In 300 BC, Zeno of Cyprus, while sailing to deliver his goods, was shipwrecked (quite common in that time), and reached Athens (not a bad city at that time for budding philosophers). It was only coincidental that he stumbled upon the books and teachings of Socrates. And as luck would have it, he started teaching to a bunch of students what over the time became to be known as philosophy of Stoicism.
Over the years, thinkers and philosophers have written and preached about Stoicism which has parallels in other philosophies as well (more on that later). In short, stoicism is the capability to remain calm under pressure and avoid extremism. In other words, it means control over oneself in tense situations or otherwise. In stoic philosophy, we do not try to change the external factors but control our mind and self with logical and rational wisdom. One word at the centre of Stoicism is “self-control”. It is not to be confused with bottling up emotions or being superficially calm. It is about training yourself to be moderate in all situations and genuinely being calm.
Stoicism surprisingly was not just confined to philosophers in ancient times. It went mainstream with the famous Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius also being a stoic and penning down a famous book on the same. It is a book still relevant to our times.
The book (Meditations by Aurelius) on stoicism was famously read by Nelson Mandela while he was imprisoned mercilessly for 27 long years. No wonder, that a figure like Mandela did not come out of prison filled with vengeance for his perpetrators, but an equal and just society. Despite being brutally imprisoned, he was able to forgive and bury the past. It is difficult to find a better practitioner of stoicism in the modern history.
Famous ancient philosopher Epictetus famously wrote: “We suffer not from the events of our lives, but our judgement about them.” Rings a bell about being non judgemental?
Aurelius also applied stoicism to something that might resonate with today’s times. During the Antonine plague, which claimed 5 million lives, Aurelius applied rationalism and heightened the morale of Rome. He remained calm in the face of uncertainty and contemplated on solving problems than panicking.
I have personally found stoicism similar to the practice of pure yoga and buddhist teachings. According to Patanjali, yoga is “equanimity of mind”. Stoicism is the equivalent of nirvana.
The application of Stoicism is beneficial in many ways. It is a foolproof way to combat depression and mental disorders. Today’s psychologist also urge one to be rational in the eye of storm. Unfortunately, our society is very institutionalised and thinks emotionally and takes emotional decisions. We lose temper, our mental equilibrium to defend our beliefs, depend on external factors for our happiness, and get upset if things don’t go our way. In other words, stoicism promotes awareness of self, and helps us being in homeostasis.
Let me explain homeostasis in very scientific terms. For example, when we are disturbed, our endocrine system acts up, our insulin resistance is disturbed, visceral fat starts storing, brain chemicals go haywire. In homeostasis, our system works in sync with universe, remains unperturbed. This state of equanimity helps us take better decisions as brain is not on fire and rational brain is working optimised. Chanakya, the famous strategist, meditated and focussed on controlling his mind, to make sharpest decisions. People who heighten their emotion often make rash and regretful decision and damage their mind.
Stoicism also advocates compassion and affection. It is not a self-entered philosophy. It pushes affection towards humanity without judgements. We tend to judge people with their behaviour and activities. We seldom understand others, and judge too swiftly. After all, we are all grains of the same food. We are all drops in the sea of humanity. Stoicism encourages you to see with neutral eye.
Stoicism is not a philosophy to be read and enjoyed. You only implement it and become one. An untrained mind cannot be a stoic. Most focussed, sharp-brained, concentrative minds are stoic in nature. When the pollutants of beliefs, prejudices, anger, resentment, etc are removed your mind is working at its best.
Courage is not in giving into emotions, but rising above it.