An Introduction to Stoicism

<a href=""><strong>Vincent Li</strong> <strong>@ HWHK Writer</strong></a>
Vincent Li @ HWHK Writer


An Introduction to Stoicism – How to Be in Total Control of Your Life?

The Struggle

I got asked (or challenged…) this question frequently—most often by those who feel unsecured, fragile and powerless in life and those who want to eliminate their fear of the unpredictability of their surroundings.

The dilemma is real—deep inside, we all want certainty and peace, but externally the world is nothing but uncertain, as the saying goes “the only certainty is uncertainty itself”.

My answer is always the same: It is a common, hence understandable, thinking, but at the same time it is a thinking trap, a logical flaw, as it essentially reflects one’s attempt in controlling the uncontrollable. Since we ultimately cannot control external events but only ourselves and our responses, this behaviour, or wish, is irrational and counter-productive as to do so is to find the right thing (mental security and happiness, which is of course good to seek for) in the wrong place (the uncontrollable external world).

We all want to be able to control the world that we are in, but the reality is that there are very little things we can control, no matter how hard we try. Nothing new, huh? Indeed, we all know it, at least theoretically. However, emotionally, we often forget about it from time to time, causing most, if not all, internal struggles, emotional distress, even mental disorders, most of which are inaccurate and unnecessary, among us.

This is the concept of Stoicism, an ancient philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC, famously practiced by the likes of Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. It reminds us how unpredictable and uncontrollable the external and physical world can be and teaches us the way to overcome our internal destructive desire of wanting to control the uncontrollable external world. It is a highly practical tool, rather than being a pure intellectual debate—it advocates us to get the right perception and mental clarity (i.e. the intelligence to distinguish between the controllable and uncontrollable) and make the correct decisions (i.e. control the controllable and ignore the uncontrollable).

I am highly aspired by this philosophy for I, too, believe wholeheartedly that there is no such thing as an absolute “bad”, and we are the ones who choose to see one thing as “bad” or “good”.

“Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.” – Marcus Aurelius

The Answer

The Uncontrollable: the world. Everything in the external world and our emotions following external events (e.g. I am working in a cafe now and hence the distractions around me)

The Controllable: you. Your internal attitude, perspective, thoughts (e.g. I can feel frustrated from being distracted or grateful for such a chill workplace and work-style)

The Key to Mental Clarity and a Logical Life: knowledge and action. The intelligence in determining what is controllable, what is uncontrollable in life and the action in choosing to control the controllable and ignore the uncontrollable (e.g. telling myself that I can control how I spend my day and make it productive by changing my perspective and loving my status quo, even my struggles).

“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

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Your Takeaway

I am ending this article with a quote and an action plan:

“You have little control over the world around you, but full control over the world within you.” ― Matshona Dhliwayo

Action plan
  • Practice the “Turning Adversity into Advantage” Exercise: think of 5 situations which you think are definitely unfavourable ones. Then, turn it upside down, change your perspective and see if these situations signify any opportunities. Jot it down.
  • Practice the “Is This Within My Control” Exercise: jot down all external events that create negative emotions in you. Then, ask yourself, amongst all these external events and the negative emotions in you, whether they are within your control or not. If so, control it; if not, ignore it.
  • Journaling: (warning: this is not your normal, random diary entry) it has three elements:
    1. Preparation: prepare for the day ahead;
    2. Reflection: reflect on the day that is gone and
    3. Reminder: jot down and revise any wisdom and teaching you have learnt throughout the day

To practice the art of distinguishing between the controllable and uncontrollable and make the mindful decision of controlling the controllable and ignoring the uncontrollable takes time. But for now, my friends, have faith and trust the process, for, with proper attitude, what stands in the way becomes the way.

I am making a video on Stoicism to explore more on how Stoicism can help us achieve mental clarity and make logical decisions. Stay tuned!

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