Stoic Lessons: How To Act And How To View Death

What then can escort us on our way? One thing, and one thing only: philosophy. This consists in keeping the divinity within us inviolate and free from harm, master of pleasure and pain, doing nothing without aim, truth, or integrity, and independent of others’ action or failure to act. Further, accepting all that happens and is allotted to it as coming from that other source which is its own origin: and at all times awaiting death with glad confidence that it is nothing more than the dissolution of the elements of which every living creature is composed. Now if there is nothing fearful for the elements themselves in their constant change of each into another, why should one look anxiously in prospect at the change and dissolution of them all? This is in accordance with nature: and nothing harmful is in accordance with nature. (Marcus Aurelius)

According to Marcus Aurelius, philosophy, more specifically Stoic philosophy teaches two things in particular: How to act and How to view death.

Living requires a lot of decision making. So many decisions that it’s easy to be overwhelmed. It’s even more challenging now than it was in the time Marcus Aurelius lived, for there is an abundance of choices in our current age. Far too many paths in life. Far too many ways to think, behave and act. It’s no wonder why the world is full of self-help gurus who instruct other people about how to live their lives.

Stoic philosophy simplifies action. “Doing nothing without aim, truth, or integrity,” as Marcus Aurelius put it. Although a simple notion, this advice is difficult to follow because it requires self-reflection. To figure out your aim, your truth and your principles, you have to know yourself. You have to know that humans are part of nature, which means each individual had “divinity” inside them, according to the Stoics. This divinity means that you have to hold yourself up to a higher standard, to demand more out of yourself. To go beyond what is expected of you.

Part of acting also involves “accepting all that happens and is allotted to it as coming from that other source which is its own origin”. Meaning, the outcome is not in your control. All you have control over is your attitude and reaction. There is freedom in this understanding. Concentrate on what you can control.

The Stoic view of death is similar to that of fate: Acceptance. Death is a part of nature and so it must be accepted as such instead of fearing it. “And at all times awaiting death with glad confidence that it is nothing more than the dissolution of the elements of which every living creature is composed”. Stoics often practiced an objective point of view.

For example Marcus Aurelius would remind himself that the food he was eating was simply a dead body of a fish of another animal.

How good it is, when you have roast meat or suchlike foods before you, to impress on your mind that this is the dead body of a fish, this the dead body of a bird or pig.

This was done in order to strip away the glamour and to get to the core of the matter because you can dress up the food however you like and add whatever spices you want but in reality what you are eating is just flesh and meat, carcass of something that will soon rot. Similarly, death can seem grand in our head but in reality its just a “dissolution of the elements”, a dissolution which “is in accordance with nature: and nothing harmful is in accordance with nature.”

 

Poem: Reflect On The Self

Eyes only for the bad leaves a darkened heart,

seeing, watching, consuming all that is wrong.

Eyes only for the good leave an ignorant heart,

overlooking, bypassing, ignoring the realities of life.

 

To neither be dark or ignorant,

to neither be cynical or idealistic,

rather, be aware of the self which is all of that and more,

through awareness, decency follows.

 

Eyes turned inwards,

peering into the shadowy pockets within as orbs of light shine and dim,

eyes outwards looking into the mirror,

the reflection shows all of mankind,

the shadow and light within mirrors all of mankind.

 

Consume enough hate and you’ll become hateful,

consume enough fear and you’ll become fearful,

consume enough goodness and you’ll become good,

consume enough knowledge and you’ll become intelligent.

 

Reflect on the difference and you’ll become different,

reflect on the similarities and you’ll become similar,

reflect on yourself and you’ll be one with mankind.

 

 

I’m A Son Of A Bitch If I’ll Be Defeated By The Everydayness

I have felt hours go by without knowing what happened to them. Hours that turned into days which became months and looking back, there have even been years which I cannot recall with any significance apart from perhaps a single event or two.

I recognize the illness that plagues my mind after reading the Moviegoer by Walker Percy. I had recognized it before too when I came across Proust and I’m sure I recognized it prior to that but I cannot remember now. This makes this illness particularly tricky to deal with because the mind aids the sickness.

This illness is the everydayness of life. The mundane moments that go unremembered as my mind and my thoughts dwell in a hopeful future where I will find myself amidst the ruins of Ancient Rome or traveling the bullet train in Japan along with some friends or seeing the great art pieces of Michelangelo with my own eyes for these moments can cure the everydayness and leave lasting memories of being alive which I can fondly recall later on. Or so I imagine them to be.

But as Proust said, the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights but in looking with new eyes. Similarly, Walker Percy puts forth the idea of The Search. It is not new worlds you should seek but rather see the beauty in the everyday that can and should leave a mark on your life.

To search is to be in wonderment of life, all of life.

The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.

To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.

Walker Percy further explains the idea with regard to movies.

The movies are onto the search but they screw it up. The search always ends in despair. They like to show a fellow coming to himself in a strange place — but what does he do? He takes up with the local librarian, sets about proving to the local children what a nice fellow he is, and settles down with a vengeance. In two weeks time he is sunk in everydayness that he might just as well be dead.

Walker Percy warns one not to fall into a pattern of known motion. The daily, weekly and monthly routine that makes you feel like just a piece of metal on a conveyor belt, being moved from one spot to another. Instead, he urges you to be observant, to see the changing world around you through which you have been unconsciously drifting. So, to observe is to search. 

People have a different way of sticking themselves into the world. It is a small thing to him but not to me. It is nothing to him to close his eyes in New Orleans and wake up in San Francisco and think the same thoughts on Telegraph Hill that he thought on Carondelet street. Me, it is my fortune and misfortune to know how the spirit-presence of a strange place can enrich a man or rob a man but never leave him alone, how, if a man travels lightly to a hundred strange cities and cares nothing for the risk he takes, he may find himself no one and nowhere.

Without the active struggle to see your own surroundings as something worth seeing and exploring, you might find yourself blind and unaware regardless if you are standing in front of an old library or the Colosseum. If you don’t know how to see properly, moments will simply drift in and out of you and leave behind just the faintest recollections of themselves. Life will be just a dull light instead of the blinding brilliance that it can be. 

For he is no more aware of the mystery that surrounds him than a fish is aware of the water it swims in.

The search is there for one to enrich their own life. It’s a selfish ambition, to make your own life one of awe and beauty.

No, I do it for my own selfish reasons. If I did not talk to the theatre owner or the ticket seller, I should be lost, cut loose metaphysically speaking. I should be seeing one copy of a film which might be shown anywhere and at any time. There is a danger of slipping clean out of space and time. It is possible to become a ghost and not know whether one is in downtown Lowes in Denver or suburb Bijou in Jacksonville. So it was with me.

This is an active effort to find unique experiences in everyday life. To go out of your way to talk to the theatre owner or the ticket seller as Percy said. Or to give conscious thought to the movie seat or the aroma of the theater. The little things like that matter otherwise life is a blur. Think about all the time you spend in traffic just going from one place to the next. If you can find some kind of beauty or uniqueness in those mundane moments, then you can enrich your life.

Yet it was here in the Tivoli that I first discovered place and time, tasted it like okra. It was during a rerelease of Red River a couple of years ago that I became aware of the first faint strings of curiosity about the particular seat I sat in, the lady in the ticket booth…as Montgomery Clift was whipping John Wayne in a fistfight, an absurd scene, I made a mark on my seat arm with my thumbnail. Where, I wondered will this particular piece of wood be twenty years from now, 543 years from now? Once as I was traveling through the midwest ten years ago I had a layover of three hours in Cincinnati. There was time to go see Joseph Cotten in Holiday at neighborhood theatre called the Altamont — but not before I had struck up an acquaintance with the ticket seller, a lady named Mrs. Clara James, and learned that she had seven grandchildren all living in Cincinnati. We still exchange Christmas cards. Mrs. James is the only person I know in the entire state of Ohio.

To walk through life blind and deaf seems like an awful waste of potential. Knowing that I have been blind and deaf at different points in my life is a painful reminder of wasted opportunity. However, in between that time, in between that space where I can remember to search, where I can actively observe and find the beauty in the mundane and know that everything in nature has its own value if I were to remove my own prejudices and biases at least for those moments I can fight the everydayness that drowns so many and keep the search alive and with it my curiosity and imagination. Thanks to Percy’s novel I am reminded again of the life around me and thanks to him I will be reminded of the fact that sometime in the future I may be momentarily defeated by the everydayness but it will never be a permanent defeat for the search is always there, waiting for you, ready to enlighten your world. 

But for now, I make the same vow as Percy:

Nevertheless, I vow: I’m a son of a bitch if I’ll be defeated by the everydayness.

Know Thyself And Be At Peace

We are never ‘at home’: we are always outside ourselves. Fear, desire, hope, impel us towards the future, they rob us of feelings and concerns for what now is, in order to spend time over what will be – even when we ourselves shall be no more. (Montaigne)

What does being ‘at home’ mean? I take it as being comfortable in your own skin and in your current situation. This doesn’t mean that you have achieved whatever it is that you wanted in life or have become the best version of yourself but rather knowing that you’re a work in progress and with time, you’ll slowly inch towards what you want and who you want to be. But in the present, you aren’t avoiding your feelings and emotions.

Instead of this rationalization, we tend to dwell on fears, desires, and hopes as Montaigne suggested. Too often we spend our time living in a fantasy land where things are better and this helps us avoid our current situation. Or, we spend our time in some future hell where things are worst of and this adds to our fears and anxieties and also stunts our growth. Both these modes of beings rob us of the present, from being alive right now. By not being ‘at home’ with our emotions and feelings right now we are unable to unpack and understand the reason behind our emotions and feelings and how to improve our situation. Instead, avoidance is adopted in the form of living outside of ourselves. We fill the silence and stillness that we need with either pleasure or painful thoughts so that we don’t have to deal with our current reality. All this concern for what will be is a hindrance to progression.

Whoever would do what he has to do would see that the first thing he must learn is to know who he is and what is properly his. And whoever does know himself never considers external things to be his; above all other things he loves and cultivates himself’ he rejects excessive concerns as well as useless thoughts and resolutions. (Montaigne)

Fears, desires, hopes, and anxieties can all subside when we know who we are and what exactly do we want from life. Otherwise, we’re stuck either trying to please a version of ourselves which isn’t true by following trends or conforming to other peoples opinions or we live trying to live up to other peoples expectations (especially the expectations of our loved ones) and when these things fail to bring us peace and fulfillment we suffer from an even greater dose of anxiety and fear and are left just hoping for a better tomorrow. Even worse our mind doesn’t evolve further. It’s stuck in the old pattern and we think perhaps if we get the new thing we might be happier or that if we start a new relationship it might will the void. But it’s all just a cycle of hope, desire, anxiety, and fear and this cycle is broken when we come to ‘Know Thyself’.

This phrase, ‘Know Thyself’ has been present since the Ancient Greek time and probably before too. It was etched into the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and it still relevant now as it was back in Ancient times. This makes one wonder how much we have evolved as humans or perhaps how little. Our core concerns for meaning, purpose, happiness are still the same as our ancient ancestors.

As Montaigne suggested, the person who cultivates themselves comes closer to finding peace and fulfillment. Only you know the answer to your own riddle. Each individual must figure him or herself out and by doing so, cultivate their physical, mental and spiritual self. In essence, cultivate their soul. What other people may see as useless and meaningless can still bring us peace and joy. Especially in our current age which is so materialistic. There may be some things or activities that might not have an effect on our financial situation but can bring our mind and spirit peace. Those things are especially valuable to cultivate. Hence why we have to spend time figuring ourselves out and not trying to fill our time with excessive concerns.

Some questions we should reflect on and try to answer for ourselves:

When am I at peace?

What will I need to do to feel fulfilled?

What makes me fulfilled?

When do I feel happy?

When do I feel ashamed or guilty?

What does a meaningful day look like?

 

Bruce Lee On The Importance Of Being A Quality Human Being

You know how I like to think of myself? As a human being.

For Bruce Lee, it was important to identify himself as a human first before any race, gender or ethnicity. By emphasizing his humanity over anything else, it helped him transcend social and cultural barriers and at the same time, it allowed him to think broadly and to have his philosophy be attainable to any individual.

However, Bruce Lee’s goal wasn’t simply to be human. Rather, it was to be a human of “quality”.

The function and duty of a human being, a “quality” human being, that is, is the sincere and honest development of potential and self-actualization.

Self-actualization means to achieve one’s full potential through creativity, independence, spontaneity, and a grasp of the real world. Simply put, to become the best version of yourself.

In order to fulfill one’s own potential, it is important to hone the ability to self-reflect. Self-reflection can allow us to detach momentarily. To see our own flaws and limitations so we know the areas we need to improve or strengthen.

We can ask ourselves: What habits do we need to break? What habits do we need to start? Where do we lack knowledge? Are we too passive? What part of our life requires immediate action?

For Bruce Lee, his goal was to actualize himself and he believed that should be the goal of all humans.

To promote the growth process and develop human potential:

To get through social role playing

To fill in the holes in the personality to make [one] whole and complete again.

The social role-playing part is important as well. We are social creatures and we have to do well by our community. It’s not a selfish attitude that Bruce Lee advocated but rather he believed in actualizing ourselves by performing our social duties to the best of our ability while improving upon our flaws. Both can go hand in hand. If we become the best version of ourselves then the ripple effects of that are felt by our friends, families and the community we live in. At the same time, by dedicating ourselves to being a productive member of society, it can help move us closer to our ideal state.

What the hell; you are what you are, and self-honesty occupies a definite and vital part in the ever-growing process to become a “real” human being and not a plastic one. Somehow, one day, you will hear “hey, now that’s quality; here is someone REAL.” I’d like that.

The key to being a quality human being is self-honesty. If we lie to ourselves and run away from who we currently are then there can be no improvement. Other people can point out our flaws but it’s easy to rationalize that truth and act as if other people are wrong. It’s also important to understand that who we currently are isn’t what we have to be. Bruce Lee also advocated constant change and this change has to come from within. We can only improve and grow if we wish to and in order to do this, we need to be honest with ourselves. Brutally honest about somethings. It can be uncomfortable to pick at our own flaws but there really is no other way to inch towards self-actualization. There needs to be constant ownership and accountability of our own actions. Perhaps in this manner, one day, someone can look at us and say “here is someone real,” just as Bruce Lee was.

Book referenced: Bruce Lee Striking Thoughts: Bruce Lee’s Wisdom for Daily Living 

Reflections: Be Your Own Friend

Often times we look outside ourselves for advice. It’s easy to give the responsibility for our own improvement to other people. Meaning that we find someone who is popular or trending, who is a self-help guru and then follow whatever they say, without giving to much thought to what is being told or even asking ourselves if the advice given is what we need. But popularity can cloud logic and reason. By giving up personal responsibility, we don’t feel let down by ourselves if we don’t get better. We have someone to blame, to point the finger to and in doing so, feel better about ourselves.

But the simple fact that we desire someone to help us is a good sign. It’s an internal recognization that what we are at this moment isn’t what we wish to be. We know that we can be better. We know we can improve. This alone should give us a hint of where to look in order to get good self-help advice.

Just as the phrase suggests, self-help should start with the self.

In reality, if you were to detach for a moment and take a pen and paper and ask yourself Where do you want to be in ten years’ time? How will you get there? What are the things you are doing that you need to stop? What are the things you are not doing that you need to start? You will quickly find the paper filled with proper advice.

These simple self-reflective questions bring forth, in most cases, immediate answers. Because deep down we know what our bad habits are and what we need to stop practicing. We also know exactly what we need to do in order to grow and improve. You will never know anyone as well as you know yourself. You know your transgressions, insufficiencies, and inadequacies. With this knowledge, you also know what your next step should be which is simply to fix these transgressions, insufficiencies, and inadequacies.

The issue is that all of this is difficult. It’s always hard to take on responsibility. If you fail to grow it’s on you. The reason behind your failure will be either your lack of will or discipline. Which is why it’s so much easier to do what someone else says. But the changes enacted by our own will power and self-control are longer lasting because we attain those through struggle and hardship.

Although having external aid isn’t a bad thing either, especially if you are able to narrow down your flaws. If you know your specific issues and problems then it’s easier to navigate through the endless stream of bad advice that is spouted everywhere. External sources then can teach you how to break bad habits, how to build good habits, how to enact the right mindset, how to deepen personal relationships, how to become more confident and how to love and care for oneself.

But, first, you must take on the uncomfortable task of self-reflection and self-honesty. In this way, we also come to build trust within ourselves. We can take our own words and be confident that it’s what we need. In some ways, we begin to act as a friend to ourselves. Someone who is loyal, who wants the best for us and who isn’t afraid to call us out when we get off the right path. That’s true self-help, self-love, self-care.

 

 

Reflections: Is This Necessary?

Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’

That was Marcus Aurelius’ advice to himself and several thousand years later, that piece of advice is still relevant and perhaps even more vital now then it was back then. The reason for this is that we live in an age of overabundance. Particularly when it comes to information. Every second there seems to be something new to distract us to occupy the space in our head. We are constantly stressing about the new tv show or what some politician said or a celebrity did or what someone believed in years ago. What each distracting information does is that it takes away from our own peace of mind. And it also focuses our attention on things that don’t really matter. At least not for your own personal growth.

For self-improvement, we require silence, we require self-reflection and thinking about our actions and beliefs. This can’t take place when we are overly concerned about the unnecessary.

It doesn’t really matter what show is hot right now because in a weeks time some other show will take its place and will you have really missed out on anything? One controversy is overtaken by another and the same cliche responses are given to both. The hollow words do nothing to fix external problems but they do take you away from addressing the internal issues. The trending list will always be there. There is so much content out there that you can occupy every moment of your present.

Which is why it’s important to filter what you consume mentally just as you filter what you consume physically. Your body takes after your diet and your mental health takes after what you read and think about. But it’s easy to get lost in the information, the news cycles, the figure pointing, just as it’s easier to consume junk food. Both cause damage. One is just easier to see.

One reason why we seek distractions maybe because we are unsatisfied with our lives. This dissatisfaction is a result of our own decisions and choices. So, it’s uncomfortable to let this voice speak. We much rather drown it with celebrity gossip or complaining about what some stranger did. Worse is finding satisfaction from this fake interaction. All of this takes away from real issues which if you can resolve will actually improve your life.

Is it necessary is a good filter for our rapidly changing times.

What really is necessary is improving relationships with people you care about. Getting better at something that gives you problems. Improving your physical health and mental health. Challenging your comfort zone and expanding it.

What isn’t necessary is getting lost in an avalanche of information that has almost no positive benefit.

Our thoughts often have the solutions we need. If you sit down for five-ten minutes in silence and just listen, we’ll find ourselves inching towards what we need. Or go on a walk and see how your mind finds its way to some solution or thought that will make your lives better. This truth is becoming harder to access because wherever we go we can stare at a screen or plug headphones in our ears. Such things amplify the useless while overshadowing the changes that we actually need.

How different would the world look if people spent as much time listening to their conscience as they do to chattering broadcasts? (Ryan Holiday)