March 14, 2017 – Self-Deception Is Our Enemy


“Zeno would say that nothing is more hostile to a firm grasp on knowledge than self-deception.” – Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, 7.23

Sometimes ego gets in the way. Have you ever been in a meeting, participating in an activity, or creating something and you wanted to be respected for the knowledge you bring to the situation? In doing so, was the outcome such that you ended up more focused on how you were being perceived instead of what you could be learning from what others brought? A few seasons ago, when I started playing organized soccer again, I allowed myself to feel the pressure of performance. I didn’t want to disappoint my teammates so I pushed myself physically and I tried to motivate vocally. The outcome: I ended up injuring myself multiple times, and I came across as a bit of an ass. Once I gathered myself, accepted the fact that my body was not in shape for the sport, and that I could not appreciate the dynamics of the team and the league, I became a student to those who had been playing together for years.

In 3.26 “To those who are afraid of want”, Epictetus writes:

[13] Live in such a way and never cease to do so; you’ve embarked on philosophy in name alone, you who have discredited its principles, so far as you are able, by showing them to be useless and unprofitable for those who adopt them! Never have you desired firmness of mind, serenity, impassibility; never have you attended any teacher with that purpose in mind, but many a teacher to learn about syllogisms. Never have you tested out any of these impressions for yourself, asking yourself, [14] ‘Am I capable of bearing this or not? What remains for me to do?’, but as if all were safe and sound for you, you’ve concentrated on the area of study which should come last, that which is concerned with immutability, so that you may be unchanging— in what? In your cowardice, your meanness of spirit, your admiration for the rich, your inability to achieve what you desire, your inability to avoid falling into what you want to avoid. These are the things that you’ve been so anxious to secure!

Gaining knowledge affords the capability of changing. If we are not learning, we are static. If we are not learning about ourselves, we are self-defeating. We must be aware we do not, and cannot, know everything. As we discussed in February, being silent is often the best choice. Take the opportunity to learn from others so that in turn we can learn about ourselves. We need to know what we cannot bear.

 

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March 13, 2017 – One Day It Will All Make Sense


“Whenever you find yourself blaming providence, turn it around in your mind and you will see what has happened is in keeping with reason.” – Epictetus, Discourse, 3.17.1

This semester I’m taking a class on role ethics. Last Tuesday we were asked for paper topics, more specifically if we had a thesis and brief summary. After sharing what I had my  professor was constructively critical. He asked that a look more for an argument, and present the material less like a blog post. Initially I was taken aback. Blogs can be valuable sources of information, or, like what I’m attempting to do here, can offer insight into a mode of thinking about being human.

He was correct in his assessment. There is a distinct difference between making an argument and offering an opinion. An argument discloses the complexity of a position. It takes into account both the argument and counter argument. The argument forces us to use reason to appreciate what we can understand, but also what is unknown.

Today’s meditation focuses on how we can be myopic about the complexity of the world. What happens when we don’t get our way? Do we react with anger, or frustration? It’s easy to get caught in the idea that there is but one way to reach a goal. If there is any deviation, if it requires more time than expected, then we feel slighted.

This is an illusion. What do we know of the future that presumes a greater benefit from the plan we laid out? How sure are we that what we think we want is best for us? What if our loss is a more important gain for someone else? It is much easier to look back on what has happened, and through reason make sense of the circumstances. Knowing this why would we allow ourselves to be overcome when things don’t go our way?

Lastly, Epictetus would ask that we consider more important the interior of the person, what guides them, rather than focus on results.

[2] ‘Yes, but someone who is unjust comes off better.’ In what? In money. For in that regard he has the better of you because he flatters people, because he has no shame, because he stays awake at night. Is there anything surprising in that? [3] But look to see whether he is better than you in being trustworthy and honest. Because you’ll find that not to be the case; but rather, in those things in which you’re superior to him, you’ll find that you’re the one who is better off.

Life has many moving parts, and we are but one of them.

 

March 11, 2017 – Living Without Restriction


“The unrestricted person, who has in hand what they will in all events, is free. But anyone who can be restricted, coerced, or pushed into something against what they will is a slave.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 4.1.128b-129a

I’m going to dig into my bag of bands, again. This time we’re touching down in the 80’s. The band is The Bolshoi, and the song is “Someone’s Daughter” from their album “Friends”.

I wish I knew the secret of success
Then I could laugh about it, I could say I couldn’t care less
I don’t want to wait for the dinner plate (No Way)
Is there any hope for the record plate (Today)
I don’t see no sign, I don’t see no sign
I just got to get out there and find the thing and make it mine

Oh, here it comes again that old feeling
I’ve had since I don’t know when, don’t ask me to explain, no
I’m no different, I’m the same, yes
There was once a time when I knew how to (Do Things)
I just don’t care, very debonair (No Strings)
I’ve had lesson one, I’ve had lesson one
If you get half of what you want out of this life, you’re lucky son

So much to be unpacked. First, if we’re looking for signs to tell us what to do, we’re living under restrictions. Second, if we’re waiting for permission to launch ourselves into the hands of fate, we’re living under restrictions. Lastly, do we really want to be in a position where we feel lucky to get half of what we want out of this life?

In 4.1 Epictetus uses the example of being a Senator, while still being a slave. He asks:

[17] Were you never ordered by your beloved to do something that you didn’t want to do? Have you never flattered your little slave? Have you never kissed his feet? And yet, if you were compelled to kiss Caesar’s feet, you’d regard that as an outrage and the height of tyranny. Is slavery anything other than that, then?

The key here is to understand what it means to do something you don’t want to do. In the time of Epictetus, slaves performed many tasks that allowed freemen higher pursuits. Some slaves were treated well, so well that they were allowed to keep some of the money made from labor. Others were treated like a piece of property. The very idea of kissing a slave’s feet implies an act of freedom, where kissing Caesar’s is more of a demand. There is a significant difference in doing something for someone you love as an order, and doing it because you want to make them happy even if you would rather be elsewhere.

What burden does restriction put upon us? How should we oppose it? He defines the want of freedom in very extreme terms.

[29] That is why we call free only those animals that won’t put up with captivity, but escape through death as soon as they’re captured.

It’s an important question to ask: how am I living? Am I aware of what I’m giving up for the nice car, house, and other material trappings? Am I forced to march to the orders of someone in charge, or am I being led by someone who appreciates my voice? Who respects me?

When we value freedom above things our world, and live, surely has greater meaning.

March 9, 2017 – Find the Right Scene


“Above all, keep a close watch on this – that you are never so tied to your former acquaintances and friends that you are pulled down to their level. If you don’t you’ll be ruined . . . you must choose whether to be loved by these friends and remain the same person, or to become a better person at the cost of those friends . . . if you try to have it both ways you will neither make progress nor keep what you once had.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 4.2.1;4-5
My daughter recently asked me what I thought made a good marriage. I told her it’s the friendship of two people who are committed to making each other better people. But this isn’t isolated to marriage. In general, friendship is best when those we choose to spend time with those who elevate us above our present state.
In The Analects, Confucius writes:
9.25   The Master said, “Take doing your utmost (zhong) and making good on your word (xin) as your mainstay. Do not befriend anyone who is not as good as you are. And where you have gone astray, do not hesitate to mend your ways.”

Understanding the Chinese words will benefit this meditation. Zhong can be understood as loyalty in one’s duties. In this context, it’s doing the best in whatever one does, not one’s best in a specific task. Xin can only be achieved through proper relationships. For us to be trustworthy there must be someone who trusts us. It speaks directly to the value of friendship.

It is debatable what Confucius is asking of us when he tells us who to befriend. Considering his emphasis on defining the self through relationships I do not see him asking us to disassociate from those beneath us. Friendship, in this instance, is the pinnacle relationships in the hierarchy of relationships. Friendship should be understood apart from acquaintances or colleagues. Does this sound harsh? Maybe, but is it lacking truth? If our friendships are predicated on mutually improving each other then those friendships will not be lost. Acquaintances may come and go, and we shouldn’t treat them with any less respect, but friendships are those relationships which are lasting.

Another truth: Change is inevitable. We will either change for the better, or for the worse. If our friends become bothered by positive changes (with the reciprocal being as true) we will find ourselves with the decision to remain as they want us or to move on.

In the same section Epictetus also writes:

4.3: Choose, then, which you prefer: to be held in the same affection as before by your former friends by remaining as you used to be, or else become better than you were and no longer meet with the same affection.

We must be aware of who we are letting into our lives, and what their influence is on us. Equally, we must be aware of how we are influencing others.

 

March 8, 2017 -Don’t Unintentionally Hand Over Your Freedom


“If a person gave away your body to some passerby, you’d be furious. Yet you hand over your mind to anyone who comes along, so they may abuse you, leaving it disturbed and troubled – have you no shame in that?” – Epictetus, Enchiridon, 28

I’ve been told on more than one occasion, and by numerous people, that I overthink things. At times they are surely correct, but equally, at times, they are not. Some things demand extra consideration.

This meditation leverages social media as an example of how we allow our minds to be controlled by others. We willingly open ourselves up to suggestion and repetition. Do we think so much of ourselves, that we are so strong to overcome these attacks? Even the strongest soldier or athlete knows when to turn away in order to protect the body. It isn’t a weakness to unfollow a feed or to delete an application.

We’ve seen this theme repeated in the both “Clarity” and “Passions and Emotions”. Know what is influencing your mind. Don’t allow your mind to get caught in extremes. And now, be aware of what you’re losing.

The term “Fake News” is a perfect example of this. We have a single individual, and frankly, a group of individuals, claiming that which opposes them is “Fake News”. At times they are qualifying exactly what the reliable news sources are, and conveniently they are sources favorable to them. First, fake is being misused. News sources may focus on specific aspects or perspective, but to claim the information is constructed requires actual evidence. Second, when attempting to suppress a source as reliable without evidence, this is where one gets dangerously close to propaganda. Lastly, none of this matters if those who consume the information are not being led without thinking.

We should be ashamed of ourselves if we are not considering, in this example, the very sources supplying the information. Those in power would be grateful if we gave our minds to them.

Don’t.

March 6, 2017 – Don’t Tell Yourself Stories


“In public avoid talking excessively about your accomplishments and dangers, for however much you enjoy recounting your dangers, it’s not so pleasant for others to hear about your affairs.” – Epictetus, Enchiridion,u 33.14

How confident are that our memory will not fail us? As we age our memory gets worse, but even before that the truth is we cannot recall with 100% accuracy anything that we’ve experienced. Ken Eisold, Ph.D. writes (source):

…neuroscientists have shown that each time we remember something, we are reconstructing the event, reassembling it from traces throughout the brain. Psychologists have pointed out that we also suppress memories that are painful or damaging to self-esteem. We could say that, as a result, memory is unreliable.

The words of Epictetus should be observed with discipline and repeated with frequency. While you might think your adventure is awesome, others may not care. Consider the most amazing thing you’ve ever done or experienced. What makes it great? The story or being situated in the story?

The key word above is “excessive”. Sharing our lives is what allows for that social side of us to flourish. It helps us create relationships by finding common likes or experiences. No one wants to hear someone else ramble on about what they’ve done or seen, but what adds greater weight to this is our inability to recall the stories with accuracy. Can we be sure we aren’t enhancing for dramatic effect? Is there a false humility to under-telling the story?

The more we talk about ourselves the more we are seen as braggarts. When we do this we fail to be aware of how we are being perceived. Irene Scopelleti writes (source):

“Most people probably realize that they experience emotions other than pure joy when they are on the receiving end of someone else’s self-promotion. Yet, when we engage in self-promotion ourselves, we tend to overestimate others’ positive reactions and underestimate their negative ones.”

It truly is a double edged sword. Braggart, and possibly too a liar.

March 4, 2017 -Awareness Is Freedom


“The person is free who lives as they wish, neither compelled, nor hindered, nor limited – whose choices aren’t hampered, whose desires succeed, and who don’t fall into what repels them. Who wished to live in deception – tripped up, mistaken, undisciplined, complaining, in a rut? No one. These are base people who don’t live as they wish; and so, no base person is free.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 4.1.1-3a

Epictetus frames good and bad persons in a very specific context. Not by virtue, but rather based on those who do and do not live freely. Surely you’ve heard the old saying which refers to anger as allowing someone to have control over you. How many of us want to live angrily? When we do this we are, in fact, living by the words and actions of others. Do you recall times in which you’ve actually been angry because someone else isn’t angry at the very situation that angered you?

I’m going to my music well, to one of my favorite bands: The Avett Brothers. From the True Sadness album, this is a lyric from “Ain’t No Man”.

You got to go somewhere, ain’t that true?
Not a whole lotta time for me or you
Got a whole lotta reasons to be mad, let’s not pick one
I live in a room at the top of the stairs
I got my windows wide open and nobody cares
And I got no choice but to get right up when the song comes through

Yes, there are many reasons to be mad, but why pick any? Here lies truth for me. I set out to post observations on these meditations daily, and yet I’ll go from consistent to inconsistent. Why? If I had awareness of why I could correct it. Envoke discipline. Succeed. Be a good person. It’s a simple goal, but the awareness of the simple will lead to habits for the complex.