Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see. The span we live is small–small as the corner of the earth in which we live it. Small as even the greatest renown, passed from mouth to mouth by short-lived stick figures, ignorant alike of themselves and those long dead. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book Three, Passage 10
Anxiety. We have all felt it at some point in our lives. Many among us feel it constantly, whether it is warranted or not. I work with young adults every day, and they are working through an epidemic of it that manifests in a myriad of ways. Some have frequent panic attacks that force them to go to specifically designated spaces so they can calm down. Such episodes can be brought about by being assigned to participate in a class discussion, participants being expected to contribute to that conversation in original and insightful ways. Some would rather not come to school for a week than offer a thirty-second discussion comment in front of their peers. It didn’t used to be like this.
I could lament the state of our current public speaking capacities at great length, but that is not the focus here. I rather wish to explore what can be done to combat the anxieties that are crippling all of us, not just our children. I’ll begin by exploring my own to illustrate how else such misguided emotions can manifest and how to suppress or eliminate them–through focusing on a specific spiritual path. If you have experienced or are currently battling anxiety, this is being written for you.
As a child, I was exceptionally shy. My “self-esteem” was never very strong, though there was, as I reflect on it, no external reason for this. I came from a stable home and had no severe adverse circumstances that might have otherwise scarred me. I was (and still am in some circumstances) quite introverted, preferring time spent alone just thinking my own thoughts to busy, loud gatherings where I would be forced to engage in meaningless small talk for its own sake with individuals I really didn’t care to be around. There was something else, though, that went unremarked through my childhood, and I never spoke of it with anyone. If I had to self diagnose it, I had (and still have, though I have now learned to control it) what could be called generalized anxiety disorder. That is not from any form of professional diagnosis–that is, from my own research, what I feel best fits the frame of mind I have battled with all my life. It involves anxiety becoming nearly a default personality state, the focus of the stress shifting from source to source as the brain almost seeks out reasons to be anxious. If one source of anxiety proves not worth stressing over, those feelings are quickly transferred to the next phantom source–and so it goes. This can be referred to as “catastrophizing,” “rumination,” or other aliases; no matter what you call it, it can steal away years of your life.
If I were able to travel back in time to speak to my younger self in an effort to convince “kid me” of what I now know–that my childhood (and adult) anxieties were groundless and would amount to nothing–that I could save myself years of headaches, chest pain, and sleepless nights by simply learning to live in the present rather than fearing the uncertain future or regretting the established past–I doubt it would make any difference. That was a phase of life that had to be lived, and only time and experience would allow me to learn what I now know in order to overcome it. It’s easy enough to say to someone who suffers from something like this: “Just get over it. It’s no big deal.” That’s easy for them to say; what’s not so easy is training yourself to believe it.
The imagination is the greatest enemy to an anxiety sufferer. I was an expert at “what if” thinking. My mind would be able to conjure the most unlikely and unfortunate outcome of any situation, and I would somehow believe that that outcome was actually the most probable one, with no evidence whatsoever to support that mindset. What most people could brush off with little difficulty, I would ruminate over for months or years, stressfully wondering how I would deal with the imaginary disaster my mind assured me was imminent. It was irrational in the extreme, and I somehow believed that to brush whatever it was off–to truly believe that whatever it was truly wasn’t a big deal–was to tempt fate and even increase the likelihood of catastrophe. I needed to atone for the imagined or minor slight, and stressing out over it was my way of atoning, as though I could prepare my mind for the supposedly inevitable by envisioning it and brainstorming reactions to it when it came. I can’t even count how many years of my life were governed by this toxic mentality. As Ebenezer Scrooge said near the end of A Christmas Carol: “God forgive me for the time I’ve wasted.” I was very good at hiding this from others; I wore the mask of normalcy, which mostly succeeded in shielding the truth beneath it from the awareness of others.
I don’t really regret things; regret, too, is wasted energy. Its only value is in the lessons it teaches. That was a phase of life (though a pretty long one) that simply had to be lived through until the discovery of a counter-philosophy came along that finally set me on a more mentally healthy path. That philosophy was Stoicism. I have written of my adherence to this system in the past, but for dealing with anxiety, I have found no better approach, and owe my future to it. I find it a little ironic that the passage that opened this essay encourages us to live in the now, though that advice comes from the past. I have used ideas first articulated in the past to influence and shape my life in the now. Below is a series of passages from Marcus Aurelius that I have used as mantras while learning to bring my own anxieties under control; they have helped me more than anything else, and I would like to share them with you.
Do external things distract you? Then make time for yourself to learn something worthwhile; stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions…. (Meditations, 2:7).
Things external to us have no more power over our happiness and mental well being than we choose to give them. We need to stop ruminating on the phantom futures and occupy our minds with “something worthwhile” that helps others or makes the world better. Focus is the key; stay focused on how you can best use the present moment for self or societal improvement. Keeping busy on something meaningful will minimize the chance for catastrophizing or rumination.
Your ability to control your thoughts–treat it with respect. It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions–false to your nature, and that of all rational beings…. (Meditations, 3:9).
Stopping to really analyze what happens to us is something we don’t often do; instead, we jump to often insupportable conclusions that lack any evidence for them, and our imaginations distort those impressions. We need to slow down and ask: “Now, what is the most logical and likely outcome here? What about it can I take action on? What about it is beyond my control? I will take what action I can to improve the situation, and not concern myself with that beyond my immediate influence.” If we just said, and believed, that statement, we could save ourselves a lot of unnecessary suffering.
Choose not to be harmed–and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed–and you haven’t been. (Meditations, 4:7).
This passage reminds me a lot of Hamlet’s statement: “There’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” When students in my school try to explain what they believe to be the most profound source of their speech anxiety, they say something along the lines of “The audience will judge me.” Sure they will. We get judged on a daily basis, based on a lot of things: what we wear, what we say, and what we do. It’s not the judgment that matters, it’s our response to it. No one is genuinely capable of actually creating an emotional response in me. I alone choose how I respond. I have a “response-ability,” an ability to respond to whatever happens in my life. I describe a fictional scenario for my students when they express fear of judgment from others: If I actually had the power to create emotional states in others, I would stand by the entrance to the school each day and just say “You are going to have a fantastic day today!” and it would come to pass (Actually, that isn’t a bad idea, whether I possess that power or not. That very suggestion–if believed in–could really set a tone. The key is that it has to come from within if it is to be truly effective; the external statement isn’t enough).
If I really had that power, I would be traveling the world to the places stricken with the most misery and spread optimism and joy wherever I went. I could still do that, but if those who heard the message lacked the necessary mindset, the statement alone would do little good. We need to learn to be able to respond more effectively to judgment and criticism. When criticized, say “What part of that do I actually own? Is there any truth to it?” If so, I should thank the person who offered the judgment for just making me a better person. If I know what the person said is false, I can let it go, not caring what they think of me. Seek to improve and enrich yourself by learning from the constructive observations of others, but discount that which is rude or just meant to upset you. Those who seek to bully you are in a bad place, and are just trying to bring you down to where they are. Offer them some help, or just steer clear.
“Nothing that goes on in anyone else’s mind can harm you. Nor can the shifts and changes in the world around you.”
“Then where is harm to be found?”
“In your capacity to see it. Stop doing that and everything will be fine.” (Meditations, 4:39).
This relates to the previous passage (such is the nature of the Meditations, which circle back to important concepts as they are repeatedly encountered and internalized). Things external to us only have the power over us that we grant them. If we see no harm, the harm goes away. This can be hard to accept for us when the “harm” elevates itself to extreme levels, such as suffering through a disaster that destroys my home or causes loved ones to die. However, if we fortify our minds with the concept presented here when things are less drastic, practicing that philosophy daily with less serious situations that present themselves, then our minds will be steeled to better handle any greater challenge that will, for all of us, one day raise its head. If it strikes us without such preparation, we will not recover from it as well, if at all. We need to fortify our minds against the external. The ancient Romans had much more challenging and dangerous events occurring in their lives than many of us face each day. They needed this philosophy just to get through the day, and it can help us today just as much.
It’s unfortunate that this has happened.
No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it–not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. It could have happened to anyone. But not everyone could have remained unharmed by it. Why treat the one as a misfortune rather than the other as fortunate? (Meditations, 4:49a).
“Why did this have to happen to me?” We have probably all muttered this to ourselves in the aftermath of a setback at some point in our lives. Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings asks the same question: “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”
Gandalf hears that, and replies: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.”
Gandalf knew his Marcus Aurelius. When the difficult times come, we must not allow them to break us. We need to decide how to best respond, as we cannot change the external event that befell us. We can grow stronger from it and respond in a way that helps us move forward–or it can break us. Many will break. Those who have trained their minds to withstand the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Hamlet calls them will be able to move on, even expressing gratitude for what they still have and that they remain fundamentally unharmed inside.
Nothing happens to anyone that he can’t endure. The same thing happens to other people, and they weather it unharmed–out of sheer obliviousness or because they want to display ‘character.’ Is wisdom really so much weaker than ignorance and vanity? (Meditations 5:18).
If we can’t endure something, it kills us. Everything else, we have the capacity to withstand. There are some that withstand it, as the passage above indicates, because they don’t even realize how severe it is, or they are so concerned about the opinions of others that they put on a “happy face” despite whatever it is. True endurance can only come from the mental fortitude to control our emotions, seeing what happens to us for what it is, not for what we imagine it may become. Nature gave us the tools to endure; we just have to pick them up, believe in them, and use them.
Forget the future. When and if it comes, you’ll have the same resources to draw on–the same logos. (Meditations 7:8)
No matter what happens in the unknown future ahead of us, we will be able to face it. Today, before it comes, we can be preparing our minds to face it, honing those “tools” that will help us to endure it. Then, when life gets around to throwing the challenges our way, we’ll be able to embrace them as experiences from which we can learn and grow.
I could go on. Purchase a copy of the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius; read it every day, and let its ancient wisdom guide you. Turn also to Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, and the Discourses of Epictetus (the three primary surviving Stoic texts). You will find a treasure trove of philosophical wisdom that will ring true to you and help you to keep your perspective when the anxieties try to assert their dominance. Believe me, they will try. Those of us who have faced anxiety most of our lives in one shape or another have deeply ingrained mental pathways that are like familiar grooves into which our thoughts can easily slide. Leaving those grooves behind and forging new ones, wholly new perspectives from which to view external events, is not a path for the timid. It will require dedication and discipline. Seek tools that can help. There are many online communities of Stoic philosophers out there waiting to hear from you. If you are a person like me who likes tangible symbols to remind you of how to think, I recommend Ryan Holiday’s “Daily Stoic” website and the products he sells. Explore his site and the wealth of resources you will find there. You won’t be disappointed.
I hope that this brief introduction to how Stoicism as a spiritual path can help alleviate persistent, irrational anxiety helps you. It may take time, and the old mindset may never fully disappear, but with dedication and effort, you can bring it under control and bring contentment and happiness back to your life.
Be well, my friends. Live in the now.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
SNS strives to include diverse voices within the spectrum of naturalistic spirituality. Authors will vary in their opinions, terms, and outlook. The views of no single author therefore necessarily reflect those of all Spiritual Naturalists or of SNS.
Antoninus, Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. Translated by Gregory Hays. New York: The Modern Library, 2002.