Ancient Wisdom to Improve Mental Health

October 5, 2021

Do you ever wonder whether the modern world really holds all the answers? Despite having more wealth, comfort, and security than every other society that has ever existed, those of us living in the Western world today also seem to have more stress, anxiety, and worse mental health than ever before.

It’s no wonder, then, that we turn to other cultures and ancient wisdom for answers. People have been asking questions about how to live a “good life” since the dawn of civilization. And it turns out, they often found the same answers. Ancient Roman and Greek philosophers, Buddhists, Taoists, Christians, and indigenous cultures from all over the world have discovered the same routes to happiness and better mental health.

And luckily for us, all that hard-earned ancient wisdom is available for application in our day to day lives. Here are three of the most important lessons we can learn from ancient wisdom for our mental health.

1. Live in the present moment – and stop worrying!

classic statues Plato sitting

How often do you find yourself worrying about the future, or dwelling on the past, even when you know you’re powerless to change it? If that sounds like you, you’re in good company! In fact, people have been struggling to live in the moment for millennia. But time and time again, ancient wisdom shows us that if we can master living in the moment, we’ll be one big step closer to peace and happiness.

When you need a reminder to stop worrying, just remember one of these quotes:

“Caretake this moment. Immerse yourself in its particulars. Respond to this person or that person, this challenge, this deed. Quit the evasions. Stop giving yourself needless trouble. It is time to really live; to fully inhabit the situation you happen to be in right now. You are not a disinterested bystander. Participate. Exert yourself.” — Epictetus – Greek philosopher (and former slave), 55 – 135 AD

“True happiness is… to enjoy the present without anxious dependence on the future.” – Seneca – Roman Stoic philosopher, 4 BC – AD65

“Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.” – Seneca

“As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are. Otherwise, you will miss most of your life.” -Buddha, 6th and 4th centuries BCE

“There were many terrible things in my life, and most of them never happened.” ― Michel de Montaigne – French Catholic philosopher, 1533-1592

He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.” ― Michel de Montaigne

2. Let go of the things you can’t control

Laozi statue in yuanxuan taoist temple guangzhou

Ancient thinkers from around the world all agree on this: if you’re looking for happiness, you have to accept that you can’t control everything. In our hectic modern lives, there are so many things we can’t control – and that lack of control can leave us feeling anxious, stressed, and overwhelmed. Learning to accept those things we can’t control is a big ask: but it’s a surefire way to live a less anxious, more fulfilling life. Just take it from these wise sages:

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” – Laozi – Founding Taoist philosopher, 6th century BCE

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” — Marcus Aurelius – Roman emperor and philosopher, 121 – 180 AD

“Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” – Buddha

“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.” — Epictetus

“Not being able to govern events, I govern myself” ― Michel de Montaigne

“Everything flows and nothing abides, everything gives way, and nothing stays fixed.” – Heraclitus Greek philosopher, 6th century BCE

“For the only safe harbour in this life’s tossing, troubled sea is to refuse to be bothered about what the future will bring and to stand ready and confident, squaring the breast to take without skulking or flinching whatever fortune hurls at us.” – Seneca

3. Learn to control your thoughts

Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius

We all know how it feels like when our thoughts run away with us. Like when you find yourself lying wide awake at night, reliving that horribly embarrassing thing you did 10 years ago. Or when you waste an afternoon worrying about where your life might be in 20 years. Once again, it’s comforting to know we’re not alone. Michel de Montaigne noticed the same thing happening when he lived in 16th century France:

“So it is with minds. Unless you keep them busy with some definite subject that will bridle and control them, they throw themselves in disorder…in the vague field of imagination… And there is no mad or idle fancy that they do not bring forth in the agitation.” ― Michel de Montaigne

The truth is, these kinds of thoughts are never helpful or productive. This is why ancient wisdom tells us again and again: learn to control your thoughts, and you’re one step closer to happiness. It’s not surprising that mindfulness, meditation, and yoga have all boomed over the last few years. They’re all different ways of controlling our thoughts, inspired by ancient wisdom like this:

“Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts.” – Buddha

“Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become.” – Heraclitus

“It is the mark of an educated man to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Aristotle – Greek philosopher, 384–322 BCE

“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny” – Laozi

“To a mind that is still the whole universe surrenders.” – Laozi

“We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.” – Seneca

One of the greatest benefits of all this ancient wisdom. It reminds us that we aren’t alone. We aren’t the first people trying to figure out happiness, and we won’t be the last. All of us, whether we live in ancient China, medieval France, or modern-day America, are just trying to find our way through life’s challenges as best we can. This means, luckily for us, these ancient lessons are just as relevant today as they were 2000 years ago.

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