From impression to action - and the steps in-between
On pain, chronic illness, and on expanding the 'step back' step
My frequent readers know of the 52 Weeks Towards a Good Life practice that I co-host at the Stoic Salon. We have worked through the Discipline of Desire and the Discipline of Action, and we are now six weeks into the third part of the practice, the Discipline of Assent (for a handy overview, see here.) Throughout the ten months of the practice, several lessons felt uncannily serendipitous. But the lessons of the last two weeks (Focus on the mind-body connection and Question judgments around pain and disease) could not have come at a better time for me. I am finding the lessons handy after a liver biopsy last Thursday: as my mind tends to revisit the short painful moments, I remind myself that I bore it well, I was looked after well (one of the nurses held my hand and stroked my arm when she saw me in some distress), and it’s over now.
Sickness is a hindrance to the body but not to the will, unless the will consents. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to the will.
Epictetus, Enchiridion 9
I am the kind of person described in lesson 40: one who always tries to pre-empt the possibility of discomfort and goes to great lengths to prevent it, usually when travelling. This behaviour has developed very gradually, almost imperceptibly, and I wonder whether it correlates with the deterioration of my health.
After two hip replacements four years ago, the arthritis in my right ankle has caused me permanent mobility issues: like Epictetus, I use a walking stick. I cannot walk for long without needing to rest, and I find stairs difficult to manage. I also become fatigued at times I cannot predict, possibly because of the liver impairment. These are hindrances to going out as much as I would like, but not to my will. They mean that I need to choose judiciously how much I can do, often choosing to stay in rather than go out.
Rather than jumping into a rapid ‘assent’ or judgment, I am practising the expansion of the second step of ‘stepping back’ to examine initial impressions. Three years ago when I received a probable diagnosis of liver cirrhosis, I was still at the knee-jerk mode: for me impressions and assents have often been one and the same thing. I reacted with anger and resentment (“Why/how did this happen to me?”), but with the passage of time these feelings opened up new paths I had never dreamed of. I began to review my life and my relationships with the quick and the dead, and even though it has been and still is a difficult process, I am pleased that I was granted enough life to be going through it still.
Impressions are automatic and largely conditioned, so I can’t help them. But in that space between the impression and the assent/judgment, rational thought can be employed; at times reframing also happens. The mobility issue means that I move slowly and I take a long time to do things: this is the impression at first sight. The ‘step back’ step showed me that as a result I get to notice things that I wouldn’t otherwise: the broken branch of a tree or a little mosaic outside the tube station I often use. For a writer, this can only be a good thing, so the ‘assent’ to the disability is yes, it is there, it is slowing me down, but there are valuable rewards for it.
Lesson 40 then asks, “What can I do? What virtue can I exercise here?” When I am rested and relaxed, I can focus on my reading, writing, being more present with my family, and connecting with friends. I feel that over the last four years since these impairments increasingly made themselves felt, my life has expanded. Paradoxically, in a recent conversation I heard myself saying that I am now the most content I have even been in all my life. I hope that I am gradually developing the virtue of Wisdom, of which I had but little earlier in life.
Lesson 41 goes one step further, with a quote from Seneca:
We should do away with complaints about past sufferings […] Even if all this is true, it is over and gone. […] That which was bitter to bear is pleasant to have borne […] Two elements must therefore be rooted out once for all - the fear of future suffering, and the recollection of past suffering, since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet.
Letters to Lucilius, 78. 12-14
Sounds quite rational and so simple, doesn’t it? At the same time it’s hard to follow. Seneca himself confesses that he encourages himself to do what he recommends to others, but does not follow his own exhortations (Letter 71.30) I find some comfort in this: better to be one of the weaker pupils lying low at the end of the Stoic classroom than never even making it to the class.
The rest of the strands…
Memoir and Life Writing Group
Autumn is a good time to turn inwards, maybe towards writing your own story. If you’d like to check out our supportive group, visit the Memoir and Life Writing group at The London Writers Salon. We meet on the 1st and 3rd Thursday of each month, to get to know each other and to talk about our work.
Our next community meeting is on Thursday 17 November, 5-6 pm BST.
If you would like to join hundreds of other writers writing in community, join the free Writers’ Hour; one of the four daily sessions is bound to fit in with your daily schedule. We can’t wait to welcome you and to write together!
…and the long-haul project: 52 weeks to a Good Life
Our friendly, wise, supportive community at the Stoic Salon is now ten months into the book Live Like a Stoic: 52 Exercises towards a Good Life book, and has met live on zoom nine times so far. The authors Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez have joined us twice to answer questions from the community, once shortly after the beginning of our journey (26 February 2022) and once halfway in, on 23 July 2022.
I have been posting my weekly reflections in every newsletter post; this month the reflections on the last two weeks (40 and 41) inspired the main post above. For the sake of completeness, here follows a brief review of weeks 38 and 39.
Week 38 - Observe and counter the four moods of the mind (22 October 2022)
Needlessly thinking about unnecessary things
Antisocial thoughts or impulses
Insincere thoughts or actions
Giving in to physical urge
I took ‘needlessly thinking about unnecessary things’ as rumination, which I do a lot, possibly because I am working on some life writing now, and it often feels inevitable to revisit the past. The key words here are ‘needlessly’ and ‘unnecessary’: I need to develop the discernment between what is necessary to the work and what veers off into regret and self-pity, which is truly unnecessary.
The question “is what I am about to do or say detrimental to a harmonious social life?” (mood 2) is simple to remember, if not always easy to act upon. A few times over the week I caught myself just before saying something unhelpful. I felt the prompts of the ego, but I am pleased to say that I stopped myself without any feeling of discomfort. For me, this is a big achievement.
Point 4 needs ongoing work, mostly in connection with snacking as (unsuccessful and detrimental to health) coping mechanism. This area seems to be the most impervious to change.
Week 39 - Keep basic Stoic concepts always at hand (29 October 2022)
The most basic Stoic principles I continue to work on and have (partly) internalised are:
Remembering the dichotomy of control, even though I still catch myself being upset about people and situations I cannot control;
Remembering ‘tomorrow you will die’: or practising being in and relishing the present moment;
Cultivating compassion and sympathy for other humans, animals and nature, although sometimes I slip into empathy and end up feeling upset for things out of my control;
Striving to exercise rationality and the four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. Still trying.
For a handy review of Stoic lessons check out this Instagram post by The Guardian.
The heart meets the (left) hand in an embrace of imperfection
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Thank you, Sofia. So inspiring. I took a screen capture of the quote from Seneca. Going to be reflecting on this.
Thank you for sharing Sofia. I am amazed and inspired by your story. And I wish you all the best.
Another amazing thing you got there is the wisdom you're sharing with us. Thank you so much for that.