March 26, 2017 – What Rules Your Ruling Reason?


“How does your ruling reason manage itself? For in that is the key to everything. whatever else remains, be it in the power of your choice or not, is but a corpse and smoke.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 12.33

Corpse and smoke. “Choke me in the shallow water before I get too deep”. Thank you, Edie Brickell and New Bohemians.

This meditation leverages a famous phrase accredited to the Roman satirist Juvenal.

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

“Who watches the watchers?”

It’s an important question. What informs our Stoic mind? Think of the Snickers commercial where “you’re not you when you’re hungry”. Ever been extra pissy, or lacking focus because you haven’t eaten? Our body is but a corpse that will decompose. Our perceptions are but smoke that drifts away. Until that happens, how are we managing that which manages “us”?

Biology, chemistry, religion, neuroscience…so many things inform us as to how the world works, and how we, as people, have come to be at the place we presently reside. The knowledge we consume informs our mind, which in turn ground our reasoning. Maybe one of the easiest things to forget is exactly how we became who we are today. The experiences. The people. How we choose to manage that which manages is as important as proper exercise, a good diet, and plenty of sleep.

Or should I say informs our brain? That whole mind/body problem. Time to get more informed.

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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 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 16, 2017 – That Sacred Part Of You


“Hold sacred your capacity for understanding. For in it is all, that our ruling principle won’t allow anything to enter that is either inconsistent with nature or with the constitution of a logical creature. It’s what demands due diligence, care for others, and obedience to God.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.9

How does someone overcome while others are consumed? Today’s meditation was saved for when the work day was complete, and it was needed.

The ability to reason is a gift and one we just might take for granted. When things appear to be moving along with amazing fluidity is it so because of external sources or because we leverage our ability to learn, reason, and apply? When we fail at something do we see only that we’ve disappointed ourselves, or others, or are we aware of our power to change our situation?

As the day concluded, a friend shared this with me:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give them orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” – Antoine De Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

There is so much around us, nature and humanity, that are teaching us to yearn for the adventure. We should never lose sight of that. What it takes to be the explorer is our ability to understand what is needed.

Today I needed to read this.

March 15, 2017 – The Present Is All We Possess


“Were you to live three thousand years, or even a countless multiple of that, keep in mind that no one ever loses a life other than the one they are living, and no one ever lives a life other than the one they are losing. The longest and shortest life, then, amount to the same, for the present moment last the same for all and is all anyone can possess. No one can lose either the past or the future, for how can someone be deprived of what’s not theirs?” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.14

Fight Club. Great movie. Full of so many quotable lines. One that fits this meditation:

Tyler Durden: The things you own end up owning you.

There is an obvious perception of the “things” Durden speaks of. It’s the idea that material positions consume us. We come to rely on them. We have to maintain them. For their service, we become their slaves. But let’s look at this from a Stoic perspective. What does it mean to “own” something? What are the things we can possess?

Money allows us to buy things. Laws afford us ownership of those things, or at the very least offer us a degree of insurance that if taken from us we might have some retribution. Maybe we don’t get the thing back, but we do get justice as a form of trade. Through such a purchase we know this: before we bought it the thing was not ours (past), and there is no assurance it will be in our possession any second beyond the moment in which we possess it (future). At best ownership is a temporary experience, and the thing itself is an external that can be a distraction.

Getting lost in regrets, and being disappointed with a life not lived serves no purpose. What then do we do with the past and how should we approach the future? Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard may help us with this question. The past is a way of understanding who we are. It should be nothing more. The future is a destination within which future moments will be lived.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Marcus is reminding us that what has passed us by has been lost.  Let the future be unknown. We no longer possess those moments already lived. We cannot change the past. In turn, there is nothing in the future that is ours beyond speculation of who we will become. If the future life doesn’t come to be we have lost nothing. The moment is our life. It is our very self. We must be aware of how important the moment is. We must treasure it.

March 12, 2017 – Seeing Things As the Person at Fault Does


“Whenever someone has done wrong by you, immediately consider what notion of good or evil they had in doing it. For when you see that, you’ll feel compassion, instead of astonishment or rage. For you may yourself have the same notions of good and evil, or similar ones, in which case you’ll make allowance for what they’ve done. But if you no longer hold the same notions, you’ll be more readily gracious for their error.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.26

I want to share the questions that close this meditation.

How much more tolerant and understanding would you be today if you could see the actions of other people as attempts to do the right thing? Whether you agree or not, how radically would this lens change your perspective on otherwise offensive or belligerent actions?

In Roger T. Ames’ book Confucian Role Ethics, A Vocabulary, he presents the question (p 163) of how a son should cover for his father, and a father for his son. The heart of the question lies in role ethics and justice. Let’s assume a father steals something and his son witnesses it. The son could go to the authorities and have his father arrested, or he could confront his father and allow him to make good on this act which soils the father’s virtue. Which is the appropriate thing to do? From a Confucian role ethics perspective, the community is better served through retribution done so that relationships are not severed. I read this as a distinction between State law as coercive, the laws which we truly choose to live by.

What if our first thought wasn’t to seek vengeance or justice against those who have harmed us? Obviously, there are measures of extremes and at times such extremes might find us less willing to understand the “why”. But we can take this quote to be more in line with someone who thinks what they’re doing is right, and that right thing is in conflict with our right thing. It’s not giving into a passion because we feel slighted. Not assuming we are the direct target of the act or words.

It boils down to us being aware that others have reasons for the things they do. If we have such an awareness, we may find that we value the relationship above all else because we seek to observe from an others eyes. Isn’t this also a type of freedom?

February 26, 2017 – To Each His Own


“Another has done me wrong? Let him see to it. He has his own tendencies, and his own affairs. What I have now is what common nature has willed, and what I endeavor to accomplish now is what my nature wills.” –  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.25

Venting. Oh, the beauty of venting. To get something off our chest. To let someone else know just how we feel about what they did. Justice for the soul!!!

Shelly DuBois writes in Fortune:

You can get a kind of warped satisfaction from talking about being angry without necessarily wanting to change the circumstances that trigger that emotion. But research suggests that venting anger doesn’t get rid of it. Instead, it amplifies those negative feelings.

Family events. Work. School. Any social setting can find one thinking that venting is the best way to release the frustration when someone “does me wrong”. But does it? Kristin Behfar, a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business notes:

Most papers on venting find that it’s negative, but they stop there. They don’t find what the listener does.

Brad Bushman, an anger expert at Ohio State University’s School of Communication adds:

Listeners who agree are just keeping angry feelings alive when the key is to let them die.

So this adds layers to our situation. If we’re around others we may find their agreement does nothing to improve our state. If we’re alone we may find that voice in our head continues to validate our feelings and actions. But, there is also the situation in which we are the other. We are the one in the presence of the person “blowing off steam”.

The Stoic approach allows us to change our own thinking, as well as the thoughts of others. Why someone does something has its own reasons. I have mine. You have yours. Of what is your nature? Focused on letting the other control your thoughts, or focused on one’s own will?

Just today I had a conversation with my manager who listened to my venting, well maybe it was more honest dialogue (a matter of perspective), and then shared with me more detail around the situation. The disclosure created a better understanding of the why. It reminded me I don’t have all the information.

Let’s all work at not keeping angry feelings alive.