February 13, 2017 – Pleasure Can Become Punishment


“Whenever you get an impression of some pleasure, as with any impression, guard yourself from being carried away by it, let it await your action, give yourself pause. After that, bring to mind both times, first when you have enjoyed the pleasure and later when you will regret it and hate yourself. Then compare to those the joy and satisfaction you’d feel for abstaining altogether. However, if seemingly appropriate times arise to act on it, don’t be overcome by it’s comfort, pleasantness and allure – but against all of this, how much better the consciousness of conquering it.” Epictetus – Enchiridion, 34

If food or alcohol addiction immediately came to mind upon reading the words from Epictetus you saw the examples of today’s meditation. But the polarity of pleasure and regret exists for anything we participate in. I have friends whose marriages have suffered due to their addiction to endurance racing/triathlons, or something less demanding like weight lifting. The feeling we get from such accomplishments can blind us to impact beyond the pleasure. In some instances, the marriages noted have ended in divorce. That is a painful consequence.

Epictetus is asking us to find the balance. To not be “carried away” so that we find ourselves hating the choices we made. He’s asking us to exhibit self-control. Consider these words from Alan Brody. He uses Socrates’ example in Protagoras to show how passions alter our perceptions. (source)

“In the Protagoras, Socrates discusses the nature of, and challenges to, self-mastery (ie self-control). When faced with a choice, Socrates tells us, human nature means we want to do what we think is best. So, he argues, if we believe we know what the good (the best) thing to do is, and it is accessible to us, we will do the good. However, says Socrates, things which tempt us can have the power to alter our perception or understanding of their value, making them deceptively appear to be what is best. Consequently, we choose the temptation as the best thing to do. The experience of going along with temptation is not, Socrates argues, one in which the person protests or fights against its unreasonableness while being dragged along into gratifying it. For Socrates, ‘yielding to temptation’ is not being unwillingly overpowered, but is the experience of being a willing participant choosing what is at that moment wrongly thought to be best. This is also the essence of the willingness model of addictive behavior.”

It would be false to claim we aren’t thinking when committing to passions. Instead, we are allowing unreasonableness to direct our decision-making. Being thoughtful, or mindful, as Stoicism directs us is to always be in a position such that we are evaluating the consequences of our choices. This does not ensure a pain-free future, but it does create positive behavior that is ready for whatever challenges come our way.

Don’t cheat on your diet. Don’t immediately reply to that caustic email. Don’t say the first thing that comes to mind when angered. Always be on your guard to put thought into your decisions so you can do what is best.

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