I've been reading and listening to lots of podcasts around resilience, determination, coping.... all kinds of things like that, over the past few months.
…Mainly because I am interested in learning as much as I can, at all times… and this subject supports a lot of my work… but also because I am still holding this mawkish fascination at the way in which life events have catapulted us all into a very different way of being, over the past year.
Unprecedented… some might say (how sharply has that word entered our vocabulary?!)
We are, hopefully, coming to the end of an extremely trying time. A time of loss, grief, disbelief, anger, frustration, confusion… in fact, ALL of the emotions – sometimes all at once.
We have encountered fear, information overload, dis-information overload, illness, restrictions to our freedom (and our loo roll) changes to the way we work, earn money, shop, educate our kids, socialise…and even the removal of our ability to hug family… albeit for the right, and most sensible, of reasons.
Who could have predicted the changes and challenges we have witnessed, experienced, and endured?
…And yet, if you are reading this, you have survived it.
Many of the clients I work with are telling me that they feel totally overwhelmed at times, by events of the past year… they feel 'knocked about' by things that have happened to them… so much so, that their ability to handle ‘ordinary’’ day to day stuff has been hugely impacted too… and I think this is a totally understandable and normal human reaction to a sustained period of unpleasantness and stress - We weren’t designed to exist this way for long periods of time, and it can feel justifiably hard to have this ever-present, background noise of threat in our lives.
And yet, we humans are clever, in terms of our adaptability – It’s one of the things that has helped us to survive as a species. And even during the past year (not long in the grand scheme of human existence) we have already begun to alter our behaviour and the way in which we see the world, to help us get through…
For example, if you have found yourself watching something on TV recently, perhaps where there was a crowd of people… or maybe someone hugging… and you notice that it jangled with you a bit… you have already started to modify your thinking and to recalibrate what is acceptable and ‘safe’ in a given environment! Amazing!
This adaptability and this resilience is wonderful!
And it led me to think about what, specifically, we have drawn upon… what resources we have used and are continuing to use, to dig deep, or be brave in finding a way to get through.
HOW we are able to do this 'modifying' - What is it that enables us to dig deep and find this inner-resilience?... How are we able to just keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep going?
Maybe you are able to identify something you have reflected on or a particular trick that works for you, when facing tough times… or when events challenge you.
One of the things that has come up repeatedly in my explorations is ‘Stoicism’ – an often misconstrued and mis-translated school of thought which has connotations of ‘Stiff upper lip’ and shutting things out… or of cold, remote, rigid emotionless thinking… Why would you want or need that in your life?
And yet, the reverse is true. The more I read, the more fascinated I became with this vibrant, action-oriented, and paradigm-shifting way of living, this ancient philosophy… which might just be something that we have felt drawn to in various different ways…
The Stoic philosophy is something that has certainly struck a chord with me, particularly from a mindfulness and compassion angle. We’ll come back to that in a bit… What if some elements of Stoicism are really helpful for us?
What if it is inherently within us and is actually one of the things that makes us bravely magnificent?
In its rightful place, Stoicism is a tool in the pursuit of self-mastery, perseverance, and wisdom: something one uses to live a great life, rather than some esoteric field of academic inquiry. Certainly, many of history’s great minds not only understood Stoicism for what it truly is, they actually sought it out: George Washington, Walt Whitman, Frederick the Great, Eugène Delacroix, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, Matthew Arnold, Ambrose Bierce, Theodore Roosevelt, William Alexander Percy, Ralph Waldo Emerson - Each of these people read, studied, quoted, or admired the Stoics.
Stoicism, a philosophy founded around 304 BC, by a merchant named Zeno who was shipwrecked on a trading voyage to Athens – (turned out well for him, as he was introduced to some truly awesome philosophers…who went on to help him transform his life - He would later move to what became known as the Stoa Poikile, literally meaning “painted porch” where he and his disciples gathered for discussion) provides a framework for dealing with the stresses of everyday life.
And it centres around 4 key virtues:
…I think it is fair to say that the past year has provided us with several unexpected opportunities to evaluate some of these things… whether or not we intended to… or welcomed it as an experience.
And the thing that resonated most strongly for me in all of my reading around Stoicism… and what I really want to share with you here, today… is something translated from Epictetus (one of the ‘big three’ Stoic philosophers) which is applied as a modern psychology principle today:
💡"It's not things that upset us... but our judgement about things."
(just take a moment to read that again...and let it sink in)
When I first encountered a version of this teaching, some years ago, I felt immediately uncomfortable… firstly because it sounded very odd… and secondly, I was aware of a creeping feeling that I had ‘failed’ by letting things upset me in the past.
...and having since done some considerable work on this, both for myself and with my clients, here's why I think this can be useful to us (grab a cuppa and settle in)
Epictetus, lived at the beginning of the second century AD, and was classed, as I said, as one of the 'Big Three' in Stoic philosophy... (The other two being Marcus Aurelius and Seneca)
... Unlike the other two, Epictetus was born into slavery and poverty... he knew a fair bit about suffering as a result. He didn't even have a proper given name! Epictetus is from the Greek Epictētos, meaning “acquired.”
He became a teacher later in life and was concerned with values, ethics and moral authority. His writings and his works centre around not only his reflections on life but also on common human experience, no matter who you are, your birth status, your life path, or your wealth.
In his work, 'Discourses' he wrote:
“What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.”
He makes an excellent point!
Our safety/survival part of the brain makes rapid judgements about the events or things we experience and perceive in life... it then ranks the ‘things’, based on how much it might impact or threaten our chances of survival.
This judgement can be useful at times... (not stepping out in front of traffic is a highly helpful thing) ...however, this primitive part of the brain is ancient... chimp-like... and often gets the level of judgement WRONG. Especially where the day-to-day events are concerned.
For instance, imagine that someone posts a snippy comment on your social media post... or the WiFi goes down... or the credit card bill arrives… or someone cuts you up in traffic… or that thing you wanted for dinner is sold out at the shops… and now it’s raining really hard... and it ruins your day... you stamp around for the next few hours, concentrating on how rubbish everything is...and how 'nothing ever goes right for me'... AND YET, it doesn't have to have this effect…
So, Epictetus was all about teaching people that the most important practice is differentiating between what we can change and what we can’t. What we have influence over and what we do not…and then seeking to practice focusing only on those things we CAN control.
For instance, if a flight is delayed because of weather— no amount of yelling at the airline representative will end a storm. No amount of wishing will make you taller or shorter or born in a different country. No matter how hard you try, you can’t make someone like you. And on top of that, time spent hurling yourself at these immovable objects is time not spent on the things we can change.
All we end up doing is using our precious energy to rail against this ‘stuff’…and any energy we had to create change gets burned up… frazzling ourselves in the process.
The most precious gift we have is choice – freedom to decide upon our responses to events… a freedom which is determined by your mind, not by the body, bank account or possessions.
This precious ability to choose our responses to events is, according to Epictetus, the thing that differentiates us from other animals.
Viktor Frankl, the Austrian Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, or perhaps Steven R Covey paraphrasing Frankl (...jury is out on that one) echoed these sentiments centuries later when he said:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
So, this all sounds very sensible and straightforward… How do we do it? How do we make it happen for us?
Well, Epictetus was also very keen on practical application of this philosophy rather than just theory, believing that Education is useless if you do not apply it to your daily life.
So, it was important to him that his students had a ‘lived experience’ of the teachings and that they developed practices, to enable them to live their lives in this aligned way.
I’ve done some work around a few of the key takeaways from Epictetus and incorporated some mindful compassion techniques, to bring you my…
✨ Hushtherapy TOP TIPS for coping with events in life ✨
1) Developing a daily ‘Breathing Reflection practice’ – This can take as little as 5 minutes a day…or as long as you feel able. Sitting comfortably, with feet on the floor. Allowing yourself to ‘drop down’ out of the mind and into the body…noticing the sensations of breathing… the gentle, constant flow of breath in and out…which needs no controlling or changing. We are so GOOD at allowing that breath to come in…and we’re brilliant at letting it go. This practice can help with things like: intention setting, clear focus on what’s happening in the present moment, noticing the needs of the body in order to feel more comfortable and better equipped to deal with things that happen.
2) Adopting an acceptance mindset – When we consider adopting a mindset…or even a semi-reluctant nod… towards acceptance, we immediately create a little place of comfort in our minds. Accepting what is already fact…or unchangeable, provides us with some respite from the resisting and fighting of the primitive safety brain.
It doesn’t mean you have to be passively resigned to everything, or that you need to tolerate anyone else’s sh*t… it just means that, in order to find some peace and clarity, it’s useful to choose to accept that things are the way they are, in this moment at least. We can bring in some words of kindness and gentle congratulation for our brave willingness to encounter things ‘as they are’. When we do this, we even out the balance between acceptance and motivation… empowering ourselves to use our energy for those things we can and want to change.
3) Journaling for reflection and preparation – Returning to this question of “what can be controlled and what can’t”, daily - in each and every trying situation. Journaling and reflecting on it consistently, as much as you need to. If you can focus on making clear what parts of your day are within your control and what parts are not, you will not only feel happier, you will also have a distinct advantage over other people who perhaps don’t realise they are fighting an unwinnable battle. You’ll be conserving your precious energy for focusing on effecting change where you can. Reflecting at the end of the day on things you have learnt about yourself, interesting snippets that have helped you cope and things you are pleased to have handled, are super-useful. The act of writing them down to re-read, helps to cement them in our minds.
4) Practicing self-compassion – perhaps the most important of these tips! Just think for a second about how we criticise and think so harshly about ourselves… we use words about ourselves that we would be mortified to use about other people… people we care about. So, we can use these little calm spaces that we’ve created with our breathing, acceptance, and journaling practices, to make a conscious decision to bring in some kindness, some gentleness and tenderness for US. We are emotional beings, having a human experience…and it can feel extremely tough at times. Even taking a few minutes to acknowledge that something feels challenging, when you notice it… perhaps saying to yourself, “I’m so sorry you’re having a hard time. This feels tough to deal with – I’m here to support you” …and asking, “What do I need to hear/see/connect with, right now…that could make this feel easier”.
I hope that you have enjoyed my very first blog! And that some of the thoughts are useful to reflect on. Thank you for reading.
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If you’d like to find a way to feel more in control of your responses to situations, I can help with that. In my work as a Clinical Hypnotherapist, Psychotherapist and Mindfulness Teacher, I help people live calmer, more confident lives, by helping them understand their brains, get clarity over their thought process, and swiftly identify solutions that work well for them.
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Discourses by Epictetus Books 1-4
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
The Obstacle is The Way – Ryan Holiday