Returning to Center

In my recent studies of philosophy, I came across Stoicism first by reading Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way, and then reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

A common theme in Stoic ideology is the cultivation of the ability to face any circumstance with a decidedly calm attitude. Stoics are wise, they are calculated, they are dangerous, but they are in control. That’s the key, is staying in control of yourself in any given situation so you can think clearly and do what needs to be done.

This idea of next-level self control is what drew me to the Stoics at first, and is one of the most transformative things I’ve recently learned. Now, let’s talk about how you can develop this self-control.

The first thing I want to recommend, is to read Meditations. The reason being that in the book, Marcus Aurelius spends a paragraph or two worth of words on topic after topic, explaining a new way to look at the world, or giving valuable insight, or dispelling with dogmatic ideas of how you “should” react in a given situation. With each situation he presents an approach with the goal of reducing your suffering, and getting to your goal more quickly, by cutting out unnecessary emotions.

If Meditations is a bit too dense (it’s very dense), then I would suggest starting with The Obstacle is the Way, as Ryan Holiday does a tremendous job of distilling the teachings of the Stoics into a form that is both easy to understand and culturally relevant.

Reading these books is going to be the fastest way to spend time letting this way of thinking seat itself into your mind, and give you example after example of how to apply it to your everyday life.

Another major component of this radical self control in my opinion is some sort of meditative practice. Meditation is one way to develop what I would call the observer in your mind. One way to think of this is to separate you from your thoughts.

When meditating, I practice a “just breathe” meditation that I learned from Tom Bilyeu. It goes like this: I focus on breathing in and out, slowly, as pleasurably as possible. Do you remember the last time you actually experienced pleasure from breathing? It was probably your last vape hit or a cigarette. But trust me when I say that just breathing fresh air deeply into your lungs and letting it out slowly can feel amazing. So you do that, and you focus on feeling it and enjoying it. Inevitably your thoughts will begin drifting to the happenings of the day, the problems you need to figure out, the guy that pissed you off at work, etc. The skill of meditation lies in noticing that your thoughts have drifted, and returning to the breath, returning to center.

Anxiety comes up, notice that, let it go, return to the breath. Excitement for the weekend comes up, notice it, let it go, return to the breath.

Let’s break this down a little further.

Anxiety comes up. - The reptile part of your brain kicks up an emotion about your circumstances to let you know that something is wrong and you need to run from it or fight it. Often times though, the emotions are of no use. You know what needs to be done, and there is a time and place for it that isn’t right here or right now.

Notice that… - This is cultivating the observer. There is a you that is separate from your emotions. That observer notices the emotion, and then you label it for what it is: anxiety, depression, anger, worry, excitement, etc.

Let it go. - This is perhaps the hardest part. Letting go of the emotions that arise for me started as a skill of distraction. I would distract myself from the emotions by returning to the breath and eventually the proverbial fire would die out and I could carry on breathing until the next thought pops in. Then, I ran an experiment on myself any time I felt a negative emotion like anger or anxiety in the workplace. As soon as I felt the emotion come up, I would notice it, label it, and then I would set a timer on my Apple Watch. I wanted to see just how long those emotions stuck around. For me, they would often last for only about 45 seconds. That meant these feelings that were so serious that my lizard brain just had to tell me things are wrong by making me feel like shit… were so unimportant that it didn’t even last an entire minute if I didn’t indulge in the thought. It’s this separation and understanding that led me to be able to let things go (when I actually want to) in a matter of ten seconds.

Return to the Breath - This has both a literal and a figurative meaning. Returning to the breath is about returning your focus to the task at hand, it’s about choosing what is important and letting the rest fall away, it is about literally using your breathing to stabilize you in the present moment, and your breath is a natural, physical reset button for yourself.

I hope you’ve learned something from my approach for developing radical self control, regardless of circumstance.

If you have feedback for me, thoughts to share, or questions to ask for future articles, email me.

Thanks for reading, Mason.