Practical Stoicism: Focus on the Thing at Hand

Submitted by c0c0c0 on Wed, 01/11/2017 - 17:12

This is a new chapter, soon to be added to "Practical Stoicism".  I had a hell of a time carving it down to the requisite "1 page", but once it was done, the resulting version actually came out far better than the original.  It's interesting how having to use fewer words make you use better ones.

About the only thing I still miss was the extra quote I had to throw out:

Anything worth doing is worth doing well.  (Your mom)

Every moment concentrate steadily as a citizen and a human being to do what you have before you with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice; and to put aside all else. And you will give yourself peace, if you do every act of your life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to you. You see how few the things are that, should you grab hold of them, you can to live a life which flows in quiet, and is like the existence of the gods; for the gods on their part will require nothing more from him who observes these things. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.5)

Buddhists have this concept of a thing called the "monkey mind". It's that chattering voice in your head that seems to pipe up whenever you set yourself to any task. It says things like, "I wonder if anyone has liked my Facebook post, yet" and "I bet there's a new article in my news feed now". When you wrestle it into grudging silence, it squirms and wriggles and waits for a moment of laxity to burst free and do a quick check of the Reddit front page. It simply must know what else is going on.

Mastering one's self is largely about mastering this tendency we have to skip from task to task, trying on our work like coats at a department store and waiting for one to grab our fancy. There is always something shinier right over there. And yet, if our mind is always on the next thing, then it is never on what we are actually doing. And if our mind is not engaged in the only moment where we exist, this one, then we might as well have never existed. We were never "there".

One should, instead, approach every task as if it mattered, as if it were important. Else, why have you chosen to do it? And if you have decided that a thing is to be done, then work at it as if it could be the very last impression you leave on this planet. Who knows what will happen next? If this was to be your last moment on Earth, would you want to spend it half-heartedly tending the garden of your life while checking your Twitter stream?

Better we should grasp every task we choose to do with both hands, and not let go until we have completed the work to our full satisfaction. Engage with the work - experience it. Live in the moment forcefully enough to remember it happened.

If Death comes while you are washing dishes, let him find you scrubbing them spotless. If he comes while you are driving to work, let him find you with both hands on the wheel. And, if he finds you in your bed, go with him satisfied that you have used your allotted minutes well.