January 7th: Seven Clear Functions of the Mind
Today’s quote is from The Daily Stoic. It’s a good book — pretty cheap, but worth it. Easy to get on Amazon, etc. It begins with Epictetus, one of the most important stoic philosophers.
“The proper work of the mind is the exercise of choice, refusal, yearning, repulsion, preparation, purpose, and assent. What then can pollute and clog the mind’s proper functioning? Nothing but my own corrupt decisions.” Epictetus, Discourses, 4.11.6–7
The authors of The Daily Stoic break those down into seven principal tasks:
- Choice — to do and think rightly
- Refusal — of temptation
- Yearning — to be better
- Repulsion — of negativity, bad influences, and untruth
- Preparation — for what lies ahead, but most important being mentally prepared to deal with anything that may come our way
- Purpose — our guiding principal and highest priority
- Assent — to be free of self-deception regarding what is and what is not within our control (see the January 1 reflection the book), and a willingness to accept what we can’t change or control
Which of these “speaks to you” the most? And how do you what do you think of the list?
Here are my thoughts:
This list is a great resource, but it has to be used with caution.
First, I think it’s important to remember that our minds are a “work in progress.” No one can look at the list, snap their fingers, and have it all under control. Even the wisest hit a lot of speed bumps on the road to life no matter how much they try or how much they know. So, don’t look at the list and use it to overly criticize yourself for doing doing it all.
Next, don’t try to do them all at once. One of Stoicism’s precepts is that we should focus on learning one thing every day. And if just we keep at that, we won’t fail to make progress.
I recently read a book that explained why New Year’s resolutions always fail. We make lists that are too big and then we fail to make a realistic plan of how to achieve them — and a realistic plan always includes breaking big things down into smaller steps. The very way we approach the resolutions pretty much guarantees that we’ll fail, and all we end up doing is making ourselves feel guilty and weak. New Year’s resolutions are often the equivalent of: “Learn the entire dictionary by heart.” I mean, who would even dream of doing that!?! If I learn a couple of new words per day, that’s 700 words by the end of the year! That’s a lot of progress.
So, I’d say it’s best to pick just one of those, whatever speaks to you as the most interesting and or most urgent, and spend a bit of time thinking about it for today.
The one that really speaks to me right now is #4: repulsion.
Sounds like something from the Marvel films. “I am Repulsion Man!!!” But what does it really mean?
The world is full of stuff. Endless stuff. And I think it’s fine to just go out there and try stuff — that’s a great way to learn.
But at some point, we recognize that some of that “stuff” is not helpful or a good influence, even though society, our friends, families, or co-workers might like it. That “stuff” can be physical things — tasty chocolates, etc. — but it can also be mental stuff. Who hasn’t heard something that doesn’t seem right, but we believe it and follow it just because of social pressures.
So I’m going to say this: if something isn’t right for you or doesn’t feel or seem right, “just say no.”
That means: if after reflection and a bit of examination something seems incorrect or foolish, give it up or avoid it. You don’t have to come out and shout about it. It’s usually best to just drop it, like a piece of pocket fluff when we’re walking down the street.
Of course with big things it’s easier said than done. But even if something is difficult, we can often do ourselves a good turn just by noting that we don’t like it and accepting that it’s not right for us.
For instance, if I rub my nose too much and want to give up the habit, I don’t have to tie my hands to my belt. I can just think, “Maybe not this time” when I have the impulse to do it, and eventually that habit will wither.
Actions to get rid of negativity can also be very practical and impact us in the interpersonal realm.
A good example is when one of my sons wants to “debate” a decision. When I set down a rule or give them a task they don’t want to do — like loading the dishwasher or cleaning their room — they often start to argue their case about why it’s unfair. I tend to get drawn into this sort of “discussion” either out of pure annoyance or because I want to make everything a “teachable moment.”
But lately, after quickly considering their concerns, I’ve just been saying, “Sorry, the discussion is over. Just get it done.” And when I leave it at that, we magically argue a lot less and are more happy, and life goes on without having to spend ages trying to get them to see things my way.
We can do the same with bad ideas or habits of mind. If we don’t like someone or something (Trump, Biden, China, Covid-19, the color of my neighbor’s house, you name it) and thinking about it really gets our hackles up, we can react and then mull over how much we hate it. Or, rather than getting riled up, we can just say to ourselves: “I’m not getting roped into that right now” and turn our attention to something better. When I do that, I usually realize that the only person who was suffering from me thinking about something I hate was me.
We all have our triggers, our weaknesses, etc. But rather than just giving into them mindlessly, we can say, “I’m not going there.” That’s a statement of repulsion. When we “repel” that thing, we move away from it. And the more we do that, the more we can move what we don’t need or like out of our lives.
Those are my thoughts today for what it’s worth. I hope it wasn’t too dad-like! Perhaps it will be of some use to someone…other than just me.