Here are seven excellent pearls of wisdom from Epictetus.
If you are going your own way, prepare for reactions.
“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”
Besides being a funny quote I believe it is very relevant to self-improvement.
If you start changing then people may react in different ways. Some may be happy for you. Some may be indifferent. Some may be puzzled or react in negative and discouraging ways.
Much of these reactions are probably not so much about you but about the person who said it and his/her life. How they feel about themselves is shining through in the words they use and judgements they make.
And that’s OK. Most likely they won’t react as negatively as you may imagine. Or they will probably at least go back to focusing on their own challenges pretty soon.
You choose to be insulted.
“It is not he who reviles or strikes you who insults you, but your opinion that these things are insulting.”
What you feel and how you react to something is always up to you. There may be a “normal” or a common to react to different things. But that mostly just all it is. You can choose your own thoughts, reactions and emotions to pretty much everything. You don’t have to freak out, overreact of even react in a negative way. Perhaps not every time or instantly. Sometimes a knee-jerk reaction just goes off. Or an old thought habit kicks in.
But as you realize that no-one outside of yourself can actually control how you feel you can start to incorporate this thinking into your daily life and develop it as a thought habit. A habit that you can grow stronger and stronger over time. Doing this makes life a whole lot easier and more pleasurable.
Forget about what you think you know.
“It is impossible to begin to learn that which one thinks one already knows.”
If you think that you already know something then your mind will not be open to actually learning it. Whatever someone is telling you your mind will sort through based on what you think you know. You’ll only hear and learn what you what you want to hear and learn.
So whenever you want to learn anything it may be a good tip to disregard as much as possible of what you think you know. In my experience this makes it easier to pick things up and not disregard important stuff.
Of course, the ego often wants to jump in to meddle and strengthen itself by making you think that you already know whatever you’re about to learn. Be careful in trusting that somewhat arrogant inner voice.
“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
This is a useful piece of advice in just about any interaction. It’s useful when learning something new. And it’s helpful just while in a regular conversation. It’s not always easy to stick to it though. Sometimes you get too excited about something to keep quiet. Sometimes you just want to brag or recount what happened. Having the attention of all the other people feels good. So how do you get around this habit of hogging the spotlight?
One useful way is to just forget about yourself. Focus your attention outward instead of inward in a conversation. Place the mental focus on the person you are talking and listening to instead of yourself. Placing the focus outside of yourself makes you less self-centred and your need to hog the spotlight decreases.
If you start to actually listen to what people are saying it also becomes easier to find potential paths in the conversation. By asking open-ended questions – the ones that will give you more than a yes or no answer – you can explore these paths and have better and more fun conversations.
Appreciate what you have.
“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”
One good way to live a miserable life is to constantly focus on what you don’t have. If you appreciate what you have you’ll find everyday life more pleasurable. However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t focus on what you want.
To me it’s more about focusing on what you want and not keeping your focus in a more popular place: on what you lack. This will make it easier to get what you want since you always seem to notice and receive more of whatever you focus you mind upon.
Notice what is reflected.
“When you are offended at any man’s fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger.”
I really like this one because I’ve become more and more interested in how we relate to each other. Like how what someone says about you may not be much of a reflection of you but of the person that said it. This is a good thing to remember whenever someone is saying something negative about you. It’s also useful to remember whenever you feel negatively about someone else. It can not only help you forget about your negative emotion. It can also help you to learn more about yourself, what you fear and how you may be fooling yourself.
Suffering is optional. And so is happiness.
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”
“I must die. Must I then die lamenting? I must be put in chains. Must I then also lament? I must go into exile. Does any man then hinder me from going with smiles and cheerfulness and contentment?”
“It is not death or pain that is to be dreaded, but the fear of pain or death.”
Suffering is optional. And so is happiness. What you choose to think about determines how you feel. Now, again, it may be “normal” and common to go through a lot of mindmade suffering after the initial pain that ignited the suffering. And it’s easy to slip back into old thoroughly ingrained thought habits.
One tip that I have found helpful for this is to learn to reconnect as much as possible with the present moment (you can do that by for example just focusing on your breathing for a minute or two). Suffering is to a large extent created when your mind is thinking thoughts about either the past or a possible future.
It is also very useful to realize that you are not your thoughts or emotions. They are just things that are flowing through you. But they are not you. You are the one observing them. This realization can gradually free you more and more from keeping negative thought and emotions going. Whenever they arise and you realize that you aren’t them, that you don’t have to identify with them their power over you fades and vanishes quicker than if you had identified with them completely.