In the third chapter of the Enchiridion Epictetus addresses how to think of things that we like, or bring us benefit, or to which we are attached. He says we should remember what they are and start with little things. He uses the examples of liking a piece of china and loving your wife. With a piece of china we are to remind ourselves of exactly what it is: a piece of china. When we kiss our wife we are to remind ourselves that we are kissing a mortal. If we practice this with external things that we have become attached to then when they are taken from us we won't be disappointed.
This short chapter (my summary is longer than the chapter itself!) reminds me of the five rememberances in Buddhism. They are as follows:
- I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
- I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape having ill-health.
- I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
- All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
- My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.
A piece of china is temporary, it will break or wear out eventually. We cannot secure a piece of china to be permanent and unchanging so that it will always be there to bring us happiness. As hard as it is to accept, our loved ones are temporary in the same way that we are temporary. As we are here for a short time, so they are here for a short time and we cannot stop them from growing ill and dying. We have an heirloom cast iron pan in our family that could last multiple more generations, but at some point it will be no longer useful. Nothing is permanent, nothing truly lasts.
If we would find joy and peace, we will have to accept the world as it is, not how we would wish it to be. Acceptance that the world and everything in it is temporary, and that we must be parted from everything that is dear to us, doesn't mean resignation or apathy. We love sunsets because they come and go, because they are temporary. The reality of life is not what brings us suffering and disappointment. Our false judgments and hopes bring us suffering and disappointment.
Today remember what things really are: your cup of coffee will grow cold before you finish it, your beloved possessions will not last, you must be parted even from your loved ones. Instead of looking to external things, pursue excellence. Focus only on what is in your control. Practice justice, courage, temperance, and prudence in everything.