One of the most common misconceptions about Stoicism is that to be stoic means to turn off your emotions. When people use the word as an adjective, they often are using it to describe someone who has born hardship or difficulty without showing any emotion for the situation. From the Sci-Fi universe of Star Trek, think of the Vulcans, who repress their emotions constantly, ironically doing so out of fear of what emotions can cause since in their history they almost wiped out their civilization in wars based off of emotions.
The funny thing about stoicism though, is that if suppressing ones emotions is the goal, then why did one of the most famous Stoics of all time, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, consistently encourage the cultivation of emotions like love?
Adapt yourself to the environment in which your lot has been cast, and show true love to the fellow-mortals with whom destiny has surrounded you.
- Meditations Book VI
It is man’s peculiar duty to love even those who wrong him.
- Meditations Book VII
To me, Stoicism has always been a search for understanding. Much of the work of the original stoics was centered on learning to understand nature, humanity and the world around you. It is not that having emotional reactions to things was inherently a bad thing. You could be passionate about something, you could have anger about a situation, you could feel grief at the loss of someone or something you loved.
But Stoics encouraged you to take one step further: Examine where the emotions arose from and make a determination about whether those emotions were helpful or harmful. If they were helpful, something like joy or love, it was perfectly OK to feel them so long as they didn’t become all-consuming. If they were harmful, you should determine whether or not you could influence the situation that caused them. If you could, then you should change the situation that produced the emotion. If you could not influence the cause, you would acknowledge this and let go of the harmful emotion.
As a Ginger, the popular perception is that we are prone to wild swings in emotion, particularly emotions like anger. But extreme emotions are irrespective of hair color. As a human being I do have emotions, just like any other human being. But as a student of Stoicism, I try to understand where those emotions are originating from, whether I can influence the situation in any way, and respond accordingly. A colleague at the office, discussing a long-term frustrating situation, recently made the comment that she can’t understand how I have been so calm about it. “Nothing seems to shake you!” she said. I told her that it’s not that I haven’t been frustrated by the situation just like she has been; it’s simply that I know I have no ability or power to change the situation, and thus it makes little sense for me to harbor those negative feelings.
Studying the origin of your emotions is a great thing, but it is extraordinarily difficult. This is where the practice of Mindfulness has been a great tool for me. If I am experiencing a particularly strong emotion and cannot look behind it, sitting down for a bit of meditating helps to calm the emotional storm enough to allow me to get behind the emotions and figure out what is causing them.
I’m not going to lie; Meditation is a struggle for me. Trying to get my brain to quiet down and stop running through never-ending lists of activities and thoughts is difficult even when I am perfectly calm. I’ve used several meditation apps for my phone in an effort to help, but many of them are either expensive or they don’t offer guided meditations. Guided meditations tend to help me more than simply sitting in silence, because my brain wants to fill the silence with thoughts and to do lists and everything else.
One of the best ones I have found is called Stop, Breathe and Think, which can be found on iPhone, Android or other platforms simply as Breathe. What I like about this app is that they have a pretty good variety of guided meditations even with the free version of the app. But the best feature is the Check In. When you open the app, you have the option to perform a Check In, which asks you questions about your current physical and emotional state. You can select how you are feeling both physically and emotionally, and the app will give you recommendations for guided meditations to help you deal with that particular state. I’ve used this before big presentations, interviews and more to help me center myself, and it really helps!
If you don’t feel like Checking In and would like to select a meditation, they have a lot of them to choose from, including meditations designed to:
- Engage Your Senses
- Examine Cause and Effect
- Increase Equanimity
- Forgive Yourself
- Increase Gratitude
- …and many more
The paid version of the app unlocks even more guided meditations, and it helps support an organization called Tools for Peace. 10% of net revenue from the App is donated to this organization, which is a non-profit whose mission is to inspire people of all ages to develop kindness and compassion in everyday life. They do this through bringing the app and its curriculum of meditation and mindfulness to schools across the country and holding camps and workshops for children, teens and adults designed to help students not only become better practitioners of mindfulness and meditation and support the development of emotional and social intelligence as a way to create positive outcomes for society. Check out the app, and consider making a donation to support this worthy cause.