Are You a True Stoic?

Stoic philosophy first appeared in around 350BC in Athens (give or take a year or two!) yet it is still really influential in our society today. It underpins many aspects of the modern, popular, and effective cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT).

In essence CBT is identifying thoughts which cause us problems, have a negative effective on us, and changing them to something more helpful. Stoics had the original idea and (I believe) hold the key to all self help philosophies developed ever since.

What is Stoicsm?

When we talk about being stoic today we often misinterpret it to mean having a stiff upper lip, not showing emotion and putting up with things we don’t much like. Basically we mean almost stifling our emotions rather than dealing with them. True Stoicism is the opposite.

Instead of suppressing our emotions and feelings, Stoicism helps us to understand and control them; then we can feel in control of the negative emotions that feel overpowering from time to time, and can lead to ill health, both physical and mental.

Stoics show us that our feelings of dis-ease (literally unease) come from being mentally attached to something outside of us, such as what other people think of us, looking eternally young, having more money than our friends, continually making unfavourable comparisons with others.

Universal Law

The Stoics believed that the universe is governed by a universal law: the LOGOS, or reason. When we begin to accept change and become less affected by external events over which we have no control, we are living in tune with this divine law. Or, ‘grant me the wisdom to accept those things I can change, the patience to accept the things I can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference between the two.’

Epictetus

Many years ago when I was working with terminally adults and children, I stumbled on a saying from a Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, and I end all my seminars with it. I have probably corrupted it over the years but the essence remains true. He said:

‘We are not touched so much by events themselves but by the view we choose to take of them’.

These words are on my website and have had a profound effect on how I view my life, and how I help others make sense of how their lives were playing out. Many years later, when learning about CBT in a professional capacity, I was not surprised to learn that Albert Ellis, the founder of CBT had found the writings of Epictetus to be his main source of inspiration.

Practical Stoicism

Try this short visualisation next time life seems overwhelming. Relax, be comfortable and focus for a few moments on how you are breathing. Now try to imagine yourself floating high above the earth, as if from space. As you look down imagine what a tiny speck you are in that whole maelstrom of millions of lives being lived on our planet. Consider what is worrying you against this backdrop and maybe it will help you get a sense of persepctive on your worries.

Another technique to try when you find yourself taking a negative train of thought, is deliberately come up with another interpretation. For example, if an assistant is gratuitously rude to you in a shop and your automatic negative response is to think:’Here we go, another bad day for me, no one is nice to me’. Pause for a moment and acknowledge what you are thinking and feeling. Then consciously change it to something like ‘She’s having a bad day; maybe no one has been nice to her’ and notice how much better that makes you feel.

And finally, try and train your mind to stay with the present, not forever harking back to less good times in your past or worrying about the future. Try keeping a thought journal which may help you identify your negative thought patterns and focus on your immediate environment and that over which you have control. 

‘The Philosphy of Epictetus’ is available from Amazon by clicking this link

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Posted on July 27th, 2009 by

One Response to “Are You a True Stoic?”

  1. Very true .. there is a saying that goes something like “you can’t control how people react but you can control your attitude” ..

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