Constructing an Inner Citadel
by Paul Wilson
‘Permacrisis’ has been declared word of the year by the Collins English Dictionary. The term is intended to describe a prolonged period of instability and insecurity. As we slowly recover from a pandemic, contend with a global cost-of-living crisis, and worry about the escalation of a European war, it is hard to dispute the relevance of the word. Permacrisis has become our new normal. A dystopian state we all inhabit.
The successive impacts of a permacrisis can take a toll upon our health and wellbeing. Adverse experiences tend to have adverse consequences – unless we take protective steps to mitigate their harmful effects. So, in these times of permacrisis, we should focus as never before upon the necessity of self-care.
Self-care is not a straightforward matter. Our natural inclination to take care of ourselves can be eroded by the continuous waves of crisis. In our stressed and anxious response, we may turn instead towards coping strategies that are ultimately self-destructive, such as drinking too much alcohol or eating too much unhealthy food – or worse. Thus, the slow suicide of self-destruction begins.
We need to make better choices than that, for our own sake and for the sake of those we love and support. Instead of seeking pain relief in the fridge or the pharmacy, we should delve into the eternal toolkit of Stoicism. There we can equip ourselves properly for permacrisis.
Modern models of personal growth offer the prospect of ascension towards higher states of being. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, Martin Seligman’s PERMA model of positive psychology, and the Five Ways to Wellbeing are good examples. Stoicism too is a method of ascension. It provides us with entry level practices and the prospect of a slow climb towards the mystical realm of self-transcendence. Anyone who has ever been to that metaphorical mountain top, however briefly, knows how beautiful the view is. The is no material reward to match it.
But in a time of permacrisis, personal growth can be too lofty a goal – iron pyrites rather than real gold. Self-care is the treasure we seek. The purpose of self-care is not to turn us into physical and psychological super-people. While incremental improvements to our wellbeing are always desirable, sometimes stability is the best outcome we can hope for – especially in a crisis. Self-care can help us function during difficult times, until we have an opportunity to flourish once again. That is a far better fate than a precipitous descent into dysfunction. There is a lot to be said for reaching a safe plateau and waiting out the bad weather, rather than trying to scale a lofty peak in poor conditions!
Stoicism provides us with a self-care toolkit that should be labelled ‘open in the event of an emergency’. Ideally it would be used well before then, in line with Seneca’s famous instruction: ‘If you would not have a man flinch when crisis comes, train him before it comes.’
But if a permacrisis is already upon us, Stoicism still offers us solace, strength and practical tools. In this respect it is superior to modern schools of self-care and personal growth – at least in my opinion.
So, what awaits us in this fabled toolkit? What stabilising, fortifying practices might we seek? They truly are too numerous to mention, so I shall recommend those that have been most useful to me during these years of permacrisis…
1. Try ‘The dichotomy of control’ and create a tranquil self in a turbulent world
“Nowhere you can go should be more peaceful – and freer of interruptions – than your own soul.” – Marcus Aurelius
Stoicism has many dimensions, but its central concerns are exercising control and practising virtue (i.e. personal excellence and prosocial behaviour). In a permacrisis, control is a rare and precious resource. We may find ourselves buffeted by the winds of fate, but at the centre of a storm lies a calm spot – often referred to as the eye. This is what we should seek to be in a crisis: the calm, all-seeing centre of the maelstrom.
How do we achieve this state? By recognising our true span of control, which extends only to our thoughts, feelings and actions. That is the sovereign territory over which we alone rule, should we choose to. And how do we govern this space? By practicing four simple virtues: seeking wisdom, showing courage, dispensing justice and exercising moderation.
From the repetition of these practices, we receive powerful psychological rewards, like sustainable self-esteem and a profound sense of mastery. We are also better able to support others.
Suggested excercise: Think of yourself as a monarch, newly ascended to the throne of a promising but troubled country. How would you rule it? What laws would you enact? How would you treat your subjects? What would your policy be toward other nations? How would you want history to remember your reign?
2. Practice ‘premeditatio malorum’ and anticipate and mitigate problems
“Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck…All human possibilities should be before your eyes.” – Seneca
Premeditatio malorum roughly translates as the premeditation of evils. In modern mental health language, this practice might be called ‘negative visualisation’ or ‘depressive realism’. I simply call it good sense.
One way of coping with a crisis is to imagine its most extreme form – to stare into the abyss, to summon monsters. Cultivating a worst-case scenario mentality may seem a depressing practice, but it serves a positive purpose: preparation for life’s trials. If we plan for the worse and it transpires, we are prepared for it; if the worst doesn’t happen, we are pleasantly surprised. Either way we avoid being fate’s playthings.
We can even extend the exercise to everyday life, by expecting little and desiring less. That way life rarely disappoints, and it often delights. If we expect too much of life and receive too little – especially during a crisis – we will experience the opposite psychological experience: a debilitating sense of disappointment. That is best avoided.
Suggested exercise: Imagine a storm is coming. The weather forecast suggests it will be severe, perhaps one of the worst on record. How will you prepare your home for this onslaught and its aftermath? What steps will you take to protect your property and minimise damage? Then think about how you will feel if the storm passes, and only superficial damage has been done due to your wise actions.
3. Say ‘It is returned’ and turn loss and grief into gratitude
“Never in any case say I have lost such a thing but say ‘I have returned it’” – Epictetus
We live in an age of escalating losses. COVID-19 cost many lives and curtailed our freedom of movement and choice; the Ukraine war is resulting in a loss of life and energy security; the cost-of-living crisis is causing a loss of financial stability at individual, national and international levels. How do we deal with the psychological impact of such serious and successive losses?
Stoicism provides an answer: changing our attitude to ownership. When we feel a strong sense of control over people, possessions, or personal destiny we are much more vulnerable to their loss. We experience it as a profound existential shock. But in truth we own nothing. Everything we have is borrowed. At the end of our lives, all we possess must be returned to its true maker – whether we see that entity as God, fate, or physics.
How does this Stoic perspective help us? By reminding us that time is our most precious resource and that we should spend it wisely, for we do not know how much of it we have. Cultivating that attitude makes us more grateful for all we have in the present moment, instead of fixating upon the unchangeable past or fantasising about the unknowable future. Stoicism asks us to be responsible borrowers – i.e., to pay our earthly debts on time and with interest.
Suggested exercise: Imagine you have dropped and smashed a family heirloom – say a piece of crockery. Perhaps it was a gift to you from a beloved family member who has now passed on. Your natural reaction is to be upset by the loss of such a treasured object, but how might you soften the blow and help yourself process the loss?
4. Try ‘Physical definition’ and reduce desire for things that are unnecessary or harmful
“How important it is to say to oneself, ‘This purple vestment is some sheep’s hair moistened in the blood of some shellfish.’ “ – Marcus Aurelius
When Marcus wrote those words, he was referring to his imperial robe – the colour-coded symbol of his status as the world’s most powerful man. Yet Marcus wore his power lightly, as all wise people do. He reminded himself of what that purple garment really was when broken down into its constituent parts: merely some wool shorn from a farmyard animal and dyed with the liquified remains of a shellfish. In doing so he broke the spell cast by the appearance of power.
You do not have to be a rich or powerful person to benefit from this exercise. Its logic can be fruitfully applied in anyone’s life. In a cost-of-living crisis, we might use it to resist the urge to spend money on things we don’t really need, and which might not be good for us anyway. However alluring possessions or experiences may seem, we can reduce our desire for them through the practice of physical definition.
Suggested exercise: Think about a typical fast-food meal. It may look, smell and even taste delicious. It’s also cheap and convenient. Just visualising this easily affordable feast makes you eager to eat it. But if you were to use the practice of ‘physical definition’, how else might you describe this imaginary meal, to deter yourself from eating it?
5. Practice ‘The view from above’ and restore perspective
“Think of substance in its entirety, of which you have the smallest of shares; and of time in its entirety, of which a brief and momentary span has been assigned to you; and of the works of destiny, and how very small is your part in them.” – Marcus Aurelius
When all else fails, restore perspective. At times of crisis in my own life, when I felt overwhelmed by demands and emotions, I consoled myself with the fact that 100 years into the future I would be dust and all the issues that troubled me so would be forgotten. Ultimately, I am a simple creature of no significance to anyone except my loved ones. When I die, they will mourn my loss, but few others will notice my absence, let alone care about it. And when my loved ones too pass away all memory of me will fade with them.
That may seem like a bleak perspective, but as I write these words I am infused with a sense of serenity, because I have subdued my ego, accepted my modest place in the grand scheme of things and gained valuable perspective. This is a powerful therapeutic practice. In the modern world we might call the exercise ‘psychological distancing’, though the aim is the same as ‘the view from above’ – stepping away from a situation so we can gain new perspective on it.
Suggested exercise: Imagine you are viewing our planet and your problems from the surface of the moon – or Mercury, or Venus. Alternatively, consider your present troubles from a time in the distant past or from far into the future. How significant do your difficulties seem then? Clearly, they are still important, but do they perhaps appear a little smaller and more manageable when you alter your perspective on them in time or space?
Marcus Aurelius offered us an image so that we might visualise Stoicism and get a sense of how it works: the inner citadel. This is worth expanding upon. Think of a high-walled, hilltop fortress that looks out over a peaceful land. The fortress is heavily guarded and well-provisioned. Its lofty vantage point offers views to the horizon in every direction. Enemies can be seen from far away, no matter how stealthily they approach. A surprise attack is impossible. Conquest too.
In the centre of the citadel is a temple. In the temple is a statue of a person. The fortress exists to protect this statue. It is the image of a wise, just and loving ruler. The statue is beautiful in form, because it has been carefully sculpted over many years by three masters of their art.
The citadel is, of course, Stoicism and the statue is the perfected and protected self. As for the master sculptors, they are Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius – the Stoic sages. They can construct a citadel for you too, so that you may sculpt and protect your best self. But they cannot build it without your labour.
Paul Wilson is a former head of community mental health services and strategic lead for the prevention of mental health issues and the promotion of wellbeing in disadvantaged communities. Paul now works as the head of staff wellbeing at a UK university, where he promotes preventative practice, psychological safety, self-care and a culture of wellbeing. Stoicism is his preferred form of self-care.