Transience

The transience of human life makes me sad. It always has. Often I’ll be listening to music, or taking a walk in the woods, or even out at the bar or a party with friends, and suddenly the melancholy hits me like a bullet. I look around at everyone laughing and talking and drinking and I think to myself, “This will not last forever. This party will end. We’ll all go home. One day we’ll all most likely part ways, and we probably won’t keep in touch. We’ll grow apart. And even if we do keep in touch, one of us will die first, and then we will never see one another again.” My entire life suddenly seems to be pulling away from me, like sand running through my fingers.

However, there is a particular kind of Stoic reflection that I find lessens the sadness, and that, while seemingly morbid, can actually be quite liberating. I want to start with a quote by Marcus Aurelius that outlines the technique, then give an example of how I’ve applied it, then discuss the effects of the technique on my life. First, the quote, from Book VI of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations:

“When we have meat before us and such eatables we receive the impression, that this is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig; and again, that this Falernian is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dyed with the blood of a shell-fish: such then are these impressions, and they reach the things themselves and penetrate them, and so we see what kind of things they are. Just in the same way ought we to act all through life, and where there are things which appear most worthy of our approbation, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted.”

I’ve never seen a name in the Stoic literature for the technique that M.A. mentions here, so I’ll call it “destructive analysis.” This sounds fancy, but it’s quite simple. We mentally destroy something by separating it into its component parts; then, we think about where those parts came from and where they’re going.

When I got on the bus today, I had this thought: “Here is a vehicle. It is made of many materials, but it is mostly plastic, metal, and glass. The glass is probably melted sand, formed into sheets in a factory. The metal was smelted from ore dug out of the earth. The plastic is made from oil, most likely pumped up from deep wells in a desert or ocean. All of these things were manufactured and sent to a factory, where they were assembled into this bus. One day, the engine will die, or the axle will break, or some other technical problem will cause the bus to be scrapped. Then, it will be crushed and separated into parts, some of which will be reused, others of which will be sent to a landfill.” In awe, I went on to think to myself, “The atoms comprising this bus are probably billions of years old, and will exist for billions of years after the bus ceases to exist. This bus is a temporary arrangement, a blip in time, a mere nanosecond in the vast history of the atoms that compose it. It is as if a tornado assembled a thousand grains of dust into a sand castle for a split second, and then destroyed it.”

When I realized the effect that destructive analysis could have, I eagerly began to apply it to other things. My prized possessions, such as my guitar? Merely wires and wood that will one day rot and rust away. The buildings around campus? No different from anthills that will one day be condemned or abandoned. My hometown? A temporary settlement that will last no longer than the human race does, if that. Mountains? Ripples in the Earth’s crust that are worn down by erosion, a few minutes in the history of the universe. My family? Mortal humans who will one day die. Me? A complex of nerves and arteries and bones and brains, miraculously assembled, but no less transient than anything else.

This all sounds quite morbid, but in my experience, it’s really very liberating. All of the material possessions and trinkets and toys I used to value are suddenly detached from me. The feeling of sand running through my fingers is still there, but it’s no longer anything more than sand. The contemplation of the transience of all material things eventually leads to a realization of the transience of intangible things, too.

The really powerful aspect of destructive analysis, you see, is its application to my most important relationships. At first, I felt like a monster. I felt simultaneously guilty and frightened, as though my rational part were dragging me, kicking and screaming, to look at the eventual death of my parents and the inevitable parting-of-ways with at least some of my friends. And yet, despite being bitter medicine, it’s really a blessing in disguise: I’ve come to realize that there is a difference between valuing someone and being neurotically attached to them. The former is healthy, while the second will only cause you pain when that person inevitably dies or leaves. Destructively analyzing your relationship with a loved one increases your appreciation of them and your valuation of their presence in your life, but paradoxically, it also lessens your neurotic attachment to them. Now, part of me wants to say, “But how can you just let go of someone like that? Wouldn’t you want people to mourn your death?” I cannot deny that yes, part of me does want that. But that part of me is, simply put, selfish.

Don’t get me wrong: I want to be remembered, and I want my friends to reminisce about the times we had together, and I want my children, if I ever have any, to tell their grandchildren about me. But to ask that someone mourn you, to ask that someone feel pain because you’re gone – that is selfish, pure and simple. It’s as if I’m requesting validation from someone, except it’s validation that I’m never going to see. And if I don’t want other people to mourn me, why should it be my duty to mourn them?

The reason for all this morbid rumination on transience is, of course, this: transience is ineluctable. There is no way around the fact that everything is temporary. To say that this is a good thing would probably be dishonest (who are we kidding, really?), but perhaps it can be at least accepted. Through destructive analysis, we can become less attached to the things we value and thus, more accepting of the inevitable. At least, it works for me.

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Transience

Equanimity

Take away thy opinion, and then there is taken away the complaint, ‘I have been harmed.’ Take away the complaint, ‘I have been harmed,’ and the harm is taken away.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I achieved a very trivial sort of equanimity once. Not in a particularly impressive fashion, but it was equanimity of some kind, and I’d like to reflect on that experience.

I was once about to take a shower. I was very into self-denial at this point, and wanted to practice equanimity. I often did things to put myself in minor discomfort. Nothing major or masochistic – we’re not talking Opus Dei self-flagellation here – just minor things, like refusing an aspirin when I had a headache or dressing a little lightly for the cold weather. In this case, I decided to subject myself to a cold shower. Nothing too big, just a little discomfort to help aid me in becoming more equanimous.

Now, before I go any further, I want to stress something: equanimity is not endurance. That is to say, my intention was not to step into the shower, grit my teeth, and suffer the cold as part of some bizarre dick-measuring contest with myself. My intention was to step into the shower, relax, and try not to care about the cold. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. People often think that Stoicism is about clenching your fists and powering through hardship. That’s not Stoicism, that’s foolish machismo. Stoicism is about getting to the point where the hardship simply doesn’t bother you.

So I turned on the faucet and placed my hand under it, turning the knob until it felt nice and cold. It was winter, and the water was quite frigid. I remember that I could feel the cold air coming off of the water cascading down from the shower head. I remember groaning inwardly and thinking, “Is this really necessary? Am I really going to subject myself to a cold shower for some airy-fairy philosophical bullshit?” And then, something strange happened.

The feeling is difficult to describe, but it was as if I felt a little switch being thrown somewhere in the corner of my mind. All of the sudden, my apprehension at stepping into the cold shower melted away, and I stepped in confidently. I felt the cold, and strangely, I just did not care. I wasn’t enduring it and shrugging the cold off, like those macho guys who wear shorts in the winter. The cold had simply lost its (supposedly intrinsic) unpleasantness. What had been painful was painful no longer. I remember focusing my attention on my skin, “going into” the cold the way you “go into” your breath when you meditate. No matter how closely I examined the cold, there was simply nothing unpleasant or pleasant about it. It was a mere sensation that I could ignore or pay attention to as I pleased. With the tips of my fingers, I had touched apatheia.

I quickly realized two things.

First of all, I had just proven to myself that apatheia is real. You really can take something that is supposedly intrinsically uncomfortable and, by removing the opinion that it is uncomfortable, remove the feeling of discomfort.

Secondly, apatheia is elusive. I haven’t been able to flip that switch since then, and I’ve been frustrated by my inability to find it, much less touch it. And I suspect that it’s more of a dial than a switch; there’s a big difference between facing a cold shower with equanimity and doing the same thing with a broken bone, and I couldn’t have endured the second one at the time. But I think that it is possible to turn the dial further, and gradually remove the unpleasantness from worse and worse things. Not that I plan to subject myself to such things just to develop apatheia, but I will certainly try to practice apatheia when such things happen. And if it happened once, it can happen again.

All that being said, I need to do my nightly philosophy reading, meditate, and then take a nice, cold shower. Until next time.

Equanimity

Stoicism

An Introduction
If you want to know what Stoicism was as it was practiced by the ancient Greeks and Romans, then you should probably go read Wikipedia or something. I am sure that there have been endless numbers of books written on the history and implications of Stoicism. I’m not in the business of re-inventing the wheel, so I have something different in mind here. First, I want to say what this blog is for. Second, I want to outline my own conception of Stoicism.

What This Blog is About, and What It’s For
What you will find here, that you will not find anywhere else on the internet, is the day-to-day life and reflections of a young Stoic in the 21st century. Yes, I consider myself a Stoic. No, I don’t consider myself a Stoic sage (there haven’t been any Stoic sages). No, I don’t care if you find my self-designation to be anachronistic, arrogant, pretentious, or silly. I call myself a Stoic because I do my absolute damnedest to follow those teachings of the Stoics that I think are correct, which is most of them. I call myself a Stoic because I believe that I have a particular personality and cast of mind that benefits greatly from Stoic philosophy.

My intention is twofold. One, keeping this blog will keep me honest. Hopefully, I will attract readers who can call me on my bullshit when I say something completely ridiculous and/or stupid. More to the point, if I have to put my thoughts on the internet, I will be more careful about the kinds of things I allow myself to think. It’s much harder to retain ridiculous notions when you have to put them out there in front of God and everybody (and, ladies and gentlemen, I am capable of entertaining some very ridiculous notions). Two, while I don’t consider myself at all wise or virtuous or even very Stoical, I want to share my thoughts on Stoicism with the world. More accurately, I want to share Stoicism with the world, because it’s a system of thought that, since my discovery of it, has made me happier than I’ve ever been, and I hope that someone else will benefit from my thoughts as much as I’ve benefited from the thoughts of the Stoics before me.

What Is Stoicism, Anyway?
I make no pretensions to being completely historically accurate in every detail on this point. I don’t want to give an exhaustive definition of Greek or Roman Stoicism. Rather, I want to communicate the general tenor of Stoic philosophy, in a way that shows both its usefulness to me and its relevance to modern life.

Stoicism, as I see it, consists in four things.

  1. Striving for apatheia. Apatheia sometimes translated as “apathy,” and while I don’t speak ancient Greek, I’m familiar enough with Stoicism to know that “equanimity” is a much more accurate term. Apatheia is the state that every Stoic aspires to, a state of perfect equanimity, where no outside influence can bother us. No one can reach perfect equanimity, of course, although some people come close; think of the Buddhist monks who burn themselves alive on camera as a form of protest, without crying out or even flinching! We can’t all have equanimity to that extent, but I use that example to show that more equanimity is humanly possible than perhaps you realize. Anyway, some of the ancient Stoics seem to think of apatheia as a state reserved for the mythical Stoic sage. But I follow Epictetus, who said, “Begin therefore from little things. Is a little oil spilt? A little wine stolen? Say to yourself, ‘This is the price paid for apathy, for tranquility, and nothing is to be had for nothing.’” This is important because it stresses that apatheia comes in degrees, which is something that I hold to be true.
  2. Striving for kindness. The Stoics speak often of being kind, gentle, and benevolent. I think of being kind as distinct from being polite or nice. If someone is being a jackass and embarrassing themselves, then the kind thing to do might be to tell them, in no uncertain terms, that they’re being a jackass and that they need to knock it off. That wouldn’t be very nice, but it’s ultimately in their best interest and is thus kind. Of course, niceness might be a kind of default; I think it’s generally a good maxim to be as nice as possible until someone gives you a good reason to behave otherwise.
  3. Striving for wisdom. “Wisdom” is a slippery term, but I define it as a useful and veridical understanding of how things work, especially human beings. A wise person should also be difficult to deceive.
  4. Striving for virtue. This one kind of sums up all the previous points. If you are equanimous, kind, and wise, then ipso facto you’re virtuous.  Indeed, Zeno of Citium (not to be confused with Zeno of Elea), the founder of Stoicism, thought that virtue was the highest good, and that “the good life” consisted in being virtuous. Most of the posts in this blog will concern virtue or one of its three tenets.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. I must be a real douchebag if I think I’m equanimous, kind, wise and virtuous. Well, I don’t think I’m any of those things; I may be a Stoic, but I’m not a good Stoic. On that note, I should probably mention that, if I weren’t somewhat fucked up, I probably wouldn’t need Stoicism. I doubt I’ll ever be a Stoic sage, but it’s something I aspire to. I can be more equanimous, kinder, and wiser than I now am, which really isn’t saying much, considering how anxious, mean, and foolish I am right now. It’s only been in the past few months that I’ve really discovered how much I need and desire virtue, and it’s taken all this time for me to begin my quest. This blog will be a documentation of that.

Enjoy.

Stoicism