“Take away thy opinion, and then there is taken away the complaint, ‘I have been harmed.’ Take away the complaint, ‘I have been harmed,’ and the harm is taken away.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
I achieved a very trivial sort of equanimity once. Not in a particularly impressive fashion, but it was equanimity of some kind, and I’d like to reflect on that experience.
I was once about to take a shower. I was very into self-denial at this point, and wanted to practice equanimity. I often did things to put myself in minor discomfort. Nothing major or masochistic – we’re not talking Opus Dei self-flagellation here – just minor things, like refusing an aspirin when I had a headache or dressing a little lightly for the cold weather. In this case, I decided to subject myself to a cold shower. Nothing too big, just a little discomfort to help aid me in becoming more equanimous.
Now, before I go any further, I want to stress something: equanimity is not endurance. That is to say, my intention was not to step into the shower, grit my teeth, and suffer the cold as part of some bizarre dick-measuring contest with myself. My intention was to step into the shower, relax, and try not to care about the cold. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. People often think that Stoicism is about clenching your fists and powering through hardship. That’s not Stoicism, that’s foolish machismo. Stoicism is about getting to the point where the hardship simply doesn’t bother you.
So I turned on the faucet and placed my hand under it, turning the knob until it felt nice and cold. It was winter, and the water was quite frigid. I remember that I could feel the cold air coming off of the water cascading down from the shower head. I remember groaning inwardly and thinking, “Is this really necessary? Am I really going to subject myself to a cold shower for some airy-fairy philosophical bullshit?” And then, something strange happened.
The feeling is difficult to describe, but it was as if I felt a little switch being thrown somewhere in the corner of my mind. All of the sudden, my apprehension at stepping into the cold shower melted away, and I stepped in confidently. I felt the cold, and strangely, I just did not care. I wasn’t enduring it and shrugging the cold off, like those macho guys who wear shorts in the winter. The cold had simply lost its (supposedly intrinsic) unpleasantness. What had been painful was painful no longer. I remember focusing my attention on my skin, “going into” the cold the way you “go into” your breath when you meditate. No matter how closely I examined the cold, there was simply nothing unpleasant or pleasant about it. It was a mere sensation that I could ignore or pay attention to as I pleased. With the tips of my fingers, I had touched apatheia.
I quickly realized two things.
First of all, I had just proven to myself that apatheia is real. You really can take something that is supposedly intrinsically uncomfortable and, by removing the opinion that it is uncomfortable, remove the feeling of discomfort.
Secondly, apatheia is elusive. I haven’t been able to flip that switch since then, and I’ve been frustrated by my inability to find it, much less touch it. And I suspect that it’s more of a dial than a switch; there’s a big difference between facing a cold shower with equanimity and doing the same thing with a broken bone, and I couldn’t have endured the second one at the time. But I think that it is possible to turn the dial further, and gradually remove the unpleasantness from worse and worse things. Not that I plan to subject myself to such things just to develop apatheia, but I will certainly try to practice apatheia when such things happen. And if it happened once, it can happen again.
All that being said, I need to do my nightly philosophy reading, meditate, and then take a nice, cold shower. Until next time.