The Most Important Distinction To Make

Do you ever find yourself aggravated at the world? It just won’t conform to your wants! The voices, they keep ringing in your head. Stop talking, just stop it! The capitalist system is destroying your livelihood! ARGHHH!

Although this is exaggerated, it underlying message is true. We get annoyed at the little things. From other people not respecting your “quiet time” to the daily news, the world does not seem to care about you. And it’s true! It doesn’t.

Do we all know this? Maybe. But is most clearly expressed in the writing of the Stoics. Epictetus said that “the chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.” We all hear this, but there are grey lines. Can I influence her opinion of me? What can I do to win that favor? These thoughts are seductive. However, thinking this way is a trap for unhappiness. It is a trap for appeasing others when, in reality, no such thing can be assured. All of your effort could be wasted.

What I have started doing to counter this self-destroying tendency is to separate all things in life into things I clearly can control and things I cannot. To make this more concrete, I have started applying mental images to these two domains of objects. I think of all things I can’t control as contained in squares. Squares, to me, are immutable. They are how they are. I think of the things that I can change as in circles. These circles are like lumps of clay. I can mold them with my hands and my mind. I literally picture squares and circles in the world, surrounding these objects, almost like different frames in different directions of my perception.

I’ll give a concrete example. Let’s say I’m focusing on coding. When a distraction arises (say, loud voices from upstairs), I will tell myself that I cannot control the noise and make a mental picture of a square in the direction of the noise. In front of me, I will remind myself that I can improve my code, and have an aura (a circle) around my computer. Combining mental talk with visual additions helps me intensify the distinction between what I can control and what I cannot.

This distinction is the first step towards understanding your conditioning. We all have little reactions we are programmed to do. If see ghost, then scream!! I joke. I find that recognizing that these outside influences are uncontrollable helps relieve some of the strong reactions that come after them. You just keep putting that square around them in your mind and direct your thoughts to what you can control. I know it may sound dumb, but I have found it to be really useful. It has helped me to moderate by inner programming, faulty as it may be, and find myself in a state of flow more often. The more I can be absorbed in my work, the more happy I am (and so are others!). If that means putting abstract shapes on things in my life, then so be it.

 

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