If you’re like most people, you like to think of your mind as objective and rational. But as the ancient Stoics argued, and as modern psychology has confirmed, that’s not the case.
All of us filter each experience through our subjective lens that is tainted by our unique disposition, background, and emotions.
The Stoics taught that we can improve our perception of life — to polish our lens, so to speak.
By doing that, we can reduce irrational thinking, cut off negative emotions, and approach our lives with equanimity.
Sounds pretty good, don’t you think? Let’s have a look at the Stoic’s best techniques for creating a peaceful mind.
1. Focus on What Is in Your Control
“We should always be asking ourselves: ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?‘”
This is the most important practice in all of stoicism. If you take away only one thing from this article, let it be this:
Always identify, and care exclusively about, what is inside your control.
What you’ll find when you start doing this is that very few things are within your control. In fact, the Stoics would argue, the only things in your control are your own thoughts and actions.
Everything else — the past, most of the natural world, the thoughts and actions of other people, and even most things about ourselves — are ultimately outside your control.
This insight is crucial because, according to Epictetus, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”
So, get into the habit of separating what is within and without of your control, and then act accordingly:
- If it’s inside your control — take action! Spend the time, energy, and focus necessary to create the change you want.
- If it’s outside control — let it go. Repeat the mantra “I don’t care” to yourself until you’ve developed a healthy indifference to the situation.
At all times, strive to focus only on what is in your power. That will make you calmer, happier, and more effective.
2. Choose Empowering Thoughts
“If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.”
— Marcus Aurelius
Imagine that you’re about to give a presentation to a big group of people. As you fiddle with your notes, you can feel your heart pound, your hands getting sweaty, and your mouth drying up.
In this situation, most people will try to calm down. But that’s actually not very helpful. A much better approach is to perceive the stress symptoms as excitement.
If you tell yourself to calm down, you’re nervous. But if you tell yourself you’re excited, you’re ready for action. It’s a small mental shift but it can make a huge difference.
Research shows that people who tell themselves “I am excited!” before giving a speech way outperform people who try to calm themselves down1.
What we can learn from that is something the Stoics figured out thousands of years ago: Your emotions aren’t determined by your situation, but by how you choose to perceive your situation.
And that’s a very powerful insight because it puts you in control of your state of mind. At any moment, you have the option to dispute and replace unhelpful thoughts with more empowering ones.
So, whenever you find a negative feeling stirring in your mind, find a positive way to reframe the situation, and your emotional response will follow suit.
3. Welcome Everything That Happens
“Let us meet with bravery whatever may befall us. Let us never feel a shudder at the thought of being wounded or of being made a prisoner, or of poverty or persecution.”
The Stoics taught that we shouldn’t wish for things to happen the way we want. Instead, we should wish for things to happen exactly the way they happen. This attitude is called “amor fati”, which means “love of fate”2.
To love fate is to make the best out of everything that happens no matter how difficult it is. It’s about courageously meeting life’s challenges head-on and continually getting stronger.
Marcus Aurelius wrote that: “a blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it”. In the same fashion, we should use obstacles, setbacks, and hardships as fuel to realize our full potential.
Life will inevitably throw you into difficult situations. That’s outside of your control. But, as we’ve covered, you can always control your reaction to these situations. And poorly chosen reactions will make life very difficult.
As Seneca puts it: “Fate leads the willing, and drags along the reluctant.” So, when life presents you with a challenge, don’t avoid it or complain about it. Instead, embrace it wholeheartedly, and use it as an opportunity to practice stoicism.
That will make you much stronger and life much smoother.
4. Put Your Life in Perspective
“Remember: Matter. How tiny your share of it. Time. How brief and fleeting your allotment of it. Fate. How small a role you play in it.”
— Marcus Aurelius
In my work as a writer, I often find that my day-to-day problems get blown way out of proportion. As I sit down at my computer, isolated from the rest of the world, even the tiniest difficulty can appear overwhelming.
A slight drop in book sales, a broken Internet connection or a negative comment from a reader all seem like a big deal. But, of course, they’re not. In the grand scheme of things, these issues are tiny.
Luckily, there’s a quick cure for this irrational inflating of problems, and it’s as simple as quickly contemplating the scale of your life:
Reflect on where you are, then slowly move outward, visualizing the street outside, and the city. Keep expanding further and further to your country, then the world, and finally the entire cosmos.
Carl Sagan’s famous talk about The Pale Blue Dot3 can serve as a great aid in this exercise.
Then, return to the difficulties in your life. From this new vantage point, you’ll most likely find that what was weighing you down wasn’t as heavy after all.
Zoom out to a cosmic perspective, and you’ll find peace and humility.
How to Have a Peaceful Mind, In Summary
- Focus on what is in your control. If it’s inside your control, take action! If it’s outside control, let it go.
- Choose empowering responses. Find a positive way to reframe the situation, and your emotional response will follow suit.
- Welcome everything that happens. Cultivate a “love of fate” by wishing for things to happen exactly the way they happen.
- Put your life in perspective. When your day-to-day problems appear overwhelming, zoom out and look at them from a cosmic perspective.