How to train yourself for courageous living.
When you dig into Stoicsm, you get the sense that it’s not really a spiritual world view.
It’s not even a philosophy really.
It comes off much more like a user-manual for earth.
That is, it meets reality where it is. It has a clear-eyed picture of what humans are like and what makes them happy, and it has a clear-eyed view of what you should do with that knowledge.
It’s not about pleasing this or that god. It’s not about living up to some artificial moral code. It’s just about making the most of the time that you have here – it’s about creating a rich and meaningful life – a happy life even – out of the building blocks we’ve been given.
So let’s keep it practical then…
How do we build stoic virtues? How do we tap a stoic strength that can allow us to meet life head-on? How do we live the courageous and virtuous life the Stoics aspired to?
The Stoic philosophers have left us a bunch of gems in their writings, but I think the essential lesson is one of “self-conditioning”.
Take the philosopher Cato for example. He had a practice of wearing unfashionable tunics in the Roman Senate.
He wanted people to ridicule him. He wanted people to make fun of him. The more he let himself become a target of ridicule, the less afraid of ridicule he became.
The less afraid of ridicule he became, the less influence that fear had over his thoughts and actions. The better he was able to act from a clear and courageous place.
He inoculated himself against ridicule.
And he used fashion as a training ground. Why? Because he didn’t really care. Or at least he knew that he shouldn’t care. He didn’t want to be someone who cared.
He was happy to let people ridicule his taste in clothes because he knew it didn’t really matter, and in the end, it only made him stronger.
He conditioned himself to be immune to criticism.
And this is the essence of the Stoic training methodology: self-conditioning. It involves actively seeking out the things you are afraid of, and slowly acclimatising yourself to them.
Let me give you another example.
In the 13th letter in the collected letters of Seneca, he says that we should set aside a certain number of days where we live in poverty – eat basic foods, wear rags, sleep outside etc. When we’re doing that – with the comfort of the thought that we’ll soon be back to our comfortable and cushy lives – we should ask ourselves “Is this the condition that I so feared?”
Once you’ve spent some time in poverty, you become much less scared of it.
And when these fears lose their sting, you can act much more confidently out of courage and abundance, rather than out of fear.
So condition yourself. Set your own standards.
There are numerous ways we can do this. I think the cold showers and the breath-holds in the Wim Hoff method are fantastic conditioning, fro example. When you set the bar at “cold and suffocating”, everything seems pretty amazing after that.
The point is that happiness is built on what we’re expecting to happen.
When we condition ourselves, we lower our expectations, and that gives life much more opportunity to pleasantly surprise us.
So happiness and the ability to act courageously and without fear – all of that depends on our conditioning.
And our conditioning is something we can consciously engage with.
This is the essence of the Stoic Method.