Elf M. Sternberg (elfs) wrote,
Elf M. Sternberg

On picking up Stoicism...

I have always felt a trace of bemusement and embarassment at the idea of a spiritual component to life. Having spent the past twenty-five years or so in vigorous debate with the fools, fabulists, false witnesses and fundamental frauds who argue on behalf of Intelligent Design, intercessory prayer, faith healing, various forms of modern woo like anything from Deepak Chopra, big placebo, anti-vaccination, Mayan calendar eschatology nonsense, utopian economics and all the various forms of crank magnetism to be found loose in the world, it almost seems a shame to label anything a hardcore metaphysical naturalist like myself does as a spiritual practice.

Yet it without doubt I have one. I fiddled with Buddhism for many years, and found everything about it to be efficacious with two exceptions: first, regardless of what Siddharta Buddha himself is said to have discovered, his followers have laid so much supernatural claptrap and baggage on top of the practices of Buddhism that I could never swallow any of it whole, and secondly that the direction of Buddhism leads you away from other people.

Buddha himself was tempted to be led away from other people, but at the last second decided to come back and teach others. That's considered merciful. The Mahayana, a tradition that sprang up late in the Buddhist timeline, re-wrote much of Buddhism to allow for a community of Buddhists, rather than a separation between the distant, indifferent monks high on their crag and the lively, warm community of unblessed down in the valley, and use that moment as their reason for being, but I find it a late adaptation to the essential inhumanity of Siddharta's practice.

Yet it is without doubt that an almost daily practice of hankafuza zazen as a route to vipassana has been enormously helpful in keeping my mind uncluttered and clear, when it has been available to me. It is not a daydreaming form of meditation, but an active fifteen minutes a day where I routinely pull my mind back into the observer's role, sometimes roughly pushing whatever thoughts arise out of mind.

So it's a relief to discover a Western tradition that is almost wholly in keeping with my nature, especially now as I grow older and, hopefully, wiser, namely Stoicism. I have enjoyed much reading the introductory works of William Irvine, and have actually started to read both Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.

Here's the thing about stoicism that most people don't get: the stoics didn't believe that life was suffering. They believed that suffering existed, and recommended a very Buddhist path toward managing it, by recognizing suffering, acting to eliminate suffering, and moving on. But their choice of action is rather drastic: rather than meditate it away, you act on yourself to make the act of suffering itself seem ridiculous: you meditate on how much worse it could get, and then are thankful for what you have.
Here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not "This is misfortune," but "To bear this worthily is good fortune." — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Man, now if that's not a quote for dealing with my Ex- and raising my daughter well, I don't know what is. On the other hand, Stocism is a very naturalistic, even metaphysically so, practice. Just like Buddhism, we are here, and trying to figure out a grand and mystical "why" is a pointless exercise. To Buddha, the world was on fire, you should be busy putting it out. To the Stoic, the world is full of people worthy of love and attention; full of moments of joy and passion.

More importantly, Stoicism teaches engagement with the world. If we are here, and others are here, than clearly we cannot proceed without taking other people into account. We have evolved for fellowship, as Marcus might have put it. And while the Stoics did not believe in a theological purpose to life, they did claim that, from rational premises, the only conclusion one could reach was that the best thing one could do in life was work with your fellow men to make life better.

Doing a basic meditation is self-discipline, and not a particularly Stoic one, but I'll keep doing it because of its utility. Above that, there are two other meditative practices. The first, from Epictetus, is to imagine the worst that could happen. Hold it fast in your mind. The example he gives is, every once in a while, imagine your house burning and your loved ones dying. Fill yourself with the gratitude that this has not happened, and steel yourself with an appropriate response should it happen. Be prepared for the worst, and appreciate just how good you have it right now.

The other is hypomnea, which is basically daily journaling. But journaling with a purpose. To record each day how you succeeded in your virtues. The stoics listed theirs as "wisdom, justice, courage, and decorum." In this modern age, and under the influence of men like Theodore Roosevelt and Charles Dickens, I keep my list in the more masculine tone of "Industry, Courage, Honor, Wisdom, Justice, and Self-Discipline." But that's just me. I haven't mastered this one yet, but I am working on it.

I've been doing Buddhist meditations for a few years now, and some Stoic pratices for about six months. That's a lot longer than most things I dilettante in, and they seem to be working well for me.
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