August 11, 2021 - The Stoic Gym Blog
How to Live in the Present, the Stoic Way
This moment has it all
Practically all our problems come from two sources: worry and anxiety. We are worried about something that has already happened, or we are anxious about what might happen in the future. If we can banish from our mind worries about what has already happened and anxiety about what might happen, we will be able to lead a productive life. Marcus Aurelius reminds us,
You only live in the present, this fleeting moment. The rest of your life is already gone or not yet revealed.
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.10(Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Meditations, Book 3.10)
Towards the end of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius points out that letting go of our past and our future is the shortest route to get what we want. When we completely let go of worries of the past and anxieties about the future, we can have all the things we have desired.
You have been trying to reach many things by taking the long way around. All these things can be yours right now if you stop denying them to yourself. All you have to do is let go of the past, trust the future to providence, and direct the present to reverence and justice.
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 12.1 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Meditations, Book 12.1)
Let’s look at this little bit more closely.
The past and the future are irrelevant
We may be unhappy because we had a difficult past, we had problems in the past, or we did not get the breaks that others got. We may be convinced that it is only natural that we are unhappy. When we think like this, we are saying to ourselves that we should be unhappy now, because we had problems in the past. No other animal does that. They run from danger but once the danger has passed, they just go about their business without worrying about what happened. Only human beings are frightened now because they faced dangers in the past.
Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.
— Seneca. Letters From A Stoic: Epistulae Morales AD Lucilium, Letter 13)
Similarly, when we decide to be unhappy now because we are anxious about the future, our mind is telling us that, because we may have problems in the future, we should start being unhappy right now.
What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers… will never come upon you. They certainly have not yet come. Accordingly, some things torment us more than they should, and some torment us when they should not torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.
— Seneca. Letters From A Stoic: Epistulae Morales AD Lucilium, Letter 13
This is the moment — live in it
Everything that can bring us happiness, happens in the present. When we worry about the past or are about anxious about the future, we contaminate the present with problems borrowed from the past or from the future. The past cannot be changed — so why bring it into the present? We cannot predict the future — so why create our own miserable version of the future and be unhappy about it?
Remember what Mark Twain supposed to have said?
I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.
Neither the past nor the future is in our control. As long as we are concerned about the past or the future, neither of which is under our control, we give up the only means we have to be happy. And Stoicism is very clear on this.
There is only one way to be happy. Keep this thought ready for use morning, noon, and night. Give up the desire for things not under your control.
— Epictetus, Discourses 4.4.39 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Freedom, Ch. 4)
Finally, even if you live thirty thousand years you can only lose the present moment. Why lose the present with problems borrowed from the past and the future?
Even if you live three thousand — or thirty thousand — years, you should remember this. You cannot lose any other life than the one you are living now.
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.14(Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Meditations, Book 2.14)
By losing the present moment we fritter our life away. By losing enough present moments, we don’t lose any other life — but we will lose the life we are living now.