The Mental Scale of Stoicism

Living Peacefully in Times of Uncertainty

Living Peacefully in Times of Uncertainty

“Que sera, sera…whatever will be, will be…”

It’s a famous line from a song in a 1950s era Alfred Hitchcock movie. The internet is full of memes that are similar in nature. Our own Roswell location has a huge poster that proclaims “It is what it is,” which tickles our own Medical Director so much he comments on it at least weekly. “How come no one ever says things like that when times are good? I won the lottery…oh well, ‘It is what it is!’” He will then belly laugh and move on to his office. 

He’s right, of course. People don’t question life when it moves in the direction we enjoy. And we all know on an intellectual level, of course, that life happens, that whatever will be, will be. We’re all super zen on Instagram when life is sunny. But do we really grasp the meaning of that lesson for ourselves, when life gets hard? Can we really find a way to live peacefully in times of uncertainty, such as we have now? 

It isn’t enough to be armed with memes and self-help books about peace and calm, although those things are fun. It isn’t enough to do yoga or even meditate for minutes or hours a day, especially if you quickly return to mental turmoil as soon as you are finished. Prayer and looking to spiritual leaders may help quell your fears, at least while you’re engaged with them…but for most people, the fear, anxiety, and sense of overwhelm quickly returns once those beautiful activities have ceased. 

So, if real, lasting peace isn’t found in self-care, where is it? 

Don’t worry if you don’t have an easy answer, this question has plagued people for centuries. It is one of the reasons we have so many books in the self-help section, why many people move uneasily from religion to religion, and why yoga and wine parties are even a thing. Ancient Greeks founded the philosophy of Stoicism as one possible answer. Stoics understand that your job as a human is to continually rate everything in your life as either “within your control” or “outside your control”. Then the only things you have to “worry” about are things that fall within. Knowing this, and following through with it, obviously reduces your amount of things to worry over—allowing more room for more peace. 

This seems simple enough: for every “thing” I’m worrying over, stressing about, I place it on a mental scale. Is this outside my ability to actually affect? I mentally kick it off the scale and sing “Que sera”…and mean it.  Is this within my control? I know I have a starting point to notice what is within my control and list things I can do about it, and get started. Perfectly logical. 

But what if…what if I can take out my scale, judge what I need to get started on, but never have to suffer from anxiety, fear, or stress about the things I am weighing? Not even once. Is that even possible? It seems improbable. The news is a constant barrage of bad news on a normal week, and during this pandemic it seems like they are endlessly trying to top themselves with storylines. Your social media feed is full of experts and “experts” all telling you how bad everything is, how you need more toilet paper, how the world is about to collapse. You may be facing financial hardships due to decreased hours or your workplace being closed altogether. Even just reading these lines may make your heart rate quicken and your stomach churn. If so, sorry about that, take a deep breath and keep reading. 

Where You (think you) Find Peace

You know that you find peace when you get involved with something else—whether it be yoga, gardening, playing with your pet, or exercising. Instead of looking TO the thing and deciding the peace is coming from it, why not investigate why you’re apparently able to access peace at those times? After all, yoga isn’t always the answer—there are times when I have definitely not felt like doing even a proper savasana and to try to force it would have just felt worse. There are times when I felt too restless for prayer, and got moving instead—my steps on the pavement like repetitive meditations akin to the clicks on a mala bracelet for that run. So it’s not the things allowing me to experience peace in my own mind…so where could it be coming from? 

A deeper look will suggest that the peace is ultimately coming…from me. From within. That it was there all along, and that in fact my mental “doing”—thinking about all the things, worrying about the future, anxiously creating lists—those were preventing the peace that was naturally there, that was always there. When I engaged with something I loved, I temporarily suspended my own mental activity of attention to things that the Stoics would point out should very obviously be in the “Outside My Control” bin, and that’s when my mind calmed down. That’s when I could feel and experience the peace—the underlying peace that is always present—and relax. 

Peace Among the Pandemic

It’s a bit like the fact that once major cities in China went on lockdown, the blue skies that were always present were once again visible. The dark cloud of pollution caused by human activity—personal activity—dissipated, and the view was suddenly beautiful and calm. The blue sky wasn’t new. They didn’t do anything to make the blue skies appear. They didn’t have to take a 5 steps for a cleaner horizon action plan. It just appeared, because that was always the nature of the sky. We were just getting in our own way of seeing it. Now, I’m certainly not calling China out—cities all over the world are experiencing cleaner streets, crystal clear waters, and clearer skies as we’ve suspended or slowed or own activity. This is a beautiful analogy for our own minds. 

The blue skies

Knowing this to be true, and I mean, really knowing it to be true, allows me to experience it more and more often. The less I believe in my own worries, the less they tend to stick around or pop back up again. The more I come to see not just with my eyes, but with my heart, with every fiber of my being, that my natural innate health is a big expanse of perfectly clear blue skies…then the more I am able to identify clouds as they roll in. And then, not just identify them, but understand that they are just a cloud, and I am the whole sky. That clouds are temporary. That they, too, shall pass, and the blue sky —me— will remain for as long as I’m breathing. And then, not just understand that, but to know exactly what to do with any clouds that roll in—notice them without engaging unless I want to. Notice them enough to know whether I have any ability to affect them. And that even regardless of that, that they don’t have the power to affect my well-being. 

What Makes All the Difference

Can things in life affect my bank account? Sure. Can illness affect my physical health? Of course it can, and it would be foolish to neglect attention to either. But the difference is I can still attend to the things I need to, things like searching for jobs that better suit my needs, going to doctor’s appointments and heeding their advice, without mentally suffering about why I have to. Without taking on the baggage of “why me?” or “why cancer?” or “why now?” Because the truth we all know is, no one ever expects hard times to befall them. We typically don’t say, “Well, yes, I knew this was coming, I deserve it.” The fact is they do, and what we do with ourselves makes all the difference in whether we suffer unduly from them. 

When you know you’re the clear blue sky, you aren’t concerned about the storms that roll by. You aren’t concerned with what the weather will be like tomorrow and how you will deal with that weather when it comes. When you know you’re the blue sky, you know you always are, here and now, and that makes all the difference.