stoic thinking

What are Stoic thinking habits?

These habits of thought are based on rules for training the mind – and building resilience, as taught in Stoic philosophy.

The seven habits described in this article are:

  1. Recognising and developing your powers of mind
  2. Accepting reality for what it is, rather than for what we want it to be.
  3. Recognising that it is our thoughts, and not the things that happen to us, that (mostly) create suffering.
  4. Following only those thoughts that relate to things we can influence, and discarding the rest.
  5. Seeing opportunities rather than afflictions in unwanted life events.
  6. Keeping the mind firmly in present moment awareness.
  7. Treating misfortunes (and our thoughts about them) as we might treat bad weather.


What is Stoicism?

Stoicism is a philosophy style first developed 2300 years ago in Ancient Athens. It places the emphasis on right thinking and right living rather than on addressing metaphysical questions. In that respect it is similar to Buddhism, as first practiced in ancient India. The nearest equivalent we have in modern times is the psychotherapy movement, and the self-help industry that springs partly from it. By the year 150 CE courses and seminars in Stoic philosophy were available all over the Roman empire. Epictetus, perhaps the greatest Stoic philosopher of all, offered 9-day retreats in his school at Nicopolis on the Adriatic coast

In a hard and dangerous world the Stoics preached indifference to fate and self-reliance. Arguing that a happy life followed on from a well-trained mind, and through following the principal virtues: courage, temperance, justice and wisdom. Thus:

Courage. Bravery and resilience in confronting misfortunes.

Temperance. Exercising self-discipline; maintaining good habits in mind, body and behaviour.

Justice. Doing the right thing by others and for the community. Keeping promises and commitments. Combatting injustice.

Wisdom. Using the mind and soul to distinguish between right actions, words and thoughts – and their opposites.

The aim of Stoicism is to promote tranquillity, which comes from staying close to human nature. It is in our nature to exercise reason, develop independence, cultivate wisdom, fulfil our duties, and treat others with kindness. Doing all these things creates the peace of mind that comes from fulfilling our potential. For the Stoics, our greatest enemy is bad habits of thought.

Famous Stoics in antiquity include Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. All of these wrote books that are still read today (see below for a reading list).

Stoicism is a huge influence on Cognitive-behavioural therapy. Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational-Emotive therapy, frequently refers to Stoic teachings.


Stoic thinking habit 1: Develop mind power

Every human being is gifted with powers of mind, consciousness and thought. Thoughts give us opinions about external events, people and ourselves, that trigger a variety of feelings in us: joy, fear, anger, anxiety, etc. Thoughts and feelings are projected in consciousness, along with the trees, mountains and rivers projected by the senses. Meanwhile our minds are the cinema projectionists that decide which films will play, along with the thoughts that provide a running commentary on the action.

The first Stoic lesson is that you are in charge of the mind. You have a power of decision over it and can decide at any time to change the reel, or disengage from it altogether (as we do when we meditate). When you have an internal locus of control you are no longer at the mercy of the ego mind, endlessly repeating its worries, frustrations and cravings. Instead you can decide to follow the thoughts that lead beyond suffering to tranquillity.

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength. Marcus Aurelius.

Stoic thinking habit 2: Accept reality for what it is, not as you wish it to be

There is a story about Albert Ellis in which he claimed that all clients in therapy suffer from the same basic problem: that they want life to be different from the way it is. To which all therapists have the same basic answer: ‘Tough shit’. That puts it a lot more crudely than most therapists would (including me). But there is a grain of truth in it all the same.

The Stoics believed that the human mind is continually creating pictures of reality; some that correspond to the truth, while others are not even close. When the picture and the reality are too far apart the result is either insanity or unhappiness.

For example, someone leaves me. I hang on  to the past, refusing to let go. I hold fast to the thought that my life is unbearable without the other. Now there is a gap between my life as it is, and the life I think I must have, and so my suffering increases. When I practice the power of acceptance I shut down the inner conflict, and I am free to move on.

The same problem arises when we resist other unwanted life events, such as illness, setbacks at work, conflict with others, money problems and the death of those close to us. Our ego-demand that things should turn out the way we demand them to adds to our pain.

Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, go with what actually happens. Then you will be free from suffering. Epictetus.

Stoic thinking habit 3: Be selective about the thoughts you listen to

Positive thinking habitsThe Stoics pointed to the fact that all human beings have reason. Thus giving us the power to examine, criticise and reject thoughts that do  not serve us. Doing this gives us a power of decision: we can substitute one way of looking at things with another. The basic questions we should ask of any thoughts are:

Is this thought true?

Is this thought about something I can control?

Is this thought helpful?

What would be a better thought?

As a rough rule of thumb about 80% of our thoughts are of no use to us. These include worries, ego-demands, negative judgments, anxious thoughts, depressing thoughts, and thoughts that merely distract us.

For that reason the Stoics argued that people should think less, not more. Paying attention instead to other people, physical work, communing with nature, exercise, meditation, music – and anything else that restored tranquillity..

When confronted by harmful thoughts the Stoics recommend that we do one of two things: a) use the power of reason to dismiss the thought, or b) turn our attention away from the thought and into productive activity.

The first option is the one used in Cognitive-behaviour therapy techniques for thought control. The second option can be assisted with the art of defusion.

People are disturbed not by things but by their thoughts about things. Epictetus


Stoic thinking habit 4: Focus only on things you can influence

This is related to the error in wishing that things could be different from the way they actually are. With the added fantasy of control-freakery. Yet the fact is we have very little influence over most life events.

We are subject to a great many influences and events beyond our control. We do  not choose our parents, the family and society we are born into, our status in life, our physical body, or our opportunities. Epictetus, for example was born a slave and crippled in one leg by the beatings he received. Yet he declared that one could be just as happy as a slave than as Emperor of Rome. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius agreed, recording in his private journal the many troubles and misfortunes that came with crippling responsibilities, and his own search for tranquillity.

The golden rule for Epictetus was to pay attention only to thoughts that related to our personal sphere of influence. Right there in present moment awareness. For example, we may have the (depressing) thought that we are failures. Recognising that ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are relative terms, and that we have no power to dictate what others say about us, we turn our attention instead to the work in front of us. Instead of self-labelling we ask the question:

“What can I do today to improve my position in life?”

Looking more closely, we note that worries about ‘failure’, ‘weakness’, ‘loneliness’, etc., are really a form of self-pity. Lamenting over the past and the (imagined) future keeps us in that trap.

Nor, having taken the first step to achieving something concrete, should we imagine that success is owed to us. For we do not have control over the outcome, only over the effort we put into our work. The Stoics practiced indifference to the results of action as much as they did to world success. Tranquillity was their sole aim.

The first job in life is this. To distinguish between externals I cannot control, and the choices I make about them that I do control.” Epictetus.


Stoic thinking habit 5: See the opportunities in misfortunes

In Stoic thinking there is a technique known as the reversal, in which we turn our perspective on disturbing events by 180 degrees. Instead off reacting to problems they asked:

“What life lesson can I learn from this?”

“How can I use this to my advantage?”

“What strengths am I being invited to develop?”

“How can I set an example to others? (Friends, partners, children, etc.)

In that way misfortunes turn into opportunities. The next time people behave badly around you, imagine that they are good angels in disguise. Who have agreed to show up in order to teach you something. You might be surprised at the result.

Every trouble in life presents us with an opportunity to look inward and invoke our inner resources. The trials we endure can, and should, introduce us to our strengths. Wise people look beyond difficulties, and form the habit of putting them to good use. Epictetus.


Stoic thinking habit 6: Keep your attention on the present moment

Seneca refers to the human tendency to live in the past or in the future as another source of distress. Both are useless, for both are outside our control. We cannot change the past, and the future is an unknowable abstraction. Moreover, living in the past or the future distracts us from the possibilities available to us now.

Indeed, your very survival may depend on your ability to keep your eyes fixed on what is is front of you. James Stockdale was a naval officer who spend 7 years in a Vietnamese POW camp, where he was kept in solitary confinement and tortured. Fortunately, he had majored at college in philosophy with a specialist interest in the teachings of Epictetus. What kept him alive and sane was his disciplined focus on taking one day at at time, keeping strictly on what was in his power to influence, no matter how small that thing might be.

He notes that where some prisoners thought only of the day of their release, as the years went by they slowly despaired and eventually perished. The other thing that kept him going were the Stoic virtues: kindness to others, resilience, integrity, and the burning need to set an example to the other prisoners.

See this link here for Admiral James Stockdale’s paper on his experiences as a POW, and how Stoic philosophy enabled him to survive.

True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxiety about the future. Not to distract ourselves with either hopes or fears, but to rest satisfied with what we have now. Seneca


Stoic thinking habit 7: Keep a sense of perspective

This is an exercise frequently used by Marcus Aurelius, borrowed from other ancient writers such as Plato and Cicero. It is a type of meditation, in which we gradually float up and beyond our earthy body with it’s cares and anxieties. Expanding consciousness until we take in the whole universe, and the infinity that lies beyond. It’s purpose is to remind us that we are a small part of a vast universe, and that the troubles we have today will not last long.

It also connects us to a greater consciousness that persists beyond the life we have now, restoring us to a sense of perspective on what might (or might not) happen to us today.

  • Sitting or lying down, go into present moment awareness of your body in this room now. It can help to focus on the breath to enable this.
  • Now expand your awareness until it take in the whole of the room.
  • Expand your awareness to include the whole house.
  • Now, expand consciousness to take in the street/location that contains your house.
  • Keep on expanding consciousness to include your country, your continent, this planet Earth, the solar system, this galaxy, and the universe that contains all these many galaxies. Be aware of the billions of stars that surround you. Finally, rest your attention on the infinite space that lies beyond the universe.
  • Slowly reduce consciousness in reverse order, from universe, to galaxy, to solar system, etc. all the way back to your awareness of your own body in this room.

There is a podcast meditation on this exercise on this link here.

Repeatedly dwell on the passage and departure of events that are, and events that will come to be. For Existence is like a river in perpetual flow. Its activities constantly change, its sources are infinite, and nothing stands still. Dwell, also on the infinite expanse of the past and the future, in which all things vanish away. Are they not fools who dwell on some passing scene now that troubles them? Marcus Aurelius


Stoic reading list

Epictetus. Discourses.

Seneca. Letters from a Stoic.

Marcus Aurelius. Meditations.

Ryan Holiday. The Daily Stoic.

Daily Stoic meditations.

Photo by Hassan Sherif on Unsplash

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