Now, if virtue promises happiness, prosperity, and peace, then progress in virtue is certainly progress in each of these. For to whatever point the perfection of anything absolutely brings us, progress is always an approach towards it. Epictetus
No matter how much you read Stoic Answers or The Daily Stoic or Brain Pickings, you will never, ever have true progress unless you actually put what you read into practice. Regarding this point, Epictetus says: As if I should say to a wrestler, Show me your muscle; and he should answer me, ” See my dumb-bells.” Your dumb-bells are your own affair; I desire to see the effect of them.
What are all your books and reading good for, if you cannot see nor harvest the effect of them (happiness, peace, prosperity)?
Well, it is just so obvious isn’t it? And yet, do you really believe that you are advancing in virtue? Do you feel more happy, more at peace and more prosperous each day that passes? If so, then you don’t need my congratulations, you are on your way, you’ve won, but if not, I believe there is something in your life that is lacking in order to actually make progress and that is simply, focus.
It is no secret that the capacity to sustain attention, to focus, is at an all-time low in our society, or rather, misdirected, almost as if it is not under our control. At this point in your reading, I have to ask, have you only been reading or have you checked your phone already?
In order to get better at something, you need to pay attention to what you want to get better at, there is no other way around. With virtue, it gets a little tricky, as virtue is not something you can set a Pomodoro timer to practice for 25 minutes and get better once you are done with it, no, virtue requires you to practice 24/7 as virtue is the practice of living well and you are living all the time. There is no rest when it comes to living a virtuous life.
I’m going to let Epictetus remind us what a virtuous life is.
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will. ”
To live a virtuous life, a happy, simple, and free life, you have to disregard, or, better said, be unaffected by that which is not under your control and at the same time regain your power to control that ,which, do is under your control.
It is simple, but we are, however, extremely distracted. And most of the things that distract us are constantly trying to remind us about all of our desires, desires that are not needed or even wanted sometimes. We are being constantly bombarded with advertisement either from business or from our friends that show a never ending stream of food, sex or the joys of traveling, open Instagram and see for yourself.
While we are busy desiring all of these spoils that we really don’t need and really cannot control, just influence, we are deprive ourselves of the capacity to focus on what we can actually control right at the moment. Which is basically being content with what we do have in each moment and finding enjoyment in what we are doing right now. Not living in a fantasy world that has not yet come to pass.
Besides, if you want a great body or you want to go to the Great Wall of China and take a picture there, isn’t it better to focus on working or developing a plan to actually get there yourself? On top of that, what will happen if you finally get to the place which you thought was going to provide you with happiness and you suddenly realize that you cannot really enjoy it, for you did not wanted to see the place in itself but just yourself portrayed in a picture you can show of?
That is a scary thought isn’t it? The difference between enjoying The Great wall and enjoying the picture you take yourself in it is that you are free to enjoy whichever place you want, you are free to admire it and wonder in it, no matter where you are. Whereas taking a picture for validation restrains you of the enjoyment you could’ve supplied for yourself and willingly transfers it to the judgement of other people that I’m quite sure, doesn’t even care that much.
Remember this be careful to give your power away to the desires that lure you into a cycle of want that will never end, for as soon as we get something, we will want something else, and then something else, and so on.
Consuming information and being entertained is not inherently bad, of course. Enjoying a movie or watching a funny video on YouTube from time to time is not as said before, inherently wrong. What is bad is that everything that distracts you from practicing virtue, and being in control is going to affect your life experience directly, and not in a good way.
Knowing this, it is important to control our focus. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly puts it: “Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.”
Your focus is, undoubtedly, your most important asset, this is why everyone wants it, and millions of dollars are being paid every single day for it. Wherever your focus goes, you will grow in that specific area, be it for good or for bad. If your focus is placed for the most time in the modern spoils like the ones just mentioned, then your capacity to restrict desire and focus on the positive things that are available to you will be severely restricted.
What To Do About It Then?
Well, knowing this, it is important for you to ask yourself:
- Where is my focus most of the time?
- What am I thinking most of the time?
- Where do I spend most of my free time
Taking a walk or watching Instagram? Scrolling endlessly on YouTube or on a Netflix marathon? Or maybe doing some kind of sport, a good run? Even having a glass of wine or coffee with someone?
The difference between doing something easy in comparison with doing something a bit more complicated is that you need to enforce and actively practice your focus, you need to force yourself to use your attention.
This is how progress is made, by actually putting it into practice.
“First say to yourself what you would be;
and then do what you have to do.”
There is a good reason why Marcus Aurelius’s book is called Meditations. To meditate is to actively practice or reflect on something. It is basically focusing attention on something that you consciously want to be improved. In mindful meditation, for example, you force yourself to focus on your breathing. This practice might not be stoic in essence, but it lets everyone that practice it, experience first hand what focus truly is and how little we possess of it.
Sit down for 5 minutes and try to sustain your focus only on your breath. You will soon realize that thoughts come and go in your head like clouds passing through the sky. It’s hard to concentrate on your breathing entirely for more than even a few seconds. This is why meditation can greatly enhance your capacity to focus at will. If there is an actual practice to gain more control over your head, this is it.
Conscious Experience Direction
Another great way to gain control is the ability to practice values such as courage or gratitude at will.
Although you might think that gratitude is a something external, in reality it is something that can be experienced entirely at will as the only thing you need is to direct your focus towards gratefulness or courage. You can be at any moment more courageous. This tends to change perspective in funny ways. When you are living, day to day, normal life, the default mode of your thoughts will almost always inevitably tend to spiral towards the negative. It really does take effort to direct your focus on what is more useful as for example gratitude.
What happens when you are grateful? Your focus is directed towards the things that you feel happy about having in your life, maybe the very fact that you are alive wondering about your life is a reason to be grateful. In consequence, you become motivated by them and you actively search for more life instead of shunning it.
Wouldn’t you want more of that? Moment to moment, you can cultivate gratefulness as you can cultivate courage or temperance, and the Stoic values in general.
Better from worse
Lastly. It is hard to always know what you need to do or where you need to direct your attention. One quick fix that you can use as a North Star is to ask yourself: Is this better, or worse?
This question is not hard to respond to, and you will generally know what is better from worse and from that point, act accordingly.
I would like to leave you with a quote from Epictetus so you can cement in your head what’s just been said.
“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself and in no instance bypass the discriminations of reason? You have been given the principles that you ought to endorse, and you have endorsed them. What kind of teacher, then, are you still waiting for in order to refer your self-improvement to him? You are no longer a boy, but a full-grown man. If you are careless and lazy now and keep putting things off and always deferring the day after which you will attend to yourself, you will not notice that you are making no progress, but you will live and die as someone quite ordinary.
From now on, then, resolve to live as a grown-up who is making progress, and make whatever you think best a law that you never set aside. And whenever you encounter anything that is difficult or pleasurable, or highly or lowly regarded, remember that the contest is now: you are at the Olympic Games, you cannot wait any longer, and that your progress is wrecked or preserved by a single day and a single event. That is how Socrates fulfilled himself by attending to nothing except reason in everything he encountered. And you, although you are not yet a Socrates, should live as someone who at least wants to be a Socrates.”
A great complement to this read: Where Are You Putting Your Attention?
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