I was browsing recently through some articles I’d archived for later reading, and came upon this gem from Eric Barker’s blog, Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
Here Eric describes some principles of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism and how modern scientific studies actually back up the idea that they increase happiness. While reading through his article, I recognized some things I do these days that seem to fit right in with those principles. Marcus Aurelius would be so proud.
Here’s a few Stoic principles, and how I was unknowingly following them. Perhaps you will find that you are doing the same thing!
Negative Visualization – taming your anxiety about something by imagining the worst. Motivational speaker Les Brown was so afraid of the dentist, he was always putting off appointments. Finally, he said, “I imagined myself in that chair where I just died!” – and the image was so silly that he got over his fear and got his teeth fixed.
I applied this with my recent colonoscopy. (Yes, I’ve reached that certain age.) Thinking about the procedure produced the expected discomfort, so I kept putting it off “for just a bit”. Then I remembered Les Brown, took a deep breath, and scheduled the appointment. And thanks to the drugs, I don’t remember a thing about it.
The Stoics also generated feelings of gratitude for what they had by imagining it all lost – even family and friends. A wise person told me once to prepare yourself to say goodbye to something from the moment you obtain it. So when our kitten threatened to break my newly won Holiday Hustle Christmas ornament, I was calm enough to save it without yelling at her. Then I dropped it. And even managed to laugh about it.
Stop anger by being calm – even if you have to fake it at first. All of us get angry at times. But losing control may cause you to do something you’ll regret later. There are a couple of ways I deal with getting angry these days. First, I recognize and acknowledge that I’m angry. It’s what Dr. Wayne Dyer calls “being the watcher” – that part of us that is always serene. It’s the ego that gets angry, and the ego is not who we really are. If I can get that far, I can then remind myself that I can choose how to respond instead of blindly reacting.
Second, I’ve come to learn that I get angry sometimes because I’ve misunderstood what someone is saying or doing. So by asking for more information, or observing something more closely, I can see that my anger is misguided, and end it right there.
Delayed gratification. In America today we can get just about anything we want, at just about any time. But is that making us any happier? The Stoics believed that by deliberately withholding something pleasurable, it would a) make you appreciate what you already have, and b) increase the pleasure when you do indulge. Lent is a famous example, although I’m not sure how many people these days really give up something for 40 days.
But here’s something that can motivate me when getting the workout in, or completing a long run, seems challenging. I tell myself I can have a treat at the end, like ice cream. Then after I’m done, sometimes I get the ice cream. But more often, the satisfaction I get from completing the workout is enough that I don’t need the external reward anymore. And on off days, I put off getting ice cream, telling myself I will enjoy it so much more the next day, after my run. And so on.
Question for my Aikido friends: Does any of this sound familiar?
As another article by Eric Barker points out, many of the same principles were part of Japanese samurai culture – most notably, the idea of a calm mind in all situations. Other parallels include preparing for the worst (a samurai trained every day with death in mind), and control of one’s mind at all times. By doing this, a samurai could establish a feeling of control even in the most chaotic situations.
I suppose the moral of all this is that no matter whether you’re oriented more toward the West or the East, there’s much wisdom in common. So keep on learning!