Everything Has Two Handles
Imagine trees in a storm. A group of trees in full leaf take the impact of the wind as it comes blustering around them, tossing the crowns wildly to and fro. But in spite of this rough treatment, and although the tops have been lashed by the wind, the trunks remain still and quite immovable; the storm passes and it is as if it had never happened.
Don’t you sometimes wish that you could be like those trees; moved yet unmoved – in your inmost self quite untouched by the events that knock you about?
Stoicism is the name given to a school of philosophy that flourished in the Graeco-Roman world from around 300 BCE and for the next five hundred years, and stoical thought has much to say about choosing a handle to life that will keep us as inwardly steady as those trees.
We would probably agree that many of our difficulties in life arise from wanting things to be other than the way they are. There are outward events or conditions, like the wind, that we may not want, but we cannot prevent. The tree survives wind not by resisting it but by being flexible enough to bow to it – the leaves and branches bow, that is, while the trunk supports this bowing and holds fast. The trunk is like our core beliefs which help us accept the conditions of life, allowing us to endure them and quickly regain a peaceful state of being.
Nicholas White, writing about Stoicism in his introduction to the Handbook of Epictetus, says that Stoicism proposes that a human being in an ideal state would “lack all dissatisfaction with anything about the world, while at the same time being conscious and intelligent.” And Epictetus himself, who lived from 50–130 CE, said:
Everything has two handles, one by which it may be carried and the other not. If your brother acts unjustly toward you, do not take hold of it by this side, that he has acted unjustly (since this is the handle by which it may not be carried), but instead by this side, that he is your brother and was brought up with you, and you will be taking hold of it in the way that it can be carried.
Handbook of Epictetus, translated by Nicholas White
What he means is that we always have a choice in whether to bring a negative or a positive approach to any situation. With a positive approach we can ‘carry’ that situation; with a negative handle we can’t. Transposed to the example of the trees, we can bow to the wind or we can break. Epictetus’ advice is deeply practical – just like Baba Ji’s nearly two thousand years later, when in question and answer sessions with his disciples Baba Ji addresses the everyday dilemmas on which we ask for guidance. Stoicism and various other branches of ethics may not be spirituality as such, but they are essential preparation of the ground in which spirituality is to grow. Urging us to empower ourselves by managing our own thought processes, Epictetus says, “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgements about the things.” He also reminds us:
Remember that what is insulting is not the person who abuses you or hits you, but the judgement about them that they are insulting. So when someone irritates you be aware that what irritates you is your own belief. Most importantly, therefore, try not to be carried away by appearance, since if you once gain time and delay you will control yourself more easily.
Doesn’t this remind you of Baba Ji advising us time and again not to react to provocation? If we’re able to take this advice we will of course make life more comfortable for ourselves but, more importantly, we’ll avoid making things worse by creating further karma; most important of all we’ll also find that our mind is quiet and under control when we come to sit for meditation. This is why ethics is so closely linked to spirituality.
Yes, it is indeed simran, the spiritual practice itself, which helps us to keep our mental balance in provoking situations, but a bit of philosophical thought doesn’t go amiss. In the two quotations above, we are being asked to understand what is within our control and what is not. We also have to understand that the things outside our control have been pre-determined to be like that so they cannot be otherwise. This means that there really is no point in fretting about them. Epictetus says:
Remember that you are an actor in a play, which is as the playwright wants it to be: short if he wants it short, long if he wants it long. If he wants you to play a beggar, play even this part skilfully, or a cripple, or a public official, or a private citizen. What is yours is to play the assigned part well. But to choose it belongs to someone else.
If we can recognize this, it should be easier to have realistic expectations of what we may meet in life. Obviously the beggar is not going to have the pleasure of living in a king’s palace and the king will not be able to enjoy the freedom of behaviour that a beggar might have. Toning down our expectations extends to the little details of life too. Epictetus gives the following example (referring to Roman public baths):
When you are about to undertake some action, remind yourself what sort of action it is. If you are going for a bath, put before your mind what happens at baths – there are people who splash, people who jostle, people who are insulting, people who steal …
And he continues by reminding us that if we are prepared for the reality of experience (good and bad) rather than indulging in a fantasy of perfection, we will be more able to accept the hiccups without annoyance. Along the same lines, Baba Ji advises us to reflect on the reality of human relationships: for instance, there are no perfect partners! We must get along together by forgiving and forgetting, taking the rough with the smooth. “I beg your pardon; I never promised you a rose garden” are the words of a popular song which, in its light-hearted way, conveys the same message.
In defining those things that we can’t control and must therefore put up with, the reverse also becomes clear – we begin to see what is in our power, and a sense of our true identity, together with its possibilities, becomes apparent.
Spurring us on to recognize our true nature, Epictetus warns us not to identify ourselves with possessions or attributes, as we are something greater than these:
These statements are not valid references: “I am richer than you; I am superior to you”, or “I am more eloquent than you; therefore I am superior to you.” But rather these are valid: “I am richer than you; therefore my property is superior to yours” or “I am more eloquent than you; therefore my speaking is superior to yours.” But you are identical neither with your property nor with your speaking.
This is more than good, sound sense; it leads us – much as the sound sense we hear from our Master today leads us – to adopt a high objective and then set our spiritual selves free to live up to those ideals. Epictetus advised his followers:
Abide by whatever task is set before you as if it were a law, and as if you would be committing sacrilege if you went against it. And: Put to yourself the question, “What would Socrates or Zeno have done in these circumstances?” and you will not be at a loss as to how to deal with the occasion.
He also said, “You, even if you are not yet Socrates, ought to live as someone wanting to be Socrates.”
His words of encouragement echo down the years and reverberate again as Baba Ji walks before us as our example, smiles back at us, and assures us that we can do it.
Think always of the universe as one living creature, comprising one substance and one soul: how all is absorbed into this one consciousness; how a single impulse governs all its actions; how all things collaborate in all that happens; the very web and mesh of it all.
In all this murk and dirt, in all this flux of being, time, movement, things moved, I cannot begin to see what on earth there is to value or even to aim for. Rather the opposite: one should console oneself with the anticipation of natural release, not impatient of its delay, but taking comfort in just these two thoughts. One, that nothing will happen to me which is not in accordance with the nature of the Whole: the other, that it is in my control to do nothing contrary to my god and the divinity within me – no one can force me to this offence.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations