Overcoming your obstacles with your mind using the Stoic philosophy

Jun 22 / 2014 Comments
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For the last couple of weeks I've been diving into the Stoic philosophy and learning how it can be applied to help me get to my goals. It is a great philosophy and I wish I had encountered it before. But first let me clear up misconceptions about what philosophy is.

What is Philosophy?

Most people today, when they hear the word "philosophy" get disinterested and think that it is the last thing they want to get involved in; they think of it as a waste of time. Philosophy is really a discipline that aims to find practical solutions for real world problems that everyone faces.

As Ryan Holiday said:

"Philosophy is not just about talking or lecturing, or even reading long, dense books. In fact, it is something men and women of action use — and have used throughout history — to solve their problems and achieve their greatest triumphs. Not in the classroom, but on the battlefield, in the Forum, and at court."

Understanding Internal And External Events

Two books I have read have helped me realize how easy and great it is to turn your obstacles into advantages: "The Obstacle Is The Way" by Ryan Holiday, and "Meditations" By Marcus Aurelius.

In "Meditations" Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of rome (the most powerful man alive back then), is sitting at his table and writing his own thoughts to himself at night, after a day of battle.

In one of his chapters he expresses an idea that is very profound and true:

"You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength." - Marcus Aurelius

What Marcus is conveying here is that there are two types of events: external events and internal events. External events are things that happen that are outside of our control; Internal events are things that happen that are within our control, which mostly is whatever goes on inside our mind.

So what goes on in our mind, we control 100% of it, and what happens in the world most of the time we don't really control.

Facts (Objective) And Perception (Subjective)

When I say "Damn my luck, it is raining outside" the phrase has two parts. One is the fact that it is raining, no one can deny that. The other is that this thing that just happened, this fact, the rain, is bad; I perceive it as being bad. The fact part is external to us, but the perception part is internal to us and we have total control over that part.

To demonstrate the effect of this idea, Marcus goes on to say:

"Choose not to be harmed and you won't feel harmed. Don't feel harmed and you haven't been!" - Marcus Aurelius

And "If you are troubled by external circumstances, it is not the circumstances that trouble you, but your own perception of them - and they are in your power to change at any time." - Marcus Aurelius

So you should be at peace with the events that happen to you, accept that they happened and decide what you're going to do about it in your mind. Are you going to cry about it or take action? Always distinguish the events that happen from your perception of them. Once you are able to see the two distinct parts, you are ready to turn your problems or obstacles upside down.

Turning your obstacles upside down

You have a goal. You choose a path to get to that goal, but something stands in your way on that path and blocks it. What are you going to do about it? This thing is an obstacle, an issue, a problem that you have to deal with.

Well no benefit in getting emotional about it, the fact that it's standing in your way is an external event, you can't do anything about that, it already happened. How will you perceive this obstacle? Will you let it stop you from reaching your goal or destination, or are you going to turn it upside down?

First of all, as you live your life, you will notice that obstacles will keep popping up as the Haitian proverb says "Behind the Mountains are More Mountains". By definition, life is but a cycle of evolving obstacles that you must solve one after the other, and the fact that these obstacles keep evolving makes life interesting:

  • Graduated from High School? Now it's time for college.
  • Just got a job? Now you have to find a better one.
  • Finished your research? Now you have to find something more advanced to research.
  • Had your first baby? Now you have to raise it well.

As you can see, the succession of new obstacles will never stop as long as you're alive so it is very important to learn how to turn your obstacles to your advantage.

Using the power of your perception you can choose to see the good in a situation:

  • The letter you've been impatiently waiting for didn't arrive yet? It's the perfect opportunity to practice patience.
  • Your best friend betrayed you? It's the perfect opportunity to practice forgiveness.
  • Your latest project failed? Now you have more experience and less chance to fail on your next try.

Take a deep breath, stare your obstacle down and decide what you're doing to do about it; without wasting your emotions on what you cannot control. Focus on what you do control, YOUR MIND.

So now what?

Now that you know that you will always have new obstacles coming your way, trying to block your path on whatever you want to do, you know what you must do:

  • Expect those obstacles
  • Separate what the obstacle really is from what you're perceiving or judging it to be
  • Change your thoughts about the obstacle by changing your perspective
  • Decide what you're going to do about it and ACT
  • And finally, embrace and welcome all the obstacles that life will continually throw at you

Based on how you react to those obstacles, those obstacles will lay out a new path for you to get to your goals. It might not be the shortest path but you will get there, and even if you do not get there, so what? There is always something good you can get out of it.

As for me, I hope to have a life filled with ever changing and evolving problems and obstacles, so that those obstacles may guide my way.

I will leave you with an inspiring quote from Marcus Aurelius that summarizes this post:

In a sense, people are our proper occupation. Our job is to do them good and put up with them.

But when they obstruct our proper tasks, they become irrelevant to us — like sun, wind, animals. Our actions may be impeded by them, but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting.

The impediment to action advances action.
What stands in the way becomes the way.

Marcus Aurelius

I also recommend that you watch the trailer of the book The Obstacle Is The Way which I hope you will like:

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