Scottish Daily Mail
Don’t flap. Don’t rant. Do keep calm . . . can a new course based on ancient philosophy really transform your life in just one week?
Every day, warned the roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, you will meet people, ‘who are meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious and unsociable’. He may have lived two millennia ago, but haven’t we all had mornings which felt like that? A few bruising encounters and the world can seem an unforgiving place.
Now, a non-profit organisation called Modern Stoicism, set up by a group of British and American academics, is suggesting we look back in time for answers. Specifically, to the Greco-roman philosophy of stoicism which Marcus Aurelius helped to define, as a way to ease the pain of modern life.
Most of us think of stoicism as keeping a stiff upper lip, but there’s far more to it than that. Stoicism challenges us to examine our emotions and use that knowledge to control our response to outside events or other people. Its aim is to encourage everyone to lead good, calm, purposeful and happy lives.
John Sellars, lecturer in philosophy at royal Holloway, University of London, explains that it’s perfectly relevant today. ‘A lot of people feel they don’t have a say in the way the world is run — much like in roman times,’ he says. ‘Things feel out of control and we need a way to deal with that.’
He points out that stoicism also teaches us to ignore the latest fads, to consume less in general and to live a plain and simple life. All good lessons, surely, as we face the uncertainties surrounding Brexit.
Indeed, the stoic philosophy of calm forbearance seems like the only sanitypreserving response.
On a more domestic level, with a teenage daughter, a full-time job, a house to run, plus caring for my 90-year-old mum, my life could do with some calm. Lately, I’ve been waking up already feeling anxious at the things I need to achieve just to keep abreast of the day, let alone get ahead.
So I decide to join Modern Stoicism’s Live Like A Stoic week. It’s a sevenday online course offering morning and evening meditations plus a midday exercise, each of which teaches a different key Stoic concept, such as virtue or Justice. There are audio downloads and an exercise sheet.
Others have reported promising results, noting fewer negative emotions and increases in wellbeing ranging from 10 to 16 per cent.
So how easy is it to live like a stoic today and can it really make you wiser, sunnier and more at peace?
THere are three well-known stoic philosophers — Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and epictetus — so I order works by all three on Amazon. Shopping for books makes me happy.
This is a rookie mistake. I soon learn from reading the course handbook that happiness for a stoic does not reside in fleeting emotions brought on, say, by impulse shopping.
My next test is at Boots, when I turn up for my flu jab to discover the stock of vaccine has not been delivered and all appointments are cancelled.
Other customers are venting their fury. But that morning my meditation warned that a good stoic — in the words of roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero — ‘anticipates nothing as if it is bound to happen’. I calmly rebook my jab.
Do I feel happier for not overreacting? yes, I do.
A frIeND sends messages to ask if I am enjoying what she calls ‘National Bottling Things Up Week’. This is stoicism’s modern reputation; most people associate it with keeping emotions locked away.
Stoics are good at self-control, but they are not passive, says Donald robertson, part of the team behind Stoic Week and author of How To Think Like A roman emperor: The Stoic Philosophy Of Marcus Aurelius. They value logic and weigh up decisions before they act.
I test this by looking at my to-do list, which seems littered with projects I can’t start, such as looking for a second-hand car. I remind myself to act with courage and wisdom. It works and I am soon zipping through calls and appointments.
eveN if we don’t understand why people act as they do, we must still make allowances for them, say stoics. Crucially, it’s not enough just to be nice to someone to their face. Good stoics don’t harbour resentment, so don’t envy other’s good fortune.
This is easier said than done, as anyone on social media knows. The irritation caused by pictures of exotic holidays, or posts bragging of a grandchild’s brilliant exam results, is sometimes hard to quash.
I try to encourage my inner stoic and spread some social media sunshine by giving fivestar ratings to books I’ve enjoyed and leaving a positive comment on a friend’s website. This is a crucial lesson for today’s selfie generation. Liking other people’s work in no way lessens our own value.
TODAy’S meditations take us into our relationship with the wider world. I begin by reminding myself other drivers on the school run deserve to be treated with kindness even if they box me in. It’s not easy, but I smile. It feels good.
TODAy is about changing our emotional patterns from bad to good. you can even learn to relish insults, says Professor Massimo Pigliucci, author of How To Be A Stoic. I venture on to Twitter to write something controversial, but my nerve fails. I’m not stoic enough for online trolls yet.
STOICS believe the way to feel less fearful about the future is to picture your worst-case scenario repeatedly to become inured to it.
Today’s task is to dwell on an upsetting scenario for 20 minutes. Having experienced a chimney fire in the past, I think about what it would be like to lose my home in a blaze.
Later, I have to take my 13-year-old daughter and a friend to an appointment and we’re late. Instead of hurrying them and snapping, I chill out and rearrange the time we’re expected to arrive. This is the first time I have acted in a truly stoic fashion without thinking about it. I try not to feel pleased with myself.
STOICS think we can draw comfort from nature and its repeated patterns. My stoic handbook tells me we need to think about our place in nature, to care for our environment and find solutions to climate change. I walk on the Sussex Downs and relish being an equal part of the world.
By the end of the week, I am feeling less frantic, and my family are commenting on how much calmer I am. Stoic mum is a hit. No wonder my husband is not afraid to ask later: ‘Is it all back to normal now? Or do you want to keep calm and carry on for a bit longer?’