"Thoughts are in a great measure masters of things, and which is more, 'tis in your own power to think as you please: Therefore don't suffer Opinion to cheat you any longer. Disengage from the Tyranny of Fancy; and then as if you doubled some dangerous cape, you'll have nothing but a steady course, a smooth sea, and a land-locked bay to receive you."
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 12, Section 22, in Jeremy Collier (translator), The Emperor Marcus Antoninus, His Conversation with Himself (1702), pages 231-232.
Here is another translation of the same passage:
"Consider that everything is opinion, and opinion is in thy power. Take away then, when thou choosest, thy opinion, and like a mariner, who has doubled the promontory, thou wilt find calm, everything stable, and a waveless bay."
George Long (translator), The Thoughts of the Emperor M. Aurelius Antoninus (Second Edition 1880), page 201.
Marcus Aurelius does not use "opinion" in our modern sense of, say, "opinions" about the political or social issues of the day. Rather, his use of the word embodies the key Stoic concept that the only thing over which we have control in life is our own conduct, which includes our impressions of (i. e., our "opinions" about) external circumstances (past, present, and future). Accordingly, we should not let those impressions run riot. The world is what it is. Thinking about what might have been, what ought to be at the moment, or what may lie ahead is a waste of time and energy.
The Bright Field
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
R. S. Thomas, Laboratories of the Spirit (Macmillan 1975).
Christopher Meadows (1863-1947), "Saltcoats Harbour"
It is worth remembering that this is not a unique Stoic concept. For instance, it is reminiscent of (to me at least) the idea of non-attachment that is found in Buddhism and Taoism. Modern culture is constantly entreating us to devote our thoughts and attention to chimeras and fantasies (as well as to the media-fueled frenzy of daily "crises"). This is on top of our natural human tendency to worry about the past, the present, and the future. Enough is enough.
Mind you, I am not claiming to be free of "the Tyranny of Fancy." Nor am I lying at anchor in a calm harbor of non-attachment. However, here's a good feature of the aging process: things drop away; the absurdity and the emptiness of humanity's antics become more apparent with each passing year. Peace and quiet seem to come of themselves, if one lets them (knock on wood). "Peace comes dropping slow." "Like noiseless snow, or as the dew of night." Or so one hopes.
Early cicadas stop their trilling;
Points of light, new fireflies, pass to and fro.
The taper burns clear and smokeless;
Beads of bright dew hang on the bamboo mat.
Not yet will I enter the house to sleep,
But walk awhile beneath the eaves.
The rays of the moon slant into the low verandah;
The cool breeze fills the tall trees.
Letting loose the feelings, life flows on easily;
The scene entered deep into my heart.
What is the secret of this state?
To have nothing small in one's mind.
Po Chu-i (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture (Hokuseido Press 1949), page 175.
Dane Maw (1909-1989), "Scottish Landscape, Air Dubh"
Like all sound advice, this is easier said than done. The mind is a perpetual motion machine, isn't it? For someone like Po Chu-i, the stilling of thoughts can occur out in the backyard at the end of the day. However, for those of us who are inveterate daydreamers, sunk in reverie (the mind ever humming away), there is a tendency to think: "If only I could [fill in the blank], then I could begin to live." Thus, for example, the notion of the perfect place tends to haunt us.
You are in love with a country
Where people laugh in the sun
And the people are warm as the sunshine and live and move easily
And women with honeycoloured skins and men with no frowns on their
Sit on white terraces drinking red wine
While the sea spreads peacock feathers on cinnamon sands
And palms weave sunlight into sheaves of gold
And at night the shadows are indigo velvet
And there is dancing to soft, soft, soft guitars
Played by copper fingers under a froth of stars.
Perhaps your country is where you think you will find it.
Or perhaps it has not yet come or perhaps it has gone.
Perhaps it is east of the sun and west of the moon.
Perhaps it is a country called the Hesperides
And Avalon and Atlantis and Eldorado:
A country which Gauguin looked for in Tahiti and Lawrence in Mexico,
And whether they found it only they can say, and they not now.
Perhaps you will find it where you alone can see it,
But if you can see it, though no one else can, it will be there,
It will be yours.
A. S. J. Tessimond, Voices in a Giant City (Heinemann 1947).
Frank Jowett (1879-1943), "A Sunlit Harbour"
But isn't thinking what humans do? Isn't it in our nature to run through all of the possibilities, to consider all of the choices? What's more, reading a poem involves thinking. So does looking at a painting. This post is arguably nothing but an exercise in escapism via thought. I understand the point. And I recognize that Stoicism, Buddhism, and Taoism are sometimes criticized for their "quietism." (A wonderful word, actually.)
But, again, enough is enough. We are too often in thrall to "the Tyranny of Fancy." And "to have nothing small in one's mind" is, I think, something to aspire to.
Boats at Night
How lovely is the sound of oars at night
And unknown voices, borne through windless air,
From shadowy vessels floating out of sight
Beyond the harbour lantern's broken glare
To those piled rocks that make on the dark wave
Only a darker stain. The splashing oars
Slide softly on as in an echoing cave
And with the whisper of the unseen shores
Mingle their music, till the bell of night
Murmurs reverberations low and deep
That droop towards the land in swooning flight
Like whispers from the lazy lips of sleep.
The oars grow faint. Below the cloud-dim hill
The shadows fade and now the bay is still.
Edward Shanks, The Island of Youth and Other Poems (1921).
"Discharge Opinion, and you are safe; and pray who can hinder you from doing it?"
Marcus Aurelius (translated by Jeremy Collier), Meditations, Book 12, Section 25.
Stanhope Forbes, "The Inner Harbour: Abbey Slip" (1921)