What goes up must come down— Newton’s law of gravity. But gravity is not responsible for the mental hem and haw, from contentment to discontent, back and forth, again and again. We worry about the future, feel guilty about the past, and are too often consumed with dark thoughts. Some people seem blessed with an easy-going demeanor able to accept their circumstances without resisting. But even those lucky few experience nights of tossing and turning. What is it in the human mind that disrupts the tranquility of our soul?
I’m sitting on my balcony knitting a vest for a grandson and listening to birds chirping. A call from a bone-tired daughter kicks me out of a state of calm into one of mental turmoil. I no longer hear the birds’ songs or feel the softness of the Merino wool yarn. Charley, a beagle, starts barking, and Tim takes a deep lungful and closes his eyes, determined not to let the habitual irritation take hold of his mind. One minute our mind is calm as lily ponds, and the next moment it’s thunder and lightning. What’s going on inside us to react in this way? Why is it so difficult to hold on to a peaceful state of mind? Did we inherit mind structures that lend themselves to dysfunctional repetitive thought patterns?
Sure, seeking peace within is a bourgeois endeavor. It’s not what a single mom concerned about feeding her kids spends much time thinking about. Shelves of self-help books, troves of internet quotes, and Sunday sermons preach that a life of inner peace unruffled by worries and stress is a worthwhile endeavor. Setting aside contemporary books I’ve read and talks I’ve listened to, I wondered how ancient thinkers of the Roman empire explained human fretting? Without brain imaging showing how the “fear” network responds to a stimulus, how did early century philosophers and scholars explain our chronic states of worries, real and imagined? Better yet, how did they suggest we conquer it? Did they provide tools to prevent the mental switch from flipping from quiet to unquiet? Recognizing the triggers may give me a brief moment to take a step out of the unconsciousness where discord resides and not be drawn into it so easily.
The Greek philosopher, Plutarch, was born in 46 AD. Regarded as the best essayist of the Greek-Roman world of that period, he’s also one of the least known today. It’s a miracle that his manuscripts survived because most people were illiterate until the 19th century. I surmise that monks and a few enlightened beings recognized something in his writing they saw as worthwhile, words to pass on into the future.
Human beings recognize truth and beauty even when we can’t explain it. It’s a feeling, good vibes massaging our heart and mind. On the morning of January 12, 2007, celebrated violinist Joshua Bell appeared on a D.C. subway and played Bach for 90 minutes. “The one who paid the most attention was a three-year-old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried, but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother pushed hard, and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.”
In his essay on contentment, Plutarch tells us that when circumstances and situations are not to our liking, “we must not descend into depression and a hatred of the whole human race.” In other words, don’t get consumed with bad news. Turn off the news and play Pachelbel’s Canon in D, a popular wedding song that has transcended time and geography. He suggests that “we should be able to laugh at its follies.” That’s a good start, but the question remains, what just happened in my head? What triggered the switch to go from calm to discord?
As I delve further into Plutarch’s take on how to starve my discontent and feed my contentment, I learn what will not help. Joining a monastery or seeking fame and status are not the answer. Neither had occurred to me, so I read on. An occasional period of solitude can help but not as a goal. “Inertia and laziness are no remedy for either physical or mental malaise.” To make sure the reader comprehends, he writes, “… it is not true that anyone inactive is content; if it were so, women would be less distressed and discontented than men!” (Funny man)
What brings distress is not what happens to us, he continues, but our thoughts about it. The death of a child (or a spouse) brings about great sadness. We can prepare by accepting that such misfortune is a part of the human condition. We teach the emotional (irrational and unconscious) mind to face up to harrowing moments, illness, pain, and death. I’m reminded of a quote, “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” In other words, the moment we lay eyes on our baby, we should remember that not only will our heart walk outside our body, but it can stop, and there is nothing we can do about it. Nothing. And in this wisdom, I understand why I could not fall asleep until all my hearts were tucked away in bed. Why my mind would go to a hundred worrisome places when they did not call me back within what I thought was a reasonable length of time. Our loved ones are the greatest circuit breaker of all.
Plutarch compares people’s inclination to slide from contentment to disharmony to flies landing on glass. “They skid off the smooth parts but cling on to places which are rough and scratched.” An even better analogy is what he calls “Beetle-death.”
“In Olynthus there is a place [called ‘beetle-death] which beetles fall into and are unable to get out of: they go round and round in circles until they die. Likewise, without noticing it, people slip into recalling their bad times and are unwilling to revive or resuscitate themselves.”
Perhaps you have tried to cheer up a friend. Two weeks into steroid therapy, a friend has gained weight, has a moon face, and is sleeping poorly. “Sandy, this won’t last forever, and the meds are giving you energy,” I offer.
“Energy for what?” her mood hasn’t improved an iota, so I try again. “What about visiting your daughter and the grandkids in Georgia? You told me…”
“I doubt my doctor would think that to be a good idea.”
“Well,” I say, “this could be an opportunity to start walking —walk off those onerous pounds.”
“I’ve tried that; It doesn’t work.”
Commiserating is not helpful. It feeds her drama (the emotional and irrational) and I find myself entering her reality. I could listen for hours, but in the end there will be two energy-drained women and no solution.
Plutarch would say that my friend is stuck in her irrational unconscious mind. Nothing external can lift her out of the place he calls Beetle-Death. Only she can step out, rinse it off, and put on a more rational attire.
This first-century philosopher holds that our existence is an interchange between opposites. Nothing in life is pure and undiluted. Take the yin and yang, contrary forces yet interconnected, and together they give rise to each other. Music has high and low notes. Grammar has vowels and consonants. Together they create harmony. After hitting the wrong piano key, creating discord, I go on playing. This time I hit the right notes diminishing the mistake and emphasizing the melodiousness of the piece. What our mind focuses on registers in our minds as calming or disruptive.
Two thousand years ago, Plutarch told us that acceptance of the peaks and valleys offered us a tool of oversight and supervision of the mind’s off and on switch. It didn’t mean we’d avoid the grief and heartaches. But remembering and accepting that we are mortal beings subject to the good and bad will ease the bumps we encounter on the human journey. If we can do so, then instead of remaining in the dark, we will reach for the switch and there will be light.