Seneca The Younger was a philosopher who held an important position in the Roman Empire and is one of the major contributors to the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. Seneca once exchanged letters with his friend Serenus, on how to free the mind from anxiety and worry in a Stoic way. This dialogue is now called De Tranquillitate Animi which is Latin for On The Tranquility Of The Mind.
Seneca’s words are not only geared towards caring less; they also point out what we should care about in order to achieve tranquility. This video presents you Seneca’s suggestions for calming the mind, so Serenus can become a bit more serene.
One day, Serenus wrote a letter to his friend Seneca, explaining the mental disturbances he suffers from during his day-to-day activities. He asks Seneca to relieve him from his trouble and, thus, Seneca wrote back a letter containing his advice. From this advice, I’ve drawn 7 suggestions for achieving tranquility. Here we go.
1) Don’t rely on hope
Seneca observed that many people are preoccupied with the future and, therefore, their minds are hardly in the present moment. They are filled with desires and directed to fulfilling these desires. They create an image of how the future should work out for them, but when it doesn’t, they’re wretched. Such people are not only structurally dissatisfied and plagued by boredom; they also rely entirely on hope. I quote Seneca:
They strive to attain their prayers by every means, they teach and force themselves to do dishonorable and difficult things, and, when their effort is without reward, they are tortured by the fruitless disgrace and grieve, not because they wished for what was wrong, but because they wished in vain.Seneca, De Tranquilitate Animi, 2
I’d say that Amor Fati – the practice of embracing fate – is a great antidote for those who rely on hope. Pursuing goals – no matter if they’re long term or short term goals – while embracing whatever the results may be, helps to focus on the present moment instead of worrying about the outcome and being disappointed when the future doesn’t bring what we hoped for.
2) Be of service
Surprisingly for some perhaps, Stoicism doesn’t encourage people to close themselves off from society. Instead, we should participate in humankind in a way that fits us and benefits others. By putting ourselves to practice and helping our fellow human beings we kill two birds with one stone. Firstly, we put our minds at work by being busy with a certain task, and secondly, we are being useful to others which generates a sense of social connection… which just feels great.
Although I must admit that current society is way different than society back then, I think that ‘being of service’ all boils down to taking a good look at ourselves, making an inventory of our skills, and see how we use them to benefit others. Me, for example, I’d be a lousy construction worker and I’m bad at understanding technical stuff. On the other hand, I have a keen interest in philosophy and I know how to create a video. That I’m able to use these skills to benefit other people gives my life meaning. Deriving meaning from your service – no matter what you do – is a road to fulfilment.
How does this lead to a calm mind? Well, because we are focussed on our task, we are less likely to be distracted by things that don’t matter to us. For example, I notice that when I’m fully immersed in creating these videos, there’s no room to worry about what’s on the news or what the negative people in my life said in the past. Why should I? I’m doing something with the purpose of entertaining and benefiting others; striving for excellence in work is only possible when living in the present moment.
3) Choose your friends wisely
Nothing, however, gives the mind so much pleasure as fond and faithful friendship. What a blessing it is to have those to whose waiting hearts every secret may be committed with safety, whose knowledge of you you fear less than your knowledge of yourself, whose conversation soothes your anxiety, whose opinion assists your decision, whose cheerfulness scatters your sorrow, the very sight of whom gives you joy!Seneca, De Tranquilitate Animi, 7
Friends can be a great addition to your life, but we should be wise about selecting the right friends to keep us company. Some friendships simply revolve around negativity or are downright toxic. And, as we know, moods are contagious. A friend may be loyal and friendly, but when this friend is always upset and takes great pleasure in complaining about everything and – basically – do harm by their contact, it’s better to avoid that person according to Seneca.
Instead, we might want to choose people that are, as far as possible, free from selfish desires and vices. In other words: people that uplift you rather than burden you with their misery. So, how does this calm the mind? Well, a good and positive friend will not burden you with negativity and actually assist you in achieving happiness. By avoiding negative friends, their toxic behavior will not affect your inner peace.
3) Don’t engage in useless affairs
Seneca writes about how some people live their lives aimlessly, and spend their time going from place to place like ants crawl through bushes from twig to twig. I think we can see this happening a lot in today’s day and age with more distractions than ever before. We go from our smartphone to our laptop, from Facebook to Instagram, and when we’re half a YouTube video we’re already bored and looking for another one. The key is to focus on a certain task and let all our effort be directed towards that task, and only deviate from it when something important gets in our way.
When I’m working, for example, I usually put my phone in flight mode and turn off social media. Also, I make a list of goals I want to accomplish the next day, the night before. This way, my tasks are clear and there’s no need to think about anything other than those tasks, which tremendously reduces worry and, thus, calms the mind. At the end of the day, it all boils down to attention. The ability to pay attention makes the difference between mediocrity and excellence.
5) Don’t depend on the opinions of others
When we act like we are expected to act all the time we’re not living in accordance with our own inherent nature. Many people, however, are constantly putting up a facade, because they’re expected to act in a certain way because of their surrounding. Seneca gives the example of a funeral, on which people may perceive it disgraceful not to weep when everyone is doing it. In such a case, we are expected to fake our grief if we, in reality, don’t have the inherent desire to weep, but we only do so to not be seen as a disgrace. Seneca wrote:
This evil of depending on the opinion of others has become so deeply implanted that even grief, the most natural thing in the world, becomes now a matter of pretense.Seneca, De Tranquilitate Animi, 15
When we depend on the opinions of others we aren’t free. It takes courage to free ourselves from this bondage, but when we do we are truly brave because we took off of our masks and show us to the world in our purest form. Yes, we will be open to ridicule, but isn’t it’s better to be ridiculed because of who we truly are than tortured by perpetual pretense?
6) Balance solitude and being in crowds
Seneca wrote that we should embrace both solitude and being in crowds. Solitude gives us the opportunity to retire in ourselves and will make us long for the company. Being in the company of people will make us long for being alone. The one relieves the other, and that’s why the two things must be combined. Stoicism doesn’t encourage being a hermit but still does put emphasis on solitary activities like journaling and forms of meditation.
I’d say that solitude charges the battery to be in crowds and calms the mind after being around people, while being in crowds connects us to our fellow human beings, bringing joy and laughter. Socializing can be a great cure to relieve our minds from solitary ruminations.
When I had a job at the bank, I enjoyed being around people while longing for a quiet evening alone at the same time. In my current situation, being self-employed, I habitually work in crowded places like the public library or the university campus, just to be around people and experiencing a sense of connection. Also, I do attend parties and social gatherings, even though I find them tiresome. And when I come home, I enjoy my solitude even more.
7) Give the mind some relaxation
Now, this is a tricky one. At least, the method that Seneca proposes. Seneca argues that the mind needs relaxation from time to time, and recommends washing away our sorrows and setting it free by the consumption of wine. Now, with my past experiences with alcohol, I do agree that alcohol does a great job of making us merrier and forgetting our sorrows. Seneca does advocate moderation though, but today we know that for some people moderation just isn’t an option, because they drink to get drunk. Didn’t Seneca also say that drunkenness is voluntary madness?
Now, I do agree that we should relax our minds from time to time, and for the people that don’t want to intoxicate themselves for it, there are other ways to find relief, that didn’t exist back then. How ‘bout going to the cinema once in a while? Or playing a video game? Nevertheless, I still think that one of the best things one can do to achieve tranquility is some form of meditation.
So, these are 7 suggestions by Seneca for tranquility.