How best can we penetrate the veils of illusion with which we surround ourselves? The world's religions and philosophies are full of starting points, different approaches which motivate us to make the effort toward self-transformation. One pathway which I have found helpful in a very practical way is that of Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher who lived around the turn of the first century AD. Even today Stoicism brings to mind someone who meets life with inner tranquillity, unaffected by circumstances. This ethos is part of a world view concerned with the nature and origin of the universe and man, as well as the proper way to live. The universe, it holds, springs forth from divinity, from Zeus; and, after its cycle is complete, it is enrolled into Him again. Human beings are citizens of the universe, children of Zeus and, consequently, all brothers and sisters in a very real sense. Humanity forms a whole, and each person can be understood only as a portion of it, tied to others by natural relationships which must be respected. To live as if we were isolated beings, or solely for pleasure, flies in the face of the natural order of things. Kindness, temperance, teaching by example more than by criticism, gladly fulfilling one's responsibilities as child, spouse, parent, citizen, and member of the human race, these characterize the Stoic approach.
The Stoic ideal is to bring the human being into harmony with the whole of nature. This is possible because each person has as the root of his being a seed or spark of the divine Logos, just as the cosmos does. Like Plato, the Stoics believe that people are essentially good and that no one knowingly rejects the summum bonum or Highest Good. People act wrongly primarily through ignorance and mistaken judgment, seeking the Highest Good in the physical world, in their body, possessions, power, and other things outside their true being. In reality, the Good is harmony with the universe, and it resides in what is our essence as human beings: our interior self and the products of its will. The difficulty, as Epictetus points out, is that everyone feels that he already knows what is good, what is right and wrong, the proper way to look at things, and resists any challenges to his habitual viewpoint. The unhappiness and emotional turmoil in our lives, however, testify to the fact that something is amiss in our ordinary approach.
To those who seek inner harmony, Epictetus stresses finding and acting upon the correct interpretation of what we perceive, distinguishing sharply between what is "ours" and what is "not ours." Those things which we can control — and are truly our own — are our opinions, impulses, our choice to pursue or avoid, all that is of our own doing and subject to our will. In respect to these things we are free, no one can hinder or compel us, we can do as we wish. Those things that we cannot control include other people, circumstances, reputation, possessions, authority, whatever is not wholly of our own doing. Unhappiness lies in mistaking for our own what is controlled, partly or wholly, by other wills: we fear death, disease, and bodily harm; we are angry or disappointed if we don't get what we want, irritated when people and circumstances do not conform to our wishes. We worry about the future, our possessions, the fate of others, and so on, all because we refuse to accept things as they are, wishing to impose our wills on what is beyond our control.
What we can control is our opinions and attitudes, our approach to whatever happens to us. We can meet any situation with inner cheerfulness and equanimity, or not — the choice is ours. Once we realize that things that are outside our control are not really part of us, and accept that we have no power over them — or they over our inner self — we free ourselves emotionally and can deal with situations without the destructive edge of personal attachment. This inner detachment does not in any way imply indifference, lack of sympathy, or thoughtlessness in our treatment of people. Human feelings are appropriate as long as they do not conflict with the love of the All, of divinity, or "overwhelm the inner man in a 'wave of mortal tumult,' and dull his vital sense of the great moral ends which he was born to pursue, . . ." (T. W. Rolleston in The Teaching of Epictetus, translated from the Greek with Introduction and Notes by T. W. Rolleston, p. xxvi.)
Harmonizing ourselves with nature is difficult but not impossible, and Epictetus gives a great deal of practical counsel to his students. It requires, he says, constant practice and self-discipline because
Every skill and faculty is maintained and increased by the corresponding acts; . . . And thus it is in spiritual things also. When thou art wrathful, know that not this single evil hath happened to thee
Wouldst thou, then, be no longer of a wrathful temper? Then do not nourish the aptness to it, give it nothing that will increase it, be tranquil from the outset, and number the days when thou hast not been wrathful. . . . For the aptness is at first enfeebled, and then destroyed. — Discourses2:xviii
The key is to make new habits of thought and action, and to do this it is of primary importance not to judge too hastily. Whatever our first reaction may be, we should pause and examine it. If it is undesirable,
permit it not to lead thee forward, and to picture to thee what should follow, else it shall take possession of thee, and carry thee whithersoever it will. But rather bring in against it some other fair and noble appearance, and there withal cast out this vile one. — 2:xviii
If we can avoid being swept away by our first perception of things and repeatedly substitute a positive reaction for a negative one, our old self-limiting outlook will be weakened and finally destroyed.
In order to choose our reactions more deliberately, we can anticipate our tendency in a given situation. If, for example, a person is easily irritated when performing a certain task, before starting it he can picture to himself what is likely to occur and think, "I am going to do this task and maintain my composure." And then when he feels himself beginning to be irritable or angry, he can bring this resolution into his mind as a counterbalance. Carrying self-examination a step further, Epictetus also recommends the old Pythagorean maxim: do not close your eyes in sleep until you have reviewed each action of the day, from first to last — what was done amiss, what done, what left undone. Another point which makes our task easier is to try to discover the constructive side of situations. If, for example, a friend wrongs us, we can focus on the friendship instead of the wrong. As we form the habit of examining ourselves and acting from our inner vision, we increasingly align our thought and behavior with the physical and spiritual realities around us. Although progress will probably be slow, the main thing is to begin and continue trying.
In his discussions, Epictetus emphasizes being conscious of our relationship with divinity. He addresses himself to the inner man, the spiritual and rational rather than the physical or emotional being. The Stoics viewed each person as at heart a spermatikos logos (seed logos), a seed of divine fire or cosmic mind. As such, each person has a direct link to divinity residing deep within. "Thou art a piece of God," he says, "thou hast in thee something that is a portion of Him. Why, then, art thou ignorant of thy high ancestry? . . . Unhappy man! thou bearest about with thee a God, and knowest it not!" (Discourses 2:viii). If we remained aware of the divinity within us, how different our thoughts and actions would be. Our ordinary perceptions come from the animal-man who forms the shell of our personality. But when we reflect on our initial reactions, we call upon the deeper part of us which has a natural affinity with the divine harmony which informs and maintains the cosmos. It is this part of ourselves that remains calm and poised in the face of pain, grief, or adversity because it is unaffected by them. Again, it is this aspect of us that makes us brothers with all the rest of mankind. When we identify with this divine-human seed within we will still feel the entire range of emotions but, having a more universal perspective, we will not be swept away by them; we will direct them instead of being controlled by them.
From another angle, the world and all in it is a manifestation of the divine will, and if we would work with divinity, we must accept with good grace whatever may occur, if it is beyond our power to change it. Epictetus exhorts his students "to be like-minded with God, and to blame neither Gods nor men," to desire "to become a God from a man," and to be mindful of their fellowship with Zeus (Discourses 2:xix). It is when we work with the divine, with things as they are rather than against them, that we are happy and successful, whatever may befall and however it may appear according to worldly wisdom. In fact, Epictetus goes so far as to say that unless we look only to God and consecrate ourselves to his commands, we will spend our lives following "with groaning and lamentation whatever is stronger" than we are, seeking happiness in things outside ourselves and not finding it (Discourses 2:xvi).
We are each wrapped in a world of our own making, a world of perceptions interpreted and colored by our attitudes, emotions, and desires. We seek power over outer things while neglecting to exercise control over our psychological self, our opinions, attitudes, and impulses. We must not forget that our realphilosophy is shown by the way we live, the way we behave and react and treat others day by day. When we are harsh or critical with those around us, or when we become depressed, irritated, or anxious, Stoicism offers practical help in regaining and maintaining our inner balance. As we form the habit of turning to the eternal center within us where truth abides and where the distortions of the personality do not reach, its benign influence begins to stream into our everyday self, and our personality slowly becomes attuned to its divine perspective. With time and perseverance we can become like-minded with God, in harmony with the divine which is both within and all around us, and be a benefit to all mankind.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1986. Copyright © 1986 by Theosophical University Press)