examine your impressions

Benefit of examining your impressions

Examine your impressions.

Here Epictetus exhorts us to practice what is arguably the most fundamental of his doctrines: constantly examine our “impressions,” that is our initial reactions to events, people, and what we are being told, step back to make room for rational deliberation, avoid rash emotional reactions, and ask whether whatever is being thrown at us is under our control (in which case we should act on it), or it isn’t (in which case we should regard it as not of our concern).

So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’ (Enchiridion I.5)

Remind yourself of the impermanence of things.

Yes, yes, this is one of the (superficially) harshest passages in Epictetus. Not the part about the china, but the one about the wife or child. But I think Anthony Long (among others) is right about how this (in)famous quote ought to be interpreted. First off, remind yourself of the historical context: Epictetus was writing at a time when even emperors (like Marcus himself) lost most of their children and other loved ones at what we would consider a tender or premature age, to disease, or war. While most of us in the West are currently lucky in that respect, the point remains: life is ephemeral, and people we deeply care abut may be snatched from us suddenly and without warning. Moreover, what Epictetus is counseling here is not an inhuman indifference toward our beloved ones, but quite the opposite: to constantly remind ourselves of just how precious they are precisely because they may soon be gone. Anyone who has lost a person close to them ought to know exactly what this means. We should go through life just like the Roman generals went through their official celebratory triumphs in the eternal city: with somebody (in their case, a slave) who constantly whispers in our ears “memento homo” (remember, you are (only) a man).

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. (Enchiridion III)

Reserve clause.

Since the only thing truly under our control are our intentions and behaviors, the outcome of anything we try to do depends at the least in part on external circumstances. Which means we should approach doing anything with the Stoic reserve clause, fate permitting.

Whenever planning an action, mentally rehearse what the plan entails. If you are heading out to bathe, picture to yourself the typical scene at the bathhouse – people splashing, pushing, yelling and pinching your clothes. You will complete the act with more composure if you say at the outset, ‘I want a bath, but at the same time I want to keep my will aligned with nature.’ Do it with every act. That way if something occurs to spoil your bath, you will have ready the thought, ‘Well, this was not my only intention, I also meant to keep my will in line with nature – which is impossible if I go all to pieces whenever anything bad happens.’ (Enchiridion IV)

How can I use virtue here and now?

The passage below is one of the most empowering of Stoic writings. Epictetus, the former slave, lame because of a once broken leg, tells us to use every occasion, every challenge, as a way to exercise our virtue, to become a better human being by constant practice.

For every challenge, remember the resources you have within you to cope with it. Provoked by the sight of a handsome man or a beautiful woman, you will discover within you the contrary power of self-restraint. Faced with pain, you will discover the power of endurance. If you are insulted, you will discover patience. In time, you will grow to be confident that there is not a single impression that you will not have the moral means to tolerate. (Enchiridion X)

Pause and take a deep breadth.

Here is the crucial step that allows us to more rationally examine our impressions: we need to resist the impulse to react immediately, instinctively, to situations. Instead, pause, take a deep breadth, and then consider the issue as dispassionately (in the sense of equanimity, not lack of care) as possible.

Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it is easier to maintain control. (Enchiridion XX)