Monday, November 7, 2011

How to Figure Out the Meaning of Life

In times of change, transitional times, I find that it is useful, and sometimes necessary, to re-calibrate my life, re-chart my course you might say. When the way things were going are no longer the way things are, it is like we are living in a different world, one in which the old status quo was merely a legend.

It is amazing how much of who we are rests on our income and position in the society in which we live. So when that particular rug is pulled out from under us, the whole business of living can come into focus.

I have been thinking about this lately, especially in the context of the Stoic daily readings, and the Stoic workshops. There are some definite advantages to following the Stoic path. A lot of discussion has preceded you, and you can dip or dive in at will. Getting involved in the Stoic conversation would be one way of looking at it. However, I have found that this exercise usually runs me up against the Mono-idealists (coined term). 

These folks seem to think that there is one pre-designed, pre-determined great plan and answer to life, the universe, and everything. Some of them wear the familiar garb of the mono-theists (though not all mono-theists are mono-idealists) but I am running into more and more who are dressed in a rainbow of philosophical garments. These range from the classical Stoicists (not practicing Stoics, but rather academics interested only in ancient Stoicism, usually from a specific period) to various ancient religious re-constructionists, and may even include some neo-pagans, hells bent on unearthing the ultimate meaning of all things, convinced that it exists.

It seems to me that these good folk (and many of them do genuinely good [aka virtuous] work in the name of their system of beliefs), while the differ widely in their approach, share a single framework. The seem to believe that one size fits all, the true way is static and we are tasked to find it and pin ourselves to it.

To my mind, there is an elephant in the room that we all seem to be ignoring. It is the actual human race, how we are born, how we grow, how we die. We don't exists by fiat, but rather something more closely resembling consensus. Studies have indicated that as collectives, we need each other to become something approximating human beings. Cutting off a single person from the group before the formation is complete results in everything from mental to actual physical deformities. We define what being human is together, by living together, communicating, supporting and destroying each other. 

Like all life, there is no ultimate 'template' of what a perfect X is. What is a perfect flower, or a perfect rock or a perfect star? What is a perfect human? The actual potential for humanity that exists in us individually is tested and brought out through our interactions with each other, through the languages and thought patterns we acquire, the habits of body and mind and heart that we adopt, reject, or invent. 

For me, this is the new Sage, the mythical perfect 'me.' Not a goal to achieve, but a direction to set. What is my personal potential? How did it get there, how was it set? A complex combination of chance, history, heredity, society and mystery likely had their hand in it all. 

Here is the point though. I can't really explore my potential alone. I need others to ask questions I haven't conceived of, share experiences I haven't dreamt of, and provide support and resources I could never manage on my own. And others need the same from me. We are all connected, through language, culture, and biology.

There is no single answer to the meaning human life, because there is no single human life. We are complex web of dreams and desires, hopes and fears, choice and potential. The only way we can figure out what the best kind of life is will be by more sharing, not less, by more exposure to the true depth of human experience, both the joy and the suffering. Only then can we start to get an idea of what we, as a species, are truly capable of. 

But here is the caveat. It is a living quest, and like the Sage, a direction not a goal. As each generation steps upon the stage, it will be up to them to take up the conversation, learn and challenge, adopt and reject.

In short, we will find meaning in our lives only when we share ourselves, our minds and hearts, meaningfully; we will learn wisdom when we engage in the Great Conversation.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Hidden Causes of Anger

An Excellent Article

Recently, a very dear friend of my posted a link in a Stoic Study group that we participate in. The article is entitled "The Hidden Treasure of Anger" and it can be found here: The Hidden Treasure of Anger. It would probably be best to read it before continuing with this post.

Let me preface my comments by saying that this is an excellent article. It is well worth the read, and if you stopped reading this post right now, you will have spent your time well. That being said, I want to add a few comments from a Stoic perspective (as I see it, of course.)

This article does a great job of identifying the mental and physiological symptoms of anger, and even hints at their root cause. It beautifully addresses the path to solving the issues after the symptoms have presented themselves.

"When you’re feeling angry, ... it’s a good time to practice mindfulness and equanimity, not to dissolve the anger but to become more skillful in mining it. See if you can find ways to speak your anger in words that are both honest and kind; ... The path of love is a difficult one, in large part because of our natural desire to control..."

What follows however, is the deeper Stoic truths behind the root causes of anger. It takes a while to master the skills outlined below, and there will be a lot of false starts to get to there, but it is good to have a goal in mind when working towards mastering the Stoic Art of Living.

The Stoic Cure to Anger

Stoicism teaches that mindfullness and equanimity are, in addition to being excellent cures for the symptoms of anger, also preventative 'innoculations' to the state of anger itself. The beginning of the article starts with:

"As a response to being wronged, anger is a boundary-setter that says, “Stop! I can’t tolerate this,” or, “This isn’t working for me.”

There is a judgement here that leads to anger, and it is a false one. If we feel that we have been wronged, then essentially we are saying that something external to us has forced us to change our internal landscape.  People feel wronged when they believe that the universe (usually in the form of other people), owes them something and that it has been denied to them. It is our misguided desire to control externals (the universe should conform to my desires) that causes this frustration. 

Epictetus reminds us that the only things in our control are our choices, intentions, aversions and desires. Not even our own bodies, let alone the behaviour of other people, are fully under our control, if they even are. Imagining that the world should cater to us is where the frustration begins. Seneca said that the most angry people are the optimists, because they believe the world is different than it really is, and are frustrated when their belief doesn't match their experience. 

Mindfullness is the practice of seeing things as they really are, and remembering that there are many different ways that things can go. Let's say that someone made a promise to do something. They could keep the promise. They could break the promise. Either is possible. The Stoic accepts the multiple possibilities and tries his or her best to prepare for each of them, mentally and physically. If the 'less optimal' option kicks in (promise broken) then all of the preparations the Stoic made to deal with that also kick in. As a possible outcome that they had already considered, they wouldn't need to get angry at all, they would just deal with the world as it really is, one in which there is a promise broken. They would also re-evalute the trust level they would place in the promise breaker for the future. (Forgive, but learn.) Thus anger doesn't even arise, and serenity and joy are maintained. More importantly, the Stoic can continue to act virtuously, expressed through temperance, wisdom and courage.

Reacting to Injustice

There is one more aspect I would like to deal with though. The author states that

"Anger — sparked by injustice — is at the root of all protest movements, all major processes of change."

Whether it is the author's intention or not, this sentence makes it sound like the only proper reaction to injustice is anger, and moreover, that it is the 'natural' reaction to injustice. If the author is implying that this is a 'normal' reaction to injustice, then yes, this is how most people react. If the author is implying that this is the 'proper' reaction to injustice, then no. There is a better way, one that does not lead to choice limiting and disempowering anger.  

Justice, and especially social justice, is central to the Stoic Way. Historically, Stoics have fought to the death in defence and in protection of their families and countries, sometimes standing up against their own governments to combat injustice. However, the Stoic does not get angry. The Stoic finds the way around all of the obstacles, and will continue pursuing justice in every conceivable way, because the Stoic has made him- or herself aware that the ARE obstacles, and has worked out ways in which they can be circumvented. Remember, for the Stoic, nothing is more important that Virtue, and Justice, as part of Virtue is placed at the top of the list. Nothing is more important than Virtue, not even one's own life.


The Stoic is mindful and serene in the face of challenges, even joyful where there is joy to be had. They are also implacable and imperturbable, because they aren't distracted by anger or disillusioned by false judgements. They will look at all possible outcomes, even the less desirable ones, and prepare (within reason, all things considered), for each eventuality.

In short (and this response is anything but short), the accomplished Stoic doesn't feel anger, not because they don't feel emotion, but because they aren't surprised. They saw it coming and prepared for it. They even accept that they can't fully prepare, and may face something they weren't expecting. Thus they maintain their equanimity, and even flourish, finding new ways to test and express their individual virtue and character.

(NOTE: I acknowledges to all of my friends and family that I have a long way to go to reach this Stoic goal. But I will keep on trying.)

This note was originally published by me on Facebook, May 20, 2011.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Don't Just Sit There, Do Something - Stoic Indifference vs. Apathy

This is the second attempt at this post. The first time through, I had slipped into 'Teacher' mode, and was waxing long on the hows and whys and wherefores. But that isn't what this blog is for (that is reserved for the Stoic Workshops).

This is my forum for talking about my actual life. So here goes.

The thing people don't get (and seem to be incapable of getting past) is the concept of Stoic Indifference. I talked about Emotions in my last post, this time I want to talk about Actions. Anyone who has read up on Stoicism should have a pretty clear idea of some of the central Stoic tenets. Virtue, that is behaving in an excellent way, is the only moral 'good'. Vice, it's opposite, is the only moral 'bad'. Everything that isn't linked to our behaviour does not make us either good or bad people, and so is morally indifferent, or morally neutral.

The second big Stoic principle is that most things are not in our control, especially the things that happen to us, while the only things that are in our control are our choices and actions. Putting two and two together, things we do (i.e. therefore in our control) = our virtue or vice. Things that happen to us, which are therefore not in our control = indifferent.

So here is the thing. There has been a lot of news and not a little noise surrounding the Global Occupy movement. Some IDIOTS seems to think that calling themselves Stoics gives them license to disengage from humanity because other people's suffering is an indifferent to them. Indifferents only apply to oneself! Read Heirocles, Musonius Rufus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius! And yes, even Epictetus. Every one of them will tell you that you are here, on the planet, you are a human, to serve other humans! Why?

Because THAT is what being Virtuous is! We can't be 'justice', but we CAN act, in fact we MUST act justly. That is to say, we must stand against injustice! I am not here telling you what cause you should fight for, that is for you to discover. But we need to fight for it! If we are knowingly NOT fighting injustice, cruelty, greed, foolishness, then we are knowingly acting with vice. A virtuous life is about LIVING, not about contemplating our freaking navels.

We need to get off our collective asses, get off our couches, get off our high horses, and get out of our ivory towers and go and do something, anything! There is NO shortage of things that we can do virtuously. And unless we do, we aren't being virtuous then, are we .

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Stoicism - I'm Feelin' It!

One of the perennial challenges faced by modern Stoics is the question of the proper place of emotions. The very word 'Stoic' has come to mean a Vulcan like denial or suppression of human emotion. What follows is merely the beginning of a discussion in an attempt to correct, or at least modify, this view. 

The tale is told of one Stilpo, a wise man held up by the Stoics as an example of how a person should behave. One translations tells his tale in the following way:

Stilbo, after his country was captured and his children and his wife lost, as he emerged from the general desolation alone and yet happy, spoke as follows to Demetrius, called Sacker of Cities because of the destruction he brought upon them, in answer to the question whether he had lost anything: "I have all my goods with me!" There is a brave and stout-hearted man for you! The enemy conquered, but Stilbo conquered his conqueror. "I have lost nothing!" Aye, he forced Demetrius to wonder whether he himself had conquered after all. "My goods are all with me!" In other words, he deemed nothing that might be taken from him to be a good.

This might lead some to think that this man was some kind of monster, and those who admired him fools at best. The blame lies in the translation.. Stilpo was not 'happy,' in our modern emotional sense, at the destruction of his city and family. The Latin word translated as 'happy' (beatus) can also mean 'blessed', and it is Seneca's translation of the Greek word ευδαιμωνια (eudaimonia), which also translates (roughly) as flourishing, prosperous, blessed. You see Stilpo wasn't cheerfully chatting away with his conquerors, he understood that those things that we truly his, his riches, his virtues, were always with him. Though he lose country and family and position, it has not made him a vicious man.

Stoics do not practice 'detachment' in the sense of being uncaring, or having a lack of feeling. This is a misconception of Stoicism that we have battling for going on two thousand years. I recommend to all of you Seneca's entire 9th letter, from which the story of Stilpo is drawn:  ( Seneca speaks of the Sage feeling his troubles but overcoming them, his love for his friends, and the pleasure he takes in their company. It is actually a beautiful letter.

In the same vein, Stoics have been accused embracing indifference to the world, which includes the avoidance of pleasure because it, too, in an indiffernt. By stating that pleasure is an indifferent, Stoics are affirming that pleasure is neither morally good nor bad. It does not mean that we FEEL indifference towards pleasure, merely that we do not see it as either virtuous or vicious. That being said, it might be argued that pleasure is a biological reaction to our environment indicating the likelihood (though not a guarantee) that the object or situation could be considered a 'preferred indifferent', with possible physical/social/emotional benefits. Pleasure should not be avoided at all costs, but accepted when it is virtuous to do so. Pleasure is not a goal or aim for the Stoic, but may occasionally be a byproduct of virtuous behaviour. If it is, then well and good. Pleasure can also be derived from vicious acts, so the Stoic does not select actions merely on it say so (i.e. the Stoic rejects the 'if it feels good do it' as a deception.) So the practice of proper assent is critical.

The misunderstanding can once again be chalked up once again to the vagueness of translating Greek to English, but only in part.  The word ηδονή (hedone) which is here translated as 'pleasure' could also be rendered 'delight', that is an grapsing connection to something which we incorrectly identify as a 'good', the removal of which would cause us to become more vicious (tending towards vice). Once again, let's turn to Seneca for an example of what virtuous pleasure would look like.

"And so we should love all of our dear ones, both those whom, by the condition of birth, we hope will survive us, and those whose own most just prayer is to pass on before us, but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever - nay, no promise even that we may keep them for long. Often must the heart be reminded - it must remember that loved objects will surely leave, nay,  are already leaving. Take whatever Fortune gives, remembering that it has no voucher. Snatch the pleasures your children  bring, let your children in turn find delight in you, and drain joy to the dregs without delay; no promise has been given you for this night - nay, I have offered too long a respite! - no promise has been given even for this hour."

Hardly an unfeeling brute, unable to experience joy in life.One of my mentors used to remind me that we hold all of our blessings with an open hand, responsible to love and care for them while it is our lot to do so, and releasing them when the time has come for them to leave us.

Finally, while it is important for us to understand what the Ancient Stoics taught, we are not bound by it. Advances in all of the sciences, psychology and philosophy will change how we apply Stoicism today. While academics dislike a moving target, the practice of Stoicism is a somewhat fluid philosophy.

Again Seneca:

"Whatever the quality of my works may be, read them as if I were still seeking, and were not aware of, the truth, and were seeking it obstinately, too. For I have sold myself to no man; I bear the name of no master. I give much credit to the judgment of great men; but I claim something also for my own. For these men, too, have left to us, not positive discoveries, but problems whose solution is still to be sought. J They might perhaps have discovered the essentials, had they not sought the superfluous also. They lost much time in quibbling about words and in sophistical argumentation; all that sort of thing exercises the wit to no purpose. We tie knots and bind up words in double meanings, and then try to untie them. Have we leisure enough for this? Do we already know how to live, or die? We should rather proceed with our whole souls towards the point where it is our dutv to take heed lest things, as well as words, decieve us."

Stoicism is not a religion, with a revealed set of scriptures which we are called to follow. We are encouraged to question, to update, to discard, all the time bearing in mind the central Stoic teaching to 'live in accordance with nature.' When we truly understand what this means, our Stoicism will not be an ancient old philosophy written on little books and disitegrating scrolls, but a living philosophy tested and tried in the lives of those who choose to sit on the Porch and try to figure out together what this 'life' thing is all about.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Walking, Talking and other Philosophical Pursuits

The inaugural post of my new blog. Following in the footsteps of my wife and children, I am choosing to share the progress of my Stoic walk with those that might be interested. I plan on sharing, and perhaps over-sharing, my efforts to mold my life along the lines of Stoic teachings. Bear in mind that these are my own efforts, and while I call myself a Stoic, I am by no means a Sage, and reflect Stoic principles only imperfectly. With that, let us get on with the first reflection.

This morning I got dressed. Not usually a big deal, but since I lost my job last Thursday, I was feeling like I needed a vacation of sorts to let the natural process of loss play out if it had to. That isn't to say that I went through the grieving process (I didn't deny it, I didn't get angry, or even get depressed, I just accepted it as the new 'shape of the world'). I did want to take a bit of a break though. On top of that, all of my friends, with sincere concern, warned me that the 'crash' would come, so I waited for some subconscious outpouring of emotion that would somehow cleanse me of my suppressed grief. It didn't come. I suspect it is because it wasn't really there, hiding under the surface somewhere.

Why not? I credit my Stoic stance for this. It is the way thing ARE. Not the way I wished they would be, but I don't live in that world. So yesterday I stayed in my pajamas all day, perhaps as a sign of  breaking with the past (I never do that), and getting dressed was symbolic of putting on a new life today. I also put on my Stoic symbol today, reciting my meme, reminding me of the best in me that I am striving for. This is practice I let slide for the last few days. Picking it up today, I was sincere in the recitation. It felt right, and I felt strong.

There are real benefits to being unemployed at this time. I see my wife more everyday, and as we discuss possible futures, we get to know each other's minds and hearts a little better. I see my youngest daughter more often that before because our schedules conflicted in the past. Teasing and playing has never been so much fun. My son, my wife and I are talking and planning exciting new business opportunities together, possible futures, and new vistas. I have yet to take advantage of the time to see my other daughter, but she is working and going to school. I can however now try to find a few minutes in her day to share a cup of tea or two. Once I get back to work, if I end up back in a traditional 9 to 5, these opportunities will have passed. I won't waste them mourning a life I do not have, in a world that does not exist.

The job loss, the ongoing turmoil of personal lives around me, the challenges that face me in the future, and especially the incredible new opportunities ahead of me, all of these combined could be daunting, cause me to fear, to shrink back. But no, I look forward to the challenges, I embrace the opportunities as they present themselves. I am not afraid. With the strength I would have wasted on fear, anger or denial, I will explore, I will embrace, I will prepare.