How to apply ancient wisdom to modern living, with insight from our expert columnist, Kieran Townsend
It’s well known that we can learn a lot from looking to the past, and the ancient philosophy of stoicism is a prime example, as the lessons we can gather from it remain so relevant in today’s world. Formed in ancient Greece and Rome in the 3rd century BC, the concept is built on overcoming negative emotions, gaining perspective and taking action.
The vast majority of stoicism material is passed down to us through three distinctly different individuals practising the philosophy: Seneca, an educated playwright; Epictetus, a former slave; and Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor (who you might recognise from the movie Gladiator!).
Using stoicism practices and ways of thinking can help anyone and everyone become better at what they do, and to live a life in alignment with their values, ensuring their energy is not drained in the wrong areas of their lives. Here, I’m sharing a few techniques inspired by the concept of stoicism, which you can apply to your life and reap the rewards...
Dichotomy of control
How often do we find ourselves caught up in worrying about things that we have no influence over? The most important practice in stoic philosophy is differentiating between what’s in our control and what isn’t, and directing our thoughts and energy accordingly. Focusing on what’s in our control can help us to take action, and cut through unnecessary rumination. As Epictetus 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.”
In today’s society, there is always the feeling of needing more, and striving for what’s next, so we never truly feel satisfied. But negative visualisation can help us develop contentment and gratitude.
For this exercise, bring to mind all that you do have in your life, big and small – your home, food in your cupboards, and your meaningful relationships. Then imagine all this being taken away… How would it really feel? Once you have done this, return to the current moment, and you should find a newfound appreciation for what you do have, rather than a fixation on what you don’t.
Is this necessary?
From his personal journal, known as Meditations, Marcus Aurelius uses this question to cut through the inessential: “Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’” This can be likened to the 80/20 principle, where it is argued that 80% of results come from 20% of the activity.
How often do we spend our time with trivial pursuits, or spend money on things we really don’t need? By asking this question, it can cut to the core, and allow us to focus on what is important to us. This can help with productivity at work, quality time with others, and also to live a more minimalist lifestyle.
Guard your time
Seneca once said: “People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time, they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.” And he had a valid point in urging us to guard our time the same way we would our possessions or money, for it’s the only thing we can’t get more of. How much time do we ‘give away’ scrolling, attending meetings we don’t need to be in, or taking part in activities we feel we should do? One technique to help you to guard your time is learning to say no more often. This can be difficult, but, like anything, start small and practise. Say no to the things that don’t matter, so you can have the energy to say yes to the things that do.
Guiding values for a fulfilled life
The stoics focus on four main values, known as the cardinal virtues, for a simple, content, and purposeful life. These are courage, wisdom, justice, and temperance. By following these, we are not seeking fame and fortune, which can feel empty, but looking to improve daily, as well as being of service to others. Personally, I like to reword them slightly to courage, wisdom, self-discipline, and kindness, as well as adding in equanimity, to make up my own five guiding values for life. You might want to try the same with values that speak to you.
See things as they really are
Deconstruct things from material possessions, and see them for what they truly are. While at a feast, Marcus Aurelius noted to himself that the wine was rotten old grapes. A pretty cutting overview, but it’s designed to not add extra value and attachment to such things. Could you see a pair of expensive trainers just for their purpose of protecting your feet? A brand new car just as a mode of transport to get you from A to B safely? You could even ask yourself, ‘Is this for me or am I trying to impress others?’ It could be a useful way to view what’s around you, to determine its true worth to you.
Stoicism, as a philosophy, has so much timeless wisdom that remains incredibly relevant in our modern world. It deals with topics ranging from time management to controlling our emotions, practising gratitude, and living in a more minimal way, which we can all benefit from.
For anyone interested in learning more, I suggest grabbing a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, and Epictetus’s Discourses. Ryan Holiday has also written books and shares fantastic content on this subject. I currently use his Daily Stoic Journal every morning and evening for my own practice.