Stoicism and The View From Above:

The View From Above is a profound Stoic practice that can make many of us feel uncomfortable, but can also have a huge impact on the way we see the world, and our place within it.

This article is about Stoicism, and shifting our perspective to help lessen the impact of our day to day problems. I’ve included a video at the end that I’d encourage everyone to watch at least once.

“Think of substance in its entirety, of which you have the smallest of shares; and of time in its entirety, of which a brief and momentary span has been assigned to you; and of the works of destiny, and how very small is your part in them.”

– Marcus Aurelius

Why Learn The View From Above?

There’s a lot of “noise” in life these days, every time we step out the door we’re presented with advertising, marketing, news, opinion, and distraction. It can all seem hectic at times.

When we’re not at work, or with our family, we’re on our phone, or our radio is on, or the TV is on, or we’re on the computer. Mental “Burn out” is an increasingly common occurrence.

It’s the age of information, and information is everywhere. So much so that it’s difficult to find space to think, and breathe. Our attention is being captured by apps, games, videos, and shows.

Don’t get me wrong, I think entertainment is great. The variety and quality only seems to be getting better.

However, the fact that our attention is often on other things can make it more difficult for us to work through our problems, anxieties, stresses and commitments. It’s so easy to procrastinate or avoid. The combination of these things can have a great impact on our mental health.

We never seem to have much down time.

I imagine some of you will agree when I say that I find myself having to put more and more effort into freeing up time to work on myself, read, think, and be productive.

To help with this, I want to share with you a Stoic exercise that’s used to lessen the burden of our problems and humble us.

Let’s start with the easy question: What is the view from above and how can we use it?

Page Break Image of a Greek Temple

What is The Stoic View From Above?

The Stoics used the view from above to shift their point of view from a first person perspective to a third person perspective. We see ourselves as if from above, and in doing so we see ourselves, not just as individuals disconnected from the things around us, but part of the whole. A participant in everything around us.

The meditation starts with us. We imagine looking at ourselves from a short distance above where we’re sat.

The reason we do this is because looking at ourselves in the third person from the outside helps us to see ourselves and our concerns more objectively.

When we distance ourselves from the worries, anxieties, and problems we can see them more clearly, less emotionally, and have a better chance of understanding their causes and solutions.

As the meditation continues we move further and further away.

The closer we are to our problems, the more difficult they can be to see clearly and objectively.

If we zoom out and look at the wider picture of our lives, it becomes easier to see things in context.

Stoicism teaches us to shift our perspective to a level high above ourselves. In an order something like this:

  1. Your immediate surroundings and your body

  2. Your home and how the people you live. We start to think about what they feel, how we relate to one another, what problems, hopes, and fears they might have.

  3. Your own or city, and how everyone who lives around us has a unique and life that you know nothing about, they have hopes, dreams and fears just like us. We pass them in the street or in shops, however we rarely think about who they are as people.

  4. Your country, again we zoom out further, broadening our perspective.

  5. The planet. We begin to think about all the people on the planet, all of the lives spread across countries, social classes, races, cultures. We think about what hardships some of the worse off people are going through. Not only that but the system as a whole is interconnected, one action leads to another.

    We think about the rivers and the mountains, the wildlife, the wind and rain, the heat of the sun and the cold of night. Everything has an impact on some other thing, and life is simply a extremely complex series of impacts.

  6. The solar system. We seem small now, our place in the universe is tiny in comparison with the planets and the stars.

  7. The universe. We zoom out further still, our place in the universe seems impossibly small in comparison to all of space. It’s humbling.

  8. All of existence. Time is vast, the scale of space is incomprehensible. We just have a brief moment in a small corner of our spiral galaxy we’ve named the milky way.

The Stoics believed that in using the view from above, we can find ourselves closer to happiness.

They believed that if we change how we look at our environment, and see it as a whole, we can reduce the effects of fear, anger and frustration.

Bickering and minor disagreements seem silly in comparison. Many of our problems can dissolve when we hold them up to the problems of others, or the vastness of space.

At the same time we increase our capacity for compassion, understanding and objectivity, because we have started to develop the capacity to view other lives as part of the system we live in.

The View From Above and Compassion:

Part of this Stoic practice, as we saw above, includes thinking about other people, and other creatures that share the universe with us.

We are instructed to raise our awareness out of just ourselves and encompass the people around us:

  1. We think about what fears, passions, experiences, perceptions, anxieties, insecurities and dreams they might have.

  2. We think about what they do, how they act, what they feel, and the causes for all of those things.

  3. We think about the people around them, the environment they’re in, and how those things form them as people.

The more we perform this type of exercise, the more we begin to understand the people around us, and why they do what they do.

We’re all trying to do the best with what we’ve got, and in most cases I don’t believe that people intentionally do things to be destructive. Destructive behaviours are normally the result of poor beliefs, values, and experiences.

The Stoic view from above can help us understand others, and in doing so, it can help us understand ourselves.

The View From Above – Our Pale Blue Dot:

Carl Sagan spoke about something very similar:

“Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilisation, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

I’ve linked the speech below. If you’re reading this on the toilet or in the office I’d encourage you to bookmark it for later. It’s a humbling perspective shift and Sagan is a great narrator.

When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.

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