“The proper work of the mind is the exercise of choice, refusal, yearning, repulsion, preparation, purpose and assent. What then can pollute and clog the mind’s proper functioning? Nothing but its own corrupt decisions.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 4.11.6-7
Finally caught up!
Holiday and Hanselman broke this quote down in the following way.
Choice: to do and thing right
Refusal: of temptation
Yearning: to be better
Repulsion: of negativity, of bad influences, of what isn’t true
Preparation: for what lies ahead or whatever may happen
Purpose: our guiding principle and highest priority
Assent: to be free of deception about what’s inside and outside our control (and be ready to accept the latter)
We encounter this mental work every day. How much thought are we putting into it? Are we just reacting? Either approach demands that we consider what might be corrupting our thoughts. Even in the case of the latter, where a reaction is simply responding in an informed manner without reflective thought, if our training was corrupted then how we react is flawed.
When responding to the previous day’s meditation I reflected on asking questions. Today I’m considering those times when asking questions are themselves a kind of wound. The truth about how I approach life can be placed in this context: paralysis by analysis. Overthinking. It’s not an absolute condition, but one that presents itself more often than it probably should. The salve for this wound getting back to nature. This might be a good hike, paddle or bike ride.
Mental corruption can come from others, but it can also come from ourselves. Becoming engrossed in said analysis, in the quest for knowledge, can create a false perception of self. One in which we view the endeavor as elevating us above those who are not so interested in such academic pursuits. Or it may cause us to less sensitive to others. We become so engrossed in the academic pursuit that we forgot the emotive element to our humanity.
A reset is in order. To rediscover humility. To rediscover civility.
Henry David Thoreau wrote:
“My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence. I do not know that this higher knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before — a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun.”
What more do I know when knowledge is attained? Thoreau notes that learning says more about what is unknown. He also asks us to consider what our desires are. For some, it may be the persistent pursuit of knowledge. It was not for him. He desired his walks in the woods. Thoreau believed that walking was therapeutic. Even before Thoreau the Buddha preached the benefits of meditative walking.
As an example, thinking we are better than someone else because we may know more is self-corruption. Not only does it lead to narcissism, but it also fails to consider what we may not know in other areas, and accordingly what is known by others. We are never the smartest in the room when it comes to all that can be known.
Or we may find ourselves being curt with others. Using language without being sensitive to how the words might be taken, or the tone in which those words are being presented. We are so preoccupied with our noble pursuit that we forget our very humanity.
Being aware of how our own thinking can corrupt our thoughts is critical. My wife often tells me she can tell a significant difference between the pre and post hike me. I am more patient, attentive and calm. At times the best way to have an attentive mind is to allow it to exist away from the questions. It’s not unlike removing the hair that is clogging a sink. If we clear the block then everything begins to flow.
I cannot recommend enough finding that reset button in nature. If we, as humans, are part of this complex system should we not find, in nature, the very things that will clear out whatever may be corrupting? Consider the words of Marcus Aurelius.
“So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?”
Give yourself an opportunity to step away from the routine. Even the best Stoic cannot escape some form of daily corruption. It will build up. Once cleared the mind can get back to work.