Day 4 – Minding Impressions
Live Like a Stoic
This is a two-day assignment. After completing the assigned exercises for today and tomorrow, write up a journal entry for both days tomorrow evening.
To the preceding pieces of advice, one more should be added: always make a definition or delineation of whatever presents itself to your mind, so that you can see distinctly what sort of thing it is when stripped down to its essence as a whole and in all its parts, and tell yourself its proper name, and the name of the elements from which it has been put together and into which it will be dissolved.
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 3.11
Probably the most well known and key practice in living a Stoic life concerns our relationship with our own thoughts and judgments. Sometimes referred to as “Stoic mindfulness,” the aim here is to impose a filter or checking system on our perception of the world. This advice applies generally for the Stoics with respect to all of our impressions: in each case, Marcus continues in the above passage, we must ask “what this object is that presently makes an impression on me, and what it is composed of and how long in the nature of things it will persist, and what virtue is needed to respond to it, such as gentleness, courage, truthfulness, good faith, simplicity, self-sufficiency, and so on.” We find similar advice in Epictetus:
Right now, then, make it your habit to tell every jarring thought or impression: “You are just an appearance and in no way the real thing.” Next, examine it and test it by these rules that you have. First and foremost: does it involve the things up to us, or the things not up to us? And if it involves one of the things not up to us, have the following response to hand: “Not my business.”
– Epictetus, Handbook 1
Crucially for the Stoics, between the stage of receiving an impression and forming a desire or an emotion, there’s an intermediary stage of assenting or not assenting to the impression. Our assent to an impression is typically unreflective. From the sensory impression we receive in experiencing the scent of baking in the air, for example, we typically affirm the proposition “someone’s baking,” which can in turn provoke certain desires and actions. The important thing according to the Stoics, however, is that even if in most cases this assent is quick and implicit, it’s actually a judgment that we bring to the impression, and so a judgment that can be made more reflective.
This can make all the difference to our perception of goods and harms. For instance, from the impression that we have been insulted, we may assent to the proposition “I’m being harmed,” which can lead to feeling upset or angry. But when combined with the Stoics’ view that the only thing that’s good for us is what’s naturally in our power, we should see that the opinions of others are outside of our direct control, and so address such impressions with the response: “Not my business.”
Over the next two days you’ll work on developing a habit of Stoic mindfulness. Whenever you can, but especially when you find yourself encountering a strong or troubling impression, carry out these steps:
- Remind yourself that this is an impression that will affect you only if you give it your assent.
- Evaluate the judgment that accompanies the impression: rather than labelling a situation “good” or “bad,” try instead to form the judgment “this has happened.”
- Next, ask yourself whether the impression involves things that are under your control or things not under your control.
- Finally, consider your response: determine what lies within your power in converting challenges into opportunities, and if the situation is ultimately not under your control, be prepared to say “not my business.”
As you engage in this exercise today and tomorrow, keep track particularly of how monitoring your impressions affects your choices and actions.