Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Stoicism: Life Hack vs. Life Style

It is becoming trendy to be Stoic, cool to be cool in the face of turbulence and trouble, a hacker of the ultimate computer: the human mind.

Articles about Stoicism are being published in nearly every major newspaper, in large part due to its most well known popularizers, Tim Ferris and Ryan Holiday. They are not the first to speak about Stoicism or to offer their take on 'Stoic Tips and Tricks,' nor will they be the last. The message, though, is pretty much the same: have the life you've always wanted, without all of the pain of living. It is the easy street to serenity.

But why now? Stoicism, as a philosophy, is over 2300 years old. Granted, there was a quiet period where other voices took center stage, and still hold sway. The continual publishing of Seneca and the rediscovery of Marcus Aurelius (from a single document!), as well as the more recent translation of Musonius Rufus, not to mention the perennial favourite Stoic among Stoics, Epictetus, have all in their way subtly influenced western society. But this notoriety, this interest, this is new.

Why? Perhaps, as many have pointed out, Stoicism is a philosophy for troubled times. The proliferation of media coverage of disaster and destruction in every arena of life has given some the impression that these are terrible times indeed. People in pain seek a relief, and Stoicism seems to offer tricks to take the mind off the big questions.

"Don't worry about things you can't control, and there really isn't much you can control anyway."

"Life is long, if you know the trick to making it so."

"Don't let your emotions get the better of you."

"Stop reading about being a good person, and just be one."

All good advice. Really. It is. But is reducing Stoicism to fortune cookie aphorisms really the cure? Or, like so many "Make your life better in six easy lessons" movements, this one is doomed to failure by its own superficiality.

Approaching Stoicism as a life hack is, if anything, treating the symptom. Stoicism as a life STYLE is about searching out the cause and effecting a deep change. As Seneca said, Stoicism is not meant for mere improvement, but for transformation.

I don't worry about things not under my control, because through careful reflection (and much painful failure) I have learned what control is, and how pitifully little I have of it. But I have also learned that though I simply don't HAVE to have control over everything, everything is still under control.

Life IS long, if by long you mean today, this hour, this moment. If you learn to embrace death, yours and of everyone you hold dear. If you practice dying, daily. Then, and only then, can each moment be fully lived, and more life can be squeezed into a gaze into the eyes of your loved one than in eons of merely being alive.

My emotions are things I have, not what I am. They are an expression of my thoughts, of my thinking patterns, of my beliefs about the universe and my place in it. I don't seek to suppress my so-called negative emotions, I seek instead to align my life with a truer understanding of reality.

I CAN become a good person, a better person than I currently am, approaching the ineffable sage who represents my very best self. But first, I have to understand what 'good' means, and good in what way, and good for what. I have to plumb the depths of my own frailty and failure to seek the lofty heights of goodness.

Finally, life hacks, in and of themselves, seek to make the person more successful. Stoicism, as a lifestyle, seeks to make a person more human.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Week 1 - Seneca Letters Reading Plan

Well we have reached the end of Week 1 of the Seneca Letter Reading Plan. In this week, Pam and I have read Letters I - V together. Each morning, over our coffee and cereal, we take turns reading and discussing the letter of the day. I have been making massive notes in my copy of the Letters, writing and underlining with abandon.

The notes range from observations to themes. The most important notes are to myself, reminders of ways in which I can improve my own life. To be clear, just because Seneca said it doesn't mean that I believe it! Everything is challenged, everything is put to the test.

I am not a Stoic because I have subscribed to a creed passed down through guru to priest to anointed messenger. There are no Stoic saints, saviours, or even sages. Just men (unfortunately, no women - a great loss) who wrote what they had learned of life and how to live it. Now I was just trying to match their experiences to mine, and see if they could teach me anything.

This week, Seneca has. It was all about that limited commodity, really the only thing that is truly mine. Time. The first letter was all about how we waste it, how we fritter it away in pointless pursuits, or in his own words "while we are doing that which is not to the purpose." [I.1] What the purpose that we SHOULD be working towards remains to be seen. He ends with a dire warning that waiting too long to regulate our time would leave us with too little left to make a difference.

Before going on, I wanted to pause here. One of the things that I love about the Stoics is their bracing honesty. No golden gates, endless opportunities for forgiveness and or rebirth to get it 'right' next time. This is it. Waste this opportunity and it's gone. Some mistakes, misdeeds and vicious acts are irretrievable. Time passes, and you lose every opportunity that you don't take. There may be more opportunities later, but it will never be the same one.

Time only moves in one direction. Everything behind us is already in the hands of death [I.2], and worrying too much about what stretches before us is merely the result of  "a mind that is fretted." [V.8] The only time that matters is now, the present and what we do with it. [V.9] One of Seneca's recurring themes in these early letters is the focus on THIS day, and how we "reckon" it's worth. [I.2] He starts out by instructing us to "lay hold of today's tasks," Those daily tasks include continued studies in order to acquire some new philosophical fortification, [II.4] which we in turn must put into practice to make ourselves better. [V.1] Every day we should think about the length of our lives [IV.5],  that we are dying daily [I.2] and what we should do with the one day we have.

One of the biggest challenges to this focus is where to find the time to study [I.4], and to practice. Letters II - V dispense with time-wasters and objections. Don't know where to focus your studies? Read Letter 2. Pulled in too many directions by social obligations to fair-weather friends? Read Letter 3. Worried about the future? Read Letter 4. Spending your time on getting or getting rid of things? How you look? How your home looks? Read Letter 5. Time is suddenly yours in spades.

This is just the beginning though. Book I has seven more letters, and two more weeks. I am looking forward to seeing if my understanding so far holds up. In the meantime, I have some reading to do.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Seneca Letters Reading Program

For many years it has been my intention to read through the entirety of Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius. It has be suggested that the Letters are (or can be used) as a Stoic learning program , and this is the inspiration for this plan. Whether the letters are real correspondence or thinly disguised diatribes actually has very little bearing on the richness of the content.

With that, the Seneca Reading Plan starts tomorrow. I have added a section to thestoiclife.org with links to the reading segments.

There are a couple of features that I thought might be important to note.

1 - There are only 5 readings a week. You can do them at any time, any day, all at once or one a day. It's up to you. I recommend that whatever you choose, try to be as consistent as possible. Same time, same place.

2 - There are 52 weeks of readings, divided into Books that correspond with the Books of Seneca's letters. All of the books are contained within whole weeks. Books are divided into 10 readings (2 Weeks), 15 readings (3 weeks) or 20 readings (4 weeks).

3 - No one is quite sure WHY Seneca chose to divide his letters into books, but some suspect that the divisions are thematic. In fact, one author suggests that the letters are actually a Stoic curriculum. With that in mind, keep a notepad and pen handy to make your own observations about what you are getting out of the letters. Whenever we finish up a book, we can meet at the Foundations of Stoic Practice Facebook group and compare notes.

4 - These are the writings of a man. That's it, just some guy, 2000 ish years ago, sharing his perspectives on life and philosophy. They are not scripture, they are aren't infallible, and most especially Seneca was not infallible (which he reminds us of time and time again). Question what you read, debate it, disagree. It's OK. And if you agree, great. The most important thing to remember is that when you do (agree or disagree), be prepared to back it up with why.

5 - If you choose to take on this program, you are doing it for yourself. You don't owe me, or anyone here, a damned thing. You are your own person, and you are free to come and go as you please. That being said, we always expect a level of respect and courtesy in our dealing with each other, and if we do disagree, lets not be disagreeable.

Thanks so much to all of you who have shown an interest in this program, and I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Seneca's letters.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Dissolution - A Poem Based on Marcus Aurelius


As a stream so are all things belonging to the body
 as a dream so are all that belong unto the soul
  Our life is a warfare 
  and a mere pilgrimage

  Only one thing preserves:


 never to do anything either
   or feignedly 
   or hypocritically
 depend on yourself
   your own proper actions
 all things embrace

 and above all
     expect death, 
     the resolution of those Elements
     of which every creature is composed
     that dissolution
     and alteration
     which is so common unto all
   why should it be feared by any? 

Is not this according to nature?

 Nothing that is 
  according to Nature 
    can be evil.

             Meditations II, 17(/15).
             M. Casaubon, Trans. 1635
             W.M.D Rouse, Trans. 1906

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Living with Less - A 30 Day Decluttering Exercise - Day1

November 1st Count: 

Donation: 2 boxes of kitchen equipment and one bag of clothes
Storage: 3 boxes of dishes, 1 box with kitchen equipment

We hear a lot about the simple life in Stoic circles. The idea is that the most important things in life aren't things. We get that. The Minimalist movement has come and gone and come again, in various guises. Have we cease to hear its call to rational acquisition, to sparing consumption, to a clampdown on personal waste?

Pam and I have decided that November this year will be our month of Living with Less. Less waste, less buying, and most of all, less clutter.

Food & Stuff

To that end, we are going to work our way through our deep pantries and eat mostly from what we have, until we have established a cycle of food purchase and consumption that doesn't leave anything standing 'just in case' for long. Once we have worked through our food clutter, we can start building out a pantry to cover us over a longer period, but all of it used.

We are putting a moratorium on junk purchases. There are a few bits of furniture we need, but they are replacing broken or unusable pieces. Other than that, no new bits and bobs for November.


We have always been semi-concious of recycling and composting in our home, but not exactly rigid about it. This month, we are going to try to reduce our garbage to the smallest amount possible. This means a little extra work to make sure things go where they can do the most good.


We are also going to be sorting through all of the clutter in every room. The goal is at least one box a day, either to donation or to storage. The point is to get it out from underfoot. If we find that we have packed something that we are going to need sooner rather than later, then we can get that box out of storage again. In the spring, we will revisit the boxes and see what we actually need or want.

This is day one, and it is well started.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

In Praise of the Quiet Life - or, It is OK not to be seeking.

I am basically a quiet man.

This will come a surprise to many who have met me. I get along well with most people, and can easily strike up a conversation with a total stranger. I have, on occasion, shared philosophical perspectives in a grocery lines. And the people I talk to share right back.

My job (which I love, by the way) is VERY public. I make new connections with people on an almost daily basis. Most of those people, far more than you would think, are amazing and interesting. I like talking to them, getting to know them, sharing stories with them.

But then I come home. And once again, I am me.

I like quiet. I like order. I like the times of silent contemplation over a well-turned phrase, a particularly poignant strain of music, a deeply rich rendering of an art piece.

Yet over the years I have foolishly tried to 'fill' my life with meaning and purpose. To find 'the point of it all.' To make a difference, create an impression, "Leave this world a little better than [I] found it."

So I have pursued religion, philosophy, the arts. I have read and learned and taught. I have run from event to event, group to group, gathering to gathering, in search of a plan, a program, a framework on which to hang my life.

But then I come home. And once again, I am merely me.

And so I create. I used to draw, once upon a time. I wrote poetry, challenging myself and creating acrostic sonnets for my wife and my fathers. And lately, I have finally written the novel I have been promising myself I would write. It still requires editing, but it is written. I find it funny that I am not as driven to publish as I was to create.

Yet as I wander the bookstores, I see stacks of books on the sale racks at 70% off. The light from their writing may have only flickered briefly before being swallowed in the general cacophony of published works. How is my voice any different from theirs? Clearly, if I am seeking impact, it won't be in the bookstores, though I will likely keep writing.

And so I come home. And once more, I am only me.

Any yet, I am home. I am in the house my grandfather built over 50 years ago. Here is my wife, whose love and friendship over the last 30 years have more than sustained me, they have formed me into the man I am. My children grew up here, and return frequently to recharge us. They bring with them more family, my wonderful children-in-law/love. My mother, my brothers, their families, come to us as often as they can. My house is full, brimming and overflowing with love.

Not only here. Home is where my family lives and sometimes that is hundreds, or thousands, of kilometers away. But there is my heart also.

On this day, I think especially of my father. He left behind him a legacy of knowledge, acceptance and a character that has indelibly impressed itself upon my soul.

My few friends round out the cast of characters, those who have stayed while I have walked through the valleys of the shadow of death. Those who have given without hesitation, and have taken without embarrassment. I know that I am never abandoned.

I have stopped seeking, given up the quest, turned away from the mystery.

Because here, in my home, I am finally me. And it is enough.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

On Tempering Grief - or Learning to Sing the Blues

The thing with Social Media is that it allows us to share everything almost instantaneously. Venting of one's spleen is a regular occurrence, which is interesting considering how most of the actual emotion is stripped from text, emoticons notwithstanding. These posts, even if for information only, invite scorn, support and inevitably, some well meaning soul's idea of advice.

One sure way to get people on your side though is to 'share' your grief at some personal tragedy. The grief is real, the quotes around 'share' are because the word implies a reduction by distribution, but this isn't true. My grief isn't made less because you are aware of it, or even that you empathize. Sharing isn't quite the right word. Perhaps 'notification' or 'grief-telling' would be more appropriate.

The thing about grief is that most of the advice offered under the banner of genuine concern ring hollow in the ears of the griever. 'This will pass' and 'I'm sorry' and 'I've been there' don't offer much comfort.

Now before we get onto the old 'the deeper your grief, the greater your love,' there is no deeper grief than the one driven by regret, not love. The depth of grief is not a measure (nor proof) of devotion. Only devotion is the proof of devotion. (Tautologies for $500, Alex). Love is its own proof. Grief is a mark of two thing, which too often get blended together. An acknowledgement of irrevocable loss, and a refusal to acknowledge the inevitability of change.

Seneca says as much: "For to be afflicted with endless sorrow at the loss of someone very dear is foolish self-indulgence, and to feel none is inhuman callousness. The best compromise between love and good sense is both to feel longing and to conquer it."

You would think that in 7000+ years of recorded history, with griefs in the billions, that someone would have come up a way of actually allowing grief to happen naturally while providing a help of some kind to reduce its intensity.

And of course, many did. But here is probably the most striking piece of advice I have read.
Expose and reopen all the wounds which have already healed. Someone will object: ‘What kind of consolation is this, to bring back forgotten ills and to set the mind in view of all its sorrows when it can scarcely endure one?’ ... Offer to the mind all its sorrows, all its mourning garments: this will not be a gentle prescription for healing, but cautery and the knife. What shall I achieve? That a soul which has conquered so many miseries will be ashamed to worry about one more wound in a body which already has so many scars.
It is surprising, because it sounds like the very opposite of comfort. But think about it, really think about it. This is the kind of conversation that Seneca advises us to have with ourselves:
Your mother died? I am sorry for it, and I know it feels bad, but remember, that your father died not that long ago, and you have survived and gone on to honour his memory. So shall you do with this.
You have lost love/job/something that you valued? Feel the grief, but remember, you have been here, or somewhere like here, and you have come through, wiser, stronger, more experienced. This shall add to that. 
This requires something that seems counter-intuitive. We are often told to remember the good times, but here we are told to remember the bad times as well, and to treasure those memories equally. The first are a source of joy, the second a source of strength.

There is an entire musical genre dedicated to this practice. Signing the Blues is exactly about this perspective: remember when things were hard. You'll get by. You'll move on. You will continue to live and love and grow. Just learn to sing your own blues, from time to time.