Designing the Mind

Amor Fati

How to Embrace Reality, from Epictetus to Nietzsche

Most people are at their best when their life is going according to plan. But life seems to have very little respect for us and our plans in general. It puts us in unpleasant and sometimes tragic situations, it’s utterly unmoved by our demands and complaints, and I think we’ve got a strong case for a class-action lawsuit. Who’s with me?

Until someone starts holding the universe accountable, the best thing we can do is adapt to reality. A number of practical philosophies teach mindsets and methods for becoming less vulnerable to unexpected changes in life. And nothing captures this spirit better than the principle of amor fati, or the love of fate.




"Barn's burnt down --
I can see the moon.

- Mizuta Masahide

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Now, possibly my favorite concept in the history of philosophy is Amor Fati. It has an almost magical, sacred quality for me. Amor fati is the attitude of radical acceptance and embrace of what is. The mindset that everything in the universe is exactly as it should be – even when it seems displeasing to many in the moment. And this mindset is what I believe to be the ultimate key to deep happiness – maybe even enlightenment.

Some of the first to propose this mindset were ancient Greek philosophies like Stoicism. In Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, Stoic scholar Donald Robertson gives some context to this aspirational mindset:

The concept of amor fati encapsulates the Stoic attitude of acceptance fundamental to the discipline of desire. The Sage has a sense of natural ‘piety’ or reverence towards the universe as a whole and, although he does what he judges appropriate in any given situation, sometimes requiring great courage or self-discipline, he nevertheless accepts the outcome with complete equanimity.

The Stoics held that because everything in the universe is causally determined, it could not be any other way than it is, and hence there is no point resisting it. Furthermore, anyone who understands the nature of their own happiness will see that seemingly “good” circumstances are no more effective for cultivating individual greatness than seemingly “bad” ones.

"Don't seek to have events happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and all will be well with you."

- Epictetus

But it’s not just the Stoics who preached this attitude toward life. For 19th-Century philosophy Friedrich Nietzsche, who is thought to have coined the term himself, the great life was one characterized by the affirmation of life. He also felt it was possible and desirable for a person to learn to truly love life, not just the seemingly pleasant parts of it.

This person could live cheerfully even while enduring adversity and pain, and could embrace who they were with unapologetic pride. They could learn to say “yes” to life, even to the point of willing that they should relive it the exact same way for all of eternity, a notion known as eternal recurrence. Nietzsche held in high regard the sentiment of amor fati.

"Everything that is necessary, when seen from above and from the perspective of the vast economy of the whole, is in itself equally useful. We must not only put up with it, but love it...Amor fati: that is my innermost nature."

- Friedrich Nietzsche

And the world of Eastern philosophy, from Hinduism to Buddhism to Taoism is packed with similar sentiments on the art of non-resistance and non-attachment.

“Those whose consciousness is unified abandon all attachment to the results of action and attain supreme peace. But those whose desires are fragmented, who are selfishly attached to the results of their work, are bound in everything they do.”

- Bhagavad Gita

I could go on – all of the wisest thinkers in history seem to have been in agreement on this concept. Many of us aspire to this type of equanimity, but is this attitude actually possible in real life? Can you really maintain your sense of peace, even on a day when your boss lashed out at you, you totaled your car, and someone just came up to you and said you’d be prettier if you smiled?

When our hardships can be as serious as unemployment and divorce, loss and death, global pandemics and environmental destruction, how can we actually embrace them in the midst of chaos?

Use illuminating thought experiments

There are tons of useful thought experiments we can bring to mind when life is in flux and everything seems to be going wrong. One particularly effective experiment was put forward by the eloquent teacher of Eastern wisdom, Alan Watts:

Let’s suppose that you were able every night to dream any dream you wanted to dream, and that you could, for example, have the power within one night to dream 75 years of time, or any length of time you wanted to have. And you would, naturally, as you began on this adventure of dreams, you would fulfill all your wishes. You would have every kind of pleasure you could conceive. And after several nights of 75 years of total pleasure each you would say “Well that was pretty great. But now let’s have a surprise, let’s have a dream which isn’t under control, where something is gonna happen to me that I don’t know what it’s gonna be.” And you would dig that and would come out of that and you would say “Wow that was a close shave, wasn’t it?” Then you would get more and more adventurous and you would make further- and further-out gambles what you would dream. And finally, you would dream where you are now. You would dream the dream of living the life that you are actually living today.

It’s quite a powerful idea – that you might have chosen to make your life exactly as it is today. And we can see an eerily similar exercise in Donald Robertson’s work on Stoicism:

Imagine that the universe has been designed to present you with challenges, from time to time, perhaps as if they are a form of therapy prescribed by Zeus, so that you can progress towards Happiness by accepting them and responding appropriately, in accord with virtue. Similarly, imagine that you unconsciously chose and created your own fate, in its entirety, to help yourself learn and grow as an individual.

These experiments get to what I think may be the very heart of Nietzsche’s mysterious idea of eternal recurrence. If we go a bit deeper into this experiment, we can unlock a breakthrough mindset.

So we’re going to assume that your life was designed, exactly as it is and will be, by you. We’ll call this you who designed it “director you.” And as you go about your life as “protagonist you,” you are becoming increasingly conscious of this fact.

When you get hurt, you begin to say, “ahh okay, so that must have happened to bring about this type of growth.” When things don’t go according to plan, you say “ahhh I see what you did there, director me, you sneaky genius. This is starting to make sense.”

And when you are finally able to will, assent to, and affirm everything that happens – backward into the past and forward into the future – you start to take ownership over every moment. The obstacles and setbacks begin to feel as if they belonged to you – as if you had designed them for yourself.

In his allegorical work, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s protagonist says:

"I am a wanderer and mountain-climber, said he to his heart. I love not the plains, and it seems I cannot long sit still. And whatever may still overtake me as fate and experience—a wandering will be therein, and a mountain-climbing: in the end one experiences only oneself. The time is now past when accidents could befall me; and what could now fall to my lot which would not already be my own!"

As you grow in wisdom, you begin to understand, more and more, the patterns of your own hypothetical design. You begin to see the landscape of considerations that led you to do things that way. And as you do, protagonist you starts to become one with director you.

The events of your life are no longer like happenstance occurrences – they are telling signs that slowly reveal to you the topography of growth. This goes beyond the simple, “find a way to be positive” attitude associated with amor fati. He says “one experiences only oneself” because you have willed this moment, designed it for yourself, and learned to make contact with the mindset from which you designed it.

When you learn to think the way your wiser, director self thinks, you become the director. You start “designing” things to happen the way they do, in real time. And once this happens, the fact that this thought experiment isn’t literally true – the fact that you didn’t actually design your life – becomes irrelevant. The world may be a series of “accidents,” but when you own it and will it to be as it was and will be, the accident becomes necessity.

Zarathustra says “The time is now past when accidents could befall me” because when one masters the spirit of amor fati, it is as if accidents can no longer happen to you. You have learned to understand their patterns, integrate them into yourself, and habitually affirm them. They belong to you. They are you.

Play the Reframe Game

I’ve talked quite a bit about the importance of logging your mental algorithms. And many of us are familiar with the practice of gratitude journaling. But we’re going to take these exercises to a new level.

Try to notice and label every time you feel resistance toward something that happens in your life. You should always strive to achieve your goals in your actions, but notice your emotions, and the resistance you feel toward the present reality.

Write down everything you find yourself resisting emotionally. Once a week, go through your log, and reframe each thing you resisted. Find a way to express gratitude for that seemingly negative event.

Take on the ultimate brain training exercise – the reframe game. You must challenge yourself whenever you detect resistance or negativity in your mind. Find a way to rework the interpretation causing this pain. Find a way to alter the desires fighting against reality. Find a way to love what is.

Most people learn at some point to appreciate films that don’t have happy endings or to marvel at paintings that are beautiful in the way they deal with dark and ugly themes. Though not pleasing to those who have not yet acquired the taste and ability, we can learn to view life as one great work of art that is made more beautiful by both the good and the bad.

"Many such things will present themselves, not pleasing to every man, but only to him who has become truly familiar with nature and her works."

- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Nietzsche echoes Marcus’s words, saying:

"There are heights of the soul from which even tragedy ceases to look tragic."

- Friedrich Nietzsche

We can look back on our lives and feel thankful for the successes, but also appreciate the failures and struggles. We don’t have to be crushed by every change of plans if we can learn to find the beauty and long for what is.

When your Christmas album falls off of the Billboard 200, you can say, hey, I’ll be back next year. When you realize interest in swing music is at an all-time low, you say, I guess I’ve still got work to do. And when Josh Groban’s newest album is released to critical acclaim, you can say that’s good, we’re friends, I want him to be successful. All of those were specifically directed toward Grammy-winning artist Michael Buble – trying to be more personal with my examples.

When things don’t go the way you want, you have the option to mourn and wallow in self-pity. But you also have the opportunity to cultivate a desire in the place of your aversion. You can want exactly what has happened to you. By practicing this spirit of Stoic embrace, you can find a way to see the good in events – arising as a part of a grand scheme of nature.

When you learn to correct the distorted aims of your life and appreciate the workings of nature, everything that happens becomes an opportunity to grow. To give yourself up to fate, and let only the functioning of your own mind concern you.

Put your circumstances into the context of growth

Ultimately, the point of amor fati isn’t just that you should get really good at putting a positive spin on everything that happens to you. It isn’t about saying “it’s good that I got a flat tire, because I wouldn’t have met that new client at the mechanic shop otherwise.” It’s far deeper than that.

I have cited Alan Watts’ story of the Chinese farmer far too many times, yet I plan to cite it many more. For those who haven’t heard it yet:

Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.” The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”

The world is constantly in flux, and you never really get to hold onto anything you attain in life. You might experience a great setback one day, like losing your job, something amazing happens the next, like landing your dream job, and that leads to something terrible the day after that, like finding out dream jobs aren’t real.

But if he was truly wise, the farmer didn’t say “maybe” simply because he couldn’t predict whether an event would lead to good or bad outcomes. He said it because the outcomes were irrelevant in the first place. Amor fati is about saying the blown tire, the new client, the broken leg, the new house, the lottery… they all exist on a totally different plane from your well-being.

That Stoic concept of virtue is of central importance to amor fati. Most of these practical philosophers have argued that our happiness comes directly from the character strengths we cultivate and exhibit. And I make this sentiment extremely concrete in my book Become Who You Are.

When we get upset about getting turned down for an award, we get upset because we’ve forgotten that this doesn’t actually affect who we are, and in fact, it might even give us the opportunity to cultivate greater character. See, much like Reddit karma, external success only appears to have real value on the surface, and chasing it constantly is a great way to waste your life.

By grasping and deeply internalizing that circumstances are only of instrumental importance to your happiness, that the culturally enforced “good” and “bad” circumstances are diversions, and that circumstances don’t make a good life, those same circumstances become a game. You cultivate a desire for every path, rather than clinging to the initially desired one. You use your circumstances to serve your values rather than being used by them.

“For god’s sake, stop honoring externals, quit turning yourself into the tool of mere matter, or of people who can supply you or deny you those material things… a boxer derives the greatest advantage from his sparring partner… it is enough if I hold the right idea about poverty, illness and removal from office: all such challenges will only serve my turn. No more, then, should I look for bad, and good, in external conditions."

- Epictetus, Discourses


Once you have cultivated this mindset, you develop a new type of relationship with your life. You quit expecting circumstances to go your way. You quit wanting them to go your way.

You dare the world to throw you curveballs because they make things more interesting. There are infinite paths to scale the heights of self-mastery; why be attached to one? You can live each day with fresh appreciation, peace, and playfulness. You can opt out of the game everyone else is playing, and play a better game.

Have you discovered any insights into how to truly embrace life? Do you think it’s possible? Desirable? I would love to hear any examples or insights.

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