Fashion by Matthew Ames 2008/2010 photographed by Sybille Walter

As inhabitants of the 21st Century, we are heir to the greatest information boom in the history of the world; and while we consume this choice-saturated wealth of information, it consumes our thoughts and our time—creating a “poverty of attention”. Daily life is wrought with choices, distractions and sensory stimuli that fight for our attention, and the way we deal with it is to yield and respond to those incentives that are the most familiar, loud, or persistent, rather than taking the time to evaluate in terms of what is meaningful and most worthy of our attention. We should be more discriminating about what ideas and images we permit to enter into our minds; if we allow someone else to make up our minds for us, their motives might not be the highest. This attention deficit contributes to passive learning and the emotionally impulsive, where’s-the-next-big-excitement culture that thrives in today’s society.

I picked up a new book on Epictetus’ Manual the other day called Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness by Sharon Lebell, and found the Stoic philosophy on how to achieve happiness to be really inspiring and more relevant than ever in contemporary life. One of the main themes is that inner confusion and evil springs from ambiguity; hence, in order to be an extraordinary and happy person, one should explicitly identify the kind of person they wish to become, and conform to this code. It sounds simple enough, but how many times, if ever, have you stopped to take stock of your ideals and clearly defined your moral principles and convictions? When you’re clear about your goals, there is no room for ambiguity, and that reasoning is the best faculty we have to safeguard our integrity. The message of Epictetus is simple yet so often neglected: Separate yourself from the mob by deciding to be extraordinary, and do what you need to do—now.

As someone who subscribes to this concept, it can still be hard sometimes to cut through our option-saturated numbness to distinguish between true satisfaction and mere gratification. The antidote to this free-floating anxiety is disciplined emotional management and deep introspection, which takes a lot of work. But I’ve realized that understanding this is the most important part of becoming your best self. Being a whole, happy and self-aware person requires a constant, vigilant watchfulness over one’s beliefs and impulses, and a lifelong series of subtle readjustments of one’s character. If you clearly define your program for being your best self, you can learn to make thoughtful life choices rather than react from untrained instinct and—I love how Epictetus puts it— avoid “fall[ing] imperceptibly into vulgarity”.

Another theme in the book that really spoke to me is the need to control the irrepressible desire to influence external outcomes. As an event planner, I’m always thinking five to ten steps ahead in my own life, preparing for every manner of possible calamity that could happen. What if someone I trust betrays me? What if I lose a loved one? What opportunities have I missed out on? Epictetus teaches that what frightens and dismays us are not external events themselves, but the uncritical way we interpret their significance. We can’t choose our external circumstances, or how other people act, but we can choose how we respond to them. And by constantly working on strengthening our character, we can trust ourselves to have the wisdom and confidence to deal with life's problems when they arise, with intelligence and integrity.

Caretake this moment, and practice mindful living in the present. Define your goals clearly and work toward being the best version of yourself, because your will falls completely under your control. Feel free to leave your comments.

Photo: Fashion by Matthew Ames 2008/2010 photographed by Sybille Walter

 

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