The Stoic Exercise for Seeing The True Value of Things
Continuing on my my mission to deconstruct and simplify the Stoic philosopher Epictetus’ handbook, here we are with Chapter 3.
In Chapter 2, we looked at aversion and desire, read that here if you missed it. In today’s post, Epictetus gives us a very simple but profound Stoic exercise to free ourselves from the binds of attachment and worldly delusion and in so doing, reduce our suffering.
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I/ The Spell of Attachment
We very often delude ourselves about the true value of things.
If something makes us feel good, or benefits us in some way, we put that thing on a pedestal.
When we put things on pedestals, it is easy to become attached.
When we are attached to things, our emotional wellbeing becomes linked to something beyond ourselves.
As a result, we suffer due to our fear losing that thing or suffer from actually losing that thing.
II/ Breaking The Spell
To free ourselves from this deluded attachment, and ultimately suffering, we can practice clear seeing of our attachments and our relationship to them.
If you have a very expensive handmade ornament in your home, you can remind yourself that in reality, “I am fond of a piece of china.”
III/ How to Practice
Train your mind gradually. Start with small things, and work your way up to the things you care most about in this life. Break down the object into its simplest forms.
Below are some examples of this type clear seeing:
Attached mind: I love drinking a flat white, which consists of expertly steamed milk poured over two shots of espresso and finished with delicate Rosetta art.
Stoic mind: I am fond of a drink consisting of water, milk, and caffeinated beans.
Attached mind: This person is divine. They are so beautiful and exquisite. If I could just make love to them, my life would be complete.
Stoic mind: I am fond of fantasising about rubbing the flesh of my genitals with this other human’s genitals.
Attached mind: My new iPhone is so powerful. The XDR, OLED, HDR screen is essentially magic.
Stoic mind: I am fond of a small block of metal, glass, and plastic which is in my pocket.
Attached mind: I love my home. The theme in each room is unique, and the decoration is jaw-dropping.
Stoic mind: I am fond of a concrete building, filled with different materials, but mostly consisting of empty space.
Attached mind: My partner is my world. They are my other half, and my soul mate. I couldn’t live without them.
Stoic mind: My partner is a mortal being, subject to the constraints of all mortal beings, who will one day return from the place they came.
The key to this exercise is timing. We don’t want to be in a state of undervaluing everything all the time to the point that we don’t enjoy anything. We practice this exercise when we have an unwise attachment to something that causes us suffering.
If we love and value our partner, this is not unwise. If we hope they stay in our lives, this is not unwise either. But if we are experiencing a lot of suffering, anxiety, and pain through the worry of them leaving us or we feel a lot of jealousy and insecurity come up, then this is not wise nor truly loving. In moments like this, the exercise will be most useful.
When we watch a movie, we are both swept away by it, but also realise that it is fiction and that in that there is a limit to how much we should reasonably be swept away. Life is like this too. It is okay to indulge in joy and luxury providing you also see the true nature of what is going on.
As a practicing Stoic, you want to enjoy life to the fullest extent possible, without getting lost in illusion.
ENCHIRIDION CHAPTER Three, EPICTETUS, TRANSLATION BY ROBERT DOBBIN:
In the case of particular things that delight you, or benefit you, or to which you have grown attached, remind yourself of what they are. Start with things of little value. If it is china you like, for instance, say, ‘I am fond of a piece of china.’ When it breaks, then you won’t be as disconcerted. When giving your wife or child a kiss, repeat to yourself, ‘I am kissing a mortal.’ Then you won’t be so distraught if they are taken from you.