The Stoics were right. Apatheia, or freedom from passion, is an accurate negative characterization of the ideal state. But that freedom from can be interpreted in different ways and so lead to different efforts on behalf of the student of virtue.
The problematic interpretation is to understand the Stoic to be recommending no feeling. In this way the student imagines (per impossible) that there is a state of being to be pursued in which feeling is absent. This involves a denial of the soul’s attachment to body, and the possibility of remaining both attached and becoming detached.
Practically the problem is that the student, in his zeal, can become problematically related to his own self, frustrated by a lack of what he has characterized as progress, and if such persists for long enough the likely path can be predicted– failure to become dispassionate (as un-feeling) results in anger, which results in greater effort, which results in greater failure, which results in greater anger. Once this cycle has been endured by the devoted student enough their is a real risk of despair. Hopelessness and despair are easily converted into a friendliness toward feeling as the student accommodates himself to the inadequacy of his understanding of the Stoic teaching.
Properly understood the Stoic teaches a state of being in which feeling or passion provides no guidance or direction. This has less to do with what is felt and everything to do with what is done with what is felt. The insight of the Stoic is that the rational being capable of self-directed conformity to Reason should be directed by Reason and never what merely imposes itself on him–the suffering of feeling or pathos.
The student who interprets the Stoics this way can make progress, though there is still great challenge. The student is no encouraged to avoid feeling, impossible, but encouraged to measure aim, choice, and action by a standard other than feeling.
The difficulty for the student is that presupposing the history of feeling-guidance the student will not immediately find a ready and clear Reason at hand. This is what the teachings of the masters are for. Treated as imperatives the student is invited to take part in that which he does not yet understand.
So, what is feeling good for? Feeling is invaluable information about the condition of my soul, its current aim, and how it is predisposed toward the world. It is information about relation, namely the relation created between the self and the world. The self who distances himself from feeling enough to take it as data and not as guidance learns much about his current soul condition. What is done with the feeling is a matter of chosen guide other than feeling.
How do I feel about money, security, sex, sugar, virtue, challenge? This allows me to see how I am predisposed and to be ready for encounters with the world under these categories.
Can feeling be modified? Absolutely. Immediately? Fat chance! But this is maybe one of the greatest truths seen clearly in the ancient world all but lost to the modern–the feeling states can be modified through choice+repetition. An analysis of retraining new habit would take us into the sphere of faith, suffering, death, and rebirth. But that it is possible was clear to the ancients. The ancients wisdom traditions do not speak often of the dark night of the soul. Maybe it was too obvious. The ancient religious traditions speak much of denial, letting go and dying to self.
For starters: what is the information I receive from the feelings I have? What does it tell me about the aim of my soul? Then, do I embrace this aim or set about correcting? I need guidance…