Last month I had to undergo a minor medical procedure. The physician referred to me as “stoic,” something I’ve never been called before. After he said it, I realized that he was quite intuitive. I am stoic. His comment led me to research the concept of stoicism, which some might think is a form of coldness or snobbishness, but is really not. In fact, it’s often been equated with a particular attitude, especially when acting in a stoic way in the midst of chaos or any other form of suffering. Being stoic can help us survive and endure many of our life experiences.
My research brought forth various definitions of the term. Like many words, the definition depends upon the circumstance. According to Webster’s Dictionary, a person who is stoic “accepts what happens without complaining or showing.” Not bothering others with your problems could be a form of stoicism, but may also indicate that you’re a guarded person. Being courageous and wise might also be partners of stoicism, all tools for survival.
According to another source, Dictionary.com, stoic means “of or relating to the school of philosophy founded by Zeno [Greek philosopher] who taught that people should be free from passion, unmoved by joy or grief and submit without complaint to unavoidable necessity.” Other philosophers noted as leaders in the area of stoicism include Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. Supposedly, Epictetus founded a philosophical school that taught Stoicism. One of his students was Marcus Aurelius, who was known to frequently write in his journal. His scribbles later became the book of Meditations that served as stoic principles such as self-awareness and humility. Aurelius said, “Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able—be good.”
Seneca was another Roman philosopher who wrote about self-awareness and humility, as well as education and friendship. Education is important because it internalizes knowledge that helps us make wiser decisions, which can result in a type of self-awareness leading to stoicism.
In his book The Black Swan, Niassim Nicolas Taleb says that a stoic sage is one who is able to “transform fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.” In view of this, stoic individuals learn from their mistakes and practice mindfulness and tranquility during times of chaos.
The way I see it is that we need more stoic people in our lives—those who remain calm and carry on, those who hold the space for others. Being stoic seems to also involve having a certain degree of self-control and maintaining a sense of conscious self-awareness.
Stoicism might be a genetic trait, but it might also be something that can be learned with practice. There are many techniques that can encourage a sense of stoicism. Here are a few:
1) Remind yourself that time is your most precious gift. Treasure each moment and ensure that you’re doing what you want to be accomplishing and learning, and always strive to improve and move forward in your life in some way. Figure out what your priorities are. For example, sometimes answering e-mails can simply wait.
2) Be mindful. Be both still and self-aware during various moments of the day. As author and teacher Jack Kornfield says, “Just sit.” Try focusing completely on what you’re doing, and yes, this sometimes means putting the cell phone away in order to avoid distractions.
3) Be reflective and contemplative. Think about what’s truly important in your life.
4) Nurture loved ones and establish mentors. These are individuals who can keep you grounded and happy. Consider seeking out those who have the same sensibilities that you do.
5) Educate yourself. Whether you like reading, listening to podcasts, or watching informative television, use your brain as a muscle and constantly feed it. Share what you’ve learned with others.
6) Be nonreactive when you’re feeling something in response to what someone else says or does. Instead of acting out, try to think of something else. Sing a song in your head or visualize a calm place or activity.
7) Minimize your emotional responses. Speak less and think more.
8) Avoid complaining. This is a sign of excessive inner emotions such as anger or sadness. Instead, try to do something about the situation or accept it the way it is.
9) Use positive visualization whenever possible.
In summary, remember that the goal of stoicism is to attain inner peace by overcoming adversity, increasing your self-awareness, and practicing self-control.
Aurelius, M. (1997). Meditations. New York: Dover Thrift.
Taleb, N. N. (2010). The Black Swan. New York, NY: Random House.