I had just posted my last piece on the 7 reasons you don’t reach your potential when my friend George hit me up asking if I had ever written about anxiety. Personally, I like to write about what I know best and stick to my comfort zone which is the personal development stuff. But there is the saying that if you can design one thing, you can design anything. So, I’m going to see if that also applies to writing.
I approach matters of mental health with great care. As someone who has had his own fair share to deal with, I understand that it is a triggering and fragile thing to discuss. It is great that lately as a collective, we are recognizing mental health issues as valid conditions and not just sweeping it under the rug or being oblivious like previous generations. At the same time, it is not an exact science, it is a very subjective experience, so these are murky waters.
It is only recently, like 4 months ago, that I started to realize that perhaps I actually am a lot more anxious than I realize. I have always had a low level of anxiety going on. I just never called it that. I just bookmarked it as fear, but this low-level feeling of tension always exists. It rears up its head when I have to do something new, when I sit in the car with a mentor or someone that I look up to. It rises when I have to go out into the world and interact with people. It rises when I get phone calls. It builds when I need to do something important. It flares up when I have to go out to an event or a party. It is my faithful companion. Sure you could call it nervous excitement, but sometimes it never really leaves, there is easy to constantly worry about anything and everything.
But life and growth require that you move forward. They require that you try new things, that you stretch yourself out of your comfort zone. Because otherwise, you would remain stuck. So, I’ve always viewed this anxiety as fear, and fear as something to be embraced and overcome. One of my favorite quotes is the Latin phrase ‘nihil timendum est’. It means ‘nothing is frightening’. Recently, I’ve come to meditate on fear as a specter, a ghost. There is even the acronym F.E.A.R. meaning ‘False Evidence Appearing Real’. Fear is just a projection of our subconscious mind unto the screen of life. If it is a matter of projection, perception and interpretation, then perhaps it can be influenced or even controlled.
When my friend asked me about anxiety, he framed it in a specific way. As young men (and everyone really) trying to come up in the world, it is difficult and we are prone to anxiety, whether we talk about it or not. In the prevailing social narrative, as men, we are supposed to have our shit together. It is said the only time a black man is truly loved is for his money. Which means if you don’t have money or means, then you are useless. Now that isn’t completely accurate, because there are a lot of broke men who are loved and supported by their women, but there is still a truth to it. Life is real, and you have to be able to shoulder the burdens.
So, the anxiety mounts, coming into your own as an adult. Figuring out your career, figuring out relationships, paying bills, getting married, raising children. All very real, very weighty things. At the same time, the whole world around us looks and feels like it is going to hell in a handbasket. In Africa, we face hundreds of years of exploitation from outside forces and broken promises and dashed hopes from our own leaders. There is conflict worldwide at every turn, even the empires and structures we used to look towards for stability or a sense of aspiration are all crumbling. Everything is falling apart, the ground beneath our feet seeming to give way. With so much going on, the mounting anxiety is understandable.
I read a copy of the New Internationalist the other night, and it was back to back full of bad news. Printed across its pages was one crisis or the other, from the underdevelopment and exploitation of Africa, to the piling plastic and electronic waste from our consumerist capitalist society, even to the damage of the inner psyche of the average person, we are faced with the most pressing challenges of our species and we are woefully unequipped to deal with them. It gets so overwhelming, it is easy to look out for the check-out button, both literally and metaphorically.
How do we cope?
If you are religious, you hold on to the hope of a life beyond this one, sure that this will pass away and a utopia will ensure. Otherwise you can cope with various philosophical or political responses – nihilism – eat, drink and be merry today because tomorrow we die, resistance – we can change this, we just need to change our prevailing systems, radicalism – let’s just burn everything down, anarchy – let’s descend into chaos and let everyone be responsible for themselves.
I don’t have the answers fam, I’m just as overwhelmed as you. But I’ll share how I think and approach it. It might not work for everyone, but it works for me.
Mindfulness helps. Which is really just the practice of being aware. If you are aware that you are being anxious, then you can resolve it. But it starts with recognizing that it is happening. When I realized how anxious I got around people I looked up to, I started consciously breathing deeper and deliberately relaxing into the present, into their presence and bringing forth my true self – as a human being, with personality, and ideas and a point of view. Basically, acknowledging that I am valid, and I don’t need to pander to be accepted by anyone.
Meditation helps too, and it ties in well with mindfulness. Taking the time out to reconnect with yourself, to deepen your inner reserves, to increase awareness give you more control in your day to day life. You can lengthen the time between occurrence and reaction and fill the space in between with impartial observation. Once you master the discipline of perception you can react or act accordingly.
In stoic philosophy, we are encouraged to see the world as it is, not as we want it to be. That also means a radical acceptance of what is. Amor Fati – love what it, as if you wanted what happened to happen. Even if it is failure, even if it is destruction. Once you can accept it, then you can deal with it. Too much psychic energy is spent resisting what is and wishing for something else, instead of dealing with what is and transforming that to what you want, if possible. So sure, things are hard, I am anxious, accept the fact, embrace and then decide what to do.
We are also encouraged to focus on what is within our locus of control. You can’t control everything, not the decisions of other people, not the things happening halfway across the world. You can’t even control what will happen to you in the next 5 minutes. But you can control the meaning you give to it, and you can control your reaction and your action to it.
Cultivate an inner citadel. In a world of chaos, it is imperative to have a space within that you can retreat to, a place to drop anchor. It is a place cultivated in meditation, in prayer and in contemplation of the transcendent. It helps you understand that everything physical will pass away, but that you, your consciousness, your soul is more than just what you see. And you can root yourself in that awareness and draw strength, even in the most-dire of straights.
All these tactics help to deepen our resolve, our reserves and manage anxiety. To be calm when needed and to arouse passion when needed, so that we are not overrun and overwhelmed but with emotional discipline, we have what it takes to meet our challenges.
I think they are beautiful. A little morbid sure, but beautiful. Over the years, I have accumulated a few skull-related paraphernalia. I had this really nice skull vase that sat on the table in my living room to hold odds and ends. I have a skull decanter and a skull cup. I wear a bracelet with a skull as its center piece. I keep skulls around me as a reminder of death…and as an invitation to life. In this, I follow a long standing philosophic, religious and artistic tradition spanning thousands of years.
Last week, I joined my extended family to lay my late uncle to rest. It was a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, it was a sad thing to say goodbye to one of our own. We mourned a life cut abruptly and unexpectedly short. On the other hand, it was great to see cousins, uncles and aunts I had not seen in so long and to celebrate a life that touched so many. The entire experience was a mix of excitement, celebration, grieving and sombre reflection.
Of course, funerals are a poignant time to think about our mortality.
Remember you must die.
This seemingly haunting, but inspiring phrase has a rich history, evolving through many forms of practice and interpretation in literature, art, fashion, and even current popular culture. To this day, many people keep Memento Mori coins or similar physical totems as reminders of the ever-present nature of death.
For the stoics, memento mori was a key meditation device. A reminder that our time on earth in finite, and this thing called life is fragile, and precious. Most times we don’t think about death. We are too preoccupied with the business of living to stop and ponder something so morbid, so depressing. But such is the fate of all of us. That we are born, and one day, we will die. It is the one constant in a world full of flux.
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”- Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)
In art, the genre ‘Danse Macabre’ or the ‘Dance of death’ grew in the late Middle Ages, a time when the Black Death decimated a third of Europe’s population. Paintings included kings, peasants, young and old dancing with the grim reaper or with skeletons, to convey that death comes for everyone. ‘Vanitas art’ arose with Dutch Golden Age artists, emphasizing the emptiness and futility of earthly items. Their still art paintings depicted compositions of skulls, wilting flowers, rotting fruit, time pieces to remind observers that time is relentless, and death is inevitable.
It is said that a lot of our neuroses, our fears and frantic scrambling, stem from our inability to cope with our innate mortality and limitations. We do a lot of things to avoid our death. We seek comfort in things, and pleasures, grasping for security, to stave off facing our end. With all our creature comforts and amenities, we pretend we have all the time in the world, and that we will live forever.
This is understandable, the fear of death is a tough burden to bear. Man lives in constant tension, peering into the sublime and eternal on one hand, and yet severely limited by time, and the fleeting nature of life. Easier to just live and be distracted and try not to think about it for as long as you can.
Yet we must die.
What if we embrace death? Not as something morbid and to be feared, but as something to be inspired by. The necessary end that is death makes the time we are alive that more precious. In the larger scheme of things, none of the things we do will matter much. No matter how much we achieve or accumulate, we will die. Our time will pass, our names will be forgotten, our monuments will wash away with the sands of time. But right now, in our experience, in our lives, the things we do, do matter. How we live, matters. Our actions reverberate across the universe. It’s a paradox.
Steve Jobs called death, probably the greatest invention of life. Life begins, life ends. And it does both all the time. If it didn’t, life would be stagnant, not going anywhere. But we are born, we grow into our prime, and then we die. As we leave, others come to replace us, to do it all over again, to do it differently, to tear down what was done before and create anew. The cycle of births and deaths allow us to continue as a people, as a species, ever present, ever reinventing, ever dying, ever renewed. It is a beautiful thing. Embracing this truth brings release.
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” – Steve Jobs
If we must die. then perhaps life, is just learning how to die well. Can we live in a way that honours the people we were made to be? Can our short time be used to mean something more than just our happiness and pleasure? Can we live with a sense of urgency, not putting off our great work to a day that may never come, but tackling it right now, today? Can we live in such a way, that after we are gone, we still live on, in the hearts and minds of the people we touch, and the marks we make in the world?
If we must die. Perhaps we can spend less time and energy trying to impress others, taking on things that do not serve us. Perhaps we cannot be so swayed by the crowd. Perhaps we can allow our truest selves to unfold. Perhaps we can truly value our time, and not waste another second. Perhaps we can pursue our dreams, and goals. Perhaps we can embrace purpose. Perhaps we can unleash our true potential.
If we must die, then we must live. With urgency. We must think of how we want to exit, and what we want those we leave behind to say and feel about us when we are no longer here. If we must die, then we must also savour life, making sure to enjoy it, to live in the moments, and enjoy life’s simple pleasures, not being preoccupied with worries and fears. Knowing that the forward march of time is relentless, we can live so we get to the end with no regrets, having truly lived, having fought the good fight, having left everything on life’s stage.
“On this occasion when you have such a bounty of opportunities in terms of your body, environment, friends, spiritual mentors, time, and practical instructions, without procrastinating until tomorrow and the next day, arouse a sense of urgency, as if a spark landed on your body or a grain of sand fell in your eye. If you have not swiftly applied yourself to practice, examine the births and deaths of other beings and reflect again and again on the unpredictability of your lifespan and the time of your death, and on the uncertainty of your own situation. Meditate on this until you have definitively integrated it with your mind… The appearances of this life, including your surroundings and friends, are like last night’s dream, and this life passes more swiftly than a flash of lightning in the sky. – Dudjom Lingpa
It is never too late to be what you might have been. – George Elliot
Lately, I have been thinking about the concept of repentance. It is a core tenet of the Judeo-Christian faith, its entry point in fact. The idea that you can make a 180-degree change. You can go down one path for the longest time, and all of a sudden, you change and go down a different one. It is the idea of dramatic change. That is the promise of Christ’s message. That no matter how bad you have been, no matter how far you have fallen, no matter how ignorant you have been in your actions and approach to life, there is hope. There is potential for change.
To repent is to turn away, from one course of action and follow another. It is a promise that your past does not have to be your future, that your mistakes do not have to define you. And when you combine that with the concept of substitution, that you can trade in your raggedy-ass self, your less than ideal behavior, and take on the perfect ideal that is Christ instead, you get something profoundly powerful. It doesn’t mean an instant change, even though that is possible, but it speaks to a spark, an awakening, an enlightenment, a cracking open of a hurt soul, so the light can get in and heal.
We know that the way you view yourself influences how you behave, what you go after and what you even think is possible for you. The concepts of repentance and substitution allow you to simultaneously get off one track and adopt a new better one. And the more you walk in this new light and nurture it, the more solid the change becomes, the more this new nature emerges.
But first you have to accept, and then you have to release. You have to admit the mistake and you have to ask and accept forgiveness. If you keep knocking yourself down, playing your mistakes over and over again, you start to punish yourself. Most times you do it subconsciously, shying away from things you should do and be because you do not feel worthy. And then you keep repeating the pattern because you are stuck. You take on the identity of your mistakes, not as things you do, but who you are. You continue to spiral down the less than ideal path.
To change is to forgive. To accept the wrong, to set it aside letting go of all the hurt and negativity around it, and to pick up the right. In Christianity, Christ’s forgiveness is only a prayer away. A true prayer, born of true remorse, born of pure intent. But even if you are not there yet, even when you still like your mistakes, knowing they are not good for you, a simple request for help will do, you can ask for a change of heart, for an evolution of your nature.
The hope here is that you don’t have to be what you have always been. You can be more. You can change. You can be better. And you don’t have to let anyone, even yourself, hold your mistakes against you. If God has forgiven you, surely you can forgive yourself, and sometimes that is the hardest thing. But until there is forgiveness, there can be no progress.
It might take a long way to become the person we want to be, but the fact remains, the great hope, that you don’t have to be what you have always been. You can be more. You can embrace your potential for change.
Going home is always interesting, but going home after a long time, is its own ball game. Things feel familiar and comfortable, but at the same time different. Everything has a quality of strangeness as you settle and reacclimatize to a space you haven’t occupied in years. You are different, home is largely the same, and every interaction is a renegotiation of hierarchy, atmosphere and energy.
For different people, home means different things. For some, they are happy places, for others not so much. As we grow older, what home means to us also changes. They evolve from spaces we occupy as dependents, to spaces we occupy as individuals with agency. But no matter what age we are, children or full-grown adults, going home has a restorative quality. Home is a place of memory and grounding.
Home is where our story begins…
The act of returning home has great significance to us. It is a thematic thread or component of many stories. The hero’s journey codified by Joseph Campbell outlines the typical stages of a protagonist’s adventure. The hero is called or dragged into a quest, goes on the long journey to defeat something evil or acquire something valuable, and then returns back home with the bounty, changed or transformed.
This pattern is recognisable from The Odyssey to The Matrix. They resonate because they are primal archetypal myths, metaphors and stories for our personal journeys. We recognise ourselves in these stories because we play out the same drama in our lives.
The journey to getting what you want is the hero’s journey. We leave the warm cocoon of our comfort zones and head into unfamiliar ground in search of the prize. Sometimes we go willingly, more often, our world is turned inside out, and we find ourselves thrust unwittingly into a quest. Guides appear to help along the way, trials arise to challenge, temptations and sirens sing to test us. On this tough road we press on. We do the work, we experiment, we break the rules, we confront ourselves, our previously held beliefs, our ideas, our expectations.
We lose our way, fall into holes, wind up in dark deep places where we are almost overwhelmed by the chaos. We deal with uncertainty, with fear, with our desires. We battle the dragons of doubt, the beast of a subconscious out of control, plagued and goaded by unresolved trauma and wounds from the past.
But we get through it. We learn lessons, we adapt, we improve. We evolve, we change. We slay the dragon, we win.
This journey necessarily separates us from home. We go into the world, and wrestle with it, and with ourselves, to come into our strength and to become fully formed individuals. If we do it well, we are able to build an internal locus of strength and form an internal compass. We become ourselves, honouring our specific inclinations, impulses and nature. We stand mature, able to engage effectively with world around us, of our society and our time. This journey makes us fully formed and realised people.
However, the journey is not complete once you have slain the dragon and obtained your goods. To complete the cycle, and it is a cycle because you will undertake this journey again, and again, you must return home.
Your expulsion sparked the process of the dissolution of your past self. From those ashes, a new you was born. To move forward, there must be an integration. You have to return, to reconnect with your past so you can move boldly into the future.
The other day, I was watching Joe Rogan have a conversation with Guy Ritchie, and the filmmaker broke down the story of the prodigal son in a way that I had never heard it before. In case you have never heard it, the prodigal son is a parable in Bible about a rich man and his two sons. The younger one asks for his inheritance and goes off into the world and just does the absolute most. Whores, partying, living and squandering his inheritance. Eventually he blows it all, and finds himself taking on a job feeding pigs, and being so hungry, he was tempted to eat those scraps.
This is rock bottom for him, so he finally comes to his senses and decides he is just going to tuck his tail between his legs and go back home. At least, he could get a menial job working for pops. No point dying out here for nothing.
So, he heads on home, and the moment his dad sees him, he is overjoyed, he embraces him, places fine robes, jewellery and orders the fattest cow killed for a feast. In the midst of the celebration of the prodigal son’s return, the older son is not impressed. He has stood by his father’s side the entire time, being the good and dutiful son, and here is dad, celebrating this good for nothing waste man brother of his. His father’s admonishment to him is that he should chill and be happy his brother is back.
On the surface, it is a weird read, why is the father so chilled about the younger son’s behaviour? What’s the deal with the response to the older son? Do we take the story as an admonition to not be like the wasteful brother, or do we embrace the idea that it’s fine to squander our inheritance because of the seemingly boundless redemptive love and acceptance of the father?
As with many stories and parables, there is the literal plot, and then there is the deeper esoteric meaning. In this case (according to Guy Ritchie at least) the story is about inner conflict. We are the father, the older son is our reason, and logic, the younger son is the more primal and indulgent emotions.
Reason teaches us the rules we must follow, the norms of society, the duties, the structure, the status quo that holds up the empire. It is safe. It is boring. In the younger son, we see our emotional selves, the rebel within, the need to break the walls and escape, to explore past what is ‘safe’ and to investigate what the world has to offer. It is exciting but dangerous business.
And both sides exist within us, and the balance between the two forms our expression.
It is that exploration that questions our beliefs and helps us understand why they exist and how to take them up consciously and powerfully.
It is the experience that allows us to become ourselves and stand on the strength of our experience and forged convictions. It is after this journey, that we are able to reintegrate. We are able to revisit the past, reconcile with the older brother of reason, and tradition, and navigate the middle path. A path that respects and honours the past but looks innovatively to transform and create into the future.
We come back to share the gifts we have won. We also come back to relearn, to recover and to strengthen ourselves, to enter a new phase, take on more responsibility, to embark on a new, even more challenging journey.
It is the Hero’s journey. We leave a child, we return to become King.
This is the mantra I have been repeating to myself often lately. As someone who usually has a mild level of anxiety going on at most times, my mind races towards all the ways things can go wrong. I hope to succeed and win at whatever I am doing but I am also too familiar with the worst-case scenarios.
But recently, I’ve started to wonder, ‘what if I flipped it?’. I mean, my present thought patterns are really just that, a pattern. And patterns, I can change. We get addicted to thought forms and used to certain ways of observing or experiencing the world. But it takes just as much energy to think of positive outcomes as it does to think of negative ones, so why not let go of that pessimism and experiment more with optimism.
Even if the actual results don’t change, even if things don’t go our way, the very act of changing our expectations changes the texture of our lives and our experiences. Last week, I walked into the bank trying to get something sorted out, and as I sat in the consultant’s office, I felt the tension rise within me, my mind racing with disaster scenarios, not only would I not get the thing I wanted, but something even worse would happen. So, I took a deep breath and started to repeat to myself, ‘the world works for me, the world works for me’. I did not get what I wanted, but I left with the sense that the consultant was on my side, he genuinely wanted me to succeed. He even wished me good luck on my way out.
I try to live in an intuitive way, responding to and moving according to my heart, whatever I feel in my core to do. I won’t take a decision until I felt the answer had revealed itself to me, and I would follow whatever path I felt I needed to, to get there. It is sometimes frustrating to the people around me, but it is my process.
And lately, I’ve been feeling like…eh…like bleh.
After a long season of hustling, pushing and fighting and making things happen, it is kind of hard knowing what to do next or where to go next. What happens after you get what you want?
Sometimes it is nothing. You do nothing. You just wait it out.
And waiting is something we don’t understand too well as a culture. The periods of rest and inactivity are just as important as the periods of grinding and creation. Sometimes you just have to be still. It’s in that time that you recover, that you are strengthened. It is then your vision is restored, and the path opens up to the next things.
But you have to be open to it. You have to accept it all, understanding that the universe and life moves in ebbs and flows, in cycles. Sometimes things are great, sometimes things are not. Sometimes things are slow, sometimes they move with determined ferocity. It is not up to you to control it, but to surrender to it and flow with it.
For the world to work for you, you have to let go of ego. It is not about you, and about what you ‘want’. Although there is a space for that. It is more about ‘what is’. The universe is infinitely bigger than you and knows more than you. Where has it placed you in the larger scheme of things. Where does it want you to be? What does it want you to do?
It takes some time, practice and openness to be able to listen and discern the times. To see things happen and recognize how to respond. But once you understand this, life becomes a collaboration with source. Life brings things your way, and you are present enough to seize the opportunities, the open doors, the gaps in plain sight that you ought to slip into.
You join the eternal dance, having everything, and holding on to nothing, living, being, creating.
I’ve never been punched in the mouth. At least not literarily. And not in recent memory. Perhaps last in some childhood scuffle. But I get punched in the mouth every week. Some weeks, I get punched every day. Metaphorically speaking. By life. By adulting.
Especially as a creative, as a freelancer, as an entrepreneur. Life can be sometimes feel like a series of fires to put out, and punches, mis-steps and mistakes. If there is one thing that is for sure, is that things will not go your way. The client will not pay on time, the job will take longer than you think to be commissioned, it will take even longer to get done.
Bad things are sure to happen.
How do you live in such an unfortunate and uncertain world? Do you hide and try to maximize certainty, or do you find a way to embrace the chaos and work with it?
Just under a decade ago, I began to open my mind up to other schools of thought, spiritual ideas and ways of looking at the world. In my transition into young adulthood, there were a lot of incongruencies and uncomfortable paradoxes in my belief system, and I sought to figure out a way to view the world and a way to live. The prevailing criteria for whether I would adopt a worldview or not, was its efficacy. I didn’t care where the idea came from, as long as it worked.
Life post-faith, or life after the walls of your previous belief system have been blown off can feel like free floating in the vast void of space, far from any planet or ship to orient you. This was the mental image I consistently pulled to mind as I wrestled with things in that period of my life. But sometime in 2011, I came across a blog post written by Ryan Holiday on Tim Ferris’ website that introduced me to a school of thought that would prove an anchor, and a guide. It is one I still hold dear. In fact, I count Ryan as one of my favorite authors, and his books on the school of thought as some of the most important books I’ve read. That school of thought is Stoic Philosophy.
Every now and again, a friend would come to me for advice, usually panicking, overwhelmed with some situation or event, and I would offer some perspective. I’d often refer to stoic philosophy as a possible solution or framework to analyze the problem and offer a solution. And then they would ask, ‘what is Stoic Philosophy”. There, I would stumble on my words trying to articulate something I understand quite well but can’t often express as well. This post is my attempt to do so.
Stoicism is a philosophy that is immensely practical in its approach. In other brands of philosophy, there is usually a lot of deliberation on the nature of life or reality. Or they are marked with arcane concerns that are more about jumping through intellectual hoops than anything else. Not stoicism. The main focus here is simple. How to live well.
Founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC, stoicism was famously practiced by Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus, and they are considered the main leaders of the philosophy. But over the course of history, many have illustrated stoicism as a way of life. In their ranks, leaders and statesmen, thinkers and athletes.
The core of stoicism is this. Real life is unpredictable, and much is outside our control. Our lives are fleeting, and we are plagued by anxieties. How then shall we live? How can we be steadfast, strong and in control of ourselves?
The stoics offer what are known as “spiritual exercises” meditations and patterns of thought that offer perspective and strength. I’ll highlight a few.
“It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favours on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.” – Seneca
Comfort is the worst kind of slavery because you are always afraid that something or someone will take it from you. – Ryan Holiday
Seneca, who was immensely wealthy man in his time, suggested that we ought to take some time every month to practice poverty. Eat little food, wear your worst clothes, expose yourself to embarrassment. Place yourself in the uncomfortable situation you fear and ask yourself ‘Is this what I used to dread?’
If you practiced the worst-case scenario, when it actually happens, it loses its ability to disrupt your life. You are already familiar with it. If you get punched every now and again, you get desensitized to it, better able to handle it.
Train Perception to avoid good and bad
“Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.” -Marcus Aurelius
Nothing is good or bad. It is our judgement that makes it so. Management of perception is one of the core tenets of stoicism. In fact, the first theme in Ryan’s book ‘The Obstacle is the Way’ is all about the ‘discipline of perception’.
When tragedy strikes – you don’t win the pitch, you have a bad day at work, your colleagues undermine you, it is easy to judge what has happened as bad, getting wrapped up in the resulting emotion, anger, distress, worry. To the Stoic, everything is opportunity. Things simply happen. We decide if its good or bad. We choose to see the good in it. We choose to turn the obstacle on its head.
The failed pitch becomes a teachable moment, an event to mine for lessons to fortify ourselves for the next one. It becomes practice. Problems at work with colleagues becomes an opportunity to learn, to practice virtue – compassion, equanimity, leadership, forgiveness. The bad day teaches us resilience and a chance to maintain an inner citadel of peace in a chaotic harsh world.
Is this within my control
“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. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .” – Epictetus
Perhaps the most important practice in stoic philosophy is discerning what we can control and what we can’t. You can’t control the weather, you can’t control traffic, you can’t control the actions of others. You can’t make someone like you or love you. No amount of huffing and puffing and crying and whining will change certain things. Why expend energy on them?
There are only a few things that really matter and only a few things you can control. Focus on those.
You can’t change where you were born or who you were born to. You probably can’t change the job market, or the prevailing economic conditions. Not without immense coordination and collaboration with others anyway. But you can change your perspective, you can change your actions. Focus on what you can do and take action along those lines.
This meditation dovetails nicely with the discipline of action. As a person with goals and aims, all I can do is focus on what I can control and consistently take the actions I can to move me closer to them. I can’t control when the client will pay, but I can focus on drumming up new business, I can focus on finding better clients, I can focus on increasing my streams of income. There is no use crying about how unfair it all is, all I can do is focus on what I can do. And take bold action.
Everything must be done in the service of the whole. Step by step, action by action, we’ll dismantle the obstacles in front of us. With persistence and flexibility, we’ll act in the best interest of our goals. – Ryan Holiday (The Obstacle is the Way)
So, what do you do when you have been punched in the mouth?
Take a step back. Wipe off the blood. Learn from the punch.
Was it inevitable? Was it just bad luck or misfortune? Did you fail to account for something? Were you too relaxed? Did you let your guard down? Maybe it’s okay that you got punched. Punches make you tougher, they build your resilience. Perhaps you can learn to pull a punch like that. How can you avoid another punch? How can you deal better with it next time? How can you use the momentum of the punch against your opponent, against your obstacle?
Don’t get mad. Don’t let it throw you off balance for too long. Don’t let it ruin everything you have been working for.