Thursday Evening Text for Reflection:

There is one type of person who, whenever he has done a good deed to another, expects and calculates to have the favour repaid.

There is a second type of person who does not calculate in such a way but who, nevertheless, deep within himself regards the other person as someone who owes him something and he remembers that he has done the other a good deed.

But there is a third type of person who, in some sense, does not even remember the good deed he has done but who, instead, is like a vine producing its grape, seeking nothing more than having brought forth its own fruit, just like a horse when it has run, a dog when it has followed its scent and a bee when it has made honey. This man, having done one good deed well, does not shout it about but simply turns his attention to the next good deed, just like the vine turns once again to produce its grape in the right season.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.6

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Thursday: Stoic Mindfulness

Train yourself to think only those thoughts such that in answer to the sudden question ‘What is in your mind now?’ you could say with immediate frankness whatever it is, this or that: and so your answer can give direct evidence that all your thoughts are straightforward and kindly, the thoughts of a social being who has no regard for the fancies of pleasure or indulgence, for rivalry, malice, suspicion, or anything else that one would blush to admit was in one’s mind.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.4

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Wednesday Evening Text for Reflection:

Every habit and faculty is formed or strengthened by the corresponding act – walking makes you walk better, running makes you a better runner. If you want to be literate, read, if you want to be a painter, paint. Go a month without reading, occupied with something else, and you’ll see what the result is. And if you’re laid up a mere ten days, when you get up and try to talk any distance, you’ll find your legs barely able to support you. So if you like doing something, do it regularly; if you don’t like doing something, make a habit of doing something different. The same goes for the affairs of the mind…So if you don’t want to be hot-tempered, don’t feed your temper, or multiply incidents of anger. Suppress the first impulse to be angry, then begin to count the days on which you don’t get angry. ‘I used to be angry every day, then only every other day, then every third….’ If you resist it a whole month, offer God a sacrifice, because the vice begins to weaken from day one, until it is wiped out altogether. ‘I didn’t lose my temper this day, or the next, and not for two, then three months in succession.’ If you can say that, you are now in excellent health, believe me.

Epictetus, Discourses 2.18

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Wednesday: Action & the Stoic Reserve Clause

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I might meet with people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious and unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own – not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong. Nor can I be angry with my fellow human being or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature: and anger or rejection is opposition.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.1

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Tuesday Evening Text for Reflection

This was the character and this the unswerving creed
of austere Cato: to observe moderation, to hold to the goal,
to follow nature, to devote his life to his country,
to believe that he was born not for himself but for all the world.
In his eyes to conquer hunger was a feast, to ward off winter
with a roof was a mighty palace, and to draw across
his limbs the rough toga in the manner of the Roman citizen of old
was a precious robe, and the greatest value of Venus
was offspring …

Lucan, The Civil War

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Tuesday: Self-Discipline & Stoic Simplicity

It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it. Just as great and princely wealth is scattered in a moment when it comes into the hands of a bad owner, while wealth however limited, if it is entrusted to a good guardian, increases by use, so life is amply long for the one who orders it properly.

Seneca, On the Shortness of Life 1

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Monday Evening Text for Reflection

Let us go to our sleep with joy and gladness; let us say ‘I have lived; the course which Fortune set for me is finished.’ And if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts. That man is happiest, and is secure in his own possession of himself, who can await the morrow without apprehension. When a man has said: ‘I have lived!’, every morning he arises he receives a bonus.

Seneca, Letters 12.9

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Monday Morning: What is in our Power?

Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception [the way we define things], intention [the voluntary impulse to act], desire [to get something], aversion [the desire to avoid something], and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, position [or office] in society, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing.

Epictetus, Handbook 1

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“Live Like A Stoic” Week

In a fascinating development, the Philosophy Department at the University of Exeter is inviting us to Live Like A Stoic For A Week from 25th November to 1 December.

If you possibly can, go to their project site and complete their questionnaires before midnight, tonight (Monday 25th November). This will allow them to use your experience of being a Stoic For A Week as part of their research.

But even if you don’t join the research group, get along there, download the handbook, download the meditations and perform them every day.

And pass this on to your friends.

 

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Not Perfect

Think about the things in your life that you’re unhappy about.

It might be something about yourself – what are you dissatisfied with? What about you makes you feel ashamed, or despondent, or fearful?

Or it could be some circumstance. What is there in your life that makes you feel angry, or worried, or helpless?

The Stoics taught that these feelings of distress are caused by how we view the world; as Epictetus said “it’s not events that disturb people, but the opinions they hold about those events”. Buddhism, likewise, proposes that the cause of emotional suffering is to be found in what they call “attachment” or “craving” – attitudes to things, rather than the things themselves. The same theme is found in Epicureanism and in the philosophy of Albert Ellis.

Ellis taught that

“whenever obnoxious or unpleasant activating events occur in people’s lives, they have a choice: of making themselves feel healthily and self-helpingly sorry, disappointed, frustrated, and annoyed, or making themselves feel unhealthily and self-defeatingly horrified, terrified, panicked, depressed, self-hating, and self-pitying.”

Epicurus was a little pithier. He said

“The misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool”.

I want to develop these ideas by looking at the idea of ‘perfection’. We blithely talk about perfection and imperfection, things being right or wrong. I want you to think about what that actually means.

First of all, think about when we call something “imperfect”. I want to suggest that what this means is “an imperfect example of X“, for some value of X.  So the screen you’re looking at right now is, perhaps, not a great example of a writing surface – depending on the device, it might be too small, or vertical, or easily damaged, or not adjustable. But why should I want to rate it as a writing surface in the first place?

Well, I can rate it as anything I like, I think. When I haven’t had a windscreen scraper to hand, I’ve been known to use a credit card; when I haven’t had a dustpan I’ve used a cereal packet. There are reasons why a credit card isn’t ideal as a windscreen scraper. But there are also reasons why it isn’t ideal as a payment method.

The category we put something in – this is a portable desk, that is a dustpan, this is a credit card – is determined by us. A particular rock hasn’t been created by God to be a doorstop or a paperweight or a murder weapon; it’s been co-opted by someone for those purposes. If I’m looking around for a rotten tomato to throw at a politician, a fresh one just won’t do the job. So a fresh tomato would be right for that purpose (a salad) but not for this one (assault).

Every time we talk about something being perfect or imperfect, brilliant or rubbish, hopeless or ideal, we should (at least implicitly, and often explicitly) say in what role we’re judging it.

I think that, when you do this, you will find two fundamental truths.

  1. The judgments that lie at the heart of your greatest sorrows or fears or shames are best expressed with some sort of “should” word. I should have more willpower, he ought to show more consideration, they must not find out, I need to be loved, I have a right to be told. These “shoulds” are your demands about how things damn well ought to conform to your categories; how, when something fails to be a perfect example of what you wanted, that’s an insult to you, offensive in its nature. Things must be just so or they’re all wrong.
  2. If you try to do without these should-words, something odd happens. You start to understand that everything is already perfect in the one category that nature placed it in; itself. I may be a bit rubbish as a gardener, a housekeeper or a marathon runner; but in the one role that really belongs to me, I’m perfect. Never in the history of the world up to today has there ever been – nor, for the rest of time will there ever again be – anyone who was as perfectly Alec Brady as I am. And the fact that I’m not as good as you at mental arithmetic or speaking Swahili or driving doesn’t make me imperfect. Anyone who is good at those things might be described as being an imperfect copy of Alec Brady. For which they are entitled to be grateful – there’s no reason why they ought to be a perfect Alec, they’re much better being not perfect.

So when you can’t find the windscreen scraper and you have to use a credit card, you might catch yourself thinking, “this is rubbish”.

Stop. Rephrase it. “Sure, this isn’t doing the best possible job of windscreen scraping”. It hasn’t got a handle, like my scraper has (nor should it!), though it’s better than a sycamore leaf or a copy of Gray’s Anatomy or my hat. For this purpose. (Not for keeping my head warm, obviously. For that purpose it’s quite useless).

This practice, this discipline, creates a new set of mental habits, a new perspective, a new default setting for your brain. It’s not about discovering some new fact about the world, it’s about seeing what you’ve always seen, but seeing it differently. By dropping the judgmental language of ‘perfect’ or ‘rubbish’, by replacing it with non-judgmental preferring and disliking, you discover that things are not perfect.

And it’s fine.

Further Reading and Viewing

A Guide to Shameless Happiness by Will Ross

10 Steps to Overcoming Perfectionism by David Humes

Not Perfect by Tim Minchin

 

 

 

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