On Tranquility of Mind by Seneca

Really, my deep dive into the practice of Stoicism came in the virtue of self-control because, well, I did not feel in control of myself when I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, ADD, anxiety, and depression. But really it came down to tranquility of mind. That’s what I was looking for because I’ve never had it, mostly because I didn’t understand how I was wired. So, really, Seneca’s letter on tranquility of mind is the whole reason I practice Stoicism—to treat my ADD. Here is what I take from it:

One. On the cult of productivity, and really—don’t be afraid to take a nap.

“Uninterrupted productivity will soon exhaust it, so constant effort will sap our mental vigor, while a short period of rest and relaxation will restore our powers. Unremitting effort leads to a kind of mental dullness and lethargy. Nor would men’s wishes move so much in this direction if sport and play did not involve a sort of natural pleasure; though repeated indulgence in these will destroy all the gravity and force of our mind. Sleep too is is essential as a restorative, but if you prolong it constantly day and night it will be death.”

Two. There’s a critical section where Seneca described—what read to me as ADHD. He talks about people who live with inertia and are dissatisfied with themselves. “This arises from mental instability and from fearful and unfulfilled desires when men do not dare or do not achieve all they long for, and all they grasp at is hope: they are always unbalanced or fickle, an inevitable consequence of living in suspense.” It makes me certain that this is my struggle.

Three. He then goes on to describe SPIN and SLIDE, what happens to folks with ADD who struggle to regulate the co-morbidities of anxiety and depression. We slide into shame, pessimism, isolation, and no productive or creative outlet.

“these afflictions of failure have caused people to retreat into laziness and private studies which are not suitable to a mind aspiring to public service, keen on activity, and restless by nature because of course it is short of inner resources. This leads to isolation and then boredom and self-dissatisfaction.”

Four. Then he lays out the basics of the Stoic idea of productivity: “We must take a careful look first at ourselves, then at the activities which we shall be attempting, and then at those for whose sake and with whom we are attempting them (82).”

“We must appraise the actual things we attempting and match our strength to what we are going to undertake. For the performer must always be stronger than his task: loads that are too heavy for the bearer are bound to overwhelm him. Moreover, certain tasks are not so much great as prolific in producing many other tasks: we must avoid those which give birth in turn to new and manifold activities, and not approach something from which we cannot easily withdraw. You must set your hands to tasks which you can finish or at least hope to finish, and avoid those which get bigger as you proceed and do not cease where you had intended.” 

Five.In which Seneca describes the Stoic Test strategy, negative visualization, justice, and a good lesson in weekend personal activities.

“Think your way through difficulties: hardship conditions can be softened, restricted ones can be widened, and heavy ones can weigh less on those who know how to bear them. Abandoning those things which are impossible or difficult to attain, let us pause what is readily available and entices our hopes, yet recognize that all are equally trivial, outwardly varied in appearance but uniformly futile within. Let us not look envy those who stand higher than we do: what look like towering heights are precipices. On the other hand, those whom an unfair fate has put in a critical condition will be safer lowering their pride in things that are in themselves proud and reducing their fortune as far as they can to a humble level. By justice, gentleness, kindness, and lavish generosity let them prepare many defenses against later disasters to give them hop of hanging on more safely.” (91)

Finally, set advancements at some limit and not allow fortune to decide when they should cease but ourselves to stop far short of that.

Six. One of the last talks I used to give at Paul Smith’s College was on being grateful, dying, and how we’re all just basically compost. It went something like this: that really all the proof that we ever existed is what we create—the children we have, the parents we have, and maybe the work we produce. For even ten minutes a day, that writing, a piece of paper that comes from a tree is one of the most natural things we can do on Earth. When we die, we return to Earth, and writing—whether it’s in published book form or just writing a journal for 10 minutes a day- is a part of the planet’s natural order. It seems like Seneca would agree:

“Should Nature demand back what she previously entrusted to us we shall say to her too: ‘Take back my spirit in better shape than when you gave it. I do not quibble or hang back: I am willing for you to have straightaway what you gave me before I was conscious—take it.’ What is the harm in return to the point whence you came? He will live badly who does not know how to die well. So we must first strip off the value we set on this thing and reckon the breath of life as something cheap.”

Seven. 4000 Weeks by Oliver Burkeman links to this: “The next thing to ensure is that we do not waste our energies pointlessly or in pointless activities: that is, not to long either for what we cannot achieve, or for what, once gained, only makes us realize too late and after much exertion the futility of our desires. In other words, let our labor not be in vain and without result, nor the result unworthy of our labor; for usually bitterness follows if either we do not succeed or we are ashamed of succeeding.”

Burkeman again, and also precisely what I’ve been doing the last four years, so quit it! “They wander around aimlessly looking for employment, and they do not what they intended but what they happen to run across. Their roaming is idle and pointless, like ants crawling over bushes, which purposelessly make their way right up to the topmost branch and then all the way down again. Many people live a life like these creatures, and you could not unjustly call it busy idleness…so let all your activity be directed to some object, let it have some end in view. It is not industry that makes men restless, but false impressions of things drive them made.”

So have experiences and not things.

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