Friday, April 28, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B2.12-13

12. How all things quickly vanish, our bodies themselves lost in the physical world, the memories of them lost in time; the nature of all objects of the senses - especially those which allure us with pleasure, frighten us with pain, or enjoy the applause of vanity - how cheap they are, how contemptible, shoddy, perishable, and dead: these are matters for our intellectual faculty to consider. And further considerations. What are they, these people whose judgements and voices confer or deny esteem? What is death? Someone looking at death per se, and applying the analytical power of his mind to divest death of its associated images, will conclude then that it is nothing more than a function of nature - and if anyone is frightened of a function of nature, he is a mere child. And death is not only a function of nature, but also to her benefit. Further.

How does man touch god, with what part of his being, and when that part of him is in what sort of disposition?

13. Nothing is more miserable than one who is always out and about, running round everything in circles - in Pindar's words 'delving deep in the bowels of the earth' - and looking for signs and symptoms to divine his neighbours' minds. He does not realize that it is sufficient to concentrate solely on the divinity within himself and to give it true service. That service is to keep it uncontaminated by passion, triviality, or discontent at what is dealt by gods or men. What comes from the gods demands reverence for their goodness. What comes from men is welcome for our kinship's sake, but sometimes pitiable also, in a way, because of their ignorance of good and evil: and this is no less a disability than that which removes the distinction of light and dark.

These two passages reference two disciplines: assent and desire.

Remember, the discipline of assent is "refusing to accept within oneself all the representations which are other than objective or adequate." (Citadel p. 101)  In a few words, it is being mindful about our judgements.

Also remember, the discipline of desire is "refusing to desire anything other than that what is willed by the Nature of All." (Citadel p. 129).  In a few words, it is accepting our fate or the Nietzsche term "amor fati."

Book 2, passage 12, is one of many meditations by Aurelius about the acceptance of our death and the utter valuelessness of pleasure, pain, fear, vanity, fame.  Change is constant, and the quicker we learn this, the more content we will be.  We will be less "clingy" to things that are impermanent and which don't truly matter.  We will be less gripped by fear of death and more willing to accept that one day, we will die.  Functions of nature include, birth, growth, and death.  We usually don't fear birth or growth, so why should we fear death?

"applause of vanity" - just let that sink in for a bit.  Is that what you really want to live for?  You really want to act in a way that will cause people to put their hands together and slap them making a noise?  How fleeting and vain is applause.  Soon the noise will stop and people will be distracted and looking on to the next big thing to clap for.  And soon all those people who were clapping their hands will have forgotten their applause for you and soon the people clapping will have passed away and forgotten.

Book 2, passage 13 deals with both mindfulness of judgment (assent) and accepting things as they are (desire).  We often see people who want to peer into the future and see into other people's hearts.  These people want control and they want a short-cut to see.  Marcus describes these people as looking into the earth, looking for signs and symptoms.  None of this matters - it is out of our control and does not align with nature.  It is enough to focus on your own mindfulness and to be content with what fate and the universe has dealt you.

Keep your thoughts and what you assent to pure.  Don't focus your desires on things out of your control.  If you desire something out of your control and you don't get it, you will be sad.  If you desire for something not to happen and it is out of your control, you will also be sad.  Instead, focus on things in your control - your attitude, having greater virtue, accepting your fate and even loving it.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B2.11

You may leave this life at any moment: have this possibility in your mind in all that you do or say or think. Now departure from the world of men is nothing to fear, if gods exist: because they would not involve you in any harm. If they do not exist, or if they have no care for humankind, then what is life to me in a world devoid of gods, or devoid of providence? But they do exist, and they do care for humankind: and they have put it absolutely in man's power to avoid falling into the true kinds of harm. If there were anything harmful in the rest of experience, they would have provided for that too, to make it in everyone's power to avoid falling into it; and if something cannot make a human being worse, how could it make his life a worse life? The nature of the Whole would not have been blind to this, either through ignorance or with knowledge unaccompanied by the power to prevent and put right. Nor would it have made so great an error, through lack of power or skill, as to have good and bad falling indiscriminately, on good and bad people alike. Yes, death and life, fame and ignominy, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty - all these come to good and bad alike, but they are not in themselves either right or wrong: neither then are they inherent good or evil.

Sitting squarely in the arena of the discipline of desire is the practice called premeditatio malorum (do a search on that term for some excellent articles).  In modern English it means pre-meditating the worst possible things that could happen to you - including your death.  Visualizing this strong negative emotion does a few things for you.

First, if you can anticipate "bad" things that may happen to you today (including death), it helps to soften the blow when they actually happen.  This helps to alleviate internal suffering you may experience.  For example, on a podcast I listened to today (#2 - The Nature of Human Suffering), Noah Rasheta described a scenario of going out into the woods at night and encountering someone jumping out from behind a tree dressed in a bear costume.  You'd be very frightened and shocked and completely surprised if that happened.  But suppose before you go into the woods, someone warns you that there is a person out there dressed in a bear costume waiting to jump out at you.  In that case, you might be a bit more prepared and your reaction might not be as severe.

Secondly, practicing premeditatio malorum will help you accept the greater, universal course of events, of which you are a part.  It helps you be humble and accept that you are not the center of the universe - that there are greater things at play.  It helps you amor fati or love your fate or lot in life.  Mike Tyson once tweeted, "If you’re not humble in this world, then the world will throw humbleness upon you."  His life is certainly an example of that idea.

Thirdly, it helps you prepare and plan for the unexpected.  Let's say you anticipate yourself being involved in a car accident today and you become paralyzed for the rest of your life.  In this premortem, perhaps you can plan for accepting how your life will change and be different; how you will need to rely on family to care for you and how you will psychologically cope and how you will need to redefine your purpose in life.  In another way, this premortem will help you accept and be able to cope with much less severe unexpected events - such as your meeting or basketball game being cancelled or a traffic wreck on the freeway which causes your commute to be delayed by 3 hours.

In this meditation by Marcus, he contemplates his death and how it really isn't so bad.  He also emphasizes that death, like fame, fortune, pain, pleasure and poverty, should not be viewed as good or bad; but rather as indifferent.  Life is not about these things.  Rather, life is about finding and living virtuously (courage, temperance, justice, wisdom).

Monday, April 24, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B2.10

In his comparative ranking of sins, applying philosophy to the common man's distinctions, Theophrastus says that offences of lust are graver than those of anger: because it is clearly some sort of pain and involuntary spasm which drives the angry man to abandon reason, whereas the lust-led offender has given in to pleasure and seems somehow more abandoned and less manly in his wrongdoing. Rightly, then, and like a true philosopher, Theophrastus said that greater censure attaches to an offence committed under the influence of pleasure than to one under the influence of pain. And in general the one is more like an injured party, forced to anger by the pain of provocation: whereas the other is his own source of the impulse to wrong, driven to what he does by lust.

There is not much to this passage other than to show that from Marcus' mind, as well as other Stoics, there is a distinction between various offenses in virtue.

In the case of a violation of virtue involving pleasure and anger, Marcus held to the view that violations involving pleasure were worse than anger, due to the fact that in the case of pleasure, one has more control over the situation than anger.

This distinction is allowed so that people pursuing Stoicism can see progress on their personal journey.

For further reading on this passage, see p.57 Inner Citadel

Friday, April 21, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B2.7-9

7. Do externals tend to distract you? Then give yourself the space to learn some further good lesson, and stop your wandering. That done, you must guard against the other sort of drift. Those who are dead to life and have no aim for the direction of every impulse and, more widely, every thought are drivellers in deed as well as word.

8. Failure to read what is happening in another's soul is not easily seen as a cause of unhappiness: but those who fail to attend to the motions of their own soul are necessarily unhappy.

9. Always remember these things: what the nature of the Whole is, what my own nature is, the relation of this nature to that, what kind of part it is of what kind of Whole; and that there is no one who can prevent you keeping all that you say and do in accordance with that nature, of which you are a part.

In order to exercise the discipline of assent, you must circumscribe yourself.  What does that mean?  It means you must define and clearly make a limit or boundary around your mental state.  Marcus Aurelius uses the imagery of a citadel.  If your mind in in that citadel, you control what is in it (your attitude) and everything outside of that citadel is out of your control.

In the domain of things outside of your control are things such as other people, the past and present and then those involuntary emotions that happen to our body.  Another thing outside of our control is the course of events or the course of destiny (see pp 115-118 Inner Citadel).

To further this image, think of a citadel and then look at it from above and see various domains of things outside our control ... similar to a target.

When it comes to the discipline of assent, you must constantly determine what is in your control and what is out of your control.  Furthermore, you must make an effort to view events and externals objectively - that is; do not add your opinion (automatically) on top of events.  Let there be a pause or space between the external and you forming an opinion about it.  Another term of this is mindfulness.

In verse 7, Marcus cautions against distractions and drift.  To counter this, give yourself space ... give yourself some time to think before reacting or having a strong negative or positive emotion.

In verse 8, we must observe what is happening in our own soul.  If we don't observe what is happening in our own souls, we will be swept up in external events (we lose our control).

Lastly, in verse 9, he is advising that we should constantly be mindful of our position in relation to the whole.  This is a theme that comes up again and again in his Meditations.  We are a speck in the Universe and we ultimately have control over our attitude and how we perceive the world.

How do you become more mindful?

You meditate - it's as plain and simple as that.

How do you meditate?

There are lots of options and ways.  Regardless the method, what you are trying to aim for is the ability to pause and reserve judgement on things and events.  You want to get away from the automatic response.  It is not easy.

Some will sit in solitude and just observe their thoughts.  Others will concentrate on a single thought and not let their mind wander.  But again, no one way is correct.  Rather if the way you meditate helps you have greater control over that pause, then it is working.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B2.4-6

4. Remember how long you have been putting this off, how many times you have been given a period of grace by the gods and not used it. It is high time now for you to understand the universe of which you are a part, and the governor of that universe of whom you constitute an emanation: and that there is a limit circumscribed to your time - if you do not use it to clear away your clouds, it will be gone, and you will be gone, and the opportunity will not return.

5. Every hour of the day give vigorous attention, as a Roman and as a man, to the performance of the task in hand with precise analysis, with unaffected dignity, with human sympathy, with dispassionate justice - and to vacating your mind from all its other thoughts. And you will achieve this vacation if you perform each action as if it were the last of your life: freed, that is, from all lack of aim, from all passion-led deviation from the ordinance of reason, from pretence, from love of self, from dissatisfaction with what fate has dealt you. You see how few things a man needs to master for the settled flow of a godfearing life. The gods themselves ask nothing more of one who keeps these observances.

6. Self-harm, my soul, you are doing self-harm: and you will have no more opportunity for self-respect. Life for each of us is a mere moment, and this life of yours is nearly over, while you still show yourself no honour, but let your own welfare depend on other people's souls.

Procrastination - that thief of time and will.  Sometimes, I have procrastinated a certain task and I am glad I did, due to the fact that the task was no longer required or due to the fact the scope or requirement changed.  And my procrastination saved me time.  However, in the context of what Marcus is saying in Book 2, verses 4-6, he is talking about grander, more important things.  He is referring to life; and learning the lessons of life and not wasting it away.  He is talking about amor fati and being willing to accept the universal forces in action.  Furthermore, he is trying to convey the seriousness of the present - the NOW.

We do not have control over the past nor the future.  The only thing we have control over is the present.  And if we waste away the present watching TV, flipping through social media, eating food and lazing around, as opposed to being mindful, helping others, acting logically, then we will have not only wasted the present, but all future present moments.

The purpose of thinking that we may die at any moment and that we should "perform each action as if it were the last" of our life, is to help us appreciate the vast importance of NOW.

To finish, let me quote Hadot on this point (p. 135 The Inner Citadel):
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.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B2:3

The works of the gods are full of providence. The works of Fortune are not independent of Nature or the spinning and weaving together of the threads governed by Providence. All things flow from that world: and further factors are necessity and the benefit of the whole universe, of which you are a part. Now every part of nature benefits from that which is brought by the nature of the Whole and all which preserves that nature: and the order of the universe is preserved equally by the changes in the elements and the changes in their compounds. Let this be enough for you, and your constant doctrine. And give up your thirst for books, so that you do not die a grouch, but in true grace and heartfelt gratitude to the gods.

The discipline of desire consists of two views as outlined by Hadot:

First "in refusing to desire anything other than what is willed by the Nature of the All" and second "in wanting to do that which my own nature wants me to do." (see p. 129).

The passage above (book 2, verse 2) in Meditations alludes to the first type of view - that is we ought to desire what the Universe / Zeus / God desires.

This world and universe, of which we are a part, was designed well.  It functions as it ought.  However, it is man's negative perception which causes us to view it in a negative light.

A farmer, for example, may view the sunlight as good and beneficial for his crops.  Water is also viewed as beneficial.  However, too much sun and not enough water can be viewed is not good for the farmer.  The farmer ought to use his reason to understand the risks and take appropriate action.  But the abundance of sun and the lack of water are forces that naturally occur and are not inherently good or bad, rather, they just are.

Practically speaking, the sooner you understand the true nature of the situation, the better off you are in finding contentment and not spending energy or effort being angry at something that is entirely out of your control.  In summary, love what the Universe / Zeus / God has sent your way.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B2:2

see Meditations 12.19
Whatever it is, this being of mine is made up of flesh, breath, and directing mind. Now the flesh you should disdain - blood, bones, a mere fabric and network of nerves, veins, and arteries. Consider too what breath is: wind - and not even a constant, but all the time being disgorged and sucked in again. That leaves the third part, the directing mind. Quit your books - no more hankering: this is not your gift. No, think like this, as if you were on the point of death: 'you are old; don't then let this directing mind of yours be enslaved any longer - no more jerking to the strings of selfish impulse, no more disquiet at your present or suspicion of your future fate.

In the category of things out of our control are: our bodies and our deaths.  True, we have control over our bodies in the sense that if we eat lots of food we will cause ourselves to get fat.  Or if we exercise and get fit, we will cause our bodies to be fit.  But ultimately, we don't have control over our bodies if we get leukemia (bone and blood cancer) or any other sort of disease.  And as for death, we truly don't have control over our deaths (assuming we will never commit suicide).  In other words, we don't know if a meteor will hit us or if a volcano will vaporizes us and all the people in our city.  In summary, we don't have true control over our bodies and our death.  And furthermore, we would be wise to be aware that death hangs over us every day.

Therefore, knowing this, the question remains: how best to live the life you have now?  Will you live it in selfish impulse?

The Hedonists (see Hedonism) believed that the ultimate purpose of life is is to maximize pleasure.  Eat til you're stuffed - every day!  Drink til you're drunk - every day!  Dance like there's no tomorrow - every day!  Don't do a single thing that will cause you pain.

Play this out in your mind.  Ask yourself; do you really want a 600-pound life?  Will that burger really make you happy and content?  Spending one-more-minute on Snapchat, scrolling Twitter or Instagram - will that make you happy?  Studies are showing that the opposite is true; it's causing depression.

"No more jerking to the strings of impulse."  Marcus tells us that things things (pleasure, disquiet, mindless scrolling) will not help us find contentment.

Listen to how ridiculous this sounds if these words were engraved on someone's tombstone:
- Here lies Nancy, who loved to eat. (her burial plot was double-wide)
- Here lies James, who loved to spend hours on Instagram
- Here lies Susan, who got the top score on a video game
- Here lies Kurt, who watched every episode on Netflix

Utterly laughable.

What do you want to be said of you?  Do you want people to say you were a kind person, who helped others?  Who was happy and content?  Or do you want people to say, "yup, they loved their food, social media and they lived for himself."

Ponder on that.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B2.1

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own - not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong. Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature: and anger or rejection is opposition.

The fundamental stoic concept is being able to distinguish things that are 'up to us' (see entry eph' hêmin in lexicon) and things that are not 'up to us.'  For things not 'up to us', obviously there is nothing we can do about them except accept them and apply moral virtues (these are indifferents ... see entry in lexicon).  For example, the weather, earthquakes, major world events, etc.  What is 'up to us' is our attitudes and which moral virtue we will choose to exercise - this is essentially the Discipline of Assent.

When it comes to people, we have an obligation to work with others - just as the upper and lower jaws need to work together, we too must work with other people.  We ought to treat others with respect and justice - this is essentially the Discipline of Action.

In the passage above, Marcus hits on both the Discipline of Assent and Action.  He wants to work well with others AND he wants to retain his equanimity (he wants to maintain a good attitude).  Therefore, when Marcus wakes up in the morning, he is preparing himself to encounter grumpy, grouchy, Type A, mean, angry people.  Before he even encounters them, he (in a sense) forgives them and vows that he will not act that way (since he knows people are meant to work with each other and we all share a divinity) and he will do his best to work with them.

Practically speaking, what do you do when you meet someone who is mean or grumpy?  For my part, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt - which means I try to kindly excuse their behavior.  For example, a manager at work is in a bad mood - I'll chalk that up to maybe he didn't get enough sleep the night before or maybe he's hungry.  I simply assume that this isn't his real self and that he'll be in a better mood later.

Real Story
A couple of years ago, a co-worker of mine was working on a presentation with a manager.  The manager is almost always really nice, jovial and easy to get along with.  But on this day, he was a grumpy bear!  My co-worker didn't know what the deal was.  A couple of hours later (after lunch), the manager met again with my co-worker and the manager was back to his normal, happy self!  As we talked about this, we concluded he was just "hangry" and needed some food.

As a follow-up, I bought my co-worker a Snickers bar with a "Grouchy" wrapper and we keep it around in case of an emergency when a manager is "hangry" :-)

more commentary in The Inner Citadel p. 207-208

Monday, April 10, 2017

Commentary on Meditations and the Three Disciplines

Book 1 in Meditations largely focused on Marcus reflecting on the people in his life.  With Book 2 and going forward, Marcus shifts his attention to coaching himself.  These letters to himself were never meant to be published in a book.  Rather we can view these writings as his personal journal.  Not a journal in the sense of recording what has happened, but rather a journal for him to reflect on how he can be a better person - on how to live a good, fulfilling life.

As we move into the remaining books, I will note which of the Three Disciplines Marcus is alluding to, in each passage.  What are the Three Disciplines?

They are:
1. Discipline of Desire (amor fati or love your fate)
2. Discipline of Action (treating others w/ respect, we are social beings)
3. Discipline of Assent (we are in control of our attitude)

And when I note one of the disciplines as related to a passage from Meditations, I will try to expand a bit more on it.

It may not make much sense at first.  Certainly when I first began reading Meditations late in 2015, I had a hard time following along and understanding it fully.  But I kept at it and with the help of other books (i.e. Pierre Hadot's The Inner Citadel), the layers were pealed back and things began to make sense.  I hope I can try to peal it back a bit for you as we read the Meditations together.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Commentary on Meditations: B1:17

i will use a slightly different format for this passage, due to the length.  also, this one 'verse' will suffice for the entire week.  next update will be monday april 10.

From the gods: to have had good grandparents, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good family, relatives, and friends - almost everything; and that I did not blunder into offending any of them, even though I had the sort of disposition which might indeed have resulted in some such offence, given the occasion - it was the grace of the gods that no set of circumstances likely to show me up ever arose.  - aurelius was grateful for the fate he was born into.  i can only imagine that had he been born into a less prosperous fate, and had he come to learn of stoicism, he would have been grateful for his unique set of circumstances.  he loved his fate.

That I was not brought up any longer than I was with my grandfather's mistress, and that I kept my innocence, leaving sexual experience to the proper time and indeed somewhat beyond it. - he learned temperance and self-discipline.

That I came under a ruler and a father who was to strip me of all conceit and bring me to realize that it is possible to live in a palace without feeling the need for bodyguards or fancy uniforms, candelabra, statues, or the other trappings of suchlike pomp, but that one can reduce oneself very close to the station of a private citizen and not thereby lose any dignity or vigour in the conduct of a ruler's responsibility for the common good. - this is what makes stoicism special.  some philosophies would have you meditate on a mountain, but stoicism would have you meditate in a palace or a forest.  your inner citadel is where you are, regardless of circumstance or position in life.

That I was blessed with a brother whose character could spur me to care for myself, and whose respect and affection were likewise a source of joy to me. - to me, this speaks of other people helping us become better than who we currently are.

That my children were not born short of intelligence or physically deformed. - he was grateful for the good health of his children.

That I did not make further progress in rhetoric, poetry, and the other pursuits in which I could well have been absorbed, if I had felt this my right path. - he could have easily gone down a path that would have caused him to be lost (unable to help others; be a service to humankind.)

That I was quick to raise my tutors to the public office which I thought they desired and did not put them off, in view of their youth, with promises for the future. - he was not stingy with his power; he remembered those who helped him.

That I came to know Apollonius, Rusticus, Maximus. - he was grateful for friendships and relationships that were put in his path.  what can we learn from this?  we may occasionally wonder why we have to even be in the same room as so-and-so.  but have we asked the question: what can i learn from them?  we may be surprised by the friends we find in the course of our life.

That I acquired a clear and constant picture of what is meant by the life according to nature, so that, with regard to the gods, their communications from that world, their help and their inspiration, nothing now prevents me living the life of nature: my falling somewhat short, still, is due to my own fault and my failure to observe the promptings, not to say the instructions, of the gods. - he learned early that humans are endowed with reason and logic and that we are to live according to this gift from god.  the dumb animals of the field know nothing but to eat, drink, defecate and procreate.  but humans nature is to learn, to grow, to find the best in life, to serve others.  when humans live according to nature, they serve others; they think; they question; they learn and grow.

That my body has held out so far in a life such as mine. That I never touched Benedicta or Theodotus, and that later experience of sexual passion left me cured. - again, gratitude for good health and self-discipline.

That, though I was often angry with Rusticus, my behaviour never went to the point of regret. - the theme of self-control, again.

That my mother, fated to die young, nevertheless lived her last years with me. - showing his gratitude

That whenever I wanted to help someone in poverty or some other need I was never told that there was no source of affordable money: and that I myself never fell into similar want of financial assistance from another. - him displaying the desire to help others financially and being grateful that he was in a position to help others in that regard.

That my wife is as she is, so submissive, loving, and unaffected: and that I found no lack of suitable tutors for my children. That I was given help through dreams, especially how to avoid spitting blood and bouts of dizziness: and the response of the oracle at Caieta, 'Just as you use yourself.' - more gratitude on his part.

That, for all my love of philosophy, I did not fall in with any sophist, or devote my time to the analysis of literature or logic, or busy myself with cosmic speculation. All these things need 'the help of gods and Fortune's favour'. - each of our daily choices could lead us down a very different path in life.  small deviations today, turn into chasms in later years.  - aurelius notes that these small choices he made earlier in life lead him to a course for which he is currently grateful.  hindsight shows him the wisdom of his earlier choices.