How Stoicism Helped Me Deal with Suffering
And hopefully, help you as well.
As I’m furiously typing away, it hits, a blinding wave of pain. Slamming shut the lid of my laptop, I rise from my chair and drop onto my bed. I can’t think of anything else. The pain is too intense. There’s grenade after grenade exploding inside my head and bead after bead of sweat dripping off my forehead.
I clutch and squeeze my head, roll around, bury my face inside the pillow, hang my head off the bed. After what seems like hours of squirming, suffering, and cursing which, in reality, must have been a few minutes, the pain finally goes away.
When I developed a severe migraine, this was how every episode went, well, until I discovered Stoicism.
What Suffering Really Is
As the bolt of pain strikes, I sit back in my chair, close my eyes and take a deep breath. But this time, I don’t struggle, squirm, or cuss. The grenades are exploding, the pain is intense but I don’t suffer because I choose not to.
Stoicism taught me that suffering was a choice. As Marcus Aurelius said, “Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.” Earlier, I was a soldier caught in the explosions, but now I was a bystander at a safe distance.
“The stoic way is not endurance but rather acceptance and indifference.”
No, I wasn’t enduring it. This is one of the most misunderstood things about Stoicism, so much so that the word Stoic is defined as — someone who can endure pain without the show of feelings. But the stoic way is not endurance but rather an acceptance and indifference.
There was nothing I could do to alleviate my pain so I accepted it and chose to ignore it. The first time I came across this idea, I was astounded at how simple yet powerful this was.
How to Detach Yourself from Suffering
In my first relationship, I mentally abused, manipulated, and cheated on my girlfriend before abruptly breaking off and leaving her in a mental mess. I didn’t realize the wrong I had committed until later on in life.
And when I did, for years, the regret of it ate away at my innards. Every now and then, I would profusely apologize and beg for forgiveness.
With time, she did but I still wasn’t able to forgive myself. I felt unworthy of being in a relationship. But then I unexpectedly happened to fall in love. Things felt great again until we broke up and I descended into depression. I couldn’t help but reminisce about her and our time together every waking second.
Understand the Dichotomy of Control
Looking back, in both cases, I had failed to acknowledge one simple fact — the past could not be changed.
It was the lack of acceptance that made me suffer. It is the lack of acceptance that makes us all suffer. In life, more than 99% of the things are outside our control and the only thing we can do with such things is accepting them. This is exactly what the Stoic dichotomy of control says. To quote Epictetus in Discourses,
The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own …
Find Meaning in Your Suffering
During the Holocaust, Austrian Psychologist and Stoic, Viktor Frankl was locked up in a concentration camp, starved, tortured, and overworked.
“The prisoners with the strongest will powers were the first ones to break.”
Through his will to reunite with his loved ones, the chance to cultivate a rich inner life, and helping other prisoners find their own purpose, Frankl found meaning in his suffering, and this allowed him to persevere.
Endurance through the power of will won’t work. In fact, Frankl says that the prisoners with the strongest willpower were the first ones to break. Willpower is a limited resource while the drive you get from meaning and purpose is unlimited. As Nietzsche says, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any ‘how’.”
Moreover, the will to meaning is widely believed to be the primary driving force in us human beings.
Find meaning in your suffering. In my case, my migraine was a reminder to reduce my screen time, insomnia taught me the importance of sleep and the regret of my first relationship will serve as a life-long reminder to never repeat those mistakes.
Reaching the Third Stage of Wisdom
According to Buddhism, there are 3 levels of wisdom — Received, Intellectual and Experiential wisdom. Received is when you blindly believe in someone’s teachings. Intellectual is when you mull them over and incorporate them into your belief system. Experiential is when they get programmed into your unconscious mind.
I am at the intellectual stage and despite being able to completely grasp the meaning and depth of the statement, “Suffering is a choice”, I still need to constantly reaffirm it in my mind, especially in undesirable situations.
Reaching an Experiential level of wisdom is what’s called Enlightenment and it takes a tremendous amount of effort, dedication, and time. The burning monk Thich Quang Duc is a prime example. To protest the South Vietnamese Diem regime’s discriminatory Buddhist laws, he lit himself aflame and didn’t even flinch once as he burned to death.
In life, undesirable circumstances are inevitable but whether or not we undergo suffering is completely up to us because, as Viktor Frankl said,
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
The first step to overcoming suffering is acknowledging this fact. Through acceptance, more than 90% of the battle is won. The rest, through finding meaning in suffering.
And finally, we might never be able to reach the level of the burning monk but through deliberate practice, effort, and time, we might aspire to get close.