A couple of days ago I wrote about impressions and my experience with impressions at the home improvement store. Impressions are that “feeling” you get when you have an experience, and if you’d like to read more, you can check out that post here. Epictetus’ third discipline of Stoicism, the discipline of assent, is closely linked to impressions because if impressions are the “feeling” you get, then assent is your decision to accept that feeling as reality. In the original Greek, the word means “approve, agree, or ‘go along with.'”
“Thus, when we assent to an impression (phantasia), we are committing ourselves to it as a correct representation of how things are and are saying, ‘Yes, this is how it is.'”
(Seddon, Epictetus’ Handbook and the Tablet of Cebes, p.18)
Therefore, the discipline of assent basically means that we are learning how to make accurate interpretations of our experiences based on facts and not on feelings.
“The third area of study has to do with assent, and what is plausible reality. Just as Socrates use to say that we should not lead an unexamined life, then neither should we accept an unexamined impression. Instead, we should say to it, ‘Stop, let me see what you are and where you come from,’ just as the night-guard says ‘Show me your pass.'”
(Epictetus, Discourses, 3.12, verbiage changed slightly)
Examine the situation before you decide what you think of it.
“Straightaway then, train yourself to say to every unpleasant impression, ‘You are an impression, and by no means what you appear to be.’ Then examine it and test it by the rules that you have, firstly (in this way especially) by asking whether it concerns things that are in our power or things that are not in our power: and if it concerns something not in our power, have ready to hand the answer, ‘This is nothing to me.'”
(Epictetus, Handbook 1)
We are faced with surprises everyday, and this throws us off because humans generally don’t like change. We like routine because it gives us the feeling that we are in control. Routine means our minds can follow along and anticipate what’s coming next. And when it does come true, our minds get this little reward and go ahhhhh. (Like when you know your favorite part in the song is coming up).
Of course, even with routines, we aren’t actually in control. Maybe your evening meditation ritual will be interrupted by your kid crying because there’s a monster under the bed. Maybe you have to take a detour to work to bypass a construction site. When these interruptions happen, we feel like we lose our sense of control, which either saddens, angers, or frustrates us, and then we spend emotional energy fighting over what routine was taken from us. Ugh, stupid detour. I can’t wait until this city finally gets ONE construction project completed.
“Stop (Impression), let me see what you are, and where you come from”
(Epictetus, Discourses, 3.12)
Epictetus’ advice is to wait before passing judgement on the situation. Is this construction zone really something to be annoyed about? Is there anything about this situation that is intrinsically upsetting? You know the answer to that. That’s why some things can set you off on certain days, and other days you’re fine with it. The difference is in your interpretation and your assent. Epictetus wants us to look at the objective facts before placing a judgement. I think Marcus Aurelius has a great method of doing this:
Is it a gourmet wild-caught fish, fresh from the sea?
“When you have a feast and gourmet delicacies set before you, you will remind yourself of their true nature if you tell yourself that this is the corpse of a dead fish, and that dish over there is the dead body of a bird or a pig; or that highly sought-after wine is merely grape juice, and this purple rob is simply sheep’s wool dipped in shellfish blood… Thoughts like these reach the actual objects and see them for what they truly are. Follow this practice throughout your life…and lay them naked, see how cheap they are, and strip them of the pretenses…”
Or is it a dead fish carcass on a plate?
Aurelius, Meditations, 6.13
I personally struggle with social anxiety. So when I was at the store the other day and encountered a rude clerk, I managed to pull myself back together by using Marcus’ method here. I looked at the facts and reframed my experience: What exactly happened? You pressed the button for assistance and the clerk came and spoke to you. Is that all? Ok, I can handle that…
In that scenario, I had initially assented to the impression that the clerk was rude and grumpy, which meant that I had caused her to be grumpy, and my anxiety was beginning to spiral out of control. But by reframing the experience, I rejected my first impression and assented to a new, more carefully thought-out one: I didn’t cause that employee to be angry, and her rude words weren’t life-shattering. My new impression, to which I assented, was that the clerk had a less-than-pleasant attitude, but people are like that, and I had nothing to do with it. It was nothing to me. Therefore, I was able to shrug it off and move on with my day.
I really like this next passage:
“We should engage in daily practice to meet the impressions of our senses.
‘So-and-so’s son has died!’
Answer, ‘That has nothing to do with moral character, so I won’t consider it an evil.’
‘So-and-so’s father has disowned him!’
‘That also has nothing to do with moral character. I won’t consider it an evil.’
‘Caesar has condemned a man!’
‘That has nothing to do with moral character. I won’t consider it an evil.’
‘He was so upset when he heard the news!’
‘That lies within the sphere of moral character. That is an evil.’
‘He’s handled all of these challenges so well.’
‘That also lies within the sphere of moral character. That is good.
So if we make this a habit, we’ll make progress; for then we will never give our assent to anything except anything of which we get a convincing sense-impression.
‘His son is dead!’
‘I said his son is dead!’
‘But nothing else?’
‘No, that’s it.’
‘His ship is destroyed!’
‘His ship is destroyed.’
‘He was carried off to prison!’
‘He was carried off to prison.’
But the observation: ‘He hasn’t handled it well,’ is an addition to the situation that each person makes their own responsibility.”
(Epictetus, Discourses 3.8)
Epictetus can be considered controversial sometimes because he uses such strong examples to exercise his points. He is driving home the point that if something is an external, then it is beyond your control and it is nothing to you. It doesn’t matter if your life fortune was lost, if a politician bad-mouths you, if you go to prison, or if your child died. These are all outside of your power and while they would definitely be unfortunate situations, your tears won’t change a thing about them. What’s important is that you gain control over your responses so you can keep moving forward developing your character, and the best way you can do that is to tell your impressions:
“‘Impression, wait for me a little. Let me see what you are and what you represent. Let me test you.’”
(Epictetus, Discourses 2.18)
Not everything is worth a million bucks. Examine everything before deciding its value. Then you’ll have a clearer picture of whether it’s worth getting worked up about.
The thing to avoid, according to our author Seddon, is judging a situation on-the-spot without properly evaluating it. I like to think of the discipline of assent as “pricing your inventory.” It won’t do any good to price everything in the store at $1,000 each. You need to examine each item, look at its specifications, and carefully assign its value. If you can make a habit of mentally pricing your inventory, you’ll be on the right track toward living a tranquil life.
Added: Shortly after publishing this post, I had a eureka moment. My dog saw that I was getting ready to take him somewhere in the car, and he got so excited that he turned his head quickly and hit his head HARD against the door by mistake. My reaction was to check to make sure he was ok, make sure his gums aren’t bleeding, he didn’t lose any teeth, and as I was responding to his situation, I could see his face searching mine to understand how I would react.
The eureka thought is this: after years in human services watching toddlers and their parents, I saw a pattern that when a child falls, whether they cry or not is largely related to how the parent responds. Toddlers who fell would start with a worried expression, but when they looked to their parents, if the parent scooped them up and laughed it off, the child’s expression would recover quickly and they were back to playing in no time. But if the parent scooped them up and made a big deal saying things like, “Oh my poor baby! Are you ok?? Poor thing. Mama’s here…” the child would often, at that very moment, break into inconsolable tears. This suggests to me that assent is a very learnable behavior. The child’s impression when he falls is to grimace a little, for it’s not a pleasant experience landing on the ground. But the child was searching the face of the parent to learn how to assent: Should I be really distraught when I fall? Mother is acting like this is a life-shattering ordeal. It must be! vs Mother seems to think this isn’t too big of a deal. Maybe I’m ok and falling on the ground isn’t the end of the world!
Now that we are adults, it’s time to try to unlearn this behavior and to gain better hold of our impressions and assent. When you take a stumble or face a challenge, imagine you are a toddler learning what to think of the situation. Then tell yourself, “It’s ok! Things like this happen! Brush yourself off and get back out there.”