How Stoic Mindfulness Can Banish Anxiety
Have you ever tried to stop a thought? It’s not just difficult, it’s impossible. It’s like holding your breath; with a bit of practice you can delay the inevitable for a little longer, but at some point, you are going to need to draw a breath, and you’re going to think.
Worrying about your own personal health, the health of your loved ones, your finances and your job against a background of unprecedented unpredictability can be overwhelming, and for many of us, it is exactly that; a full to bursting thundercloud of disquiet waiting to pour panic upon us. Unchecked and unmanaged, that kind of waking nightmare can test even the sturdiest sympathetic nervous system.
But there is a way through this, there always has been. The good news is that whilst thinking is inevitable, how you respond to those thoughts are 100% under your control. The thought only has to lead to fear if you allow it. In this post, I’ll talk about a few tools you can use to put some space between the events that are unfolding around the world, and how you react to them.
Outer worlds and inner worlds
Over the last few hundred years, we have been very good at developing our outer world. Technology, the internet, space exploration, medical and scientific advances move us forwards exponentially. We are pretty smart at evolving our external tool-kit and have created some wonderful resources.
Unfortunately, this evolution is tempered by slower progress in the development of our inner worlds; we still fight, we still go to war, we still haven’t quite figured out how to share our resources fairly, or adequately replace intolerance with compassion; and on an individual level, we tend to better at improving our physical health (to a degree, some of us, sometimes) than our mental wellness. The balance is way off.
It’s no wonder then, that as the governments of the world struggle to juggle the scientific, medical and economic fallout of what we are all going through, in real-time, that most of us are left bereft, upended, lost. As with everything right now, it’s up to us to fill in the gaps, help how we can, where we can. I’d rather be taking people out for paddleboarding lessons and adventures, I can’t think of a better medicine right now, but that, like everything else, is on pause. Instead here’s what I know about finding your peace of mind amidst significant anxiety; I hope it helps.
Keeping a Stoic outlook
History is a great a teacher, and in turbulent times, a useful guide, not least because pretty much everything has happened before. There’s a lot of noise for sure, just turn on your TV or crank up any social media feed, there’s information to be found, especially now. Not much of it helpful, not all of it even true. Doing only this whilst avoiding some of the wisest minds that have ever lived is not the best way to balance your input. Some wisdom is timeless, and always relevant./
We’ve been at this lockdown lark for a few months now and to some extent, we’ve discovered our own pathways through boredom, isolation and worry. We’ve learned new skills, been creative, taught our kids things they’d never learn in school and we’ve continued to work, however, we can, on something. With our professions often on hold, we’ve had to find a sense of purpose elsewhere and we’ve discovered that it’s that meaningful task that’s important, just as much as the paycheque. Isaac Newton did some of his best research when Cambridge closed due to the plague and Shakespeare penned Kind Lear while he squirrelled himself away from the plague too. Every cloud.
But for me, the ancient Greek and Roman Stoic school of philosophy is like a ready-made toolbox full of bulletproof armour and stress-busting advice. Stoicism is the philosophy of resilience.
There’s a common misconception about philosophy in general; that it’s just theoretical esoterica and not of any practical benefit. To some extent and for many schools of philosophy, that’s utterly bang on, but in the case of Stoicism we’re talking about a very practical philosophy; a philosophy of life; a philosophy about life and how to live it well. Equally, the term Stoic conjures up images of an emotionless state, devoid of feeling and cold as ice. Also not true.
The Stoic’s objective is simple: Equanimity; peace of mind in the face of any obstacle.
When a Stoic faces an uphill struggle he asks himself one question: Is this something I can do something about or something outside of my control. If it’s the latter then worrying about it is utterly pointless; stress for stress’s sake. If it is under his control then you crack on; you do the work.<
Case in point, this pandemic. You didn’t start it and you can’t control it any more you can a traffic jam or the heart of another. It’s not that the stress isn’t there, its that you don’t have to be stressed. Getting angry with a driver that cuts you up or a queue that won’t quit is only hurting you. As Seneca said:
“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”
It seems almost too easy, doesn’t it? To choose not to be disturbed? Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor and my favourite Stoic would always remind himself of this fact when he was up against it, and Marcus reigned over the Roman Empire during a 15-year plague, so he knows our pain, he said:
“Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been”
My advice is to get your self a copy of Marcus’s Aurelius’s Meditations; a collection of notes he wrote to himself, often under the duress of war, plague, family dramas and health issues, to keep himself on the straight and narrow. 2000 years old it might be, but the advice is staggeringly contemporary.
Turning down the volume
I’ve been meditating on and off for about 15 years. I’m not Buddhist or any other kind of religious. I simply find that it’s the most effective way I know to quieten my mind. It’s one of those activities I notice most when I’m not doing it. I’m actually a qualified meditation teacher but I’m going to go with ’Tranquility Coach’ for two reasons:
- The term meditation can seem a little esoteric; you only get it if you get it, somewhat unobtainable and easy to resist (tranquillity, on the other hand, sounds marvellous! I’ll have lots of that!).
- The spiritual and religious connotations can be equally impenetrable, or at least off-putting for some; a bit woo-woo.
Hear me out though, because it’s not out of your reach and it’s as much about modern neurology as it is about Tibetan monks or North Indian mystics (although it is quite a bit about them).
Here’s the general idea:
Behind all those thoughts and worries, all those physical sensations and things you can see when you open your eyes, behind all that inane internal chatter that comes with anxiety or the birds you can hear or the smell of a rose, behind everything that you experience as a matter of consciousness, is a state called natural awareness. From this natural (or you may hear it called open-hearted) awareness everything arises, every neurosis, every pain, every laugh, every memory, good or traumatic, the lot.
At your very centre, right in the middle, before thought, your natural, unavoidable default state is calm. You are a blue sky and whatever arises is just a cloud; you are an ocean and whatever arises is just a wave. In other words, the good news is, you are already exactly what you want to be, no matter the depth of your despair, behind it, you are at peace.
Meditation is simply proving that to yourself. Meditation is building the muscle that can watch the clouds dissipate and the waves roll on by. The waves are inevitable; meditation is learning to let those waves pass underneath you rather than pressing you to the ocean floor, leaving you gasping for air.
Don’t give up
In meditation, it is not the path, but your path that you follow. It is your journey at your pace, not something you should attach any kind of self-judgement or expectation to. If you’re a runner, or a yogi, or a writer or a parent or any kind of human then you already know that you have good days and bad days. Sometimes your legs, or your balance or your temper just don’t want play ball. So it is with meditation; it’s a practice, you’re building a muscle in your mind and not every day or every session will be the same. When you meditate you never fail, you only practice.
I’m a big fan of Sam Harris’s Waking Up app, very accessible and not at all woo-woo (Headspace and Calm are great introductions too) and if you want any book advice, give me a shout but however you start, just start. Meditation is a game-changer.
If ever there was a superpower to get us through times like these then for me, it’s Mindful Stoicism. Blending a practical guide to life that takes your resilience against suffering to the next level, amplified by an instinctive understanding that you are not your stress, you are not your anger, you are a calm blue sky, you are the open ocean and nothing can hurt you if you decide that it can’t.
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