Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 78 - On the Healing Power of the Mind

On the Healing Power of the Mind

Lucilius and Seneca suffer from catarrh, which the buildup of mucus in the back of the nose, throat, or sinuses. Doctors sometimes refer to catarrh as postnasal drip.

Apparently, Seneca had it so bad, he

entertained the impulse of ending [his] life then and there; but the thought of [his] kind old father kept [him] back. For [he] reflected, not how bravely [he] had the power to die, but how little power [his father] had to bear bravely the loss of [him]. And so [he] commanded [himself]to live.

Next comes a quote which I have seen quoted many times:

For sometimes it is an act of bravery even to live.

The rest of the letter contains Seneca's advice for getting over disease and dealing with pain.  The main point of it all, is that the study of the soul and mind and philosophy will go a long way to helping the sufferer of pain.

these very aids to my peace of mind were as efficacious as medicine. Honourable consolation results in a cure; and whatever has uplifted the soul helps the body also. My studies were my salvation. I place it to the credit of philosophy that I recovered and regained my strength. I owe my life to philosophy.
He also mentions friendship as a form of relief of suffering.  And as to the specific ailment of the catarrh, he advises walking, reading aloud, and a proper diet.  But for biggest aid and cure for disease, pain and the entire problem of life, he recommends philosophy - learning how to die well.
my counsel to you is this, – and it is a cure, not merely of this disease of yours, but of your whole life, – "Despise death." There is no sorrow in the world, when we have escaped from the fear of death.  There are these three serious elements in every disease: fear of death, bodily pain, and interruption of pleasures
If we can scorn death and never fear it, we will be able to face suffering and pain and be able to endure the lack of pleasures.  More specifically, he addresses the management of pain.  Either it is endurable, in which can we can endure in between breaks in the pain; or it is severe and acute, in which case either we die or the acuteness will not last long.
The suffering, however, is rendered endurable by interruptions; for the strain of extreme pain must come to an end.  No man can suffer both severely and for a long time; Nature, who loves us most tenderly, has so constituted us as to make pain either endurable or short.
Later on, he notes that when we put ourselves through self-inflicted suffering, we are able to better endure pain and diseases when they come.  A person acquainted with pain will not be fearful of it's onset.  In a way, he is able to separate his mind from his body.
The reason, however, why the inexperienced are impatient when their bodies suffer is, that they have not accustomed themselves to be contented in spirit. They have been closely associated with the body. Therefore a high-minded and sensible man divorces soul from body, and dwells much with the better or divine part, and only as far as he must with this complaining and frail portion.
And when pain does come into our life, we would do well to not complain about it.  Complaining does not make the pain go away and only serves to add mental suffering to the situation.  While it may seem extreme, Seneca's advice works.  If you think nothing of a trifle of pain or even of 'ambition, luxury, greed,' you will find the grip of those things will slacken.  But by drawing attention to them, you increase the sensitivity to them.
One can endure the suffering which disease entails, if one has come to regard its results with scorn.  But do not of your own accord make your troubles heavier to bear and burden yourself with complaining. Pain is slight if opinion has added nothing to it; but if, on the other hand, you begin to encourage yourself and say, "It is nothing, – a trifling matter at most; keep a stout heart and it will soon cease"; then in thinking it slight, you will make it slight. Everything depends on opinion; ambition, luxury, greed, hark back to opinion. It is according to opinion that we suffer.
The same too can be said of past physical and mental suffering.
What benefit is there in reviewing past sufferings, and in being unhappy, just because once you were unhappy? Besides, every one adds much to his own ills, and tells lies to himself.
Enduring pain and overcoming it is one way to rise above Fate and Fortune.  We can think of these events like an enemy attacking our position.  If we don't give in, we will be rewarded with the knowledge that our character has proven itself excellent.
if you hold your ground and make up your mind to push against it, it will be forced back. ... the reward is not a garland or a palm or a trumpeter who calls for silence at the proclamation of our names, but rather virtue, steadfastness of soul, and a peace that is won for all time, if fortune has once been utterly vanquished in any combat.
Another remedy he recommends is to look to think of other things and other people.  Recall the good, brave deeds in your own past; recall what brave people have done to overcome suffering.  One example of this, which I've found useful in situations where I am prone to complain, is to think of Anne Frank.  Whenever I catch myself complaining about something, I picture Anne, with arms folded, tapping her foot and impatiently looking at me, as if to say, "you think your problems are tough?"
to turn the mind aside to thoughts of other things and thus to depart from pain. Call to mind what honourable or brave deeds you have done; consider the good side of your own life. Run over in your memory those things which you have particularly admired. Then think of all the brave men who have conquered pain: of him who continued to read his book as he allowed the cutting out of varicose veins; of him who did not cease to smile, though that very smile so enraged his torturers that they tried upon him every instrument of their cruelty.
In recalling other people who have endured suffering, Seneca notes people who never uttered a moan or even broke out in a smile under the torturer's hands!

Before pain comes into our life, we must try to become accustomed to it.  We ought to organize our mind and soul through meditation.  Thereby, we are able to attain self-control and demonstrate an excellent character even on our sick-bed.
if your soul be habitually in practice, you will plead and teach, listen and learn, investigate and meditate. What more is necessary? Do you think that you are doing nothing if you possess self-control in your illness? You will be showing that a disease can be overcome, or at any rate endured.  There is, I assure you, a place for virtue even upon a bed of sickness. ... a man can display bravery even when wrapped in his bed-clothes. You have something to do: wrestle bravely with disease.
As we meditate and
roam through the universe, the truth can never pall (lose strength or potency); it will be the untruths that will cloy (be distasteful or displeasing).
We will come to know the truth that
honourable things do not depend on time for their growth; but any life must seem short to those who measure its length by pleasures which are empty and for that reason unbounded.
He closes:
"A single day among the learned lasts longer than the longest life of the ignorant."  Meanwhile, hold fast to this thought, and grip it close: yield not to adversity; trust not to prosperity; keep before your eyes the full scope of Fortune's power, as if she would surely do whatever is in her power to do. That which has been long expected comes more gently.

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