During the past year, I have become increasingly interested in stoicism and have been trying to adopt it as a day-to-day philosophy.
What is stoicism?
It is a school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens around 304 BC. It centers around the idea that external events are not what makes us happy or unhappy, but rather our feelings about these events.
The most well-known ancient stoics are Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus.
Many great men and women in history sought out stoic wisdom to navigate the challenges life threw at them.
Stoicism is a practical philosophy for the everyday person, and its concepts are just as valid today as they were back then.
It is a framework for entrepreneurs, athletes, and scientists alike.
The more I learned about stoic principles, the more I realized how I was practicing some of them already in my fitness journey.
Like running, stoicism is an excellent tool in the pursuit of self-mastery. In this article, I will explore three stoic concepts, how running is a way to practice them, and how practicing them can improve your running.
Remember, you must die. Memento mori is the practice of contemplating one’s death.
The stoic philosopher Seneca advises in one of his letters: “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time. “
I have been pondering death since my childhood.
When your days are filled with violence and hatred, death seems like the right solution.
As I grew older and experienced the beauty of friendship, love, and community, my sentiment shifted. Somewhen in my 20s, I began to welcome every new day with a smile. This feeling intensified when I started running regularly.
The early morning runs on South African trails gave me a sense of aliveness and oneness with the natural world that I have yet to experience with any other activity.
Hence, when I discovered stoicism, the concept of remembering my mortality wasn’t a new concept to me.
However, I now try to apply it to my running practice consciously. When I don’t feel like going for that scheduled long run, I ask myself if today was the last day of my life, would I regret that I didn’t do it? Would I regret cutting the run short, finding excuses, and telling myself I could always do it tomorrow?
Remembering that I will die also helps me stay focused on the present and not get lost in thoughts about an upcoming race. Yes, I love setting goals and strive to become better.
However, I remind myself that ultimately only this run today, only this moment is all I have and is all that matters.
It could be my last one, after all.
I might as well stay present, absorb the familiar cries of an unfamiliar bird, and smell the autumn perfume the forest has put on today. Feel each raindrop lingering on my forehead before it joins its millions of siblings in their common destination.
With memento mori, I choose to fully experience this run instead of being anxious and lost in thought about some future race that may never happen.
Amor fati is the stoic concept of loving one’s fate.
Epictetus advised not to “[…] seek to have events happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and all will be well with you.”
That means we should not only practice acceptance of everything that happens but accept it with enthusiasm.
Running presents you with many challenges. Most of them are small; some are bigger. Every one of them is an opportunity to practice amor fati.
With this concept, I learned not to get mired down in negativity when I encountered a setback. When incurring an injury, I used to get upset, feeling sorry for myself, and stayed stuck in a negative thought pattern for days.
Over time I learned how to shift into a positive thought pattern more quickly and look for the good in these situations.
How can I use this experience? What can I learn from it? I started to view any injury as an opportunity to learn more about my body, how the parts work together as a whole, and how I can become more resilient and robust.
The concept also helps me to stay calm when unexpected situations arise during my runs, such as falls, approaching thunderstorms, or running into a herd of wild boars.
By practicing amor fati in the small running context, I learned to apply the concept in other, more critical aspects of my life. The challenges are different, but the mindset to approach them is the same.
The acceptance part is easy. The “loving” part? Not so much. However, I try.
I have many opportunities to practice amor fati these days. Hopefully, the constant need for applying this principle will improve my ability to practice it.
Running through autumn forest trails’ loneliness instills a feeling of oneness in me that the stoic philosophers described with the word sympatheia.
This feeling can also be described as sympathy or mutual interdependence.
Marcus Aurelius advises us to “meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe.”
I find this meditation easiest when I move my body in nature—gardening, hiking, running.
At the start of a race, it is easy to see how we are all made of the same substance.
At the most basic level, everyone is equal.
It doesn’t matter how much money you have, what job you hold, where you come from, or who you love. We all have the same basic needs, share the same fears, the same hopes.
And we are all here to run this race.
Everyone had their unique challenges leading up to the event, and everyone overcame them.
Everyone made it to the starting line.
Running seems like a lonely and self-centered sport. Every runner is out there running his or her race. And yet it is during races where I see the concept of sympatheia in action. Runners are cheering each other on, helping one another when one falls, sharing foods or drinks, and celebrating others’ wins.
Running as Stoic Practice
My passion for running led me into the world of self-help, self-development, and related topics.
I have read hundreds of self-help books and books on strengthening your mind to become a better athlete. I realize now that many authors describe stoic principles without explicitly mentioning them.
The three concepts that I touched upon in this article are interconnected. The more I practice one, the more I understand the other. The solitude of running is an excellent opportunity to practice them.
When I am in nature without civilization’s noises, I become more aware of the interconnectedness of everything that exists.
I remember my insignificance. That is the stoic concept of sympatheia.
Through running, my mind calms down, and my thoughts become focused. I have time to think and redefine what matters to me, how I want to live, and what I would do if this were the last day of my life. That is the stoic concept of memento mori.
I can reflect, look back, and let go of anger and resentment. Moreover, I can look for the good in everything that happened in my past. That is the stoic concept of amor fati.
Finally, practicing these three principles: memento mori, amor fati, and sympatheia eases any anxiety I have about the future. From possible cancellations of races due to COVID-19 to fears about financial stability or less significant “problems” like new injuries that may keep me sidelined.
As Marcus Aurelius put it: “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”