Reflections: Get Out Of Your Head

If we do not keep them (our minds) busy with some particular subject which can serve as a bridle to reign them in, they charge ungovernably about, ranging to and fro over the wastelands of our thoughts. (Michel de Montaigne)

A lot of our issues are self-manifested. It’s because when we are inactive when our bodies or minds aren’t involved in a task then the mind is free to roam different possibilities and concerns, many of which lie in the uncertain future. If we don’t tame this impulse, we are wrought with stress and anxiety.

Many times self-doubt only creeps up when we are still, when the world is silent, that moment before you go to bed or right before you are about to take a risk, the plunge, that one second, that’s where doubt comes because for that moment you think about the possible failures and the mind becomes untamed.

An easier way might be to say that when we don’t concentrate on the present then our mind becomes untamed. But concentrating on the present moment seems impossible if we aren’t actively doing something so, that’s a difficult thing to practice. Be present is a nice phrase but impractical much of the time.

But as quickly as doubt, stress or anxiety arises, with equal ease, they can be erased if we simply act. Take action, get out of the head and get in your body: Go for a run, see how many burpees you can do in 30 minutes, go meet up with friends and play a sport, play an instrument, talk to someone you love, pick up a book, start writing, whatever it is, whenever we get out of the mind we also leave behind the “wasteland of our thoughts”.

Montaigne understood the side effects of an idle mind very well, he said an idle mind “gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monstrosities” because for some strange reason idleness loves to spend its time thinking about what isn’t going right in our life. Constantly jumping from one thing to the next and it feels so real because your heart might begin to race, thinking about these monstrosities and it’s in time like these when one almost has to smack themselves, tell ourselves “it’s going to be okay”, verbalize it, make the mind focus on the positive words, on the task of saying “everything will work out” and you see in that instance these monstrosities disappear.

When the soul is without a definite aim she gets lost, as they say, if you are everywhere you are nowhere. (Michel de Montainge)

Keep an aim in mind. I think this is why people love to journal in the morning or mid-afternoon. If you are able to write down what you want to do that day every morning then for the next few hours your mind is occupied and as the occupation wanes in the afternoon, one simply has to remind it of the aim and it’ll kick right back up and keep helping you instead of hurting you.

The biggest thing is to approach idleness with caution for you understand what comes with such comfort and at least, if those “chimeras” do come, we have a plan of action on how to fight them.

Bad Memory Has Its Benefits

We would all love if our memory was better. We could recollect more clearly, remember the exact detail of some past moment, in a way, we could relive our past. If my memory was better I could recall the exact feelings, thoughts, and emotions which I’ve felt and that would make writing about such things so simple. Better yet, we would love to recall anything we read one time. All that information which seems to flow in and then out, only the smallest traces of it sticking with us, could become permanent.

No more losing our keys or forgetting directions or spending the day trying to recall that one song we heard on the radio that one time.

So, clearly, the benefits of good memory are immense. You may think who would ever want a bad memory? Or be happy that their memory is bad? 

The answer to that is Michel De Montaigne. Montaigne was a French philosopher who is best known for his collection of thoughts which he mixed with real-life anecdotes, which are promptly called Essays. It is the way Montaigne thinks that has attracted people to him for centuries after his passing. An example of this unique perspective can be seen in the essay titled “On Liars” in which he lists a few benefits of having a bad memory.

One benefit is that you have to use your own reasoning ability, your own logic, instead of relying on the works of others because you are unable to recollect the arguments others have made in a cohesive manner.

If, thanks to memory, other people’s discoveries and opinions had been kept ever before me, I would readily have reached a settled mind and judgment by following other men’s footsteps, failing as most people do to exercise my own power.

Another benefit that you may not have realized of having a bad memory is that you talk less when your memory is poor.

I talk less; it is always easier to draw on the storehouse of memory than to find something original to say.

Furthermore, bad memory means to relive experiences and moments.

Books and places which I look at again always welcome me with a fresh smile.

Lastly, your mind is at ease when your memory is poor for you cannot recall information that would bring you discomfort.

I remember less any insults received. I would need an Official Reminder like Darius: in order not to forget an insult suffered at the hands of the Athenians he made a page intone three times in his ear as he sat at table: ‘Remember the Athenians, sire.’

If nothing more, this is a good exercise to practice. Whatever you deem to be bad, think of two or three things that demonstrate how that bad thing has benefits of its own. What I take away from this essay is simple: be mindful of your perspective. There are very few things in life which are black or white, good or bad, most things fall somewhere in the middle, the gray area, where one’s perspective matters more than anything else.

Montaigne On How To Judge Someone’s Actions

In his Essays, Montaigne writes on the topic of action and how to judge other people’s actions. For Montaigne, it comes down to two things which are related to one another: What was in that person’s control and what was not.

So, for example, if someone owes you money and they promised to pay you by a certain date and that date comes and goes and yet, you have not received your payment. The natural reaction would be to get angry, to get aggressive in order to get back what is rightly yours because you feel cheated. However, Montaigne would advise you to take a deep breath and step back from the situation and think the following:

We cannot be held to promises beyond our power or our means. That is why – since actions and performances are not wholly in our power and since nothing is really in our power but our will – it is on the will that all the rules and duties of Man are based and established.

What Montaigne advises is to judge whether or not that individual intended to honor the payment by the specified date. If the answer is yes but external situations got in the way of that individual and his intention then what use is it to get angry, to get aggressive, to demand and hurt this individual who is incapable of acting beyond his means.

If you judge the individual to be a cheat and that they had no intention of paying you back then yes, you have the right to all those emotions but at the same time, you must look at yourself. Take ownership of the situation and ask yourself why did you lend the money? What were your intentions? How did you get cheated? Why didn’t you see this lie coming?

Furthermore, sticking with the example of lending money, let’s say that you lent a person money without putting a strict date of when the payment is to be repaid. This individual then benefits from your loan and is capable of paying you the money and yet, keeps it for himself for a long period of time, perhaps even till his deathbed and on that day, he returns the favor and gives you your money.

In this case, the person would consider himself even with you. You gave him money and then he paid it back. Equal transaction.

However, Montaigne would argue that this individual has committed a wrong. The reason being that he had the means of paying you back but did not intend to do so until he could no longer benefit from your loan. The intention being the key when judging another person’s actions. So, although you have been paid what you owe, you still may have a gripe with this person because you could have put that money to good use or at least, alleviate some financial burdens. While, in the other scenario, the person intended to pay you back but had no means to do so, which means harboring a grudge with this individual would be useless.

One of the core philosophy of Stoicism is understanding what you can control and what you cannot. Montaigne was a student of Stoic philosophy and you can see its influence throughout his essays. Particularly, on this topic of correctly judging another person’s actions.

So, before you judge someone’s actions just think of the intentions, their will, what was in their control and what was not. This will make it easier for you to properly react to the situation at hand and to keep your emotions in check.

Montaigne on The Importance of Emotional Moderation

On sadness, Montaigne notes the following:

The force of extreme sadness inevitably stuns the whole of our soul, impeding her freedom of action. It happens to use when we are suddenly struck with alarm by some really bad news: we are enraptured, seized, paralyzed in all our movements in such a way that, afterward, when the soul lets herself go with tears and lamentations, she seems to have struggled loose, disentangled herself and become free to range about as she wishes.

An individual can be petrified by extreme sadness. Such a notion was immortalized by Ovid who tells a story of a mother turned into a rock once she finds out that all seven of her sons have been killed in battle. Unprepared for the worst possible outcome, one leaves themselves open to such consequences. Here, the Stoic wisdom plays a role which states that you should always contemplate and reflect on the worst possible outcome whenever you act. In this manner, if that outcome comes about, you have a plan of action and can face the problem head-on.

On love, Montaigne has the following to say:

This is a source of the occasional impotence which sometimes comes so unseasonably upon men when making love, and of that chill produced, in the very lap of their delight by excessive ardor.

Excessive ardor. The excess of happiness. The excess of love, it all can be overwhelming just as an excess of sadness is. Virgil speaks of a woman dying when she faces a joy that she had thought to be unattainable, this unhoped joy overwhelms her.

The reason Montaigne speaks on these emotions is to further his point that in order to taste and digest pleasure, one must live moderately. Never too high, never too low and one way to accomplish such moderation is to understand the alternative possibilities, whether those possibilities are good or bad just so one is not shocked or taken aback when a different reality comes true.

Furthermore, moderation can be achieved through practice. Montaigne believed that through arguments one can practice daily toughness, to thicken one’s skin and prepare them for what life throws at them. These arguments being those that result in questioning one’s beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. Reflecting upon your action and noting the pros and cons on how to behave. Having a skeptical approach where one is always questioning and arguing, trying to get to the truth. In this manner, one is neither elated or depressed, for the search continues, always.

Montaigne On The Displacement Of Anger

In the essay, How the soul discharges its emotions against false objects when lacking real ones, Michel De Montaigne makes a simple and yet truthful observation. Often times people displace their anger upon an object or a thing that is not deserving of their feeling. This cathartic solution, however, does not address the real issue.

Seriously though, when our arm is raised to strike it pains use if the blow lands nowhere and merely beats the air; similarly, if a prospect is to be made pleasing it must not be dissipated and scattered over an airy void but have some object at a reasonable distance to sustain it.

From this, I understand one thing, that being the pleasure aspect involved in displacement. The strike is done in order to feel pleasure. Without striking something, that pleasure is not achieved and one still feels the effect of whatever that has caused them the negative emotion. We seek pleasure to cover the pain that was caused.

This hedonistic approach raises a question: how long does this pleasure stay? Pleasure comes and goes and so does pain. So once that pleasure is gone, you might need to strike again or perhaps by then, you can deal with whatever caused you the negative emotion but also, by then your conscious might have subdued the emotion allowing you to go on without confronting the displeasing thing.

Control your pleasure instinct, your reactionary instinct and address the situation properly.

Not otherwise does the bear in Pannonia: made more savage by the blow struck by the Libyan hunter with his dart tied to a leather thong, she rolls on her wound and attacks the weapon buried in her flesh and chases it round and round in circles as it flees from her.

Next time your emotions are running high, ask yourself, are they pointed at the right thing? This requires detaching from the situation. The task is not an easy thing to do, even the great emperors like Augustus and Kings like Xerxes attacked the storms and cursed the storms, in Xerxes’ case, had his men whip the sea water. If they can be tricked by their emotions into instant release, rather than proper one, then perhaps so can you.

But remember:

There is no point in getting angry against events: they are indifferent to our wrath.

Lastly, all this external blaming and violence leads to one thing, lack of ownership. Ownership that would allow one to “utter enough abuse against the unruliness of our minds”, as Montaigne puts it, saying that we often lack the ability to address the thing that caused the negative situation to happen. That being, ourselves. Our mind. Our habits. Our actions. Don’t take it out on other things or other people. Rather, turn that anger inwards and strike away at the unruliness in you.

Otherwise, you are merely distracting yourself from the main issue.