“Pass through this brief patch of time in harmony with nature, and come to your final resting place gracefully, just as a ripened olive might drop, praising the earth that nourished it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth.” —MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 4.48.2
I struggle against nature. I want to live forever, in this body (assuming it can be kept healthy and vibrant). The struggle against evil and death is not at odds with harmony with nature and acceptance that we are but dust and to dust we shall return. God ‘set[s] before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction… choose life in order that you may live.’
As a believer in Jesus and his mission, I find many of my fellow Christian travelers seeming to be eager for death, in that they would prefer being in heaven than living in this vale of tears. Of course, Paul himself struggled with this question:
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.
For Paul, the question comes down to what is best for those he’s around, and he comes down on the ‘remain’ side very strongly. Perhaps here is a clue. The ‘why’ behind my choice to stay is important. If it is to stay alive for selfish reasons, that may not be worth the tears. To remain for the benefit of others, moment-by-moment, is a worthy goal.
January 19, 2017 Leave a comment
“I am your teacher and you are learning in my school. My aim is to bring you to completion, unhindered, free from compulsive behavior, unrestrained, without shame, free, flourishing, and happy, looking to God in things great and small—your aim is to learn and diligently practice all these things. Why then don’t you complete the work, if you have the right aim and I have both the right aim and right preparation? What is missing? . . . The work is quite feasible, and is the only thing in our power. . . . Let go of the past. We must only begin. Believe me and you will see.” —EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 2.19.29–34
Our culture teaches us that we must be perfect, that we must arrive (but we know not where), that we must look good/feel good/be right/be in control 24-7; but this thinking is a trap that only entangles us.
The compulsions of looking good, feeling good, being right, being in control are the idols of this age, and perhaps all ages. They are compensatory, strategies for filling in what we feel is lacking in us; a way to cover over the gaping hole in our souls. They are focused on the past, what has happened to us, the hurts and faults and imperfections.
As Epictetus coaches, we must let go of the past to be free, and only begin again. The wisdom of many traditions teaches us this truth. The Rule of St. Benedict is one of them. Staying present, unhindered, free. Answering the call to be ourselves. That is enough. That is fulfilling. That is what we are made for.
January 17, 2017 Leave a comment
“Keep this thought at the ready at daybreak, and through the day and night—there is only one path to happiness, and that is in giving up all outside of your sphere of choice, regarding nothing else as your possession, surrendering all else to God and Fortune.” —EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 4.4.39
External events over the last few days have disturbed my mind, my peace. Realizing that I only control my own choices comes with it a vulnerable feeling–a sense that others can do unto me things that I don’t want them to do. The thoughts come fast and furious–What if Person A does Act B? How will I survive? How can I cope with the devastation? Even writing about it brings a feeling of dread and wanting to reject those people that seem to have the power to hurt me by their actions, their thoughts, their choices.
My perturbed mind has difficulty focusing, at once wanting to distract from what it fears, and at the same time unable to turn away. ‘Surrendering all else to God and Fortune’ seems impossible but is the heart of the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
I can only change my choices, my mind, how I interpret people and event around me. I can’t change others, their actions, their choices. Try as I might, regardless of how much I want to. My first task is to see to my own serenity and peace of mind so that I can be in a position to influence, to look ahead, and take action with people to sway and persuade them about living and choosing differently.
I reaffirm my commitment to serenity, to a placid mind. To following Epictetus’s advice to give up all that is outside my sphere of choice.
January 12, 2017 Leave a comment
“Some things are in our control, while others are not. We control our opinion, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything of our own doing. We don’t control our body, property, reputation, position, and, in a word, everything not of our own doing. Even more, the things in our control are by nature free, unhindered, and unobstructed, while those not in our control are weak, slavish, can be hindered, and are not our own.” —EPICTETUS, ENCHIRIDION, 1.1–2
Being indistinct about the reality of what we control and what we don’t control is the source of much mischief in my life and of those I know. I want to control my children, others around me, the person driving the car in front of me, the cat, the neighbor, the weather(!), on and on. I want to control other people’s actions: what they say to me, what they do around me, what they think. As it always fails, I would hope that I would learn. But keeping this distinct is something I wake up to over and over again.
As I read Epictetus’s list of what we control: our opinion, choice, desire, aversion. I think our culture still has a hold on the first two and would agree that our opinion and our choice we control. The second two, however, aren’t acknowledged as aspects of our life that we control. Take desire. My experience of desire is that it finds and controls me, that it comes and goes, and isn’t subject to my control the way I experience opinion or choice, which self-evidently it is clear that we choose. And similarly, aversion, which is opposite of desire, the anti-desire. Both of these show up as already in the background and not something I actively choose.
A powerful way to live is to live as if I choose everything. That if I roll the video of an event far enough, I will be clear that I was ‘at cause’ of whatever happens around me. The realization that, had I chosen differently along the way, the current results would be very different.
Our American culture is moving with momentum in the opposite direction of Epictetus on what we control. More on that another time.
January 10, 2017 Leave a comment
I googled ‘freedom quotes’ and on Good Reads came on this quote from Jim Morrison:
“The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can’t be any large-scale revolution until there’s a personal revolution, on an individual level. It’s got to happen inside first.”
― Jim Morrison
This ‘personal revolution’ is what Epictetus was pointing to. The corruption process that Morrison is talking about is a comprehensive world-view shift. Just as Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and were cast out of the Garden of Eden, we each follow the same arc, what we could think of as ‘original sin’.
The transformation is comprehensive in both directions. In falling from innocence, we put on an act or racket, we trade our authentic True Self for a role, we numb out from the moment, moving into the future in anxiety and into the past through guilt. Freedom is sourced in this moment. I can only be free now, and now, and now, for as long as I can stay present. While anxiety and guilt take us out of the moment, the experience of being present in the moment is an experience of wonder.
The route to an experience in this moment of freedom is being willing, and actually paying the price of surrendering the payoffs that the Groveler and the Shadow get from their respective rackets. Part of the contemplation Epictetus suggests is figuring out what those payoffs are.
January 5, 2017 Leave a comment
In my last post, I quoted from the Stoic Epictetus about the three fruits of true education: Tranquility, Fearlessness, and Freedom. I want to take up Fearlessness. Is Epictetus really suggesting that we can arrive at a place where we don’t have fear?
I aspire to fear-less in my life. Even to arrive at fearlessness, but I have some way to go.
Fear is hardwired into our circuitry. Our survival was tied to our ability to respond appropriately to risks in the environment. Hard wiring for fear was evolutionarily adaptive.
Most modern philosophers point to the fear of death as the ultimate fear. To get to fearlessness requires facing squarely one’s mortality and our finite span of days. The Stoic philosophers in particular counsel a contemplation of the shortness of life and a living in the present moment as antidotes to fear.
Your True Self has no fear because the True Self touches the Eternal in the present moment. You can notice within a sense of infinite space when you look beyond the contents of your thoughts and focus on the context that contains your thoughts. The Groveler and Shadow however live very much in fear. The Groveler in the fear of loss—looking bad, feeling bad, being wrong, being out of control. The loss of the ‘goods’ that it isovels for. The Shadow wields fear as a tool and weapon.
In the moment of fearing, the automatic tendency is to resist the fear, but resistance gives the fear power. The opposite is what is called for. Accepting the fear as it is, for what it is, and fully experiencing it. To breathe (literally) into the fear will transform the experience from fear into excitement and anticipation. Try it and see. This is not knowledge that is good for anything other than pointing to an experience that must be proved by living it.
January 5, 2017 Leave a comment
What is the fruit of these teachings? Only the most beautiful and proper harvest of the truly educated – Tranquility, Fearless, and Freedom. We should not trust the masses who say only the free can be educated, but rather the lovers of wisdom who say that only the educated are free. — Epictetus
Tranquility, fearlessness, freedom are radical experiences in the modern world — rare, fundamentally valuable which provide deep roots for life. The word ‘educated’ comes from Latin: ‘to lead out’. Originally the concept was that a teacher would help students discover what they already knew, but were unaware of. That the teacher would ‘draw out’ the knowledge innately there and have it become known.
Tranquility is distinct from peace. In a sense, peace is a surface phenomenon that springs from external circumstances that are favorable. Tranquility goes all the way to the bottom and is a state of being that remains even in the face of chaotic situations.
“They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ But there is no peace. — Jeremiah 6:14
How to achieve a state change into tranquility? Tranquility is the state of the True Self or Source. The Groveler and Shadow crowd out the tranquility, not that the tranquility of the Source disappears, but is covered over. Just as the clouds on a drizzly day do not mean that the sky isn’t still blue, when the Groveler and Shadow are acting on center stage, the True Self makes way and moves into the wings.
What is the best way to deal with the Groveler and Shadow? I suggest that the way out is through: by fully experiencing the considerations, concerns, arguments, feelings, slights, involvements, ties, squabbles, the infinite reasons and rationales that the Groveler and Shadow throw into the mix that just keep coming like shark’s teeth. To fully experience something is to willingly and fully enter into that state. Not to resist or fight against it, as that just gives the Shadow and Groveler more energy. But for a moment to fully experience—in living color and sensurround—all that the Shadow and Groveler have for you in that moment. Then you will find that they disappear like fog before the morning sun.
January 3, 2017 Leave a comment
Rather than a resolution set that is quickly swamped by the details of life, my one commitment for 2017 is to Radical Unreasonableness in every domain in life. An experiment in pushing the limits of the results I produce in every arena in my life: my marriage, immigration consulting work, personal transformation, family breakthrough, social media promotion for Laurie, the impact of the Encounter training.
My plan of approach is to develop habits that support Radical Unreasonableness. Writing this blog will be one of the habits, meditation, fasting 3 consecutive days every month, daily journaling, and aiming as high as I can imagine.
Radical comes from a Latin word ‘radix’ or ‘root’ — some source as ‘radish’. My goal is to focus on where life springs from, to tap into that primal energy that flows from God. In the meditation I have been doing (I’ll do a post on what forms of meditation I am practicing) I’ve noticed three ‘modes’ of relating internally. One is self that wants to look good, be right, be in control, and feel good about itself. Let’s slap him with a term — the Groveler. He prostitutes himself for the paltry coin of acceptance. The second self is the shadowy, dark/angry/bitter/vengeful self — the Shadow, who is ready to flare up into a conflagration at the slightest provocation. Beyond both of these would be the spacious source of my self, the authentic, True Self. I don’t experience these in particularly a linear way… they aren’t polite and don’t take turns. Rather they seem to be going all the time; always on in parallel. What shifts is the attention *I* pay to any of the three of them. When I realize that there *I* am choosing what to attend to and actually experience that freedom to choose, the truth appears that the True Self is bigger, more spacious, more primary, more real, eternal where as the Groveler and the Shadow are derivative, secondary, distortions, fallen.
January 2, 2017 Leave a comment
Communication is redundant. We are always communicating by our actions, body position, movements, and noises, in addition to our specific words. Often our words are the least revealing avenue of communication.
Like an iceberg, the most easily apprehended portion of our communication is the 10% verbal communication; the remaining 90% of our communication is non-verbal. However we often mistakenly think that our words are the totality of our communication. Try this out — think if it as a party game — have a conversation with someone about a meaningful topic. Take turns ‘listening’ to the non-verbal communication: the stance, the muscle tone in the face and body, the intonation and tension in the vocal cords. Then give your partner what you were sensing.
In paying attention to the 90% non-verbal modalities of communication, I find it helpful to ‘turn down’ the volume in my mind, to the point that what the person I’m in dialogue with is saying is unintelligible. This mental change helps me focus on the non-verbal. Another trick I use is to imagine what I would feel if I stood that way.
May 12, 2016 Leave a comment
“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.” – Chinese Proverb
In this blog that I (very) occasionally post to, I’m starting a new series called Power Points with the goal of posting thoughts on human nature – how humans are wired because of how God made us – that when attended to and lived out, cause life to work better. My secondary goal is to post more frequently, for which having a theme will help.
This may be particularly relevant to those who have attended the 4-day Christian experiential training a lead called The Encounter (www.encountertraining.com) as it will provide some context and fill in some of the blanks that are inevitable in an experiential training.
In John 8:32 Jesus said, “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” The word truth is the Greek word ‘alethia’ – ‘the reality underlying appearances’. How is it that grasping reality is freeing?
First, we must take a detour into a topic in philosophy called ontology, or the nature of being. One of the aspects of being human, is that we each have a totally subjective inner world that filters what aspects of external, objective reality ‘get through’ to us (the ‘us’ here being the subjective self). One easy image to capture this situation is to think about a map. A map is different than the territory that you are moving through. Potentially maps can have mistakes – both omissions, and less frequently additions – but without a doubt, the options we have for getting to our destination will be chosen from those we find on our map. To the degree our map of reality is deficient or inexact, the range of options open to us will be similarly limited.
When we improve our map – when it more closely matches reality, we will have greater power to navigate life effectively. The core idea is that distinction is the source of power; the more distinct we are about how reality is, our power will be much greater. Distinction comes in both observation – watching how reality is – and in articulation, the speaking of what is so. The distinctness of articulation can be most easily seen in giving and receiving feedback. The Chinese proverb I quote above speaks to this reality.
An important aspect to know about how are emotions work is that they will change; sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. One consequence of this is that your emotions don’t serve well as a compass – when we use our emotions as a compass we are jerked around rather dramatically.
Another aspect of our internal life is that we are geared to notice differences. After a change, the sense of ‘difference’ gradually fades into the background – whether we are talking about changing your clothes or a radical change in perspective. Over a relatively short period of time the sense of difference disappears.
Years ago when I went to an early version of the experiential training that I now facilitate, I cried several decades worth of tears and felt much lighter and free. For several weeks everything felt new – fresh, close, alive. Then one morning I woke up and didn’t feel as different. Because I had been living with my emotions as my compass, I began to doubt that much had changed, because it seemed I felt the same. In reality, I was still different – in how I related to others, in what stood out for me in conversation with others – but because I no longer felt different, because I had acclimatized to my new way of feeling and relating to the world around me – I believed that nothing had changed.
When I woke up to what was really going on – that it no longer felt so different because I had acclimatized to the change – my sense of frustration and futility lifted.
March 9, 2015 Leave a comment