How Do I Know I’m Not A Butterfly: Stumbling Into Stoicism

A philosophy for life, as William B. Irvine puts it, is what I feel I stumbled across one January afternoon in the Austrian Alps a few years back. Now I do mean practical philosophy, none of that “fairy philosophy,” to quote the comedian Jimmy Carr “How do I know I’m not a butterfly?!…….I drove here you twat!”

I’ve always taken some interest in self development, philosophy and psychology literature; being quite a frustrated and angry young person I, at the time, somewhat unconsciously, enjoyed those genres but didn’t really understand why.

I was in Mitersil in Austria taking part in an international altitude training camp and, as always, I had the laptop and a couple of books with me; necessities on camps as days are typically spent training, eating and then a lot of time just recovering in the hotel until getting ready to train again. I’ve always loved history and had a book with me about the development of maritime culture in Britain, the majority covering the navy. I read a few on the subject around that time and can’t be certain but I’m pretty sure it was Empire of the Seas by Brian Lavery. I remember learning that Samuel Pepys (yes, the guy that kept a diary and buried cheese in his back garden) had a big influence in reforms in the admiralty in its earlier days; he basically helped the navy professionalise itself. The strict training of the men and the captains, particularly in mindset and discipline, being an important part of that process. Without sifting through the book I’m sure what I came across was along the lines of, “the men were to be applauded for the Stoicism they showed throughout the entire campaign”. Any words that I don’t understand I tend to google, I screen shot them too so that when I clear out my photos I see it again and hopefully gain a bit more familiarity with it. So, I put this word ‘Stoicism’ into the search bar and then spent the next couple of hours reading everything Wikipedia had to say about it. I was hooked straight away. Here was direct advice and methods for improvement in a lot of the areas that I had been struggling in or needed help with. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (don’t worry, the old guy from Gladiator is what I thought first too!) was the top bit of classical literature recommended, I ordered it for when I arrived back in the UK. I virtually spent all the rest of the spare time that trip reading about Stoicism online and watching lectures on Youtube, which worked out well as, although a lot of the writing in them is really beautiful, if I hadn’t I’m not sure the Meditations would have particularly made much sense to me. I am no expert in the field but if anyone would want to look into the philosophy more I’d suggest starting with a modern book; Donald Robertson, Ryan Holiday, Massimo Pigliucci to name a few of the authors from whose work I take a lot from. Then have a look at the classical texts. I’m currently doing a course run by a brilliant non profit organisation called Modern Stoicism. That is the reading advice they give to newcomers of the philosophy.

A lot has happened in my life since stumbling across the Stoics. Stoicism isn’t the only thing that helps guide my mindset but I have tried out and practiced a fair number of the practical Stoic techniques suggested regularly. I have found it useful in so so many ways, too many to list them all in one blog or vlog post. I do, regarding sporting performance, love Cicero’s archer analogy. I thought of it regularly during the last few years of competing. It’s a beautiful description of “controlling the controllables”. It is within an archer’s power to practice as well as she can, consistently learn new ways in which to do so better, eat and rest well, research the best materials to make the best bow and arrow as possible, learn ways to be as calm and alert as she can be to take aim and release but, as soon as the arrow is released, whether the target is hit or not is out of his control; a sudden gust of wind could take the arrow off course, an animal might walk into it’s path, the target may itself move, all of these things the archer has no influence over. I found this easy to translate in terms of Judo; I can’t control how good the opponent is or how well prepared they are, I can’t influence the draw, have no say over the referee in the middle etc. The Stoic teacher Epictetus also made many references to training for the Olympics and, grappling analogies, in his work which I also enjoy and make connection with.

I’m really enjoying the current course, it’s great to be guided by experts in the field and to be feeling some benefits of the techniques taught already. I consider myself an interested person so I’m finding it brilliant to be connected to a platform containing such a wealth of knowledge and practical advice. Thank you to everyone at Modern Stoicism that is making it possible.