Tough people are often described as Stoic. It is told to those who can endure with no complaint, keep their heads under pressure, and maintain their character during hardship.
Stoicism is practical. There are disciplines you can start putting into practice right away, and feel your internal strength grow as a result. There is a reason that it has been used by a downed fighter pilot in Vietnam, Mixed Martial Arts fighters and entrepreneurs in the battleground of business, such as Tim Ferris.
In short, it works when you need to endure.
What Is Stoicism?
The Stoic line of thought originated in Athens during the third century BC. It is a way of thought that has lasted the test of time, perhaps because of its practicality. Stoicism is a way of perceiving the world, that focuses on self control, and letting go of concerns outside of your control.
“It is not things themselves that trouble people, but their opinions about things. “ Epictetus, Encheiridion.
Stoicism highlights you as the captain navigating treacherous seas. The captain of the ship must know the vessel inside out, and be aware of the storms up ahead. This gives the captain the best shot at dealing with what may come.
3 Stoic Practices
1. Negative Visualization
A common theme in Sports Psychology is to be optimistic. And this has its merits. But what if there could be some benefit touching on what could go wrong…
Anxiety before a race for example, is there because there is plenty of reason to be anxious. Running an Ultra is no light task. Denying that with false optimism, is not managing the problem head on. An exam is manageable when we have touched on every aspect of every topic, just as a race is runnable, when we have prepared for everything in training, and on race day.
Try writing down or visualising what sections of the race will be difficult? What injuries you are having to fight through? What the physical sensations may feel like during the uphill section? Go into detail! Studies have shown that a bit of pessimism, may actually be better for your performance and preparation.
There are athletes who have used this technique in the sport of Mixed Martial Arts. One of the most demanding sports – both mentally and physically. Brian Ortega, and the Diaz brothers are examples. Watch this video by the channel Mindsmash to see the positive effects of negative visualisation in their particular sport.
The Stoics were doing exactly this: Using negative possibilities to fuel preparation.
“Whenever you are about to start on some activity, remind yourself what the activity is like. If you go out to bathe, picture what happens at a bathhouse- the people there who splash you or jostle you or talk rudely or steal your things. In this way you will be more prepared to start on the activity.” Epictetus, Encheiridion.
- If you are a visual thinker, get relaxed, and then begin running through your race. Focus on the difficult sections, or if you pick up an injury halfway through. Reduce the power these events may have over you.
- You can do something similar if you aren’t visual. Grab a journal, and simply list out all the things that could go sideways. Lay out the reality in words.
2. Voluntary Discomfort: Cold Showers, Fasting or Anything That Sucks
Facing difficulty voluntarily, is better than being unprepared when it shows up unexpectedly. The modern world has many comforts, which is great, until things get uncomfortable. Turn your shower to cold every now and then, try fasting, try a run really early, instead of after work.
Why should I do this… Is this not just for people who think they are macho… Well maybe not. Seneca, one of the prominent Stoic writers, had something to say on this subject:
“Here’s a lesson to test your mind’s mettle: Take part of a week in which you have only the most meager and cheap food, dress scantly in shabby clothes, and ask yourself if this is really the worst that you feared?” Seneca, Moral Letters
Just as Seneca is suggesting here: doing uncomfortable things, reduces their power over you. A convenient way to test tolerance of discomfort, is cold showers. They rarely feel welcoming, you just get more used to the cold shock!
- Cold showers! Start small then go for longer durations.
- Get your workout in early, instead of in the evening.
- DO whatever makes you uncomfortable!
3. Dealing With Injuries Psychologically
“Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will.” Epictetus
The Stoics are great at putting things into categories for us. The category of what is in our control, and the category of all that is not. Luckily for us, they’ve made it simple and told us that our body is not a part of what we control… Wake up call!
“Not up to us are our body and property, our reputations, and our official positions – in short everything that is not our own doing.” Epictetus, encheiridion.
Yes we can strengthen it, but when things go wrong, we have no magical power in the healing process. In the final analysis, what we have is the power to maintain our character. Here is a personal example of an experience where I used this line of thought.
Injuries after Ultra’s, is a present delivered to most. and I was rewarded with a stubborn knee issue. Yet taking a rest wasn’t an option. I could’ve had fitness tests for the military coming up. I had to maintain my character over my comfort. So, just as the Stoics advised, I had to separate the sharp, slicing pain in my knee, from my worries. I had to disregard it as an inconvenience, despite returning from runs regularly needing an ice pack. I actually found myself more motivated to push hard on a run because of my knee. (A little strange I know – yet this ties back in with pessimistic circumstances being motivating.)
The injury, to my surprise, didn’t get worse. Eventually I healed, and I felt I had gained more than I had lost through this experience.
The question we are left with during suffering is: what is more important? Fighting through fire to maintain strength, or resting, licking our wounds, yet wishing to do more. The answer will vary, depending on the individual and of course how severe the injury is! But at least we now know what the Stoics recommend. (This Stoic tip will likely appeal to the more hardcore-runner types.)
I will end with a quote from James Stockdale, who tested Stoicism in the harshest environment: A prison camp in Vietnam.
“The thing that brings down a man is not pain but shame!” James Bond Stockdale, Courage under Fire.
- The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday
- How to be free, An ancient guide to Stoic life – A. A. Long
- Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behaviour – James Bond Stockdale
- Mindsmash Youtube Channel
- The Surprising Benefits of Being a Pessimist – The Conversation
Written By Alex Taylor© 2019