Mind over matter.
If you look at the stories of people who’ve been through a lot in life, it’s fascinating how they’ve overcome by harnessing the power of the mind.
Does that sound a little New-Agey? Not at all.
In fact, as far back as 300 B.C.E., there was already a group of people preaching about this!
I’m talking about the Stoics. The most famous ones among them – Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, Zeno…they all dropped some powerful lessons that ring true to this day.
If you’re looking for ways to build mental strength, I’m here to share some of these lessons from these wise Stoic philosophers. Hopefully, they’ll help you as much as they helped me.
Let’s dive in!
1) Focus on what you can control
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Let’s begin with a Marcus Aurelius lesson that speaks to the heart of Stoic philosophy – control.
How often do we let external events determine our mood or self-worth?
For instance, does a bad traffic jam or a rude customer wreck the good intentions you had for your day? Does a neglectful partner make you feel unimportant?
I’ve experienced those so I know how easy it can be to feel frustrated. And how easy it can be to fall into a spiral of negativity.
The question is, how much control do we have over other people and events?
The answer: Not much.
What we do have control over though, is our own thoughts and reactions. Simply put, we CHOOSE how we respond.
So, applying that Stoic lesson to traffic,for example, would involve choosing to respond in a way other than honking your horn or cursing endlessly.
You might choose to play a chill traffic playlist or an audiobook. Or, if you’re like me, use the time to line up your errands or make your family’s weekly meal plan in your head.
Remember, outside events don’t control you – you control your reaction to them.
2) More problems = more strength
“Difficulties strengthen the mind as well as labor does the body”
Just like lifting weights and doing push-ups build your muscles, so do difficulties build up your mental strength.
Think of a difficult time you went through. While you were right in the middle of it, you may have felt like you couldn’t bear it. Like you couldn’t overcome.
News flash: you can.
The fact that you’re still here is proof of that. And though it’s invisible, your mental muscle got a whole lot beefier!
That’s what I learned during an extra-challenging period of my life. All in one week, I had to deal with:
An incurable cancer diagnosis for my beautiful golden retriever, who I then had to put down just a few days later…
In the middle of packing boxes and moving houses…
In the middle of a super swamped time at work…
In the middle of my mom going into major surgery.
I repeat, all in one week.
Maybe that’s not much of a challenge for you, but for me it was. I had to swallow my grief, fears, panic, and all that.
I had to deal, period. And the only way I could do that was to put on a stoic face instead of having a meltdown.
And you know what? Looking back at that crazy week, I’m amazed I was able to pull through!
The trick is to not get swallowed up by the emotions and feeling of overwhelm. The stoic mind is a steely one that looks at problems as chances to learn and become better.
3) It’s all about the process
“The important thing about a problem is not its solution, but the strength we gain in finding the solution.”
I know it’s a bit of a stretch to ask you to focus on the process while you’re going through something difficult. I’m aware it sounds a little meta.
But if you want to follow the Stoic way, that’s exactly what you’ll need to do.
You see, as Seneca said, the value lies in the process of finding the solution, not in the solution itself.
Let me give you a simple example:
I had a friend who was just about to open a cafe when the pandemic struck. Huge problem, right? Suddenly, her traditional business model wouldn’t work.
So, what did she do? She pivoted to fit what people needed at the time. She set up an online platform and offered delivery services. She created coffee kits for customers to purchase.
And she started making videos of coffee-making tutorials, which earned her a huge online following.
Did she make a lot of money? Not at first. Far from what she’d projected with a physical store.
But did she learn a lot of skills from the whole turnaround? Absolutely.
That’s the lesson Seneca was trying to teach us here. To be mentally strong, we have to focus on the learning potential a problem offers us.
Which means, we have to set our fears aside…
4) Our fear is often greater than the actual problem
“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
That’s right, more often than not, we magnify our fears a thousand times more than it needs to be.
Think about it – have you ever agonized over a scenario in your head, only to find that the reality was nowhere near as bad?
Our imagination can be so powerful it can convince us of the terror a situation holds.
That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true, though.
So, when you feel yourself spiraling, remember this teaching from Seneca. Challenge your thoughts. Look objectively at the likelihood of those big, scary things actually happening in real life.
Chances are, you’ll knock yourself back to a more even state of mind.
5) Your greatest enemy is yourself
“Man conquers the world by conquering himself.”
The section above is a clear example of this lesson from the philosopher Zeno.
Clearly, when we’re talking about the power of the mind, the only real enemy we have is ourselves.
Our ego, impulses, desires, knee-jerk reactions, emotional nature…these are all aspects we have to master if we want to build mental toughness.
And how exactly do we do that? With this next lesson…
6) Do the hard work of mental preparation
“Steel your sensibilities, so that life shall hurt you as little as possible.”
Are stoic people optimists? Pessimists?
Neither. They’re realists. They see the world as it is, without a positive or negative filter. They hold hope for sure, but that doesn’t blind them to the fact that life just won’t cooperate sometimes.
So, they do a lot of mental preparation. That way, it’s not so painful when things don’t go the way they want.
And how do they do that? For one, they engage in voluntary discomfort.
At first, this idea was unthinkable for me. Why in the world would I choose to be uncomfortable, right?
But I’ve also noticed that the more cushy my life becomes, the more easily affected I get by the slightest inconveniences.
So I try to go the less comfortable route sometimes. I’d ride public transportation instead of booking an Uber. I’d wait in a long queue at the bank instead of using the online app.
And I’d go camping from time to time, away from the modern comforts I’ve become used to.
Hopefully, you get the picture. These little tricks might seem inconsequential but they do a lot in making me a little tougher. And a lot less complaining
7) No difficulty is permanent
“Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away.”
– Marcus Aurelius
In simpler words, this too shall pass.
The transitory nature of life is something the Stoics understand so well.
So no matter how hard things are right now, they won’t stay that way forever. Keeping this in mind can give you so much strength to hold on till it passes.
8) Practice gratitude
“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Now, you might think that stoic people are nothing but cardboard cutouts devoid of emotion.
That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Stoicism doesn’t mean we should suppress our emotions. It merely emphasizes mindfulness so that we’re in control of them, not the other way around.
And being mindful includes being grateful.
Stoics are about looking at the big picture, and you can’t reflect on the big picture without an appreciation of the little things.
That’s why it’s wise to do what Marcus Aurelius suggests. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. It’s a practice that can keep you grounded, content, and mentally strong.
9) Maintain integrity above all
“Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored. Dying…or busy with other assignments.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Finally, let’s talk about the virtue of…virtue. This is a primary tenet in Stoicism.
The Stoics believe that doing the right thing, no matter how hard, paves the way for everything else that’s important – happiness, peace, honor, meaning, and more.
And I’d like to add – living with integrity and authenticity makes it easier for us to weather the storms.
As Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “Know, first, who you are, then adorn yourself accordingly.”
When you know what you stand for, you can stand strong.
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