March 10, 2017 – Find Yourself a Cato


“We can remove most sins if we have a witness standing by as we are about to go wrong. The soul should have someone it can respect, by whose example it can make its inner sanctum more inviolable. Happy is the person who can improve others, not only when present, but even when in their thoughts!” – Seneca, Moral Letters, 11.9

Happy is the person who can improve others. It’s as if this meditation knew how I would end my observations on the previous meditation. A broken clock being what it is…

Accountability groups. I first heard this term at a men’s event at a church. The suggestion was for the men, after the event was over, to make time to meet at least once a month. At these meetings, they could share with the group whatever challenges, or successes, that came their way. It would create not only closeness but also would develop a sense of trust.

Cato is used as the title of this meditation because he was considered a bold and brave individual. He stood up to Julius Ceasar, was known for not taking bribes, and was generally incorruptible. Seneca is reminding us that we all need a Cato. Someone we trust to hold us accountable. Someone we would not want to disappoint even when they are not present.

We may find that in doing so we become Cato’s for others.

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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 7, 2017 – Don’t Trust The Senses


“Heraclitus called self-deception an awful disease and eyesight a lying sense.” – Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, 9.7

Diogenes Laertius was a biographer of philosophers. One who recorded was Diogenes of Sinope (don’t ever confuse your Diogeneses). The latter, the story is told, walked around Athens during daylight holding a lamp, and looking for an honest man.

Heraclitus was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. While he believed that all things were a product of fire, he also held the opinion that all things are in flux. As Plato writes:

Heraclitus, I believe, says that all things pass and nothing stays, and comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river. (Plato Cratylus 402a = A6)

This played into Heraclitus’ position on knowledge. Due to the flux of the experiential world. He does not claim that we cannot know, but he does claim that most don’t learn what they should be learning. His words ring true today, that people are focused more on gathering information than understanding it.

Knowledge of self is no different. If we spend our time experiencing without understanding the experiences what good are we? As our senses are that which gives us an experience we must ensure mental awareness of these experiences. Everything we consume defines who we are, and if everything is in flux then we must be aware of these changes to the outside world and ourselves.

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 5, 2017 – Cutting Back on the Costly


“So, concerning the things we pursue, and for which we vigorously exert ourselves, we owe this consideration  either there is nothing useful in them, or most aren’t useful. Some of them are superfluous, while others aren’t worth that much. But we don’t discern this and see them as free, when they cost us dearly.” – Seneca, Moral Letters, 42.6

It seems that Thoreau’s quote

The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.

fits perfectly. How often can I write/say that and it be true? In meditating on this quote I focused on three elements: pursuit, exertion, and cost.

Pursuit

We are inundated every day by people telling us we need things. Television. Billboards. Radio. Internet. Pursuing something, in and of itself, is not bad. Rather, it’s when the pursuit it for things that “aren’t worth much” that we find ourselves distanced from the things that do. How do we get back?

Exertion

Energy is a valuable, but limited resource. For humans, energy can be understood to consist of three important pieces: food, water, and sleep. But this for the body. The mind too consumes energy. Thinking is not free, and being able to think clearly assumes we’ve done well on the food, water, sleep front. When our pursuits take us away from the good we must exert even more effort to get back to the trailhead.

Cost

We pay for every mistake we make. Either with actual money or with time. It is critical that we are aware of what we are paying for.

Years ago my son shared with me that, in retrospect, he felt we wasted so much money on toys that received limited use. I can’t speak to whether the frequency of use is a good measurement for the value of something like a toy. Maybe it inspired him to like something else, and without it his life would have been different. A bit dramatic but I hope you see my point. That we were able to afford things is the benefit of my wife and I have good jobs. Her job, when my son was younger, required her to work weekends. This meant she missed a good number of his Saturday football games. We were both aware of the consequences of this choice and accepted it.

No decision, financial or time specific, will yield a perfect consequence. But when we measure the cost against return of investment, when we are truly aware of what we’re willing to pay, we can ensure we are cutting out the costly elsewhere. Those things that cost us but from which we yield little to nothing of value.

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.