Three Stoic Superpowers

Jun 8, 2020 | Shared thoughts

Photo by Pawan Sharma on Unsplash

Develop these for a better life in nearly any circumstances.

The Greek and Roman Stoics developed practical, no-nonsense approaches to reducing negative feelings like anxiety, anger and disappointment while cultivating more positive ones, such as joy and ease. A Stoic frame of mind frees you from dependence on outside factors for your psychological well-being.

The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.
— Epictetus

This classical wisdom from the cradle of Western civilisation is at odds with the 21st century global mindset of chasing short-term pleasure and avoiding discomfort at all costs, but it resonates strongly with principles from the East. It has improved countless lives across varied cultures and eras, suggesting that it might still have value for us today.

These Stoic skills, once developed and integrated, become superpowers — not because they are supernatural or require a super-person to exercise them, but because they are super effective.

1. Learn to want what you have

Type ‘hedonic treadmill’ into your favourite search engine, and you can read about the unwinnable nature of the ‘rat race’. Anyone pursuing happiness through external acquisition or achievement faces one of two disappointments.

First, they may not acquire or achieve as they set out to. Circumstances beyond their control might intervene, thwarting their aims and leaving them short of their goal, empty handed. Alternatively, they attain their objective, buying that new car or winning that competition. After enjoying the brief ‘hit’ of success, they will soon crave another. What once shimmered as the ultimate goal — the car, the contest — fades into insignificance as fresh ones arise and urge the rat-racer onward towards the next ‘fix’.

It is possible to step off this treadmill. Along the way, you can dial down its speed until it slows to a pace that makes exit less scary.

Imagine a person so lucky that what they happened to want was exactly what they already had. Nothing to wish away, nothing to crave. This is a state any of us can approach (if not quite reach) by exposing our habitual ‘rat race’ mindset to the light of day and to curious scrutiny. We are able to appreciate much more what we have and let the urges for ‘the next new thing’ pass without acting on them. Try these practices:

  • Re-connect to here and now. The treadmill always has your attention set on the future. Notice this and instead pull your focus back to now. Do a scan of your senses to re-connect with the world as it is. Survey your body to re-connect with the sensations that accompany (and are much more powerful than) your thoughts.

True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future…
— Seneca

  • Re-calibrate ‘unacceptable’. Elements in your scan of the present will seem unacceptable. You may be saddled with something (perhaps a cough) you don’t like and want rid of. You might feel you are missing something (say, a hot water bottle) you need. Each of these has a pull to the future — comparing the present with an imagined, better, reality. Come back again to here and now. The cough is annoying, but look at it with more curiosity. Isn’t it true that you are bearing it, that it is not unbearable? If it didn’t go away, could you bear it for one more minute, then another? And the hot water bottle. Have you wanted an object before in the way you want it now? Did you get that thing? If so, for how long did you remain content? How likely, really, is the hot water bottle to satisfy you?

There is nothing happens to any person but what was in his power to go through with.
— Marcus Aurelius

  • Appreciate what you have. Think of what you do have right now. What are you thankful for? Who do you know is worse off than yourself? In what ways are you lucky? Allow gratitude to rise in you. This is much more in your control than your immediate ability to shed your cough or get your hands on a hot water bottle. And you can access it over and over. If your most recent gratitude ‘buzz’ is wearing off, just call to mind another blessing you enjoy. Every positive aspect of your life is at your disposal.

Let not your mind run on what you lack as much as on what you have already.
— Marcus Aurelius

2. De-mystify insecurity

The mind has a habit of racing to the future. Even if you develop and use the capacity to want what you already have, you could still fear losing it. It is normal to worry about potential loss or pain. We often magnify these negative possibilities, vesting them with a bigger-than-life sense of mystical threat. Our very lives sometimes seem at stake.

We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.
— Seneca

The Stoics counsel sober reflection — without the accompanying narrative drama we so often overlay — on the reality of loss. In its greatest guise, loss isn’t a mere possibility but a certainty, for we will one day die, losing everything. Best to face this squarely. A practice for doing just that draws on both your imagination and your body.

Imagine the worst. Whenever you have five minutes to spare, you can point your mind toward future worry. You know which fears exercise you, so call those to mind and admit to yourself that there’s no way to guarantee yourself against them. Your negative visualisation may resemble one or more of these:

  • Someday, I will die.
  • I will get ill or suffer injury and never fully recover my earlier capacities.
  • Those I love most will die, suffer or abandon me.
  • I will lose my job.
  • People whose opinion I value will lose respect for me.
  • I will lose the possessions that mean most to me.
  • I will spend time angry. At times I’ll feel sad. In others, I’ll be lost and confused.

Imagine these coming true; acknowledge there’s no certainty of avoiding them. Now you can enlist your body in a ‘training’ exercise using them.

Work with it. These disturbing scenarios will elicit strong, uncomfortable bodily sensations. Don’t try to make them go away. Instead, focus on them rather than on the thoughts that triggered them. Give your attention to these unwanted feelings in your body, not the narrative in your head. Then stay with them. By this I mean get curious about them without of obsessing on how disturbing they are or trying to escape them. If there is an ache in your chest, search for its edges. Explore it.

The aim here is to accustom yourself to the discomfort that accompanies insecurity. What you find is that you are able to bear it. After discovering and cultivating this robustness in yourself, you are less thrown by the random onset of anxiety. You can also better handle actual loss, disappointment and pain when they do occur.

By acknowledging that you cannot escape these negative aspects of reality, you leave behind the childish hope for a life free of them.

3. Focus on what you can control

Disappointment is no fun. If you reduce the role it plays in your life, you’ll probably be better off. One way to do this is to set expectations and aspirations that are in your power to achieve.

You cannot influence the past in any way. It is done. By the time you experience a moment, you are powerless to change it. The present moment is all you have, but once in it, you no longer influence it. Your ‘job’ with respect to the past is to learn from it. Your role in the present moment is to attend to it, to experience it. Since you can’t affect the past or the present moment, it is useless to expect, let alone demand that either be different than it is. You waste any time and energy you spend rejecting or bemoaning what is or what was.

Just as the present contains memories of the past, it holds intentions and expectations of the future. Here lie your goals and aspirations, and these have a variety of flavours.

The issue with most goals, dreams and aspirations is that we need the world’s cooperation to achieve them. But we can’t wrestle external reality to our will to guarantee success. As an example, I might aspire to publish a global best-selling novel. Even if I am a talented writer, countless factors sit outside my control — most importantly, the individual buying decisions of readers across the country.

There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.
— Epictetus

What the Stoics counsel is that I refine my goal to focus on that which I can control. I aspire to do all I can to become a top-selling author, not on actually becoming one. I aim to do my best. I can break this broad objective into more concrete contributing steps: improve my craft, approach an agent, create an outline, draft and edit chapters. These are in my control. I am able, by my own efforts, to achieve them and avoid disappointment.

You may distrust this advice. It goes against one of the most fundamental principles of our modern, productivity-focused world-view — that results are what matter. The Stoics say the opposite. Because the results sit to a great extent outside our direct influence, while our disciplined execution of our part in moving toward them is chiefly within our control, we should focus on the latter.

The Stoics value results, but they recognise that obsessing on them is counterproductive. They teach that focusing on our own activity and the process of which it is a part is at least as likely to lead to a good outcome as chasing the result directly.

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The Stoics encourage us to inhabit the present, to face pain and fear, to recognise the limits of our control and then to take responsibility for our actions within those limits. They give practical advice for building these capabilities — humble superpowers that can transform our lives. Their transformation isn’t magical or immediate; we hone our superpowers with practice, one situation at a time.

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