The final section that I highlighted from Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way, is a quick passage that sums up the author’s personal philosophy and views of the world. Throughout the book Holiday encourages us to persevere and to find true growth in the challenges we face. He acknowledges the difficulties we will encounter, but helps us understand the ways in which our perspective can turn obstacles into opportunities. Throughout his book I was reminded of a painting that hung on the wall of Coach Kirk Elias’s office at the University of Nevada. Coach E is the women’s cross country coach, and during an internship with the University’s Sports Media department, I spent a lot of time in his office talking running, coaching, and the team. He had a small abstract painting with a person holding a big square object and a caption reading something along the lines of, “here is a large block of whatever is the most difficult for you to carry. Throughout life you will carry it more times than you expect, until it no longer becomes so heavy.” Holiday’s book takes that message and shows us how that heavy block becomes the thing that gives our life direction, not by crushing us, but by helping us develop greater strength.
Toward the end of holiday’s book he recaps his writing with the following, “see things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must. What blocked the path now is a path. What once impeded action advances action. The obstacle is the way.”
It is so easy to become frustrated by events beyond our control, but changing our focus and perception can help us better approach our challenges. What keeps us up at night can become the thing that defines us by either crushing us, or by giving us a greater foundation to stand upon. Overcoming obstacles does not just put us further along our path, it creates an entirely new path for us. When we shrink from challenges or back away when we see difficulties ahead we limit our growth, but remembering that we will always face obstacles and that we can only grow by facing them nobly allows us to charge forward. Things are always difficult, indeed Abraham Lincoln described life as a trial, but enduring the challenges will help us reach a more meaningful place where we can make a difference in the world as an example for those who follow and run up against the same challenges.
Ryan Holiday addresses a common misperception of stoicism in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, when he addresses ideas surrounding our emotions and how we handle our emotions. I think people often associate stoicism with a lack of emotion, and will describe people as being stoic when they respond to emotional situations like reactionless statues. I think there is merit to the idea that people who follow stoicism don’t show emotion, but I think it is often taken to the extreme in people’s mind. Not showing wild emotion swings becomes conflated with not having or feeling any emotion at all, and in Holiday’s writing the curtain is pulled back to give us a new view of how we can react to our inner feelings, and to give us new perspective on the thoughts and minds of those we call stoic in turbulent times.
Holiday writes, “Real strength lies in the control or, as Nassim Taleb put it, the domestication of one’s emotions, not in pretending they don’t exist.” Holiday’s quick quote shows that stoics and people who practice stoicism are not simply stones without emotion. Rather than being voids without feelings, Holiday presents an image of someone who is self-aware and capable of managing and controlling their emotions. Stoics have practiced this ability over time, recognizing their feelings, channeling their passion in productive ways, and choosing how they will use their emotions. Often we don’t see these people as having any emotion because we do not see the visible emotional outbursts that are common on television shows and socially encouraged at sporting events.
Holiday takes the idea of feeling emotion a step further in his book. He does not simply explain that people who follow the teachings of Marcus Aurelius and other stoics feel emotions, he explains that people who practice self-awareness and recognize the ways their emotions drive their behaviors experience better outcomes in life than those who allow themselves to be driven by the impulses of their emotional states. Further, Holiday writes that stoics feel their emotions quite strongly, and that they do not ignore their emotions. He encourages his readers to explore and to feel their emotions, but he does so in a way that is constructive and provides us the opportunity to learn and grow from our current state. By using our emotions and being aware of them we can channel our energy into truly productive directions. The failure to recognize and the failure to understand our emotions leaves us in a place of no direction. When we assume that we should not feel one way or another, and when we strive to be without emotion, we leave a valuable part of ourselves behind.
Perception is a major focus throughout the book The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. By focusing on how we see the world around us and how we choose to react to the world in which we live, Holiday explains the many ways in which we can adapt and overcome the barriers which impede us along our path. For Holiday, our perception can become either a tool that we use to expand the possibilities around us, or a roadblock preventing us from becoming the best possible version of ourselves. Holiday writes,
“We decide what we will make of each and every situation. We decide whether we’ll break or whether we’ll resist. We decide whether we’ll assent or reject. No one can force us to give up or to believe something that is untrue (such as, that a situation is absolutely hopeless or impossible to improve). Our perceptions are the thing that we’re in complete control of.”
Reacting automatically and living on autopilot is an easy way to move through life, but it is also a lifestyle that abandons self-control by giving up consciousness in regards to our perceptions. Allowing our lives to be limited by narrow views of what is possible leaves us in a position where our power to change is insignificant. Rather than allowing our mind to see obstacles in new ways, we double down on limitations, and assume that we were never meant to proceed. We accept that our world is finite, and we give control to another person or what we see on television or to forces that seem to operate above us.
Holiday encourages us to regain control over our choices and our perceptions. I don’t think his message is to simply have greater will power or determination in our lives, though that may be part of what he advocates, but ultimately he encourages more thought and expansion of the way we look at any situation. Life can pull us in many directions and our busy lives may feel like a tornado beyond our control, but through mindfulness and self-reflection, we can begin to recognize the choices we make, and we can begin to recognize how we think about and approach the situations in our life. Changing our perspective and refocusing our thoughts in ways that align with our values will allow us to be more fulfilled. Reaching this point requires the ability to shift our perspectives and to understand the power we have in deciding whether our minds with be fortified and sound, or whether our thoughts will be reactionary and at the discretion of the world around us.
A pillar of stoicism is the ability to control ones emotions, especially when it comes to negative emotions and states in which we are more likely to harm others. Throughout his book Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, the 2nd century Roman Emperor, reflects on the ideas of anger, contempt, and our thoughts toward other people. He explains the benefits of calm and collected thought when we are frustrated and feel as though we have been wronged. Through self-reflection he reminds us of the importance of considering our own actions as if we were in another person’s shoes, and with self-awareness he urges us to think about our actions and how we would like ourselves to behave.
Aurelius writes, “Consider how much more pain is brought on us by the anger and vexation caused by such acts than by the acts themselves, at which we are angry and vexed.” When looking at this quote it is easy to think about the importance of not becoming angry, but I think it is more important actually visualize the situation described by aurelius. We can think about how we could have handled situations differently, and we can imagine ways in which we could have been more responsible for ourselves or for others. Keeping this quote in mind and thinking about our conflicts and how we could have mitigated them by controlling our emotions and reactions can help prepare us for future conflicts.
Rather than becoming outraged that something negative happened to us, even if that something was an intentional act by another person, we can move forward looking for solutions or ways in which we can use the experience to better ourselves. Aurelius constantly argues for living a life in the present moment, which means recognizing that actions that took place even a second before the present moment no longer impact our current state, particularly in regards to our current actions or decisions. Stepping back, looking at something that happened, and then deciding that it was not the end of the world will help us make the best decisions as we move forward. If we allow those thoughts, feelings, and emotions to remain, then we give away our self control and let an experience of the past dictate the decisions and actions of our present and future lives.
The power of the mind and our ability to control our mind as rational human beings is a central focus of the philosophy of Stoicism. Being able to look at the world from multiple perspectives and seeing events beyond our singular point of view combine with self-awareness to give us the ability to choose how we will react to the world, as opposed to putting us in a place where we are pushed around by the world. Marcus Aurelius dives into aspects of this philosophy throughout his book Meditations, leaving us with bits of knowledge that we can use to overcome obstacles and challenges that spring up in our daily lives.
Aurelius’ writes, “that not one of them produces in us an opinion about itself, nor comes to us; but these things remain immovable, and it is we ourselves who produce the judgements about them.” In this quote what the emperor says is that things and events on their own have no impact over our lives and do not somehow force themselves on our brain in a way that changes our thought. It is our observation of things and events and our interpretation that creates an impact on the way we think, and we have the power to change our perspective, change our opinion, and determine whether or not something makes a difference in our lives. Stoicism takes power away from things, other people, and events, and places it back on the rational faculties of our mind.
Failing to recognize this power, Aurelius would argue, is abandoning our own power and giving it to forces beyond us. It is the act of sacrificing the faculties of our mind and deciding that we do not want to be the ones who are ultimately in charge of our reason and our lives. When another driver does something that you find annoying or frustrating, allowing yourself to become so angry is a choice, allowing another human being to control your conscious mind. Becoming overcome with desire for a certain item can take away the power of your mind to control your desires and wishes, and place the control firmly with an inanimate object that does not know or care that you have great desires for it. Instead, Aurelius’ quote encourages us to recognize the emotions, desires, and impulses of our brain and to work to manage the faculties of our mind so that we are in charge of our thought processes. By knowing our thoughts and accepting our reactions we can learn about ourselves and begin to decide how we will act and react, and we will become true stewards of our lives.
Marcus Aurelius had a very practical way of looking at the world, and his pragmatism stands out in his book Meditations when he is taking about the ways in which we become frustrated. Rather than allowing himself to be driven by emotions he was able to slow himself down and think about his thoughts and what should be done. This aspect of stoicism helped him see the world in a more wholesome manner, and it can help one reduce stress and overcome points of frustration.
Aurelius wrote, “It is not right to vex ourselves at things, For they care nought about it,” to remind himself that he should not give anything outside of his mind the power to control his mind. In our world of technology I think this idea fits perfectly into our lives. It is not uncommon for a piece of technology (our computers, TVs, wireless routers, headphones, etc…) to frustrate us. When we expect our technology to operate seamlessly, we become very disappointed and sometimes irate when things fail. Allowing ourselves to be overcome with emotion in these situations will not help our devices, and will often lead to worse situations. What Aurelius would argue is that we should never allow an inanimate object to control our life to the point where it can challenge our emotional wellbeing.
When looking at how we should perceive the world around us, Aurelius wrote, “the things which are external to my mind have no relation at all to my mind.” What he is explaining in this quote is that his mind is its own entity and that it cannot be directly affected by anything outside of our heads. We choose how we want to allow our mind to react to the world around us because our mind is in control of itself. When we allow our technology to be the singular thing that brings us joy then we are giving an item control over our brain. When an external event demolishes our emotional state, we are choosing to abandon control of our mind, and we are letting things that do not directly touch our brain to have power over the one thing we absolutely control.
Divorcing ourselves from reliance on things outside ourselves (technology, relationships, activities) helps us to regain control of our faculties of mind. Aurelius would not argue that we should not enjoy the world around us and the point of stoicism is not to avoid any emotional feeling, but we should be able to recognize our thoughts and emotions and adjust our mental framing to be more productive and helpful. We should accept our feelings and understand them, but we should also have the mental control to shape the actions, decisions, and perspectives of our life. When we give things external to the mind the power to direct the mind, we give up our independence and become subordinate to things.
In his commonplace book, where he recorded his thoughts, ideas, and lessons about the world, Marcus Aurelius wrote that we can approach the world and choose to interpret the world in ways that will either open new doors for us and improve our perspectives, or we can interpret the world in ways that limit our power to influence and shape our lives. For Aurelius, being able to control your actions and thoughts about the world was paramount as it determined what your experience during your life would be. He adopted the philosophy of stoicism and his writings show us how he was able to think about the world in more productive manners. When it comes to thinking about what we control and have direct choices and influence over in our lives he writes,
“Show those qualities then which are altogether in thy power: sincerity, gravity, endurance of labor, aversion to pleasure, contentment with thy portion and with few things, benevolence, frankness, no love of superfluity, freedom from trifling magnanimity. Dost though not see how many qualities though art immediately able to exhibit, in which there is no excuse of natural incapacity and unfitness, and yet though still remainest voluntarily below the mark?”
It is easy to become caught up in the world or the routines of our daily lives and forget how many choices and decision we have the ability to make in a day. What Aurelius is explaining in the quote above is that we will always be sovereign over our own minds, and we can always choose how we wish to behave and react in certain situations. When we fail to think about how we are interpreting the world, how we are reacting to what others say, and the ways in which we think about our position in the world, then we are forfeiting control of a major part of our selves. We give up the power to shape the direction of our lives. What Aurelius advocates for is greater acceptance of the power of our minds, and the useful practice of empowering ourselves over the influences that are easy to allow to control our minds.