Seneca — the ultimate doer-and philosopher.
The individual who has influenced my life the most is Seneca. He was the Roman stoic and philosopher whose letters, writings, and thoughts have influenced centuries of thinkers. He was the ultimate “doer” — he talked the talk, but he also walked the walk. Even at the end of his life, he held strong to his principles, even when ordered to commit suicide by the Emperor Nero.
I was talking with my buddy Greg Marsden in Sydney — and he suggested me to write this article.
I must have read Seneca’s “Letters From a Stoic” at least 15 times in the last 4 years, as well as re-read his various essays.
Thank you Seneca for all the guidance you have given me in life. I hope this article will also help you gain some more strength, serenity, and peace of mind:
1. Learn how to stay in one spot
“Everywhere means nowhere” – Seneca
One of the difficulties I have in life is that I don’t know how to stand still. I traveled quite a bit, and whenever I travel, I get a little bit distracted.
I feel that my life’s purpose is to help the greatest amount of individuals by blogging, teaching, and sharing information.
However I spent a lot of time constantly traveling — thinking that happiness somehow existed somewhere else. I was dissatisfied with my life in California— and thought I would find real “happiness” maybe somewhere in Europe or in the world.
However after all this traveling, I’ve found that true happiness resides in myself. In my heart. In my own perceptions of the world. No matter how much I change where I live, my problems always follow me.
The only way to gain true happiness and serenity, and to be pleased where we live. It means making the best of what we got, and where we reside.
The problem of constantly flitting about (whether physically or mentally) is as Seneca says:
“A plant that is moved too often can never grow”
Furthermore, Seneca reminds us:
“You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate”
Why is it that we think that traveling, moving somewhere else, or running away from our problems will be helpful? We need to stop running— we need to face our problems head-on. We need to change our inner-minds, and our inner-souls. Changing the physical place or the climate won’t do anything. Seneca continues:
“You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you.”
And also in this quote:
“The person you are matters more than where you decide to go”
Sometimes we also become a slave to a certain place. We get comfortable in a certain home, a certain city, or a certain location. But then we become a slave to that place, and are never able to leave.
We must remember the wise words of Seneca:
“To live well is found everywhere”
I think that traveling is good for many reasons. To experience new cultures, to see the world, and to open our minds. But traveling won’t fix our life’s problems. I wish it didn’t take me 6 years to figure that out.
I know a lot of people who hate their jobs just imagine retiring one day, and traveling the world — and suddenly becoming happy. I can tell you from my personal experiences is that this is false. True happiness resides inside you. It is about how you perceive the world around you, the friends and family you’re grateful for, as well as the meaningful work that you do.
2. Don’t become a slave of wealth
Seneca was once one of the richest men in the entire Roman empire. Yet he lived (mostly) like a pauper. His relationship with wealth was the following — he kept his wealth, yet he imagined everyday like it could disappear. This allowed him to have freedom to philosophize on life, yet prevented him from becoming a slave to his wealth.
Seneca also saw all these wealthy people in the Roman empire who always craved for more. Even though many individuals in his time (2,000+ years ago) had gilded golden roofs, huge villas, and thousands of slaves— they still wanted for more.
What is true wealth? What is poverty? Seneca says:
“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.”
If we always crave for more, we will always be poor. Because there is something that we desire, but do not own.
True wealth is to be satisfied. To be content. To have inner-serenity with our own belongings. To not desire what others have.
What does Seneca advise us to avoid? He reminds us the importance of owning things that are useful, not just ornamental:
“Despise everything that useless toil creates as an ornament and an object of beauty.”
Furthermore, even though we may own a lot of things— the moment we want something else, we suddenly lose appreciation for what we already have:
“Men cease to possess all things the moment they desire all things for their own.” – Seneca
The biggest blessing we have in modern society is that the basics are so easily attainable. In the developed world, almost everyone has a basic place to live, basic clothes, an internet connection, a smartphone, a laptop, and won’t starve to death.
The biggest ill we have in today’s society is this hankering for luxury. And we can live very happy lives — if we learn to eschew luxury, and love the basic necessities in life:
“The things that are indispensable require no elaborate pains for their acquisition; it is only the luxuries that call for.” – Seneca
Trust me — I’m the biggest sucker. I am easily swayed by advertising, marketing, and branding. I always think that if I buy a new pair of Nike’s — I’ll become stronger, faster, and more athletic. If I buy a new Apple product, I’ll become more creative, motivated, and innovative. If I buy that new smartphone, I’ll become more productive, effective, and efficient.
But the truth is that none of these luxuries are necessary. I already own all the basic blessings in life — why do I need more?
Food is cheap. We only become broke when we try to eat at all these fancy “foodie” restaurants.
Rent is cheap. We only complain when we live in expensive places, or live in big homes in desirable neighborhoods.
Devices and cameras are cheap. The only issue is that we always want the newest, fastest, and most modern.
What if we lived a life where we were happy with the basics and fundamentals? What if we no longer desired any material possessions— but rather used our time, efforts, and money to improving ourselves and others?
Yet the practical thing I’ve also learned is that wealth and money is desirable — only if we use it wisely. I appreciate that I have some money saved up, which allows me to write, think, meditate, teach, and do whatever I want (without stressing about paying for the rent). Once we have a certain amount of money, having more money won’t improve our lives. In-fact, it will probably add complications to our lives.
We just need enough wealth for the basics in life. If you set a limit to the amount of money you needed, what else would you do with your time, energy, and efforts?
3. Heal yourself
We are all slaves to fear, desire, and anxiety.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned from Seneca is using philosophy to cure my mind of my own ills. What are the biggest anxieties and fears which harm us?
Seneca says that the two biggest causes of suffering include fearing the future and regretting the past:
“Two elements must therefore be rooted out once for all, —the fear of future suffering, and the recollection of past suffering; since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet.” – Seneca
a) Future suffering
Why do we fear future suffering?
Well, as human beings our brain allows us to “predict” the future. It was something that worked really well for us in the past. But nowadays, we don’t need to fear death. Fearing too much about the future brings us dread, anxiety, and suffering.
Just know that whenever something really shitty happens to you in the future — you will have the strength to survive, and even become stronger.
As an exercise, the next time something horrible happens to yourself, you can tell yourself:
“Perhaps one day this sorrow might one day bring delight.”
b) Past suffering
Why do we regret the past? Because we want to avoid those mistakes in the future.
What if we could just reflect on the past, learn our lessons, and move on?
Too many of us have a bug in our brains. We have the same negative memories from the past, and we keep them on loop. These horrible events keep re-playing themselves in our minds.
This is a disease. We must erase these past phantoms from our mind. Or else we cannot move on in our lives.
For me personally, I have been able to overcome past regrets by reminding myself: “Everything happens for a reason.” And not only that— but thinking to myself, “What positive lesson did I learn from my mistakes in the past?”
I also have taken the radical philosophy of literally having no regrets. Because when you made the decision in the past, you probably made the best decision given the information you had in the past. But as they say, “Hindsight is 20/20.” Our regrettable actions in the past seem so obvious in the future. Yet our past selves didn’t have the same information that we have right now. So fuck it — no regrets.
How to heal yourself
Honestly the only way you can heal your mind is by seeing a psychologist/therapist, by studying philosophy, or by training your mind and rewiring your mental circuits.
The good news is that our mental ills are like a disease that can be cured.
Think about it — can suffering, anxiety, and fear exist out of the human mind? No. These are just concepts that exist in the human mind.
So if we can rewire our minds to build resilience, to avoid regret, and to not fear the future — we will become indestructible.
Some things that have worked for me:
- No more hoping for anything (if we hope for things outside of our control, we will always be miserable)
- No more fearing anything (anxiety disappears)
- No more hoping to become “successful” (we will always be a slave to the opinions of others)
- No more hoping to please others (because you can never please anybody else)
And what I’ve been trying to do instead:
- Follow my own conscience
- Don’t ask others for feedback on my ideas — just execute them
- Welcome criticism
- Don’t take myself too seriously
- Consider how short life is— and dedicate all my efforts towards helping others
Of course this will be different for you — and I hope these points help spark some ideas for you.
4. Seek your own applause
“Be your own spectator; seek your own applause.” – Seneca
As humans we seek the approval of others. Yet the problem is that the more we desire the approval of others, the more we become a slave to others.
Because no matter how hard we try we can never please 100% of others.
Yet what we can do is to seek to please ourselves. We need to live a life according to our own personal code of ethics and morals. We need to do work that is personally-meaningful to us. We need to eschew the popular opinion of others. If you’re satisfied with what you do, how you live, and your own work — why do you seek the applause of others?
Remember the wise words of Seneca:
“Put aside the opinion of the world, it is always wavering”
Look at yourself in the mirror. Are you pleased with the person you’re looking at? If so, keep marching forward — and following your gut, heart, and soul. If not, see what you can change in your life to become the person you strive to be.
5. Live for others
“You must live for your neighbor, if you would live for yourself.” – Seneca
What is the purpose of life? It is to help empower others. It is to help out our friends, people in our community, and especially those who are weaker and less fortunate then yourself.
To be happy is to be useful for our fellow humankind. It means treating others like yourself. As Seneca says,
“There is no such thing as good or bad fortune for the individual; we live in common.”
Furthermore, I’ve found that all of the blessings I’ve received in life are far better when shared with my friends and loved ones.
“No good thing is pleasant to possess without having friends to share it with.” – Seneca
It also means that sharing your heart with everyone. Many individuals out there are sad, miserable, and lost. They need your love.
Yet sometimes we don’t feel loved. We feel resentment by the way others treat us. But the only way to be loved is this:
“If you would be loved, love.” – Seneca
Of course you need to work hard in your life to provide yourself with the essentials. If you’re poor and starving, how can you help others? You need to empower yourself before you help empower others.
Yet regardless of your situation in life, you can always help others. You can help others by giving them advice, by giving them a listening ear, or giving them a hug, embrace, or words of encouragement. Often the way we can help others the most isn’t through our money or resources, but with our heart.
How can you help more people in your life today?
6. Take action
“The duty and proof in life are in action” – Seneca
In life, it is easy to be all talk and no walk. We have ideas that we want to pursue. Yet whenever we have an idea and share them with our friends, consider how rarely we actually execute these ideas.
Life is action. Without action, we cannot change anything in our lives or in the lives of others.
One of the benefits of studying philosophy is that we learn these wholesome ideas. Yet good only comes about when you turn these ideas and words into action. As Seneca says,
“We shall learn them so that words may turn into deeds.”
Good deeds, action — whatever you call it, we need to execute. Good ideas are a dime a dozen. Action is rare.
How to change your life
In life you have many dreams, hopes, and aspirations. How can you take more action in your life?
If you have a photography project idea, what is the smallest little thing you can do to take action? You just need to take the first photo.
If you want to start a business, what is the smallest thing you can do to make that dream a reality? Does that mean making a phone call to someone? Does that mean taking out a loan? Does that mean starting to sell your product or service online?
What prevents us from taking action?
I think it is the fear of failure.
However the more action you take in life, the more courageous you will become. Because you know that you control your destiny, and you can shape your future.
Create your own future right now.
7. It is never too late
“A tree can be transplanted, no matter how many years old it is.” – Seneca
There is a saying that “old dogs can’t learn new tricks.” I call bullshit. There is a lot of modern psychological research which shows that the brain is malleable, “plastic”, and can change.
You can control your own destiny by changing your actions, your thoughts, and your own perceptions.
Even if you’re older — don’t let that be an excuse. Let us use the metaphor of transplanting a tree guide our actions and future.
8. Value freedom above everything else
“If you set a high value on liberty, you must put a small value on everything else.” – Seneca
In modern society, we think that money is the key to happiness. False — it is freedom that we all want.
We think that if we have a lot of money, we will have the freedom to do anything we want.
That is not always true — many billionaires are still slaves to their businesses, their email, their phones, and to other people.
Real freedom is when we can do whatever we want, and we don’t have to do anything that we don’t want to do.
Of course you can’t go around and start killing other people. You need to listen to the law.
Yet “freedom” is having the freedom to control our schedules. Freedom is about not being a slave to desire, control, money, wealth, or luxury.
I know that personally the best thing about working for myself is the freedom. I have the freedom to work wherever I want to work, whenever I want to work. I don’t have a boss to listen to. I don’t have to go to the office everyday, and leave at an arbitrary time that my boss decides.
Freedom is what we all desire.
How can you gain more freedom in your life? Does that mean you intentionally decide to spend fewer hours in the office? Does that mean uninstalling email from your phone? Does that mean no longer desiring all these luxuries that you don’t really need?
What does “freedom” mean to you? Write it down, and think of how you can take action in your life to gain it.
9. Don’t waste your time (and life)
Out of all Seneca’s writings— his essay, “On the Shortness of Life” has stuck with me the most. It is quite short, and really gives me a kick in the ass. It reminds me how short my life is, and how I can’t waste any minute of my day.
Seneca says spirited things such as:
“He who bestows all of his time on his own needs, who plans out every day as if it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the morrow.”
Seneca criticizes those who think that they can work diligently (until around age 60 when they finally retire, and can be ‘happy’):
“Can anything be sillier than the point of view of certain people—I mean those who boast of their foresight? They keep themselves very busily engaged in order that they may be able to live better; they spend life in making ready to live!”
Seneca pushes us to live right now. To not delay our happiness. To not think that happiness lies in the future:
“They form their purposes with a view to the distant future; yet postponement is the greatest waste of life; it deprives them of each day as it comes, it snatches from them the present by promising something hereafter.”
Seneca likens time to a rushing stream, that won’t always flow. If you were dying of thirst in the desert, and you came across a stream of water (and you weren’t sure when it would stop) — wouldn’t you drink as much of it as possible?
“‘Why do you delay? Why are you idle? Unless you seize the day, it flees.’ Even though you seize it, it still will flee; therefore you must vie with time’s swiftness in the speed of using it, and, as from a torrent that rushes by and will not always flow, you must drink quickly.”
Often we only realize how short life is when we’re old:
“Decrepit old men beg in their prayers for the addition of a few more years; they pretend that they are younger than they are; they comfort themselves with a falsehood, and are as pleased to deceive themselves as if they deceived Fate at the same time. But when at last some infirmity has reminded them of their mortality, in what terror do they die, feeling that they are being dragged out of life, and not merely leaving it. They cry out that they have been fools, because they have not really lived, and that they will live henceforth in leisure if only they escape from this illness; then at last they reflect how uselessly they have striven for things which they did not enjoy, and how all their toil has gone for nothing” – Seneca
Why wait until we are old and on our deathbeds before we realize how short and valuable life is?
We can achieve truly great things in life if we devote all of our time to our own needs, and to develop our faculties to master our skills.
As an assignment, spend a week where everyday you literally imagine yourself dying in the evening. How would you live your life differently? What would you do and not do in your daily life?
As a default answer, learn how to say “no” to things you don’t want to do. You’re going to alienate a lot of people — but guard your time ferociously. Because it is your most valuable treasure — more valuable than money.
Everyday you’re one day closer to death. You can always earn more money. You can never earn more time.
10. Create your own philosophy
I’ve re-read the philosophy of Seneca dozens of times. Yet the passage which struck me the most was this:
“What is your own opinion? How long shall you march under another man’s orders?”
I spent so much time analyzing the thoughts and philosophies of Seneca that I forgot the importance of making my own personal life philosophy.
What do I believe in?
I can’t blindly follow the masters. Because their time was different. Their lives were different. They were my guides, yet my life and world is different. I need to gain inspiration from them, but not to follow them blindly.
There are still truths that I can learn about life and the world — and I need to discover them myself:
“Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.” – Seneca
What do you believe in which nobody else believes in? What are your own personal thoughts, philosophies, and beliefs in life?
You can study the philosophy of others to give you insight, inspiration, and motivation. Yet at the end of the day, you need to pave your own path.
That means having the courage to have your own opinion and ideas. And not to compromise your morals.
Share your ideas by starting a blog. Or write a book that you give away for free as an e-book. Or to share your personal philosophies with your friends or people you meet.
Don’t be meek. Don’t be afraid. Stick to your gut. Believe in yourself. And live a life true to yourself.
Thank you for everything you’ve taught me. Even though you died 2,000 years ago — your words still ring true to me in 2016. I thank you for all your guidance, and words of solace.
Yet it is time for me to break the umbilical chord and continue in my own journey. I need to discover the truth about life for myself. I will continue to use you as a guide, but start making my own personal life philosophy.
I’ll never forget you — thank you for everything.