Don’t Let Unpleasant Sensations Take Control Of Your Mind

Don’t Let Unpleasant Sensations Take Control Of Your Mind

Welcome back to Mid-Week Meditations, Lifehacker’s weekly dip into the pool of stoic wisdom, and how you can use its waters to reflect on and improve your life.

Photo by Graeme Churchard.

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Welcome back to Mid-Week Meditations, Lifehacker's weekly dip into the pool of stoic wisdom, and how you can use its waters to reflect on and improve your life.

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This week’s entry comes from my main man, Marcus Aurelius. This quote, from Meditations, is one of the many instances where Aurelius writes on the concept of overcoming pain and other disagreeable sensations:

“Whenever you suffer pain, have ready to hand the thought that pain is a moral evil and does not harm your governing intelligence: pain can do no damage either to its rational or to its social nature. In most cases of pain you should be helped too by the saying of Epicurus: ‘Pain is neither unendurable nor unending, as long as you remember its limits and do not exaggerate it in your imagination.’ Remember too that many things we find disagreeable are the unrecognised analogues of pain – drowsiness, for example, oppressive heat, loss of appetite. So when you find yourself complaining of any of these, say to yourself, ‘You are giving in to pain.'” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.64

Another translation:

“In every pain let this thought be present, that there is no dishonour in it, nor does it make the governing intelligence worse, for it does not damage the intelligence either so far as the intelligence is rational or so far as it is social. Indeed in the case of most pains let this remark of Epicurus aid thee, that ‘pain is neither intolerable nor everlasting, if thou bearest in mind that it has its limits, and if thou addest nothing to it in imagination’: and remember this too, that we do not perceive that many things which are disagreeable to us are the same as pain, such as excessive drowsiness, and the being scorched by heat, and the having no appetite. When then thou art discontented about any of these things, say to thyself, that thou art yielding to pain.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.64

What It Means

Physical pain, drowsiness, hunger, heat, cold, and other uncomfortable or unpleasant feelings should be separate from your rational mind and spirit. Basically, just because you feel something you do not like it doesn’t mean that’s all you should focus on. Aurelius reminds us that these various versions of “pain” can and should be endured, and that these sensations don’t last forever. So don’t exaggerate their effects. Basically, don’t make mountains out of molehills.

Now, to be fair, this is actually a riff on an old saying from Epicurus (as cited in the quote), but it’s a good take on it. Aurelius believed in the duality of mind and body; two separate things that work together in harmony. In this instance, he’s urging you to remember that whenever you are in discomfort. Just because you feel something physically does not mean you need to let it infect your mind.

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What to Take From It

This is essentially your basic “mind over matter” approach, or what some might call “mental toughness”. When you sense your attitude, demeanour or intelligence being swayed by simple physical sensations, tell yourself that “you are giving in”. When you realise you’re letting your discomfort govern your entire self, you can stop it in its tracks and return control to your mind.

Of course, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t address things that bring you discomfort. You don’t have to grin and bear pain “just because”. This is about self-awareness, and a oft-needed reminder that whining, complaining and snapping at others is not beneficial to anyone, no matter what state you’re in. When you stub your toe on the couch, there’s no point in punching the cushion. When you feel tired or hungry, there’s no point in being grouchy with the people you care about. And when you feel cold, there’s no point in complaining about it endlessly. Go put on a damn jacket. Be strong, learn to endure, and let your rational mind stay in charge.

You can read Meditations in its entirety for free here.


  • as some one in a lot of pain right now .. fuck you Marcus Aurelius and the horse you rode in on

  • This is one of those things that really doesn’t bear close scrutiny. A thing does not have to be intolerable or unending to have a detrimental impact on your mind and body in the moment, or to have lasting effects, like, say, PTSD. To the stoics, and anyone else who says being affected by pain is weakness of character or lack of mental acuity, I can only echo @pookie101s sentiments.

    You can sometimes get yourself through a painful situation by focussing on the time after it (it’s the only way I get through dentist visits; by repeating the mantra that no matter how bad it is, an hour from now, it’ll be over … ) but that doesn’t make the pain and suffering diminish in the meantime. Sometimes, focussing on the pain gives you just one more thing to cope with, but most of the time, when we are in pain, it’s our body or mind trying to give us a warning or alert us to damage.

    Also, we now know that the mind and the body are a symbiotic system, constantly giving, receiving and responding to feedback from each other.

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