There is a common idea that the conditions of our lives are defined by the quality of our thoughts. Yet so many of us allow our thoughts to be defined by the world around us, by the opinions of other people, or by the hardships of our day-to-day lives.

So few of us protect the condition of our mind, the very thing that colors our lives, and as a result, we suffer for it, being pushed and pulled by whatever happens to be going on around us.

Stoicism contains lessons and teachings that help us guard the way we think and how we decide what to let into our minds and what to reject.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said the following:

“He is free who lives as he likes; who is not subject to compulsion, to restraint, or to violence; whose pursuits are unhindered, his desires successful, his aversions unincurred. Who, then, would wish to lead a wrong course of life? “No one.” Who would live deceived, erring, unjust, dissolute, discontented, dejected? “No one.” No wicked man, then, lives as he likes; therefore no such man is free. And who would live in sorrow, fear, envy, pity, with disappointed desires and unavailing aversions? “No one.” Do we then find any of the wicked exempt from these evils? “Not one.” Consequently, then, they are not free.”

Epictetus, The Discourses of Epictetus, Book 4, Chapter 1

1. the Stoic Core: Control vs. No Control

Imagine you’re a sailor at the helm of a sailboat. You have a handful of tools to help you navigate the water.

A map and a compass can help you chart a course; your rudder will set you on that course; and your sails will harness the wind to carry you. But the wind and the waves—these are unpredictable forces completely outside your control.

If you’re not ready for them, these forces have the power to toss your ship around, set you off course, or even sink you all together.

The rudder and the sails represent the things in life we have control over. Namely our thoughts, beliefs, actions, and reactions.

The wind and the waves represent external events we cannot change. The behavior of others, the opinions of others, the weather, and politics, to name a few.

Key Takeaway:

Whatever path you choose to take through life, you are the captain. You can’t control every gust of wind or every wave, but you can decide how you react to them and you can decide how to steer the ship in the direction you want.

This can be applied to the opinions of others. While we can’t decide what people think or say, we can decide how we respond to them and stay true to the course we’ve set for ourselves.

Epictetus once said:

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.”

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2. Realize Opinions are just…Thoughts

Generally, there are two kinds of statements:

  1. Objective Statements: This is something that is provable and true. These are statements based on facts and evidence. For example, 2 + 2 = 4, or I am a human being and not a camel.

  2. Subjective Statements: These are statements or perspectives based on feelings, opinions, or emotions.

When we’re faced with objective statements, we can do a quick fact check and find out what’s right and what’s wrong. These are relatively easy to deal with.

The difficulty comes with subjective statements and opinions. Especially because some people tend to confuse their subjective beliefs with objective facts.

Opinions are like sunglasses.

When it comes to opinions, everyone has a different way of seeing the world—a different lens or hue they look through. This hue is shaped by our past experiences, and it will color everything we see.

Someone’s opinion of you is often more about their lens (their experiences, biases, and background) than about you. This is especially true if something about you makes them feel insecure or threatened.

Just because one person sees the world as red does not mean the world is red. It could just be red because they’re having a bad day. Or it could be because they’ve experienced some trauma that hasn’t been addressed.

In the same way, someone’s opinion of you will not necessarily be accurate. It’s simply the impression they have of you that has been filtered through their lens.

Epictetus once said:

“Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it easier to maintain control.”

Key Takeaway:

All too often, people are told who they are, told what they should be, and told what they can’t be.

The truth is, no one can really know who you are. All they can do is form a judgment about you. A judgment that will be heavily influenced by their own experiences, beliefs, values, and insecurities.

Because of this, it’s important to question the judgments people make of you. A lot of the time, they will be inaccurate; sometimes they will reveal things about ourselves that we might have missed, but we should always question them.

This is true not only of our opinions about who we are but also of the opinions other people have of the world around us.

3. Develop Your Inner Circle

In 1998 Pierre Hadot released a book called The Inner Citadel.

The book explores the Stoic philosophy of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and examines how Stoicism helped shape the man into one of Rome’s greatest leaders and one of history’s most quoted figures.

The Inner Citadel refers to the practice of making the mind a fortress, protected from the outside world, adversity, and emotional stress, through our ability to use good reason and focus on acting in alignment with virtue.

Hadot’s book suggests that you and I can create our own Inner Citadel if we take the philosophy of the Stoics and follow it as a way of life, not just a set of beliefs and doctrines.

Through constant effort to live by the Stoic ideals, learn how to behave with virtue, practice mindfulness and self reflection, and use reason and good judgment, we can transform the way we live and the way we see the world in much the same way as Marcus Aurelius.

“People try to get away from it all—to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within.

Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant’s recollection and there it is: complete tranquillity. And by tranquillity I mean a kind of harmony.”

– Meditations 4.3

Three Stoic Disciplines:

Hadot identified three central Stoic disciplines in the “Meditations”. These can be used as a foundation when thinking about how to best structure our actions and thoughts and align them with the Stoic philosophy:

  1. Discipline of Desire: Accepting the natural order of the universe, the nature of the world around us and aligning our desires with it. For example, this could be learning to accept change because the desire for something to have happened differently goes against the laws of nature. This includes being aware of desires that don’t serve us and building the discipline to reject them

  2. Discipline of Action: Acting in accordance with nature and society, with justice and consideration for the common good. This includes not acting in a way that harms others or takes advantage of them.

  3. Discipline of Assent: Using good judgment and reason to make sure that we only accept and rise to things that are clear and evident. This prevents us from forming false beliefs or snap judgments we might regret later.

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4. Self-Reflection: The Mirror

Stoic reflection is about using feedback as a tool, not as a definition of your worth.

We often speak about how the ancient Stoics made a point of being indifferent to externals—the things going on around us. This is especially true when we talk about how external factors can impact our peace of mind.

However, it’s worth explaining that being indifferent is not the same as ignoring the things going on around us. The Stoics were not advocates of living in a bubble, nor did they suggest sticking our heads in the sand.

Instead, the Stoics believed in facing the outside world honestly and using reason, wisdom, and good judgment to deal with what they found.

The Mirror Metaphor:

Whenever we get feedback from others or we sit down to reflect on ourselves, we can use the mirror metaphor.

Imagine you’re standing in front of a full-length mirror. Sometimes you’ll see a clear, honest reflection looking back at you. Other times, you’ll see a warped or smudged image in front of you. Feedback can be much the same.

When we have a bad day or we’re in a critical mood, we can be overly critical or impatient with ourselves.

Similarly, when other people offer us feedback, it’s important to understand that they are sharing their perspective.

Given that this is true, it’s important to learn the difference between seeing genuine insight in the mirror vs the projection of another person’s bias or insecurity.

If we do see genuine feedback, the next step is to pause and decide whether it’s an opportunity for growth and action or something you’re happy with, and carry on as you are.

In summary, your journey through life is similar to walking through a hall of mirrors, each offering a different reflection. The art of Stoic wisdom is found in recognizing which of these mirrors are giving you a true reflection and which are simply distorted. Embrace genuine insights, learn, and evolve, but never let a warped image define who you truly are.

5. Indifference is Freedom!

Despite all our efforts to make life as comfortable and predictable as possible, we’ll inevitably have to face the winds and storms that the world throws our way.

However, the lessons found in Stoicism can go a long way in helping us build a personal philosophy that protects us from hardship.

It also provides us with a level of freedom that comes from preventing adversity from eroding our peace of mind and instead allowing us the freedom to focus on what matters, to use judgement to filter out opinions and comments from others, and to decide how we respond to what happens around us.

So, even though the world will inevitably bring its storms; with the help of the Stoics, you’ll sail smoothly through the wind and rain.

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