by David Fideler
Once we have driven away all things that disturb or frighten us, there follows unbroken tranquility and unending freedom. . . . a joy that is unshaken and unchanging, followed by peace and harmony of the soul, and true greatness, coupled with gentleness, since ferocity is always born from weakness.
— Seneca, On the Happy Life 3.4
While some people seek happiness in short-term, fleeting pleasures, the Stoics maintained that true happiness, or human flourishing, originates from the practice of virtue.
One of the key aspects of Stoic virtue is the ability to wisely judge the events of life, and the mental impressions they give rise to, so they don’t turn into anxiety or other negative emotional states.
The ultimate goal of Stoicism is simply to live a life in harmony with virtue, which constitutes a real, lasting good, but which also has an added side effect: the experience of inner tranquility and lasting joy.
In his short letter about “The Good That Abides” (Letter 27), Seneca likens a virtuous soul to the sun, and writes that “Virtue alone affords everlasting and peace-giving joy; even if some obstacle should arise, it is like an intervening cloud, which floats beneath the sun but never prevails against it.”
While lasting joy and tranquility may not be the end goal of classical Stoic practice, it’s certainly a welcome benefit. And the desire for mental tranquility is certainly a goal for many modern people who study Stoicism.
Most Anxiety Is Directed Toward the Future
In his writings, Seneca praises the power of foresight or the ability to think about and plan for the future. He even likens it to “a divine gift.” But when our ability to imagine the future is misused, it results in worry or anxiety.
As he writes, “There is nothing worse than worry about the future,” which “sets our minds aflutter with unaccountable fear.”
One of the most powerful ways to reduce worry is simply to remember how anxiety arises at the moment when the imagination is creating a fear of future events. Once we understand this and become aware of what’s really happening, we can make a conscious choice to live fully in the present, which is the only place we can discover true spiritual wealth, because the future doesn’t even exist.
In addition, since anxiety, fear, and psychological suffering arise from bad judgments, bad opinions, or a misuse of the imagination, Seneca, like all Stoic philosophers, asks us to analyze our patterns of thinking in order to understand the source of the suffering. For if anxiety arises from bad beliefs, by rationally analyzing those beliefs and dismantling them, we can also cure the anxiety.
In other words, if something starts to bother us, we should systematically question the underlying beliefs to see if they are valid. This inner practice, of being constantly aware of our judgements that result in emotional states, was called mindfulness or attention (prosochē) by the Greek-speaking Stoics.
While it takes awareness and practice, when a feeling of worry about the future first arises, we can question it, analyze it, and consciously decide to return to living fully in the present moment. But living in the present moment is not just some kind of psychological solution for Seneca — it’s one of the key things needed to lead a complete human life.
Finding Yourself in the Present Moment
Would you like to know what makes men greedy for the future? It’s because no one has yet found himself. — Seneca
When you live in the present moment, you have finally found yourself, and you are living from the center of who you really are, your most essential self.
The ideal of living from your own center, and being present at this very moment, without desiring future states or external things, is one of the keys to achieving Stoic happiness or joy. When we are fully present and living from our inner selves, we experience a sense of radiance, joy, and completeness. The soul, in a sense, starts to shine like the sun; and as long as we can maintain this sense of presence and self-sufficiency, the sun will keep shining. This doesn’t mean there won’t be external disturbances, but those disturbances will be like clouds floating across the serene, radiant face of the sun. Those clouds float by, but do nothing to alter or disturb the sun.
As noted, I’ve taken this image of the sun and the clouds from one of Seneca’s letters, and it’s easy to think that this image could be part of an ancient Stoic meditation practice for being totally aware of the present moment, being rooted in yourself, and being undisturbed by external events. (Similarly, the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius often described the undisturbed soul as resembling a perfect sphere.)
This symbolic image, which I find to be powerful, gives me a personal way to evaluate my mental or psychological state at any time. Do I possess the inner serenity of the sun, shining in the present moment, in which external disturbances are just like harmless clouds floating by my path? Am I experiencing the joyful state of being present and undistracted, with the right mental focus, and not worrying about some imaginary future event, which might not even occur?
If my inner state is not focused, luminous, and joyful, by remembering and identifying with Seneca’s image of the sun, it’s easy to return to the radiance of the present moment.
Ultimately, this kind of “unbroken and continuous joy,” which Seneca speaks of and symbolizes by the sun, is a by-product of Stoic practice, and being fully present is one way to catch a very strong glimpse of it. But the way to make it into a continuous state — or as continuous as possible, since no one is perfect — is through the development of virtue, one’s inner character, and the practice of Stoic mindfulness (prosochē). This allows the Stoic to experience tranquility of mind, despite whatever troubles life throws our way.