Random thoughts and preconditioned reactions are out of your control

In our power are opinion, movement toward a thing, desire, aversion (turning from a thing); and in a word, whatever are our own acts: not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices (magisterial power), and in a word, whatever are not our own acts.

Enchiridion, 2.1.

Here is something that is not in my control: thoughts popping unbidden into my head, or pre-conditioned responses to stimulus. Think of this as clouds drifting into your sky, or think of yourself as a stimulus/response machine, and that’s probably a good enough analogy for what I’m talking about.

All I can do with unbidden thoughts is move toward them (desire), move away from them (aversion), or be indifferent to them (acceptance). Meditation is all about acceptance.

But the event of having the thought? Not within my power, at least as far as I know. From reading ancient spiritual books, I think that’s right. People have been bedeviled with thinking sinful thoughts forever.

Similarly, thoughts (or even actions) from pre-conditioning. These are automatic, unconscious reactions to something I have embedded deep within me. It’s a robot-like response. We too often blame the past–some event, something our parents did or our teachers did. We blame “society”. We blame the other.

But whatever it is, it is within us. So now it’s time to stop being a victim. All of that is true. Our past experiences might have scarred us. Society is to blame for everything bad in our lives. Those evil (insert political opinion here) people are making the world go to hell and ruining my life.

All of that is true. Now what are you going to do about it? Because this is the continental divide between what you control and what you don’t.

Having those unbidden thoughts is not within my control. Having had prior life experiences that imprinted themselves on me in some way or another is not within my control. (The experiences are gone. They don’t exist. How can I do anything about what does not exist?)

Don’t waste a moment fretting about having an unwanted thought. What am I going to do about it? Grab it and hold on? Affirmatively reject it? Or just say to myself, “Well, that’s a thought. There are other thoughts.” That last one is the easiest for me: as soon as I recognize that a thought, an idea, a belief is just one of many possible thoughts, ideas, or beliefs, then I am free. I can choose it or not. Or better yet, I can let it happily co-exist in my head with a bus full of competing thoughts, happily chattering amongst themselves.

Desire, aversion, acceptance.

Think of it like this. You’re at the beach, swimming in the ocean. There’s an undertow and it is dragging you away from the beach. What do you do?

You can swim against the undertow. Swim like a son of a bitch against the current, struggling to get to shore. Maybe this works. Maybe you use up all of your energy and keep being dragged along with the undertow.

You can swim with the undertow. Generally the undertow has a lateral movement. Go with the undertow, moving up or down the beach until you find a place to swim to shore.

Or you can float. Go with the undertow to see if it takes you up or down the coast. Conserve your energy to be used at an opportune moment.

Epictitus continues:

And the things in our power are by nature free, not subject to restraint nor hindrance, but the things not in our power are weak, slavish, subject to restraint, in the power of others. Remember that if you think the things which are by nature slavish to be free, and the things which are in the power of others to be your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you all be disturbed, you will blame both gods and men: but if you think that only which is your own to be your own, and if you think that what is another’s, as it really is, belongs to another, no man will ever compel you, no man will hinder you, you will never blame any man, you will accuse no man, you will do nothing involuntarily (against your will), no man will harm you, you will have no enemy, for you will not suffer harm.

Enchiridion, 2.1.