Friday, June 30, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B4:5-9

Death, just like birth, is a mystery of nature: first a combination, then a dissolution, of the same elements. Certainly no cause for shame: because nothing out of the order for an intelligent being or contrary to the principle of his constitution.

With such people such an outcome is both natural and inevitable - if you wish it otherwise you are hoping that figs will no longer produce their rennet. In any case remember that in a very brief time both you and he will be dead, and shortly after not even your names will be left.

Remove the judgement, and you have removed the thought 'I am hurt': remove the thought 'I am hurt', and the hurt itself is removed.

What does not make a human being worse in himself cannot make his life worse either: it cannot harm him from outside or inside.

The nature of the beneficial was bound to act thus.

In these five short passages, Marcus succinctly reminds us:

1. We are going to die - this is natural!  So don't freak out about something that is natural.  Furthermore, thinking of death often, helps you to appreciate what you have now and it helps you become more focused on living a high-value life.

2. Other people and their actions are out of our control - this is natural!  You know how a certain manager will act and behave - accept it and move on.  You know children will throw tantrums - accept and and teach them to control themselves.  You know a car salesman is going to try to sell you a car.

3. Those other people will die too.

4. You attitude of any situation is under you control.

5. Love your fate and the fate of the whole.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B4.4

If mind is common to us all, then we have reason also in common - that which makes us rational beings. If so, then common too is the reason which dictates what we should or should not do. If so, then law too is common to us all. If so, then we are citizens. If so, we share in a constitution. If so, the universe is a kind of community. In what else could one say that the whole human race shares a common constitution?  From there, then, this common city, we take our very mind, our reason, our law - from where else? Just as the earthy part of me has been derived from some earth, the watery from the next element, the air of my breath from some other source, the hot and fiery from its own origin (for nothing comes from nothing, nor returns to nothing) - so the mind also has its source.

We humans, were designed to be social.  To go against that notion goes against our very nature.  At the very center of our view is our individual self - our individual mind - our soul.  Therefore, knowing we we our individual selves need, we can reason that other rational beings need the same things.  We ought to have compassion and we ought to share and have compassion towards others.

One of the concepts that helps me have love towards others is the concentric circles.  Some call it the circles of compassion.  The Human is Contemplative blog does a great job describing this concept:
Hierocles used concentric circles to explain the oikeiôsis, which could translate as appropriation. The first circle is our own minds, the next circle outward is our immediate family, then extended family, community, country, and the entire human race. The stoic endeavor is to draw these outlying people closer and closer toward the inner circles with respect to our concern. Thus, the process of oikeiôsis in human beings is one of expanding our identity of 'self' to encompass everyone. This has also been described as the stoic notion of brotherly love.
The next time you are commuting and someone cuts you off, give them the benefit of the doubt - bring them into your circle.  Viewed differently, you should pretend it was you who just cut someone off.  What "excuse" would you offer as an apology to the person you cut off?

In summary: put yourself in other peoples' shoes.

(see also Citadel, p.42-43, 312)

Monday, June 26, 2017

Commentary on Meditations B4:3 The Inner Citadel

Men seek retreats for themselves - in the country, by the sea, in the hills - and you yourself are particularly prone to this yearning. But all this is quite unphilosophic, when it is open to you, at any time you want, to retreat into yourself. No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than that into his own mind, especially if he can dip into thoughts there which put him at immediate and complete ease: and by ease I simply mean a well-ordered life. So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself. The doctrines you will visit there should be few and fundamental, sufficient at one meeting to wash away all your pain and send you back free of resentment at what you must rejoin.

And what is it you will resent? Human wickedness? Recall the conclusion that rational creatures are born for each other's sake, that tolerance is a part of justice, that wrongdoing is not deliberate. Consider the number of people who spent their lives in enmity, suspicion, hatred, outright war, and were then laid out for burial or reduced to ashes. Stop, then. Or will you fret at your allocation from the Whole? Revisit the alternatives providence or atoms - and the many indications that the universe is a kind of community. But will matters of the flesh still have their hold on you? Consider that the mind, once it has abstracted itself and come to know its own defining power, has no contact with the movement of the bodily spirit, be that smooth or troubled: and finally remember all that you have heard and agreed about pain and pleasure.

Well then, will a little fame distract you? Look at the speed of universal oblivion, the gulf of immeasurable time both before and after, the vacuity of applause, the indiscriminate fickleness of your apparent supporters, the tiny room in which all this is confined. The whole earth is a mere point in space: what a minute cranny within this is your own habitation, and how many and what sort will sing your praises here!

Finally, then, remember this retreat into your own little territory within yourself. Above all, no agonies, no tensions. Be your own master, and look at things as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal creature. And here are two of the most immediately useful thoughts you will dip into. First that things cannot touch the mind: they are external and inert; anxieties can only come from your internal judgement. Second, that all these things you see will change almost as you look at them, and then will be no more. Constantly bring to mind all that you yourself have already seen changed. The universe is change: life is judgement.

The great passage from Meditations is Book 4.3.  In this, Marcus lays out all that is needed for your Inner Citadel.

People experience anxiety and stress from work and the busyness of life.  They think they need an escape or vacation.  People will drown their cares in alcohol or eating or drugs or time away from work - a week in Europe or in the mountains or on a white-sand blue-water beach, or at Disney World.  They seek to "get away from it all".  Marcus tells them and us, that if you want this reprieve, it is already there in your mind.  A quick trip to your mind, a re-cap of your doctrines and voila, you are ready to rejoin society.  And you can do this anytime; no need to schedule your escape.

Next he tells us how to quickly revisit those doctrines.  Do you hate, resent, are frustrated with, are bothered by or are disgusted with someone?  Remind yourself that rational beings are meant for each other (discipline of action).  Work with the other person; have compassion and understanding towards others.  Most likely, they are not acting out of mal-intent.  And what if they were acting with malice?  That is out of your control.  Either the other person is acting in accordance with the universe or they are acting randomly.  If they are acting in accordance with the universe, accept it.  If not, then don't you act badly or randomly - an ordered life is a content life.

Does fame (or lack of it) bother you?  Soon you and all those who you would want to cheer you on will be gone.  This world a speck in the vast universe.  This lifetime a blip on the infinite.  Fame is pointless.

Lastly, the two "most immediately useful thoughts" you should have while in your Inner Citadel are:

1) Peoples' opinions, actions, world events, elections, wars, natural disasters - they cannot touch the mind.  All the good or bad you place on these externals come from your mind.  It is your attitude that determines if things or good or bad or indifferent (discipline of assent).

2) Change is constant - the universe is change and life is all about how you view it (attitude / judgement).  At the very least, if you don't like something, eventually it or you will change.  Accept this constant; accept what the universe doles out to you and everyone else; accept your lot in life (discipline of desire).

(see Citadel p. 38-42, 53, 55, 105, 147, 149, 176, 265, 291)

Friday, June 23, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B4:1-2

Wherever it is in agreement with nature, the ruling power within us takes a flexible approach to circumstances, always adapting itself easily to both practicality and the given event. It has no favoured material for its work, but sets out on its objects in a conditional way, turning any obstacle into material for its own use. It is like a fire mastering whatever falls into it. A small flame would be extinguished, but a bright fire rapidly claims as its own all that is heaped on it, devours it all, and leaps up yet higher in consequence.

No action should be undertaken without aim, or other than in conformity with a principle affirming the art of life.

Ryan Holiday's book The Obstacle is the Way is based off the premise of this passage.

The true key to resiliency is attitude and how you view the world.  Each of us has a "ruling power" - the essence of what makes us human - the ability to choose how we think, feel and act.  And this ruling power is flexible.  That is the secret sauce - we are not some robot made of some rigid set of rules that we never deviate from.  We can change our perspective regardless of circumstances, events and other peoples' actions and attitudes.

As Hadot quotes Seneca in The Inner Citadel, he says, "A good person dyes events with his own color ... and turns whatever happens to his own benefit." (p. 199).

I used to be ticked off whenever my manager or leadership would talk about challenges as opportunities.  I used to think it was just spin.  Well, it is spin, but also more - it is an attitude adjustment; it's a way to look at all events as opportunities to grow.

The other concept to remember about turning obstacles into opportunities is to view everything as practice.  Earthquakes, bad presentations, little sleep, a car wreck, health problems ... all can be seen as opportunities to improve your resiliency - opportunities to show your mettle.

To conclude, let me share a favorite movie scene from Batman Begins.  Bruce Wayne is in a foreign prison and is about to be beat up.  The big dude about to bust his chops threatens him, to which Bruce responds, "you're not the devil, you're practice."

(see also Citadel p. 198)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B3:15-16

They do not know all the meanings of theft, of sowing, of buying, of keeping at rest, of seeing what needs to be done - this is not for the eye, but for a different sort of vision.

Body, soul, mind. To the body belong sense perceptions, to the soul impulses, to the mind judgements. The receipt of sense impressions is shared with cattle; response to the puppet-strings of impulse is shared with wild beasts, with catamites, with a Phalaris or a Nero; having the mind as guide to what appears appropriate action is shared with those who do not believe in the gods, those who betray their country, those who get up to anything behind closed doors.

So if all else is held in common with the categories mentioned above, it follows that the defining characteristic of the good person is to love and embrace whatever happens to him along his thread of fate; and not to pollute the divinity which is seated within his breast, or trouble it with a welter of confused impressions, but to preserve its constant favour, in proper allegiance to god, saying only what is true, doing only what is just.

And if all people mistrust him, for living a simple, decent, and cheerful life, he has no quarrel with any of them, and no diversion from the road which leads to the final goal of his life: to this he must come pure, at peace, ready to depart, in unforced harmony with his fate.

The ability to separate impression from reaction is a uniquely human trait.  Dumb animals cannot do this.  Humans can experience an impression, but they can also pause and think about something before deciding to react to an impression.  This is what a human was designed to do - to think about things and take appropriate action.  And not only can a human do this, but they can truly love the fate directed at them - the fate from ancient time woven to this moment in time.

And a person who does this well (the disciplines of assent, desire and action) will live a fulfilling and simple life and will enjoy contentment.

(see also Citadel p. 113, 123, 138)

Monday, June 19, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B3:14

No more wandering. You are not likely to read your own jottings, your histories of the ancient Greeks and Romans, your extracts from their literature laid up for your old age. Hurry then to the end, abandon vain hopes, rescue yourself, if you have any care for yourself, while the opportunity is still there.

Good advice for someone trying to learn Stoicism.  Too much reading and not enough action and practice.  How much time do you spend reading The Inner Citadel or Meditations or Seneca or Facebook and Reddit?  Read daily, then put it in practice.  Ensure the balance is tipped to action and practice and not reading and learning.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B3:13

Just as doctors always have their instruments and knives at hand for any emergency treatment, so you should have your doctrines ready for the recognition of the divine and the human, and the performance of every action, even the smallest, in consciousness of the bond which unites the two. No action in the human context will succeed without reference to the divine, nor vice versa.

Simply put, study philosophy and be ready to re-act to life's events.  Accept and love the bond you have with the universe.  Your job is to live life well.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B3:12

If you set yourself to your present task along the path of true reason, with all determination, vigour, and good will: if you admit no distraction, but keep your own divinity pure and standing strong, as if you had to surrender it right now; if you grapple this to you, expecting nothing, shirking nothing, but self-content with each present action taken in accordance with nature and a heroic truthfulness in all that you say and mean then you will lead a good life. And nobody is able to stop you.

Focus on the now.  You have a task to do now; so give it 100% of your attention.  If you are distracted with a hundred other things, make a list.  And once you've made a list, direct all your attention to the task at hand.

(see also Citadel p. 123 and this tweet)

Monday, June 12, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B3:11

One addition to the precepts already mentioned. Always make a definition or sketch of what presents itself to your mind, so you can see it stripped bare to its essential nature and identify it clearly, in whole and in all its parts, and can tell yourself its proper name and the names of those elements of which it is compounded and into which it will be dissolved.

Nothing is so conducive to greatness of mind as the ability to subject each element of our experience in life to methodical and truthful examination, always at the same time using this scrutiny as a means to reflect on the nature of the universe, the contribution any given action or event makes to that nature, the value this has for the Whole, and the value it has for man - and man is an inhabitant of this highest City, of which all other cities are mere households.

Ask then, what is this which is now making its impression on me? What is it composed of? How long in the nature of things will it last? What virtue is needed to meet it - gentleness, for example, or courage, truthfulness, loyalty, simplicity, self sufficiency, and so on? So in each case we must say: This has come from god; this is due to a juncture of fate, the mesh of destiny, or some similar coincidence of chance; and this is from my fellow man, my kinsman and colleague, though one who does not know what accords with his own nature. But I do know: and so I treat him kindly and fairly, following the natural law of our fellowship, but at the same time I aim to give him his proper desert in matters which are morally neutral.

The discipline of assent, in my estimation, is all about attitude adjustment.  Properly seeing the world as it is and clearly seeing the difference between what is in my control and what is out of my control, enables a person to effectively deal with anxiety, fear, zealousness any other emotions.

At the time of this writing, my wife and I are dealing with a bathroom that needs repair.  In our estimation, the best course of action (in light of our long-term strategy) is to repair and upgrade the bathroom.  However, this would require us incurring some more debt.  At this same time, our children are growing older and the cost of additional vehicles and college are looming over us.  We have the means, but getting over that hump of spending the money is difficult.  To a large extent, these things are out of my control.  And so I choose not to get overly worked up about it.  I concentrate on the positive side of things and I strive to embrace the fate dealt me at this time.

This concept is applicable and scaleable to any situation.  A month ago, my father-in-law passed away, very unexpectedly.  A quick change in plans during a very busy work season as well as towards the end of the school year, had a significant impact our me and my kids' finals.  But we put on a stiff upper lip, adjusted our attitudes, made the trip to be with my wife's family and mourned with my mother-in-law and my wife's siblings.  The death of my father-in-law gave me the opportunity to meditate on the shortness of life and it gave me a very profound appreciation for what I have in my life now.

Don't just let your emotions run your life.  Make an assessment of the situation; challenge yourself to meet fate with the proper attitude and reaction.  Every turn of event is an opportunity to improve yourself.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Eternity is Now

I was raised as a Christian to believe that humans lived with God (in a spiritual sense) before we took on a corporeal form on earth.  Then we had just this lifetime to "prove to God" that we could be worthy to return to him and live with him for eternity.  Eternal salvation depended on this minute moment on the eternal timeline.  Therefore the concept of eternity, for me, was in the future as it were - post Judgement Day.

Then a couple of passages I read from Pierre Hadot's The Inner Citadel began to change my perspective.

The first passage from page 135: "When we view things from the perspective of death, it is impossible to let a single one of life's instants pass by lightly.  If, like Marcus and the Stoics, we believe that the only good thing is moral action and a perfectly good and pure intent, then we must transform our way of thinking and of acting in this very instant.  The thought of death confers seriousness, infinite value, and splendor to every present instant of life.  'To perform each of life's actions as if it were the last' means to live the present instant with such intensity and such love that, in a sense, an entire lifetime is contained and completed within it."

"Most people are not alive, because they do not live in the present, but are always outside of themselves, alienated, and dragged backwards and forwards by the past and by the present.  They do not know that the present is the only point at which they are truly themselves and free.  The present is the only point which, thanks to our action and our consciousness, gives us access to the totality of the world."

The second passage, Hadot quotes Wittgenstein on page 147: "If we understand by 'eternity' not an infinite temporal duration, but a lack of temporality, then he who lives within the present lives eternally."

To me, this all simply means that I need to be mindful and focus on ensuring my attitude and actions are directed at good moral intent.  If I can shove all my thoughts and actions through that filter and strive constantly to "chasten" and "clean" my thoughts (see Meditations 3:8) with that perspective and ensure I do it now, then I am living eternally now - I have lived up to the potential of my design.

Below are various people (I've only heard of two of them before today) who seem to grasp this concept of the eternal now.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B3:10

So discard all else and secure these few things only. Remind yourself too that each of us lives only in the present moment, a mere fragment of time: the rest is life past or uncertain future. Sure, life is a small thing, and small the cranny of the earth in which we live it: small too even the longest fame thereafter, which is itself subject to a succession of little men who will quickly die, and have no knowledge even of themselves, let alone of those long dead.

Truly, the only control we have over all the vastness of time is now.  We cannot change or re-live the past.  We cannot control with 100% certainty the future.  What we do have control over is what we do now and what attitude we choose to have now.

Furthermore, embrace the fact and remind yourself of it every day, that we all die.  Whether we die as a child or as an old man, we all share the same fate.