Coffee Break stoicism Tranquility

143 – The Quality of Your Thoughts

The Quality of Your Thoughts


As human beings, we have an amazing gift – the ability to be conscious of our own thinking. How are you taking advantage of this gift? When we are unaware of the thoughts running through our head, we are relinquishing control of our mind to the old habits and patterns that we have created in our lives and letting ourselves run on autopilot.

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Marcus Aurelius is teaching us here that when we spend our time on thoughts that don’t help us on our path to virtue, we are making ourselves unhappy. The stoics remind us over and over that we are in control of the thoughts we entertain and those thoughts lead to our choices, which lead to the outcomes of our lives.

From the moment we wake till the time we fall asleep, our minds are constantly churning through thoughts. Much of this thinking is just everyday thoughts to get through the day such as what to have for breakfast or what clothes to wear. Some are more life-changing such as whether to ask out that person we’re interested in, or what career options to pursue. But many of the thoughts we have are ones that go partly or even completely unnoticed, just buzzing in the background. Maybe we’re annoyed by a snarky comment from our partner earlier in the day. Maybe we’re worried about something we overheard from our co-workers gossiping. Often, we ruminate on thoughts about things we can’t control, and we don’t even notice it.

The thoughts we entertain are a key part of the process of creating the life we want. Our thoughts are what create our emotions around the events and people in our lives. They help create the impetus to action, and better actions lead to better results. When we use our reason, rather than our default reactions, we are able to find patterns of thinking that are not helpful and replace them with better patterns, that helps us to see the world from a more useful perspective.

And the reverse is true. When we make judgments and focus on thoughts about how crappy life is, then the kind of life we’re going to create is one of negativity and unhappiness. For example, if I sit and think about how someone has wronged me and they owe me an apology, or if I focus on something that happened that I think is unfair and I wish it would change, I’m focusing on things that I can’t control. I’m painting a picture of the world that is negative and one where I’m powerless.

How would using your ability to observe and notice what thoughts you are thinking, change your life? What kind of thought patterns could you change that aren’t serving you? When we slow down and take that time, we can see if the thoughts that we think benefit us, or if they are a hindrance. With more conscious awareness, we can make active choices, rather than simply letting our minds run amok.

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”


The first part of gaining some more control over our thinking is to limit distractions. We have so many things distracting us in our lives. We try to multitask at work with dozens of tabs open in our web browsers, and emails filling up our boxes, vying for our attention. We carry around a lethal weapon of mass distraction in our pockets. With our phones connected to everything on the planet at all times, it’s so easy to find ourselves perpetually entertained. How would your life change if, when you have a few minutes to yourself, rather than reaching for your phone you took the time to be bored, and to just sit and think?

As an example in my own life, for about two months I was playing a poker game on my phone. At first, it was fun, and a bit exciting as I played against an AI and got the feel for the game and improved my skill. I would get that little burst of dopamine every time I pulled off a great hand or a great bluff. But after a while, I began to notice that I was reaching for my phone and opening the game any time I had a few minutes to spare. Often, those few minutes would turn into 30 or 60 minutes to finish a game. I would play it when my partner was talking to me, giving her less than my full attention. I realized that it was not serving me, so I deleted it off my phone. Strangely, I felt some apprehension in doing so, and while I’m glad I did I noticed throughout the last week that I would reach from my phone and start to scroll to the game when I had some free moments. I would catch myself and instead open a book or just pause and think about how I had become a bit of an addict to that game.

The next part of gaining some control over our thinking is to be aware of our thinking. Meditation is all about this idea of being aware of the thoughts floating through your mind. I know that some people think that meditation is about clearing your mind, and while that is one form of meditation, the main purpose of meditation is about slowing down enough to be aware of your thoughts. When we can see our thoughts, we can look at them objectively, dispassionately, and we can ask ourselves, “How is focusing on this thought helping me a be a better person?”

When you do begin to notice your thinking, be careful not to judge yourself when you do think negatively. Just notice that it’s a thought you are having and that you have the option of what you want to do with it. You can just decide if that thought is one that serves you or doesn’t, but remember, it’s just a thought.

If sitting with your thoughts is hard for you, then sit down and write out your thoughts or, grab your phone start a voice memo and record your thoughts for a few minutes. Don’t worry about writing or saying the “right” things, just get them out as soon as they come into your head so that you can observe them later.  Once you have them out of your head, then you can start to see where you might be unconsciously focusing on things that aren’t serving you. You can decide to let them go. You can tell your brain, “I see those thoughts, and it’s okay to let those go.” No judgments, just observation.

Learning to improve the quality of your thinking is something that anyone can do. The more you can limit your distractions, slow down and notice your thinking, and use non-judgmental and reasoned thinking to focus on the thoughts that are useful, you clear much of the negative mental chatter. When you can quiet down the noise, you are able to train your mind to create thinking that helps you find inner peace, and stay more focus on the task at hand.

Coffee Break stoicism

142 – Reject the Injury

Reject the Injury


Why do we feel a sense of injury when disagrees with us? Why do we feel hurt when someone tells us we are wrong? In this week’s episode, we’re going to talk why were worry so much about what others think of us and how to learn to deal with our ego.


Show Notes:

“Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”

― Marcus Aurelius

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

— Anonymous

One of the aspects of stoicism that has been most difficult for me has been learning to not let the opinions of others affect me. I don’t that I’m alone in this. I think most people, struggle with this aspect of life. So why is that? Why do we worry about what others think of us?

We are social animals so we naturally crave the approval and acceptance of other people. Working together is how our species not only survived but have been able to dominate this planet.

The media, especially fashion magazines make their living off selling others the latest hot trend of what will make others like and admire you.

Social media has capitalized on this need to feel the approval of others. We get that burst of pleasure when others like our post or leave a comment. We get a thrill when our tweet gets retweeted by a celebrity. And on the flipside, if we are mocked or become the butt of someone’s joke it can be crushing.

The society we grew up in or currently live in has a big impact as well. I grew up in a very religious community, where there were very rigid expectations of how I was supposed to behave and the things that I should want and do in my life. I was strongly judged by how well I lived up to the principles laid out by the church elders, and I remember so much of my early life feeling like I was simply a failure as a person because I could never live up to these unreachable standards. I was basically trained to seek the judgments of others.

Even with all that said, why does it hurt when someone insults us?

I think that it comes from a threat to our ego. So what is the ego, and why does it feel “bruised” when someone puts us down or doesn’t like us?

The ego is often described as our identity or self-concept. It is that part of us that see us as something separate from everything else around us. It is the thing that is ‘us’ and not the ‘other’.  And this sense of identity is a combination of our memories, our ideas about who we are, and ideas about who we want to become.  Part of how we develop a sense of self is how we are seen by others. If there is no one else around us, how would we know if we are selfish? If we are rude? If we are funny? If we are likable? All of these aspects of our ‘self’ are dependent on how others view us.

When we have a healthy ego, a healthy sense of self, we are able to look at what others say as simply their opinion. We can look at it as simply information, and we can decide what to do with it.  

When we have an unhealthy ego, when someone doesn’t like us, our sense of identity can feel threatened. When someone criticizes us, we feel like they are telling us that what we have done, or what we think is wrong, and therefore there is something wrong with us. Rather than being able to look at what others say as their opinion, and something to consider, we may fall apart. We may get angry and fight back. The first reaction is becoming a victim. The second is trying to control someone other than ourselves.

Marcus Aurelius was the most powerful man in the world when he was emperor of Rome. But even as emperor, had to remind himself that when someone said something disparaging that it was his own mind that gave meaning to what was said about him. He gives us some really good advice on how to deal with those that we feel are trying to injure us.

“When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard?”

― Marcus Aurelius

What Marcus is telling is that usually, others are not trying to harm you. They are trying to do what they think is right. So the first thing we should do is be curious. Why are they doing or saying this? What kind of outcome were they hoping for? If you can be curious, If you can ask questions, if you can try to understand, you can have sympathy.

He goes on to say that they may have the same value system as you, and it’s very possible they may be right. If so, then that’s information you can use. If they aren’t, you can simply take what they said as information and do nothing with it.

You may find that they have a very different value system than you, so they may be very misguided in their criticism and therefore deserve your compassion.

Now I know this is not easy. I struggle with this a lot. Even today, my partner was frustrated with me about my lack of communication of my plans for the day. At first, I could feel myself getting defensive. But rather than fighting back, I took some time to ask myself, “What is she trying to accomplish? What can I learn from this?”

And what I learned was that she wanted me to let her know how my day was planned because part of that impacted her. Her frustration came because I’m not all that good about blocking out time for the things I need to get done, which bleeds into other activities, or pushes things back when others are waiting on me.

Taking time to frame difficult conversations as a time to learn is not easy. We don’t like those uncomfortable feelings, that feeling of being wrong, or that we messed up. But all that means is that there is something to learn, and we should always be willing to learn.


Challenges Coffee Break stoicism

141 – Motivation and Willpower

Motivation and Willpower

I’ve been thinking a lot about motivation and how we accomplish the goals that we set out to do. And I think there’s a bit a confusion about motivation and how it helps us get things done. Let’s take a look at the definition of motivation:

The state or condition of being motivated or having a strong reason to act or accomplish something

And let’s look at the definition of willpower:

Control of one’s impulses and actions; self-control.

Motivation is the reason why you want to do something. It’s the fuel that gets going. It is not the thing that actually propels you. The engine that actually gets you to do something is willpower.

Willpower is “like a muscle that can be strengthened with use, but it also gets fatigued with use,” says John Tierney, co-author of Willpower, with Roy F. Baumeister. If you simply rely on willpower to get you to do something, it’s going to take a lot of effort. According to the authors, the best way to reduce willpower fatigue is to turn something into a habit or a routine, which takes a lot less willpower.

Just Do It

“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”

– Epictetus

Sometimes we wait until we “feel” like doing it. The problem is, we may never feel like it. Usually, the motivation to do something comes after we get started. The hardest part about working out at the gym is often just getting yourself to go to the gym. The hardest part about writing is just sitting down and getting started. If you can eliminate the barriers to getting started, then your chance of success is far greater than waiting for inspiration.


One the most important factors though is what Epictetus reminds us:

“To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it occurs.”

– Epictetus

Sometimes, we attach some kind of negative emotion to the task we’re trying to accomplish. The task may feel overwhelming, or just plain scary. We may be too focused on wanting a specific outcome and we’re afraid that we won’t be able to do it. By focusing on the things that we can control, then we can focus our time and energy on something that will actually have some impact, and not waste our time on things we can’t control


Most people who are successful create a process for accomplishing what they want. They figure out what they have control over, then put down the steps to accomplish their task, and then they follow those steps every time. They create an environment where it’s easy for them to fall into that routine, and where there are limited distractions.

Marcus Aurelius said,

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

If there is something that is distracting you, if it is something within your control, you find ways to either take care of it right then or plan time to take care of it later. If it is something you can’t control, you let go of it.

For example, Stephen King sits down and writes 10 pages every day. He doesn’t care if they are good. He writes 10 pages while listening to the same Metallica album at a little desk in his office. He doesn’t wait to feel motivated. He removes all distractions and just does the task he set out for himself in his routine, and he does it every day.

Create Your Plan

You can start off by asking yourself some questions (I’d suggest writing the answers down):

  • What are the things that I can control?
  • What are the steps that I need to take?
  • What are the tools I need to accomplish it?
  • What are the obstacles in my way?
  • Are there other potential obstacles that I can think of?
  • What steps can I take to work through those obstacles?
  • What can I do to create an environment that eliminates distractions and helps me focus?

Once you have those questions answered, you have the start of your plan. Create an environment that is most conducive to helping you accomplish the tasks. The next thing is to just start doing it. Often times, this is the hardest part. If you wait until you “feel” motivated, you probably won’t. Just do it for 3 minutes then quit if you want. You can do just about anything for 3 minutes, and usually, once you get started doing something, it’s easier to keep that momentum going, and you usually feel even more motivated to keep doing it.

Remember, a routine will beat relying on motivation and willpower any day.

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash

Challenges Circumstances Coffee Break stoicism

140 – Circumstances Don’t Make The Man

Circumstances Don’t Make The Man


“Circumstances don’t make the man, they only reveal him to himself.”

– Epictetus

How do we deal with difficulties? Do we see them as challenges or opportunities? As something that is to be suffered through, or something that teaches us who we are? In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about difficult circumstances and how they are the things we should be most grateful for.

Show Notes:

What does that mean? Aren’t tough challenges supposed to make us stronger?
The stoics remind us that circumstances in and of themselves are neutral. They are not good or bad unless we label it so. It’s our thinking about a situation that makes it a problem – or an opportunity.
The same thing can happen to two different people and one person may see it as an intractable problem, something to complain about or run and hide from. The other can see it as an opportunity to learn and grow, and they dig in and push through.

It’s often hard to prepare for challenges because we get comfortable when things are going well. We like it when things are easy. Professional and personal failures, divorce, even death rarely come at opportune moments. More often than not, they come unexpectedly out of the blue, when we feel least ready.

The author Elizabeth Day in this month’s Guardian wrote a great piece on failure [1]. Reflecting on what she thought of as the greatest failures in her life, she said, “I realised that the biggest, most transformative moments of my life came through crisis or failure. They came when I least expected them, when I felt ill-equipped to deal with the fallout. And yet each time, I had survived.”

Sometimes, we come out the other side not feeling like a champ. We may just survive it. And that’s okay.

Challenges also have a way of humbling us and knocking down our egos.
Our view of who we thought we were can change when seen through the filter of life’s challenges. We can be so wrapped up in something outside of ourselves, that when then identity is threatened, it can be exceptionally scary.

Challenges can change us into a totally new person. Day goes on to say, “Life crises have a way of doing that: they strip you of your old certainties and throw you into chaos. The only way to survive is to surrender to the process. When you emerge, blinking into the light, you have to rebuild what you thought you knew about yourself.”

If we link our identity too strongly to our jobs and suddenly find ourselves unemployed, the blow to our self-image can be devastating. We can give our heart and soul to a relationship only have it end bitterly and leaving us feeling jaded. We can work for years on a creative endeavor only to meet rejection and failure and question whether it was worth our time and energy.

But it through these transitions that we are able to let go of that old version of us, and become who we are meant to be.

It’s not easy to shift your mindset to view challenges as opportunities.
It takes practice to change our instinctual reaction.
It can be difficult to sit with the uncomfortable emotions such as fear and doubt that our thinking brings up. And this is where learning how to view a challenge differently helps. We are able to see how this thing is helping us, rather than looking at it as something to fear.
Maybe it’s giving us an opportunity to learn a new skill.
Maybe it’s giving us an opportunity to grow stronger in an area we shied away from before.
Maybe it’s an opportunity to start something new.
Many startups happen because someone ran into a challenge and looking around they either didn’t find a solution or didn’t like the existing ones, so they created their own solution.

Have you ever been on the beach and picked up a smooth stone? Have you ever thought about how it got so smooth? That stone in your hand started off as a hunk of stone, with sharp edges and rough patches all over. As the waves wash the stone up on shore it bangs up against other stones, sand, and stone walls up on the shore. And as it comes in contact with these, the sharp edges become rounded, the rough patches begin to be smoothed out.

Life is going to throw stuff as whether we like it or not. We can learn to marvel at the changes and embrace the hard things that help us grow into someone new. We can learn to let go of holding to who we are and be excited for who we’re becoming. We can learn, as the stoics ask us, to love our fate.

Help create this podcast.

Photo by John Jason on Unsplash


Coffee Break stoicism

139 – Judgments


Show Notes:

  • How many times have we made judgments about someone when we first meet them, that later turn out to be completely wrong?

“Impressions, striking a person’s mind as soon as he perceives something within range of his senses, are not voluntary or subject to his will, they impose themselves on people’s attention almost with a will of their own. But the act of assent which endorses these impressions is voluntary and a function of the human will.”

– Epictetus

  • We are constantly being bombarded by strong impressions, and making snap judgments.
  • We’re constantly creating unconscious judgments about things and people.
  • We compare ourselves to others – our friends, or neighbors, our family members.
  • We see someone we’re attracted to and we make all kinds of judgments about what kind of person we think they might be. They’re pretty so they must be smart…or dumb.
  • We see someone that is maybe less attractive, or disheveled and we make judgments about them. Maybe we think they are lazy.
  • We judge people by their clothes, by their skin color, by their accents when they talk, their voice, how much money they have.
  • The thing is that judgments in and of themselves aren’t bad. We need to size things up. But we need to be sure that we’re making judgments that serve us and the people around us.

“You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.”

– Marcus Aurelius

  • Does this thing really need our attention? Was what some celebrity scandal worth our focus? Does it matter if that person walking down the street from us has tattoos or a mohawk or is wearing a suit and tie?
  • And the thing about judgments is that we need to be conscious of what we’re comparing. If you’re comparing yourself to someone else and saying that you’re a better than they are for some reason, then it really doesn’t serve either of you.
  • And who’s to say that you’re better than they are?
  • What works for you, doesn’t work for them.
  • The path they are on is not yours, so what you deem as important doesn’t mean shit to them.
  • What you want and what they want are not going to be the same.
  • So why do we make so many unconscious judgments about things?
  • Our brain likes to create shortcuts and so it sees patterns that it likes that it thinks are safe so it creates a shorthand to help it make quick decisions, to keep you safe, and save mental energy.
  • The other thing to think about is where are these judgments coming from?
  • Are they yours? Are they ones that were given to you growing up? From your family? From society? The media?
  • These mental models that you hold onto and use to try and make sense of the world need to be examined all the time because they may not be serving you.
  • And changing those models is not easy. Sometimes we’re simply not even aware of them.
  • Racism is something that’s passed down or part of the culture that you grew up in.
  • And so many of these judgments are part of your identity. They are the things that are part of your ego. They are ways for you to feel secure in who you are. If you’re “better” than that person, then you feel good about yourself. You feel okay. But if you have to feel good about yourself that way, then it’s probably not a very healthy way of living.
  • The other big area that I want to address is self-judgment.
  • We spend so much time judging ourselves and all the ways that we don’t measure up.
  • And where do these self-judgments come from?
  • I think they usually come from outside of us. From our culture. From our families.
  • We have these expectations of what we “should be”, and rather than learning to accept and who we actually are.
  • When we learn to stop the self judgments and just be okay with who we are, and stop having so many expectations about things we really learn to lighten up and go easier on ourselves.
  • And when we are easier on ourselves, we are less judgmental of others.
  • I know that much of the anger that I’ve struggled with is from expecting things to be a certain way, and when they weren’t I would get upset about the uncomfortable emotions and try to use my anger to control the outcome of the situation.
  • This usually has the effect of causing even more distress and angst with the whole situation and making it much worse than it was in the first place.
  • When we let go of expectations, it’s like learning to step into the flow of things. We can roll with things because we don’t have any preconceived idea of what should be, but we simply work with what is.
  • In Zen, this is the beginner’s mind.
  • How do we suspend our judgments of others?
  • How do we suspend judgments of ourselves?

“We are not privy to the stories behind people’s actions, so we should be patient with others and suspend judgment of them, recognizing the limits of our understanding.”

– Epictetus

  • We can let go of thinking of things as either right or wrong.
  • We can become curious as to why something is the way it is.
  • Why does that person wear those clothes?
  • Why is that person acting that way? What are they thinking those actions are going to accomplish?
  • And this goes for ourselves. Rather than judging ourselves harshly, we can become curious about why we think a certain way, or why we said or did a certain thing.
  • If we are curious, we can be compassionate because we’re not worried about if something is right or wrong, we simply want to understand why.

Photo by Joel & Jasmin Førestbird on Unsplash