Consolations for Frustrations: Thoughts from Seneca

Philosophy is a powerful tool for the mind. Not only does it provide us with a source of creativity and thought, but it also allows us to better understand the things that plague our souls: anger, shock, injustice, and anxiety.

Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca thought much about these frustrations. He lived in a time of considerable discontent, serving as tutor and teacher for Emperor Nero, who was as vicious as he was unpredictable. At the time of Seneca's forced suicide, Nero has already murdered his half brother, his mother, and his wife, along with a number of senators equestrians by means of crocodiles and lions. Reportedly, Nero walked about Rome as it burned to the ground in the great fire of 64, lightly strolling in song.

As a philosopher, Seneca recognized this disconnect from one's wishes and one's reality. Being so close to Nero, he understood and predicted that he too would one day fall victim to his wrath, a prediction that came true in AD 65.

But what made Seneca such an interesting figure is how he maintained himself during these times, consoling his students and wife, even as he cut his own wrists and drank poison at the command of his former student. To Seneca, philosophy was able to reconcile us to the true dimensions of reality, perhaps not sparing us the frustration itself as much as sparing us from the accompanying emotions that lead one to prolonged misery.

In these lessons, many parallels can be drawn to yogic practices, which hint at similar thoughts and consolations. An undercurrent of acceptance breathes throughout the Bhagavad Gita, a founding text for yoga and its practice. This same acceptance – and rational ability to acknowledge and understand one's changeable (or unchangeable) reality – is at times as much apparent in Seneca's writing as it is Patajanli's.

Consolations for Frustrations

In his writing of Seneca, author Alain de Botton separates the frustrations into 4 simple categories: anger, shock, injustice, and anxiety. Each is rooted in frustration of some form, and in each, Seneca offers advice that is meant to ameliorate the pain of the soul.

  • AngerReason does not always govern our actions, and in many cases of extreme anger, one will point to another faculty at play. It was not the "self" that acted this way, but something stronger that, in brief, came over the self and forced a word (or worse, a hand). Seneca regarded anger as a close relative to madness – a blind emotion that followed little in the way of sanity. To Seneca, the root of this emotion was a grounding in dangerously optimistic notions. Fanciful thoughts of what would be "normal" cloud the judgement, and when they are not met, anger is born/
    • The Consolation: When one was faced with dashed expectations, Seneca encourages the thinker to adjust the scale. As eloquently put by de Botton, "We must reconcile ourselves to the necessarily imperceptibility of existence." Seneca poses the question, "Is it surprising that the wicked should do wicked deeds?" With hope comes inevitable let down. Therefore, one will stop being so angry when one stops being so hopeful.
  • ShockIn the same grain of anger one finds shock. Shock that a loved one has died, or that a plane has crashed over the ocean. Truly, these are emotional times, as the loss of life and love is a difficult occurrence for any person, philosopher or not. After all, it's difficult for us to imagine that today – this day – will hold a fate very much different than other days, let alone the end of one's fate. At the crossroads of seemingly everlasting continuity and cataclysm comes shock: How could this have happened? 
    • The Consolation: Seneca pointed to one mythic figure in this phenomenon of shock: Fortune. A goddess at the time of his writing, the idea of Luck or Fortune still breathes true to this day. Some seem to be lavishly wealthy, other astoundingly impoverished, for little more than the reason of chance. To Seneca, the reality that his entity permeated at parts of life, at times stealing children from the healthy and successful and at times providing long life to the poor, required one to understand a simple truth: There is nothing which Fortune does not dare. The possibility of disaster, therefore, must remain in mind at all times. We are mistaken to assume any part of the world is safe, as nature has not created anything that is immobile. Expect everything.
  • InjusticeMorals, ethics, and social norms make up a large part of society. Most, if not all, societies practice a creed of justice or what ought to be, expounding a set of morals by means of vocalization or example from pious leaders. Though the world's many codes may at times conflict with each other, independently they each derive meaning from one simple truth: Goodness = Reward, Evil = Punishment. Entire legal systems have been built around this simple principle. Unfortunately, though, these codes are oft broken, misapplied, or entirely missing in times when they are needed most. This leaves us feeling frustrated at the injustice that has occurred. Why would one's son be taken away by death, for example, when the parents so devoutly followed ethical and moral codes? Why would one suffer tragedy when they've done nothing short of practice supremely divine karmic yoga?
    • The Consolation: With injustice so prevalent in the world, Seneca comes to a conclusion that seems to be at odds with the very foundation of our morals. Your moral worth does not determine your destiny. The belief that the world is fundamentally just is simply wrong. At one time in his life, Seneca was stripped of his wealth, family, friends, and reputation, exiled to the desolate and undeveloped island of Corsica, untouched by Rome's modernity. Self-blame and bitterness could easily bubble up in a person, especially one who spent his life teaching others. The moral universe seems to be a false one. But to Seneca, the actor was at play as was with shock: Fortune. Whether kind or diabolical, this purely random element in the path of human destinies was unavoidable. To believe that morals somehow protected one from her was erroneous. Again, Seneca urges one to expect everything.
  • Anxiety: Anxiety is a common feeling, characterized by a sense of uncertainly and worry, when one should otherwise be feeling enjoyment. It's the sense one has when they wish for the best, but feel that things will turn out for the worst. For example, in preparation of your work review or presentation to the Board of Directors on your latest project, you may feel the true desire to exceed expectations. But somewhere deep inside your gut, you feel a clenching, twisting feeling: It will all go wrong, and you've overlooked the most simple of details. This is anxiety, and it is a frustration so powerful that it can sap one of pleasure and joy, even when these positives surround them.
    • The Consolation: To Seneca, reassurance was the first solution presented to the anxious. It was something of a "Don't worry – it will be alright" form of consolation. Ultimately, he rejected this, as it did little to ameliorate anxious suffering, and in the case that the consolation was wrong, it did little to prepare the person for reality. Instead, Seneca offered a slightly more callous, yet substantially more effective solution: pragmatic acceptance and reflection. "You very well may fail at your presentation, but this isn't as big an issue as you think." More so, Seneca held  that when on rationally looked at the realities of what would happen when our desires were unfulfilled, they would slowly move to a place of more modest worry. Lack of a promotion was bad, sure, but is it as bad as what you assumed prior to your analysis of the anxiety?  To further this, Seneca mentioned the teachings of Epicurus, who is known for his emphasis on 'food, friends, and thought' as being a means to a happy life. Epicurus would, at times, dine only on thin soup and stale bread. In this concerted effort to keep perspective, the anxious worry of losing wealth dissipated. It truly is not that bad.

Acceptance of the Self and Yoga

The strongest undercurrent to yoga in these teachings is that of acceptance. Though there are disconnects with specific teachings in yoga, the lessons expounded by Seneca are still useful for thought, and evaluating one's on place on the path. Consider the main points to each consolation:

  • For anger, one must understand that what will be, will be. The wicked shall be wicked. Our enemies will treat us badly. The remote will be lost.
  • For shock, one must understand that any and all things can happen. Fate is dictated by little other than reality, and reality is difficult to fully understand. There is no reason to think today cannot be a fateful day.
  • For injustice, one must understand that we do not live in a vacuum, where only morals determine fate. Fortune spares none, positive or negative, and to hope that good practice alone can seal one's destiny is wishful.
  • For anxiety, one must understand that what we fear is often worse than what is. Wrapping one up in anxious thought serves only to stress and bewilder the mind. Dine on stale bread, and soon you will realize that even stale bread is not that bad.

What's more, Seneca directs us to one shining pathway to salvation: thought. It is in thought that the understanding Seneca suggests that one reprieves themselves from woe. In yoga, this attention to thought, reason, and ultimately belief and faith in the universe and what it chooses, is what allows one to take a step closer to enlightenment. While the beliefs and actions surely differed from Seneca to yogis, their similarities aren't without notice.

Take a moment to re-read these consolations. Write your frustrations under each section, and consider the thoughts Seneca has offered. Retrace them back to your own practice and learnings. By doing so, you allow the self to engage in deeper reflection, bringing you closer to the true self and, most importantly, joy.