On the Porch with the Stoics: Discipline of Perception
Are you in the habit of seeing things and people as they are or do you attach a story to everything and everyone you see? If you’re honest, (and we all need to be!) most of us are in the habit of poor perception and faulty thinking/logic. We have endless reels that are playing in the background that distort almost every interaction…and we wonder why we suffer!
What’s a person to do?
Follow our new friends, the Stoics.
The first, of the three foundation disciplines, is the discipline of perception, which is quite similar to, if not exactly like the Buddha’s path of “right seeing.”
To see clearly or follow the discipline of perception, we need to:
- Eat a piece of humble pie and admit to ourselves that we are imperfect.
- Practice naming small things as they actually are. (Break down everything into component parts. For example, a chair–it is simply a seat, with four legs; made up of wood from a tree, or metal, or rock; has no decorations on it; and, can hold my weight. That is a chair, whether it is created by some designer, a local craftsman or IKEA.) Work your way up from small things that don’t hold too much meaning for you to those things that you’re emotionally “attached” to.
- Slow down. While we do make thousands of decisions each day, we need not make them from our snap judgments. We can, and should, slow our processes down. Are we making decisions based on what is real or are we making decisions without all the information, using old, worn-out tropes and stories (think: ego) to decide something?
Here are Epictetus’s words to help us along our way:
“Consider the smallest things to which you are attached. For instance, suppose you have a favorite cup. It is, after all, merely a cup; so if it should break, you could cope. Next build up to things — or people — toward which your clinging feelings and thoughts intensify. Remember, for example, when you embrace your child, your husband, your wife, you are embracing a mortal…”
“What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.”
“Does someone bathe quickly? Don’t say that he bathes poorly, but quickly. Name the situation as it is; don’t filter it through your judgments. Does someone drink a lot of wine: Don’t say she is a drunk but that she drinks a lot. Unless you possess a comprehensive understanding of her life, how do you know if she is a drunk? Do not risk being beguiled by appearances and constructing theories and interpretations based on distortions through misnaming. Give your assent only to what is actually true.”
When we name things as they are, not what we believe they are, we comprehend them correctly, without adding information and judgments that aren’t there. And when we see clearly, oh boy! Life is good! Life begins to sing.
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Find some great books on the Stoics below and read along for your own fun and edification!
Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (translated by Gregory Hays) — LOVE this! I can see why Bill Clinton reads this every year. It’s a joy to read. I am inspired by it! This particular edition flows beautifully. The introduction and notes that Gregory Hays includes in this publication are thorough without being highbrow.
Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic — This is the paperback version of this classic. And wow! Is it amazing! When you want to read the classics, choose the Penguin Classic version. That’s not me selling something, this is really very good. (The Modern Library editions are usually excellent, too.) Here are just a couple of quotes from Seneca to whet the appetite:
“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s [person’s] ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”
“It is not the person who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more.”
Epictetus’s Encheiridion (or simply, The Manual), translated by Thomas W. Higginson — This little book has played a disproportionately large role in the rise of modern attitudes and modern philosophy. And Thomas Higginson’s translation is beautifully rendered for the contemporary audience without losing the ancient’s wisdom and clarity.
The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance and the Art of Living, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman — The Daily Stoic offers 366 days of Stoic insights and exercises, featuring all-new translations from the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the playwright Seneca, or slave-turned-philosopher Epictetus, as well as lesser-known luminaries like Zeno, Cleanthes, and Musonius Rufus. Every day of the year you’ll find one of their pithy, powerful quotations, as well as historical anecdotes, provocative commentary, and a helpful glossary of Greek terms.
The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness, Epictetus and Sharon Lebell — This is Ms. Lebell’s modern-day interpretation of Epictetus’s Encheiridion. It is a great starting place for someone who doesn’t want to slog through anything remotely ancient. And that’s a bit unfortunate because this text doesn’t need any updating. It’s so thoroughly a classic, it almost transcends time.