And why this should be our aim.
What does a “tranquil” person look like to you?
Do you imagine someone sitting on a pillow with a serene look on her face?
Or perhaps someone who has disengaged from society and has committed herself to a life of solitary, internal investigation?
Contrary to how you might imagine a tranquil person, the Stoics were actively engaged in society. One was even the emperor of Rome. The Stoics were people who looked inward to better look outward. They pursued what they believed was right. They didn’t just sit on a cushion.
But, what was tranquility to a Stoic? Why was this an aim they spent a lifetime pursuing? And why should we follow their lead?
What is tranquility?
Stoic tranquility is difficult to understand at the best of times. It’s not how we typically view the world. It’s also not something that can be put into practice today. It’s a way of life that’s cultivated over time.
There are two main components to tranquility that you must hold in your mind simultaneously to put it into practice.
#1 Know the things you cannot change
First, you must know what you cannot change. This is more difficult than it sounds. The Serenity Prayer hints at the difficulty:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
We don’t typically think we need wisdom to differentiate between what we can and cannot change, but we do.
For example, when someone expresses a poor opinion of you, how do you behave? Do you get angry? Sad? Annoyed? Bitter? Do you think about the comment incessantly?
Or, if your colleague gets the promotion you were aiming for, how do you feel? Do you feel betrayed? Unappreciated? Worthless? Depressed? Do you think about it for days, weeks, and months?
These are natural reactions to the things that matter to us. But, do you think it’s wise to dwell on all that negativity? Ultimately, where does that get us?
We believe that our emotions are like forces of nature — that we are stuck with them for as long as they last. But that’s not quite true. According to Harvard brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, physiologically speaking, emotions only last about 90 seconds. When our emotions last longer than this, it’s our thoughts that perpetuate them.
This is why an important part of tranquility is putting into practice the wisdom of the proverb, don’t cry over spilled milk. We all know this means we shouldn’t waste too much time agonizing over something that’s already happened, but we do it anyway, don’t we?
And all this agony exists to distract us from a simple truth: we don’t want to clean up the mess. We hate it when we don’t get what we want, and we hate it when we do get what we don’t want. Yes, these times can be frustrating and annoying. Yes, we’d rather not deal with them. Yet, fighting against that which we cannot change only prolongs our suffering. We do this to ourselves.
Do you think it’s wise to prolong your suffering? Of course not. But it’s also not easy to change your perspective toward what’s happened.
Stoicism does not suggest we should ignore or avoid our emotions. Psychology tells us this is a sure-fire way of prolonging them. Instead, Stoicism suggests that we welcome our emotions, whatever they may be, but let them go in their own time without holding on to them.
This will take time and effort as you watch yourself being bombarded with emotions. But, now that you know they only last 90 seconds, you can see for yourself the role your thoughts play in prolonging them.
Your emotions are not forces of nature, but experiencing them in a healthy way isn’t easy, either. That’s why practice is needed. Remind yourself of these statements frequently:
- There’s no use in fighting against the things you cannot change.
- Emotions don’t need to rule over you.
- Your thoughts prolong your emotions.
Finally, keep in mind that you won’t achieve serenity overnight. If you could, you’d already be there.
#2 Know that your actions matter but they may still amount to nothing
Second, you must understand that what you’re working toward is not guaranteed.
No matter what we do in life, our aims can be thwarted. We might not get that job. We might not win over our crush. We might not win the championship game. Our actions alone do not determine those outcomes.
However, once we’ve selected an aim, we must pursue it as if we will achieve it. In other words, if our aim is worthy of our attention and effort, then we should direct those toward the actions that will attain it. While the outcome is not irrelevant, it should not be the focus. What matters is how you behave — what matters are your actions.
Notice that your actions are all you ever have control over. You might have an amazing interview and still not get the job. You might show your best self to your crush and still not get a second date. You might play the best game of your life and still lose the championship.
Focussing on your actions, rather than the outcome, has two positive effects.
First, by letting go of those distracting thoughts about winning and losing, you free your mind to perform its best. Have you ever experienced your mind getting in its own way? This is your mind focused on outcomes rather than on your actions.
Second, by focusing on your actions, you’ll start to actually enjoy whatever you’re doing. Your stress and anxiety are caused by thoughts about outcomes — will they like me? Will I make a mistake? Will I get the job? Bringing your attention to your actions relieves you of some of this debilitating self-talk.
Again, it’s not that outcomes don’t matter. They do matter. But tranquility requires us to see beyond outcomes because those fall outside our control. Only our actions are under our control.
If you saw a child drowning in a river, would you say the right thing to do would be to try to save him? And, would you say that’s the right decision to make regardless of the outcome?
All of life is like this. If we can focus more on our actions that on the outcomes, we will not only perform better and thereby increase the likelihood of us achieving our goals, we will also find more enjoyment in the journey.
Practice, however, is needed to cultivate this perspective. Remind yourself frequently of these statements:
- Outcomes are beyond our control.
- Focusing on outcomes is distracting and debilitating.
- Focusing on actions will allow us to perform at our best and better enjoy the journey.
These are simple phrases, but ever so difficult to put into practice. Be patient as you work them into your life.
The tranquil life
Are you beginning to see how tranquility is a worthy aim?
The pursuit of tranquility is the pursuit of a way of life that minimizes unnecessary pain and suffering and maximizes the usefulness and our enjoyment of our actions.
Examine your thoughts and feelings, in particular after high-stress situations. Are you focused on things that are beyond your control to change? Are you focused on outcomes rather than actions? Are you miserable?
Life doesn’t need to be so difficult. It can be better. Be like a Stoic and put tranquility on your to do list. You won’t regret it.
Thanks for reading!
The ideas presented here have been influenced by thinkers such as Ryan Holiday and William B. Irvine.