The following is a re-write of one of the first exercises written for Practical Stoicism. When I was simply writing for myself, I did a lot of cut-and-paste off the internet, mashing ideas from multiple sources together to create a kind of rambling Frankenstein monster of a booklet. It simply didn't read as well as it should have, with jumps from proposition to conclusion without pausing for explanation. And then back again. I intend to go back and fix that over time, at least for the worst of them. Here's the first, to be edited back into the booklet shortly, after I make a couple more changes.
People seek retreats for themselves in the countryside by the seashore, in the hills, and you too have made it your habit to long for that above all else. But this is altogether unphilosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself whenever you please; for nowhere can one retreat into greater peace or freedom from care than within one’s own soul, especially when a person has such things within him that he merely has to look at them to recover from that moment perfect ease of mind (and by ease of mind I mean nothing other than having one’s mind in good order). So constantly grant yourself this retreat and so renew yourself; but keep within you concise and basic precepts that will be enough, at first encounter, to cleanse you from all distress and to send you back without discontent to the life to which you will return. (Marcus Aurelius - Meditation IV.3)
How can you "get away from it all" when you always bring "it" with you? "It" is, of course, all your baggage. Your fears, your anxiety, your anger, your disappointment, your self-loathing, the lies you tell yourself, and the various poisons for which you lust. If that's what you want to get away from, there are cheaper tickets than the one at the airport.
The first thing you have to accept is that you cannot buy your peace of mind. And if you are trying to find it on a beach, you might as well stick your head in the sand and hum loudly to drown out your thoughts. If you want to see the world to broaden your horizons, that's all good, but the only place to go to fix your head is your head.
Try this exercise, based upon work by Christopher Gill at Exeter: Next time you need some relief, find some quiet space. Go out to your car, if you have to. Take a seat, close your eyes, and consider this:
- Only your opinions, pursuits, desires, aversions, and actions are within your control. Nothing outside your control matters in your pursuit of peace.
- Nothing that happens to you can hurt us unless you choose to be hurt. It is only your own opinions of events that cause you to be disturbed.
- Change is natural and inevitable. Might as well get angry at the rain as be disturbed by change.
- Momento mori. The clock is ticking. What is the very next thing you will do to start moving in the right direction?
Just those 4 things. Put them into your own words and make a mantra of them. Ponder them for as long as it takes and then get back to your work,
You have control over this. Even if you occasionally need to take a quick mental vacation to remember it.