“If a person gave away your body to some passerby, you’d be furious. Yet you hand over your mind to anyone who comes along, so they may abuse you, leaving it disturbed and troubled – have you no shame in that?” – Epictetus, Enchiridon, 28
I’ve been told on more than one occasion, and by numerous people, that I overthink things. At times they are surely correct, but equally, at times, they are not. Some things demand extra consideration.
This meditation leverages social media as an example of how we allow our minds to be controlled by others. We willingly open ourselves up to suggestion and repetition. Do we think so much of ourselves, that we are so strong to overcome these attacks? Even the strongest soldier or athlete knows when to turn away in order to protect the body. It isn’t a weakness to unfollow a feed or to delete an application.
We’ve seen this theme repeated in the both “Clarity” and “Passions and Emotions”. Know what is influencing your mind. Don’t allow your mind to get caught in extremes. And now, be aware of what you’re losing.
The term “Fake News” is a perfect example of this. We have a single individual, and frankly, a group of individuals, claiming that which opposes them is “Fake News”. At times they are qualifying exactly what the reliable news sources are, and conveniently they are sources favorable to them. First, fake is being misused. News sources may focus on specific aspects or perspective, but to claim the information is constructed requires actual evidence. Second, when attempting to suppress a source as reliable without evidence, this is where one gets dangerously close to propaganda. Lastly, none of this matters if those who consume the information are not being led without thinking.
We should be ashamed of ourselves if we are not considering, in this example, the very sources supplying the information. Those in power would be grateful if we gave our minds to them.
“In public avoid talking excessively about your accomplishments and dangers, for however much you enjoy recounting your dangers, it’s not so pleasant for others to hear about your affairs.” – Epictetus, Enchiridion,u 33.14
How confident are that our memory will not fail us? As we age our memory gets worse, but even before that the truth is we cannot recall with 100% accuracy anything that we’ve experienced. Ken Eisold, Ph.D. writes (source):
…neuroscientists have shown that each time we remember something, we are reconstructing the event, reassembling it from traces throughout the brain. Psychologists have pointed out that we also suppress memories that are painful or damaging to self-esteem. We could say that, as a result, memory is unreliable.
The words of Epictetus should be observed with discipline and repeated with frequency. While you might think your adventure is awesome, others may not care. Consider the most amazing thing you’ve ever done or experienced. What makes it great? The story or being situated in the story?
The key word above is “excessive”. Sharing our lives is what allows for that social side of us to flourish. It helps us create relationships by finding common likes or experiences. No one wants to hear someone else ramble on about what they’ve done or seen, but what adds greater weight to this is our inability to recall the stories with accuracy. Can we be sure we aren’t enhancing for dramatic effect? Is there a false humility to under-telling the story?
The more we talk about ourselves the more we are seen as braggarts. When we do this we fail to be aware of how we are being perceived. Irene Scopelleti writes (source):
“Most people probably realize that they experience emotions other than pure joy when they are on the receiving end of someone else’s self-promotion. Yet, when we engage in self-promotion ourselves, we tend to overestimate others’ positive reactions and underestimate their negative ones.”
It truly is a double edged sword. Braggart, and possibly too a liar.
“Keep in mind that it isn’t the one who has it in for you and takes a swipe that harms you, but rather the harm comes from your own belief about the abuse. So when someone arouses your anger, know that it’s really your own opinion fueling it. Instead, make it your first response not to be carried away by such impressions, for with time and distance self-mastery is more easily achieved.” – Epictetus, Enchiridion, 20
The movie Road House has a place in my observations of this meditation. There are not many guys I know who do not view Road House as an epic tough guy B-movie. If you have not seen it I will give you the summary. Patrick Swayze plays James Dalton, a “cooler” (think of a bouncer) who uses Buddhism and philosophy to keep a level personality when dealing with the problems one encounters when keeping a bar/dance club safe from the drunk and ornery.
At one point in the movie, Dalton is sharing with the employees of a honky tonk club how to deal with patrons who are being difficult.
Steve: Being called a cocksucker isn’t personal?
Dalton: No. It’s two nouns combined to elicit a prescribed response.
Steve: What if somebody calls my mama a whore?
Dalton: Is she?
It’s a great reminder for us to consider what is being said. Is it true? Why is it offending us if it isn’t true? Or, what if it’s true? Should I get mad at someone speaking the truth, or should I, instead, focus on what I have discovered warrants my attention? Maybe, you’ll respond, the way they said it is offensive. Epictetus would tell us our reaction is all our own. If we decide not to let the tone bother us, it won’t. As I’ve expressed before, it may not be easy to do, but life will surely give us chances to perfect our thoughts.
Self-control can be achieved. Distance yourself from the passion, and give yourself time to consider how to react.
“Remember to conduct yourself in life as if at a banquet. As something being passed around comes to you, reach out your hand and take a moderate helping. Does it pass you by? Don’t stop it. It hasn’t yet come? Don’t burn in desire for it, but wait until it arrives in front of you. Act this way with children, a spouse, toward position, with wealth – one day it will make you worthy of a banquet with the gods.” – Epictetus, Enchiridion, 15
I’m going to reference the meditation directly because I’m not sure I can offer anything better. If life is seen as a banquet…
…reflect that we’re lucky to have been invited to such a wonderful feast (gratitude)
…take our time and savor the taste of what’s on offer (enjoying the present moment)
…to stuff ourselves sick with food and drink serves no one, least of all our health (gluttony)
…at the end of the meal, it’s rude not to help the host clean up and do the dishes (selflessness)
…next time it’s our turn to host and treat others just as we had been treated (charity)
At family events hosted at one’s home, it is tradition to help clear the table and do the dishes. We have events with friends where we’ll designate different homes to host our gatherings. If we take the time to be grateful for the moment we will not be distracted by those things being passed around the table that we want. They will come to us eventually. And what if that basket of rolls comes to us empty? What if there are no more in the oven? Then we should be thankful for what is on our plate.
Maybe the simple question is this: at a banquet is the food more important than the people? The simple answer is no.
“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.