In Part III of this series, I discussed the Stoic disciplines of controlling your destiny, an optimistic disposition, seeking truth through reason, a commitment to learning, and employing negative visualization. This post completes the disciplines with a discussion about positive visualization, our duty to community, suppressing anger, and dying a good death.
6. Practice positive visualization through affirmations. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I was introduced to the power of visualization through affirmation. At the time, the practice fell into a quintessential 1970s kitschy mind-bending program name: psycho-cybernetics. Originally published as a self-help book in 1960 by Maxwell Maltz, Psycho-Cybernetics was used principally by athletes who used affirmations to visualize success. As a member of a highly successful basketball team, my teammates and I were asked to apply this practice to certain aspects of the game, like sinking free-throws. The visualized affirmation was always considered as if success had occurred: with all of our senses we experienced the sight, feel and sound of the ball leaving our hands in a perfect arc and snapping the bottom of the net as it passed through the hoop without touching the rim. One could even add a bit a crowd reaction—applause—to boost the affirmation (and ego). The result? We had the best free-throw percentage in the league.
It may seem corny, but damn it, it works. In effect, the affirmed visualization became a self-fulfilling actualization. Psycho-cybernetics has proven a very durable practice applied today to everything from athletic endeavors to academic performance, to job performance, and general development of the practitioner’s self-image. One becomes what one conceives themselves to be. It has been employed by self-help gurus like Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins, and Brian Tracy. It has been written about and re-written about every few years by various authors since Maltz in 1960. Today, we have updated, but equally kitschy terms like “imagineering” (trademarked by Disney Enterprises, Inc.) that emanate from this heritage of positive aspirational thinking. These meditative manifestations of success are entirely consistent with Stoicism as they contribute mightily to what stoics call “building your inner citadel.” Stated otherwise, steeling thyself.
These pursuits of self-conceived success have become the focus of one of the most popular Stoic writers of our time, Ryan Holiday. In The Obstacle is the Way, Holiday argues that many, if not most, threats can be recast as opportunities if one sets aside emotion-based fears with a subscription to “intense self-discipline and objectivity” that can turn trials into triumph. Reflecting the stoic lesson that it is your response, rather than the event or issue you are responding to that is most important, he implores his readers to channel Marcus Aurelius who said, “Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.” Ryan employs positive visualization in the re-conception of obstacles when he suggests, “through our perception of events, we are complicit in the creation—as well as the destruction—of every one of our obstacles.” Once such obstacles are addressed as opportunities, victory may be snatched from the jaws of defeat.
This meditative nature of Stoicism that harnesses the cognetic system as a powerful state of mind recasts the world in terms that nurtures well-being and expands personal capacities such that the future becomes a vast array of possibilities rather than a dangerous cauldron of imminent peril. Stoics are cheerful people who make a habit of identifying silver linings in dark clouds. This stoic perspective of positivity must, however, also be accompanied by a sense of humility and one of the best ways I have employed to both maintain and refresh a sense of humility is to consider myself as a speck in the vastness of time and the magnitude of the universe. As the Roman stoic, Seneca, offered, “imagine the vast abyss of time, and think of the entire universe; then compare what we call a human lifetime to that immensity.” We are more than nothing and greater than something, but our significance must be considered with due humility. Nor are we the first or last to meet the challenges of life, we simply aim to do so with a sense of virtue that, if properly embraced, will contribute to the greatness of humanity in our day.
7. Honor your duty to community. I am often humored (and occasionally disgusted) by those who claim their success is the sole product of their personal brilliance and extraordinary work ethic. It is fine to feel a sense of accomplishment, but one must also acknowledge the people and institutions that played a significant supporting role. The most immediate and impactful of these are the community—writ large— in which you live. Parents, teachers, spouses, friends, mentors and, yes, perhaps even a politician or two, all contribute to the supportive net of community that made your success possible. Make sure you both acknowledge and square those contributions with your own. The ultimate aim of stoics—tranquility—can only be achieved by those who are engaged in their community with the aim of leaving things better than the way they found them; the “perfectibility” value (one of the three American Probity Values). When I look back on my own successes, the greatest triumphs have not been in what I directly accomplished, but in the unsolicited expression of gratitude, usually many years after the fact, from someone who has reached out to tell me that I changed their life, or even saved their life. Pay-it-forward (instead of back) is a powerful concept in strengthening communities. Mahatma Gandhi is credited (after substantial paraphrasing) with the prescription “Be the change you want to see in the world,” which is a clear call to this form of exemplary service.
America’s historical proclamations of self-reliance and self-directed lives provide a durable myth, but the reality today is an America (and world) that is much more interdependent than the American frontier romanticized in the late 19th century by Frederic Jackson Turner in his book, The Frontier in American History. This binding of one’s self to one’s community is what Marcus Aurelius described as contributing to “the service and harmony of all.” Trump’s “America First” treatise completely ignores this stoic discipline and his behaviors are hardly aligned with any sense of humility. Isolation leads inevitably to inhumanity, as we have seen in many of Trump’s policies and practices. It is, therefore, now more than ever, essential that we each accept our role in service to others, looking for no greater reward than the welfare of our neighbors and the strengthening of our communities.
In the face of the extraordinary and seemingly intentional failure of our national leaders and Federal government to serve our interests and our communities today, we must shift our attention from the daily clamor of ignorance and avarice being practiced by these national politicians to create stronghold communities. Independent and self-sufficient communities look no further than their residents and local authorities to meet the challenges of the day. Marcus Aurelius, who himself was no great fan of humanity, acknowledged that since we “are an integral part of a social system, let every act of yours contribute to the harmonization of social life.” While we certainly can and should pay attention to things that occur in our nation-states that we find inappropriate and even offensive, we must, as President Theodore Roosevelt argued, “do what you can with what you have where you are.” The “common welfare” (a topic often explored by the Stoic teacher Epictetus) may be best achieved in the one realm we can have a discernible impact: our local communities.
The stoic understands the reality of interdependence, which ironically is even more pronounced today than during ancient times owing to the technological and economic systems that allow each of us to offer our specialized areas of expertise that collectively undergird our daily lives. The renaissance man who could face any task or challenge on his own is a mythical remnant of a bygone era. Sick communities are comprised of self-contained and selfish actors in their residents, businesses, and politicians. Stronghold communities are comprised of those who recognize they must be willing to make their particular contribution if, for no other reason, to inspire their neighbors to reciprocate such that the independence and resilience of the community is assured. People bound, if only by a sense of place, must, as stewards of the community, advocate for the welfare of their neighbors and must similarly have the courage to confront those who behave in divisive and self-serving ways. For the stoic, ignoring this duty is an affront to both reason and Nature.
8. Anger is toxic to tranquility. There is much to be angry about today and anger is at natural response to the powerlessness and plague of dissonance that afflicts so many of us. Yet, look no further than Donald Trump if you want to see what anger can do to a human being; he lives in a persistent state of anger. How often do you ever see him express any evidence of joy? Yes, he smirks and engages in sarcasm as a proxy for humor, but his life is framed in by his own self-inflicted (and fraudulent) victimhood that he deploys as a tool of attraction to bind other angry Americans to him to protect his power. Clever? Perhaps, but also profoundly malevolent and, frankly, deranged. As many have observed—especially those who worked in his White House—despite all his power and wealth Trump is a miserable human being who works hard to make others miserable too.
In existing in a perpetual state of anger, Trump has made himself increasingly irrelevant. In effect, he has transferred his power to the targets of his anger much in the same way we do if we react angrily to those who attempt to incite our wrath. On the other hand, expressing indifference to those who attempt to offend us strangles them with their own anger. Anger begets misery, which is an unsustainable and unstable state of mind. For stoics, anger is the most dangerous and debilitating negative emotion known to humans. It is not only psychologically damaging to ourselves and others, it has physiological effects, like spiking blood pressure, that endanger our health and well-being. Yes, anger is a fact of life, but once one realizes that the negative effects of any anger almost always outlast the negative effects of the event that has caused our anger, we must embrace our stoic preference for reason and work to avoid the onset of anger in the seconds before our anger manifests into a response.
As one of the best writers of Stoic philosophy today, William Irvine, explained in his book, A Guide to the Good Life, both Stoicism and Buddhism teach that we must develop the capacity to, in Seneca’s words, “turn all [anger’s] indications into their opposites.” This means substituting anger for humor, empathy, and even love. I attempt laughter in the face of anger, especially if the source (like Trump) can be considered more cartoonish clown than threat. I often reframe his antics within the realm of entertainment, which allows me to laugh rather than dive into disgust. After all, why would I let someone like that affect my mental and physical health? This technique works well with pathetic agitators, but when the effects are more substantial the challenge is much greater. Irvine suggests, “we should force ourselves to relax our face, soften our voice, and slow our pace of walking,” all in an attempt to arrest the anger response and replace it with a sense of calm. The rationale is pretty straightforward: one cannot be angry and calm at the same time; let calm prevail. One must literally change their physical response to affect a return to reason over emotion. Buddhists practice forcing themselves to think about love for the same reason; anger and love cannot coexist. Whatever technique works for you, practice it, refine it, and practice it again. Don’t sacrifice your tranquility to fight with assholes.
9. Live a good life and die a good death. No one knows if there is life after death, but all of us know there is life during life. A guiding stoic premise is that we must take care of what we know, which means it is our high duty to live the life we know that we have to the best and fullest extent possible, in concert with reason and Nature. Death is another exogenous variable; it is beyond our control. The stubborn reality is that today we are all one day closer to death. As Seneca taught, “be neither careless nor impatient nor arrogant with respect to death, but to wait for it as one of the operations of nature.” That said, our response to death should be contemplated as a sort of exit exam. If this was the last day of your life, would you pass? If everything you did today was the last time you would do it, did you do those things as well as you could have, and did you appreciate the chance to do them? Among other things, these questions—this discipline—has the effect of focusing our minds on the present moment to assure we are doing the right things as best we can. Considering these questions allows us to take stock while we are alive, followed by asking the ultimate question: are you living your life in a state of tranquility? If you pass these tests, you may die a good death without fear or regret. You have known thyself and steeled thyself; you will leave this world better than you found it; you have prevailed in the game of life. Your farewell will undoubtedly be sorrowful for those who love you, but you have earned the right to put a smile on your face, close your eyes, and rest in blissful peace.