Cultivate Joy: The Stoic Way

"A man is happy when no circumstance can reduce him." - Seneca

Joy as Serene Attention

The topic of joy is always a worthwhile reflection. Recently, I heard an interview with Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-rast, known for his Ted talk entitled: Want To Be Happy? Be Grateful. He defined joy as "the happiness that does not depend on what happens." Those familiar with the Stoics, an ancient school of Greco-Roman philosophy, will recognize this sentiment as explained by its greatest exponents including Zeno, Chrysippus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.

Most people define happiness as the good feeling that arises when good things happen. Even when good things do happen, they never quite seem to fulfill their promise of happiness. By waiting around for good things to happen, or by leaning into an imagined future happiness, we miss almost everything that is occurring in our lives in the present moment. To not be present is to miss meaningful connection with others. On the contrary, to practice a serene attention is to see beauty and goodness all around us in both nature and in humanity.

To practice joy is to understand the nature of time. The ancient Greeks had two words for time: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is chronological or sequential time. Kairos, on the other hand, signifies the capacity to see through time's chronology and into its heart-essence. Hidden within the chronology of time is the opportunity for meaningful experience which seems to manifest in concepts such as connection, understanding, gratitude and awareness. In Greek Mythology, Kairos was a bald man with a simple long forelock, who would run swiftly everywhere. He could only be seen or even seized by practicing a "serene attention" to all that arises. Ben Franklin was fond of saying, "grab time by the forelock."

In ancient times, the ability to perceive what is going on around us was known as "gnosis" or "knowing". Knowing is an openness to everything that occurs and the realization that all that occurs does so because nature has designed it that way. This is the Stoic concept of Necessity. One of the key ideas of Necessity is that anything can happen at any time. Marcus Aurelius said, "The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception."

The "gnosis" or knowledge of the impermanent nature of things is essential for the development of joy. But how does one attain joy and what must we do every day to have more joyous lives? One of the key doctrines of Stoicism is the idea that you must never look for your happiness in aspects of your life which are not within your power to control. Events are of two kinds: some which are in your power to control and others which are not. 

What You Can Control

There is really only one thing that is in your control. This is what the Stoic teacher Epictetus described as "the power to make correct use of external impressions." Simply stated, it is the ability to perceive everything that happens exactly as it is, without viewing it through the lens of expectation, regret, anxiety, desire or benefit.  For Epictetus, joy is the cultivation of a kind of equanimity in the face of all that happens in your life. We cannot control events but we can control our response to events. We can practice a serene attention to all that arises in our consciousness.

How do we cultivate equanimity? By observing Nature. Nature is the great teacher of equanimity. Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations, asked, "what can befall an ox that it is not proper to an ox?" One should not be surprised to realize that life is beset with what appears to be surprises, misfortunes, and tragedies. Yet, everything that happens to an ox, or to a human being, is meant to be that way because it is according to its nature. The realization that anything can happen at any time, does not bind one to the despair of future events. It frees us from an unnatural and irrational view of the world. The false view, that happiness depends on things going perfectly well, is the cause of so much of our suffering. 

Like Buddhism, Stoicism teaches that 100% of your happiness is the result of your mind. Marcus Aurelius wrote, "Your ability to control your thoughts - treat it with respect. It's all that protects your mind from false perceptions - false to your nature, and that of all rational beings. It's what makes thoughtfulness possible, and affection for other people, and submission to the divine."

What You Cannot Control

Nature teaches us that inner peace and tranquility are within the reach of every human being. Stoic investigation into the mind can more readily be accomplished in nature than in a library.  Everything in nature, whether a tree or an animal, practices a ceaseless adaptation to its environment. In the same way, when events occur in our life that are out of our control, we should simply accommodate our lives to the events. When it is cold outside, we should wear a coat. To set sail on a boat, we must consider the direction of the winds. In this way, it is possible to turn an obstacle into fuel for action. You cannot control the weather, your height, the score of the game on television, the journey of a meteor in space, or the thoughts of others about you. Therefore, to worry about these things is futile.

To Live with Joy

Living with joy is largely a matter of not being deceived by our own mind. A window can be a vehicle to see the world and its wonders. But when we are only thinking about ourselves, a window becomes just a faint mirror. A life spent obsessing about events which are beyond our control is a life of deception. At the same time, a life spent developing moral values such as compassion, generosity, awareness, and courage is a life filled with joy.

Another form of joy is found in the Stoic concepts of unity. All beings are connected by a shared mind and a "share of the divine." When people act with dishonesty, jealousy or arrogance, it is due to their ignorance of our inherent connection to each other. Joy is to see all beings as a fellow creature of the same divine substance, "similarly endowed with reason" as Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations. Joy is to recognize all beings as companions on the path of wisdom. 

- David Hirschorn