Equanimity and the Thought Spiral

Round and round I go, like a carousel. “What idiots! What incredible, stupid fucks,” I think to myself. A particular person, or particular type of person, who annoys me, becomes entrenched in my head, and there they are, spitting out the same nonsensical gibberish that pissed me off in the first place.

What I must do is ignore it. I’ve got to stop fighting these little wars in my head. It’s all just chaff, just my brain chattering at me like a parrot on speed. Just hear the thought. Acknowledge the thought. Then, ignore the thought. Let the broken record skip until the needle breaks. It’s all the same to me.

“All those things at which thou wishest to arrive by a circuitous road, thou canst have now, if thou dost not refuse them to thyself.”

“Death hangs over thee: whilst yet thou livest, whilst thou mayest, be good.”

What’s the point of living my short life, a nonexistent drop in the bucket in comparison to the eternity ahead of me and the 14 billion years behind me, if I’m going to be a hard man, a mean man, an angry little rodent jumping around in a cage? Apatheia is the only cure, and I can have it, now. Apatheia is the only balm for a wound that never closes. It makes me invincible.

Equanimity and the Thought Spiral

Meditation, again

I sit and breathe, in, out, in, out. Birds outside singing. My chest, rising and falling. Sunlight on my closed eyes. In, out, in, out.

Thoughts. How am I doing in my classes? How can I do better on my next calculus test? No. Return the mind to the breath. In, out, in, out. Suddenly, more thoughts. What kind of bird is that outside my window? A thought about a friend. A thought of money. A sexual fantasy. No. Return the mind to the breath. In, out, in, out. Discomfort. My back is killing me, but I can’t meditate lying down because I’ll go to sleep. Speaking of sleep, I’ve been having weird dreams lately. Maybe I should — no. Return the mind to the breath. In, out, in, out.

A sudden change in consciousness. Thoughts fade and disappear. For a short, merciful time, the mind locks onto the breath, and for about thirty seconds, utter stillness. In, out, in out.

It doesn’t last. The mind begins to wander again. No. Return the mind to the breath. In, out, in, out.

In, out, in, out.

Meditation, again

Reminders, Part I

  1. I have made bad choices in the past. These are outside of my zone of control. I will make bad choices in the future. These are also outside of my zone of control. All I can do is control my present choices. Sometimes the appropriate thing to do is to make plans for the future or examine the past to see how I could have done things better, but I should never fool myself that I can control such things. All I have is now.
  2. Responsibility is heavy, but I am strong enough for the load. I must not falter. This is not an injunction for the future, but an injunction for right now.
  3. To be virtuous is difficult, but it is what I must do. Being virtuous means controlling my emotions, wiping out irrelevant thoughts, and doing what is appropriate to the moment and context. There is no rule for determining what I ought to do at a given moment, only the question of what is appropriate now.
  4. Willpower is a limited resource for me, but it can be cultivated, inch by painful inch.
  5. I must observe my environment. I must remember that, regardless of whether or not causality fits in modern physics or not, the fact remains that causality, or something like it, is an intimate part of my life. In the everyday human world, it is at least useful to assume that every event has a cause. I must see everything as part of the constantly-evolving interconnected web of causality. At all times, I must observe what leads to what. When a cause leads to a bad effect, prevent that cause from obtaining if possible. When a cause leads to a good effect, cultivate that cause.
Reminders, Part I

Cold Showers and Other Unpleasantness

Several times on this blog, I have used a cold shower as an archetype of the sort of self-inflicted test of will that Stoicism requires. And really, a cold shower is just the thing to serve in that role: it’s unpleasant without being terribly painful, it lasts only as long as you want it to last, and it requires a certain force of will to endure, or a certain amount of equanimity. It’s a wonderful way to build willpower and seek equanimity at the same time, with full consciousness of the fact that equanimity makes willpower obsolete, as it were. But what other tests can we inflict on ourselves in the practice of Stoicism? I can think of a few.

  1. Fasting. I haven’t tried this one yet, but I fully intend to take a day one weekend and refuse to eat anything, making that day a day of contemplation and meditation. Ignoring the gnawing hunger in my belly, and the removal of the distraction of the enjoyment of food, will serve as a good way to getting myself to that place where I can scorn suffering.
  2. Refusing palliatives for minor irritations. Got poison ivy? Don’t put any calumny lotion on it. Got a headache? Don’t take an aspirin. Thirsty? Put off drinking any water for 30 minutes. Instead, I will try and focus on the pain, or the itching, try to go into the sensation and strip it of negative judgment. Learning to swallow the small pains will lessen my reactions to the big ones.
  3. Underdressing. Is it cold enough outside for a light jacket, but not enough for a heavy coat? While I don’t encourage anyone to develop hypothermia, going outside when it’s 50 degrees Fahrenheit in a t-shirt and jeans may be a good way to practice Stoicism. One big benefit is that, unlike a cold shower, you can’t “turn off” the cold weather. Once you’re out of the house, you’re stuck with the clothes on your back. This may be slightly more challenging than the cold shower, but it’ll be worth it.
  4. Ignoring minor annoyances. Is a fan clicking as it moves, and is the clicking driving you nuts? Don’t turn the fan off: just focus on the clicking and try to remove the negative judgment. Did someone cut you off in traffic? Don’t swear and curse at them: use the horn if you must, to get them to move and prevent an accident, but no more than is necessary. Note that I am not advising “bottling up” one’s anger here; if someone in everyday life makes you angry, it’s not contrary to the general tenor of Stoicism to express your anger in a qualified, controlled way. It is contrary to Stoicism, however, to blow up on that person.

That’s all I can think of for now. All of these provide excellent grist for the Stoical mill. Perhaps someone could accuse me of masochism for doing all this, but I plan on addressing that in my next entry.

Cold Showers and Other Unpleasantness

Stoic Resolve and Equanimity

Stoic resolve, I take it, is a resolution to remain untouched by external circumstances. This, I assume, is what most people think of when they think of Stoicism: someone who just endured through sheer force of will. I contrasted this outlook with equanimity in my post of the same name, with Stoic resolve playing the part of a foil to equanimity; one wants equanimity, not Stoic resolve. But now, I’m not so sure.

Stoic resolve may be a way to obtain equanimity, or at least, a valuable placeholder until equanimity is obtained. Take the example of the cold shower in the post I linked to in the above paragraph; while I obtained equanimity the first time I tried that, ever since then, every cold shower test I’ve attempted has been a case of Stoic resolve. I have remained in the cold shower (or other unpleasant circumstance) through sheer force of will. Now, this is Stoic resolve, but what about equanimity? How will I get that valuable thing back?

One possible answer, I think, is that I can obtain equanimity by practicing Stoic resolve. If I continue to force myself to endure unpleasant circumstances, especially those that are outside of my control, I will find the means to reach equanimity, because I will have forced myself into it. That is to say, I will become equanimitious by necessity, because I have Stoically resolved to stay in the situation until equanimity is achieved.

Stoic Resolve and Equanimity

“Humanity”

“Why would you embrace Stoicism? What about your humanity?

I’ve run into this charge several times. Inevitably, people who know only a little bit about Stoicism will say something like the above, as if, by being a Stoic, I am “severing a part of myself,” to paraphrase one of my interlocutors, or that I am “disdaining my humanity,” to paraphrase another. This is all quite typical of the charges leveled against Stoicism; that it is cold, inhuman, overly rational, disdainful of emotions, yada yada yada. What I would like to do in this post is first examine some possible motivations for making these accusations, and second, analyze whether or not such claims are accurate.

In the first place, I sense two things behind such accusations. The first is an emotional revulsion against the idea of “suppressing” (note the scare quotes) our emotions. The second is a kind of envy, mixed with incredulity of an obnoxious kind. The first thing – that is, the revulsion against emotional suppression – arises simply from ignorance of Stoic philosophy. Stoicism does not seek to turn us into emotionless automata, any more than Epicureanism seeks to turn us into hedonistic degenerates. Rather, Stoicism embraces control of the emotions, by means of reason. This leads into the second motivation, which is a simple case of envy, mixed with incredulity. The vulgar person sees the advice of Stoics and says, “No one can possibly do that. Nobody can let go of things outside of their control. Why, these Stoic types are just bluffing. They’re pretentious. They act as if they’re in control of themselves, but they’re really not, because nobody is.” It’s as if the person in question believes that Stoicism is impossible because he, himself, cannot stomach the idea of self-control in any form whatsoever. When a person without self-control sees a person who has it, he immediately feels two things. The first thing he feels is envy, because he lacks self-control and cannot stand to see someone who doesn’t. The second thing he feels is incredulity, because he generalizes from his own case; “If I can’t control myself, then it’s obvious that nobody can, and anyone who claims to is just pretending.”

Now, as to whether these accusations are accurate. This is a more difficult question, because it turns on a fine distinction between two senses of the word, “humanity.” Does a Stoic lose his “humanity?” It depends on the sense of the word. If “humanity” means “emotions in general,” then no, Stoics do not lose their humanity. They merely learn how to control it. If “humanity” means the uncontrolled expressions of their emotions, and the surrender of all rational control to emotional impulses, then yes, we Stoics lose our “humanity.”

Yes, you read that right. I am reminded of a quote from Karl Kraus:”When a man is treated like a beast, he says, ‘After all, I’m human.’ When he behaves like a beast, he says ‘After all, I’m only human.'” Do you see the problem? Too often, “humanity” is used as an excuse for people to undergo the worst kinds of self-indulgence. If that’s what “humanity” is, then good riddance.

“Humanity”

Stoicism and Meditation

I don’t like the idea of “original Stoicism.” The term seems to turn Stoicism into a museum piece. If Stoicism is not a living philosophy, and new Stoic thought is not being produced, then Stoicism has been relegated to the dustbins of history, a museum-piece of a lifestyle. Therefore, to call yourself a Stoic, you need not follow all of the tenets of ancient Stoicism, just most of them. More to the point, you need not restrict your philosophical influences to Stoicism. I want to argue here that a good Stoic ought to be at least friendly to Buddhist influenced meditation, even if (s)he doesn’t practice it. Then, I want to talk about how my own meditation practice has interacted with my Stoicism.

This is where meditation comes in. There are many varieties of meditation, obviously, and some are more Stoical than others, but there’s no reason you can’t use multiple kinds of meditation. I do like the Stoical psychological exercises, like the one I mentioned in my last post. But there’s another psychological exercise that fits very well with Stoic attitudes. I’m talking about Buddhist-influenced mindfulness meditation. Now, a post by Elen Buzaré back in February recommended a kind of “Stoic and Buddhist meditation” that really seems to just be Buddhist meditation, with some Stoical language thrown in for good measure. Buzaré was criticized, or at least, questioned, by another Stoic for introducing Buddhist meditation in this way. My opinion on the matter is fairly simple. While I think it would be a stretch to say that Buddhist meditation had an ancient Greek or Roman analogue (I’ve seen no evidence for this), I also think it would be obnoxious to say that anyone who adds Buddhist-influenced meditation to their psychological arsenal is no longer a Stoic (not that the last post linked to made this claim, but I want to make it clear that I am not making this claim). Now, it’s necessary to distinguish between two types of criticism here. Some things are non-Stoic in origin while still being very Stoical in spirit, and some things are downright contrary to what Stoicism tries to achieve. I think that Buddhist-influenced meditation falls into the former category. Such meditation cultivates an awareness of our own cognitive and emotional states, along with a sense of detachment, and that is precisely what Stoicism aims to achieve. If one removes Buddhist doctrine from the picture, and merely takes the practice of Buddhist-style meditation into one’s life, then one can still be entirely consistent in calling oneself a Stoic.

All that being said, I wanted to discuss how my meditation practice has interfaced with my Stoicism. I have found that I pay much more attention to my emotions. Now, I am naturally very out of touch with my emotions, as I am somewhat immature for my age in that department. Where most people have direct, unmediated touch with their emotions, I have to manipulate mine as if with remotely-controlled mechanical arms. Like most people, I am sometimes privately guilty over how I feel; losing at a board game and then feeling a twinge of resentment toward the winner, however slight, tends to make one feel immature and competitive, so one may seek to suppress that emotion. With meditation, however, I have to notice these things. This is where Stoicism comes in.

Meditation gives me a spotlight that I can use to seek out what I’m feeling and identify it, and Stoicism gives me the tools to conquer my less desirable emotions with reason. I can ask myself: “Does it make sense to feel that? Did you expect that this would never happen? What were you expecting?” and so on and so forth, like a good Stoic. Meditation just gives me an edge in applying the Stoical advice.

While I can respect someone who says that Buddhist-influenced meditation simply doesn’t work for them, I still urge anyone who hasn’t tried it to give it a whirl. You may find that it doesn’t work for you. Or you may, like me, be very, very impressed with the results.

Stoicism and Meditation