Stoic Lesson: The Importance of Journaling

Our current age is so fast-paced and there is so much information out there that it feels like you are just jumping from one thought to another without completely digesting the message. We get all this information which we never unpack and see if it’s useful or not.

For Marcus Aurelius, who was a Roman Emperor and a Stoic philosopher, this unpacking of information was done through his writing. He kept a journal that we now know as his book ‘Meditations‘. The book is essentially comprised of personal notes, each one reminding him of something that he considered to be important, some principle to remember and live-by. Rather than adding information, Marcus Aurelius refined what he knew and tried to live by it.

Which is the point of philosophy. Philosophy isn’t simply to contemplate whether we exist or not or what logic means but rather, philosophy is about how one lives and for Aurelius, he was able to embody his philosophy by constantly reminding himself of what was important.

From the point of view of the imminence of death, one thing counts, and one alone: to strive always to have the essential rules of life present in one’s mind, and to keep placing oneself in the fundamental disposition of the philosopher, which consists essentially in controlling one’s inner discourse, in doing only that which is of benefit to the human community, and in accepting the events brought to us by the course of the Nature of the All. (Pierre Hadot)

The essential reason why Aurelius wrote was to control his inner discourse. By that, it is meant his thoughts. If you allow your mind to be completely free, it is likely to fill your head with anxiety and fears or, it’ll distract you from the right action by leading you towards some immediate gratification. But by repeatedly reading and writing the principles that you want to live by, you bring those ideals to the forefront of your mind and then your action follows.

It is not enough to reread what has already been written. Written pages are already dead, and the Meditations were not made to be reread. What counts is the reformulation: the act of writing or talking to oneself, right now, in the very moment when one needs to write. (Pierre Hadot)

This is an important thing to understand. If one reads the ‘Meditations’ what they will find is that Marcus Aurelius is basically repeating the same handful of principles over and over again. The reason for this is that the book was never meant for public eyes. Rather it was his personal journal. But what we can understand from this action is that we need reminders. We need to remember to stay on the right path. This is done through daily practice. Every day you have to hammer it into your mind what you want to be, how you want to act, how you want to represent yourself. Writing is one way to do this. Because the act of writing alone causes you to concentrate on the thoughts which are formulating into the words in front of you.

Marcus writes only in order to have the dogmas and rules of life always present to his mind. He is thus following the advice of Epictetus, who, after having set forth the distinction between what does and does not depend on us —- the fundamental dogma of Stocisim —- adds:

It is about this that philosophers ought to meditate; this is what they should write down every day, and it should be the subject of their exercises (I, I, 25).

You must have these principles at hand both night and day; you must write them down; you must read them (III, 24, 103). (Pierre Hadot).

These principles depend on the individual. For the Stoics, the main principles were to understand how little control we have in life, how we do have control over our reason and attitude, how death can approach at any moment and how we must align ourselves with the universal purpose.

This may not be how you wish to live. But whatever you consider to be important, whatever principles you wish to follow require constant attention. You just have to remember to reinforce these principles on a consistent basis.

The practical nature of stoicism is one of the reasons why this philosophy is still relevant. It acknowledges how easy it is to be overwhelmed or to stray off the path but it also provides a solution in the form of journaling. Simply by writing for ten to fifteen minutes in the morning and maybe even in the afternoon, it can act as a reminder and help you to carry yourself with grace, to think of the right things and to act in the correct manner. The repetition of such can then slowly transform your character to the point that you begin to embody the philosophy by the way you live as it did for Marcus Aurelius.

Book referenced: The Inner Citadel by Pierre Hadot


Stoic Lesson: Aim For Internal Growth

Stoic Lesson: How To Keep Yourself Accountable

Stoic Lesson: The Right Mindset For A Happy Life

Stoic Lesson: Concentrate On What You Can Control

Stoic Lesson: You Have To Acknowledge Your Sickness Before You Can Be Cured

Stoic Lesson: Epictetus On Progress

Stoic Lesson: An Exercise In Being Grateful


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Poem: The Old Rebel

Article: Montaigne On How To Be A Well-Rounded Thinker

Short Story: The Bus

 

Why Read Mythology

The individual has to find an aspect of myth that relates to his own life. Myth basically serves four functions. The first is the mystical function—realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are, and experiencing awe before this mystery […] The second is a cosmological dimension, the dimension with which science is concerned—showing you what the shape of the universe is, but showing it in such a way that the mystery again comes through […] The third function is a sociological one—supporting and validating a certain social order […] But there is a fourth function of myth, and this is the one that I think everyone must try today to relate to—and that is pedagogical function, of how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances. Myth can teach you that. (Joseph Campbell)

It’s the ‘How to live’ function of the myth which interests me. Life can be difficult to navigate. It’s unknown and random at times which can bring about unexpected situations. How to deal with these hardships and struggles? Or what’s the best way to improve yourself? How to build a strong character? One which is courageous and active. Or how to get connected with your spiritual side, your feminine or masculine side? Questions like these and others like it are always at the forefront of my mind.

One way myths can set you down the right path is by understanding that you’re not unique in these thoughts. All of these questions and troubles have been thought of before you. The fact that other people have had them and have dealt with them and have immortalized possible solutions in the format of stories and myths is an important reason why these myths should be studied.

When the story is in your mind, then you see its relevance to something happening in your own life. It gives you perspective on what’s happening to you. With the loss of that, we’ve really lost something because we don’t have a comparable literature to take its place. These bits of information from ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over the millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage, and if you don’t know what the guide-signs are along the way, you have to work it out yourself.

Instead of blindly trying to get through life and only relying on your own experiences to come up with some manageable way to solve your problems, you can instead lean on past stories for support.

You may find comfort in Odysseus‘ struggle to get home. The repeated obstacles that he has to somehow overcome in order to get back to his family. The story may give you hope that there is a possible way to achieve your goal if you keep facing your own obstacles with grace and a calm mind. In modern-day such a story is exemplified in Rocky where the character is repeatedly beaten down but refuses to stay down, each time he gets back up and it’s the value of that simple motif which can allow you to keep facing your own troubles, as it did for the former navy seal and ultramarathon competitor, David Goggins.

Or understand the negative effects of greed can have on a family through the story of King Midas. Or even see how the overabundance of fatherly love can be harmful to your children as shown in Balzac’s Old Goriot.

These simple stories can guide you into being a better parent, a more cohesive family unit or simply to accept the continuous struggles of life.

Additionally, mythology is littered with the idea of death and rebirth but in the sense that in order to move up in life, to transition from one phase of your life to the next, you must sacrifice something.

Mythology has a great deal to do with the stages of life, the initiation ceremonies as you move from childhood to adult responsibilities, from the unmarried state into the married state. All of those rituals are mythological rites. they have to do with your recognition of the new role that you’re in, the process of throwing off the old one and coming out in the new, and entering into a responsible profession.

The rituals of primitive initiation ceremonies are all mythologically grounded and have to do with killing the infantile ego and bringing forth an adult.

Once again we see the importance of initiation and sacrifice in the Odessey. Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, is a boy who is simply hoping that one day his father returns restores stability and order in his life. However, Athena comes and gives the boy advice in which she tells him to set out and seek his father. It’s action that Athena advices. And by undertaking this action, Telemachus has to sacrifice the comforts of his own home and by doing so, he beings his transition from boyhood to manhood.

Many of us cling on to things from our past as we attempt to grow into the individual we wish to be. It’s usually the things we enjoy the most, the ones which bring us the most comfort, that need to be abandoned in order to grow and enter the next phase in life. It’s this letting go that is hard which is why we may see grown adults behaving like children. Because these people haven’t made the right sacrifices. Unlike Bilbo, who gave up the comforts of the Shire in order to venture out into the world and face challenges, these people hold on to the comfort and in doing so, remain the same while their bodies grow older.

This theme of embracing what is uncomfortable runs throughout the myths. Of how long-lasting character growth only comes by facing hardship and struggle.

All these different mythologies give us the same essential quest. You leave the world that you’re in and go into a depth or into a distance or up to a height. There you come to what was missing in your consciousness in the world you formerly inhabited.

And what all the myths have to deal with is transformations of consciousness of one kind or another. You have been thinking one way, you now have to think a different way […] Either by trials themselves or by illuminating revelations. Trials and revelations are what it’s all about.

Think about Hercules’ 12 labors or Buddha’s revelations through stillness. It’s going beyond your comfort zone that myths embody. Self-growth and self-improvement is the goal of many people but it can be difficult to know how exactly how to go about achieving these aims. The myths tell us the embrace trials or to go into a depth or height which we are avoiding. It’s what we are consciously avoiding that may be the exact thing we need to get better.

Whether it be a relationship that we aren’t happy in, or a job that we dislike, or an opportunity that scares us or an activity that intimidates us, it’s only in facing these trials and figuring out how to overcome them do we experience transformation in our consciousness.

Our life evokes our character. You find out more about yourself as you go on. That’s why it’s good to be able to put yourself in situations that will evoke your higher nature rather than your lower.

Your higher nature is often revealed when you tackle something that is difficult. When you have to make difficult choices and decisions. While the lower nature is when you constantly expose yourself to immediate pleasure and comfort. At least that’s what the myths which have stood the test of time tell us. The heroic quest doesn’t start and end with you avoiding engagement with life. Rather, it starts when you begin to embrace of experience of life which includes failures and disappointments. Just understanding that life is full of obstacles may be enough reason why you should read the ancient Heroic tales. It can brace you for the inevitable and if you care enough, it can also guide you through these universal troubles.

Book referenced: The Power Of the Myth By Joseph Campbell


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Poem: The Many Yous

Article: Stoic Lesson: Aim For Internal Growth

Short Story: Everything Work’s Itself Out

 

 

Growth Through Hardship and Suffering

To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, Ill-treatment, indignities–I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished.

This wish is of Fredrich Nietzsche, the great German philosopher who wrote extensively on the subject of suffering and hardships and how such things are the path to self-improvement and growth.

It was Nietzsche’s understanding that the most valuable experiences are those which we earn by enduring the struggle of life. It’s the struggle that gives meaning to any accomplishment. At least that’s what I believe to be true. There isn’t anything that has come easy in my life which I look upon with fondness. When you achieve something without having pushed past your perceived limitations that thing quickly becomes a distant memory, some lost thought. Graduating university is an example of that for me. It isn’t something I feel a sense of growth from because I went through those years coasting on minimal effort, satisfied with mediocre marks. It’s almost as if those four years didn’t even happen.

However, the simple act of being able to do 10 pull-ups is something I attach a sense of pride too because I know where I started from (unable to do a single one) and where I ended up. I know I got there by constantly attacking something I was weak at, something I disliked, something that was always a struggle and surely, over time, I improved, I got better and now it’s something that acts as a reminder of what I am able to do if I attack some hardship over and over again.

It’s strange how what should have been a life-changing experience like graduating university, felt like a blur where I was barely conscious while something like pull-ups sticks with me like some great teacher.

The teacher is the hardship, it’s suffering, it’s being uncomfortable. I understand this now. University wasn’t any of those things because I spent it being passive and not trying to grow.

Hidden in forests like shy deers.

That’s no way to live and that’s how I have been living for some time. That’s how a lot of people live.

What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other … you have the choice: either as little displeasure as possible, painlessness in brief … or as much displeasure as possible as the price for the growth of an abundance of subtle pleasures and joys that have rarely been relished yet? If you decide for the former and desire to diminish and lower the level of human pain, you also have diminish and lower the level of their capacity for joy.

I went with the former in my university days. Painlessness. Which was why I was satisfied with the pleasure of mediocre marks because I wanted to keep the displeasure as low as possible. Studying was hard so I rather cram before a test. Such a mindset keeps the displeasure low but also the pleasure is minimal.

On the other hand, the act of writing has displeasure as well but by forcing myself to stay in that displeasure, to write for a block of time or to write ‘x’ number of pages before I’m allowed to leave my study table, the pleasure I gain from finishing is much greater than the displeasure that had existed. The sense of accomplishment gained from writing, rewriting, editing and completing a story is almost incomparable to anything I’ve done. Even if no one reads that story, there is still a personal gain, a growth because I pushed past the struggle and was able to come out the other side. The limitations I thought I had were pushed back just slightly.

I know the displeasure, being uncomfortable, experiencing hardship, it’s all worth it if your willing to stay in it. Additionally, once you do push past such things to accomplish something, it almost has this addictive sensation where you want to seek out another thing that will require struggle and effort to achieve because you know what possibility lies on the other side.

Something like writing is great for this because once one story is finished, you have to start another one from scratch and the whole process begins again.

Once you understand that the humiliations, failures, disappointments are just part of the process then such setbacks don’t derail you from your path. Instead, there’s a shift in the mindset where such things are viewed more critically. Nietzsche cites the example of the painter Raphael who felt inferior to other great painters like Michelangelo and Da Vinci but instead accepting his inferiority at the moment and going a different way, Raphael chose to dedicate his time studying and learning from these painters and using them to correct his own paintings and eventually, he understood how to create what he wanted.

In modern times, the example of Kobe Bryant stands out. Famously, Kobe air-balled several shots against the Utah Jazz in a playoff eliminator game. There was a fear that such humiliation on this grand stage could have broken his confidence because Kobe was a young player with potential at this point. But for Kobe, this humiliation was just part of the process. Instead of wallowing in despair, he went and studied the game tape, noticed how flat his shot was at the end of the game, understood the reason for this was that his legs were tired which meant he needed to implement a new strength and conditioning workout routine which would keep his legs fresh for the duration of the season. In this calculating manner, Kobe came to be known as one of the most clutch, game-winning players in the history of the NBA.

Losing, failing, humiliations, disappointments, it’s all part of the process, it’s part of life.

If all you care about is pleasure or pain then you’ll never push past your perceived limitations. The first moment you feel pain or displeasure, you’ll quit. The moment you feel some pleasure you’ll stay in that and feel accomplished, not knowing what more you could have done.

Not everything which makes you feel better is good for us. Not everything which hurts may be bad.

Stoic Lesson: How To Keep Yourself Accountable

Seneca said:

We need to set our affections on some good man and keep him constantly before our eyes, so that we may live as if he were watching us and do everything as if he saw what we were doing.

It’s a simple practice. For example, before taking action, think ‘what would Seneca do?’ and then act in that manner. We know what we must do and what we shouldn’t. This is why we feel guilty and even ashamed when we practice a bad habit or when we fail to ingrain a good one. That feeling tells you all you need to know.

However, we still end up repeating the cycle we are trying to break.

But by having an idol we look up to, someone who encompasses the characteristics which we wish to possess, just thinking about them before taking an action can set us straight. We wouldn’t need to experience guilt or shame to change.

More often than not, we most likely have an ideal version of that idol. This is a good thing. All human beings are flawed in one way or another but the ideal version isn’t. So, if your aim is to live up to this ideal then it’ll result in more positive behavior and action.

Which is really all you can aim to do. To be good and to act right most of the time.

Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.

Stoic Lesson: You Have To Acknowledge Your Sickness Before You Can Be Cured

I see in myself, Lucilius, not just an improvement but a transformation, although I would not venture as yet to assure you, or even to hope, that there is nothing left in me needing to be changed. Naturally, there are a lot of things about me requiring to be built up or fined down or eliminated. Even this, the fact that it perceives the failings it was unaware of in itself before, is evidence of a change for the better in one’s character. In the case of some sick people, it is a matter for congratulations when they come to realize for themselves that they are sick. (Letters from a Stoic, Seneca)

How many among us walk around with sickness without realizing it? Part of the issue is the everydayness of life. People have to look after their children, work most of their waking hours, pay bills, sit in traffic, be surrounded by people they don’t like and so on. Just the simple act of smiling can be tough let alone the need to take care of oneself physically. Just exercising for 30 minutes can be seen as a win. After all of this, where do you get the time to take care of yourself mentally? To be reflective? To realize that you may be sick?

I think many of us understand that we could be better than what we are but just don’t know how to navigate life properly in order to become better. The day to day breaks us down, grinds us into these beings who aren’t fulfilling their potentials.

We accept this individual that life has made us and believe that person is you. We tell our children about growth and change while we stay the same. We feel as if a word like ‘potential’ is reserved for those who haven’t been molded by life.

However, such belief and acceptance is usually the result of not being reflective, of not controlling your mind and allowing your mind to control you. Your mind is great at manipulating your thoughts to rationalize the person you are. It doesn’t want you to grow because that requires effort which is accompanied by struggle. The mind wishes to be comfortable, the path of least resistance and so, we too walk this path and will keep on walking this path.

Life would be so much easier if someone could come along and fix all your issues with a snap of their finger. A genie of some kind but that’s not how life works. In reality, apart from your close family and friends, no one really cares what you are going through. That’s because everyone is going through something. So, if you want to improve, regardless of the stresses of your life, the first step has to be reflective, to acknowledge that you are sick.

One way to achieve this reflective nature is by cleaning your room, as Jordan Peterson often says. Too many times people point the finger outwards and blame others for the way their own life is. You can’t improve as an individual if you are constantly blaming others. Once you turn the eye inwards, look at yourself, see the mess in your room, see the symptoms of sickness and start to take ownership for them, you can slowly see the change in your character.

In the same vein as clean your room, Jocko Willink‘s concept of extreme ownership also makes you confront your own actions. Extreme ownership essentially says that everything that isn’t right in your life is your fault. This may be harsh and perhaps untrue in some cases but by taking on this responsibility you feel a sense of control. If it is all your fault then you are also able to change it. Your actions caused the sickness, your actions can cure it.

Another way can be through mental warfare. To go to war with yourself, as David Goggins did, to push your limitations through such extreme pressure that you only have two choices: Improve or quit. Goggins initially did this through his rigorous studying schedule which included writing out whole textbooks by hand over and over again in order to overcome his learning deficiencies. Discipline and work ethic built through such a task then helped him physically overcome the barriers of Navy Seal training and ultramarathon running.

Goggins was able to shape his mind through work but it was only after he understood that he was sick and that the only person that can cure him was himself.

Perhaps the end goal is to become a friend to yourself. A good friend, a true friend call you out on your mistakes, tells you you’re acting poorly, makes sure you know that someone cares for you, that someone is holding you up to a certain standard, someone who is pushing you past your perceived limitations and that someone can be you. You can keep yourself in check if you are strong enough mentally. But before strength comes the acceptance of weakness, before you can get the medicine, you have to know that you are sick. But once that is known, you must also understand that you are the strength, the cure, the medicine.

What progress have I made? I am beginning to be my own friend.’ That is progress indeed. Such a person will never be alone, and you may be sure he is a friend of all. (Seneca)

 

Reflections: Need To Hold Oneself To A Higher Standard

Recently I have thought a lot about where I aim. What I mean by this is in order for me to become the individual I wish to be, I need to have some kind of target which I aim at otherwise I would be lost. Without a target, I would lack a sense of direction. So, having established a need of a target, the natural question arises is simply, what kind of target is this? What is my aim? Who do I wish to be?

The simple answer is, I wish to be great. To be all that I can be. My aim is high and not low for a low aim seems to be a waste of life’s opportunities and experience. A small aim seems petty, it seems concerned with petty pleasures and desires and with it, the accomplishment of small aims seems to lack a true feeling of fulfillment for I know that this accomplishment is cheapened by my lack of effort that is required.

This is an easy notion to understand because there is a clear difference in accomplishment when you finish something that you found difficult in comparison to finishing something that was easy.

Attempting to do something great is accompanied by a sense of fear or stress because there is a chance of failure. When you aim low that chance of failure lessens and with it, the fear and stress also go down. But when the aim is high, then not only is there the notion of failure but also of effort. Reason being, a high target cannot be reached through minimal effort. It requires the sacrifice of comfortable things and a comfortable attitude and this in itself is a deterrent to a higher aim.

However, if the aim is high and one is able to reach it and accomplish something that is truly difficult for that individual, the reward is equally as high. What I mean by reward is not necessarily material or external but rather it is the internal reward that I aim for. The knowledge that I can accomplish a difficult task. That may seem like a simple understanding but what comes with this accomplishment is a molding of one’s character that becomes more disciplined and seeks to work rather than shying away from such a thing. The reason being, higher aims require one to develop and change their character to meet that aim.

These aims then become a higher standard by which you live your life by. The standard which is kept simple and straightforward and easy to understand. This standard is one that involves sacrificing the pleasures of the present in order for the development of a good future. In order to stay firm on this path of sacrificing petty pleasures, one has to be disciplined and equally important, one has to control the thoughts that enter and leave their mind. For negative and pessimistic thoughts lower ones aim. Hence, the standard now involves discipline of action and thought and additionally, an optimistic view that one’s effort will result in a better future and a sense of trust that the sacrifices in the present are worth making. Another standard that is required is a constant attempt to seek the uncomfortable. The reason for this that by staying comfortable, you only change minimally, if you change at all. The comfortable approach is one that is aimed at the low. When you become uncomfortable and attempt something new and difficult, you challenge your mind, which will be coming up with a million different reasons as why you should abandon this cause and stay comfortable, and when you can overcome this, you are able to tame or at the very least, resist the mind, then you come to a realization that this things that you were avoiding, that made you uncomfortable, were not all that bad, this realization opens up the world to you and with it more experiences that result in a fulfiller experience of this finite life.

So, the way I see it is that if you keep your standards low, you will adapt to meet them. If you keep your standards high, you will adapt to meet them as well with effort. However, it is the internal growth that differentiates one adaptation from the other. The internal growth is what is accomplished when that target is high and the aim is constantly readjusted towards this higher target.