Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Stoicism’

1.26.2017

In Happiness, Philosophy on January 26, 2017 at 7:13 pm

Cardiff, Ca

I was walking the beach this morning when I heard a woman talking behind me. Her voice grew increasingly loud and strained.  I turned and saw a runner. She was having a conversation on her phone. A few minutes later another runner passed me. I could hear music leaking from his ear buds. I used to run. I was a runner. I was not a runner on a phone. I was not a runner listening to music. I ran with all the focus and concentration I could muster. Running was the training of the body, concentration the training of the mind. Our minds are difficult things, flitting here and there.  A monkey swinging from branch to branch. Getting it under some fashion of control, bringing focus to our mind, is no small matter. If you are going to run. Run. If you are going to hold a conversation respect the other person and give them your full attention. It appears that everyone is interested in mindfulness these days. You don’t have to be sitting on a cushion to practice it. Concentrate. Focus. Please, we need our wits about us. The world is scrambled enough. Be a force of concentration.

* * *

Carole and I were having lunch at a nice restaurant yesterday. We sat at the bar. Behind us a man called for his waitress. He complained that there was a lemon in his water. He did not ask for a lemon in his water. He wanted it removed from the table immediately. It was a moment when an elder of a prior generation would have turned and said, “Shut up and drink it, you entitled bastard. There are children dying of thirst in Africa.” I listened, feeling as if I was in an alternate universe. “Oh my god,” the waitress said. She was dressed in black, head to toe. “I’m so sorry. And, like, I totally brag about our water too.” Alternate universe indeed.

* * *

“A man is as miserable as he thinks he is.” That is Seneca, the Stoic. He was an adviser to Nero. Eventually Nero went nuts on him, as despots do. Nero ordered Seneca to kill himself. He did, but not before botching the effort multiple times. The ancient philosophy of Stoicism is having a moment. There have been articles on Stoicism recently in the The New York Times (“How to be a Stoic“), the Guardian (“How Would the Stoics Cope Today?“), and The New Yorker (also titled, “How to be a Stoic“). Several new books about it are due. A sign of the times perhaps? Back to Seneca. If  one is as miserable as he or she thinks, does it not conversely follow that one is as happy as he or she thinks they are? If you’ve spent any time here at “…the house…” you know the theme: How best to live? The better turn of thought, however, is not how to live, but how to think. Figure that out and everything else follows. Ancient philosophers were judged not only on the philosophy they proclaimed, but also the life they lived. The life of the mind, measured as a function of existence. It is a refreshing thought in these troubling days, the evidence of disciplined intelligence as manifested in one’s life. Sadly, it seems a curiously unique notion.

A Little Recompense.

In Death, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on February 4, 2013 at 6:00 am

The loss of my friend Michael is proving difficult. I observe that I cannot fully discern the undercurrents of emotion in the immediate. The deepest current is revealed slowly, a bit at a time. To paraphrase Tolstoy, we are joyous in the collective, but can only realize sorrow alone.

I am reminded of a Tibetan Buddhist Lama, who upon learning of the death of one of his monk disciples, broke down and wept. His students were shocked, expecting that the Lama would be above such stark emotionalism. He was, after all, living a life of purposeful un-attachment. “But I miss him,” replied the tearful Lama with beautiful simplicity. Perhaps a part of us thinks that others more enlightened, more wise, have learned a fashion of dealing with grief that will guide us. But I don’t think so. We can seek and find comfort, certainly, however ultimately we sit as the Lama sat and can only say, “I miss him.”

The Stoics devised mind games and mental tricks to jog our thoughts out of grief, but acknowledged that, in the main, we are impotent in our efforts to control our emotions. This lack, they held, as well as the human tendency to ignore the present moment, is what thwarts consistent human happiness. A Stoic behaves like the strong man who tenses his stomach muscles and invites a punch. But grief sneaks up and throws a fist before we have a chance of bracing for it. Despite that, I like Seneca‘s approach to dealing with matters out of his control. He was asthmatic, and attacks brought him close to death on several occasions. But he learned to treat each attack philosophically. While gasping for breath, he would release himself into the attack, saying yes to it. He would think himself dying from it, giving himself up to it, almost willing it. And when it receded he enjoyed the strength of winning the battle. He had defeated fear. This, I acknowledge, is little recompense in the face of grief. But it is something.

Likewise, Montaigne, upon losing his dear friend, La Boétie, creatively embraced his grief, declaring that when “a painful notion takes hold of me; I find it quicker to change it than to subdue it.” Thus he spun the dross of grief into threads of gold. It is not an overstatement to say that his great literary contribution, The Essays, resulted directly from the loss of La Boétie. In his great essay, Of Friendship, Montaigne famously writes

If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.

And though history is grateful at the monumental effort that is The Essays, such a creative response did not assuage fully Montaigne’s grief. Indeed, eighteen years later, while traveling abroad, he wrote in his diary, “This same morning, writing to Monsier d’Ossat, I was overcome by such painful thoughts about Monsieur de La Boétie, and I was in this mood so long, without recovering, that it did me much harm.”

The difficulty of my philosophy is that I shall not choose when to be present and when to run. How can one fully realize what human existence holds, if when it deals you a blow, you turn away? When I sat down at breakfast with Michael two weeks ago, the first words out of his mouth were, “I’m leading the examined life!” It was in this fashion he declared himself a member of our tribe. He would, I know, be the first to reprimand me if I turned away.