The Stoic discipline of desire is all about constraining our desires and aversions to what is under our control. Whether we crave the affection of others, wish to avoid physical pain, or wish for wealth, the Stoics would have us accept what we cannot control.
Stoic acceptance does not result in resignation or the lack of ambition. Remember, the ancient Stoics were ambitious in their own right. Consider Seneca for example, playwright and advisor to the emperor. Paraphrasing a line of his, he was someone who dyed events with his own color.
Stoic acceptance can help us narrow our focus onto what matters. The endurance runner doesn’t need to worry about whether she will be able to climb to the top of the hill. All she needs to do is take the next step. And the next. At times, it may be tempting to doubt that she will be able to make the ascent, given fatigue and pain. However, all she needs to be able to do is make the next few yards. She can accept the pain as fixed and laser into the present.
In fact, instead of resulting in giving up, acceptance can give way to freedom. We can overburden ourselves with responsibilities that are completely out of our hands. When we realize that these responsibilities are fictitious, a liberating freedom can result.
What kinds of practices can use to build this attitude? I’ll suggest one cognitive practice and one non-cognitive. Cognitive exercises involve explicit, verbal, and systematic reasoning. The non-cognitive is non-verbal or conceptual. It loops in intuition.
The Cognitive: Explicit Reasoning
Practice Stoic acceptance by noting what is under your control and not. At the end of the day, review what happened. Note when you became anxious, frustrated, or angry at something that was out of your grasp. This is the journaling practice suggested by Seneca:
When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent, aware of this habit that’s now mine, I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by.
In this practice, the focus on whether your goals and actions accurately reflect what is under your control.
The Non-cognitive: Intuition
Practice Stoic acceptance by building the intuition that you can willingly accept what is initially uncomfortable. One way to practice this is by holding your breath. First, hold your breath as long as you can. Pay attention to how this feels. Take a break for a few moments, then try it again. This time, imagine that you are deliberately creating each uncomfortable sensation. Imagine that you are willing the urge to breathe to come into existence. When you do this, you’ll find that the fear and physical discomfort are more easy to accept.
Next time you notice an uncomfortable sensation, imagine you were willing it into existence. This may make it easier to manage. Importantly, it also builds the sense for what acceptance feels like. Get a clear picture of what Stoic acceptance is like so that you can return to it again and again. You can practice this using the guided exercises in Stoa’s Acceptance course.
By vigilantly paying attention to your sensations and thoughts, noticing them arise and fall away, you’ll be able to cultivate an attitude of embracing reality. Instead of struggling with the impossible. In the words of Epictetus:
Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.