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Your Life: Habit or Freedom?

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A friend once asked me, “With all the years you’ve studied the mind and its functions, why have you not written a book? Especially since you love to write?”

I could have given him a dozen different answers, but what instantly issued from my mouth was, “You’re supposed to write what you know. All I’ve focused on has been stuff like truth and wisdom. I see no point in writing about it, since greater minds than mine have already said it before.”

Without missing a beat, my friend quipped, “That’s okay. People weren’t reading about truth and wisdom before either.”

Whether considering the Stoics, Buddhists, or any other countless philosophies or religions over the centuries, I’ve discovered two common themes.

First, have unconditional love for all of humanity.

And second?

The greater person is not the one who conquers ten thousand enemies on the battlefield, but the one who can conquer his or herself.

For the ancient Roman Stoics, the ideal of someone who has conquered himself was referred to as a Sage.

None of the Stoics actually claimed to be a Sage, since they characterized it as a state of perfection, and they all understood the importance of humility.

But it did not prevent them from getting as close to that state as they possibly could.

And what is a defining characteristic of a Sage?

Total freedom.

But not in the modern sense of the word.

To most, in western industrialized nations at least, “freedom” means being able to go where one wants without hindrance; expressing what one wants to express without being censored; and owning what one wants to own.

The complication that arises in thinking that is freedom is the fact that all those things are based on externals; and external factors are either only partially in your control, or not at all.

To think that freedom merely depends on what you own or where you can physically go is superficial and short-sighted freedom at best.

According to the Stoics, true freedom is an internal state.

“Oh, it’s inside me? Well then, that’s easy!” you might think.

But it is not.

If it were, the planet’s entire population would all be enlightened sages by now.

So what are the obstacles?

First and foremost is thinking you have freedom when you don’t.

Most people course through life propelled by what parents, school, government, and media shaped them to be, never once questioning what they were taught.

Added to that, what William Irvine wonderfully refers to as “evolutionary autopilot” pushes many through life, quite often into very seemingly avoidable suffering.

But in between nurture and nature, the Stoics said we have one characteristic that was bestowed by the gods, and therefore has a particularly divine aspect to it.

Of course, talk of gods is magical thinking, but in a figurative sense, it is an alluring idea that there is a spark within each and every one of us that can help us rise above day-to-day existence; to simply rise above all this (whatever your particular all this may be.)

To modern thinkers that have no need to subscribe to the idea of mythical beings who live in the heavens, that one spark is easily recognizable as something that arose through thousands of years of evolution, ensuring we became the dominant species on the planet.

That spark is why we evolved to be social and empathetic; it is why Beethoven’s 9th Symphony exists; it is why we are able to land vehicles on other planets; it is why we can communicate at the speed of light over the internet.

That spark? One that could be figuratively referred to as a divine trait. But literally?

It is called “reason.”

And reasoning is an internal state.

Anyone, with some time and effort, can train their reasoning skills to become more focused, clear, and powerful.

If one has the will, guided by reason, then one can eventually do away with (maybe not completely) any misinformation one was inculcated with by environment while growing up, as well as take control of one’s evolutionary autopilot, which might have been useful when we were hunter/gatherers living in a jungle somewhere, but is now relatively useless during the age of information.

Acta Non Verba: People go to the gym to give the body a workout. Ask yourself: What am I doing to give my mind workouts, so that as the years progress, my reason become stronger?

A good place to start would simply be looking up the basic parts of the scientific method, and evaluating whether it plays an important role in how your mind functions.

Also, with a few thousand years of philosophical, psychological, poetic, and historical texts available to you, give up some screen time each day, week, or month, and focus on something you’ve never read or learned about before.

Ab Aeterno

Authentic happiness is always independent of external conditions. – Epictetus

Vigilantly practice indifference to external conditions. Your happiness can only be found within. – Epictetus

“How at this moment am I using my mind?” This is a question worth asking all the time. – Marcus Aurelius

Dig down within yourself. The fount of goodness lies within and will keep flowing as long as you keep digging. – Marcus Aurelius

You can’t master the arts of reading and writing until you’ve studied them. This applies even more to those who would master the art of living. – Marcus Aurelius

…in too many circumstances, we do not deal with our affairs in accordance with correct assumptions, but rather we follow thoughtless habit. – Musonius Rufus

Stephen Sumner is a writer with over three decades experience studying what it means to have a good life. He has a BS in Human Development and Family Studies from Cornell University. His favorite pastimes include reading, fountain pens, and growing insanely hot peppers. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

Original, non-meme image from Matthew Henry via

Categories: Freedom Reason

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Stephen Sumner

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