Welcome to Self-Mastery — a place of timeless ideas to become the architect of your mind, create yourself, and do less, better.
“The Greeks had a word for this: apatheia. It's the kind of calm equanimity that comes with the absence of irrational or extreme emotions. Not the loss of feeling altogether, just the loss of the harmful, unhelpful kind. Don't let the negativity in, don't let those emotions even get started. Just say: No, thank you. I can't afford to panic.”
— Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle Is the Way.
Our reactions and responses to a situation matter more than the situation itself. We cannot control much of what happens in life, but we can control our next step through it. Like how a boxer cannot control which way their opponent will fire a punch but can control their counter. The question is: how can we better understand how to swap our negative reactions for positive actions? The answer is apatheia.
In Stoic philosophy, Apatheia was a term coined in early Christian teaching. Hailed by the Greeks as a state of mind where one is free from emotional distress, or passions. Apatheia often gets confused for apathy—a purely negative connotation. But these two terms are both very different. So here is a quick delve into what it apatheia means and how you can apply it to control how you’re affected by your problems forever.
The Stoics believed virtuous living provided freedom from the passions—negative emotions such as pain, anger, fear, or excessive desire or joy—which meant eradicating our tendency to react emotionally or egotistically to external events; the things that are out of our control. The Stoics considered this the optimum rational response to our world. Things cannot be controlled if caused by the will of others or by Nature; only our own will can be controlled.
I first recognised this when I started learning to notice the moments where I was frustrated at my problems. I started to live slower and take my time in the moments of distress; when I struggle to write or can’t solve a problem or argue with someone else over things that don’t matter as much as we think. So, instead of following my instinctive reaction, I tried to catch it as quick as I can. And I’d ask, “Is this situation within my control? Is what I’m worrying about important? What can I work on to resolve this?” Or, “Is my reaction helping the situation or making it worse? What is a better way to be instead?”
And don’t get me wrong, this is not easy to practice within the moment. I still get it wrong. But, bit by bit, the difference shows. When bad things happen that are not in my control, such as the Covid induced national lockdowns where I live, I remind myself that there are more important things to focus on: my actions—supporting people who need it, focusing on my work, and building something great.
Apatheia does not mean losing your feeling, or total disengagement from the world as if you need to be emotionless. Or cold. It means making correct (virtuous) judgements and actions which result in contentment and positive feelings for your well-being.
Like equanimity or indifference—words which meditate calm and balance—apatheia expresses thinking, moving, and living with little disturbance from the passions or any emotions that derail you from better well-being. It teaches you there is a golden mean between excess and a deficiency of emotion. And it is up to you to master it.
Pain is slight if opinion has added nothing to it;... in thinking it slight, you will make it slight. Everything depends on opinion; ambition, luxury, greed, hark back to opinion. It is according to opinion that we suffer.... So let us also win the way to victory in all our struggles, – for the reward is... virtue, steadfastness of soul, and a peace that is won for all time.
What’s on My Mind
I learned a tiny but incredibly impactful lesson not too long ago from a tiny exchange between my mother and me.
I had helped her around the house. I can’t remember what with. Maybe it was hanging her clothes to dry after washing them or washing her dishes. But, quite selfishly, I pointed out what I had done for her and stood there, expecting a thank you. She replied that when she tidies for me, or washes my clothes, or works to keep the house in order so I don’t have to worry, she does so without caring for recognition or a thank you. Because that’s not what it’s about. She does good things to get them done. To help solve a problem. And that’s all that matters.
I froze. It hit me hard. Much of what we do to help others is for that short but juicy burst of validation and praise. Not because we want to selflessly help someone else. There’s always a secret reason for ourselves. And I realised that I don’t need a thank you for everything I do for others. It’s good to be like a silent hero—the ones in the movies who saves the day without civilisation ever knowing it.
And so I’ve been practising that more this week. Whenever I help someone else, I stop expecting a thank you. Because what makes a good person is the ability to do something for someone else, to make their life run that 1% smoother, without expecting anything in return. And I mean anything.
Nothing to share this week. And maybe it’s a good thing. It’s a good time of the year to move away from media consumption, even if it’s positive, and invest more time into clearing your mind, keeping it free from processing more and more information. So, I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and thank you for being with me at the start of this wonderful journey with Self-Mastery.
Have a great week.
Jelani thank you for writing this, I want to congratulate you and support you because I find myself in a lot of what you write. I hope you keep inspiring many people and keep expanding your love for writing.