August 14, 2021 - The Stoic Gym Blog
How to be at Peace with Ourselves: Stoic Guidance
We are often in conflict with ourselves
We are not always at peace with ourselves. We get upset with others when we think they have wronged us, abused us, hurt us, insulted us, stolen from us, or done something that they ‘shouldn’t have’. When we think like this, we are not at peace with ourselves. When we are not at peace with ourselves, we get angry, we retaliate, distract ourselves with entertainment or holidays, or resort to drinking to forget our troubles. But none of these things really work. Even when they appear to work in the short term, they bring us unhappiness in the long term. Thus, any social interaction can disturb our peace of mind.
Sometimes we are in conflict with ourselves because we feel that we did something we shouldn’t have or didn’t do what we should have.
We are used to living with a mildly disturbed frame of mind most of the time. It seems to us to be the normal human condition. We don’t even realize that we could be happier.
What do the Stoics say about all this? What should we do when we realize that we are not at peace with ourselves?
1. We have a retreat we can always go to
Whenever you are upset, bothered, angered, or bored, you don’t have to run away from these feelings. You don’t have to go the beach or hill resort. There is a retreat within yourself. You can go there any time you want.
People try to retreat to the country, to the beach, or the mountains. You wish you could do it too, but such fantasies are not worthy of a philosopher. Any moment you choose, you can retire within yourself. Nowhere can you go which is more peaceful and more untroubled than your soul. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.3 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Meditations, Bk.4.3)
We should make use of this retreat often and keep renewing ourselves. Think about the rules of life. For example, what is under our control and what is not under our control? Are we trying to control what is not under our control but neglecting to act on what is under our control? For example, what someone else has done is not under our control. But forgiving them is under our control. Choosing not to be worried about other people’s opinions is under our control. Think about such rules of life.
Make the rules of life brief but profound. Practising them often will get rid of all aggravations, and you will return to your duties as you should, without complaining.
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.3 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Meditations, Bk.4.3)
2. We are the source of most of our problems
It may be hard to believe that the biggest source of our problems is not other people, or circumstances, or what happens to us. Most of our problems come from us and we can end them.
Your greatest difficulty is in yourself. You are your own biggest obstacle. You don’t know what you want. You are approving the right course rather than following it. You see where true happiness lies, but you don’t have the courage to attain it. — Seneca, Letters From a Stoic (Epistulae Morales ad Lucium), 21
When we retreat into ourselves and contemplate on how our thinking creates our problems, how someone else in the same situation would not be bothered by it, why what is happening outside cannot be the cause of our problems, we will begin to realize that we are the source of our problems. If we create our own problems, we can solve them as well.
3. Our difficulties are created by our lack of confidence
We believe that we don’t feel confident because the situations and the people we face are difficult to deal with. We attribute our lack of confidence to something outside of us: other people and our circumstances. But the reality is just the opposite. It is our inner lack of confidence that has created the outer difficulties with people and circumstances.
Our lack of confidence doesn’t come from difficulty; the difficulty comes from our lack of confidence. — Seneca, Letters From a Stoic (Epistulae Morales ad Lucium), 21
4. Our mind is never beaten
When you retreat into your mind and calmly review things you will see that your mind is not affected no matter what. Even when the body is beaten, the mind is not.
Sickness is a problem for the body, not the mind, unless the mind decides that it is. Similarly, for lameness. It’s the body’s problem, not the mind’s. If you practice attributing the correct source to problems you face, whatever happens, you will soon find that nothing that happens outside of you pertains to you. — Epictetus, Enchiridion 9 (Chuck Chakrapani, The Good Life Handbook, Ch. 9)
5. We have more resources than we realize
We get angry, upset, or depressed because we look at our problems and feel we are too impotent to face them. We feel helpless. We lash out against anything that we think is the source of our problem. Our negativity is often tied to our helplessness. But we are NOT helpless. We have within us tremendous resources.
Remember that for every challenge you face, you have the resources within you to cope with that challenge. If you are inappropriately attracted to someone, you will find you have the resource of self-restraint. When you have pain, you have the resource of endurance. When you are insulted, you have the resource of patience. If you start thinking along these lines, soon you will find that you don’t have a single challenge for which you don’t have the resource to cope. — Epictetus, Enchiridion 9 (Chuck Chakrapani, The Good Life Handbook, Ch. 10)
6. Relax, smile, all our problems will be over soon
When we face problems we exaggerate their importance. But when we consider the world has been around for 14 billion years and will be around for several billion more, our lifetime is not even a speck in this stretch. Why lose our peace of mind on something that is less than trivial and it will be all over altogether too soon?
Think how quickly all things come into being and how quickly they pass away. The river of life flows without stopping. It is constantly changing, never standing still. There is the long stretch of infinity ahead of it and behind it. It is a vast abyss into which everything we see is lost. What sense does it make to fret and fume — as if your troubles are going to last forever? — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.23(Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Meditations, Bk.5.23)