Soldiering On

HiH_162_1#

(G.I.’s of 3rd battalion/8th Infantry (4th Infantry Division) in Hurtgen Forest. Near Schwarzenbroich Manor/Schevenhütte, November 18, 1944)

What follows is a very personal piece of writing. I banged it out last night with raw emotions. The last two days have been hard, hard as fuck, and yesterday it was a struggle to just move through the world. A part of me wanted to curl up and just sleep.

The piece of writing below was written at the end of a very long day. It includes things that I am uneasy about sharing publicly on my blog. There are details of my breakup with my wife, something I have not written openly about. But I have decided to share this piece of writing because I know that there is a damn good chance that someone will read it who is suffering hard. All of us are suffering or struggling with something, something hard. All the meditation, all the physical training, all of the philosophy in the world cannot keep the hard shit at bay…but it is my experience and my faith that training is what we fall back on when the hard shit comes.

So I am sharing this piece of writing with you. I do it so that you know we are out here struggling together. My knees might be bloodied from all the goddamn times I have stumbled and fallen, and I will continue to stumble and fall…and I pray that I always find the strength to get up and keep moving. I hope the words below inspire you to keep moving too.

————————————————————————————————————————————–

Life can be bleak. I mean fucking bleak. Here is what is happening with me. My wife has left me. I am not completely sure why. Fully, I recognize that our relationship has issues, and that some of these run fairly deep and have been going on for a while. However, none of them seem to me to be the kind of problems that a marriage cannot weather, provided both participants are committed to commitment.

 And yet here I sit at the retreat ranch, alone, no wife,. See, ultimately the problem, for me, is this: there is a level of me that still loves her the way I loved her long ago…and have, for the last 8 years. I don’t know how to let go of that. Today I imagined it as like these nerve connections or tentacles or something, this way in which I have been entwined with her since the day I saw her for the first time, way back in prison, when she was a light of hope and warmth and beauty and laughter. And I could go on and on….I feel deeply for the woman….and yet here I am, alone at the retreat ranch, drinking beer and writing. These connections have been torn apart and are raw and hurting  And where is she? Probably at home, probably with someone new.

See, I went over the other day because I was worried about her. Maybe I over reacted but she hadn’t returned calls or texts for like 24 hours. And maybe it was an over reaction to go down there and ring the doorbell…but I was worried. There has not been one time in 8 years that she hasn’t returned a phone call or text or something….and I don’t want to draw out the details, but someone was there…so yeah she has someone new…and it is bleak. To say, there are a seemingly large amount of moments of pathê that recur with a frequency that is not comfortable.

Anyway, my point in all that is to say that yeah…life can be bleak. And it could easily, so easily be worse. We should live in deep gratitude when we recognize how worse it could be. But to quote the good book, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” (Matthew 6:34).

That is an interesting passage on multiple levels. If you let that one set in, you might find, as I have, that it pops up and reveals deeper meanings of itself at interesting times. Here is one of them: yes, things could be worse, and I should be grateful for just how good things are going and yet, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”. The problem I am faced with is my current cross to pick up and bear. In spite of the fact that I think sufferings are comparable, and that one can gain good insights from doing so, there is also great benefit in recognizing that my suffering in the moment is what I am faced with, and it is sufficient for today. And of at least equal importance: it matters what I do. What I do when I am faced with these challenges, the quest to carve habitable order out of chaos as Jordan Peterson puts so well, is one of the key components of who I am and what kind of world I am contributing to building. This is key, it is crucial: what we do matters. The way we respond to the hardships of life build our lives. Every time we choose to pick up our cross and bear it we become stronger, more resilient, and more oriented toward the good. That is the quest that can move the world.

Somedays it is just the struggle to hold it together. The pain of the dissolution of a relationship can really be like an existential earthquake. It seems that this is particularly true if you happen to be the seemingly unlucky bastard (because sure, in some ways this really is unlucky but in other ways, maybe to some degree, didn’t you dodge a bullet? What happens if you recognize that? What happens if you give some room for that to stretch out a little and get some air? What would happen if that is the creature that you feed?) who does not want the relationship to end. It is like an existential earthquake and even after the main quake has passed there are still some significant after shocks that have the potential to come along and really give a rattling to the new structures that you are building.

When this happens, we can’t quit. I mean we can, but the options aren’t good. In fact, they should clearly be unacceptable. When I was in prison, people who would visit or write to me would always comment on how well they thought I was handling imprisonment and how they doubted their own ability to do so if put in the same situation. I would always tell them that it was not brave, or courageous or anything like that…it was a simple choice. If you ever find yourself in an old school (and when I say old school I mean like over 50 years old) southern prison, in one of those real small 2 man cells, where you can stand in the middle of the cell with your arms stretched out at your sides, and with the slightest sway from left to right you can actually touch the walls, if you ever find yourself in one of those, locked in with another person, let me assure you that anything but a reasonably calm acceptance of the situation will lead to absolutely nothing but making the situation worse.

So if the current situation is shit…don’t make it worse. Most of the time, kicking and screaming against the door does not lead to improved conditions. So the choice is simple. In the same way, you cannot quit when the after shocks hit. You have to make a choice, and the only acceptable one is to keep moving forward. Sometimes that is literally just putting one foot in front of the other, just making it through, just getting out there in the world and facing all the human interactions and situational stresses and stimuli and facing all of that in a way that holds it all together. That even if you are stumbling along a bit, you are still shouldering that cross.

Hard times can be when hard lessons are learned and earned. Hard times provide a certain treasure, but only if you can push through to the other side. Some people don’t make it. You probably know some people in your life who have not made it through some hard time. This can happen to various degrees. I know good people who still bleed from wounds that are years and years old. I know good people who have been spiritually broken by hardship and who have not recovered. There are no guarantees. When you face the dragon you might be destroyed. Does that seem gloomy? Indeed. You know what is even worse? Being destroyed with out a fight. Because giving up is to guarantee defeat. Soldiering on is a victory in itself.

Developing Discipline (p2)

s-l300

 

Welcome to part two of my multipart series on strategies for developing discipline. The goal of this series of posts is to provide working tools that can be used in everyday life to develop and deepen personal discipline. If you have not read part one you might want to go back and give it a look. Okay, lets dive right in.

Train with slogans. This is a method of both the Buddhists and the Stoics and is a wisdom that we all know, we just need to actively engage in it. To train with slogans means to have powerful quotes and phrases at hand that we can use for inspiration in those moments and situations in which we are struggling to exercise discipline. We can find these slogans anywhere. You can get them from songs, movies, books, podcasts…anywhere. It is ideal to have some slogans from your hero/role model. Takes notes on your phone of slogans that you can have on hand when you need them. I gave the example in part one of writing the Jocko quote on the white board at work. The act of writing it, and seeing it for the rest of the day every time I walked into the break room area kept me from violating the discipline I wanted to exercise regarding food. This is an example of training with slogans.

In my experience there is a voice in my head when I am confronting different situations in life. Far too often that voice has a negative message. It encourages me to give in, to take the easy way out, to stay comfortable and warm. The voice tries to convince me that some things are just too hard for me to do, that I deserve a break, that it is okay to take it easy etc etc. I don’t know where that voice comes from but I imagine it is from years of hearing and thinking shit that is just not geared towards my advancement in life.

What I have learned is that it is possible to feed a different voice. One of the best foods to give life to that new voice is the food of powerful slogans. Here are a few slogans that I like to keep handy:

-“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way” Marcus Aurelius

-“The sword of justice is ill-placed in the hands of an angry man.” Seneca

-“Discipline Equals Freedom” Jocko Willink

-“There are a few men whom slavery holds fast, but there are many more who hold fast to slavery.” Seneca

-“If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” Epictetus

Maybe the above slogans do not really speak to you, that is not a problem. One of the keys to training with slogans is to find the slogans that do speak to you. The voice in which they speak can be the new born voice in your head, the voice that does not want to tear you down but rather build you up. So get out there today and find some inspiring words, write them down and keep them handy. Chew on them, digest them, make them part of yourself. Try it today.

Developing Discipline (p1)

c999891b50c6c30629dcf0c296019ea0--roman-sculpture-sculpture-clay
(Greek Boxer 300BCE)

The other day a co-worker asked me about discipline. I had put up a quote from Jocko Willink on the white board in our back room, “Discipline is the root of all good qualities.” I put it up because we have all been trying to limit our sugar intake and someone had opened up some kind of sugar bullshit and I saw my friends giving in to the desire to eat the sugar. I could feel the strong pull myself and so I pulled up the quote and wrote it down as a reminder, a command, an inspirational fire, to myself as much as anyone else. I managed the discipline not eat the sugar. I managed that discipline to a large degree by relying on that quote.

So at work the other day this co-worker comes up to me and asks me about the quote. She asks me, “if discipline is the root of all good qualities, how do we develop discipline if we feel like we don’t have it?”. This is a great question.

I don’t think there can be one answer to how we develop discipline. It is simple to say, “Just do it”. It is actually that simple, that is what it ultimately boils down to, but simple doesn’t mean easy and most of the time I know that I need some tools and tricks to use along the way. So I am going to make notes about some of the tools and tricks that I am finding most effective in generating discipline. This will be my first shot at a multi part series. I hope you find it useful.

Find a role model. This is an old tool and our Stoic friend Seneca writes to us from thousands of years ago about this: “Choose therefore a Cato, or if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture her always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.”

A very interesting thing about the Stoics is that it they did not consider it necessary for you to know your role model, or even for that role model to be a living person. Your role model could also be a character from fiction. In prison, after I discovered (through a friend) Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, his fictional character Ivan Denisovich became my hero and role model. In difficult circumstances I would imagine what Ivan Denisovich would do…and I would try to do that. The point is, pick someone you look up to in the realm of discipline. Think about this person, this hero or role model, and imagine how they would respond or what they would tell you to do in the particular situation in which you want to exercise discipline.

This morning when I woke up I didn’t want to work out. It was so cold outside, and so warm in bed. It seemed like it would be a great idea to take a hot bath and read. After all, I am still recovering from surgery, and my shoulder was sore. I have a physically demanding job and I work hard, don’t I deserve a bit of rest? Then I thought about ultra runner and Navy SEAL David Goggins, who I recently discovered through The Joe Rogan Experience #1080 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5tSTk1083VY&list=PLUU9NJyfRTYHuz-4Cy2SlNx603HfIZmdI&index=1 and I knew immediately what he would say, “Get the fuck up and go work out!”. And that is exactly what I did.

This is not to say that I would want to fully model myself on David Goggins. But as a role model in the realm of discipline he shows me what is possible and that helps me to recognize how much more I am capable of. And while I think this applies on very deep levels of my life, I also try to apply it to seemingly small decisions like what foods to eat.

So find people who you look up to, people who inspire you. Think of those people in that moment in which you are attempting to exercise discipline. What would that person do in this situation? You know what the answer is, it is one of the reasons you look up to them, the trick is to then do the damn thing.

I am not claiming this is easy, but it is simple…you just do it.

Take up the charge

For it is not these small arguments that are wanted now; the writings of the Stoics are full of them. What then is the thing which is wanted? A man who shall apply them, one who by his acts shall bear testimony to his words. Assume, I intreat you, this character, that we may no longer use in the schools the examples of the ancients, but may have some example of our own.Epictetus

marcus
I read this quote from our friend Epictetus as I was going to sleep last night. In fact, I think I fell asleep reading it. When I woke up this morning this quote was waiting for me.
It is a powerful quote. Think what it could mean to wake up everyday and actually put it into practice.

What is Epictetus talking about? He is talking about philosophy, he is talking about Stoicism. To my current mind the most profound aspects of Epictetus and the Stoicism he taught is the emphasis on Freedom (I capitalize it because I want to highlight the point that the Freedom Epictetus taught and the Freedom I am ultimately interested in, is of a broader nature than generally thought of, it is inside-out living). It was Epictetus’ claim that the philosophy he taught led to a life of Fearlessness, Equanimity, and Freedom.

Reading the above quote from Epictetus might be a bit confusing to anyone who is not familiar with the basics of Stoicism. After all, how are we to put into practice a teaching that we don’t know? Damn good point. Here is the beautiful thing about the Stoics, particularly the Roman Stoics, you can pick up the writings right now, today, exactly as you are, and make sense of them. They are not difficult to read. They speak across time in a language that is meant to be understood. In fact, it is my speculation, that if you try this you will find that you are already schooled in the foundations. If you are reading this you have grown up with it, you have been swimming in it for your entire life…it is your inheritance from something like 3,000 years ago.

I am not going to provide a lengthy explanation here. What I will give you a link to some wonderful collections put together by Massimo Pigliucci (a great exponent of modern Stoicism) where you can start your own study. Seriously, go check it out…enjoy!
For those who have some familiarity with the teachings of the Stoics and who are attempting to implement them into your modern life I think you will know exactly what Epictetus is charging you with. Today is the day that we start to live our philosophy of life. Each morning when we wake up there is another chance to put our philosophy of life into practice. Each time we are confronted with something we don’t want to do, something we do not want to deal with, we are actually being presented with an opportunity to practice our philosophy.

26910454_10203706489219754_7029420329533842673_o

Here are my notes to myself in this regard: Today I am going to do my best to live the inside-out life, to live as a Stoic. Today I am going to treat myself with justice. I am going to do the things that build the person I am trying to become. This includes exercise, diet, study, writing, meditation. I refuse to waste my day. I refuse to zone out. I am zoning in. Today I am going to treat others with justice and kindness. I am going to do my best at my job. I will be kind when others are cruel or cold. I refuse to stay discouraged. I have the power to meet the tasks of a human being. When I encounter injustice today I will do my best to make it right. Today I will deny myself a comfort, I will volunteer. Today is the day, now is the moment to have courage, to be Free.

I hope this short post inspires. Stay tuned, there is more to come.

A simple practice

Straightaway then practice saying to every harsh appearance, “You are an appearance, and in no manner what you appear to be.” Epictetus “Enchiridion”
24121395._SY540_
Philosophy without practice is good up to a point, but what do we do when our minds seem bent on assailing us with suffering? We need a practice, we need something we can do in these moments. In the above quote from our good friend Epictetus we have the directions for a classic Stoic practice, and one that we can begin to employ immediately.

Imagine that you are driving to work. You are listening to a podcast or some of your favorite music and seemingly out of nowhere you find yourself lost in thought about some worry or anxiety whether past, or future. If you have experienced this you will immediately know what I mean and the suffering that this can cause. Here is the trick of Epictetus’ practice: you have to catch yourself doing this. You have to find even a centimeter of distance between the thought and you (there is an interesting paradox). If you can catch this little bit of distance you can implement the practice. Take that distance (even if it is just a tiny bit of distance) and look at the pattern of disturbing thoughts. Try to cultivate the experience of looking at the thoughts, watching them (this helps create/increase distance) and once you have that (it can take only seconds) question the disturbing thoughts, “Who do you think you are? You are not what you appear to be.”.

That is it. It is that simple. While it is simple it is startlingly effective, in my experience, in derailing these thoughts. One can have the experience of recognizing that it is not necessary to fully buy into them…indeed, it is a choice. I find myself using this practice many, many times a day. I encourage you to experiment with it and and let me know how it goes. I hope it is as helpful for you as it is for me.

Stay tuned, there is more to come

Refuse to be a slave

Stories-From-The-Set-Spartacus-Featured-1200x520

 

People are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things. when, therefore, we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved let us never impute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own views. It is the action of an uninstructed person to reproach others for her own misfortunes; of one entering upon instruction, to reproach herself; and of one perfectly instructed, to reproach neither others or herself.

I curated the above quote from our good friend Epictetus. There are a couple of sentences in the middle that talk about not fearing death and I cut them out. It isn’t that I don’t think that these lines on death are worthwhile but they are not exactly what I want to address right now. What  I want to write about now is dealing with difficult situations from the perspective of the inside-out life.

Today I had a frustrating conversation. I have been trying to discuss some sensitive issues with a friend of mine. We have been dealing with this particular thicket of issues for over a month now. In that time we have both said some stupid and hurtful things. I don’t think either one of us is really happy with how this line of communication is going. Neither one of us wants to cause hurt and stress to the other and yet it continues and escalates.

What do we do in situations like this?  Our friend and teacher Epictetus comes through again when he encourages us to follow reason. Sometimes we just have to realize that situations are beyond our control. Sometimes we cannot make ourselves understood, sometimes the other person we are trying to communicate with is seemingly unreachable…no matter how much we care about them. This is something the Stoics refer to as the dichotomy of control: there are some things I can control and somethings I can’t. Modern Stoics generally add a third, making a trichotomy: things we can exert some control over. This is kind of it. So what do we do?

As someone attempting to apply stoicism as a philosophy of life I have two choices as far as I can tell: having recognized the degree to which the situation is beyond my control I can continue to bang my head into the wall of their anger and offense or I can simply drop the issue and move on. I recognize through reason that I have tried my best and my best isn’t good enough. Once I see the situation for what it is I have a choice to make. The choice is mine. This is part of the piece of freedom that is at the heart of stoicism. We always have a choice. Here are a few more words from Epictetus. Take them to heart. Refuse to be a slave.

“Of things some are in our power, and others are not. In our power are opinion, movement toward a thing, desire, aversion (turning from a thing); and in a word, whatever are our own acts; not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices (magisterial power), and in a word, whatever are not our own acts. And the things in our power are by nature free, not subject to restraint or hinderance: but the things not in our power are weak, slavish, subject to restraint, in the power of others.”

Get Curious

 

6397cf6e1f131e5da2dc09c650dc23a9-d3dbton

I sit down to do my morning meditation. For reasons that I do not fully understand I have woken up in a “bad mood”. I experience feelings of restlessness and agitation. Five minutes into my meditation session I feel a growing sense of nervous energy in my belly. It expands up my abdomen and into my chest. I can feel my heart beating faster. I can feel the muscles around my rib cage tense and threaten to cramp. My mind starts to speed up. I can hear my heartbeat pounding in my head. I want to shift, to move, to get up and walk away from the meditation cushion. Perhaps I shouldn’t be doing sitting meditation in this agitated state, maybe some physical activity would be better. A voice in my head tries to convince me of this. My mind starts to race with all the things I need to do during the day. The agitation in my stomach increases.

At work my boss makes an off the cuff comment about my performance of some task. I shrug it off, maybe make a joke about it and go on with my shift. Within three minutes my mind is running simulation after simulation of the brief interaction with my boss. There is an angry voice in my head, “how dare they talk to me like that, don’t they know how hard I am trying?”. I try to refocus on work but in my head the simulations continue to run. My shoulders start to tense and knot. Agitation is rising and coursing through my body. I think of all the things I could have said/should have said. Despite my best attempts I cannot help but think of past incidences where I have similarly been disrespected.

Driving home from work I am stuck in the typical evening traffic. I watch in growing horror as people dart in and out of the traffic jam. It is as if they do not recognize that we are all engaged in one of the most dangerous activities a modern human being engages in…driving. These assholes are willing to risk everyone’s safety in the vain hope that they might save a few minutes in their commute. Some jerk in a giant pickup truck swerves recklessly in front of me. In order to not crash into the back of his truck I have to slam on my breaks. I hit the horn and find myself yelling and gesturing like an angry chimpanzee.

I imagine everyone who is reading this has had these exact experiences or something so similar that you know exactly what I am describing. It is often the case that I find myself a captive of emotional states and thought patterns that I seem to have no real control over. They come on either strong or subtle and then they dig in, the entrench themselves and only dissipate when they want to…how strange.

I like to think of myself as an autonomous being. I like to think that I am the one who is in control of my thoughts and feelings, if not all the external circumstances of my life. But again and again I find myself completely caught up, hooked, by emotions and thoughts that I neither want nor enjoy.

When I think about living life inside-out I conceptualize this kind of life as one in which I am not completely at the mercy of my emotions and thoughts. Indeed, the inside-out life should be one in which I am less and less at the mercy of my monkey mind and emotions. I think I have discovered a way to actualize this…getting curious.

In my own experience what I struggle with most is physical sensations, like an anxiety around situations. Let me give an example: if I have an argument with a loved one, particularly if the argument ends without resolution, if I think that things are left unsaid or undone, I will begin to experience physical sensations of tightness in my chest, of a nervous energy in my legs and stomach. With these physical sensations my mind begins to ramp up with thoughts about the disagreement. I run simulations on ways that the argument could have and should have gone smoother. The thoughts and the physical sensations seem to form a sort of feedback loop. They strengthen and encourage each other. There are times that this physical agitation and restlessness coupled with mental chatter can seem unbearable. It is as if I want to jump out of my skin, or like there is a little man inside my chest scratching and clawing to get out and act, to take control. In the past this would typically lead me to pick up the phone or physically go seek the person I had the argument with out and attempt to resolve it. Of course since my attempts at resolution are driven by this uncontrollable physical and mental urge, they historically only make things worse.

I take a different path now…I attempt to get curious. What is that feeling of agitation? Where is it? Where is it in my body? I make myself describe this, really pay attention to it and note it’s characteristics. I follow the sensations. “Oh look, the tightness in my belly is actually not a knot but more like a pulse…and oh wow, it is actually not totally in my belly, it seems to be radiating across my back”. When thought kicks in I make a note, “oh look, now thinking has come on line”. I try not to indulge in the content of the thought but more just noting that there is thinking. When I do get caught up in thought I try to get curious about that too, “oh wow look, I’ve gotten pulled away again”. The reason I describe the little man above is because I discovered him by getting curious about the feelings, “holy shit, it is like there is this crazy little man in me trying to take control!”. Fascinating!

Dr. Judson Brewer in his deeply interesting book, “The Craving Mind”, describes surfing the wave of craving. We get curious about the emotion or thought pattern that seems to have seized the reins and we recognize it as an incoming wave. We jump up on our surf board of curiosity and attention to detail and we try to ride the metaphorical wave all the way into shore. If we wipe out we get curious again, climb back up on the board and continue surfing.

Sisters and brothers I am happy to share the good news with you that it is possible to surf those waves to shore. It is possible to ride the emotion without getting overwhelmed by it and to ride it until it dissipates. This is huge. It is a game changer for experience. To discover that by getting curious about your internal landscape equanimity, freedom and fearlessness can be increased is a key to living the good life. A good friend of mine calls this equanimity or ataraxia a state of “unfuckablewithness”. It is a key component of living the inside-out life, a life of increasing freedom, fearlessness and equanimity.

Don’t take my word for it. Get curious yourself. Go surfing.

Eudaemonia

“Let others practice lawsuits, others study problems, others syllogisms; here you practice how to die, how to be enchained, how to be racked, how to be exiled.” Epictetus

This is one of my favorite quotes from the Stoic master who was once a slave. That he came from slavery is an important point…you know that Epictetus is speaking from experience. Of the four most famous Roman Stoics, three were sentenced to exile. One committed suicide at the order of an emperor…these were philosophers who lived what they taught.

Hopefully we will never be literally enchained, racked or exiled…but we will die. We do experience being chained and enslaved by habits and desires we cannot control. We do torture ourselves with our habitual emotional loops. How many of us are exiled by divorce, or nursing homes, or just loneliness?

The linchpin of Stoicism as a philosophy of life is that no matter what form the chains take, no matter the discomfort of the exile or the torture it is still possible to lead a eudaemonic life. Eudaemonia is another Ancient Greek word that I find useful. A eudaemonic life is a good life, a flourishing life, that is what it means. According to Stoicism it is possible to lead a good life, a flourishing life even in prison, while sick or dying, or cast out far from your home.

This is possible because the philosophy gives us some guidance in building the inside-out life. The inside-out life isn’t based on conditions, it is not built on anything that can be given or taken away. This is freedom that expands in all directions because it is the center of all directions…

When asked what was the goal of his philosophical school Epictetus replied: “Fearlessness, Equanimity, and Freedom”. All of these qualities radiate from within. When we are centered there we are unshakeable.

Getting off the hook

hook-black-black-background-fish-1714807-1920x1080Recently, while talking to my good friend Lisa, she reminded me of something it is easy to forget, she reminded me of shenpa. Shenpa is a Tibetan Buddhist word, a word we are not all familiar with, but it describes a phenomenon that any introspective person is bound to have experienced. Shenpa means: attachment, hooked. Specifically what this is referring to is the stickiness of certain mental states, they way they draw us in and rev up our habitual response tendencies. If that isn’t immediately clear I hope that by the end of this post it will be a bit more so.
I am 45 years old and I work at a grocery store. I have worked there for over 4 years and it is the first long term job I have ever had. As with any job there are times that I really enjoy my work and there are times when I find it monotonous and robotic and boring. I think this is par for the course regarding work. There are other times when I start to wonder and worry about what my job says about me. I am 45 years old and work in a grocery store. I am not a manager, I am not a boss. I am a clerk. Shouldn’t a 45 year old man have a “real” job? Shouldn’t a 45 year old man have a position of authority? Shouldn’t a 45 year old man put on a nice set of clothes and go sit in an office somewhere? What would women think of me? I have heard single female friends judge men by the type of jobs they held in the past (thankfully these are women I no longer have a real connection with) and I always wonder how I am judged.
I was explaining all of this to Lisa via text the other day and asking her what she thought. She typed back one single word: shenpa. It was at that moment, and with that text, that I realized I was hooked. When I say hooked, I find it extremely useful to really get the sense of that, the sense of being a fish on a hook. There is this sharp, thorny piece of emotional metal that is metaphorically stabbed through your mouth and you are being dragged all over the place by it. Not a pretty picture. It hurts.
In the case I am describing above, the hook, as I see it, is the expectations of the culture. It is expected that people work a “real” job, a career. I am not saying that working in retail is not a career, surely it is, if one wished to view it as such. I have never wanted a career. I have wanted freedom to pursue the philosophical life, to seek the mysteries. This has been the trajectory of my life since I became conscious of a trajectory. This morning I have spent an hour in meditation, and hour and a half soaking in a hot bath and reading philosophy (Thomas Metzinger’s “Ego Tunnel” and Massimo Pigliucci”s “How to be a Stoic”), all accompanied by delicious coffee (purchased at a discount because I work at a grocery store!). I now sit in a sun drenched room writing philosophical lover letters to you. If my shoulder wasn’t recovering from surgery I would be going to jiujitsu in a couple of hours. I will head into work around 1:30pm. What am I moaning about? What do I care what squares think about my grocery job…I don’t, and I shouldn’t. My grocery job currently provides the economic stability that I need to pursue my purpose in this life. The only time it matters is when I allow that goddamn hook to be shoved through my mouth.
The hook can take many forms. Last night I found myself in a painful argument with a person who is very dear to me. In the midst of the argument I realized I was hooked and so were they. The first step to ripping the hook out of your mouth is to realize that it is there. This is not as easy as you might imagine. I can’t speak for everyone but I know that for myself I typically end up hooked via some blind spot. In the case of the argument I got hooked because I was trying to defend a position (one that I still agree with but this is actually beside the point), I was trying to make the other person see things from my perspective. Because this person and myself have a long history, there are all manner of little things we do to each other on a very subtle (and sometimes not so subtle way) level that trigger habitual responses that we are not fully aware of. Trust me, you do it too. In the midst of the argument I realized I was hooked. I realized they were hooked. I spent a brief moment trying to unhook us both, but the patterns run deep. In the end all I could do was deal with my own hook. Typically this is all we can ever do. The Stoics spoke to this as did the Buddha. It is the dichotomy of control. All I can control is myself. Very rarely can I help another person get unhooked. I can however work to unhook myself.
To return to the analogy of the fish on a hook: it is usually not easy or painless to remove the hook. I imagine myself as that fish, somehow managing to tear free of that hook. My mouth is torn open, the hook has ripped right through. It hurts, it is raw, it stings….but I am swimming away into the water and I am free.
Stay tuned, there is more to come.

Ataraxia

w09_06010153

I discovered a new word. Actually it is a very old word (Ancient Greek to be specific) but it is a new discovery for me. That word is ataraxia. Ataraxia is defined as: imperturbability, equanimity, or tranquility. The Stoic philosopher (and former slave) Epictetus lists ataraxia as one of the three goals of the Stoic praxis (the other two being freedom and fearlessness). I am not the first person to notice the similarities between some central aspect of Buddhism and Stoicism but the ataraxia piece is one point that the two seem to definitely be describing similar territory.

For anyone reading this who doesn’t know, I am a bit of a meditation geek. My interest on meditation could be described as pragmatic or results oriented. By this I mean that I do the practice because I want the promised results. The problem here, particularly with much of Buddhism (and other traditions I have experienced) is that most people shy away from talking openly and honestly about what the results are, and where they would put themselves in that continuum. After many years as a dedicated Buddhist practitioner what I discovered is that most of the other practitioners I encountered seemed to reserve all discussion of meditation attainment to the great deeds of their teachers or past masters. Sure, people would tell you all about how enlightened their teachers were, or the great masters from their tradition but when it came to their own lives, as lived on the ground, I never heard much talk of accomplishment. I get it. Humility is a good quality to have. No one wants to spend a bunch of time drinking beers with the guy who is always spouting off about his most recent enlightenment (just ask my close friends). That is all well and good but I want attainment. What does that mean?

Of late I am on a mission to create more accurate maps of my inner experience. Various meditation systems provide maps of inner experience but here is the thing about those…they are low resolution maps of vague territory. To become a practitioner is to become an explorer of this territory, and part of being this kind of explorer is that you’ve got to map your own terrain. In my experience (and from the reports of fellow explorers reaching back in time thousands of years) ataraxia is discoverable territory. This is part of what I mean when I say I am pursuing practice for pragmatic results. I have experienced the terrain of ataraxia. I have dug my hands into that earth, held it up, inhaled it, sat upon it. I am discovering new routes, short cuts, switch backs, new vistas of the terrain of ataraxia.

The Ancient Greek philosopher and physician Sextus Empiricus gave this definition of ataraxia, “ataraxia is an untroubled and tranquil condition of the soul.” Now here is where it gets interesting, here is where the rubber meets the road and bullshit no longer holds. From my own meditation experience I feel complete confidence in saying that what is being talked about with ataraxia is not some sense of creating a peaceful and tranquil life where outside forces are not allowed entry. At least this is not the type of ataraxia that I am interested in. Don’t get me wrong, Like most people I enjoy it when things go smoothly in my life. But it is easy to experience tranquility when things are running smoothly. Imperturbability, equanimity, ataraxia…these are different. Ataraxia as a meditational attainment is inside-out living. It is the quality of unshakeableness in the midst of the storms of life, when everything is up in the air, when it seems the ship is sinking…hell even when the ship is sinking. This is what I mean when I talk about meditation attainment. Other people can bullshit you about whether or not they are living from this position but you cannot bullshit yourself about it. You know what your internal state is when stresses afflict you. Ataraxia is an internal state that is not disturbed by external phenomenon. Ataraxia is inside-out living. Who doesn’t want that?

Stay tuned, there is more to come.