impede or conflict with what is important to you…find your philosophy.
“If you’re not humble, life will visit humbleness upon you”
– Mike Tyson
Focus On Your Actions
“The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others.’
We control only our own actions and perceptions. If we focus on our own actions, rather than anything that depends on the actions of others or any other circumstance out of our direct control, we will be free.
We are slaves when we want something that only someone else, or some circumstance, can give us, because then we are dependent on an external for happiness and must act in a certain way to be happy. Epictetus teaches us to simplify what we are concerned with and not be emotionally affected by what happens in this massive world, where we have power over nothing besides what we ourselves do.
If something bad happens, it should not upset you unless you did it.
Hack away at the unessential…simplify, simplify, simplify.
Audit your day and see where and what you’re doing to yourself that is impinging on your capacity and ability to control what is going on in your life…dedicate your resources to what you have control of, whilst identifying and slowly relinquishing the behaviours that steals your attention, your health & your ability to reason and focus.
Everyday we have an opportunity to elevate the quality of our problems
Character is Key
“Be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.”
Living virtuously is one of the only things that should not be viewed with indifference. For Epictetus (and the Stoics), character – and virtue – is everything.
Epictetus believed that we should do what is right and never be concerned if someone else does not approve of a virtuous action. You should remain indifferent to being spoken of negatively and never let another person control you with their criticism by forcing you to react.
Epictetus preached self-control – resisting temptation is often more satisfying than indulging in it. (anyone wishing they’d exercised a little more self-control over the past week or so?)
Be patience and seek opportunities to be courteous
This is a big one for me, and I’m finding practicing patience and courtesy slows me down, so I am better enable to function more mindfully when things go awry.
Recalibrate and practice becoming resolute
If 2020 taught us one thing, that is ‘anything can happen’, but the reality is though the impact of this past year ‘resonated on such a global level’ it won’t inoculate us for whatever may happen this coming year, or next…
Amongst all the chaos and who-har, 2020 offered us many lessons – it is up to us how we can interpret those lessons to either better improve our own health-wealth and resilience moving forward, or create further disharmony and turmoil to suppress our futureselves into the coming days, weeks and months ahead.
Identifying The Daily Tactics You Use to Avoid Reality
This time of the year, quite possibly motivated by over-consumption, we’re inclined to revisit and consider new year resolutions.
If you find yourself in this position and tossing around ideas that you ‘should’ eat better, or exercise more, or give up smoking, or get a new job, get a bigger house, buy a boat etc then maybe I’d suggest this.
Rather than straight away ‘loading additional stress’ and more ‘time-inconvenience’ onto your already ‘packed’ day by joining a gym, committing to a unsatisfying and unsustainable new eating regime or handing in your resignation – maybe consider spending some time to auditing your day to day first, and see where you can not only start reducing and relinquishing detrimental behaviours, but in some ways, more importantly, supply yourself with mental space, some much needed clear freedom of thought, so you can access your reasoned-mind and make the right choices for yourself – rather than making unconscious, knee-jerk, costly, unsustainable and time wasting ‘decisions’.
Our best choices come from deliberated conscious thinking
The best obstacles and problems aka suffering, arise from conscious thinking
Overcoming obstacle from our conscious choices is where we learn and gain fulfilment.
If we truly want to be wiser and calmer, if we want to eat better, sleep better, feel better, communicate better then we need to reason with ourselves better.
Propagating a non-judgemental, kinder-mind is probably the key…and being our own best friend is our best ally to achieve it.
Who doesn’t want to be a calmer wiser human being?
“The mind is the source of all suffering, and it is also the source of all happiness.
Think about that.
In fact, you can contemplate this for the rest of your life. When something comes up in your life that causes you dissatisfaction, or triggers habitual patterns and creativity, or makes you angry, lonely, and jealous, ask yourself: Are these emotions happening because of outer circumstances? Are they completely dependent on outer circumstances?
The path of meditation says the we have to work with our mind, and that if we do work with our mind, the outer circumstances become workable. Things that used to irritate and bother us or that trigger our reactivity and habitual patterns begin to dissolve. So whenever you find yourself caught in an emotional attack, you have to ask yourself: “How much of this is really happening on the outside, and how much of this is my mind?”
– from the book How To Meditate
On Making Friends With Yourself…
“My teacher said that making friends with myself meant seeing everything inside me and not running away or turning my back on it. Because that’s what real friendship is. You don’t turn your back on yourself and abandon yourself, just the way you wouldn’t give up on a good friend when their darker sides begin to show up.”
– from the book How To Meditate
Till Next Time…