Nerding Out on Stoicism

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When I take a group or individual out Forest Bathing, tea is always a time for deep sharing. On a recent experience my guest, Tammy, brought up her interest in Stoicism. What? Another Stoicism fan? I thought I was the only one!

So we nerded out for a bit on the topic, discussing the writings of Marcus Aurelius, and I realized that Stoicism is one of those ideas that’s a bit difficult to explain, as well as grasp. My fascination with it however, requires that I at least try, so here goes.

I think I first became interested in the subject when I realized I often quoted this Marcus Aurelius guy and I wanted to learn more about him. Who was he and where did his thoughts come from? Up until then, I thought a stoic was just some grumpy guy that didn’t show a lot of emotion. Turns out, I was wrong.

Marcus Aurelius, along with his step brother, was Roman co-emperor from 161 – 180 A.D. during the Pax Romana, a peaceful time for the Roman Empire. He is well-known for his writings, compiled into a book called Meditations, which was really just his brain dump after a long day emperor-ing. Marcus Aurelius was one of the ancient Stoics. Other well-known stoics of that time were Epictetus and Seneca.

Stoicism is a philosophy, which began in ancient Greece, that’s really based on principles such as virtue, tolerance and self-control. In this case, virtue refers to a life led according to nature, nature being considered rational, and the four cardinal virtues in Stoicism are:

  • Practical wisdom – The ability to navigate difficult situations with a calm attitude.
  • Temperance – Self-restraint and moderation in all things.
  • Justice – Treating others fairly no matter their actions.
  • Courage – Facing daily challenges with clarity and integrity

Okay, that’s the abbreviated version. Now if you’re still awake, how can we apply Stoicism’s principles to our lives today?

One important aspect of the philosophy is equanimity, or what I describe as not being attached to any sort of outcome in a given situation (the practice of non-attachment). I talk a lot about non-attachment in my meditation groups. Your thoughts, your actions or reactions, someone else’s reactions or a particular situation can be observed non-judgmentally and without attachment. Equanimity let’s you enjoy life without basing your happiness on someone or something outside of your control.

Another guiding principle is that we all share the same humanity. I often talk about the fact that we all have more in common than differences. That helps us cultivate compassion for others.

This is not to say that Stoicism is passive. According to the Stoics, those that cultivate virtue and self-control in themselves can bring positive change in others. This ideas of Stoicism guided Nelson Mandela as he read Meditations while imprisoned in South Africa for his work to fight apartheid. Upon his release, Mandela led his country out of apartheid by resolving the conflict through peace and reconciliation. Nelson Mandela is a modern day Stoic and Stoics are masters at overcoming adversity.

The secret lies in their positive approach to challenging situations. The famous Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, developed his Theory of Meaning, what he called Logotherapy, while struggling to survive the Nazi death camps. The basic principle is that we can endure great suffering by searching for meaning in life, and that the search to make meaning is what makes life meaningful.

Whew! So what do you think of Stoicism now? Clear as mud? As I mentioned, and as with any philosophy, it can be a little difficult to explain, but I hope I did it some justice. Just remember this: as you go about your mindful life, practicing equanimity, compassion and non-judgment, you are also practicing a bit of Stoicism. Just like Marcus Aurelius, Nelson Mandela and Viktor Frankl.

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