Steel Thyself, Part IV: The Stoic Disciplines (6-9 of 9)

In Part III of this series, I discussed the Stoic disciplines of controlling your destiny, an optimistic disposition, seeking truth through reason, a commitment to learning, and employing negative visualization. This post completes the disciplines with a discussion about positive visualization, our duty to community, suppressing anger, and dying a good death.

6. Practice positive visualization through affirmations.  When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I was introduced to the power of visualization through affirmation. At the time, the practice fell into a quintessential 1970s kitschy mind-bending program name: psycho-cybernetics. Originally published as a self-help book in 1960 by Maxwell Maltz, Psycho-Cybernetics was used principally by athletes who used affirmations to visualize success. As a member of a highly successful basketball team, my teammates and I were asked to apply this practice to certain aspects of the game, like sinking free-throws. The visualized affirmation was always considered as if success had occurred: with all of our senses we experienced the sight, feel and sound of the ball leaving our hands in a perfect arc and snapping the bottom of the net as it passed through the hoop without touching the rim. One could even add a bit a crowd reaction—applause—to boost the affirmation (and ego). The result? We had the best free-throw percentage in the league.
It may seem corny, but damn it, it works. In effect, the affirmed visualization became a self-fulfilling actualization. Psycho-cybernetics has proven a very durable practice applied today to everything from athletic endeavors to academic performance, to job performance, and general development of the practitioner’s self-image. One becomes what one conceives themselves to be. It has been employed by self-help gurus like Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins, and Brian Tracy. It has been written about and re-written about every few years by various authors since Maltz in 1960. Today, we have updated, but equally kitschy terms like “imagineering” (trademarked by Disney Enterprises, Inc.) that emanate from this heritage of positive aspirational thinking. These meditative manifestations of success are entirely consistent with Stoicism as they contribute mightily to what stoics call “building your inner citadel.” Stated otherwise, steeling thyself.
These pursuits of self-conceived success have become the focus of one of the most popular Stoic writers of our time, Ryan Holiday. In The Obstacle is the Way, Holiday argues that many, if not most, threats can be recast as opportunities if one sets aside emotion-based fears with a subscription to “intense self-discipline and objectivity” that can turn trials into triumph. Reflecting the stoic lesson that it is your response, rather than the event or issue you are responding to that is most important, he implores his readers to channel Marcus Aurelius who said, “Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.” Ryan employs positive visualization in the re-conception of obstacles when he suggests, “through our perception of events, we are complicit in the creation—as well as the destruction—of every one of our obstacles.” Once such obstacles are addressed as opportunities, victory may be snatched from the jaws of defeat.
This meditative nature of Stoicism that harnesses the cognetic system as a powerful state of mind recasts the world in terms that nurtures well-being and expands personal capacities such that the future becomes a vast array of possibilities rather than a dangerous cauldron of imminent peril. Stoics are cheerful people who make a habit of identifying silver linings in dark clouds. This stoic perspective of positivity must, however, also be accompanied by a sense of humility and one of the best ways I have employed to both maintain and refresh a sense of humility is to consider myself as a speck in the vastness of time and the magnitude of the universe. As the Roman stoic, Seneca, offered, “imagine the vast abyss of time, and think of the entire universe; then compare what we call a human lifetime to that immensity.” We are more than nothing and greater than something, but our significance must be considered with due humility. Nor are we the first or last to meet the challenges of life, we simply aim to do so with a sense of virtue that, if properly embraced, will contribute to the greatness of humanity in our day.
7. Honor your duty to community. I am often humored (and occasionally disgusted) by those who claim their success is the sole product of their personal brilliance and extraordinary work ethic. It is fine to feel a sense of accomplishment, but one must also acknowledge the people and institutions that played a significant supporting role. The most immediate and impactful of these are the community—writ large— in which you live. Parents, teachers, spouses, friends, mentors and, yes, perhaps even a politician or two, all contribute to the supportive net of community that made your success possible. Make sure you both acknowledge and square those contributions with your own. The ultimate aim of stoics—tranquility—can only be achieved by those who are engaged in their community with the aim of leaving things better than the way they found them; the “perfectibility” value (one of the three American Probity Values). When I look back on my own successes, the greatest triumphs have not been in what I directly accomplished, but in the unsolicited expression of gratitude, usually many years after the fact, from someone who has reached out to tell me that I changed their life, or even saved their life. Pay-it-forward (instead of back) is a powerful concept in strengthening communities. Mahatma Gandhi is credited (after substantial paraphrasing) with the prescription “Be the change you want to see in the world,” which is a clear call to this form of exemplary service.
America’s historical proclamations of self-reliance and self-directed lives provide a durable myth, but the reality today is an America (and world) that is much more interdependent than the American frontier romanticized in the late 19th century by Frederic Jackson Turner in his book, The Frontier in American History.  This binding of one’s self to one’s community is what Marcus Aurelius described as contributing to “the service and harmony of all.”  Trump’s “America First” treatise completely ignores this stoic discipline and his behaviors are hardly aligned with any sense of humility.  Isolation leads inevitably to inhumanity, as we have seen in many of Trump’s policies and practices. It is, therefore, now more than ever, essential that we each accept our role in service to others, looking for no greater reward than the welfare of our neighbors and the strengthening of our communities.
In the face of the extraordinary and seemingly intentional failure of our national leaders and Federal government to serve our interests and our communities today, we must shift our attention from the daily clamor of ignorance and avarice being practiced by these national politicians to create stronghold communities. Independent and self-sufficient communities look no further than their residents and local authorities to meet the challenges of the day. Marcus Aurelius, who himself was no great fan of humanity, acknowledged that since we “are an integral part of a social system, let every act of yours contribute to the harmonization of social life.” While we certainly can and should pay attention to things that occur in our nation-states that we find inappropriate and even offensive, we must, as President Theodore Roosevelt argued, “do what you can with what you have where you are.” The “common welfare” (a topic often explored by the Stoic teacher Epictetus) may be best achieved in the one realm we can have a discernible impact: our local communities.
The stoic understands the reality of interdependence, which ironically is even more pronounced today than during ancient times owing to the technological and economic systems that allow each of us to offer our specialized areas of expertise that collectively undergird our daily lives. The renaissance man who could face any task or challenge on his own is a mythical remnant of a bygone era. Sick communities are comprised of self-contained and selfish actors in their residents, businesses, and politicians. Stronghold communities are comprised of those who recognize they must be willing to make their particular contribution if, for no other reason, to inspire their neighbors to reciprocate such that the independence and resilience of the community is assured. People bound, if only by a sense of place, must, as stewards of the community, advocate for the welfare of their neighbors and must similarly have the courage to confront those who behave in divisive and self-serving ways. For the stoic, ignoring this duty is an affront to both reason and Nature.
8. Anger is toxic to tranquility. There is much to be angry about today and anger is at natural response to the powerlessness and plague of dissonance that afflicts so many of us. Yet, look no further than Donald Trump if you want to see what anger can do to a human being; he lives in a persistent state of anger. How often do you ever see him express any evidence of joy? Yes, he smirks and engages in sarcasm as a proxy for humor, but his life is framed in by his own self-inflicted (and fraudulent) victimhood that he deploys as a tool of attraction to bind other angry Americans to him to protect his power. Clever? Perhaps, but also profoundly malevolent and, frankly, deranged. As many have observed—especially those who worked in his White House—despite all his power and wealth Trump is a miserable human being who works hard to make others miserable too.
In existing in a perpetual state of anger, Trump has made himself increasingly irrelevant. In effect, he has transferred his power to the targets of his anger much in the same way we do if we react angrily to those who attempt to incite our wrath. On the other hand, expressing indifference to those who attempt to offend us strangles them with their own anger. Anger begets misery, which is an unsustainable and unstable state of mind. For stoics, anger is the most dangerous and debilitating negative emotion known to humans. It is not only psychologically damaging to ourselves and others, it has physiological effects, like spiking blood pressure, that endanger our health and well-being. Yes, anger is a fact of life, but once one realizes that the negative effects of any anger almost always outlast the negative effects of the event that has caused our anger, we must embrace our stoic preference for reason and work to avoid the onset of anger in the seconds before our anger manifests into a response.
As one of the best writers of Stoic philosophy today, William Irvine, explained in his book, A Guide to the Good Life, both Stoicism and Buddhism teach that we must develop the capacity to, in Seneca’s words, “turn all [anger’s] indications into their opposites.” This means substituting anger for humor, empathy, and even love. I attempt laughter in the face of anger, especially if the source (like Trump) can be considered more cartoonish clown than threat. I often reframe his antics within the realm of entertainment, which allows me to laugh rather than dive into disgust. After all, why would I let someone like that affect my mental and physical health? This technique works well with pathetic agitators, but when the effects are more substantial the challenge is much greater. Irvine suggests, “we should force ourselves to relax our face, soften our voice, and slow our pace of walking,” all in an attempt to arrest the anger response and replace it with a sense of calm. The rationale is pretty straightforward: one cannot be angry and calm at the same time; let calm prevail. One must literally change their physical response to affect a return to reason over emotion. Buddhists practice forcing themselves to think about love for the same reason; anger and love cannot coexist. Whatever technique works for you, practice it, refine it, and practice it again. Don’t sacrifice your tranquility to fight with assholes.
9. Live a good life and die a good death. No one knows if there is life after death, but all of us know there is life during life. A guiding stoic premise is that we must take care of what we know, which means it is our high duty to live the life we know that we have to the best and fullest extent possible, in concert with reason and Nature. Death is another exogenous variable; it is beyond our control. The stubborn reality is that today we are all one day closer to death. As Seneca taught, “be neither careless nor impatient nor arrogant with respect to death, but to wait for it as one of the operations of nature.” That said, our response to death should be contemplated as a sort of exit exam. If this was the last day of your life, would you pass? If everything you did today was the last time you would do it, did you do those things as well as you could have, and did you appreciate the chance to do them? Among other things, these questions—this discipline—has the effect of focusing our minds on the present moment to assure we are doing the right things as best we can. Considering these questions allows us to take stock while we are alive, followed by asking the ultimate question: are you living your life in a state of tranquility? If you pass these tests, you may die a good death without fear or regret. You have known thyself and steeled thyself; you will leave this world better than you found it; you have prevailed in the game of life. Your farewell will undoubtedly be sorrowful for those who love you, but you have earned the right to put a smile on your face, close your eyes, and rest in blissful peace.

By |2019-12-11T19:36:33+00:00November 24th, 2019|General|0 Comments

Steel Thyself, Part III: The Stoic Disciplines (1-5 of 9)

There is no bible for Stoicism, nor does it proffer the prospect of everlasting life, which are a couple of reasons Christianity gained much more popularity over the centuries even while the two philosophies shared the same time frame for their early development and share many of the same values.  However, unlike Christianity, Stoicism is much more interested in life than death. Whereas Christian theology and ritual are centered on the contemplation of death and resurrection—on a continual bargaining for the prospect of an afterlife, Stoicism is focused on achieving tranquility while living where death is an inevitability that should be met with dignity and grace.  Furthermore, contrary to popular (and superficial) stereotypes, Stoicism does not embrace the humorless, bereaved, and austere character of the ascetic; rather it seeks joy through purpose and welcomes the celebration of success.  Nor does Stoicism have one deified teacher.  While Christianity had Jesus Christ as its earthly leader (and “Son of God”), there is no Mr. Stoic.  Stoicism had both Greek and Roman teachers who came from various levels of social, economic, and political power.  Zeno of Citium (Greek), Cleanthes (Greek), Chrysippus (Greek), Panaetius (took Stoicism from Greece to Rome in 140 BC), Epictetus (Roman), Musonius Rufus (Roman), Seneca (Roman), and Marcus Aurelius (Roman) are some of the more important contributors you will encounter when studying Stoicism.  

Owing to the lack of paper and printing at the time, there are few documents that survived that can inform us about Stoic philosophy.  Stoicism (even though largely theoretical) was a practiced philosophy taught through oral discourse rather than the written word.  Its name is derived from the Greek word stoa, which means colonnade or porch where the philosophy was taught through public lecture and discussion.  Dialogue, letters and short essays comprise what little is available to scholars who wrestle with (and over) the philosophy as they attempt to apply Stoicism to contemporary issues and affairs.  In this post, and the concluding post in this series that will follow next week, I will summarize my interpretations of the principle tenets and disciplines of Stoicism.  Scholars may quibble with my interpretations (as is the scholar’s wont), but my objective is to make Stoicism accessible and relevant—for your use today—rather than become mired in a professorial game of bushy-browed niggling.  Applied diligently, Stoicism provides powerful disciplines to employ in order to steel thyself and achieve a fulfilled and tranquil life.

1. You are in control of your destiny.  Although you do not control everything that happens to you, you do control how you respond to that which affects your life.  Your response, or whether or not you respond at all, are nearly always within your control.  Let’s unpack that concept a bit further with two realizations.  First, one of the great skills in life is knowing what to respond to and what to ignore.  You will find that much of your meaningful outcomes (successes and failures) emanate from a small percentage of that which you have responded to, or engaged with.  Over time, pay attention to those few things that produce most of the meaningful outcomes in order to improve your causal acuity—your capacity for discretion about where you focus your time and resources.  One of the big mistakes I have witnessed when coaching young executives is that they feel they must be in the middle of every issue, event, and reconciliation thereof.  Notwithstanding the inconvenient fact that hyper-involvement is humanly impossible, the simple reality is that your success rate will rise proportionally with your capacity to discard and/or ignore those things that require large investment of personal capital while only contributing marginal (rounding error) effects.  The first question to ask is: “Does the opportunity set (issue, company, organization, initiative, etc.) respond to intelligence?  Then, if that hurdle is cleared, assess the importance or payoff of the desired outcome.  In my experience, only about one-in-five pass these tests.  Be stingy with your commitments.

Second, realize that while you control your response, such response is a product of how you interpret the events and the context surrounding the issue, which emanate directly from your cognetic system.  (Know thyself before steeling thyself.)  This is, in effect, the cognetic system’s job: to interpret factors relevant to the issue and, thereby, simplify that which is before you to enable your decision—your response.  This is why it is so important (through solitude summits and mindful meditation) to keep your cognetic system healthy.  Seeing things as they are, and in harmony with your cognetic system (in which you have carefully curated your knowledge and beliefs), are critical to maintaining internal and external integrity that assures you do not fall into the trap of debilitative dissonance or worse: moral suffering.  Virtue, defined by Stoics as being “wise, just, courageous and moderate,” is a fundamental tenet of Stoicism that can only be assured if your interpretations faithfully reflect your cognetic system producing responses that honor the essence of what you know and believe.  Similarly, tranquility—a fundamental aim of Stoicism—is only possible in a state of harmony by and between one’s cognetic system and the actions born therefrom.  

2. Accept the past for what it was and remain optimistic about the future.  A stoic maintains a vigilant focus on the future, while accepting the past as it is.  It is true that humans learn more from failure than success, but once those lessons are learned, move on.  There is little you can do about things that were, or was.  Stewing about the past diminishes your capacity to succeed in the future. Stoics do not participate in victim culture, which seems to be a rising, even popular, social modality today.  There is nothing more anti-stoic than participating in the blame and shame game of those held captive by their miseries (whether real or perceived).  And, be ever mindful about how you evaluate success in the past, present, and future.  Those addicted to fame and fortune, as measured principally in public acclaim and material possessions become hostage to their wants and desires that have a curious way of expanding to bigger and better things to sustain a superficial sense of satisfaction, which is prima facia evidence of their actual lack of value; satisfaction remains ever beyond the grasp of those who pursue the next round of applause or shiny object.  Chasing hedonistic desires is an endless loser’s game.  To the stoic, fame and fortune are matters of indifference.  Moreover, stoics view with contempt anything—especially trivial pursuits of fame and fortune—that threatens the attainment of tranquility.  

Stoics maintain that if one pursues a virtuous life, consistent with the constraints of Nature (capital “N” in the sense of a holistic entity), tranquility is assured.  I will add to this stoic discipline the aim of transcendence—particularly in politics—that compels one to rise above partisanship and serve truth and Nature above the pettiness of partisan rancor.  Transcendence requires a sense of selflessness and the dismissal of popular anxieties promoted by pundits and politicians who are more interested in audience ratings and self-aggrandizement than in improving the welfare of their fellow citizens.  Optimism aimed at worthy outcomes engenders transcendence and a state of tranquility.

3. Seek truth and live in concert with Nature.  One of Stoicism’s most basic subscriptions is to the pursuit of reason and truth, which also means practicing the corollary: rejecting magical thinking and deceit in all of its forms.  I have been described as one who does not suffer fools.  Another, perhaps nicer description is that I honor knowledge and do so in concert with the realities of the natural and mystical world we live in—with Nature.  Stoic practice involves the pursuit of truth with all senses and faculties trained on the detection of bullshit, which in the current Age of Deceit has become a constant challenge.  Detecting the deceits of others is fairly easy, the harder part is calling it out and assuring neither you nor others become its victims.  As we have seen with Donald Trump, power and position can cause many—indeed millions—to accept deceits as truths for various (usually selfish) reasons.  This is what I call magical thinking: the distortion of reality to affect an outcome consistent with the way we wish things were rather than the way they actually are.  The problems with magical thinking are many, but above all is the fact that decisions made based on falsehood, or not in concert with Nature, will, sooner or later, result in failure.  Actions based in deceit or that are incongruent with natural realities are fundamentally unsustainable.  

The much more difficult task is detecting deception and subverting it when we deceive ourselves.  Self-deception is the most debilitating practice of all because it is the hardest to detect and correct.  Checking one’s own magical thinking—a closed-loop internal process—is the most challenging aspect of self-awareness.  Fooling thyself has no place in steeling thyself.  Finally, the aesthetic and mystical values of Nature are many, but perhaps Nature’s most important attribute is that it reflects pure truth; it never deceives even while we—caught up in our selfishness and deceit—threaten to destroy it.  As modern stoic, John Sellars describes, “Nature isn’t blind and chaotic; it is ordered and beautiful, with its own rhythms and patterns.  It is not composed of dead matter; it is a single living organism of which we are all a part.”  The poetic justice is, of course, that Nature will cleanse itself of humanity if we prove to be a formidable parasite within its realm.  We can fool each other and ourselves, but we cannot fool Nature.  We cannot fool the truth.

4. Knowledge is power and must be nurtured with an opposable mind.  Knowledge emanates from education and experience; in the vernacular of the cognetic system it is developed in the empirical frame as intellectual capital.  In the traditional model of education, school was to be substantively completed by the time we reached adulthood.  Then, we were to augment such school-based learning with experience to attain wisdom.  Today, largely due to the demands of the modern world and the availability of enabling digital technologies, educational opportunities are now accessible throughout our lives.  Intellectual capital may be developed throughout life such that knowledge can enjoy a completely dynamic system as long as we are active participants.  

In my generation, which was steeped in the traditional format of school, then work, then an undetermined number of years of retirement, then death, it has been interesting to watch my Boomer cohorts either embrace the new dynamism of knowledge development, or stubbornly and defiantly hold fast to the old paradigm.  The stubborn ones endure mid to late life as little more than death without dying; they are surrendering in the face of victory.  They usually fall victim to intellectual sclerosis, or a hardening of the mind that is typically manifested through growing bouts of anger and frustration as the world moves forward without them.  And yes, Donald Trump could be their mascot.  

The questions to ask of yourself and others to determine if you/they possess a sclerotic mind or a dynamic mind are: Do they view the world as a zero-sum game where limits define options, or a world awash in possibilities?  Do they see issues as black or white, good or evil, or are they intrigued by the nuanced spaces between?  Do they have the ability to see and argue different sides of an issue—possessed of an opposable mind—or do they easily dismiss other options in favor of their predispositions?  Are they deliberative or impulsive?  Do they surround themselves with people who can replace them, or with those who see them as irreplaceable?  Are they curious, or are they certain?  Are the unknowns a source of fear, or a venue of creative opportunity?  Those who are open to new sources of knowledge—through both education and experience—easily pass these tests.  A dynamic mind is always open to new ideas that create solutions no one else has thought of—that transcend the moment.

5. Practice negative visualization—a critical element of steeling thyself.  First, a warning: negative visualization can be an emotional challenge, so practice it from a position of strength when you are able to complete the exercise without victimizing yourself with emotional strife.  Threats, like opportunities, are exogenous variables; their occurrence is beyond our control. However, remembering that we do not control everything that happens to us, but that we do control our response, negative visualization recognizes that bad things happen in life and we may as well prepare for them so that when they are encountered, we have, in effect, rehearsed our response.  Negative visualization is a framing device that allows us to steel ourselves in advance of life’s perils.  It acknowledges the inevitability of setbacks, which become tests of character and ingenuity that, if handled properly, lead to strength.  It also has the effect of bolstering gratitude in the present—to appreciate especially those we love today—before they are lost.  Visualizing the sudden loss of someone or something can spark a renewed level of appreciation.  

How would you deal with an illness or traumatic injury?  What if a loved one dies?  What would happen if you lost your job, or your life savings was lost?  What if a natural disaster takes your home?  Today, many folks I know are extremely concerned with the potential reelection of Trump.  What will you do if these things happen?  Will you be a victim of circumstance or will you be prepared with a plan?  What are the immediate effects of these negative threats?  What are the medium and long-term effects?  What can you do now to ameliorate these effects? “I never thought it would happen to me” is not a useful answer.  Yet, this is what we hear most when people are struck by an unforeseen event that causes them extreme loss and sorrow.

Start with foreseeing the biggest threats by asking, “What would devastate me?”  Then, run each threat and its effects out to its logical endgame.  Identify what elements or negative effects you can impact today with preemptive action.  Often, this requires little more than a discussion with other people who might be similarly affected to agree on a What if? plan.  In planning for my mother’s death, I organized a plan with both my siblings and my mother that dealt with everything from funeral arrangements to disposition of assets. Sometimes, securing insurance can mitigate the effects—especially in property losses; check to see if yours is adequate.  My wife and I live in a heavily forested region of the Colorado Rocky Mountains that, due to climate change, is becoming more susceptible to wildfire.  Recently, we executed a wildfire mitigation plan that was very expensive and required the removal of many trees to create defensible zones.  It was not only expensive; it was actually emotionally painful to conduct “responsible deforestation.”  But, in effect, we were taking some pain today to offset a potential calamity; not only might we and our home survive, the remaining trees will be healthier and have a better chance of survival as well.   As the Roman Stoic Seneca suggested, “He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.”  In steeling thyself, being surprised is acceptable, being ill-prepared for what comes next is not.

Next week: Stoic Disciplines 6-9.

By |2019-11-24T15:26:47+00:00November 17th, 2019|General|0 Comments