Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Philosophy That Can Change Your Life

What do you think of when you see the word “philosophy”? Whatever enters your mind, you probably don’t consider philosophy as guidelines for living the best possible life. Yet in ancient Greece, philosophy’s birthplace, this is what it was – practical teachings to help people make the most of their brief existence on this planet.

In my teens, I spent two tumultuous years trying to avoid being homeless on the streets. Sometimes I failed. Today, when I think that things aren’t going my way, I remind myself of those years, those struggles, and realize that what I think are problems really aren’t. Even when my life was at its worst - when I WAS sleeping in homeless shelters – I knew there were others who had it worse than I did. Some days I was grateful for a bunk bed in a shelter at night, other days for panhandling enough money to buy an instant soup to eat, or for the sun so I wouldn’t have to ride buses all day to stay out of the rain. Even when I didn’t have any of those things, I was still grateful – it could always be worse. When I didn’t have a bunk bed, I could sleep in a parking garage; if I didn’t have any money, I could get a meal at a drop-in center; if it rained, at least there were buses to keep me warm and dry.

These thoughts helped me cultivate gratitude, which has been the most important aspect of overcoming the many obstacles in my life. (As regular readers know, I went from being a homeless, high school drop-out to graduating from Yale University on a full scholarship.)

I never realized the experiences of my life had put me on the path of a particular philosophical school: Stoicism. It flourished in ancient Greece and Rome, but later developed a reputation for being dull, unemotional, and repressive. I came across a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations” during college – considered one of the most important Stoic texts – and felt an immediate kinship with its author even though he, a Roman Emperor, had been dead for nearly two thousand years.

These days, Stoicism is having a renaissance. There is an annual Stoic Week, a weeklong event devoted to introducing Stoicism to those interested. Ryan Holiday, a popular author, frequently mentions Stoic philosophy in his writings and references Stoic authors. The “minimalist” movement - people realizing that material stuff doesn’t make them happy – also has links to Stoic philosophy. As more people realize their unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life is a choice, it makes sense that they turn to those who have already struggled with these problems for guidance. Links to Stoicism can also be found in cognitive behavioral therapy, psychiatric treatment used for anger issues, anxiety, and depression among other ailments.

I’m not a Stoic missionary, nor am I a model Stoic. I just know that Stoic practices have helped me survive some of the most difficult times in my life, and these teachings continue to be practical in my everyday life. And I don’t think I’m dull, unemotional, or repressed. J

Interested in learning more about Stoicism? Here are some resources:
- Stoicism: 7 Life Lessons From the Ancient School of Success:

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