Protagonist rule #10: Study Stoicism and Buddhism

Photo by Jodie Cook on Unsplash
Photo by Jodie Cook on Unsplash

In many ways, I view myself as a philosophical modernist in that I believe the world we live in is getting better all the time. In virtually any metric of human quality of life, from the number of people living in abject poverty to life expectancy, things are generally improving dramatically.

Contrastingly, most people like to lament how the world and everything they care about is going to hell in a handbasket. Such sentiments are particularly prevalent in the investing world. The bears, who believe that the stock market will crash and we’ll all lose our money, sound really smart and have very convincing arguments. For anyone tracking the stock market over time, however, it will be obvious that the bulls, who believe the stock market will go up, are actually right most of the time, despite that they sound naive and trite.

Especially when it comes to technology, it’s almost always the case that the newest product is typically better than older ones. My latest mobile phone is better than my previous one. My current car is better than my previous one. My ability to communicate with the rest of the world is much better than even a decade ago. There’s constant progress and improvement.

This may cause us, humans, to easily fall into the latest fad as it triggers the novelty button. The latest diet will solve our weight issues and give us a six-pack in two weeks. The latest pill will fix in a short cure issues in our body that have accumulated for decades. One seminar with the latest guru will help you address complex emotional and mental issues in one weekend.

Although technology evolves continuously and, by and large, fundamentally improves our lives continuously, humans haven’t really changed over the last 200,000 years or so. Of course, we’re still subject to natural evolution, but this moves so much slower than technological evolution that for all practical purposes we’re the same as humans thousands of years ago.

Especially when it comes to life philosophies, I believe we’re better off basing ourselves on old, well-established and proven ways of viewing life and our role in it. Although it may be easy to be swayed by fads there as well, it’s my experience that these tend to be shallow and lack the depth and wisdom entailed by older traditions.

In my experience, a lot of human suffering is caused by a fundamental misunderstanding of the things we can influence and change and the things we can’t. Focusing our energy on things we can’t change anyway is a fundamental loss of agency in our lives. Whether this concerns our health, relationships or our career, many aspects simply are outside of our control and attempting to control them anyway is a recipe for failure.

In his famous book, “The seven habits of highly effective people,” Steven Covey defines his model of three circles. These include the circle of control, the circle of influence and the circle of concern. The latter circle is the one where I see many, including myself, waste vast amounts of energy trying to control or influence what basically is outside of our scope. Similarly, I see many avoid taking action in areas of their lives that are entirely within their scope of control.

Classic examples are protests against ‘the establishment’ as if the protesters weren’t part of society themselves. Or failing to take action when our health goes off the rails due to poor habits that are entirely within our circle of control.

In my view, there are two old, established and proven philosophies that provide a lot of help and support in managing the challenges of life: Stoicism and Buddhism. Stoicism encourages us to spend our time and energy on things we can control whereas Buddhism encourages us to accept the things in life that we can’t change.

Stoicism is a philosophy that’s very poorly understood as many view it as training yourself to become an unfeeling, hard person that doesn’t allow oneself to show joy, fear or anger. This is a fundamental misinterpretation of the philosophy. Instead, the Stoics base themselves on the aforementioned circles and consider it wasteful and counterproductive to become upset about things that are outside our control. And, except for our thoughts and our response to whatever happens in our lives, most things are actually outside of our control.

There are several useful Stoic practices, but one of the most countercultural ones is “premeditatio malorum.” In this practice, Stoics periodically visualize the worst thing they can imagine happening in their lives. The idea is to live through the worst thing and feel the pain and discomfort that comes with it. By doing this, it’s much easier to feel grateful for what you have today, instead of always longing for the next thing. Also, when bad times hit, as they will in all our lives, we’ve mentally steeled ourselves and are better prepared.

Buddhism, in my view, shares many of the same principles but tends to focus more on the acceptance of the reality of life. Rather than lamenting and complaining about what we can’t control, the idea is to focus on accepting reality as it is. In Buddhism, the notion of suffering is discussed as happening twice. First, when the negative happens. Second, when we fight it, struggle with it and refuse to accept it. Buddhism is concerned with minimizing suffering by avoiding the second type.

The main practice in Buddhism that I find particularly useful is meditation. There are many forms, but in my case, simply sitting on a pillow and focusing on my breath is incredibly helpful. It helps me slow down, increase my focus and identify what the big, unresolved issues are that I struggle with and push away. During meditation, these easily come up and it helps me reach a level of acceptance.

In life and work, we have limited time and energy to spend. By focusing our energy on what we can control and avoiding spending time and energy on the things we can’t, we can be much more productive and effective. Life philosophies such as Stoicism and Buddhism provide helpful practices to support us in this journey and help us reduce suffering and maximize our self-actualization. As Nasim Taleb quipped: a Stoic is a Buddhist with attitude!

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