A bright blue whale-shaped car-freshener hangs above the dash in my sister’s car. Emblazoned on it are the words “go with the flow”, and this quote exemplifies the principle of mental detachment , which is the skill of relinquishing our tendency of simply labeling events that happen to us as “good” or “bad”. Two thousand years ago Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote, “Reason shows us there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”. Stoicism views every situation that life deals us as a possible opportunity for improvement. When faced with difficult situations, we paralyze ourselves when we think that we are undeserving of struggle. If I were to wake up sick, my immediate reaction probably wouldn’t be, “Gee, well I guess I wasn’t guaranteed waking up healthy today anyway.” Due to my human nature, it would be more along the lines of,” I don’t know why this terrible thing has happened to me! I have too much going on to have this as well!” By immediately labeling sickness as a limiting factor in my daily life, I force it to become what I fear it might be. But as Ryan Holiday wrote , “The obstacle is the way”. If we refrain from pre-judging our situations then we leave ourselves open to seeing the possible good in it. This is mental detachment: knowing that from the moment we arrive on this earth we are guaranteed nothing. Stoicism calls for us to stop thinking that we are entitled to a life that goes according to our plan. Interestingly enough, the virtues of a stoic practice are quite similar to those of a mindfulness practice. At the intersection between the paths of stoicism and mindfulness lies this trait of mental detachment
The origins of Stoic philosophy date back to around 300 A.D. and can be linked to a free-thinking philosopher known as Zeno of Citium. The term “stoic” comes from the location that Zeno of Citium would provide his teachings: a school he founded known as “Stoa Poikile” (i.e. the painted porch). Traditionally , philosophy has been a mode of thought that seeks to understand the nature of the universe and our place in it as human beings. Stoicism is different because it asks not how we came to be. It accepts the fact that we are here, and asks how may an individual lead the most effective life possible? However, Stoicism is more than just self-help. It is also not a religion – it is a mental practice. Zeno offered us a complete paradigm shift. The essence of his philosophy is this : in a world where every aspect of our lives is dynamic, where we have no guarantees ; we need to live with a mentality that not only accepts the fleeting nature of our own existence, but cherishes it.
To be a stoic, you don’t need to be emotionless. You do, however, need to be accept struggles as inevitable . As Seneca also said, “It’s not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It’s because we dare not venture that they are difficult.”