Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Modern Stoic Meditations #2: Persist, Persist



According to Favorinus, Epictetus would also say that there were two vices much blacker and more serious than the rest: lack of persistence and lack of self-control. The former means we cannot bear or endure hardships that we have to endure, the latter means that we cannot resist pleasures or other things we ought to resist. ‘Two words,’ he says, ‘should be committed to memory and obeyed by alternately exhorting and restraining ourselves, words that will ensure we lead a mainly blameless and untroubled life.’ These two words, he used to say, were ‘persist and resist’.”

Epictetus, Fragment 10, “Discourses and Selected Writings”

Anyone who says that philosophers are too obscure or complicated should be made to read that quote.  Stoicism couldn’t be simpler. We must commit the words “Persist and Resist” to memory and keep saying them to ourselves. Move over mindfulness,  recite the “persist and resist” mantra instead.

Contemporary psychologists  have vindicated the importance of persisting and resisting.  Psychologist Angela Duckworth has led research on grit  - which she defines as the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.  Walter Mischel, famous for his Marshmallow Test,  has for many years argued that self-control –the  quality that allows you to stop yourself from doing things you want to do but that might not be in your best interest - is key to achievement and well-being, So when Epictetus tells us that persisting and resisting are key, he is clearly on to something.

In today’s meditation I will focus on persistence, and how Stoicism help us persist. 

We already know that we can use it as a mantra, how else can Stoicism help us?
At the time when we feel like giving up, we can train ourselves to become aware of the negative  thoughts that make us feel that way. We can then remind ourselves  “This negative thought is  just an impression in my mind and not an objective fact like it claims to be.”  For example, if I am trying to write an article and the thought 
“You will never finish it” comes into my mind”, I can respond by reminding myself that "This is just a thought, not a fact."

As well as negative thoughts, people often give up because of a setback. Here the Stoic advice to think of what the sage would do in this situation is valuable. When it comes to dealing with setbacks, I really admire the attitudes of Winston Churchill and Thomas Edison. Churchill said "Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm." Thomas Edison suggested "Negative results are just what I want. They're just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don't." When asked by a journalist how he had coped with failing in his first 10000 attempts to invent the lightbulb he responded “I   had not failed. I had just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”  


The Stoics give us one more relevant piece of wisdom in the analogy of the archer. An archer should take accurate aim, and then accept  fate if the arrow gets blown off course. In the same way we should focus on what is under our control and not get discouraged if fate prevents success. We should control the controllables.

So the Stoics give us four excellent pieces of advice when it comes to persisting and developing grit. We can use the mantra “persist”, we can challenge the validity of discouraging thoughts, we can reframe failure in the same way as the sages on success and failure do, and we can focus on what we can control and leave the rest to fate.

Let’s spend a few moments using a visualisation to help us build up the virtue of persistence.

So think of something you want to achieve – it could be completing Stoic Week, or changing career, or getting fitter – or something else that is important to you.  Imagine trying to achieve this and then something getting in the way. Now in your mind’s eye imagine saying to yourself “Persist, Persist”. Next imagine a negative thought getting in the way – perhaps “I’ll try again next year when circumstances are better”. Remind yourself that this thought is just an opinion, it’s not an objective fact. Reflect, like Thomas Edison did, on what you can learn from this setback. Perhaps you’ve learnt another way not to do it! Finally think of something you can do that is under your control to take you in the right direction. Imagine doing it, whilst repeating to yourself–persist, persist, persist. Then imagining yourself persisting until you succeed.


Tomorrow we will look at the second part of Epictetus’s mantra- Resist – how to be more self-controlled.



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