I’ve recently discovered the Stoics. I don’t quite remember how I came across the writing of these ancient philosophers but they crossed my path at a time when many aspects of my life were seemingly falling apart. I had considered myself a Buddhist for many years, well over 10 years, and off and on for many more than that. The past 4 years of my life had been devoted to a dedicated study/practice of Vajrayana Buddhism in a very consciously religious way. Buddhism had been the compass of my life and I walked away from it less than a year ago. Why did I walk away from Buddhism? Many reasons, too many to go into all of them here. If you would like to talk about the deeper aspects of why, you’ll have to buy me a beer and we will spend a few hours together. The short and dirty version is this: I realized that I could no longer practice a religion, any religion. That phase of my life was over. The entire reason I had gotten involved with Buddhism to begin with is that I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha. I wanted to discover truth for myself. What I discovered in Buddhism was a religion, a set of beliefs about truth, but not much searching for truth itself. Upon leaving Buddhism a few key crises in my life began to gain momentum and make terrain shifting eruptions. A combination of physical and emotional trauma laid me on my ass. I sat there looking around in the rubble that had been what I thought was my life. Some where in that rubble I found Epictetus and the Stoics.
“What then is the proper training for this? In the first place, the principal and most important thing, on the very threshold so to speak, is that when you are attached to a thing, not a thing which cannot be taken away but anything like a water jug, or a crystal cup, you should bear in mind what it is, that you may not be disturbed when it is broken. So should it be with persons; if you kiss your child, or brother, or friend… you must remind yourself that you love a mortal, and that nothing that you love is your very own; it is given you for the moment, not for ever nor inseparably, but like a fig or a bunch of grapes at the appointed season of the year, and if you long for it in winter you are a fool. So too if you long for your son or your friend, when it is not given you to have him, know that you are longing for a fig in winter time.” Epictetus, Discourses III.24
When I first read this it shook me. I realized that this is a lesson that I had discovered before. There are people who will read this and learn for the first time that I spent 6 years of my life in Texas prisons. When I first got out of prison I lived in this space of such freedom and openness. Virtually every person that I met I immediately told my story. I told everyone I had been in prison, I talked openly about it. Eventually I stopped doing that. I don’t know exactly how it occurred but I became afraid, fear slipped in. I started to hide that part of me…that was one of the things that started me down the path that led to the seismic shifts that have occurred in my life recently. I stopped being who I am. I stopped being true to myself. I am no longer willing to do that. A good friend of mine told me recently that when it all falls apart one has the unique chance to build oneself back up the way one wants to be and should be. I am taking that advice and running with. So here is my public announcement: I spent 6 years in prison. I am an ex-con, a felon. There it is.
What does prison have to do with it? Well I have been slowly realizing recently that when I was in prison I experienced what I see as the pinnacle of pragmatic spiritual development: fearlessness, tranquility, and freedom. A man in prison has lost virtually everything from the perspective of the eyes of society. He has been stripped and laid bare. It was within the depths of the darkness of Texas prisons that I experienced incredibly deep states of complete fearlessness and freedom. I was untouchable by the outside world…I was living from the inside out. Oddly, the further I got away from the experience of prison the more that fearlessness, tranquility, and freedom slipped away.
I am beginning to put words to what went wrong. The above quote from Epictetus explains it beautifully. I began to lose my freedom when I lost my fearlessness, when I began to not be who I truly was. I began to identify and attach myself to things that by their very nature had no chance to be anything but impermanent. I began to be afraid of losing the things and people I had become so attached to. When the fearlessness and freedom faded the tranquility was out the window. For months before my life exploded I would wake up everyday with a nausea in my stomach. It was becoming so bad that I began to seriously wonder whether or not I had cancer. After my life explosion…even in the depths of despair that followed in the wake of it, I have not woken up with a nervous stomach once. I realize now that fear of living as myself, fully and unapologetically, had undercut any chance of experiencing freedom, tranquility, and fearlessness. No more.
Living inside out, what does that mean? The phrase “living inside out vs outside in” occurred to me after meditation practice about a week ago. I realized in a flash that one of the central keys to living a good life is to have the gravity, the centeredness, the force (I am not completely clear on the best way to describe it yet) of one’s life coming from the inside and radiating out vs having the outside world move the direction of your self. I think this is at the heart of the teachings of the Stoics, and it is immediately applicable today.
Stay tuned, there is more to come!