The Inner Citadel
"Remember that the ruling faculty is invincible, when self-collected it is satisfied with itself, if it does nothing which it does not choose to do, even if it resist from mere obstinacy. What then will it be when it forms a judgment about anything aided by reason and deliberately? Therefore the mind which is free from passions is a citadel, for man has nothing more secure to which he can fly for refuge and for the future be inexpugnable. He then who has not seen this is an ignorant man; but he who has seen it and does not fly to this refuge is unhappy."
"'How, then, is this citadel to be destroyed?' Not by sword or fire, but by principle...From hence we must begin; hence demolish the citadel, and turn out the tyrants."
"It is the power of the mind to be unconquerable."
"If you lay violent hands on me, you'll have my body, but my mind will remain with Stilpo."
-Zeno (referring to his mentor Stilpo, and the fact that his philosophy protects his mind with an inner fortress whose gates cannot be broken from the outside, only surrendered)
In life, a lot of us tend to blame external events or circumstances for our own bad decisions. It is natural for us to explain away our own poor choices because of a myriad of reasons. One thing is for sure--when it comes to excuses, they are easy to find if we look hard enough.
"I've had a long week at work. Poor me...poor me...pour me a drink."
Or a recent example I saw on Facebook with a lot of my Florida friends:
"Let's have a hurricane party and pig out!"
A break-up, a layoff, you're injured, your child is teething, it's Flag Day, etc. We all find ways to excuse poor decisions, or a lack of action on things that are important. Another major factor is fear. We fear outside events and it affects our perception as well as our actions. Emotions cloud judgment.
The Stoic philosophers were keenly aware of this. When many of us think of philosophers, we think of professorial types in ivory towers, with way too much time on their hands, discussing abstract ideas that have little to do with our daily lives. The Stoics were different. In many ways, they were the anti-philosophers. A lot of what they wrote and taught had to do with how to live a virtuous life and navigate through all of life's ups and downs. One idea they developed is the idea of the "Inner Citadel".
Marcus Aurelius claimed that nothing could touch our souls. I agree with this idea, and this is what the inner citadel is all about. Imagine an impenetrable fortress that can stand against the worst storms, gunfire or explosives hurled its way. Your inner citadel should be able to protect you from any insult thrown your way, and even any circumstances in your life. Who you are at your core should never be affected by what is happening in your life. One has nothing to do with the other. Events can help shape your perception, and prepare you for future events, but who you are should not change.
How then, is this supposedly invincible inner citadel destroyed? It is always from the inside. We truly are our own worst enemies. Things like fear, doubt, greed and ego can cause us to lower our defenses and open the gates to let anyone and anything walk right in. It takes a lot of practice and focus to strengthen your mind and will, but the benefits are worth it. How do we fortify this inner citadel? Let's look at some practical ways someone like myself--who is the opposite of stoic, can protect himself from any threat--internal or external.
Create Your Daily Process and Find Other Like Minded Individuals
Having a daily process is crucial to putting yourself in a position to succeed. When you take time to plan your day, you anticipate the challenges you may face, and begin to develop possible solutions to these challenges. Focusing on today simplifies your life. You are able to break big goals down into smaller goals. The ability to get those daily incremental wins creates positive changes in our psyche. With these wins, we build confidence. Building confidence suspends disbelief. It is natural to doubt ourselves. We question our ability and our resolve. Our amygdala, otherwise known as our "lizard brain" is responsible for memory, speech and visual cues. It provides us with our most primal instincts: fear, hunger, and arousal. Fear is the first enemy who will attack our inner citadel. Why do we fear succeeding? What is the biological advantage of fear? The answer is simple: fear protects us. Change can be dangerous, uncomfortable and even potentially painful. Fear keeps us safe, but fear can also cripple us. The amygdala (which is about the size of an almond) is not very complex. It is incapable of distinguishing between real life threats and made up threats. In the case of the latter, we can classify this "fear" as False Evidence Appearing Real. Sticking to our routine can help us weed out this type of fear.
When we repeat the same process every day and get those incremental wins, we begin to believe that our goals are not unattainable. In "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg, the author talks about the importance of belief. Believing in something bigger than yourself causes permanent change. One of the ways you create belief is by creating a routine. The other way is by belonging to a group. You look around, see the progress of others, and you begin to realize that it's possible to change your situation. "If it worked for them, I guess it can work for me," explains a scientist from the alcohol research group, about the thought process of someone who begins to believe in themselves. There's something really powerful about groups and shared experiences. A group convinces us to suspend disbelief--a community creates belief. In addition, you get the opportunity to put yourself out there and be held accountable by people other than yourself. That's powerful.
Focus on Bettering Yourself
"If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
Something that has really helped me "fortify my inner citadel" over the past several years is committing myself to learning from "giants" in order to better myself. In 2004, when I started graduate school, I committed myself to spending some time every single day learning the science and all of the aspects related to my craft (strength and conditioning). I got away from that practice for several years, but when I recommitted to it, I began to experience unparalleled growth and inner strength. Learning from others is a very effective way to better yourself, and it is becoming much easier to do nowadays with the internet and social media. Facebook pages and groups, Instagram pages, YouTube, podcasts and audio books have made this extremely easy. This year I was able to read or listen to 23 books so far, as well as countless episodes of my favorite podcasts, and countless articles on the subjects I am most passionate about. I have no doubt that this has prepared me for several situations that I would have not been able to handle as effectively without what I learned. In addition to learning from others, it is just as important to learn about yourself. The benefits of relentless introspection and examining your thinking not only help strengthen you personally, but they can do wonders for your relationships. I am naturally a very stubborn and emotion driven person. It may not appear this way, but I was a very violent adolescent and I was forced to go to anger management at the age of 12. I still feel that anger well up inside in certain situations. Knowing how silly this anger is, and how useless it is to the resolution of any conflict I am having, is powerful. I may still act out and let the emotions get the best of me from time to time, but focusing on growth has helped me be more patient with my wife and children, as well as more receptive to criticism from my wife. We love our spouses and our children, but if we are not extremely sensitive to our personal flaws and how they can affect these relationships, we can create really bad habits that are hard to break. Deep inside we know we are good. We know that we love those closest to us and would do anything for them--however, if we are not checking our behavior and learning from our mistakes, they will not see it this way. Intentions and words are pretty useless when it comes down to relationships. Acting in accordance with these intentions and words can only be done if we remain committed to taking stock of how we think and act--and this is only one example of how focusing on bettering ourselves can fortify our inner citadels.
How many times have we or someone we know said, "I just need to vent" and then proceeded to complain? How well does that go over when it is someone other than us doing the complaining? We somehow think that if we complain about an event or our circumstances that it provides some sort of relief. The reality is that it does not in any way relieve us, and actually makes things worse. Complaining--whether we do it aloud or simply in our thoughts--is an easy way to let down our guard and not only let all types of negativity in, but it also prevents us from thinking of the best solutions and carrying out the steps needed to take us to those solutions. As I said before, emotions cloud our judgment. Complaining without thinking of any solutions to the supposed problem is a perfect example of a flawed perception. There are many things in this life that are challenging. I can hear it now: "Practicing gratitude is great, and I am sure there are countless people in an even suckier situation than I am in, but this still sucks, am I right?" Well, yes. But what are you going to do to fix it? That is where a simple change in perception and a focus on what is in our control--vs external circumstances--turn worthless complaining into problem solving. There is always a lesson to be learned, and there is never a time where nothing good can come from the situation. If you do not believe me, just try to think of the worst thing that has ever happened to you and try to find any good in it. You will most likely see that there is at least one valuable lesson or point you have learned from it. For a fun way you can take on to help you understand how much you actually complain and hopefully fix it, try this challenge.
Too often, we are told by others and ourselves that we are not enough, or we are limited in some way or another. We succumb to fear, we do not take create the daily processes and habits that will set us up for success, or we complain and do not focus on solution based thinking. The Stoic philosophers knew that we could be invincible if we fortify our inner citadel.
Hopefully these tips can help you do just that.