A core message from Stoicism is that perceptions are not real – they are wholly manufactured by our minds.
“Everything you can imagine is real” –  Pablo Picasso
Reality is the interpretation of the events that happens around us.  We are processing external events via an intracate filter of culture, prior experiences (recognition) and knowledge and tag the outcome as “reality”.
That means that even if we are not fully in control of the envirronnement around us, we are the architects of the mind schemes that construct our perceptions (our reality) and our attitude (our reactions) in any given set of circumstances. We are ultimately responsible for our happiness (as well as our unhappiness).
‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’ – Man’s Search for Meaning
Controlling our emotions and reactions is one of the most important tools that can help us mold our reality. We are ultimately deciding how an external event can affect us –  the source of all of our feelings is from within – be it positive or negative, the source is not from outside of us. It is not a given action that upset us, but our understanding of it.

Stoicism encourage us to aim at constancy of emotion regardless of external circumstances, a person practicing Stoicism should reduce emotional volatility by understanding what is within his control or what is not (see Trichothomy of control), if something is outside of his control, any emotional reaction is unnecessary. In fact, being at mercy of emotions solves nothing, it actually provides us with far fewer options than cold rationality and focus do in grave situations.

How to practise this idea?

1) Be the Actor, Spectator and Director of your own movie

  • As director we should write the script of our philosophy of life but without the presumption that it will play out exactly as we planned out, we should have a clear idea of the direction (our North Star – see my previous blog post) but no ambition on the path to get there.
  • As actors we play ourself, we live the moment, keeping an eye on our North Star, we cruise towards it by acting on what we can control and execute our vision.
  • Other times however we just need to be spectators, when things are outside of our control, we should minimize the impact they have on us, sit quietly and observe them as they unfold in front of us, in their cosmic (in)significance, using focus and cold rationality to understand when we should be actors again.

The Pale Blue Dot

When I am forced in the spectator role I often try to put things in perspective to avoid falling in the emotional trap of events.  I advise you to use an “anchor” to help you.  Mine is an old photograph of taken by Voyager 1 on February 14th 1990,  4 billion of miles away, which portray our planet as a pale blue dot, in the vastness of the universe.   I can ensure you that every incident you might encounter in your life, if taken in their cosmic context, will appear trivial.

“Our posturing, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.  “- Carl Sagan
2) Perspective
An other trick, especially usefull when we are upset by the shortcomings of the people around us, which clearly we cannot control, is to reflect on our own shortcomings, it is easier to empathise with it, might lead us to improve and will reduce our frustration of dealing with them.

3) Seneca’s advice
Finally, you could follow Seneca’s advice to avoid anger, and use your imagination to picture an absurd play –

“Things aren’t supposed to make sense, people aren’t supposed to be competent, and justice, when it happens at all, happens by accident.” – Seneca

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