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.