While odds are we won’t be faced with armed conflict over a slight to our allegiances or affront to our honor, there is value in adopting an old samurai practice for developing resilience.
If we sit for a moment, before leaving our gates, imagining sneers, jeers, disgust, clucks, *tsks* and frowns of all those disapproving our very existence, much less our opinions, dress, gender, age, skin color, the way we walk or talk or breath —if we imagine all the rude drivers, pedestrians, shopping carts cutting us off, tailgating, flipping us the finger for being too fast, too slow, taking up space. And throw in all the clerks, officials, staff and petty tyrants, annoyed to be of service. All the macho, catty, salacious or haughty stares, challenges, brush-offs and confrontations of the day. But also: all the unexpected smiles, and courtesies, the random acts of kindness, the joy or excitement in a child’s face, the looks of love and shared intimacies. The frail, the innocent, the wonder. We can start our day with equanimity, without Pollyanna expectations or cynical fatalism. The world is simply what it is. Both the pettiness and grandeur. And it’s nothing personal, to those prepared for its full embrace.
Our inner geography is territory we hang out in each and every day. No matter what is happening outside of our head, our awareness resides somewhere within an interior sensorium. Some areas are tropical beaches, relaxed and easy going, happy with the world while other sections are swamps of low energy, foul moods and depression. There are borders that are sometimes crossed, new territory occasionally annexed when we encounter novel experiences either within or without. Experiences that don’t fit anywhere within our existing constructs. This tends to happen less frequently as we age and we find ourselves both confined and comfortable within a few acres and well beaten paths between familiar destinations. We inhabit predictable territories and we travel between a few accustomed villages of mental/emotional/energetic states.
How we get to these places is usually outside of our control. We’re typically pushed into them by oblique collisions with the outside world, external stimuli and our interpretations of what these collisions mean. These tell us where to report to on our map. Spilt coffee on our laps, an idiotic driver on the freeway and we’re usually slung into some low-life tavern across the tracks from our more compassionate climes and free spirited villas.
But there is also an ecology to this inner landscape. A way energy is used, stored and transferred, that controls our mobility to move from one area to another. Most us can’t bootstrap ourselves out of a foul, moody swamp back onto the hilltop overlooking the valley and shiny threads of river reveries that are part of a more easy going and light hearted landscape. We have to be taken there by something outside of ourselves.
But we can learn to wander independently in these geographies of our own mind. To manage energy more skillfully for mobility and exploration; enough energy to expand the boundaries of what our habitual experiences contain. Beyond territory already mapped. Enough awareness to shift our center to places with greater resources for meeting demands of the outside world. And while we are still trapped within our own minds, we are not confined to the rooms of our acculturation. Or the narrow corridors of our conditioning. And trapped is perhaps a relative word, when we realize the infinity of this domain.
So we’re saying your state will determine what you experience, the meaning you place on it, the capacity you have to respond to it, and your general quality of life. That’s a lot! The good news is that it is you who has primary control of your state, should you wish to claim it.
-The Hero’s Journey by Stephen Gilligan and Robert Dilt
Re-claim it, perhaps
We’re not usually aware of this energy and how it is squandered. We seldom monitor when it is stolen, or perceive how it is harvested or re-purposed through external means. Basically, we’re energy blind. And perhaps more insidious, we are not the top of the energy food chain, the way we are in the material plane. And this has consequences that steal our freedom and ability to choose. An old Gnostic idea of higher planes, in a multidimensional universe, where we are less like special snowflakes and more like domesticated cattle. A topic of the next post. Probably.
It’s a shame that all we remember of Stoic philosophy is a single impoverished adjective. A sequestered modifier ill-suited to capture its historical relevance. Its unattributed influence infuses our culture, revealed in aphorism and scattered parlance— “don’t ask for an easy life, ask for the strength to handle a difficult one.” In appreciating simple pleasures rather than gourmet commodities, with gratitude for both. And the suspicion that forever trying to satisfy desire as the golden path to happiness may not be a feasible pursuit.
Starting around 300 BC, Stoics suspected seeking an easy life was a fool’s game and a sure-fire path to pain and suffering. This is a book review, of sorts, of The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine. But also a spoiler, imparting some Stoic strategies still applicable to modern times.
My last book review on Buddhism spoke to how we may suffer through clinging to impermanence. And by taking whatever we think or feel without circumscription. Buddha’s prescription was meditation: observe the mind. By noticing thoughts as they occur, we notice our relationship with them. We gain a little space, a little freedom. A little less robotic reaction.
The Stoics are equally cynical of the current state of psychological affairs: we are led by the noses by our appetites and fears. We never find lasting happiness but blindly pursue, and are manipulated by, our hardwired dopamine dependencies1. By biochemistry rather than free will. Their remedy, however, differs from the Buddha: reflect rather than observe. Use skillful thoughts to dismantle dysfunctional ones. Jump into the fray swinging rather than detaching.
With sleights of mind like taking time occasionally to imagine losing all possessions, abilities, freedom, loved ones. Imagine ourselves dying, suddenly or through protracted illness and pain. Sound morbid? They claim it’s a vaccine. Rather than blithely assuming such things will never happen to us and it shattering our worlds when they do, Stoics accounted for possibilities to build resilience. And by doing so they bring a deeper appreciation and gratitude into the moment. By imagining the death of loved ones, we can appreciate our time with them now. And if, or when, they depart we may harbor fewer regrets. And by imaging our own demise we gain greater clarity about priorities. What’s actually significant in our day-to-day. And what isn’t.
A passage meaningful to recovery groups everywhere: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” is a touchstone of Stoic philosophy: not letting what we can’t control mess with our zen. In fact, they warn against setting external goals entirely. Much better to set ones we accomplish within ourselves, like doing our best. And living our virtues. And to unsubscribe to all the ways we are pulled into validating ourselves to the world or proving ourselves “worthy.” Whatever that might mean. We have no control over what people think about us, even on our best behavior2. So why pin our happiness and well-being on public opinion and external circumstance?
There’s a fatalism about the past and present with the Stoics, but not the future. The present is what it is. Deal with it they’d say. But they would add: and here’s how. The future can be changed if we avoid allowing our past to be our sole defining characteristic, with its automatic thoughts and feelings propelling us blindly into our karma. Free will is possible, but not a given.
To that end, a tactic used for building will and resilience was avoiding the easy way now and then. Intentionally making things harder, by practicing deferred gratification (incidentally, the ability to do this seems to lead to better lives in a series of studies.) Examples might be intermittent fasting, cold showers, things that might frustrate us if imposed by circumstance create a subtle pleasure of mastery when chosen for practice. And when we are inconvenienced or tripped up by obstacles during the day, it makes it that much easier to bear.
Unlike the Buddhists, the Stoics were troublemakers. While Buddhism shares common virtues, like compassion, the Stoics were tasked with finding their own set of values, important to the individual. Stoics were Kings (Marcus Aurelius, widely regarded as the best King in Roman history) and advisors to Kings (Seneca to Nero) but were often exiled and sometimes executed in pursuit of their values. They had certain virtues in common, like avoiding the pursuit of fame or wealth, but this was primarily because these were external goals. And yet their internal compass for doing their best, and living a good life however they defined it, seemed to result naturally in fame or riches; which were gratefully accepted but always held lightly.
Irving’s book covers these strategies, and more, and in greater detail. He set out to create a modern school for Stoicism in the form of a book. He presents Stoic philosophy the way it was presented in ancient Greece and Rome as a school of living optimally. Where philosophy asked the hard questions so that at the end of our lives we don’t discover that we never lived. The people with whom Stoicism resonates, and it probably won’t be many, will feel like they’ve reconnected with their long-lost tribe. Asgard is not a place, Asgard is a people.3
[Mind map here, but it’s a monster]
- Dopamine has the curious property of rewarding us for first experiences, setting the hook, first one is on the house, and then rewarding us less for it each time in the future and more for the anticipation. Evolution rewards those who can’t sit still (leaving progeny that wonders why they can’t sit still.) ↩
- Not taking things personally sort of sums this up. And also recognizes that many people may not be living conscious lives, and what they think about you may say far more about who they are than you. ↩
- For those up on the latest Marvel movies. (e.g. Thor: Ragnarok) ↩
Despite its title, this is not a book about Buddhism being the one true religion. It’s about how secular and philosophical insights of Buddha provide practical solutions to the mind’s outdated software.
How we struggle with reactivity and distortions no longer adapted to civilization. Our biology still pursues ends useful to propagating dna, but these are often starkly opposed to individual happiness and peace of mind. In fact, it turns out that as long as we procreate, nature doesn’t care whether we drop dead of stress shortly thereafter.
The nerve janxed primate that jumps at every stick thinking it a snake is more likely to pass genes than the “what, me worry?” type. But the thing is, everything these days looks like snakes.
We do have a nascent faculty, however, this newfangled “consciousness” thing that dropped late in our development, apparently riding in with the neocortex. (Maybe from touching that monolith back in 2001?) It can put us back in the driver’s seat —if we can figure out how to use it. And oddly enough, Buddha some 2500 years ago actually talks about how that’s done.
Some of his crazy ideas about how we are caught in loops of suffering because of how we’re hardwired and hoodwinked are being corroborated by a slew of studies in the neurosciences and evolutionary biology. And his prescription for meditation has proven to bolster, even at the level of our physiologies, a resilience to stress and detachment from the conditioning (but not the conditions) that’s driving us nuts.
That’s what this book is about. Although he does get sidetracked at times with a pet project, trying to come up with analytical models for non-self and emptiness. Yeah, good luck with that.
aberrant mindmap notes here.