Saturday, August 26, 2017

Back to School and Hard Work

I work with middle and high schoolers quite often.  Here is a "pep talk" I give to them and my kids every year at the start of the school year.  It is largely based off the book The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday.

You will face obstacles this year, especially during the school year.  How you perceive and react to them will make all the difference as to whether you will be successful or not.

Discipline your perception
One person can perceive tough times as bad, while another sees them as valuable lessons.

"How blessed young men are who have to struggle for a foundation and beginning in life.  I shall never cease to be grateful for the 3 1/2 years of apprenticeship and the difficulties to be overcome, all along the way." - John D. Rockefeller (p. 15)

Where one person sees a crisis, another sees and opportunity.

Too often we react emotionally, get despondent and lose our perspective.  All that does is turn bad things into really bad things.  Unhelpful perceptions can invade our minds and throw off our compass.

Steady your nerves
Story of Ulysses S. Grant and photograph (p. 24) or read this more detailed account.

You will get stressed, you will be tired and people will try to get under your skin.  How will you react?  Will you give in or will you react with grace and poise and a cool head?

Nerve is a matter of defiance and control.

"I refuse to acknowledge that" "I don't agree to be intimidated"  "I resist the temptation to call this a failure"  Steel yourself!

Control your emotions
When people panic, they make mistakes.

Panic has to be trained out of your mind.

Cultivate the skill of not panicking so you can focus your energy exclusively on solving problems, rather than reacting to them.

We defeat emotions and panic with logic.  Logic is simply asking questions and providing answers.

Do I need to freak out about this?  Does freaking out add value?

Practice objectivity
This happened and it is bad: is two statement.  This happened is objective; it is bad is subjective

Think, perceive, act - our animal instincts train us to do those 3 things in a matter of seconds.  We need to cut off the process after Think

Don't add opinion … the way to do this is to strip everything down
- Roasted meat is just dead animal
- Latest iphone is just wires and a battery
- See things as they are, without the added emotion

Anything that stands in your way, break it down; see it objectively

Alter your perspective
When fear strikes you, break it apart

Pericles and Greek Navy on a mission when the sun was eclipsed; his men feared.  Pericles took his cloak, and held it around his steersman face (blocking his vision) and asked him if he was scared of what he saw - no.  So what does it matter it if is a cloak or something else that blocks the light (detailed story here).

We choose how we will view the world

Change your context (get a bigger picture of the world)

Frame it differently - how do you view this as an opportunity?

Is it up to you?
(what is in your control vs out of your control)
Tommy Johns - read the story p. 40-42

My story of my senior year and being cut from the basketball team

Live in the present moment - focus on the task at hand now
The companies that started during the Depression or economic down times

Focus on the moment, not the monsters that may or may not be ahead.

Sufficient the day …

Think differently - don't listen too closely to critics
- Steve Jobs
- Obstacles illuminate new options

Finding the opportunity
German blitzkrieg was 'unstoppable', but Allies found the obstacle is the solution (p. 53)

"The present situation is to be regarded as an opportunity for us, not a disaster"

What doesn't kill me, makes me stronger.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:7

A prayer of the Athenian people:

Rain, rain, dear Zeus:
rain on the cornfields
and the plains of Athens.

Prayer should be thus simple and open, or not at all.

A simple request to Zeus, to grant what he typically grants.

We should love what happens.  Our will should not extend beyond what happens.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:6

One sort of person, when he has done a kindness to another, is quick also to chalk up the return due to him. A second is not so quick in that way, but even so he privately thinks of the other as his debtor, and is well aware of what he has done. A third sort is in a way not even conscious of his action, but is like the vine which has produced grapes and looks for nothing else once it has borne its own fruit. A horse that has raced, a dog that has tracked, a bee that has made honey, and a man that has done good - none of these knows what they have done, but they pass on to the next action, just as the vine passes on to bear grapes again in due season. So you ought to be one of those who, in a sense, are unconscious of the good they do. 'Yes', he says, 'but this is precisely what one should be conscious of: because it defines the social being to be aware of his social action, and indeed to want his fellow to be aware of it also.' 'True, but you misunderstand the point I am now making: and for that reason you will fall into one of the first categories I mentioned. They too are misled by some sort of plausible logic. But if you want to follow my meaning, don't fear that this will lead you to any deficiency of social action.'

In today's society, one of the biggest persuasion factors (having the ability to convince people to make a decision) is reciprocity.  I scratch your back, you now owe me, and you'll need to return the favor some day.  It is a great trick when it comes to persuasion.  But in the context of living according to nature, if I scratch your back, I'll scratch it ... and that's it.  No desire for you to return the favor; no mental debit and credit accounting; no calling out the good deed.

Marcus compares other things that produce whatever it is they produce and how they just do it with no expectations.  A horse designed to race, races, and that's all.

Just serve; act according to your social nature.

(see also Citadel p. 201-202)

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:5

They cannot admire you for intellect. Granted - but there are many other qualities of which you cannot say, 'but that is not the way I am made'. So display those virtues which are wholly in your own power - integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. Do you not see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude? And yet you are still content to lag behind. Or does the fact that you have no inborn talent oblige you to grumble, to scrimp, to toady, to blame your poor body, to suck up, to brag, to have your mind in such turmoil? No, by heaven, it does not! You could have got rid of all this long ago, and only be charged - if charge there is - with being rather slow and dull of comprehension. And yet even this can be worked on - unless you ignore or welcome your stupidity.

We all have qualities inborn to us.  These we have no control over.  We may attempt to overcome them through practice and discipline.  But, we would have much greater success if we were to focus on those virtues that are in our control - the ones Marcus lists out:

- integrity
- dignity
- hard work
- self-denial
- contentment
- frugality
- kindness
- independence
- simplicity
- discretion
- magnanimity

(also see Citadel p. 45, 120, 287)

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:4

I travel on by nature's path until I fall and find rest, breathing my last into that air from which I draw my daily breath, and falling on that earth which gave my father his seed, my mother her blood, my nurse her milk; the earth which for so many years has fed and watered me day by day; the earth which bears my tread and all the ways in which I abuse her.

What a lovely little passage from Marcus - so similar in nature to Book 1, where he conveys gratitude for so many.  Here, he seems to express gratitude for all nature, from his birth to his death.

What are you grateful for today?

Monday, August 21, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:2-3

How easy it is to drive away or obliterate from one's mind every impression which is troublesome or alien, and then to be immediately in perfect calm.

Judge yourself entitled to any word or action which is in accord with nature, and do not let any subsequent criticism or persuasion from anyone talk you out of it. No, if it was a good thing to do or say, do not revoke your entitlement. Those others are guided by their own minds and pursue their own impulses. Do not be distracted by any of this, but continue straight ahead, following your own nature and universal nature: these two have one and the same path.

How wonderful it would be to so easily drive impressions from my mind!  Marcus says it so easily - almost with a wave of the hand.

I think the key, perhaps, is focus discipline practice - being mindful all the time, watching impressions and desires flit into your mind and then just observe them - acknowledge them.  Breath.  Then watch them flutter away as quickly as they came.

Allow yourself the freedom to do good; to say good.  You know the path; have the focus and discipline to follow after it.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B5:1

At break of day, when you are reluctant to get up, have this i thought ready to mind: 'I am getting up for a man's work. Do I still then resent it, if I am going out to do what I was born for, the purpose for which I was brought into the world? Or was I created to wrap myself in blankets and keep warm?' 'But this is more pleasant.' Were you then born for pleasure - all for feeling, not for action? Can you not see plants, birds, ants, spiders, bees all doing their own work, each helping in their own way to order the world? And then you do not want to do the work of a human being - you do not hurry to the demands of your own nature. 'But one needs rest too.' One does indeed: I agree. But nature has set limits to this too, just as it has to eating and drinking, and yet you go beyond these limits, beyond what you need. Not in your actions, though, not any longer: here you stay below your capability.

The point is that you do not love yourself - otherwise you would love both your own nature and her purpose for you. Other men love their own pursuit and absorb themselves in its performance to the exclusion of bath and food: but you have less regard for your own nature than the smith has for his metal-work, the dancer for his dancing, the money-grubber for his money, the exhibitionist for his little moment of fame. Yet these people, when impassioned, give up food and sleep for the promotion of their pursuits: and you think social action less important, less worthy of effort?

Perhaps one of the most oft-quoted passages from Marcus - at least from my perspective.

Our nature is such that we get up each day and work.  We perform work on our own; we work with those we love; we work with those who are grumpy; we work with what life throws at us each and every day.

We who strive to live philosophically, ought to have as much love for our work as those who are entirely consumed in their professions.  People who are so passionate about what they do, they forego sleep and food.  As a prokopton, we too ought to have as much passion about our trek on the path to moral greatness.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B4:51

Always run on the short road: and nature's road is short. Go then for the healthiest in all you say and do. Such a purpose releases a man from the labours of service, from all need to manage or impress.

When I read this passage, to me it says, "be genuine, as it takes the need for all superfluity and gratuitous, exhausting pride out of your life."  It also says to me, "being an honest representation of yourself is what others expect of you - what they assume about you.  This is nothing more than simple integrity - your actions and thoughts are aligned."

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B4:50

An unphilosophic but nonetheless effective help to putting death in its place is to run over the list of those who have clung long to life. What did they gain over the untimely dead? At any rate they are all in their graves by now - Caedicianus, Fabius, Julianus, Lepidus, and all others like them who took part in many funerals and then their own. In truth, the distance we have to travel is small: and we drag it out with such labour, in such poor company, in such a feeble body. No great thing, then. Look behind you at the huge gulf of time, and another infinity ahead. In this perspective what is the difference between an infant of three days and a Nestor of three generations?

Marcus performs the same spiritual exercise he did in B4:48 (see this link).

Remember, eternity is now; we are already living it.  Don't wait for it; live it.

(see also Citadel p. 48, 292)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B4:49

Be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm, and round it the seething waters are laid to rest. 

'It is my bad luck that this has happened to me.' No, you should rather say: 'It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearful of the future.' Because such a thing could have happened to any man, but not every man could have borne it without pain. So why see more misfortune in the event than good fortune in your ability to bear it? Or in general would you call anything a misfortune for a man which is not a deviation from man's nature? Or anything a deviation from man's nature which is not contrary to the purpose of his nature? Well, then. You have learnt what that purpose is. Can there be anything, then, in this happening which prevents you being just, high-minded, self-controlled, intelligent, judicious, truthful, honourable and free - or any other of those attributes whose combination is the fulfilment of man's proper nature? So in all future events which might induce sadness remember to call on this principle: 'this is no misfortune, but to bear it true to yourself is good fortune.'

One of my absolute favorite passages of Meditations.  I have a pinned tweet with this quote (link).

Life is opinion.  If you want to be resilient and tough-minded, this passage is the key to getting there.

Ryan Holiday's book The Obstacle is the Way is based on this idea that we should not view events as unfortunate, but that we should view ourselves as being able to live up to the challenge.

I also love that Marcus calls out the true nature of humans - to be virtuous and more specifically, just, disciplined & temperate and wise & intelligent (the 4th cardinal virtue he doesn't necessarily list, but it is courage).

(see also Citadel p. 36, 68, 122)

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B4:48

Think constantly how many doctors have died, after knitting their brows over their own patients; how many astrologers, after predicting the deaths of others, as if death were something important; how many philosophers, after endless deliberation on death or immortality; how many heroes, after the many others they killed; how many tyrants, after using their power over men's lives with monstrous insolence, as if they themselves were immortal. Think too how many whole cities have 'died' Helice, Pompeii, Herculaneum, innumerable others. Go over now all those you have known yourself, one after the other: one man follows a friend's funeral and is then laid out himself, then another follows him - and all in a brief space of time. The conclusion of this? You should always look on human life as short and cheap. Yesterday sperm: tomorrow a mummy or ashes.

So one should pass through this tiny fragment of time in tune with nature, and leave it gladly, as an olive might fall when ripe, blessing the earth which bore it and grateful to the tree which gave it growth.

Marcus lays out, so well, the entire summation of life.  We get so worked up something that is completely out of our control.  We ought to think of all those who have preceded us in death.  We ought to look at history and see the utter fragility of human life, homes, cities, states, countries.  All passes in time.  Think no great thing of it.  Accept it and embrace it.  Be grateful for the life you have now rather than worrying about the life you will lose.

(see also Citadel p. 166, 276

Monday, August 14, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B4:47

Just as if a god told you that you would die tomorrow or at least the day after tomorrow, you would attach no importance to the difference of one day, unless you are a complete coward (such is the tiny gap of time): so you should think there no great difference between life to the umpteenth year and life to tomorrow.

Many people are preoccupied with dying.  Upon really dissecting one's death, one will come to know that they truly don't have control over when they will die.  Indeed, we may eat healthy, exercise and live well and we may live a long, healthy life.  And we ought to do all that we can to preserve and extend our life.  But at the end of the day; after all analysis has been done, we are forced to the conclusion that the date and time of our death and the manner of our death is largely out of our hands - we have no control over these things.  And in the grand scheme of things, especially in the context of time, there really is not much difference if you live 3 months, 3 years or 30 years or 90 years ... on a timeline of eternity, the difference between 3 months and 90 years is really, really small - "such is the tiny gap of time."

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B4:46

Always remember Heraclitus: 'The death of earth is the birth of water; the death of water is the birth of air; the death of air is fire, and back again.' Remember too his image of the man who forgets his way home; his saying that men are at odds with their most constant companion, the Reason which governs all things; that their everyday experience takes them by surprise; that we must not act or speak as if asleep, and sleep brings the illusion of speech and action; and that we should not be like children with their parents, simply accepting what we are told.

Life is change.  The sooner you realize this, the better off (mentally) you will be.

Found this link, which I think does a good job summarizing Heraclitus' philosophy on change.

(see also Citadel p. 54-55, 268)

Friday, August 11, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B4:40-45

Think always of the universe as one living creature, comprising one substance and one soul: how all is absorbed into this one consciousness; how a single impulse governs all its actions; how all things collaborate in all that happens; the very web and mesh of it all.

You are a soul carrying a corpse, as Epictetus used to say.

Change: nothing inherently bad in the process, nothing inherently good in the result.

There is a river of creation, and time is a violent stream. As soon as one thing comes into sight, it is swept past and another is carried down: it too will be taken on its way.

All that happens is as habitual and familiar as roses in spring and fruit in the summer. True too of disease, death, defamation, and conspiracy - and all that delights or gives pain to fools.

What comes after is always in affinity to what went before. Not some simple enumeration of disparate things and a merely necessary sequence, but a rational connection: and just as existing things are harmoniously interconnected, so the processes of becoming exhibit no mere succession, but a wonderfully inherent affinity.

Returning to one of the fundamental principals of Stoicism: there are things in our control and things out of our control.  The things that are out of our control should not drive our perception of the world; they should not affect us or our attitude or judgement.

Therefore, one of the exercises of the discipline of assent is to delineate those things that should not affect our attitude and perception of life.

In 40, Marcus recognizes we are part of the vast, complex universe and are subject to the impulse of that magnificent body.  Our attitude ought to embrace the impulse of the universe.

In 41, Marcus recognizes that it is our mind that is in control of the body, not the other way around.

In 42, Marcus reminds us that there is nothing good or bad about change; it just is.

In 43, Marcus returns to the universal theme.  Creation, time - they flow like a river.  No need to lament; rather embrace.

In 44, Marcus continues the flow of time and change theme.  Embrace the change; love it.

In 45, Marcus love the fate and the change of the universe.  It is all connected and rational.

(see also Citadel p. 66, 116-117, 141, 253)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B4:39

Harm to you cannot subsist in another's directing mind, nor indeed in any turn or change of circumstance. Where, then? In that part of you which judges harm. So no such judgement, and all is well. Even if what is closest to it, your own body, is subjected to knife or cautery, or left to suppurate or mortify, even so that faculty in you which judges these things should stay untroubled. That is, it should assess nothing either bad or good which can happen equally to the bad man or the good: because what can happen to a man irrespective of his life's conformity to nature is not of itself either in accordance with nature or contrary to it.

To set the stage: you and another person; both of you have your mind and both of you would agree that you cannot reach into their mind and cause harm and vice versa.  If you agree with this, then you agree that the other person cannot harm you with their mind.  If you disagree, please provide examples and proof of another person's mind harming your mind.

Furthermore, let's use an example.  A person says to you, "you are worthless; you suck; you're a loser."  Is your mind harmed?  I would argue, no, it is not harmed.  Perhaps you still disagree.  What if the other person who told you those things were a complete stranger off the street?  Would you "feel bad?"  Most likely not.  But if the other person were a close relative, it might sting a bit, but only because in your mind, that other person is important to you and at some level you want their respect and love.  In this case, you have added the importance of the words of the other person.  The words and thoughts from the other person's mind did not cause you harm, but your judgement about the person are what determined the weight of those words and thoughts.  This whole exercise if not adding what ought not to be added, is the discipline of assent.  In a more succinct description, it is simply an attitude adjustment.

Marcus applies the same concept to harm to the body.  If your body goes under the knife or is cauterized, then the pain from the knife and cauterization is what it is.  You don't need to add to the physical pain the mental anguish, "why is this happening to me??"  In my estimation, this is easier said than done.  But the idea does help.  Examples: me being bit by a venomous snake; me receiving a catheter ablation.  In both events, physical pain was applied, but I tried hard not to add to the pain by applying self-mental-anguish.

(see also Citadel p. 41)

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B4:37-38

Your death will soon be on you: and you are not yet clearminded, or untroubled, or free from the fear of external harm, or kindly to all people, or convinced that justice of action is the only wisdom.

Look into their directing minds: observe what even the wise will avoid or pursue.

The goal of life, before you die, is to become what a human should become: living a life of reason; focusing on what you can control and accepting what the universe sends your way.

The sage is the ideal in Stoicism.  To look into their minds and see what they adhere to and what they ignore, provides a map for the rest of us.

(see Citadel p. 76 for description of a sage)

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B4:36

Constantly observe all that comes about through change, and habituate yourself to the thought that the nature of the Whole loves nothing so much as to change one form of existence into another, similar but new. All that exists is in a sense the seed of its successor: but your concept of 'seed' is simply what is put into the earth or the womb - that is very unphilosophic thinking.

Change is constant.  I used to really hate it when people would say, "the one thing that never changes is change."  But it is so true and the more quickly we embrace the idea, the better off we are mentally.  We are born, live our infancy, start school, graduate from elementary to middle to high school to college.  We work, play, get married, have a family, go to funerals, see our own children grow, see them have children and before we know it, we die.  Grass, leaves, trees, mountains, buildings, cities - all go through a similar metamorphosis.  Some change we embrace, other changes we lament.  We ought to embrace all change and be prepared for it.

Our attitude and our striving to attain arete and living the virtuous life should be the constant.  While all else changes before us, we can be un-movable in our resolve to live a life of virtue.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B4:33-35

Words in common use long ago are obsolete now. So too the names of those once famed are in a sense obsolete - Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus; a little later Scipio and Cato, then Augustus too, then Hadrian and Antoninus. All things fade and quickly turn to myth: quickly too utter oblivion drowns them. And I am talking of those who shone with some wonderful brilliance: the rest, once they have breathed their last, are immediately 'beyond sight, beyond knowledge'. But what in any case is everlasting memory? Utter emptiness.

So where should a man direct his endeavour? Here only - a right mind, action for the common good, speech incapable of lies, a disposition to welcome all that happens as necessary, intelligible, flowing from an equally intelligible spring of origin.

Gladly surrender yourself to Clotho: let her spin your thread into whatever web she wills.

All is ephemeral, both memory and the object of memory.

The march of time never ceases.  Time wipes out and eventually engulfs everything.  Marcus notes famous people; people of authority and power.  And at the time Marcus wrote this passage, those famous and powerful people were all but forgotten.  Then he points out that even the famous and powerful are driven to "utter oblivion."  Now, moving on to "the rest"; well, even more obscure and forgotten.

This whole passage, in verse 33, is supposed to humble the reader.  Our individual life is a drop of water in the universe of time and space.  A speck of sand in a never-ending beach.

The action this thought should spur us to, is to fulfill your duty.  Have a clear and right mind.  Whenever you act, do so in view of the common good (don't be selfish).  Let your words be good (don't lie); and have a good attitude all the time.  Accept and even love your fate.

Who is Clotho?  She was one of the three goddesses of fate in Greek mythology.  Clotho was responsible for weaving and linking things together.  So, if she chose your fate, love it - accept it as part of a greater scheme.  This was Marcus' way of saying "amor fati".

Accepting your fate can be a hard thing to hear.  I contend, at some point in everyone's life, people will simply have to accept whatever it is that happens to them.  Indeed, they may ascribe certain events to their hard work or foresight, but eventually, those stories fail and all that is left is acceptance.  Those who actively accept daily fate will be better off, when the big event happens, than those who tend to make up stories about their fate.

Case in point.  Two mothers: both are about the same age.  One mother lost her daughter to a sudden onset of cancer.  The cancer came on quickly and was extremely aggressive.  The daughter died before she could even graduate high school.  The other mother had the unfortunate event happen that her two-year old daughter fell into a pool and nearly drowned.  The girl was admitted to a hospital and for a time, it would seem she was going to die; but she did not.  Why was she spared and the other not?  No one will ever know.  To question why one lived and the other not is an exercise of madness.  Both mothers simply have to accept the fate and be grateful for what they do have.

Regardless of all our lives, the great equalizer is death and eventually oblivion.  Let this thought humble you and let it make you appreciate the air you breathe now and the life you are able to have now at this moment in time.  Be virtuous (courageous, wise, temperate and just) and love your fate.

(see also Citadel p.139-140)

Friday, August 4, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B4:32

Consider, for example, the time of Vespasian. You will see everything the same. People marrying, having children, falling ill, dying, fighting, feasting, trading, farming, flattering, pushing, suspecting, plotting, praying for the death of others, grumbling at their lot, falling in love, storing up wealth, longing for consulships and kingships. And now that life of theirs is gone, vanished

Pass on again to the time of Trajan. Again, everything the same. That life too is dead.

Similarly, look at the histories of other eras and indeed whole nations, and see how many lives of striving met with a quick fall and resolution into the elements. Above all, review in your mind those you have seen yourself in empty struggles, refusing to act in accord with their own natural constitution, to hold tight to it and find it sufficient. And in this context you must remember that there is proportionate value in our attention to each action - so you will not lose heart if you devote no more time than they warrant to matters of less importance.

The more I study history, the more I realize how tiny my life is in the grand scheme of things in both scope and time.  The more I study history, the less sway the persuasive arguments have over me.

I do not require perfect health or a perfect body; I do not require immortality or fame or piles of cash.  I do not have the need to see and travel the world over.

Rather, all I need to reason and to be able to calmly interact and help those whose daily circles I cross.  All I really need is to aim for courage, temperance, justice and wisdom.

(see also Citadel p, 47-48, 188)

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B4:31

Love the art which you have learnt, and take comfort in it. Go through the remainder of your life in sincere commitment of all your being to the gods, and never making yourself tyrant or slave to any man.

Sometimes, I may go a few days without reading a little Marcus Aurelius.  When that happens and when I return to reading Aurelius, it is like returning to a cool spring of water after a hot day of work.  It is comforting to read the purity of Stoicism.  Now, I simply need to love the art of living philosophically and to be consistent.  For me, the danger I face is becoming a slave to laziness or pleasure.