“Those whose bodies are in good condition can endure both heat and cold; and so, likewise, those whose souls are in fine condition can endure anger, and grief, and every other emotion.” – Epictetus (Fragments, 20, Robin Hard translation)
My husband took part in an event that put runners through extreme challenges and obstacles—including climbing walls, rolling barriers floating in pools, and electrified wires dangling down through your path. You work with others to overcome everything the course throws at you to reach the finish line. And in this case, you run through lots of mud along the way.
Though I didn’t participate, I applauded him. Both my husband and I have tried to get into better shape physically in the past few years. He’s taken on a regular training routine at a gym. Though my athletic activity is less regular, I’ve worked at staying active. Training matters, as any gym-goer could tell you.
You’ll find tons of websites, books, and magazines devoted to physical training, and numerous regimens for how to stay physically fit are being hawked to the American public. Seems that every celebrity has her or his own workout. I recently watched Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg do her gym exercises with comedian Stephen Colbert, and I heard Tom Brady interviewed on NPR about his book on how to train and eat to be fit.
What we don’t hear about in our popular culture is how to train your soul.
Certainly, religious institutions have much to say about it from their own particular points of view. There is great value there, but it often hinges on accepting a certain faith and a set of beliefs. That's not what everyone choses to do.
For the large group of secular Americans, there’s a big gap in what we’re reading and hearing about on a daily basis and our souls’ well-being.
In fact, much of our news and culture seems to drain rather than restore our inner resources. And even our friends are often no help, if we relate to them on social media. I’m really tired of being directed to Facebook updates that seem targeted to generate jealousy, competition, and a feeling of being left out. How to strengthen our souls? How to prepare them for life’s ups and downs?
We will all have challenges, up to and including our own demise. To quote Michael Crichton, “no one escapes from life alive.”
I have tried a bunch of approaches, from Western to Eastern spirituality, from organized religion to mindfulness classes, from psychology study to counseling.
Right now, I think the answer is Epictetus. His words can help us train for the real run, the run for our lives and our moral character. It’s not a run we can “win,” exactly. And it lasts our whole lives.
In his Discourses 4.6, the Stoic thinker delves into politics versus philosophy. He is having a discussion with a student who complains that he is not respected—even pitied—by powerful men in political office. Why can’t he play an important role in politics, too? Epictetus points out all the effort that the politician has gone to in order to achieve his “success” in government. He callsmout the attention the politician has given to flattering, pleasing, and lying to get ahead with others.
Those who care about their souls have a different approach, he says. The follower of philosophy should ask herself upon waking up,
"What have I still to do to achieve freedom from passion? To achieve peace of mind? Who am I? Surely not a mere body? Or possessions, or reputation? None of these things. But what? I’m a rational living being."
From there, her daily training begins. She questions herself further, “’Where have I gone wrong’ with regard to achieving happiness? ‘What did I do’ that was unfriendly, or unsociable, or inconsiderate? ‘What have I not done that I should do’…?”(Discourses 4.6.34 – 35, Robin Hard translation)
The very act of asking these questions of ourselves is a way to keep ourselves nimble in our ethical lives. Self-reflection creates the right circumstances for improving how we treat other people and ourselves.
Stoic exercises can also help us cope with the many sad things we’ll be confronted with in our daily lives. In my study of Buddhism, I’ve encountered the idea that life is suffering. There is truth there.
As Stoics, we can strengthen ourselves by training our inner rational being to prepare for the tough times.
We can train by imagining being strong facing difficulty. We can picture looking down, as if from above, on our lives. We can try to keep a broad perspective on each little moment, knowing it is one of many moments lived by many individuals across many lands.
And every day, we can question our own thoughts, knowing that these “impressions” so often lead us down the wrong path. That is true all around us, both for our unavoidable difficulties and for our personal challenges. If everyone just relied on their first impressions of the Spartan-style run’s course, the place would be a ghost town. Instead, people ask themselves, “How could I train to do this? What skills would I need? Why shouldn’t I crawl through mud to get that cool T-shirt (and to know I have achieved finishing this thing)?”
I personally would still avoid the mud. But I won’t shirk from working on my inner “genius”—as the ancients called it.
And ultimately, I will keep on striving to do my best to represent courage and wisdom, and to privilege that rational part of myself. I know I won’t always succeed and will stumble. But that’s not the point. I’ll still keep running.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.