Q & A

284 – Q & A – Daily Life, God, Difficult People, and Politics

This week’s episode is a Q & A edition. I talk about how to practice stoicism in daily life, god, dealing with difficult people, and who would Marcus Aurelius vote for!

Hello friends, my name is Erick Cloward and welcome to the Stoic Coffee Break. The Stoic Coffee Break is a weekly podcast where I take an aspect of Stoicism and do my best to break it down to its most important points. I share my experiences, both my successes and my failures, and hope that you can learn something from them all within the space of a coffee break.

So this week's episode is going to be a little bit different. I've been traveling quite a bit. I am now in Amsterdam. And so I put a post out on social media a couple of weeks ago. I guess about a week or so ago, that I'm going to do a question and answer episode. This is the first time I've done this, but I thought it might be interesting to give it a go.

So, I had some people on social media ask me some questions, I also asked some of my friends for their questions about Stoicism and just kind of about life and philosophy in general, and we'll see how this goes.

So the first question that I got was: What are some common mistakes people make when trying to practice Stoicism, and how can I avoid them?

So, the first mistake that most people think about stoicism is that stoicism is about repressing your emotions. That it's not showing any emotions when you are dealing with something that you're struggling with. And this is really not the case. Stoicism is about emotional awareness. It's about making sure that you are in touch with your emotions in a way that allows you to manage them better.

That you have control over your emotions and yourself rather than letting your emotions control you and this comes with, really working on your awareness about yourself awareness about the way that you think. The way that your emotions come because of the things that you think because remember when you are struggling with an emotion. Emotions are created by the thinking that you have, and that your thoughts are the things that lead to emotions and it also can create a feedback loop because emotions can impact your thinking.

So for example, if someone says something that you consider to be rude, it's your opinion of what they said that makes it rude. It's your opinion that causes the emotions that you feel about what they said. And by recognizing that it's your opinion that is causing the emotions, you get to choose how you let those emotions impact you and the actions that you take.

So that for me is probably. One of the most common mistakes that people make it when they start to practice stoicism, you're not cutting off emotions. You're just becoming more aware of them so that you can actually do something about them and manage them rather than having them control you.

So the next question is: How did you discover stoicism or what made you start studying it?

So, I first heard about Stoicism from Tim Ferriss. He mentioned the book, The Guide to the Good Life: The Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine. And he said it was a book that changed his life. And Tim reads lots of books, makes lots of recommendations. And for me, when Tim says, hey, this is a book that changed my life, it caught my attention.

And I also was curious about the title. Or the subtitle, The Art of Stoic Joy. Because to me, I only knew stoic as somebody who is, you know, very rigid and very emotionless. And so stoic joy was something that I liked the contradiction, so I thought I'd give it a read. So I got the book, and I read through it, and there were a lot of good ideas in it, but it didn't quite click the first time.

And I knew that there was something more to it, because as I listened to Tim's podcast, I would hear again and again, hey, you know, talking about stoicism, talking about stoicism. So I got the audio book and for about two or three months, I listened to it on the way to and from work. It was like a 15 minute commute.

And I kept having a lot of these aha moments every time I would be listening to it. And it was at that point that it really started to click for me. And I just kept having these moments where I'd be like, wow, that is an amazing idea. I never thought of that. I never knew that the world worked this way.

So at that point, I bought the daily journal that Ryan Holiday has, and this was back in 2017. And just at the beginning of 2018, so I could write it in the new year. And I started journaling, and my New Year's resolution was to start a podcast. And I wasn't sure what I wanted to start a podcast on, I had all kinds of ideas.

And I figured since I was learning about Stoicism, I would just do a podcast on Stoicism and it was supposed to be just a practice podcast. I would just practice making a podcast and I would talk about Stoicism because I needed a topic to talk about. And then things kind of took off and here we are today.

Next question is: What is the best way to practice Stoicism on a daily basis?

I think there are a lot of ways that you can practice Stoicism, but there are a few things that I've always found helpful and I know it's going to sound like I'm repeating the same thing, but these are all things that. It'll allow you to practice Stoicism on a daily basis.

I think that reading something from the Stoics such as Meditations or writings by Epictetus and Seneca or Rufus Masonius are always, always something good to add to your day. If it's, if Stoicism is just something that you're getting into, Ryan Holiday's books are also a great way to get a good introduction if you find the ancient text a little bit hard to follow. I think there are lots of great books out there that can be incredibly helpful. And I even like to mix in things by like Buddhist writers like Thich Nhat Hanh.

Now, another thing that I talk about a lot is meditation. And even though I've kind of fallen off the wagon with this and have not been practicing it every day like I used to, gaining that awareness of your own mind is incredibly helpful for emotional awareness and emotional management.

So a few years ago, I challenged myself to meditate for 60 minutes a day for 60 days in a row. And it was challenging. It was something that was very, very hard. And I found that usually the first half hour to 40 minutes, my brain was just kind of like randomly firing off thoughts and thinking about all kinds of things.

And then the last, you know, 20 – 25 minutes would be where I kind of find some peace and I could watch my thinking in a much more relaxed way. But I found that doing that exercise really helped me to have an overall ability to manage my thinking better. So it, it kind of did a big reset. Like my brain worked through a bunch of stuff and so my anxiety levels overall are much lower. And I find that when I need to, when I'm feeling anxious about something, I can just stop, take a deep breath and I'm able to manage my thoughts quite a bit better.

And so it's something that I'm working on getting back into every day. Probably do it a bit shorter than that, but if you can, I highly recommend doing that exercise. It's hard. It's very, very hard, but I found that from that point on, I was a lot more in control of how I could think about things. Another thing to understand about meditation is it doesn't mean that you just have to sit quietly in a room for 30, 60 minutes, whatever.

It can be just walking out in nature and paying attention to your thinking. It can be just taking a moment on the bus and just pay attention to your thinking. And just taking some time, even just 10 minutes a day to just sit down and allow yourself to be bored and to pay attention to your thoughts. And the goal of meditation, at least for me, is to not necessarily relax, but to become much more aware of what my brain is doing, what my brain is thinking of. And it's a, it's a very valuable skill because it's hard to manage your thinking if you're not aware of what you're actually thinking.

And the last way that I recommend, again, these are all simple tools that everybody talks about. So for me, I find that sitting down and writing in my journal is a good way to get everything that's kind of stirring around in my head. It's also a meditative practice for me.

So sometimes when I'm feeling anxious about things or I'm unclear about what I need to get done in my life, I just sit down and do a brain dump. And just whatever comes to my mind, I just start writing it down. And it takes what's spinning around in my head and puts it down on paper so one, it's easier to see and two, it's much easier just to be able to organize those types of thoughts.

So if meditation isn't your thing, maybe try journaling. I think that either of those two practices will really help you to become aware of your own thinking, which is a big part of how you can practice stoicism in your daily life much better.

So the next question I got is an interesting one, but I think I'll, I'll address it. And the question is: Is “God” a pronoun, the name of an all powerful man, or is “god” an ancient word meaning the totality of an infinite universe, and why?

So, this is an interesting question, and not something that is really particularly answered by Stoicism, so this is just my opinion on it, and, for me, I would tend to fall on the second option.

So, I think that god is just a way to try and explain why there is something rather than nothing. And because this is such a mysterious area, people from the beginning of time have tried to understand where we came from, why we're here, and where do we go when we die. And the truth is, we don't know.

I mean, we do know that there has to be something at the beginning. There has to be something that created everything that exists. There is some kind of force, a creative force that exists, otherwise there would be nothing. But to assume that it's some old guy with a beard or to ascribe or assume that we know what this person wants us to do or believe is not something that I just, that I can’t follow.

I mean, we tend to anthropomorphize things that we don't understand. And throughout history, people have claimed to know what this all powerful being wants us to do. And usually it's what that person wants us to do.

So the next question: How can I develop a stoic mindset when it comes to dealing with difficult people or situations?

I think the most important thing you can do is to not take anything personally, even if it is. When you can put some distance between you and what the other person is saying or doing, then it gives you choices. And if you're constantly being reactive to what someone else says or does, then you're not the one that's in control.

They are.

So one of the easier ways to do this is when you can recognize that what the other person is saying or doing is just their perspective. It's just their opinion. Just because someone said something doesn't mean that it's the truth. And if it is the truth, well, you should be open to it. You should be open to taking in things that are factual, even if they are uncomfortable.

I think the bigger part of this is that if someone can get you easily stirred up, well, that's your problem and not theirs. Yes, they may be an asshole and they may say stupid or mean things, but it's your opinion of what they're saying that gets you stirred up. It's the thoughts in your mind that create the emotions you feel, and those emotions drive your actions.

If you can simply take in the things that they are saying is just that, that they are words that are coming out of their mouths, then you can be curious about what they are saying and think about it. And honestly, I think that being curious about what others are saying And why they are saying it is one of the fastest ways to not let others get under your skin.

An example of this where I failed recently was when I was a podcast guest just a couple of weeks ago. Now, the podcast host was a pretty hardcore Catholic who had some very hardline views on some things that I disagreed with, and I found myself getting very defensive and things got a little bit heated.

It was still civil, but I was definitely riled up. And I was not really trying to understand his point of view or to be curious about why he believed the things that he did. And after the interview, I had some time to sit and think about how I didn't live up to my stoic ideals. I realized that I hadn't been curious, but I just wanted to prove that I was right, or at the very least prove that he was wrong.

And it was certainly a learning space for me, because I want to be curious. I want to try and understand others, even if I don't agree with them. And while I feel like I failed, I also feel like I learned something for the next time I talk with someone like him.

Next question: Who would Marcus Aurelius vote for?

Oh boy, this is going to be a thorny one, which is why I saved it for last. I'm assuming that the person who asked it is referring to the presidential race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. And right now politics in the U. S. and in plenty of other countries is very divisive. But let's not fool ourselves.

Divisive politics is nothing new in the world. It just feels very amplified because of social media and the fact that we have so much more news available to us that we didn't have until the last 25 years or so. So let's walk through this and think about how we should choose our elected leaders. When we think about Marcus Aurelius and how he tried to govern, we see a leader who was unselfish, who was principled, he was thoughtful and patient.

He tried to be a leader who served those that he governed. He did his best to govern in a way that benefited as many people as possible, not just those who were on his side. He was not there for his own enrichment or glory. In fact, he sold items from the palace to help pay debts that needed to be paid.

He didn't live lavishly, but he lived plainly in order to focus on the job of running the empire. He was faithful to his wife, even though there were rumors that his wife had had affairs outside of their marriage. A good example of him trying to live up to his stoic principles was when Marcus was emperor, there was an attempted coup by Avidius Cassius, who was actually a trusted friend and a loyal general to the emperor.

And this betrayal was a major test of Marcus Aurelius stoic principles. Because he was faced with a very difficult situation that could have led to a lot of anger and revenge. However, Marcus demonstrated his commitment to Stoic principles by showing mercy and forgiveness to Cassius instead of seeking retribution. Which would have been the normal thing for most other emperors at that time.

So with that said, you have to ask yourself, which of the people running for office is doing their best to live up to these principles? Which one is trying to serve the whole nation and not just those that follow him? Which one speaks out about trying to find ways to bring us together and find things that we have in common rather than trying to create divisions between us?

If you look at what each of them actually says and does, and not just what you hear on partisan news channels, then I think you'll find a pretty clear distinction between them. The question is, are you willing to seek out that information, or are you just sticking to the news channels that say the things that you like to hear? Have you picked a side?

Now, I'm sure a lot of you were disappointed that I didn't directly choose a side, but I think that's part of the problem. There are no sides. I think a big problem is that politics has turned into nothing more than rooting for a side like you would for a football game. And people want their side to win.

I want the person who will be the best leader for all of us to win. I want the person that is doing their best to serve all of us. Not just someone who is seeking power for their own glory and to pour down favors onto those that they consider to be loyal to them. So when you look at the candidates, there's a few things I want you to think about.

Do you filter everything that happens from one party through a negative bias? Do you look at the politicians for the things that they do and actually say or do you gloss over it and simply follow it because it's your side? Now understanding your own perspective on it can be very, very helpful because then you can look at somebody for the things that they actually do and the things they actually say and see if it lines up with you.

I mean, personally, there are people on both sides of the political aisle because in the U. S. that's pretty much what we have is two sides, that when they do something good, when they put in legislation, when they say things that try to bring us together, I support that. I don't have a side that I choose and go, yep, I'm just going to follow this one blindly.

I will criticize people on the political party that I generally follow when they do things that are really stupid or when they do things that aren't helpful. And I'll do things such as when there's somebody on the other side who does good things, I'll praise them and support them because I think that it's not about which side.

It's about how do we govern in a way that is beneficial to the most people. And while we may disagree on that, we need to be able to come together and actually talk about that and be willing to listen to people and understand their point of view. And I think that's the hardest thing, is that we get stuck in this way of thinking that other people think just like us.

And if we don't understand where someone is coming from and what their values are, what's important to them, they may choose a candidate who is just saying the things that they want to hear. Even if that candidate isn't standing up for the principles that we truly believe in.

Now the Stoics have four virtues, and I think that that's probably one of the best places to start to pick out a political candidate, and the four virtues are wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. Is the political candidate you're looking at wise? Do they take in science? Do they take in learning? Do they take in experience and try to apply it in a way that, again, helps the most people? Are they courageous and willing to stand up for their beliefs and their principles even when they're getting knocked down pretty hard for those things?

Are they in search of justice or are they looking out for vengeance or revenge? And lastly, are they moderate? Are they willing to listen to people on both sides? Are they willing to have the self discipline for themselves to not let their baser emotions, their baser impulses come out and lash out angrily at their opponents, but that they do their best to reach across and try to treat their opponents with respect and compassion and try to govern and not just rule? And I think that's really probably one of the best things that you can filter any political candidate for.

So that's the end of this week's episode. Like I said, this is something new that I'm trying out. If you have any questions that you want to send to me, I will probably do another episode like this and hopefully you will have some good questions for me to answer about stoicism, about how to look at the world through a stoic perspective, how to apply stoicism in your daily life.

I think there are a lot of things you can do and the more detailed the question, the more I appreciate it. I'd really like to get some good ideas generated through this. So I'd appreciate it if you'd send me your questions. And as always be kind to yourself, be kind to others and thanks for listening.

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