The stoics are pretty clear that we control very little on our lives, but we do control the one thing that will make the biggest impact on our lives – our own minds.
You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.
I like to think of this idea in two different ways. First, you have power over your mind, but not power over outside events. This lesson is challenging in so many ways because we want to have some semblance of control over our world. When we embrace this idea, it can be scary because we realize that we have so little control. Accidents, natural disasters, actions of others are all examples of things that we have no control over, yet can change our lives in profound ways.
I think that so much of the stress and anxiety we have in our lives comes from worrying about things that we have little or no control over. When we can learn to let go of what we do not control, we can release a lot of stress in our lives.
A good example of this is when I’ve applied for jobs in the past. Often I’d be really excited about a position, but after my interview I would be so stressed out waiting to hear if I got the job or not. Because I wanted the job so badly I would feel anxious because I had no control over it. There could be other people that were more qualified than I. There could be internal factors at the company that I had no influence over.
As I got older and wiser, I better able to handle waiting to hear back on job. I would do my best in the interview, then simply let go of any expectations, almost as if I had never even applied for the job. If I got the job, I was excited. If not, it wasn’t as big of a deal because I recognized that I did my part, and the rest was out of my hands.
The second way to look at this quote is that you have power over your mind, but outside events do not. Learning to recognize how you let outside events influence you is hard. Part of being a stoic is developing mental discipline so that outside events don’t have an outsized impact on your well being. I know that I often struggle and get spun out when things don't go my way. But the thing is, when we let outside events disrupt our well being, it doesn't change that outside event, and it often makes things worse.
Having a clear idea of what we can and can't control is for me the most fundamental principle of stoicism, and almost every other idea flows from there. This is also one of the easier concepts to understand, but so hard to actually implement. I know that I will spend the rest of my life trying to get a handle on this one principle.
How do you manage to clearly divide what you can and can't control? I think one of the biggest tools is to ask yourself a simple question: Have I taken action on everything that is in my power? Sometimes talking over your options with a friend or writing them down can help clarify what you have control over.
Self-control is strength. Right thought is mastery. Calmness is power.
This is one of my favorite quotes because it encapsulates several simple yet powerful inter-related principles of how to have more control over your mind. Each of these principles help support one another. When we master one, we are strengthened in the others. In a word, we become more anti-fragile – challenges don't weaken us, but actually do the opposite and help use become stronger and more resilient.
When we work to control ourselves, we develop strength of will. This means that when we set out to accomplish something, we are able to direct our minds and our bodies in situations where others slack off or quit. We are better able to ignore distractions. We are better able to ignore others that might try to interfere or keep us from reaching our goals.
When we practice right thinking, we become masters of our minds. We maximize the effect of useful thoughts, and we are aware of and minimize the damage of unhelpful thought patterns. We are better able to cheer ourselves on, and minimize the negative self talk that often derails us even before we get started. The more we master our thinking, the stronger our will.
When we are angry or upset, our mental abilities decline. We are less able to think creatively. Our vision narrows and we miss other options and possibilities. When we stay calm and keep our cool, we retain our power. We are able to think clearer and direct our will. In challenging situations, when others are losing their shit, we are able to not only survive, but thrive.
For me, taking some time each day to meditate helps me to cultivate more discipline over my mind. I get to know how I think and what I think. I learn the ways that I try to self-sabotage because of insecurities and self doubt, and build up defenses against them.
When we take the time to slow down and recognize what we're thinking, we are able to recognize those things that are outside of ourselves, and the impact they have on us. Whether that's the actions of other people or the weather or traffic or any other ousted event, cultivating self-awareness through mindfulness and meditation is the best tool to take control over our minds.
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