Stillness in the Storm

onward excerpts personal development stoicism Mar 27, 2020
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Life in the ancient world was full of adversity. If you lived to adulthood, you likely endured war, famine, plague, natural disaster, or some combination of these.

And yet…

In antiquity, there was a flowering of philosophical approaches to the art of living well and even flourishing while embracing uncertainty and navigating these difficulties.

One of the most enduring of those traditions is Stoicism. Within this tradition is pragmatic wisdom and a practical, straightforward approach to stave off anxiety, cultivate resilience, build identity, and find meaning in any challenge you face.

The Three Disciplines

Stoicism is a lived philosophical practice. Epictetus, an important Stoic teacher, established three core practices, or disciplines.:

  1. “The Discipline of Perception,” sometimes called the Discipline of Desire, has to do with how we see our situation and accept our fate.
  2. “The Discipline of Action,” has to do with our attitude toward a moment and encourages altruism.
  3. “The Discipline of Will,” sometimes called the Discipline of Assent, has to do with mindfulness and cultivation of character and virtue.

These disciplines provide an easy to understand template for executing the art of living well. For the Stoics, this included cultivating equanimity in any circumstance.

Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor who employed Stoic exercises to help him navigate the challenges of executing his duties, summed up the three disciplines in his journal this way:

“Objective judgment, now, at this very moment.|
Unselfish action, now, at this very moment.
Willing acceptance—now, at this very moment—of all external events.
That’s all you need.”

Practicing the Disciplines

Acknowledging things as they are through the discipline of desire or perception is the first step.

“What’s now?”

Stating what is going on without value judgment or strong emotive language helps de-catastrophize situations. This allows us to avoid clinging to unhealthy emotional reactions. We accept that ourselves and our situation are “perfect in every way.”

We can then set an aim that enhances the prospects for all concerned through the discipline of action. 

“What’s next?”

Stepping into a better possibility with intention and integrity helps stave off anxiety while leaning into uncertainty. Especially when that aim and action is taken with and for others. We “endeavor better” together.

We can find meaning in any moment and significance in any situation. 

“What’s it for?”

The discipline of will or assent helps us engage our agency over our thoughts and actions, develop excellence of character, and cultivate virtues like humility, patience, and resilience. You can begin to “live your legacy.”

Through the three disciplines, we not only thrive through challenges but also become better human beings. We promote flourishing for ourselves and others through adversity. We discover that life is not happening to us but through us.

Elsewhere in his journal, Marcus restates the three disciplines this way:

“Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option:

  • to accept this event with humility
  • to treat this person as they should be treated
  • to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in”

What situation are you in now? How can you employ the three disciplines to lean into adversity with clarity, compassion, and character?

Excerpt from Onward: Where Certainty Ends Possibility Begins


Scott Perry, Chief Difference-Maker at Creative on Purpose.

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