reality is malleable: stoicism and the art of dictating your world
I remember a day at university when, walking home in the biting cold, an uneasy realization hit me.
I suddenly thought: I don’t have to hate myself. No one is forcing me to engage in self-loathing. I will not lose anything if I stop feeling like this- in fact, I could gain a lot. The concept, although it might seem obvious, was shocking. I had never before considered that I could chose to alter my self perception. It's a simple idea. Yet how often do we consider the plasticity of our perception? Although I don't believe in epiphanies, that moment was the culmination of years of immersing myself in Stoic philosophy, the moment when it started to click. Anyone who has ever done CBT doubtless knows the discomfort of the moment when a therapist looks you in the eyes and points out that an ingrained perception is just opinion, not fact.
Perhaps the most important lesson Stoicism can teach us is this: reality is malleable.
Not because we have the power to alter the fabric of the universe, but because our individual universes are entirely based on how we think. Sure, that statement reeks of New Age bullshit, except it is based on ancient wisdom which people have been using and benefiting from for thousands of years.
Time is a ruthless curator and inefficient ideas tend to get culled. Stoicism has survived because it works and because Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus and the others were right- we do have a degree of control.
It isn’t easy to override ingrained beliefs, visceral and instinctual reactions or strong emotions. Yet it is possible. Different philosophies, religions, and individuals have always discovered that themselves and interpreted it their own ways. (A stoned friend of a friend recently announced ‘I had this epiphany last night. I was worrying the bong would fall over then I realized that if the bong falls over, the bong falls over and I can be okay with that if I chose to be.’) In slightly more eloquent words, Marcus Aurelius famously wrote:
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
I come back to that line non-stop and it’s even hung on my wall although I know it off by heart. Aurelius’ words convey the opposite of pessimism or resignation. Returning to them daily has become a habit of mine because they are a simple expression of a hopeful route to acceptance and focused progress. Even more so, I return to it because it is a reminder that reality is malleable due to the precise fact that our thoughts are.
Aurelius tells us to change what we can and not be upset by the rest. Elsewhere, he reminds himself to ‘take a bird’s eye view and see everything at once of gatherings, armies, farms, weddings and divorces, births and deaths, noisy courtrooms or silent spaces, every foreign people, holidays, memorials, markets—all blended together and arranged in a pairing of opposites.’
I regularly practice a meditation which involves imagining yourself zooming outwards bit by bit, until you see the whole planet, then let it disappear. The result is a deep sense of perspective and grounding. If you are not into meditation, try watching this short film for a similar effect.
It isn’t just our emotions and reactions which are amorphous and which can be reshaped. Take our memories for example. They are what shape us, influencing how we see the present as much as the past. At the same time, our memories are extremely malleable. We can suppress, alter, rewrite, distort and invent them. Other people can even intervene (as can occur in police interrogations or poorly executed therapy.) Each time we recall a memory it changes, to the point where it is hard to ascertain if we actually lived through our own past. I for one find it disconcerting that other people can (figuratively) reach inside our heads and rummage around, removing or adding in details. Psychology shows that we can reshape memories ourselves simply by changing our frame of mind when we recall them.
Aurelius wrote: “The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.” And in many ways he was right. We think of ourselves as rational beings, yet it’s almost funny to look at how pliable our thoughts are.
Holding a hot drink makes a stranger seem warmer, while an iced one has the opposite effect. Reading a list of old age related words makes people walk slower. The sight of a weapon at a crime scene blinds us to other details, such as faces. Dye a white wine red or put a cheap wine in an expensive bottle and even an expert taster can’t tell the difference. A faked surgery or sugar pill can alleviate a serious medical condition.
That is the current running through Stoicism: reality is negotiable (If you look closely in the video of my TED talk, I had those words written on my hand.) Each time I make a conscious effort to recast how I perceive a situation, I am amazed by the effects.
A few weeks ago, I found myself in a taxi at 4 am, sharing it with two businessmen. I had been traveling around in circles all night trying to get somewhere. After about a dozen trips on the underground, I had given up and called an Uber. One of the men fell asleep the second he sat down. The other spent the entire trip ranting about the situation. He was mad that the taxi had been late, mad that he still wasn’t back at his hotel, mad that he had to be up in a few hours, mad at the driver, mad that taxis apparently used to be faster, mad at London, mad at the sky. After listening, nodding sympathetically for about 15 minutes I gave up and started focusing on the beauty of the city at night.
Driving through London at 4 am is a wonderful experience. The streets are empty. Puddles of rain shimmer with the lights from department stores and the sodium glow of street lamps. The river is an inky, shifting mass dotted with silent boats. Changing our perception changes the whole situation. It became a beautiful experience, a chance to see the city in a new light.
Seeing majesty in the mundane is one of my favorite parts of Stoicism. Like Gatsby seeing a simple green light as a symbol of his closeness to Daisy, it reshapes reality. Charles Chu gave me some brilliant advice recently about recasting uncontrollable events about as opportunities to change our reactions.
The area where I currently live is (I admit) a bit crappy. Local newspapers treat is a kind of joke, the armpit of the city. My family doesn't understand why I chose to live here. But I have learned to see a strange sort of beauty in it.
Stopping to tell old ladies that I love their gardens, seeing them smile and talk about their roses. Stopping to pet a greying, arthritic dog who sits on an armchair outside a junk shop, seeing her wag her stumpy tail when I scratch her ears. Glimpses of a rotting, ivy-covered houseboat in the garden of an empty house (I have no idea how it got there.) The relentless cheerfulness of the guy who works at the sandwich shop I visit most days, who treats his job like an art. A huge black and white cat who runs from his garden to greet me each morning and headbutt my hand. Walking down to the beach in the evenings to hear the soothing lull of the waves. Sounds of someone playing the piano in a house I pass.
It’s not LA or London, but the beauty is there. It always is. Kurt Vonnegut wrote that his uncle advised him to stop and say, during such moments "If this isn't nice, what is?” Most people overlook these moments, like my irate taxi sharer who was too focused on being perturbed to see the glory of London at night. I previously described how I call this ‘finding the snowball’, inspired by BJ Miller’s TED talk. Find the beauty and everything changes.
This is what I try to remind myself each day, based on what I have learned from the Stoics:
Everything is based on perception.
Everything can be recast in a different light.
Everything bad is a learning experience.
Everything can be beautiful.
Everything is malleable.
As a bonus, here are some recent pictures I have taken of mundane things I found beautiful.