Thursday, January 31, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 1.25 - On the same theme

According to Epictetus, Zeus sent us here to earth with the commandment: "Guard what is your own by every means."

What truly, wholly belongs to us?  It is our perception - our opinion - our attitude.

Indeed, we can prioritize everything in our life, but whatever we decide to focus on, we ought not to resent it.  "Whenever you devote your attention to what is not your own, you lose what is truly your own" (v. 4, p. 53).

Epictetus also correctly points out that what we try to protect and cherish becomes a means for us to be enslaved.  He says, "If I attache value to my poor body, I have given myselft up to slavery; if I attach value to my miserable possessions, I'm likewise a slave; for by doing so, I'm at once showing to my own detriment by what means I may be caught" (v. 24, p. 55).  When we place importance on things that don't belong to us or are not in our control, we only torment ourselves.  "But as a general rule keep this in mind, that it is we who cause aggravation to ourselves; that is to say, it is our own judgements that aggravate us and crowd us in this way" (v. 28, p. 55).

So what should we do?  We should practice "maintaining always the same even temper," for this is what Socrates did.

This is why the discipline of assent is so important.  We may experience a gut reaction to some event.  We ought to pause; and in that pause, reflect on whether whatever it is that is trying to bother us.  Is it in our control?  Does it have sway or power over us?  Most likely it does not.  And instead, it is our perception that is holding us as slaves.  Therefore, we ought to check our assumptions and change our opinion as needed.  This is true freedom.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Tuesday January 22, 2019: Haleakala Sunrise, Lavender Garden, Seven Turtles

We woke up super-early Tuesday morning to drive up to the crater on Haleakala.  The drive was steep and dark.  My sinuses were acting up all week, so the pressure going up and going down wrecked havoc on my nose and ears.  But it was so worth it!  It was cold and windy at the time.  We brought a couple of blankets to stay warm, but they weren't enough.  We should've had at least two blankets per person.  Some people at the top were in full winter gear!

Once we snapped our pictures and enjoyed the moment, we got in the car and turned up the heat and drove down the mountain a bit.  We made another pit-stop at some craters, before winding our way to the lavender garden.

We had visited this lavender garden before.  There isn't anything too special about it, but it is a nice place to visit, stretch your legs and enjoy the silent breeze and sweet smells.  We ate a bite at the tiny cafe that sold t-shirts and lots of lavender products.  We also walked around quite a bit and sat in the gazebos and enjoyed the view.

After the lavender garden, we headed back to the place to take a nap and sit on the beach.  When we arrived at the beach, we saw seven turtles!  They had all washed up on the sand and were sleeping in the sun.  It was so neat to see so many turtles sleeping on the beach.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Monday January 21, 2019: Olivine Pools and Nakalele Blowhole

We slept in on Monday and then went on a nice walk to the local village, where they had a great fruit stand and lots of places to sit and eat.  We found a place called Java Jazz that served some wonderful coffee and an pretty delicious pancake and omelette.  The place was wildly decorated and even had someone playing jazz in the morning.  I would have expected it to only have live jazz later in the day.

After breakfast, we walked around the shops a bit, got some sunglasses, t-shirts and food at the market place.  Then we walked back to the place, packed some food and gear and drove north.  The last time we were in Maui, we only drove to see the Nakalele Blowhole, but from a distance.  This time, we wanted to go a bit further.  We ended up, my mistake, driving past the Olivine Pools, to a point where the road was extremely narrow and would barely fit one car.  There were two times we had to back up to a wide-enough spot, to let the oncoming traffic through.  We only drove a mile down this road before we decided to turn around.  Thankfully, going back we didn't have to back-up to let oncoming traffic pass.

We found the Olivine Pools and hiked down.  It was a good 10 minute hike to get to the bottom.  About halfway down, there is a marker with a warning pleading people to not go past.  It tells of a family's son who was swimming in the pools on January 23, 2017, when a wave hit him and swept him out to sea; they never recovered his body.  So naturally, we ignored it and hiked past.  There were about 20 people in the area.  There were several pools, but the main one was gorgeous.  It was like jumping into Jacob's Well.  But instead of that fresh feeling, it was a bit salty!  The rocks around the pools were constantly being pounded by the waves.  The view was breathtaking!

When we had our fill, we hiked back up and drove on to Nakalele Blowhole.  Similar to Olivine Pools, you had to walk down to get the the cool stuff.  It was also about a 10 minute hike.  There were lots of rocks - like we were in a big rock bowl.  There were no warning signs near the blow hole, so maybe no one has died near there.  I think there was one sign that said to stay on dry rock.  The blow hole is like Old Faithful; water comes spouting up and into the air.  The really cool think about the Nakalele hole is the sound.  As waves crash onto the rocks, you can hear the rushing air and feel the force of the water rushing up through the hole.  The fun part is trying to get a picture or selfie at the right time.  I was able to get some video of it spouting a few times; and Jill and I were able to get a pretty cool selfie at the right time!  This was our highlight of the day - we sat around for quite some time, watching the waves pound the rocks.

After the blow hole, we drove back to the place to snorkel some more and sit on the beach.  We waited and watched the sun set.  A man got his bag pipes out and played a couple of songs and everyone on the beach clapped.  Then we went to a burger place called Maui Brewing.  Unfortunately, my sinuses were really bad and I couldn't taste anything.  Jill said it was really good food.  She ordered some salad and I had some fish burger.  I imagine it tasted great.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Sunday January 20, 2019: Walking, Snorkeling, Football and Lahaina

We left Saturday at 8:30am.  Emma took us to the airport super-early, because we were hearing some news reports about one airport terminal being closed from the partial government shut-down.  But our worries were not warranted.  We flew through check-in and security in 23 minutes.  Our reward was to sip a warm beverage while waiting for our flight.  We were able to talk quite a bit and I was able to catch up on some Chess Tempo chess problems.  Jill talked to her Mom while we waited and they had a great conversation.

The first leg of the trip was to Los Angeles.  I am just getting over a cold, that has been lingering for a couple of weeks.  It is in my sinuses.  So ascending and descending on the airplane was quite the experience.  I think ascending was easier, while descending made it a bit tough to pop my ears.  Jill had the window seat; I sat in the middle and we had a larger man sitting next to me in the aisle.  I later came to learn he is a comedian who flies all over the world entertaining guests on cruise ships and such places.  We started talking, but I soon realized he was talking and I was listening.  So I went back to my book.

We landed in LA nicely and had a two-hour layover.  We ate salmon and chicken sandwiches at Wolfgang Puck's, then did some shopping as Jill was going to finish her first book and needed a second.  I too found I needed a more entertaining book than the one I had (business book).

The flight to Kahului was close to six hours and it felt much longer.  The turbulence was pretty rough at times.  Jill was reading a book about a man and a woman who are sailing and are caught in a hurricane.  The man dies and the woman survivies 39 days at sea.  So she was wondering if something similar was going to happen to us if the airplane broke up over the ocean!  The Friday before we left, I was watching Castaway for a few minutes!  But the plane survived and we survived.  We were just really tired by the time we landed.  Luckily our luggage was one of the first at baggage claim.  The car rental line wasn't too bad either, but then we had another hour of driving to get to the place.

The place was nice enough; just AC in the bedroom.  But we didn't travel 10 hours for the room.  We got some sleep.

After sleeping in a bit, we woke and got our walking clothes on and walked 3 miles to the Gazebo.  On the way, we stopped at a few beaches and took some pictures.  When we got there, there was a line as expected.  But we didn't feel the least desire to wait in it.  So we pulled up our Google maps app and looked for another high-star place to eat breakfast.  We found The Coffee Store in Napili.  The brews were delicious and the pastries divine.  Then we walked back to our place and collected our stuff and headed to the beach.

The beach by our place is divided by a rock cropping.  There is a very small beach area, with rocks on both sides, to the north.  And to the south is a much larger beach, with rocks also on both sides.  We headed to the smaller beach first and had it to ourselves.  We spent about 40 minutes just watching these 3 turtles swim around and eat.  It was amazing.  Then we sat in the sand and talked and let the ocean waves lick our feet and legs.

We then decided to check out the larger beach and try some snorkeling.  We expected the other beach to be much busier, but there were only maybe 20 or so people on it.  We put our chairs in the shade of a large tree next to the rocks and then got our gear on and went for a swim.  There wasn't a plethora of fish, but we did see quite a few colorful fishes.

After the swim, we just soaked in the sun and the beach.  It was lovely.

When we had our fill, we walked back to the place (a one minute-walk), to the pool to shower and swim around a bit to get the salt water off.  Then we came back to the place and watched the football games.  We caught the end of the Rams v Saints game and then watched the Patriots v Chiefs game.  I'm glad the Rams won, but was disappointed the Chiefs lost.

At precisely 4pm local time, I logged into to reserve our park pass to see the sunrise on Haleakala.  They release 80 tickets two days in advance, at 4pm.  We wanted to do this, so made sure we were ready to claim a pass at 4pm.  We've been hearing these get gobbled up very quickly.  The rest of the tickets have to be bought 2 months in advance.

During the football games, we walked back to the beach and sat in the shade.  We found a huge turtle had arrived and was chilling on the beach.  It was pretty cool to see one so close.

After the football games, we drove to Lahaina and ate dinner at Paia Fishmarket Front Street.  We had vowed we would eat fish every day.  I had the Mahi Mahi blackened and Jill had it in tacos.  Oh my!  It was delicious!  We sat next to a couple from Colorado, who had been on Maui all week, and they said it was the best food they'd had!  So we scored big on our first dinner.  The cole slaw was really good, along with the house fries.

Then we walked around Lahaina, doing some light shopping as well as observing the lunar eclipse.  It was quite the sight!  After that, we drove to Safeway to pick up some groceries, and to get a stronger
decongestant for me.  Jill had called the doctor-over-the-phone earlier and got me a prescription to hopefully knock this thing out.  I feel good ... maybe 85%, so I'm not suffering, but just not 100%.  Thankfully, I can smell and taste still.

After shopping, we came home, ate some ice cream, watched a bit of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom before falling asleep.  It was a great first day.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 1.24 - How we should contend with difficulties?

The first part of this chapter and the last part of this chapter are pure gold.

What makes us unique?  What defines us?

The Stoics would say that the obstacle is the solution to our problems.  Life throws challenges and curve balls at us and how we respond to them reveals who we really are.

Epictetus says, "it is difficulties that reveal what men amount to."  When difficult times - challenges or obstacles in our path - come to us, how we react to them reveals who we really are.  And we need to be of the mindset that these challenges and obstacles are opportunities for us to prove ourselves - they are gifts for us to "rise to the occasion."  We can learn and read our Stoic principles all day long, every week, month after month.  But if we never have the occasion to prove that we have embraced them, then what have we accomplished?  Give me a challenge and I will show you what I've learned - what I have become - who I am.  Gold is revealed in the rock after the fire purges out all the waste.  Epictetus reminds us that whenever difficulties come into our lives, "remember that God, like a trainer in the gymnasium, has matched you against a tough young opponent."

Epictetus tells his students how the true character of Diogenes was revealed.  Diogenes wore the bare minimum of clothing.  He slept on the bare ground.  His proof of success was his confidence, his serenity, his freedom and his tough and radiant physique (see verse 8).

Certainly, you can avoid the challenges and obstacles; you can even exit through the door - permanently.  But if you do so, you'd be a greater coward than children.  Children will flippantly decide to not play anymore when they don't get their way - they disengage from the challenge or obstacle.  Is that who you are?  Or maybe you're the type who is not willing to exit through the door, but will still complain and carp and constantly be pissed off.  That certainly is no great existence either.

The best solution, according to the Stoics, is to face the challenge - embrace it - engage with it.  You will fail, and that is fine.  But keep moving forward; pick yourself up and get back in the game.  More challenges and obstacles will come.  So learn from the previous ones and improve when you meet the next round of challenges and obstacles.  Allow yourself to be defined by your trials - after all, they are yours.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 1.23 - Against Epicurus

The Epicureans and Stoics had differing views.  For Stoics, we are supposed to live according to nature with virtue being the sole good.  This means we ought to live an examined, and reasoned life while pursuing virtue (i.e. courage, self-discipline, justice and wisdom).

The Epicureans on the other hand "advocated living in such a way as to derive the greatest amount of pleasure possible during one's lifetime, yet doing so moderately in order to avoid the suffering incurred by overindulgence in such pleasure." (source) - almost like a "eat, drink and be merry, but not too much to cause pain."

With this in mind, we learn Epicurus advised the wise to not have children, since it would introduce pain and suffering, for the parent.

Stoics, on the other hand, would advocate performing your duty as a human being.  One of which is to propagate the human race.  We are social beings and our learning and progress comes at the hand of other people.  We learn from both the wise and unwise.  But if neither exist, we don't learn and progress.  Also, a philosophy dissuading child-rearing slants towards nihilism ("life has no intrinsic meaning or value. With respect to the universe, existential nihilism posits that a single human or even the entire human species is insignificant, without purpose and unlikely to change in the totality of existence.")

The chapters ends with a quip at Epicurus, to the effect of "even your parents would still love and raise you knowing you would advocate against your very existence!"

related content:
Epicurus and Children

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 1.22 - On preconceptions

If you were to tweet: "justice is fair" no one would dispute your tweet.  Similarly, you could tweet "bravery is admired" and no one would dispute it.

But if you tweet, "he was very courageous to stand up to the vice president the way he did" someone might reply, "not courageous, but idiotic."  And here is where we begin to deviate - in the application of some preconceptions.

Epictetus mentions religions and how they dispute what ought to be eaten or not eaten.  He also mentions a couple of main characters from The Iliad who argue over justice.  At the heart of it all, is where you put "the good" - where you place happiness and contentment in you mind.  Do you derive happiness and contentment from your body, property, parents, siblings, children, country and friends?  Aren't all those good things?  Most would say, "yes! absolutely!"  But if you place your whole happiness and contentment in things that are out of your control, you must constantly deal with sorrow and discontent.

Furthermore, some people will even place these externals in the domain of "coming from God."

God gives me a healthy body: I am blessed!  God gives my body cancer: I am cursed!

God gives me riches and land and a beautiful home: I am blessed!  God sends a drought and famine and my riches and land and home are lost: I am cursed!

God gives me wonderful parents and a family: I am blessed!  God causes my family to die and hate me: I am cursed!

God sends me to the richest, most powerful country in the world: I am blessed!  God allows another country to invade and conquer my country: I am cursed!

God gives me countless, kind friends: I am blessed!  God causes all my friends to leave me: I am cursed!

Truly ask yourself, do you need a functioning, healthy body to be happy?  Do you need property, land, riches, parents, brothers and sisters, children, a country and friends to be happy and content?  Most people say yes!  But the reality is that these things do not bring you happiness.

What are we to do with stories like these:

Stephen Hawking or Helen Keller (people who's bodies did not function well for them).

Eric Hoffer (who was never really rich and labored with his hands most of his life).

Countless other people who's stories are never told, but they are never rich, yet seemingly are always happy.

Myth or not, what about Job - how was he able to be content and happy when everything was taken from him?

Do we not admire people who've had property, health and family taken from them, yet they are still able to find happiness and contentment?

Ultimately, all these things are externals to our will.  Our mind - our attitude - how we view the world is based on what we decide to assent to (or agree with).  If we place all our hopes and dreams in externals, then we must accept and expect that our happiness and contentment will be out of our control.

And do you want to be in control of your happiness or would you rather roll the dice and see what happens?

If you want to be in control of your happiness, then focus on what is in your control: your attitude.  But if you want to take your chances, then pick something that is out of your control and let your emotions and attitude and state of mind depend on whatever happens to it.  Good luck!

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 1.21 - To those who want to be admired

"For my part, I'm satisfied if I exercise my desires and aversions in accordance with nature, and apply my motives to act and not to act as my nature requires, and likewise my purposes, designs, and acts of assent."  (p. 48)

Friday, January 11, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 1.20 - How reason is able examine itself

"The art of leather-working concerns itself with hides, but the art itself is altogether different from its material, the hides, and for that reason can't take itself as an object of examination."

In other words, the art of leather-work, works on, examines, and uses hides.  The art of leather-work is not focused on, working on, or examining itself.

On the other hand, the art of reason and wisdom can and does work on, examine and use themselves, and their opposites.  These things are unique to humans - this is "our nature" or how we were designed.  This is essentially the work and object of philosophy.

"the most important task of a philosopher, and his first task, is to test out impressions and distinguish between them, and not to accept any impressions unless it has been duly tested" (v. 7, p. 47).

Epictetus talks about how people used to test coinage, to ensure it was real or fake and how they would have to develop a musician's ear to detect the slightest differences.  He then says, "in matters where we think it makes a notable difference whether or not we go astray, we apply considerable attention to judging things that are liable to lead us astray; but when it comes to this poor ruling center of ours, we yawn and slumber, and accept any impression that comes along.  For it doesn't occur to us that we'll suffer any damage as a result" (v. 10-11, p. 47).

This is a very important point he makes!  We go to great lengths to ensure our coinage and dollar system is real and not fake.  We've implemented an entire governmental system to ensure the integrity of our dollars.  Yet, we barely make any effort to examine and confront impressions that come into our minds.  Rather, we prefer to be tossed and thrown about by any event and impression that comes our way.

Someone cuts us off in traffic ... we fly into a rage!  Someone breaks into our home and burglarizes us ... we feel sad, violated and insecure.  We develop a heart condition ... we think "wo is me!  my life is ruined; it's over!" and we pity ourselves.  A manager has a bad day and takes it out on us ... we berate her behind her back and we feel upset.  We find out we've been lied to by people we've trusted for so long ... we feel betrayed and bitter.

We fail to examine our impressions and we let them disturb us!  But we don't have to!  Events may happen and impressions may come, but we have the power of assent!

Someone cuts us off in traffic, we can think of reasons why maybe they are in a hurry, but there is no reason to be upset.  Someone steals from you, then they've stolen from you.  Do what you must to reclaim your possessions, but no reason to be upset.  Take precautions to protect your home and be at peace.  We develop a heart condition, but we already knew these things were out of our control, now we have to simply accept our fate and do what we must to ensure good health.  A manager is upset with you, do what must be done to correct anything that needs to be corrected and give her the benefit of the doubt - she may simply be hungry!  We've been lied to, no need to be upset, but learn who you can trust and cannot trust.  Work with those who you can trust, don't work with those who you cannot trust; no need to feel bitter.

This is the most important art in life - the examination of impressions.  This is learning and practicing the Stoic art of the Discipline of Assent.  It "requires long preparation, and no end of effort and study" but "do you really expect to master the most important of the arts with little effort?"

We have to do the heavy mental lifting if we expect results.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 1.19 - How should we behave towards tyrants

This is an interesting chapter, especially if viewed in the context of modern-day corporate society, in which many of us make a living.

Vice presidents, executives, managers, divisional managers ... all of them wield power and authority.  But we fail to realize that the only power and authority they have is what we give them.  That power only exists in our own mind.  The power and authority is not real; not in the slightest.

Epictetus cuts right to the chase.  The only real power is the power of controlling our desires and aversions and our impulse control; in short, self-discipline (see verses 2-4).

And how should we view authority figures at work and in government?  We ought give them attention like we give our dishes or pets attention.  It is a necessity that has to be done; we do what we need to do, but nothing else.  The dishes are dirty, we wash them.  The horse needs to be groomed; we groom it.  There is no need to bow or show deferential treatment to them.  I think we can observe protocol if warranted, but we must be very wary of thinking they have more power or authority than us.

But those managers and bosses can fire you!  They can cut your pay!  Good point; then I'll watch out for them and perform my own due diligence like I would with anti-virus shots.  I'll do what I must for my own self-care, but I don't have to make my whole life dependent on them.  Soon, they will be retired, they will forget about you - they'll be golfing, going on vacations, put into a retirement home and soon, dead.

"For when the [president, VP, manager] says to someone, 'I'll [fire you, cut your pay, excommunicate you]' one who attaches value to his [job, position, membership] will reply, 'No, have pity on me,' while one who attaches value, by contrast, to his choice will say, 'If you think that will do any good, [fire away]'

To which, the president or VP or manager might say, "You don't care?" And you can respond, "Not in the least."  And the tyrant might say, 'I'll show you that I am [the president, VP, general authority].'

And then you respond, "How will you do that?  Zeus has set me free.  Do you really suppose that he would allow his own son to be turned into a slave?  You're master of my carcass, take that."  (see v. 8-10, p. 44).

Later, Epictetus talks about sacrifices and offerings to gods.  And he asks a really poignant question, "Yet who has ever offered up a sacrifice because his desires are rightly directed?  Or because his motives are in accord with nature?  For we offer up thanks to the gods for those things in which we place our good" (v. 25, p. 46).

Let this be your guide for having the proper attitude in dealing with "people of authority."

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 1.18 - That we should not be angry with those who do wrong

How should we view and deal with thieves and robbers?  How do you react and think about immoral people?

Someone poses this question to Epictetus: "So this thief here and this adulterer should be put to death?"

Epictetus responds, "Not at all, but what you should be asking instead is this: 'This man who has fallen into error and is mistaken about the most important mater, and thus has gone blind, not with regard to the eyesight that distinguishes white from black, but with regard to the judgement that distinguishes good from bad - should someone like this be put to death?'"  He compares the loss of moral capacity with loss of seeing or hearing and he asks if we should execute the deaf and blind?  If someone loses the capacity to be moral, Epictetus views this as similar to the loss of a sense.  Should we execute someone who is blind?  No!  Similarly, should we execute someone who's ability to make moral choices is lost?  No!

But I will say, how do you determine the difference between someone who has lost their moral ability and someone who knows right from wrong, but still chooses to be immoral?  That's a tough question.

Interestingly enough, while working one day, I happened to have the TV on and the Today Show with Megyn Kelly aired a segment about mothers dealing with children who have brain disorders - the very kind that prevents them from making moral or empathetic choices.  It's an interesting segment to watch and should give you pause when you are quick to "hate and take offence" (see verse 9).  The Today Show segment is called "Mothers Open Up About Concerns For Their Children With Brain Disorders" and it aired today, March 22, 2018.

He also instructs us that we should not be angry with people who may lack the ability for moral capacity, but instead we should pity them (see v. 9, p. 42).

Epictetus then goes on to discuss how we need to not place our desires in things that can be robbed from us.  He goes so far as to say that a tyrant can chain us up, and lop off our head, but the tyrant can never take our integrity from us.

How do we get to be this resilient?  "Know yourself.  So what follows?  That we should practice, by heaven, with little things, and after beginning with those, pass on to greater things.  'I've got a headache.'  Don't give expression to grief.  'I've got an earache.'  Don't give expression to grief.  And I'm not saying that you shouldn't groan at such things, but that you shouldn't groan in your inmost self" (v. 17-19, p. 43).

"Who, then, is the invincible human being?  One who can be disconcerted by nothing that lies outside the sphere of choice."  She or he is capable of overcoming, bearing and enduring without complaint, the heat, the cold, the allure of money (greed) and beautiful people (lust), darkness, glory or fame, abuse, praise and is even not afraid of death.  To overcome all; to not let any of these things have sway over you; that is what becoming invincible means.

In summary, test yourself.  Allow yourself to get into the mindset of constantly being tested and then work to win at those tests - to be the better man!  To quote one of my favorite Rocky lines, "How much can you take, and keep moving forward!  That's how winning is done!"

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 1.17 - that logic is indispenable

That the art of reasoning is indispensable

Entering the realm of philosophy and learning to live well, it is requisite that the student knows the tools and knows how to use the tools to accomplish an objective.

For this reason, Epictetus notes that "philosophers begin with logic" when teaching their students (v. 6).  He uses an analogy to explain.  "When measuring grain, one begins by examining the measure.  For unless we start off by establishing what a unit of measurement is, and what a balance is, how shall we ever be able to weigh or measure anything?" (v. 6-7).

Therefore, we ought to learn a "full and accurate knowledge of the standard of judgement that we apply in gaining a knowledge of everything else" (8).

To bolster his case for the importance of using learning and using logics, he notes previous philosophers who support this approach: Chrisippus, Zeno, Cleanthes, Antisthenes, Socrates and Xenophon (v. 10-12).

Also, to be able to read and understand previous philosophers, one ought to learn logic so one can interpret what they have said or written.  But even beyond that idea, if one learns logic well and applies it well, one won't even need the use of philosophers who have interpreted Nature, as we ought to be able to do so with applied, sound logic (see v. 15-19).

Furthermore, when someone tries to threaten you, you will be able to see things as they really are; "it isn't what you're threatened with that compels you, but your own judgement that it is better to do this or than than to die" (v. 25).

He concludes with a reminder that there is divinity in each of us and that a portion of god is in each of us.

"If you wish it, you are free; if you wish it, you'll find fault with no one, you'll cast blame on no one, and everything that comes about will do so in accordance with" your own will and god's will (v. 28).

Saturday, January 5, 2019

On Happiness - Part Two: Stoic Style

The Dichotomy of Control

The first time I read Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, only a few passages made sense to me.  It wasn't until I read Pierre Hadot's The Inner Citadel a couple of times before I connected with and "got" Meditations from start to finish.

Hadot spends quite a few pages setting the scene for his analysis of Meditations.  One of his chapters is entirely devoted to Epictetus - a powerhouse among Stoics.  We learn some very important and fundamental principals of Stoicism from Epictetus.  One of those important principals is the dichotomy of control.  In his Encheiridion or "handbook", he starts with:
Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing. The things that are up to us are by nature free, unhindered, and unimpeded; the things that are not up to us are weak, enslaved, hindered, not our own. So remember, if you think that things naturally enslaved are free or that things not your own are your own, you will be thwarted, miserable, and upset, and will blame both gods and men. But if you think that only what is yours is yours, and that what is not your own is, just as it is, not your own, then no one will ever coerce you, no one will hinder you, you will blame no one, you will not accuse anyone, you will not do a single thing unwillingly, you will have no enemies, and no one will harm you, because you will not be harmed at all. 
In learning and attempting to practice Stoicism, I've come to learn that there are a lot of things out of my control.  And what a refreshing change to see something so clearly defined and apparent as opposed to the guilt and anxiety that was instilled in me while learning Mormon dogma.

Early in my sessions with my therapist, she reminded me of the serenity prayer, which is quite Stoic:

God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

When these words finally sunk deep enough into my brain, I realized that much of my anxiety was based on things out of my control.  So many voices told me to be worried about dozens of different things and how I was supposed to act and what I was supposed to be worried about in the past or in the future.  My brain was like a fruit tree that had over-grown and had been choked by a vicious  bramble-week.  Epictetus' words (along with all the other Stoics) were like a chain-saw that cut away all the useless and what was left was a well-balanced, trimmed tree, producing good fruit.

This is the first lesson of Stoic happiness: always, in all things, separate things that are in your control from those things that are out of your control.  Then focus on the things in your control - this is the start of the path to contentment.

The Inner Citadel, your hegemonikon or Empedocles' Perfect Sphere

If you observe closely, you will have noticed that Epictetus' list of things in our control come from within.  Therefore, happiness and contentment, no matter what happens, comes from us!

There is, within each of us, a true self - our true soul if you will - that gets to decide our reality, our opinions and what we ultimately decide to accept or reject.  And no matter what any outside force or event occurs, we have the ultimate, final say in how we view those things.

Marcus Aurelius wrote the following in Meditations:

Book 4, 4
"things cannot touch the soul (mind)"

Book 5, 19
"Things cannot touch the soul at all.  They have no entry to the soul, and cannot turn or move it.  The soul alone turns and moves itself, making all externals presented to it cohere with judgements it thinks worthy of itself."

Book 6, 52
"things of themselves have no inherent power to form our judgments."

Book 9, 15
"Mere things stand isolated outside our doors, with no knowledge or report of themselves.  What then reports them?  Our directing mind."

To quote Hadot,
When he (Aurelius) speaks about "us" and about the soul, he is thinking of that superior or guiding part of the soul which the Stoics called the hegemonikon.  It alone is free, because it alone can give or refuse its assent to that inner discourse which enunciates what the object is which is represented by a given phantasia.  This borderline which objects cannot cross, this inviolable stronghold of freedom, is the limit of what I shall refer to as the 'inner citadel.'  Things cannot penetrate into this citadel: that is, they cannot produce the discourse which we develop about things, or the interpretation which we give of the world and its events.
As Book 9, 15 alludes to, these external things and events are "outside the door" of our inner citadel and we hold the key to that door!

This understanding - this realization - this lesson - is the next key to our Stoic happiness.  We must realize there is a hard boundary between events and our opinion.  And we get to decide what our opinion and our attitude is.  In the vast majority of people's minds, they jump to conclusions and assume too much.  They do not exercise much discipline in their value judgments and therefore introduce sadness, anxiety and worry into their own lives.  And other people know this!  They use it to great effect to induce guilt in others.  These are "the games" we humans play.  We must realize, however, we don't have to play these games!  We can fortify our inner citadel and exercise extreme security measures when it comes to letting in thoughts, assumptions and conclusions into our directing mind.

Marcus makes mention of Empedocles' "perfect round" which through the vortex of external events, and our constant vigil, that boundary remains inviolate.  Our discipline in keeping a strong border ensures the integrity and contentment of our inner citadel.  In Book 12, 3 Marcus writes,
There are three things in your composition: body, breath, and mind. The first two are yours to the extent that you must take care for them, but only the third is in the full sense your own. So, if you separate from yourself - that is, from your mind - all that others say or do, all that you yourself have said or done, all that troubles you for the future, all that your encasing body and associate breath bring on you without your choice, all that is whirled round in the external vortex encircling us, so that your power of mind, transcending now all contingent ties, can exist on its own, pure and liberated, doing what is just, willing what happens to it, and saying what is true; if, as I say, you separate from this directing mind of yours the baggage of passion, time future and time past, and make yourself like Empedocles' 'perfect round rejoicing in the solitude it enjoys', and seek only to perfect this life you are living in the present, you will be able at least to live out the time remaining before your death calmly, kindly, and at peace with the god inside you.
How do we ensure the integrity of that boundary?  How do we prevent thieves and burglars from entering our inner citadel?  We learn the Stoic Discipline of Assent.

Discipline of Assent

To get directly to the point, the discipline of assent is the process of strengthening our hegemonikon to assent (agree) with only valid impressions and to disagree or ignore invalid or incorrect impressions.

The world is filled with external events.  We are confronted with and bombarded by these events incessantly.  These events "propose" an idea or opinion to us and then we have to decide if we agree or not with that proposition.

Examples are best to better explain this concept.

From Marcus Aurelius Book 8, 49:
Do not elaborate to yourself beyond what your initial impressions report. You have been told that so-and-so is maligning you. That is the report: you have not been told that you are harmed. I see that my little boy is ill. That is what I see: I do not see that he is in danger. So always stay like this within your first impressions and do not add conclusions from your own thoughts - and then that is all.
From Epictetus Discourses 3.8
Just as we practise answering sophistic questions, so should we train for impressions every day, as they implicitly pose their own questions.
‘So-and-so’s son died.’ (‘The question’).
Answer: ‘Since it’s nothing he can control, it isn’t bad.’
‘So and so’s father left his son nothing when he died.’
‘Not something the son can control, so not bad.’
‘Caesar condemned him.’
‘Outside his control – not bad.’
‘He lamented these events.’
‘That is in his control – and bad.’
‘He withstood it like a man.’
‘That is in his control – and good.’
If we make a habit of such analysis, we will make progress, because we will never assent to anything unless it involves a cognitive impression.
‘His son died.’
What happened? His son died.
‘Nothing else?’
‘The ship was lost.’
What happened? The ship was lost.
‘He was thrown into jail.’
What happened? He was thrown into jail.
‘He’s in a bad situation’ is a stock comment that everyone adds on their own account.
This same thought process can and ought to be applied in every day circumstances as well as life-altering events.

When a driver cuts you off in traffic, all you can say is that they cut you off.  When you add, "what a jerk!" then you have introduced that value judgement.  You have allowed the event to enter your inner citadel and disrupt your peace.

When you receive notice that you've been fired from your job, all you can say is that you've been fired from your job.  When you add, "this is really bad!" that is you who has added the value judgement.  You can still excel at being an excellent human being (arete) by having a positive attitude about being fired and looking for opportunities to make this work to your advantage.  But you won't get to this point quickly unless you exercise the disciple of assent.

I love Epictetus' frame of mind when describing the discipline of assent.  Your directing mind is like an inner citadel and you employ a guard who has complete control over who can enter your citadel.  Epictetus says, "Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet; just say to it, “Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test” (Discourses 2.18).  Have you ever heard the phrase, "living rent free in your head"?  This is a very similar idea.  When someone is living rent-free in your head, you've allowed them to "get to you" to annoy you or disturb you, and you've failed to realize that you can kick them out whenever you want; you can kick the free-loader out!  All it takes is mental toughness and discipline and practice at not letting those impressions in to begin with!

Allow me to pause and make a few contrasting points between Stoicism and Mormonism.  As I've analysed my mental health between the years 2014 and 2018, I would say that learning and practicing the discipline of assent has been the biggest benefit.  Growing up Mormon, I was fed a constant diet of value judgements.  I was told, constantly, what it meant to be good or bad.  "Choosing the Right" was front and center in Mormon culture.  Believing in God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost; believing that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, that the Book of Mormon is an historical and truthful record, that Jesus Christ visited the ancient Americas, that the American aborigine is a descendant of the Lamanites, that the current Mormon prophet is the only authorized "mouthpiece" of God on the earth today ... and that you were "good" if you believed and testified of these things and "bad" if you did not.  These beliefs are the beginning qualifications of "good" in Mormonism.  If you believe these things, you "choose the right" but if you don't believe these things and verbally say so, then you do not "choose the right."

After these basic, fundamental teachings, you would prove your belief and worthiness by acting on them.  You are "good" if you say your prayers morning, afternoon and night.  You are "good" if you read the Book of Mormon for 30 minutes every day.  You are "good" if you praise and testify of Joseph Smith.  You are "good" if you obey all the commandments, and "bad" and "apostatizing" if you break any commandments.  Everyone is measured and re-measured against the beliefs and commandments in Mormonism.  Good if you believe and live them, bad if you don't.

I never took an opportunity to evaluate those value judgements until 2014.  From birth, through childhood, teenage years and through my 20's and 30's, I only ever let the "Mormon" value judgements into my consciousness.  In essence, I turned over "guard-duty" to whoever my teacher or leader or prophet was at the time.  And in many cases, these peoples' opinions and views were subject to change.  Learning and practicing the discipline of assent has allowed me to perform a hard re-set on my value judgements.  Mental-health-wise, I've never been healthier.  For the first time in my life, I am seeing things as they are.

Discipline of Desire

I am, by no means, a Stoic sage.  But I do feel better-armed, knowing about the dichotomy of control and the discipline of assent.  Up to about the year 2014, what gave me direction and motivation in life was Mormonism.  I was given a long list of things to do, and I set about checking those items off.  That worked pretty well for me until it didn't!  My Mormon worldview and foundation crumbled and in that void, I needed to ensure I rebuilt on solid rock.  But how do I find the right motivation; the driving force to power my desires and action?  Enter the Stoic Discipline of Desire.

At this point, I'd like to share a sequence that demonstrates how assent, desire and our will to act are intertwined.

An impression (external event) occurs → we assent (or not) → desire is triggered (or not) → we act (or not) on that desire.

Many times, that process happens instantaneously and before we know it, we are acting on impressions.  Almost subconsciously, we agree and desire something, and then immediately act.

People who want to sell you something, will play on your basest fears and desires in order to rob you of time and money.  They tell you that material possessions, power, prestige, health, eternal life and salvation are "good" and should be sought.  In many cases, you assent to these impressions thinking they will make you content and happy.  Stoicism helps you regain control over that process and instructs you on what you should desire (and not).

I really like how Chris Fisher puts it (source):
The discipline of desire helps us stop the train of passion before it leaves the station and builds a full head of steam. That is why Epictetus taught that controlling our passions, through the discipline of desire, is the “most urgent” of the three disciplines.
"[Desire] is what brings about disturbances, confusions, misfortunes, and calamities, and causes sorrow, lamentation, and envy, making people envious and jealous, with the result that we become incapable of listening to reason." (Discourses 3.2.3)
The Discipline of Desire includes two very important distinctions.  Marcus Aurelius often wrote about our own nature and universal nature (see Book 5.25, Book 6.58 and Book 12.32).  Personally, I like to think of these as micro-desires and macro-desires.  Others have called them common nature and universal Nature or human will and cosmic will.  The key idea is that, we have two areas of desire to focus on: our own, and that of Zeus/God/Providence/the Universe.

I've already discussed the dichotomy of control, which is based on the opening chapter of Epictetus' Encheiridion.  Chris Fisher organizes this chapter into a table-like format, which makes it very easy to consume

This table succinctly informs us where our micro-desires should be focused.  The list of things in our control, and subsequently where we can place our desires, is small.  But the outcomes are significant.

The other aspect of the discipline of desire is that of Universal or cosmic nature.  Some might call this the will of God or Providence.  Much thought and debate has gone into this topic.  There seems to be an active debate on-line between the Modern (agnostic/atheistic) Stoics and the Traditionalist (deist) Stoics.  The Moderns have seemingly tried to re-invent Stoicism by taking Zeus/God/Providence out of the equation, while the Traditionalists have pointed to the ancient Stoics as well as the academic studies of ancient Stoicism, to state that Stoicism absolutely claims there is a Providence or consciousness in the Universe and it is active.

Furthermore, the discipline of desire asks the Stoic follower to seek, understand, desire and live with the will of the Universe.  This is a key difference, in my opinion, in how a person might choose to live a resigned, stoic (lower-case 's') life versus an active, fulfilling Stoic (upper-case 'S') life.  Stoics (big-S) will seek to see how everything is useful for the Whole (earth, universe, etc.) - they can remain indifferent to these events, but love them and even want them to happen!

Pierre Hadot describes how a practicing Stoic might view cosmic events:
Everything that happens to the part is useful for the Whole, and everything that is "prescribed" for each part is, almost in the medical sense of the term, "prescribed" (V, 8) for the health of the Whole, and consequently for all the other parts as well.
The discipline of desire therefore consists in replacing each event within the perspective of the Whole, and this is why it corresponds to the physical part of philosophy. To replace each event within the perspective of the Whole means to understand two things simultaneously: that I am encountering it, or that it is present to me, because it was destined for me by the Whole, but also that the Whole is present within it. Since such an event does not depend upon me, in itself it is indifferent, and we might therefore expect the Stoic to greet it with indifference. Indifference, however, does not mean coldness. On the contrary: since such an event is the expression of the love which the Whole has for itself, and since it is useful for and willed by the Whole, we too must want and love it. In this way, my will shall identify itself with the divine Will which has willed this event to happen. To be indifferent to indifferent things-that is, to things which do not depend on me-in fact means to make no difference between them: it means to love them equally, just as Nature or the Whole produces them with equal love. (The Inner Citadel p. 142, emphasis added)
Even though it's been pointed out by many people that Friedrich Nietzsche excoriated Stoicism, I still think his "amor fati" quote encapsulates well the idea of loving the will of Providence/Universal Nature:

Some people might assume focusing on micro-desires and macro-desires will bring a person happiness.  So far in this essay, I've been using the terms "happiness" and "contentment."  I think it is time to clarify this point.  The Stoic philosophers used the word eudaimonia to describe the outcome living according to Nature.  Some have interpreted the word eudamonia as happiness, but it has a more precise meaning in "human flourishing" or "good flow."  Zeno of Citium called it "good flow of life" (source).

Stoicism does not promise elation or joy or eternal bliss or never-ending happiness; which is what many religions seem to offer for a price.  Rather, Stoicism seems to say, "here are things in your control and things not in your control.  If you focus on things out of your control, you'll find disappointment.  If you focus on things in your control, you'll live life with eyes wide open."  Stoicism also confronts us with the cosmic view and challenges us to adapt to Universal nature, not with promises, but with rationality.

There is other another aspect, which I have not addressed yet, which is a key ingredient in the pursuit of eudamonia.  It is the pursuit of arete or excellence in character by practicing the only moral good: that of virtue (discipline, courage, justice, wisdom).  I'll conclude this essay discussing how the Stoics view virtue as the sole good.  But before I get to that conclusion, there is one more discipline to discuss - the Discipline of Action.

Discipline of Action

I am not well versed in Epicureanism, but I have heard and read many other aspiring Stoics discuss the differences between Stoicism and Epicureanism.  The Epicureans believed pleasure was the sole good and believed the best way to accomplish this was to "to live modestly, to gain knowledge of the workings of the world, and to limit one's desires." (source)  One way to achieve this was to disengage with society and seek tranquility in a garden or peaceful place.  Indeed this sounds wonderful and peaceful; however Stoicism offers this same peace and tranquility while engaging with society.  For the Stoics, virtue is the sole good and the only real way to practice virtue is in society.  One cannot practice discipline, courage, wisdom and justice unless there are other human beings around, who would give the aspiring Stoic opportunities to practice said virtues.

Furthermore, Stoics would bring others into their circle of care by wanting others to flourish.  The technical Greek term for this is oikeiôsis.  It can be roughly translated as "familiarity" or "affinity".  Practically speaking, it means each of us as individuals, are naturally programmed to care for ourselves, physically and logically.  While we practice to be better at that, we can also extend our circle of affinity to those closest to us, then on to an ever-widening circle, until we have that same affinity to all citizens of the cosmos; we become true cosmopolitans.

With these two principals in minds, (acting with virtue in the context of society and viewing all people as "in our circle of care"), Stoicism gives us the tools to enter the world every day and engage with others and keep our tranquility.

Many people, including myself, love this particular passage from Marcus Aurelius, who must have often given himself this pep-talk in the morning:
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.
Virtue is the Sole Good

Corresponding to each Stoic discipline is a virtue.

With the Discipline of Desire, we are provided a structure and philosophy for demonstrating the virtues of courage and self-discipline.

With the Discipline of Assent, we can practice the virtue of wisdom.

And with the Discipline of Action, we have opportunities to demonstrate the virtue of justice.

Armed with the concepts and ideas of the three Stoic disciplines and the Stoic framework, we are ready to wake up each morning and look for opportunities to practice virtue.  The study of Stoic philosophy and meditating on these concepts is important.  We ought to express gratitude to God for our lot in life and for everything God has provided us.  We ought to meditate and reinforce Stoic principles every day in a journal.  We ought to study what each of the cardinal virtues mean.  But all of that studying and meditating is useless to us and to our fellow brothers and sisters if we fail to exercise virtue in our every-day lives.

A typical day for an aspiring Stoic might have these activities:
  • spend a few minutes thinking of something for which they are grateful
  • write in a journal, anticipating events that might not go as planned (up to and including death)
  • reading a reminder from a Stoic sage or writer, such as Aurelius, Epictetus or Zeno
  • go to work, play; live in the world, drive around, interact with people
  • look for opportunities to practice the three disciplines
  • exercise virtue (demonstrate self-discipline, share wise advice, treat others with kindness and respect)
  • at the end of the day, reflect on what went well and what didn't; using the lens and measuring stick of virtue to determine what was good or bad; with kindness, congratulate yourself for things well-done and coach yourself on how you could do better the next day
The real fruit of Stoicism is being more mindful of striving to live a life of virtue.  And to be able to accomplish that goal, one must learn and practice.  And practice is found in living virtuously every day and engaging with other people every day.  One cannot live a life of virtue by himself.  He needs friends, family, co-workers, other drivers, people on the street, vendors.  He needs traffic, rain storms, calamities, illness, cosmic events, life-altering events.  He needs the world and the universe and everything in it.  This is the domain to practice Stoicism and to attain arete.


In talking about Stoicism with various people, inevitably the conversation drifts towards the topic of how similar Stoicism and Buddhism are.  What is fascinating to both me and the other people with whom I discuss this, is that two cultures, from different sides of the planet, arrived at very similar conclusions.  Both philosophies have also withstood the test of time and have brought millions of people to enlightenment.  Anyone would be hard pressed to find adamant detractors of either philosophy.

To me, this means there are timeless and useful principals; they do not change and have proven beneficial and truthful time and time again.  They are like solid rock, on which someone can build their mental fortress.

This has been my deepest desire: to place myself on solid rock.  To be able to rely on a philosophy that supports me every day of my life today and for the remainder of my days, no matter the circumstance.  I suppose this is why one particular passage from Meditations rings so true with me and why I think of it often each day and through every week:
Be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break.  It stands firm and round it the seething waters are laid to rest.

Friday, January 4, 2019

On Happiness - Part One: Mormon Style

I was born and raised Mormon.  Growing up, I was taught "the Plan of Salvation" or "the Plan of Happiness" (search on for "plan of happiness").

The Plan of Salvation or Happiness (which I'll simply refer to as The Plan), was based on roughly the following major points:

We Lived With God Before We Were Born
All humans alive today, dead or soon-to-be-born, lived with God before we were born.  However, any human born on Earth, represents only two-thirds of God's children.  The other third were lead by Satan and will never receive a body.  The reason: Satan and his followers rebelled against God.  Satan and his followers intended to take away everyone's freedom or agency.  But God and his faithful son Jesus Christ, did not intend that.  Because we chose to follow God and Jesus Christ, we were blessed to have a body - to be born on the Earth.  Those who followed Satan were cast from God's presence (this is how Mormons interpret Revelation 12:4, 7-9) and cursed to never receive a body (see Abraham 3:22-23).

God Created the World and Adam and Eve; and They "Fell"
Like most Christians, Mormons believe in the Creation.  Adam and Eve lived in God's presence in the Garden of Eden.  God gave them two commandments: 1) to have children 2) not to eat of the forbidden fruit.  Eve, at the prompting of Satan, ate the forbidden fruit because she reasoned that she could not fulfill the first commandment (to have kids) unless she ate of the fruit.  She convinced Adam to eat of the fruit.  This action then lead to them being expelled from God's presence in the Garden of Eden.  Ever since that event, Adam and Eve and their descendants (us), have been striving to re-gain God's presence.  Mormons believe Adam and Eve made promises (covenants) to God, that if they kept His commandments, they could return to His presence.  In the Mormon church, the core of these covenants are made in Mormon temples.

This is key to understanding Mormon doctrine; we can really only find lasting happiness by returning to God's presence.

The creation, the eating of the forbidden fruit, life, death, making covenants with God and keeping commandments that God gives through his prophets, mark the stepping stones of The Plan.  Mormons believe life is essentially a test; and commandments (both commandments of commission and omission) are a means for achieving happiness in mortal life as well as eternal life.

Obedience = Happiness
A Mormon's life, whether born into a family and raised Mormon, or through conversion, is guided by a series of events.  Happiness is attained through obedience to teachings and commandments and rituals.

As a child, you learn to be happy by obeying your parents, by going to church, reading the Book of Mormon, the Bible, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price.  You learn to be happy by going to church meetings three hours every Sunday and by attending church activities during the week.

You learn to be happy by having Family Home Evening every Monday night, with your family.  In those family meetings, you learn about The Plan and you play games and eat treats.

You learn to be happy by giving talks in church and by teaching lessons.  You learn to be happy by saying your prayers morning and evening; both by yourself and with your family.  You learn to be happy by reading your scriptures for 30 minutes every day.  You learn to be happy by listening to the Prophets and church leaders every April and October.  You learn to be happy from your home teachers, who come once a month to teach you more about The Plan.  All of this, is to help you prepare to be baptized and confirmed a member of the church when you turn eight years old.

If you do all those things, listed above, you will be happy.  But if you forget to do all of them or some of them, you may begin to feel dark feelings or you may begin to feel lost.  This is God telling you that you are not loving Him and that you are disobeying.  When this happens, you should repent.  You repent by confessing, saying sorry and then by striving to do better - either stop doing the wrong or start choosing the right.  If you fully repent, then you are on the path to happiness again.

After you are baptized and confirmed, you receive a special gift: the gift of the Holy Ghost.  This gift gives you special access to a member of the Godhead.  He is a spirit and can enter your heart and mind and give you promptings to help other people or he can remind you to do what is right or he can warn you against danger.  But since he is a member of the Godhead, he can only enter those people who are righteous - who are obedient to the commandments.  If you are disobedient, you will not have the Spirit of the Holy Ghost with you and you won't be guided in life - you may make a wrong choice or fail to do something right.  After baptism, your happiness is dependent on the guidance from the Holy Ghost, which is dependent on your obedience to the commandments you have been taught.

The process of practicing obedience and repentance is repeated the rest of your life, along with with milestones that help you stay on the straight and narrow.  At age twelve, if you're a boy, you will be interviewed by a local church leader (the Bishop) and your worthiness (level of commitment and obedience) is determined.  If you are deemed worthy, then you are given the Aaronic Priesthood.  For a young woman, a worthiness interview is also given, so that she may advance into the Young Womens' program.  Worthiness interviews are held at regular intervals during your teenage years.  If your parents are good parents, they too will hold one-on-one interviews with you to check in on your progress in keeping the commandments.  Failure to "pass" these worthiness interviews means the young man or woman is not living up to expectations.  Failure to meet expectations means the young man or woman are not truly happy.

By the time you are 18 years old, you will have gone through approximately twenty or more interviews.  And at this point in your life, you are faced with additional major milestones: missions and marriages.  All young men are duty-bound to serve a full-time, two-year mission, in which they travel to a different city or country, in order to preach Mormonism and convert "non-members."  For those young men who don't qualify, a significant social stigma sticks with them for a life-time.  Almost as bad or perhaps equally bad, is when a young man leaves to go on a mission, but then fails to honorably complete it.  Women are not obligated to serve a full-time mission, but many choose to do so.  If a woman chooses not to serve a full-time mission, soft, social pressure increases on her to get married.

Sometime during these crucial years, men and women will make covenants with God in a Mormon temple.  Men promise to obey the law of the Lord and women promise to obey their husband as he promises to obey the Lord (note: this was just changed by the church in January 2019; women are no longer "put under oath" to obey their husband).  They promise to be willing to sacrifice everything they currently have or will have to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in order to build up the kingdom of God on earth.  They promise not to speak evil of the Lord's anointed ("the Lord's anointed" are people who have also been deemed worthy to enter the temple and have participated in the temple rituals and promises).  They promise to not be "light-minded" or to engage in "loud laughter" or to engage in any "unholy or impure practice."  They promise to be sexually faithful to their spouse.  They promise to keep all the commandments in the scriptures.  And they promise to never reveal the signs and "tokens" or special hand-shakes with unique names, to others.

Once a person "enters the temple" and "receives their own endowment", they are expected to return often and perform the work as proxy for people who have died and who did not or could not make similar promises in a Mormon temple when they were alive.

For all men and women, there is a strong expectation for them to get married and "sealed" in a Mormon temple.  Marriage brings a whole new level of commitment, including fulfilling the first commandment Adam and Eve were given in the Garden of Eden: to have children.  Only by being married and sealed for eternity in a Mormon temple, with Mormon priesthood, can married couples attain the highest degree of heaven (the Celestial Kingdom in Mormon vernacular) and therefore find eternal happiness in the after-life.  And in this mortal life, once married, Mormons find true happiness by raising a family.

Child-rearing brings a new generation of children.  Mormon parents now not only have the responsibility of their own personal salvation and happiness, but they must ensure their children enter into the same path they have lived.  If parents fail to baptize their children and raise them in the Mormon faith, true happiness is put at risk.

Happiness Through Guilt
I have only hit upon a the larger points in The Plan.  As you may see, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of opportunities to fail attaining happiness in Mormonism.  Any excuse given as to why an individual is not happy, is met with dozens of questions of the individual's worthiness.  Failure in any of these larger points, outlined above, or even dozens of smaller failures, such as forgetting to pray or to study the scriptures or to not attend a meeting or the temple, will be presented as evidence as to why the individual is not happy.  This is reinforced countless times in the many sacrament meetings, Sunday School lessons, Seminary classes and General Conference talks.  This is key to understanding Mormon guilt and happiness.

If a member takes the dogma seriously, then they should be happy by keeping all the commandments.  But, if anyone expresses discontentment or unhappiness, the first place to look is their level of commitment to Mormonism.  Ultimately, this means any unhappiness experienced is the member's fault!  If you've ever heard the phrase, "heads I win, tails you lose" then you may understand the position Mormons are put in.

Two specific, doctrinal examples of the type of guilt Mormon leaders instill within their members can be found in the Doctrine and Covenants and a quote from a Mormon prophet.

D&C 68:25
And again, inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents.

John Taylor
If you do not magnify your callings, God will hold you responsible for those whom you might have saved had you done your duty (source).

I watched parents and other members suffer years of guilt and anxiety over things beyond their control (a wayward child, lack of success as a missionary, etc).  The guilt and anxiety cultivated in people for failing in the thousands of big and little "duties" is significant.

Eventually, Mormons begin to have this devastating dialogue with themselves in their head.  They wonder if they should do this or say that or if they should not do something or not say anything.

If you recall, after baptism, Mormons received the Gift of the Holy Ghost.  They are expected to be worthy of the Holy Ghost at all times.  If they become unworthy, they risk "losing" the gift which then puts them at risk for not making crucial decisions that could impact the lives of many.  Failure to "listen to the still small voice" could result in you not saying something that could change a person's life or it could put you at risk in not making a critical decision or worse, making a bad decision.  This gift is supposed to help you in keeping all the commandments.  But in the event you fail, you can always repent.

Repentance ... with a caveat
I briefly mentioned repentance above.  Mormons view repentance as a way to clean your soul in preparation to meet God at judgement day.  Repentance should be exercised often.  There should never be "death-bed repentance."  Rather, you should be thinking of ways, every day, to repent.

Once you repent, you are expected to stay on the straight and narrow path.  And as long as you do not return to those sins, God will remember them no more as outlined in D&C 58:42-43:

42 Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.

43 By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.

The last two words of verse 43 are very important in Mormonism.  There is an expectation that you never return to any sin you commit - that you forsake them.  Only then, will the Lord forget your sins.  This scripture, alone, does not sound unreasonable.  But, when put in context of another scripture, we learn guilt can be piled on the sinner exponentially.

D&C 82:7 says, "And now, verily I say unto you, I, the Lord, will not lay any sin to your charge; go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God."

This Mormon doctrine shows that sins, in at least one case, are not forgotten by the Lord.  If you sin, repent and completely forsake, the Lord forgets your sin.  But if you commit that sin again, you are not only guilty of that sin, but all the former sins as well!  The guilt, almost exponentially, returns!  As you can see, there is a built-in feedback loop designed to pile on guilt by the loads.  A camel trying to get through an eye of a needle comes to mind ... and it's the camel's fault to boot!

But I See Lots of Happy Mormons
At this point, allow me to let you in on a little secret: I don't believe in Mormonism - at least as the founder Joseph Smith would have you believe it - that it is the one true church or religion endorsed by God and all other religions are an abomination in God's eyes.

I have since come to the conclusion that if you come across a happy Mormon, then they are probably a (what I like to call) Buffet Mormon.  They are likely surveying the doctrines, dogmas and commandments and picking and choosing the ones they like and ignoring the ones they don't care for.  In my opinion, some never engage in a serious survey of the dogma and are able to ignore many aspects of Mormonism through ignorance or indifference.

Less likely, but still probable, are another set of happy Buffet Mormons who love the current culture of Mormonism, have examined much, if not all, of the unsavory church history and who are able justify current or past immoral (and doctrinal) teachings and behaviors of leaders or founders.  This allows them to live contentedly with aspects they agree with, but turn a blind eye to practices, under normal circumstances, they would find repulsive (God endorsing racial discrimination, plural marriage, a "prophet" marrying other mens' wives and young women as young as fourteen, instilling a culture of soft hate against gay, lesbian and other orientations, deception about authority and the list goes on).

There is a saying about the Mormon church that goes: what is good about the church is not unique and what is unique about the church is not good.

Those who are happy, largely focus on the 'good' about the church and they turn a blind eye to the things that are unique about the church.  I contend that many of these same people who believe the good things about the church, could find happiness in most Christian religions today.

Happiness Broken
For me, I found a lot of the guilt and unhealthy teachings were affecting my mental health and well-being.  I had such a sincere desire to obey and to "purify" myself, that all I could see were my imperfections.  Leaders, both local and general, would remind me of my short-comings.  Those close to me would often compare my actions with others, who seemingly were better than me.  Many weekends, after coming home from a week of work, I would simply want to sit on the couch or front porch and do nothing but sit.  My mind was numb and my head experienced a low-grade vibrating buzz (that's the best way to describe the numbness).  While I watched many friends and neighbors get their batteries re-charged at church meetings, I found myself lacking motivation and I often looked forward to Monday mornings!

I simply didn't have the psychological tools to help myself.  I also didn't have the space to really assess my philosophical foundations.  For me, it felt like God's prophets, "general authorities" and local lay leaders were changing doctrine.  Doctrine, dogmas and teachings, which were once considered core to the Mormon faith, were now yesterday's theories advanced by "men" who weren't really speaking as prophets (despite being sustained as such).  More and more, it felt like the only virtue in Mormonism, was to "follow the prophet, but only today's prophet."  It felt like I was standing on sand and it was shifting underneath my feet.  I yearned for solid rock and a moral compass upon which I could depend.

By late 2013 and early 2014, the number of "dark" weekends became more frequent and would last longer.  Although I had often considered suicide through the years, by 2014 I began to seriously consider it.  I knew I had crossed a boundary and I needed help.  After telling my wife, I made a phone call and scheduled an appointment to see a therapist.

I began to see a therapist in the summer of 2014.  She was able to help me deconstruct my negative thinking using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  She also recommended that I review my values - I took a values system test which helped reveal what my inner values really were.  After a few weeks of talking with her, I began conducting own research on CBT and discovered it was roughly based on Stoic philosophy.  Thus began my journey of learning about Stoicism.  During this time, I also conducted a cold-eyes review of Mormonism.  My research lead me to discover the truth claims of the church were not valid and I no longer felt an obligation to believe many Mormon dogmas and beliefs.

By the end of 2014 and towards the beginning of 2015, I purchased my first copy of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations which opened a truly beautiful, logical world to me and has helped me reconstruct my philosophical world view in a way that has allowed me to escape the grasp of depression and anxiety.  For the first time, in a long time, I found rock upon which to stand.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 1.16 - On providence

in this passage, Epictetus instructs us on why and how we should praise God.  in a word, it is gratitude.  why?  because when we are grateful for what we have been granted and provided, we recognize our position in the universe.  without any of these things, we simply don't exist.  additionally, by thinking about these things and expressing gratitude, we must be open to the idea that intelligence went into the design of our world.  why?  we may not know exactly why, but without a doubt, we benefit from it.

Epictetus begins the passage by contemplating how the beasts need little and how everything is provided for them to exist.  furthermore, he expresses gratitude that humans do not have the responsibility or worry to provide for the animals, as everything they need has already been provided.  for this "order of things" we ought to give thanks.

also, we ought to contemplate these seemingly minute details and be grateful to the gods for them.  it is fascinating that from grass, we have milk; and from milk, we have cheese.  from plants we have clothes, gasoline, energy, modern transportation, communications, medicines and much, much more.  by our creative and innovative natures, we are able to create an abundance and provide for many.  for all of this, we ought to be grateful to the gods.  and just as many people have conceived of an idea and created some system, so too we ought to appreciate the many natural systems that have been created in the world; from the generation of food and animals and crops to the self-healing nature of oceans and land.

by today's modern standards and our very diverse social world, there is one odd observation Epictetus makes - that of facial hair and voices.  he observes that facial hair on men comes from god, so that people can distinguish between male and female.  nature has also given women a "gentler note into their voices" and are "deprived" of facial hair.  he concludes that it is "only right to preserve the signs that have been conferred on us by God" (v. 14, p. 38).

the conclusion and point of the entire passage is about expressing gratitude to the gods.  "what else should we do, both in public and in private, than sing hymns and praise the deity, and recount all the favours that he has conferred!  as we dig and plough and sow, oughtn't we to sing this hymn of praise to God: 'Great is God, for having provided us with these implements with which we till the earth; great is God for having given us hands, and the power to swallow, and a stomach, and enabling us to grow without being conscious of it, and to breathe while we're asleep.'  this is what we should sing on every occasion, and also the most solemn and divine hymn to thank God for having given us the power to understand these things, and to make methodical use of them" (v. 15-18, p. 38).

later he says, "if I were a nightingale, I would perform the work of a nightingale, and if I were a swan, that of a swan.  But as it is, I am a rational being, and I must sing the praise of God" (v. 20, p. 38).  this passage reminds me of Martin Luther King Jr. when he said,
If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.'
meditating about these things and then feeling and expressing gratitude about them, makes us healthier and happier.  a simple web search will return many results of studies showing these benefits (see this link).  this one particular article notes 31 benefits of gratitude.  big or small, go ahead and recognize and express gratitude for all things you observe.