This is the continuation of a discussion of the seven Stoic methods of inner-discipline (what’s popularly called spiritual practice nowadays).
Number one is “Write and Reflect in the Morning.” The second is 2. Focus on Your Goals. The list continues:
3. Take the Long View and Practice Letting Go
4. Visualize Catastrophe and Practice Letting Go
5. Practice Self Control
6. Go on Retreat in your Own Mind
7. Reflect on your Actions in the Evening
Today I want to look at the third, “Take the Long View and Practice Letting Go.”
Too often in life we fall into the cliche of not seeing the forest for the trees. That job that you took thinking you would be helping to save the world—in fact it’s mostly administration and bureaucracy. That tiff you had this morning has been eating at you all day. Someone you love is declining in health, fast.
Daoism, Buddhism, and Stoicism focus on the central human fact that we form attachments to things that are transitory even as we ourselves change as we inevitably progress toward the grave. What is to be done about this reality of being human?
Epictetus offered this exercise:
Keep in mind the nature of things: delightful things; useful things; beloved things . . . Start with something small—a cup perhaps. Think: if this breaks, I can bear the loss. Now—work on thinking this about everything you know. (Handbook, 3)
The loss of everything I’ve known? We all know people for whom this is true. Epictetus suggests what we need to tell ourselves:
The essence of a proper relationship with nature is to see that nature does what nature does very, very well. Obey nature. Yield to nature. Nature is wise. Yield and you will not fault nature; you won’t think nature is punishing you. All you need remember is what is within your power.
Good and evil? Remember what is within your power. You want to assign blame? Why?Assign evil to something and what do you do? Blame those who do it? What is the point?
Think about this: every creature is inclined toward avoiding what it hates and pursuing what it loves.
. . .
Learn nature. Then start noticing where your desires and aversions go. (Handbook, 31)
The mental exercise of imagining specific losses perhaps at first blush seems morbid or extreme. However, we all know people for whom the worst has become reality. Stoic practice is to be mentally prepared. Epictetus offered this exercise:
We can learn the will of nature by noticing the small things. You see a child breaking a neighbor’s a cup? “It happens,” you say. But say the child breaks your cup . . . Try to say, “It happens.”
Now. Let’s go on: Someone’s loved one dies? About everybody else you say, “It happens. That’s life.” But when it happens to you? “Ah! I’m so devastated!” Remember what you say when the same thing happens to others. (Handbook, 26)
Why adapt to loss? Because it is in the nature of reality that everything changes. Epictetus offers this piece of advice: “Whatever you lose, do not say, ‘I have lost it.’ Merely say, ‘It has moved on again.”” (Handbook, 11)
It has moved on again.
Renaissance scientist Francis Bacon once said, “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune.” In truth, all of us have given hostages to the contingencies and accidents of life: we ourselves and everyone we care about are hostages to contingency and accident.
Zhuangzi was an early Daoist philosopher. The story goes that just after his wife died, his friend Hui Shih went to express his condolences. Hui Shih found Zhuangzi sitting on the ground, singing and banging on pots.
Hui Shih was flabbergasted and said, “How can you be doing such silly things right after you wife died?”
Zhuangzi replied: “When my wife died, I was numb with grief. But then I began to look at the matter from the beginning. At the very beginning of the universe, my wife was not living—she had no form or substance. But then she had substance and form and she came to life. Now, more changes have occurred, and my wife is dead. Were I to go about weeping and wailing, I would be saying that I am ignorant of the ways of nature.”
Stoics would applaud Zhuangzi.
In addition to facing up to the reality of how nature works, Stoics also trained themselves to think of the big picture. Marcus Aurelius reminds us: “Everything now is just as it was in the time of those whom we have buried” (VIII.14).
Epictetus clues us in:
At the start, think: what is the nature of what I’m doing? Taking a bath? Think: hot water (I hope); steam; dropping the soap. Think and so go about the action, aware. Think: I will bathe and stay in harmony with nature.
And if a pipe breaks? Tell yourself: It’s not only a bath I want but also harmony with nature. If I don’t see the humor, I won’t be in harmony. (Handbook, 4)
The paradoxical reality of nature does, however, offer rewards. Epictetus said, “What is truly yours? When you are in harmony with nature, everything is yours.” (Handbook, 6)
Marcus Aurelius puts it simply and memorably:
Soon enough, you will have forgotten everything; soon enough, everyone will have forgotten you. Keep this in mind: soon enough, you will be no one and no where.
Marcus also advised: “I say to the universe, I love as indiscriminately as you love.” (X.21)