The One Stoic Idea that Can Make You Invincible
Imagine the power you’d have if all the things that trouble everyone else didn’t trouble you.
What if, where others get upset, mad, and greedy, you were objective, calm, and clearheaded?
Can you imagine that? Others getting all jittery and impatient while you’re staying cool and relaxed?
Well, you can get that. The Stoic idea we’ll look at will give you plenty of power, a calm mind, and the coolness of a cucumber.
The goal is to build an inner fortress that helps us stay calm and untouchable in the face of adversity, and to not give events more attention than appropriate. We don’t want to be the puppets of our own impulses and be jerked around by external events.
We want to stay calm no matter what. This is not easy to do, but with some know-how and effort we can certainly get closer to such unflappable coolness.
We’ll get there in three parts and each part has three sub-parts:
Part 1: The Stoic Idea: You Control Your Mind and Are Able to Decide What Any Event Will Mean to You
So what is this Stoic idea that can make you invincible?
Let’s look at it in three steps:
- The mind is the only thing you control
- The mind gives you the most powerful ability: judgment
- How judgment helps or breaks you
Let’s dig in.
The Mind Is the Only Thing You Control
“You have been formed of three parts – body, breath, and mind. Of these, the first two are yours insofar as they are only in your care. The third alone is truly yours.” – Marcus Aurelius
The Stoic circle of control contains just one thing: your mind. That’s right, not even your physical body is completely within your control. You could fall ill. You could get injured. You could go bald. You could be hung like a mouse. All not within your complete control.
Yes, you can choose your actions and work out, eat clean, and take all the pills in the world. But the results might still look differently from what you wished. If we could control our bodies, would there be the obesity epidemic?
Point is, your body is not completely under your control.
The only thing we control is our mind, our choices, our actions. (This is why I wanted the finger to be included in the circle, to represent our chosen actions.)
Basically, almost nothing is under our control. Think about all the external events that happen out there in the world. None of them are under our control. However, this gets balanced because we control what we make of those events. We control what we think about those events. We are able to judge those events.
The Mind Gives You the Most Powerful Ability: Judgment
“How appropriate that the gods put under our control only the most powerful ability that governs all the rest – the ability to make the right use of external appearances – and that they didn’t put anything else under our control.” – Epictetus
All you control is your mind. This seems not like much. But, it actually gives us plenty of power.
External events happen as they will, and you get to decide whether they’re good or bad, whether they’re fair or unfair, and whether you like them or not. You don’t control the situation, but you control your opinion about it.
Look, every single thing that happens outside your control – other people, the weather, your physical appearance, sports results, etc. – still presents an area that is in your control. Namely, what you think about that thing. This is plenty of control.
As we control our mind, we get to decide what any event will mean to us.
This is the ultimate power, a true and fair form of control. You don’t control external events but you get your share, you maintain the ability to choose how to respond to those events.
This is exactly what makes you free. You are free to judge everything that happens even if you don’t control what happens.
- How do you judge rain? Good, bad, or indifferent?
- How do you judge the driver that cut you off?
- How do you judge your spouse shouting at you?
Your judgment is your decision, it is your power. It is what makes crooked straight. But it is also what leaves you disturbed…
Let me explain.
How Judgment Helps or Breaks You
“For nothing outside my reasoned choice can hinder or harm it – my reasoned choice alone can do this itself. If we would lean this way whenever we fail, and would blame only ourselves and remember that nothing but opinion is the cause of a troubled mind and uneasiness, then by God, I swear we would be making progress.” – Epictetus
This is worth repeating: “Nothing but opinion is the cause of a troubled mind.”
Outside events happen whether you want them to or not. Now you have the power to judge those events however you want to.
- Is rain good or bad? It’s up to you.
- Is it good or bad that this driver cut you off? Up to you.
If you get annoyed because that driver cut you off, this has been your decision. You do not need to get annoyed. Maybe it was good he cut you off because it made you alert or whatever. You simply don’t know.
Someone can’t frustrate you, rain can’t make you depressed – these are external events that have no access to your mind. Those emotions you feel, as real as they are, do not come from the outside, but from the inside. You generate those emotions and assumptions. You can’t blame outside events for making you feel this way. The cause lies within you.
The Stoics think it’s best not to judge outside events as good or bad. Because they are not under your control. They just happen. They just are as they are. Not good or bad but just as they are. It’s what you make with those events that matters. (I wrote about this in more detail in the article ‘What is Stoicism?’)
Stoic teacher Epictetus put it well:
“For there are two rules to keep at the ready – that there is nothing good or bad outside my own reasoned choice, and that we shouldn’t try to lead events but follow them.”
Your reasoned choice is your judgment about the event. It’s what you choose the event will mean to you. Don’t try to change the way things are, try to change the way you look at those things. That’s where the power lies.
In the words of Ryan Holiday, that’s what your reasonable judgment can do: “It can take the crooked, confusing, overwhelming nature of external events and make them orderly.”
This is why outside events don’t matter so much.
You can straighten them with your judgment.
Or you can be troubled by them because of your judgment.
It’s up to you. The judgment of events is in your power. It’s sitting somewhere behind your eyes.
QUICK RECAP of the Stoic idea that will make you invincible: The Stoic circle of control only contains your mind. It’s the only thing we have complete control over. Outside events happen as they will, we control only what we think about those events. And that’s where our power lies. We don’t get disturbed or delighted by events, but by our judgments about them. No matter what happens, we get to choose what the event will mean to us.
(Little caveat: Thoughts come and go and you cannot control that. But your mind is above those thoughts and has the power to overrule any thought that flatters by.)
Part 2: Why Can Your Mind Make You Invincible? You Can Build a Fortress Mind and Nothing Can Harm You
The Stoic idea is that your ability to control your mind can make you invincible. But why can this make you invincible exactly?
Let’s look at three explanations why the power to control your mind can make you invincible.
The Real Source of Harm Comes From YOUR Judgment
“Keep in mind that it isn’t the one who has it in for you and takes a swipe that harms you, but rather the harm comes from your own belief about the abuse. So when someone arouses your anger, know that it’s really your own opinion fueling it.” – Epictetus
This idea is simple. You get harmed not by what happened, but by your judgment about it. If someone insults you and it harms you, what harms you is playing in your head. It’s your interpretation of what’s been said that harms you. Not what’s been said itself.
If someone shows you the finger and you think he’s kindly waving at you, will you be harmed? No, you’ll be pleased because you interpret the situation differently.
It’s not what happens, but your interpretation that causes the trouble. These situations require your participation in order to be “bad.” In other words, it’s your reaction that decides whether harm has occurred or not.
Let’s say you saw that he showed you the finger. Now you have two options:
- Show him the finger back and swear the hell out of him. --> Have you been harmed? It seems so.
- Don’t react at all. Or smile. --> Have you been harmed? Clearly not. You don’t give a fuck.
It’s not the situation that mattered, but your reaction or non-reaction to it. (Sometimes it’s best to not react at all.)
That’s where the invincibility lies. You cannot be upset by anything outside your control. You choose your reaction to whatever happens. And as Marcus Aurelius put so smartly, “Choose not to be harmed – and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed – and you haven’t been.”
Look, if you choose to, you can shrug off every finger, every bad word, and every attack that’s directed at you with patience and humor. Nothing can harm you if you don’t let it. How can you not be invincible then?
Your mind is untouchable. It’s your emotional reactions that make things worse. This is the reason why it’s so important to keep yourself under calm control.
The Calm Mind Robs Misfortune of Its Strength
“To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden.” – Seneca
Tough and unfortunate situations suck. But this doesn’t mean they have power over you. If you are able to bring a calm mind to these tough situations, you can take the bite out of them and choose a rational and smart response.
This is why one of the main goals of the Stoics was tranquility of the mind. With the mind calm as a morning sea you are able to face adversity with ease and make the best of it.
That’s who you want to be: the relaxed person who radiates calmness in every situation. Your calm will spring over to others and make uncomfortable situations easier to bear for everybody involved.
On the other hand, there is the person who gets upset and angry very easily. This person radiates panic and makes everything worse. You don’t want to be this person. Hear out Marcus Aurelius on this:
“Keep this thought handy when you feel a fit of rage coming on – it isn’t manly to be enraged. Rather, gentleness and civility are more human, and therefore manlier. A real man doesn’t give way to anger and discontent, and such a person has strength, courage, and endurance – unlike the angry and complaining. The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.”
I love that, “The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.”
It’s not about manliness. This is about strength. Men and women with a calm mind are stronger.
Point is, you don’t want to get angry. Anger is a weakness that will never solve any problem. It only makes things worse. You get angry, then the other person gets angry, in the end everybody is angry but the problem is no closer to getting solved.
Don’t get angry at outside events, because these situations don’t care. Your shouts and cries and pains won’t stop the rain or make it any better…
Let’s take the guy who showed you the finger. What does anger help now? Absolutely nothing. It will only make a mountain out of a molehill.
“You can tell the size of a man by the thing that makes him mad.”
True or not, I love this quote from former politician Adlai E. Stevenson.
Strength, or invincibility, lies in the ability to maintain a hold on oneself. It’s being the person who never gets mad, who cannot be shocked, because she is in control of himself and his emotions – rather than controlled by them. (She does feel the emotions but does not get overwhelmed by them.)
So, this is our greatest asset: a calm and reasoned mind. This fortress of a mind prevents us from getting harmed, panicking, and doing something impulsively.
The Anti-Puppet Mindset Gives You Freedom
“If a person gave away your body to some passersby, you’d be furious. Yet you hand over your mind to anyone who comes along, so they may abuse you, leaving you disturbed and troubled – have you no shame in that?” – Epictetus
This is so easy to observe, in yourself and others.
Imagine this scenario: You’re peacefully strolling through the park when suddenly this young headphone skater rolls along and almost crashes into you. Baam! That’s it with the peaceful. You are furious, “This is outrageous! Little bastard! Arrgh!!!”
For the next five minutes you can’t forget that skater boy. Even at the dinner table it’s the number one thing on your mind. It still makes you angry just thinking about it.
Sometimes it takes only little and our mind is disturbed.
What about our fortress mind? Gone.
This young skater boy captured our fortress in a snap. And he didn’t even notice.
We protect our physical body with all our power, but when it comes to our mind, we hand it over to anybody or anything of little annoyance.
We act like puppets. Here’s how Ryan Holiday puts it:
“If someone says something we disagree with, something inside us tells us we have to argue with them. If there’s a plate of cookies in front of us, we have to eat them. If someone does something we dislike, we have to get mad about it. When something bad happens, we have to be sad, depressed, or worried. But if something good happens a few minutes later, all of a sudden we’re happy, excited, and want more.”
We let us jerk around by our impulses like puppets. This makes it sound even worse, but no one is making this happen, it’s totally self-chosen. Remember, the mind is totally ours. We choose what we make of what happens. And if we act like puppets, it’s self-inflicted.
However, it doesn’t need to be like this. We are not puppets and we don’t need to dance this way or that way just because we feel like it. We should be in control and not let our emotions play the puppet strings.
Keep your calm. Don’t hand over your mind to anything. Like Epictetus said, buy tranquility instead:
“Starting with things of little value – a bit of spilled oil, a little stolen wine – repeat to yourself: ‘For such a small price I buy tranquility and peace of mind.’”
Don’t sell your peace of mind for the mindless skater, the guy showing you the finger, or the curry stain on your pants. It’s not worth it. Keep your cool. Build that fortress.
The mind is all yours. You must protect it. They can harm your body, but not your mind. Maintain control over your mind and perceptions at all times. That’s what makes you invincible. Come what may, you stand your woman, you are rock-steady, you are a fortress.
Even in the face of physical pain.
Hear out Marcus on this:
“Either pain affects the body (which is the body’s problem) or it affects the soul. But the soul can choose not to be affected, preserving its own serenity, its own tranquility. All our decisions, urges, desires, aversions lie within. No evil can touch them.”
Pain is real. And pain sucks. (I’m no fan either.) But it’s the body’s problem while the mind stays untouchable.
They can have the body, but the mind stays always yours. Epictetus, who had a lame leg himself, said something interesting, “Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will.”
Disease, physical impairment, or the body behind a prison wall cannot take the power of your mind. You can still choose what those things will mean to you. Your mind has the power to be a fortress that cannot be broken. This is what will make you invincible.
QUICK RECAP why the control of your mind can make you invincible: It’s not outside events that harm you but your interpretation of them, your reactions to them. You have the power to choose not to be harmed and you won’t be. If you bring a calm mind to any situation, you take the bite out of it. You stay cool and think about your best response rather than letting your impulses direct your actions. You feel your emotions, but you don’t get overwhelmed and directed by them. And no matter the situation, your mind stays an untouchable fortress that won’t let you get disturbed, shaken, or beaten.
Part 3: How to Get to the Invincible Fortress Mind? Train Your Mind to Adapt to Any Situation
Everything we’ve just learned sounds so easy. But it isn’t. It might be simple in theory, but it’s all but easy in practice.
It takes a lot of training to get to that invincible fortress mind. Nobody is born with it. It must be built and actively reinforced.
The Stoic idea that we control our mind and that we can decide what any situation means to us only underlines the possibility to be invincible. To actually get there takes a whole lot of practice.
So in this part we’ll look at three Stoic practices that will help you develop the fortress mind.
Prepare for What Lies Ahead of You
“You’ve endured countless troubles – all from not letting your ruling reason do the work it was made for – enough already!” – Marcus Aurelius
Getting angry at that man who shows you the finger. Getting furious and disturbed because of that mindless skater boy who nearly crashed into you. These are troubles that could be prevented. Marcus Aurelius is reminding us (and himself) to let the mind do what it’s been meant to do: To apply reason.
All the troubles we experience are not because of the events that happen, but because of our interpretations of those events. The troubles are self-inflicted. We let us jerk around by external events and unquestioned impulses.
This doesn’t need to be. Our mind was designed to separate what’s important from what is senseless and to only become troubled by that which is worth becoming troubled about. We only need to put it in use. And that requires practice and prevention.
One way to train this is by mentally preparing for difficult situations to arise. You prepare for what lies ahead of you. You imagine shit to happen and to react well to it.
The Stoics called this premeditation of adversity. (I wrote in detail about it here) And the idea is super simple. Try it this way:
Ask yourself right now, “What difficulties could I possibly face tomorrow?” “What could happen that makes me mad, angry, sad, disturbed, overwhelmed?”
When you’re a person who often gets mad in traffic because of other drivers, prepare for such situations. Prepare for the man who honks at you and shows you the finger. Prepare for the driver who cuts you off. Prepare for the cyclist who thinks the street belongs to him.
Marcus Aurelius once said, “How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life.”
I think this is funny because people seem to get surprised at things that happen to them almost every day… This doesn’t make any sense. The most mundane things let people lose their minds. We get disturbed so easily. In the words of Marcus Aurelius this is ridiculous and strange.
If we prepare just a little bit, we can rid ourselves of so many troubles.
Just take five minutes every morning and prepare for difficult situations to arise and you will face them much more calmly. When they happen, you are prepared because you already knew they would happen. Easy-peasy.
Seneca said it well, “This is why we say that nothing happens to the wise person contrary to their expectations.”
Although you prepare for different scenarios to happen, the ultimate outcome lies in the lap of fate. You can imagine all the situations you want, and you can prepare as much as you want, you will never control what happens. Only how you deal with what happens.
Your mental preparation will help you deal with whatever happens. This is the foundation of your fortress mind.
Accept and Even LOVE Everything that Happens
“Floods will rob us of one thing, fire of another. These are conditions of our existence which we cannot change. What we can do is adopt a noble spirit, such a spirit as befits a good person, so that we may bear up bravely under all that fortune sends us and bring our wills into tune with nature’s.” – Seneca
External events happen and we cannot change them. Sometimes those events seem to be against us and make our lives more difficult. While this might be true, we can’t change or undo those events, we can only change the way we think about them.
- Changing events? Impossible.
- Changing our view about those events? Possible.
Focus on the possible and what is under your control. Otherwise you’ll be the victim or the puppet that gets jerked around. If you want to be that fortress mind, you need to accept rather than fight every little thing that happens.
Ryan Holiday said it well, “And the most practiced Stoics take it a step further. Instead of simply accepting what happens, they urge us to actually enjoy what has happened – whatever it is.”
It’s the noble spirit Seneca mentioned in the quote above, the noble spirit that helps us welcome everything that happens and bear it with bravery and gratitude.
Be ready for difficult situations to arise so you can welcome rather than dread them. Things happen for you, not against you, even if it doesn’t seem so. Here’s an example from Ryan Holiday’s book The Daily Stoic that shows this welcoming attitude towards all that happens:
“Stuck in traffic? A few wonderful minutes to relax and sit. Your car broke down after idling for so long? Ah, what a nice nudge to take a long walk the rest of the way. A swerving car driven by a distracted, cell-phone-wielding idiot nearly hit you as you were walking and soaked you head to toe with muddy water? What a reminder about how precarious our existence is and how silly it is to get upset about something as trivial as being late or having trouble with your commute!”
Look, things suck sometimes, and it’s important to acknowledge that. However, you can always make the best of it, you can always practice the love of fate. Things happen for you, even if they suck.
Epictetus said that we should “bring our will into harmony with whatever happens, so that nothing happens against our will and nothing that we wish for fails to happen.”
Write that down on a sticky note and put it somewhere you see it often. This will make everything easier.
Accept and (try to) love whatever happens.
Keep Your Mind in the Present Moment
“Every hour focus your mind attentively on the performance of the task in hand, with dignity, human sympathy, benevolence and freedom, and leave aside all other thoughts. You will achieve this, if you perform each action as if it were your last.” – Marcus Aurelius
Want to be invincible? Keep your mind in the now.
If you lose hold on your mind, you open the gate to your fortress. It’s impossible to be invincible if you’re distracted, if your focus lies somewhere else than the present moment.
Remember, your power lies in your mind, your power lies in what you control. Now if you hand over this control to some distraction, you hand over your power. Simple as ABC.
Keep your mind in the here and now.
Otherwise, says Epictetus, you’ll have difficulties to bring it back:
“Do you not realize that when once you have let your mind go wandering, it is no longer in your power to recall it, to bring it back to what is right, to self-respect, to moderation?”
How are you going to judge the situation in a reasonable manner if your mind is off on the beach with your crush?
I’m sure this is a great daydream, but you’re giving away your presence and thus your power to choose what any situation will mean to you. And that’s when you go with your impulses. That’s being the puppet all over again.
So how do you get better at being present?
Observe yourself. Observe your thoughts. Observe your actions.
That’s what you’ve got to do if you want to live by any Stoic idea. It’s necessary if you want to better yourself, it’s a prerequisite if you want to build that fortress mind. Observe your thoughts and actions. Bring your focus back to the moment. Ask yourself several times a day:
“What am I doing RIGHT NOW?”
Remind yourself to be mindful. Put reminders into place, just like the sticky note with the Epictetus quote I advised you to write down and put somewhere you see it often.
Here’s one thing I do to be more present:
I do not often wear a finger ring. So I put on my presence ring on days when I want to be especially mindful. I write down certain things I want to do today (e.g. “Today I want to smile often.” Or “Today I want to be as helpful as possible.”) and tell myself that I put on the ring as a reminder. Every time I notice that I am wearing the ring, I remind myself of the things I want to do well today. Super simple and super effective. It just helps me be more present.
QUICK RECAP how to build your fortress mind: If you want to stay cool in the face of adversity, then prepare for difficult situations to happen in advance. Imagine things that could go wrong and how you want to deal with them. And welcome everything that happens with a noble spirit. Tell yourself that what happens, happens specifically for you, even if it doesn’t seem so. That way it’s easier to accept rather than fight every little thing that happens. It’s necessary that you bring your attention to the present moment. Practice that by observing yourself and reminding yourself to be present.
Conclusion – Is the Invincible Fortress Mind Possible?
“Who then is invincible? The one who cannot be upset by anything outside their reasoned choice.“ – Epictetus
The Stoics had this idea that you can control your mind but not outside events. You get a fair share because even though you don’t control those events, you decide what those events will mean to you. This gives you plenty of power – the power to be invincible.
Control your mind --> decide what any event will mean to you.
No matter what happens, your mind stays untouchable. You stay in control, you decide whether you get harmed or not. Therefore the events do not matter so much to the Stoics, all that matters is what you make of it. That lies within your control.
If you can bring a calm and reasonable mind to any situation, you bring strength with you and you will be able to decide what the smartest reaction or non-reaction will be.
Keep a calm mind --> misfortune can’t harm you.
That’s when you don’t get jerked around by your impulses because you hold the puppet strings in your own hands and you decide what to do and what not.
Prepare for shit to happen and be ready to take whatever happens with gratitude. It happens for you even if it doesn’t seem so. The most important factor here is presence. You need to stay present at all times in order to keep your fortress mind. Once you’re lost in thought you give away your power and invincibility.
Develop the present mind --> keep your fortress at all times.
Now, obviously, I love this idea. It gives me plenty of power and responsibility for my own life. But will it actually make me invincible?
Will you be invincible?
Most certainly not. Even Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the one who taught us so much, always had to remind himself of those things. Yet he slipped. We will, too. And that’s ok. However, this idea and the strategies help us build a mind less prone to external events. We will not be invincible, but we’ll be way more resilient and calm, and at the same time less distracted and irritated.
Even if we’re willing to build a fortress mind we will probably end up with a cottage mind, which is still much better than the house of cards mind we have right now.
Thanks for reading.