The ancient Stoics were known for a many number of things, one of which was their inner resilience—the ability to remain calm in adversity, to find a way forward when faced with obstacles, and to create a philosophy of living that helps foster an immunity to letting external events erode their peace of mind.

The Stoics were not simply academic philosophers; they were in search of a practical way of thinking and living that would naturally lead to happiness and flourishing.

Their efforts have left us with some of the most practical wisdom from the ancient world, and we’re going to use these core Stoic principles today to find out how we can develop the same kind of lasting resilience in our own lives.

Rule 1: Act According to Your Values, Not Your Moods

Stoic Principle: Virtue Ethics

The ancient Stoics believed that virtue is the only good and that vice, or baseness, is the only evil, and that it is the ability to act with virtue, even when we are tempted to act otherwise, that separates a good person from a bad one.

This means that we should make every effort to act in alignment with our virtues and values and not let our immediate emotional state dictate how we act in the moment.

In Stoicism, happiness is found through consistently behaving in alignment with virtue. When we act with wisdom, courage, justice, and discipline (the four Stoic virtues), we naturally set ourselves on a path to fulfillment and happiness.

In contrast, when we act in opposition to these things, through laziness, taking advantage of others, ignoring what we know to be right, bending to our impulses, or acting unfairly, we erode our own wellbeing and sink into unhappiness.

So, before making a decision, especially an emotional one, ask yourself if it aligns with your core values. If it doesn’t, reconsider the action and think about how you would act if you were in complete alignment with your values.

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Rule 2: Embrace Adversity as a Teacher

To the Stoics, adversity was a natural part of life. It comes and goes as it wishes, regardless of whether we want it or not.

And, given that we cannot avoid adversity, the next best thing is to look for the good in it rather than shrinking from it in self-pity or frustration.

Every challenge has within it a lesson to be learned, some wisdom to impart, and a silver lining that can help us reframe the hardship and find the best way through it. These things are up to us to find, but when we develop the habit of simply looking for them, we not only protect ourselves from becoming victims, but we also build the habit of moving forward with a resilient mindset.

The ancient Stoics often likened life’s challenges to wrestling an enemy or working out in a gym. Just as our muscles require resistance to grow, our character requires challenges to strengthen.

Epictetus once remarked:

Difficulty shows what men are. Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. Why? So that you may become an Olympic conqueror; but it is not accomplished without sweat.”

So, like Epictetus, look to adversity as a source of growth. While it may be uncomfortable, if you treat it as a teacher or a trainer, you will find the lesson and pass through for the better.

Rule 3: Understand the Dichotomy of Control

Picture two circles, one inside the other. The inner circle represents our domain of control; the outer, a vast landscape of life’s uncertainties. The Stoics, particularly Epictetus, taught that much of our suffering can be avoided when we learn to distinguish between the two.

The Inner Circle:

Here lie our judgments, decisions, desires, actions, beliefs, and values. A circle we can choose to govern through will, or that is chosen for us when we reject that responsibility.

Epictetus once said:

“There are things that are within our power, and things that fall outside our power. Within our power are our own opinions, aims, desires, dislikes—in sum, our own thoughts and actions. Outside our power are our physical characteristics, the class into which we were born, our reputation in the eyes of others, and honors and offices that may be bestowed on us.
Working within our sphere of control, we are naturally free, independent, and strong. Beyond that sphere, we are weak, limited, and dependent. If you pin your hopes on things outside your control, taking upon yourself things which rightfully belong to others, you are liable to stumble, fall, suffer, and blame both gods and men. But if you focus your attention only on what is truly your own concern, and leave to others what concerns them, then you will be in charge of your interior life. No one will be able to harm or hinder you. You will blame no one, and have no enemies.”

When we accept that we have agency over this part of our lives, we begin to step away from allowing the world around us to influence our actions and reactions. We become less tethered to the winds of the world pushing and pulling us to-and-fro, and begin to captain our own ship

The Outer Cirle:

Beyond our judgments and our actions lies everything else: events, outcomes, other people, our reputation, the economy, the weather—both the unpredictable and the external.

If we try to find agency in this outer circle, we will be trying to hold back the tides. It’s a futile task, and one that will undoubtedly cause frustration, self-doubt, and even anger. It causes these feelings because no matter what we do, everything in this outer circle is outside the reach of our control, and will therefore unfold despite our efforts.

Looking again to Epictetus, he said:

“Demand not that events should happen as you wish; but wish them to happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.”

The Distinction:

By making a distinction between these two circles, the Stoics find peace in accepting the things outside their control, and they find agency in knowing where to focus their energy to enact change.

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Rule 4: Cultivate Inner Tranquility

There is a Stoic principle called “Apatheia”, not to be confused with apathy, which implies indifference or insensitivity.

Apatheia, in this context, means freedom from avoidable or irrational passions and emotions. The Stoics believed irrational emotion to be a symptom of incorrect judgment and made every effort to work towards emotional equilibrium through:

  1. Making sure our inner judgments are realistic and reasonable. This can be achieved through Socratic questioning.

  2. Not allowing the external world to disturb our inner peace (see the section above on control)

The Weight of Emotions:

We humans, by our very nature, are emotional animals. We feel joy, anger, jealousy, grief, and a whole host of other emotions that help us navigate our social and physical landscapes.

However, the ancient Stoics cautioned us against letting these emotions control our actions and our state of mind. Teaching that, while feeling emotions is part of life, we should not allow them to overcome our ability to decide our own thoughts and actions. And that while we cannot always prevent our initial emotional reactions, we can decide how we engage with them.

Practical Steps:

Awareness is probably the most difficult thing to achieve in this area of philosophy. The ability to see the emotion as it arises and catch it in the act before it’s able to take root and influence our thoughts and behaviors

To this end, meditation is one of the most accessible and effective tools. When we sit and learn to notice the rise and fall of emotions, feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations in a controlled setting, we become much more able to notice the same things when we’re out and about in life.

Meditation and mindfulness also help us learn to detach from our emotions rather than identify with them, and in so doing, we become more resistant to being dragged down into the emotion and having it control our behaviors.

Rule 5: Accept Reality, Don’t Fight It

Acceptance can be explained through the Stoic Principle of Amor Fati, or the Love of Fate.

The Stoics knew that most of the world and it’s happenings are outside of our control and will happen regardless of our hopes, dreams, expectations, or efforts.

They also viewed change as the natural state of the universe, something necessary for growth, development, new beginnings, and our own existence. After all, if nothing changed, we would never have come into existence.

Marcus Aurelius once wrote:

Is any man afraid of change? What can take place without change? What then is more pleasing or more suitable to the universal nature? And can you take a hot bath unless the wood for the fire undergoes a change? And can you be nourished unless the food undergoes a change? And can anything else that is useful be accomplished without change? Do you not see then that for yourself also to change is just the same, and equally necessary for the universal nature?

He also wrote:

“Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature’s delight.”

So then, while the state of the world and it’s changes may be uncomfortable, they are both necessary as part of nature and unavoidable (because they are outside our control)

The Stoics therefore instruct us to accept these things, come to terms with the reality of the world around us, and even love fate through the principle of Amor Fati. In doing so, we inoculate ourselves against the frustration, anger, and pain that can come from resisting the realities of the world.

So, instead of complaining about what happens to you, accept it and learn from it. Understand that beating ourselves up over misfortunes doesn’t change the outcome but does affect your mental state.

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Rule 6: Reflect and Review (Evening Meditation)

Lastly, we have the practice of evening reflection. A practice promoted by the Roman Stoic Seneca.

Just as Emperor Marcus Aurelius sat down to write meditations, the practice of reflection can help us in a number of ways.

Most of the time, most of us will go through life acting without a great deal of self-awareness. We react instinctively to the world around us, often mechanically and based on habit or learned behavior.

If these behaviors are constructive, this can be fine. If they are destructive, this becomes a problem.

However, without pausing to reflect, how do we distinguish our constructive and reasonable behaviors from our destructive and unreasonable ones?

The practice of evening meditation gives us this break from the day-to-day to work on introspection and look at how the day went with respect to our actions, reactions, behaviors, and habits.

The Anatomy of Evening Meditation:

  1. Inventory of Actions: One place to begin is by revisiting the day’s events. Were they aligned with your values and what you believe to be good? Were choices made out of integrity or convenience?

  2. Examination of Reactions: Next, we can look into emotional and mental reactions. Did an event trigger anger? Was there a moment of high happiness or sadness? Did we allow our emotions to control our behavior? We can look to understand these reactions not with self-judgment but with curiosity.

  3. Acknowledgment of Progress: Celebrate the victories, however small. Did you exhibit patience in a testing situation? Did you act with kindness when it was easier to be indifferent? These acknowledgments nurture positive reinforcement.

  4. Areas for Improvement: Identify where you fell short of your Stoic ideals. This isn’t a space for beating yourself up, but for constructive criticism. It’s about recognizing areas for growth.

Seneca once wrote to his friend Lucilius in a letter titled “On the Philosopher’s Seclusion”:

“When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent, aware of this habit that’s now mine, I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by.”

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