Tuesday, November 3, 2015
You must train yourself only to think the kind of thoughts about which, if someone suddenly asked you, ‘what are you thinking about now?’, you would at once answer frankly, ‘”this” or “that”’. So from your reply it would immediately be clear that all your thoughts are straightforward and kind and express the character of a social being who has no concern with images of pleasure, or self-indulgence in general , or any kind of rivalry, malice or suspicion, or anything else you would blush to admit you were thinking about. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.4)
“You must train yourself….” Marcus, like Albert Ellis, knew that even with the best intentions, we human beings will backslide. We attempt to put courage, wisdom, temperance, or justice to practical use in our daily lives, in our mundane affairs that are nevertheless important to us. But stuff happens and we fly off the handle at little things , cringe at the thought of retirement, go all gooey inside when negatively visualizing chemo, assisted living, one’s friends suffering and dying. Thinking like a stoic, then, takes practice, endless exercise, constant repetition. I think this is where Epictetus’ and others’ maxims come in – they are pithy enough to memorize and bring to bear when needed, which is pretty damn often.
“all your thoughts are straightforward and kind” The meditations are notebooks so I imagine that Marcus wrote them when he had a minute and didn’t edit them. Still, if I had to describe ideal thoughts in a nutshell, I guess the key attributes of thoughts would indeed be “frank, honest, open” and “generous, thoughtful, considerate.” Note that “intelligent” “deep” or “profound” or “witty” are not included – I don’t have to be smart or insightful to be a Stoic. Practice, man, practice being open with one’s own self, by not kidding ourselves, and being kind to one’s self, not self-downing because of failure, not getting pessimistic at setbacks, not getting defensive at criticism.
“express the character of a social being” The stoics assumed that we would be active in the world, not meditating away the hours alone on a mountain top, or observing the rule of silence in some remote fastness. Having no concern “with images of pleasure, or self-indulgence in general , or any kind of rivalry, malice or suspicion…” comes out of dealing with other people with respect and fairness. It does harm to ourselves and others to be perpetually jealous, spiteful, and suspicious.
There’s a part of me that, however, that wonders about the possibility of making straightforward thinking a habit. I am so prey to crooked thinking, unwarranted assumptions, half-digested information, lame prejudices. It’s hard to control one’s thoughts, fears, hopes, frustrations. Also, there’s a Pollyanna-ish, Goodey Two-shoes flavor to this, that makes Sarcastic Me – there’s malice, again, hiding behind a mask or knowingness, that snotty feeling of “I know how the world works, I got a bead on things” – spite saying , “Yeh, whatever floats your boat. Keep the Golden Rule for more than two minutes at a time, then get back to me.”
Practice, man, practice.