March 22, 2017 – The Sign of True Education


“What is it then to be properly educated? It is learning to apply our natural preconceptions to the right things according to Nature, and beyond that to separate the things that lie within our power from those that don’t.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 1.22.9-10a

My friend Brian Niece recently invited me to be a guest on his podcast called Reimagining. The subject of the podcast was friendship. Brian and I met while he was co-pastor at the church my wife attended, and have since become very close. We share a love for critical thinking, and in spite of our differing positions on the existence of, or access to, a deity, we have more in common than not. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Humanities while I pursue my masters in philosophy.

I share this brief bit of history to put in context how much we both value education but with a rub. As we discussed how thinkers like Aristotle and Confucius defined friendship the conversation settled into how relationships can be lost because of differing opinions and beliefs. How we cease to see the other as someone who holds convictions as passionately as we do. At times the arrogance of being educated, or well read, deceives one into thinking that is the pinnacle of being educated. It’s not. The pinnacle of being educated centers around the knowledge, but also knowing how to use it so you don’t lose friends in the process.

Approaching this meditation from the position that humans are social animals, that relationships are the foundation of how we come to know the world and ourselves, it is inconsistent to call one’s self “properly educated” if the education does not entail an acceptance that it’s only as good as how it can be shared. We must be aware or relationships afford us access to others so that we can share what we know, and in turn learn from what they know.

Our power is in having the right perspective. We must be aware that the other also has that power. It is equally true that as we learn, so do they. We cannot force it on someone, but we can ensure, through friendship, a consistent access.

March 21, 2017 – The Best Retreat Is In Here, Not Out There


“People seek retreats for themselves in the country, by the sea, or in the mountains. You are very much in the habit of yearning for those same things. But this is entirely the trait of a base person, when you can, at any moment, find such a retreat in yourself. For nowhere can you find a more peaceful and less busy retreat than in your own soul – especially if on close inspection it is filled with ease, which I say is nothing more than being well-ordered. Treat yourself often to this retreat, and be renewed.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.3.1

Just a brief observation on this meditation.

My wife is a beach person. I am a mountains person. We go to these locations because the environment affords us greater access to that peacefulness we seek. But are these environments required, or are we playing to a bias? When discussing religious belief with someone who is dogmatically committed to a specific system I will inevitably ask them what makes their belief better than others. They usually reply with the specifics of their system as being superior, but what they can’t claim as their own is the feeling others get from different systems that mirror their own.

I fully admit that my love for the mountains is primarily a desire to not be in hot, humid weather. But it’s a true statement that being on my paddle board as the sun rises gives me a feeling much like watching the sunrise over snow capped mountains. What I’m looking for is not the peacefulness of the mountains, but peacefulness itself. I must be aware that such a state has nothing to do with where I am but rather how I think.

March 20, 2017 – Ready and At Home


“I may wish to be free from torture, but if the time comes for me to endure it, I’ll wish to bear it courageously with bravery and honor. Wouldn’t I prefer not to fall into war? But if war does befall me, I’ll wish to carry nobly the wounds, starvation, and other necessities of war. Neither am I so crazy as to desire illness, but if I must suffer illness, I’ll wish to do nothing rash or dishonorable. The point is not to wish for these adversities, but for the virtue that makes adversities bearable.” – Seneca, Moral Letters, 67.4

We’ve discussed how Stoic thought, specifically Epictetus, tells us how we should approach death and illness.

24. If someone dies young, he finds fault with the gods [because he is having to leave the world before his time, but if he remains alive when old, he finds fault with them too] because he is continuing to live when it was high time that he was at rest; but all the same, when death approaches, he wants to stay alive, and sends for the doctor, telling him to spare no trouble or effort. How extraordinary people are, he said, to be unwilling either to live or to die. Discourses, Fragments

[14] ‘And illness, what will you make of that?’ I’ll show its nature, I’ll excel in it, I’ll remain steadfast and serene, I won’t flatter my doctor, I won’t pray for death. [15] What more do you seek? Whatever you present to me I’ll turn it into something blessed and a source of happiness, into something venerable and enviable. Discourses, 3.20

The question posed is how we approach the inevitable. We will get sick at some time. Eventually, we will die.

Misty Diaz is an “adaptive athlete”. An adaptive athlete is anyone who must adapt to circumstances in order to compete. Some consider all of us “adaptive” in some way, but the central focus is on those with disabilities. Misty, as an example, was born with Spina Bifida but decided at a young age to not be defined by her physical limitations. No doubt she wishes she had an easier road to life, but she embraced her circumstances, suffering her disease with admirable character. (source)

For me, my mental state is so important. I’ve had more than 28 operations since birth and have even woken up in the intensive care unit not being able to speak. The only thing keeping me alive was the fact that I was mentally talking to myself about how I could overcome this and how I wouldn’t fail.

Don’t view your adaptive disability as a limitation. Use it as a training tool to help you become stronger and faster. Being an adaptive athlete, I’ve encountered many obstacles that have made me more resilient.

Misty’s situation is different. She was given a circumstance at birth, but she has progressively prepared herself for future opportunities. It’s no different for those who live without such conditions. How will we approach the inevitables of life? Misty’s example, of seeing such challenges as training tools sets the bar. Her awareness of what these situations bring, opportunities to be a better person, encompasses the virtues Stoicism teaches us.

Such virtues make life “bearable” for us, but it also allows us to be examples for others. Like Misty.

 

March 19, 2017 – Timeless Wisdom


“For there are two rules to keep at the ready – that there is nothing good or bad outside my own reasoned choice, and that we shouldn’t try to lead events but to follow them.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 3.10.18

This meditation uses the example of Anthony de Mello. He was a very cultured man, spreading across both Eastern and Western perspectives. His quote is shared, and it’s one which greatly mirrors Epictetus.

“The cause of my irritation is not in this person but in me.”

Why reference de Mello? He started his spiritual life in the Catholic church, and would eventually become a Jesuit Priest. His initial approach was very rigid and dogmatic. As he experienced the world, he found Buddhist meditation. It challenged his prevailing spiritual views. After his passing, documents were discovered that showed his belief system deviated from that of the Catholic church, specifically noting that Jesus should be understood as a teacher and not as the son of God. (source)

Father de Mello demonstrates an appreciation for Jesus, of whom he declares himself to be a “disciple.” But he considers Jesus as a master alongside others. The only difference from other men is that Jesus is “awake” and fully free, while others are not. Jesus is not recognized as the Son of God, but simply as the one who teaches us that all people are children of God.

While a challenge to direct orthodoxy it represents how one can be led by reason (internal) as opposed to doctrine (external). We can appreciate the consequences of a choice (damnation for example), but outside of the system, any choice is either bad nor good on its own merit. Otherwise, it assumes an external judging our choice which is something, again, outside of our control. What is good or bad is the why of our choice.

The Stoic sees no need to have circumstances fit a predefined frame. Rather, as events manifest themselves we should always be aware that our reasoned choices will serve us well as we follow the path being laid out before us. We must not be afraid to change. This is timeless wisdom.

March 18, 2017 – Impossible Without Your Consent


“Today I escaped from the crush of circumstances, or better put, I threw them out, for the crush wasn’t from outside me but in my own assumptions.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.13

If I had a dime for every conversation I have ever had with my wife that contained “I can’t make you…” my savings account would be more comfortable. It’s an easier said than done position to hold when you are the person invoking a Stoic disposition. But that doesn’t make it any less true. Whether I was being difficult, or simply holding a position that wasn’t being met with agreement, my ability to maintain my ground in the realm of controlling how I approached the discussion, as opposed to letting the frustration of communication overwhelm me, brought peace and clarity.

No need to address the many times I’ve had to apologize for losing my temper.

What assumptions do we have about our jobs, relationships, or any future plans that we’ve made? Are we embracing deviation as nothing more than nature following its own logic? The meditation leverages the word hypolêpsis, which is a Greek word for how our mind judges situations. In his blog Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, Donald Robertson talks about hypolêpsis by leveraging Pierre Hadot’s book on Marcus Aurelius called The Inner Citadel. Hadot wrote about three Stoic Disciplines: desire, action, and assent. Judgment can be found under assent and Robertson has this to say: (source)

According to Hadot’s analysis, although the Stoics refer to “judgement” in general (hypolêpsis), they’re primarily interested in monitoring and evaluating their own implicit value-judgements.  These form the basis of our actions, desires, and emotions, especially the irrational passions and vices which the Stoics sought to overcome.  By continually monitoring their judgements, Stoics are to notice the early-warning signs of upsetting or unhealthy impressions and take a step back from them, withholding their “assent” or agreement, rather than being “carried away” into irrational and unhealthy passions and the vices.  The Stoics call this prosochê or “attention” to the ruling faculty of the mind, to our judgements and actions.   I’ve described this as “Stoic Mindfulness”, a term that can be taken to translate prosochê.

None of us are sages, well maybe a few of you are, but the beauty of how Epictetus approached Stoic thought was that one wasn’t required to be a sage to have the capacity to be Stoic. These meditations are our reminder that for us to get angry requires our consent to put our thoughts secondary to the thing itself. If we are aware of the fact that we’re getting upset then we can make strides to change how we’ll react to the circumstance. Neither Aurelius nor Epictetus, for that matter, require perfection. The very fact that they speak to the problem of vices and passions indicates it’s something we all contend with. Don’t get frustrated if you find yourself losing your mindful footing, remember you can always get it back.

March 17, 2017 – The Beauty of Choice


“You are not your body and hair-style, but your capacity for choosing well. If your choices are beautiful, so too will you be.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 3.1.39b-40a

Another hiatus from the daily meditations finds me powering through a Tuesday in an effort to get level. Now is a good time to remind those who honor me with their visits that my goal with these blog posts is to share what I consider the timeless wisdom of the Stoics in an effort to approach life in the best way possible. Each day presents us with opportunities to be distracted by external forces, and the Stoics remind us those things are beyond our control. We only have power over how we respond. I am not asking anyone to become a follower of Stoic thinking. In fairness, I’m not sure I can distance myself from some of the emotional attachments I have for people. Example: If a loved one where to pass on I don’t see myself moving forward with “well I only had them on loan from nature”. But we can choose the words of these great Stoics as guides in how not to be consumed by the actions of others or the acquisition of things.

Which leads me to this meditation. Beautiful choices. Oh how deep we could go just discussing what it means to say something is beautiful. Let’s briefly frame how beauty works using relationships. You are at a club/bar and you see an attractive person. You walk up to them and strike up a conversation. While completely taken with the color of their hair, the shape of their face, and their general sexuality of appearance the more they talk the less attractive they become. In spite of the designer clothes and athletic physique, the words coming out of their mouth are like mud on a rose. How does this happen?

We are not what we wear, what we drive, or what we own. These are appearances. Our choices make up the story of who we are. When the clothes go out of style, when the car breaks down, and when our possessions cease to be ours we are only left with person that his behind our name. It is important that we look beyond the appearances of others, and that we are aware of the choices we make that simply feed an appearance.

Isn’t interesting how what is beautiful has changed over history. Simply look at how people are presented in works of art. Beauty has not always been thin, fit people. Or those who look well tanned.

One thing that represents beautiful choices are the friends we choose to surround ourselves with. Consider the words of Confucius.

“Having three kinds of friends will be a source of personal improvement; having three other kinds of friends will be a source of personal injury. One stands to be improved by friends who are true, who make good on their word, and who are broadly informed; one stands to be injured by friends who are ingratiating, who feign compliance, and who are glib talkers.”