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.