What is a stoic person like? What is the Stoic secret to staying calm and imperturbable in times of adversity?
Stoic people show fortitude and imperturbability to extreme emotions. According to Marcus Aurelius, there are three characteristics of a stoic mind: 1) sanity, 2) cooperation, and 3) disinterest. When your mind has these characteristics, you’ll never suffer from anger or anxiety.
Here’s how cultivating a stoic mind can help you develop a sense of perspective and become saner and more dispassionate.
How to Develop a Stoic Mind
A stoic mind is like a perfect sphere in perfect stillness. It doesn’t reach outward or retreat inward; instead, it simply exists and observes. By focusing only on your own thoughts, and only on the present moment, you can shape yourself into that sphere.
There are several characteristics of a stoic mind, and you should always strive to uphold them:
- Sanity—that is, seeing and understanding every individual thing for what it truly is, not getting lost in stories and superstitions.
- Cooperation—willingly accepting whatever nature gives you, moment to moment.
- Disinterest—a lack of self-interest, or in other words, selflessness. You should always be driven by reason and intelligence, not self-centered desires or fears.
Furthermore, just like healthy eyes can see what’s in front of them without straining or being overwhelmed, and a healthy stomach can digest whatever’s put into it, a stoic mind should be calm and prepared for anything.
If and when the time comes that you’re unable to uphold these characteristics—perhaps due to age, illness, or some other form of deterioration—you’ll know that it’s time to pass from this life. Continuing to live without being able to follow logos will only harm you and those around you. Therefore, you can depart with peace and satisfaction, knowing that you’ve done all the good you could do.
Here is how to develop a stoic mind:
1) Train Your Mind
In his writings, Socrates asks whether you’d prefer a rational, healthy mind or an irrational, unhealthy one. Naturally, you’d want the former.
He then says that you have to work to achieve such a mind. Now, you might protest that you’ve already done that work. However, if you’re already so rational, then why are you wasting time arguing? Truly rational people would just go about their business, with no concern for what others think or do. Thus, by claiming that your work is done, you prove that you have more work to do. You need to train your mind.
In training your mind to be strong and healthy, you should be like a boxer, not a fencer. A fencer can put down his tool and must pick it up again to use it. A boxer’s tools are parts of him, ready to be used at any time. Similarly, your rationality and philosophy must be readily available whenever you need them.
Exercise your mind constantly. One exercise is to think about how each thing around you has changed, and is changing: What was it before? What will it become in the future? A related exercise is to try to understand the force that drives these changes. For example, there’s an unseen force that turns an egg into a chicken, or food into strength and life. What exactly are those forces?
To further strengthen your mind, practice things that seem impossible. The left hand tends to be weaker and clumsier than the right because you don’t practice with it. However, there will be things that it does better than the right hand also because of practice. You can develop the weak areas of your mind in the same way.
2) Recognize Unhealthy Thoughts
Part of training a healthy mind is recognizing unhealthy thoughts and working to overcome them. For instance, an anxious mind is an unhealthy mind. Generally, your anxieties come from pursuing some things and trying to avoid others. However, these things you’re worrying about aren’t seeking you out—all the effort of chasing or avoiding them comes from you. Therefore, stop worrying and simply let those things be. You’ll find that you don’t have to pursue them or run away from them.
On that same note, don’t pursue other people’s admiration or shy away from their scorn; such things should have no power over you. In pursuing these things, you love yourself more than you love other people, yet you value others’ opinions over your own. That isn’t rational.
You also shouldn’t be awed by other people, no matter how powerful or famous they are. The gods see all of us for who we really are—they aren’t distracted by our physical bodies, our possessions, or our fame. You can learn to do the same and thus stop being unsettled by others’ appearance, wealth, or celebrity. Those things are no more upsetting than a set on a stage or a costume in a closet.
Finally, to help stave off anxiety in awkward or uncomfortable situations, just remember Socrates going out in public wearing only a towel.
(Shortform note: Aurelius is referring to an anecdote that would have been well known in his time. Socrates’s wife Xanthippe had borrowed his cloak and gone out, so Socrates went out in his underwear. Socrates (who was a Stoic like Aurelius) wasn’t embarrassed or anxious about his situation. He believed that physical concerns like covering his body weren’t important, and he wasn’t worried about what others would think of him.)
3) Control Your Thoughts
A healthy mind is one whose thoughts are strictly controlled. As a rational being, you’re uniquely able to gain that sort of control. Your characteristics as a rational being are:
- The ability to change
As a result of these characteristics, you can always take a moment to observe your thoughts before you express them. This means you can learn to recognize unhealthy thoughts and dismiss them. Here are several types of thought to avoid expressing:
- Unhelpful thoughts
- Harmful thoughts
- Thoughts that don’t match your true beliefs
- Thoughts that stem from physical wants and self-indulgence
Don’t Lose Control
Music, art, dancing, and so on can cause you to temporarily lose control of your thoughts. However, there’s a simple technique that can prevent you from being swept away by such things.
Study each individual note of a song, or each movement of a dance, or the smallest parts of a painting you can observe. Then, for each tiny part, ask yourself whether that has any power over you. You can also apply that same technique to life as a whole. What power does any individual moment have over you?
Control Your Actions
Just as you should observe your thoughts before you express them, you should consider your actions before you perform them.
All actions deserve the question, “why is that person doing that?” Your own actions deserve that question most of all. Here’s a train of thought to follow when deciding what to do in any situation:
- What does nature want me to do?
- Would doing that go against my nature as a living being?
- If so, what does my nature as a living being want me to do?
- Would that go against my higher nature, that of a rational being? (We must remember here that rational beings exist to help one another.)
- If so, what action can I take that satisfies my rational nature?
In short: At each moment, consider what you can do or say that is most in line with nature—nature as a whole and your own personal nature. Then do or say it.
Finally, stop pretending that anything in the world can stop you from doing what nature demands. Nothing can impede you except yourself.
4) Embrace Nature and Fate
People who fight against nature are like pigs who kick and squeal on their way to the slaughter. Everything must submit to nature—but as a rational being, you can choose to do so voluntarily. True freedom is the ability to do only what the world wants and to accept whatever it gives you. That frees you from selfish desires and anxieties.
Live naturally, as if you were alone in the wilderness. Follow nature, follow logos, and remember that the whole world is your home. In order to do this, forget about the past, leave the future up to logos, and do your work in the present.
If others can’t stand to see you living that way, then let them kill you like they killed Socrates—that would be better than living unnaturally.
Nature provides for you and takes away from you. Simple logic tells you that you should submit to this fact humbly and happily—as we’ve noted, resisting nature is futile. For example, don’t expect figs in the middle of winter, or children in your old age, because nature hasn’t decreed those things.
Call it nature or call it fate, whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since time began. Be excited to help nature create what’s yet to come. All you need is what nature chooses to give you, at the time when nature chooses to give it.
5) Remember We’re Each a Tiny Part of the Whole
To understand your place in nature, develop a sense of perspective. A tiny grape seed exists in infinite space. A single moment exists as a part of eternity. Your body and your lifetime are no different from those things.
When you realize how tiny you are compared to the universe, and how short-lived you are compared to eternity, you’ll start to understand your own insignificance.
However, that’s not meant to be discouraging—rather, it should spur you to work for the common good, instead of your own inconsequential desires.