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The Stoic Way To Pray

Rather than praying for pleasure, people, or phenomena, pray for inner strength and wisdom.

About a month ago, I read this quote in The Daily Stoic, and I’ve been going back to it over and over again. I find it such a profound, insightful, and rich quote:

"Try praying differently, and see what happens: Instead of asking for 'a way to sleep with her,' try asking for 'a way to stop desiring to sleep with her.' Instead of 'a way to get rid of him,' try asking for 'a way to not crave his demise.' Instead of 'a way to not lose my child,' try asking for 'a way to lose my fear of it.'"

—Marcus Aurelius, Stoic Emperor

When we encounter problems, inconveniences, or difficulties, most of us instinctively put our focus on the external thing. The problem is, we cannot control external things; we can only control our mind and our actions. Desire and demand towards external things is what causes us suffering. Instead of praying or desiring for these external things to be different, we should instead seek the internal strength and wisdom to handle it effectively.

Example 1: Pleasure

Marcus Aurelius said,

Instead of asking for 'a way to sleep with her,' try asking for 'a way to stop desiring to sleep with her.'

I reflected:

Instead of wishing I had the stomach to eat more of this delicious food, or the time to watch another episode of this drama, or the money to buy that nice-to-have thing, instead I should ask myself, “How can I have the peace of mind that is unmoved by external and temporary things?

This is why I am such a big fan of philosophy. In the past, I always sought temporary external pleasures, which left me craving for more afterwards. But philosophy taught me to access internal joy through being a good person and helping others. This internal joy is in my control, and it makes my life and the life of others better and better.

Example 2: People

Marcus Aurelius said,

Instead of 'a way to get rid of him,' try asking for 'a way to not crave his demise.'

I reflected:

Instead of praying for other people to be better, pray for myself to be better able to deal with all sorts of people.

Before, I always focused on the other person’s problems and how THEY need to change. But that just creates misery for the both of us. Philosophy taught me that whenever people or things don’t go according to our hopes, we need to reflect on our mistakes and how we could’ve done better.

For example, I used to always get upset when people misunderstood me as being careless or having negative intentions when I was actually trying to be thoughtful or had positive intentions. Eventually, I learned that misunderstandings are inevitable. No one can read your mind. I misunderstand others too.

Therefore, rather than wanting others to understand me or have the carefulness to check that they understood me, I should just ask myself to be OK with people misunderstanding me, and then I can kindly and patiently communicate with them to correct misunderstandings. Next time, I would try to communicate better to avoid the same mistake.

Some others are rude, disrespectful, untrustworthy, etc., but that’s their situation, why must I get upset? Or even worse, become a demanding tyrant, ordering them to become “good” right away? It is normal to encounter difficult people in life. Rather than demanding others to change, I should ask myself to be a good enough influence and role model that could inspire them to change over the long-run.

Example 3: Phenomena

Marcus Aurelius said,

“Instead of 'a way to not lose my child,' try asking for 'a way to lose my fear of it.'”

I reflected:

Instead of asking for something to happen or not happen, how can I be fine either way? How can I make good use of either outcome?

For example, I have an upcoming test and interview for a university program I applied for. To be honest, I don’t feel I have the ability yet to pass my upcoming university interview and test, which is less than a month away. Despite this, I don't feel anxious or worried because I prepared my mindset properly right from the beginning.

What is my intention for applying to this university program? To make my parents happy and to serve the world better. If I pass, great. If not, that's good too. I can still do lots of other things to make my parents happy and to serve this world, and I have the patience to apply again next year. I will judge myself based on my effort, not on the result.

Not passing would only affect my ego, which seeks pleasure from external prestige. I like the analogy given in the book Think Like a Monk: we have a Monkey Mind (the ego) and a Monk Mind (wise mind). When our ego is strong, our wisdom is weak. Philosophy helps us train our wise mind, then the ego naturally becomes weaker. Through the process of preparing for this test and interview, I care more about training my mind as opposed to the final outcome.


What is something external that you want? How can you change that desire to be internal?


Weekly Wisdom Newsletter #207


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