Seneca: Stopping to digest one thought every day

Few things are consistent about me. I like change much more than most people are comfortable with, and I see that as a strength, not disadvantage.

But one thing that happens day after day with me is thinking. I think a lot. Maybe too much – that’s why I started meditation about 2 years ago. Too much thinking and no internalising is a fruitless pursuit, one we should learn to frown upon. Seneca (an extremely wealthy Roman who’s known not for his money but his stoicism, a practical philosophy of life) puts it more eloquently than I think I’ll ever be able to:

“To be everywhere is to be nowhere… Food that is vomited up as soon as it is eaten is not assimilated into the body and does not do one any good; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent changes of treatment; a wound will not heal over if it is being made the subject of experiments with different ointments; a plant which is frequently moved never grows strong.”

And, he concludes, “Nothing is so useful that it can be of any service in the mere passing.”

(Seneca, in Letters from a Stoic)

Having been guilty all my life of letting thoughts come and go without wrestling to retain it in my mind (like vomitting food as soon as they’re consumed), these words struck me where it matters.

To be sure, if you’ve read Seneca’s letters (this is Letter II), he was talking about books and sticking to a few authors instead of spreading yourself thin by reading the new and the old equally.

But I think the lesson is applicable to many things. Kurt Vonnegut, an accomplished American author who I find extremely funny and witty (if I get the joke), applies this thinking to writing:

“Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

(Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box)

So the lesson I draw here is to default to the few when faced with the option of many. This applies to the books you read as much as the things you write. Personally, I think this means it should apply to thoughts as well.

I’m not Seneca, but sure enough, he’s said the same thing and suggests a practice that would help anyone be strict with their different thoughts:

“After running over a lot of different thoughts, pick out one to be digested thoroughly that day.”

Thanks, Seneca!

Pick one thought, out of the thousands that occur in the echo chamber that is my skull, and thoroughly digest it that day. I think I can do that. Just thinking about it makes me feel more serene. I can already visualise the clutter in my mind dissolving away.

And if this makes me a better person, then Seneca might have made a slight error… because his pithy one-liner, which by any measure can be read “in the mere passing”, would have managed to be extremely useful.

A life hack offered by someone who’s against the idea that such a thing exists, from almost 2,000 years ago. I’m going to enjoy the ironies for a while.