February 25, 2017 – The Smoke and Dust of Myth

“Keep a list before your mind of those who burned with anger and resentment about something, of even the most renowned for success, misfortune, evil deeds, or any special distinction. Then ask yourself, how did that work out? Smoke and dust, the stuff of simple myth trying to be legend . . .” –  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 12.27

I needed to reset. I needed to take a break from my daily Stoic meditations. I needed to rethink habits. I needed to look back on what I’ve read and written, and determine where I stood.

When considering the meditation on February the 24th, “The Real Source of Harm”, I took a good long look at myself. Were these meditations making a difference? If not, why? Some situations, which I do not want to share, presented themselves and I did not approach them with a Stoic mind.

I had imprinted a habit of reading and writing, but not consuming. When I returned to the meditations, before me sat these beautiful words. What do I want to be known for? Anger? Impatience? Antagonism?

My good friend Brian Niece suggested ashes can represent two things:

Ashes symbolize the ultimate in futility. Everything will end. Death will happen. Things turn to dust every single day.

Ashes also inherently hold an impossible promise. From death, life will grow. From ruin, rebirth will form. From nothing, something will rise.

Look at these ashes of death; new life will grow from this!

I like this because it takes a different spin on Marcus’ meditation. I do, in fact, burn myself through, for example, anger. What is left are the remnants of the person I wanted to be. Yet I can still build from the ruins. It may take some time and effort, but there is not absence. The ash serves as a reminder to us of how not to do things. The ash also allows us something within which to grow anew.

February 23, 2017 – Circumstances Have No Care For Our Feelings

“You shouldn’t give any circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don’t care at all.”
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.38

This meditation leverages a quote from a lost play by Euripides, from which only a few quotes remain. Bellerophon, the hero of this play, has reached a position of doubt regarding the existence of the gods. As the indifferent gods do not respond to humans, so do circumstances.

When was the last time a situation that made you angry or sad apologized for what it did? Do you recall times in which you moved from angry or sad, to happy or sublime? Situations can change with efficient immediacy, and when they do our impression of the world shifts.

I refuse to believe anyone can exist in such a perfect state so that they are immune from passions that distract them from the reality that the world is simply impressive itself upon us, and we own how we interpret those impressions. If true this would be infinitely frustration. We must remember that every day is a meditation. Every day we should look to words, such as Marcus’, to remind us how to live well. When we get angry we can think of this quote and be reminded the anger serves no purpose. Our target of anger is a circumstance that warrants nothing more than our thoughts on how to move beyond it.

If you are a Rush fan you are familiar with their song “Circumstances” from the album Hemispheres. Part of the chorus:

All the same we take our chances
Laughed at by time
Tricked by circumstances

Don’t be tricked.

February 20, 2017 – The Grand Parade of Desire

“Robbers, perverts, killers, and tyrants – gather for your inspection their so-called pleasures!” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.34

Today’s culture is very aware of judging others. My daughter routinely replies to my observations, and sometimes she’s being funny, with “don’t judge me”. We need to be careful with how loosely we approach the act of judging. We make judgments in order to make informed decisions. When I’m hiking and I come across a bridge, I’ll judge the stability of the planks and cabling before I cross it.

We do the same with people. How is it possible that we come trust someone if we are not making judgments about their character. Citing the Christian bible:

John 7:24 Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.

The Stoics speak to a person not being defined by how they look. Even actions may not be capable of disclosing the quality of the person. In the Discourses Epictetus writes:

“In a word, neither death, nor exile, nor pain, nor anything of this kind is the real cause of our doing or not doing any action, but our inward opinions and principles.”

The robber, pervert, killer, and tyrant..what are the principles within them that motivate them to perform their atrocious acts? These principles will be reflected in their actions. These are obviously extreme examples, but it reminds us that we can learn from others through their actions. We can understand why they did it based on their principles. Judgment, itself, is not the problem but rather what and how we are judging.

We don’t need to make the same mistakes that have already been made. Be observant, with a proper mind.

February 16, 2017 – Don’t Make Things Harder Than They Need To Be!

“If someone asks you how to write your name, would you bark out each letter? And if they get angry, would you then return the anger? Wouldn’t you rather gently spell out each letter for them? So then, remember in life that your duties are the sum of individual acts. Pay attention to each of these as you do your duty . . . just methodically complete your task.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.26

If you asked me to recommend a movie that represented a Stoic approach to life, The Martian may be the first out of my mouth. For those who are not familiar with the movie, it’s the story of astronaut Mark Watney’s efforts to survive on Mars after being left behind, presumed dead, by the rest of crew. A deadly storm hits their location, and he is impaled by debris. With his life support, signs negative the crew must leave or their craft will be damaged.

I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I highly recommend the movie, and ever more so the book. I listened to the book while traveling to North Carolina. The reader’s voice fits Watney’s personality like a glove. I’m also not sure I could have read the book considering the depth of math, botany, physics and chemistry used to frame the situation.

When addressing his predicament, Watney frames it this way.

At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you… everything’s going to go south and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem… and you solve the next one… and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.

How often do we complicate things because we get caught up in the passions of the situation? We compound a difficult task by with emotions that do not serve the task. If Watney wants to survive he must move beyond hit situation. Being left alone. Having a limited food source. Maximizing the food he has. Figuring out how to contact NASA. He has his moments, but he expresses the emotion then moves past it. He does not dwell on things that cloud his vision.

And the best part of Watney’s story is the humor he uses in his video journals. Maybe if we laughed more at our situations, not take things so seriously, we’d stay more on task.

February 15, 2017 – Only Bad Dreams

“Clear your mind and get a hold on yourself and, as when awakened from sleep and realizing it was only a bad dream upsetting you, wake up and see that what’s there is just like those dreams.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.31

Think about this example. You have a decision to make so you evaluate the potential outcomes. Multiple scenarios are run through in your head so you can prepare for the consequences of your decision. You make the most reasonable choice, and yet you find yourself beginning to worry. What if I’m really not prepared? What if other people act in a way that creates challenges I can’t overcome? What if an “act of god” takes place?

What is the cause of this fear, anxiety or other passionate emotion? It can’t be the event itself because it hasn’t even happened.

The only fact is this: we get to choose how we react to everything in life. If we get upset because things don’t work out as planned, or to restate getting upset because we don’t get our way, it’s not unlike getting upset at a bad dream. What exactly can be controlled in a dream? Nothing. What can you control external to you? Nothing. What we can control is how we react.

Easier said than done. Sometimes we want things so badly that we lose sight of the truth that we still have choices to make. Maybe it takes longer to get there, or maybe we find a different path with a better outcome. How often have you thought, after the fact, just how petty you were being while in the throes of crisis? I can remember so many time when I’ve been paralyzed to inaction because I was so overwhelmed by failure.

Shall we lean on Nietzsche?

“From life’s school of war: what does not kill me makes me stronger”

Don’t believe the dream.

February 9, 2017 – You Don’t Have to Have an Opinion

“We have the power to hold no opinion about a thing and to not let it upset our state of mind – for things have no natural power to shape our judgments.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.52

In this meditation, we are asked to consider all the negative things we don’t hear spoken about us, or, in general, the negative things that happen every day, all over the world. Because we know not of them we have no opinion about them. The suggestion is that we should practice non-opinion of those things we do encounter by acting as if it never happened.

Don’t give them the power. I like it. I like it a lot.

I’ve spoken of road rage before, but it’s worth repeating. When I taught both of my children how to drive I focused a great deal of attention on the narcissism of driving. When we get angry at what another driver is doing what are we assuming? That we know the why, and more often than not that why is personalized. The why is about “me”.

But is this something worthy of having an opinion? What evidence is afforded that would allow us to hold even the most basic of a well-reasoned opinion? Is holding this opinion going to increase our agitation?

The great thing about practicing non-opinion is that it opens us up to simply listening in an effort to understand. This ensures the mind is occupied instead of the emotions. You don’t need to have an opinion about everything. Maybe, just maybe, we should have fewer opinions, and spend our time getting better educated.

“Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” – Robert Frost

February 5, 2017 – Steady Your Impulses

“Don’t be bounced around, but submit every impulse to the claims of justice, and protect your clear conviction in every appearance.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.22

When I read this my first thought was to review what a Stoic means when he uses the word “justice”. For the Stoic, being just meant focusing on piety, honesty, equity, and fair dealing. Justice is one of the four main virtues within Stoicism that also includes courage, moderation, and wisdom. What Marcus is asking us to do is filter our impulses through the virtue of justice.

  • Is this impulse consistent with my belief system? (piety)
  • If I act upon this impulse am I being true to my convictions? (honesty)
  • Have I considered the fairness of acting on this impulse? (equity)
  • Would acting on this impulse require one to ignore standards? (fair dealing)

But this meditation isn’t about justice. Rather it is reminding us that we have a standard to ensure we stay on course. Something that affords us the consistency that calms us from the distractions. When we think before we act we spend less time worrying about the impact of and correcting the mistakes of yesterday.

American author Og Mandino, writer of The Greatest Salesman in the World, almost never was. After serving in WW2, Og found himself in an unsatisfying sales job that facilitated a fall into alcoholism. His wife would leave him, taking their daughter. On a November day in Cleveland, Og was considering suicide but instead found himself at a library pouring over motivational books. This not only saved him from taking his own life but it also helped him overcome alcoholism, and it gave the world a great motivational speaker. He was eventually inducted into the National Speakers Association Speaker Hall of Fame.

In his book, Og wrote about ten scrolls to be followed over a 10 month period. Following these scrolls would change a person’s bad habits, allowing them to elevate their existence. He wrote:

“I will form good habits and become their slave. And how will I accomplish this difficult feat? Through these scrolls it will be done, for each scroll contains a principle which will drive a bad habit from my life and replace it with one which will bring me closer to success. For it is another of nature’s laws that only a habit can subdue another habit.”

Og replaced his bad habits with successful ones. He overcame the impulse to drink, and to commit suicide, thanks to new-found convictions and would go on to write 22 top-selling books.

Our impulses can lead to any emotional state. Why allow that? With the strength of mind, we can keep or focus on those things which lead us to eudaimonia. Consider again the words of Og Mandino.

“If I feel depressed, I will sing. If I feel sad, I will laugh. If I feel ill, I will double my labor. If I feel fear, I will plunge ahead. If I feel inferior, I will wear new garments. If I feel uncertain, I will raise my voice. If I feel poverty, I will think of wealth to come. If I feel incompetent, I will think of past success. If I feel insignificant, I will remember my goals. Today I will be the master of my emotions.”