There is a story told of a monk who got on a small canoe to meditate among the calm waters. While he was meditating with his eyes closed, he heard another canoe bump into his canoe. At first he ignored it because it was only a minor disturbance, but the other canoe kept bumping into his own over and over again. His irritation at the constant bumping kept building up until he angrily opened his eyes, determined to confront the rider of the other canoe. Alas, when he opened his eyes, he saw that the other canoe was empty and the bumping was caused by the waves on the river. Suddenly all his anger melted as he realised that there was nobody causing the bumping and therefore nobody to confront.
There is a lesson to be learnt here: The next time you are angry at somebody/something/a situation, ask yourself “Who/what am I really angry at?” Was the monk angry about the bumping of his canoe or was he really angry at the thought that somebody was behind it?
There is a difference between a phenomenon and our reactions to them. Most of the time, we mistake our reactions for the situation. Whatever emotions we express at any given time is already within us: Anger, Happiness, Joy, Calm. It only takes external factors to externalise them. Nevertheless, you alone hold the key to whatever emotion you choose to express. Some people will see a rat in their bedroom and freak out, shouting and screaming while others will see the same rat and remain calm and collected. The same phenomenon, different reactions.
Stoicism as a philosophy, teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions. What this means is that a Stoic understands that happenings and our reaction to them are two separate things and therefore seeks to develop better mental models to able to navigate the natural world.
A stoic understands that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things happen in the world all the time and does not let those things adversely affect their mental balance. A feather is very light and can be moved in any direction by wind while a mountain is heavy and grounded and cannot be easily moved by wind. Some people have the mental fortitude of a feather while some have the mental fortitude of a mountain. The goal of an aspiring stoic therefore, is to get as close to the mental fortitude of a mountain as possible; to not be easily buffeted by external factors.
This is not to say that a Stoic is an unfeeling person who has no emotions, No. Rather, a Stoic is someone who does not easily let their prevailing emotion guide their action. A stoic can be angry but not lash out or speak destructively. A stoic can be in pain but not transfer their pain or aggression onto others.
The ethics of a stoicism advocates reason and self discipline; with Logic, reflection and focus as the methods for self discipline. It is important for a Stoic to master self discipline and to understand that we cannot control the world but we can control how we react to what is happening in the world.
Some of the ideas espoused in stoicism are neither new nor unique, as several religions of the world teach the similar things. In the bible, Matthew 6:25-34 talks about Anxiety and how to cope with it. The Buddha also teaches about detachment in achieving Nirvana with the title of this article referencing the Buddhist teaching of detachment, which in simpler terms teaches that all our sufferings are due to our desires and longings. For instance, you feel disappointment/anger/sadness when your expectations and desires are not met and you feel joy/happiness/fulfilment when your desires are met BUT the problem here is that all of these things are fleeting: your anger, sadness, joy, happiness are all fleeting. After a while, the thing that caused you to feel those things go away and you start to either long for them if they made you feel good or avoid them if they made you feel bad, essentially making ourselves slaves to our desires and longing, hence why it seems like we are always chasing the next high and avoiding the next low. Liberation therefore is when you unlink your emotional state from external factors, when you recognise that your anger/sadness/joy/fulfilment is not dependant on what is happening outside of you but rather inside of you.
Of course none of this is easy to master. It takes a lot of practice and dedication to attain a stable emotional state but the next time you feel yourself about to ‘explode’, step back, take a deep breath, count slowly to 10 and ask yourself why that reaction is the best possible reaction at the moment and what you hope to accomplish by reacting that way.
Merry Christmas and a happy New Year!!! 🥳