Twelve Contemplations for a Better Tomorrow

Are we there yet?

Kids have no sense of time, which has annoyed parents since the automobile first started rambling across America in the early twentieth century. While parents ruminate about the past and worry about the future, kids just live in the here and now. “What’s for lunch?” is as far as they look forward and yesterday is easily forgotten. In the last few years, however, both kids and adults were on the same page: would the present never end? We all seemed stuck; triangulated between the forces of fear, bewilderment, and boredom. Our world oscillated like a gyroscope with a slightly bowed axis, leaving us in a dizzied state of disorientation. As if we were walking through a hall of mirrors where our reflection is distorted and we struggle to recognize our likeness. Familiarity seemed always just beyond our comprehension. Normal? Get real.

To muddle things further, since the presidency of Trump and the pandemic, it seems we can’t get anything done. Collective action for the greater good has succumbed under the weight of divisive malice. Innovation of any kind, from technology to popular culture has been in a Covid-induced stupor, and violence has become the prevailing currency of all disputes. Notwithstanding the many so-called influencers who pursue fandom on social media, our culture entered a period of mind-numbing stasis. Been wowed by a new technology lately? Inspired by a new young leader? Seen a great new movie? Listened to stunning new music? Been enthralled by a new author? Neither have I. I expect someday historians may look back at this era and call it the Big Dark Pause. The life expectancy of Americans has dropped two years in a row—for the first time in over one-hundred years in 2020, and the second in 2021. There is nothing darker than premature death.

However, this too shall pass.

In historical context, pauses like the current one signal a pivot point after which a new direction, with predictably hopeful enthusiasm, is set anew. We move forward with new norms, expectations, and inspirations. In the meantime, pauses also offer an opportunity to recenter the self in a manner to affect personal orientations and dispositions. To find light in the darkness. Now is the time to prepare, before the gyroscope’s axis straightens. Crises always offer opportunities if we are willing to do the work.

I received a number of inquiries following my August 2 post: “The Identity Trap: Suffering or Transcendence?” that described four phases of life and the keys to avoiding suffering in the last quarter in favor of transcendence. Several readers asked for more input on their own quest to reset their lives as we emerge from our current malaise. What follows here are a number of contemplations to consider. My own journey has been informed by two ancient philosophies: Stoicism and Mindfulness. From Seneca to Buddha. Each is unique. Each is powerful. I have found both to be extremely valuable.  I also realized that the only way to make sense of either was through immersion. Between language, time period, and cultural differences, it is difficult to assimilate much of the knowledge that can appear abstract, circular, and paradoxical to the modern western mind. In addition, the confusion one must endure from many teachers using different definitions for the same terms can be quite frustrating. So, my synthesis of contemplations (after wading and wallowing through many books, podcasts, and lectures) is offered below as a utilitarian guide to a personal reset. I have attempted, as best I can, to extract the essence of the ancients in a manner that is both understandable and useful for people like me; for people like you.

Here you go:

  1. Get naked. (Metaphorically, of course.) If you are over forty-five, let go of your carefully crafted identity you wear like a suit of armor. It may have served you well when you were younger, but if you want to live your life on the path to tranquility rather than suffering—you need to let go of your identity and give your ego a much-needed rest. Our psyche, formed from our beliefs, knowledge, experiences, fears, preferences, and prejudices gets way too much playing time. Keep your heart and mind open. Learning is essential. Focus on crafting wisdom rather than hardening your identity. Being naked as a default state leaves all your options open. You can wear what you want to fit the situation and its circumstances. And, no one will accuse you of becoming a bore—you will never go out of style!
  2. Reality is what it is. Let it be. Manage your relationship with reality rather than trying to affect reality itself. I have always been a big believer in manifesting my own destiny; in controlling outcomes in my favor. After years of banging my head against that wall, I have awakened to the fact that most outcomes have nothing to do with factors within our control. Thinking otherwise is admirable, but delusional. That is not to say I do not believe one person can’t have an extraordinary impact on the achievement of a particular goal, just that there are too many exogenous variables—outside of our control—that have influence on results in a world that is now as integrated and complex as ours. And, in the last few years, exogenous variables have played a ferocious role in outcomes. Mitigating risk has become an extraordinary challenge. Shifting your control-freak disposition to your relationship with reality—as it is—rather than believing you can affect reality directly is a much saner way to live.
  3. Die to live. If today was the last day of your life, would you die in peace? If not, why not? Make a list of the why-nots. First, eliminate bucket-list items: things you want to do that amount to little more than ego-satisfiers. It doesn’t mean you eliminate them from your pursuits, but recognize that they are actually superficial in the scheme of dying in a state of peace. Then, identify each item on the remaining list as in your control, or out of your control. Discard—cross out—those items out of your control. This can be difficult, but it makes no sense to trouble yourself with items that you can do nothing about—for whatever reason. Most unresolved issues that remain will come in three flavors: obligations, dependencies, and conflicts. Finally, work your list. The goal is to eliminate as many items as is possible. Once that is done you may die in peace. Of course, you won’t—at least not on that day—but here’s the big payoff: every next day is a gift! Every next day can be enjoyed in a state of liberation. One last caveat: after your liberation, don’t add anything else to that list in the future. That would just be dumb.
  4. Now is all that matters. Be that kid in the backseat of the station wagon again. Stay present. There is absolutely nothing you can do about the past. Throw away that rearview mirror. Dwelling is dangerous for both mental and physical health. Look to the future to foster hope and aspiration, but don’t fool yourself about expected outcomes. The only moment you can affect with some certainty is the present. Focus on mastery in the moment, one moment at a time. It doesn’t matter if you are washing dishes or performing before a large audience. Everyone benefits: the dishes, the audience, and you. And, those close to you will suddenly find you much more interesting if you pay attention to them in the moment.
  5. No regrets nor desires. Regrets are about the past and desires are about the future; they are not the now (see #4 above). Moreover, they reflect a dissatisfaction with reality (see #2 above). Their biggest problem, however, is that the give suffering a handhold—a place to land. Virtually all of our suffering comes from wanting things to be other than they are. Regrets and desires cause depression and often lead to rash decision-making when coupled with debilitating ruminations. Some people live their entire lives litigating regrets and chasing desires. We have all known one or more of them. They are human wrecking balls. The better aim is contentment, which is a core element of grace—of practicing courteous goodwill.
  6. Play the inner game. Internal, not external. The inner game is one that is entirely within our control—where the outcome is certain. External is conditional, which means, by definition, is out of our control. Friends are conditional, and unfortunately spouses are too. Even the pledge of unconditional love is conditioned upon its pledge and honor of the pledger. Happiness can also be conditional if it depends on anything external. To quote William Ernest Henley’s poem, you can be the “master of my fate” and “captain of my soul” if you focus on the inner game. Mastering the inner game will make you stronger than any threat you face in life; the fiercest of warriors and most certain victor. Steel thyself. Be your own best friend. Engage with all the rest with a level of prudent circumspection. Trust others to do what they believe is in their best interest and you will seldom, if ever, feel betrayed. Finally, as the Stoics remind us: it is not what happens that matters, it is how you respond to what happens that matters.
  7. The only thing that is permanent is impermanence. Nothing lasts. A frustrated student of a Buddhist monk once asked him to define the philosophy of Buddhism in one sentence. The monk did it in two words: “everything changes.” Everything comes and everything goes. This reality affects both the desirable and the undesirable. Fighting change, as with regrets and desires (see #5, above) is a surefire pathway to suffering. This is one of the reasons why clinging, clutching, and grasping are futile. Let it be and let it go. Masochism is not a pathway to transcendence and peace. Reckless reaction and/or determined resistance will not defeat impermanence. Your willpower is better aimed at letting life be life. Your ego will fight you mightily on this, which is why you must redirect your will to achieve a sense of mindful equanimity.
  8. Simplify. Happiness is simple, it is simplicity that is hard. It is so easy to complicate our lives. The principal beneficiary of complexity is our ego. How many times have you spoken to a friend or family member and sat patiently while they rattled off how busy, complicated, and overwhelming their life is? They are seeking acknowledgment from you to accomplish one thing: feed their ego. Yes, life is busy and can be very hard. But the difficulty is largely of our own making. The vast majority of our responsibilities and burdens in the modern era are self-inflicted. All too often complexity is driven by regrets and desires (see #5, above). We feel we must expand our lives to find happiness. New toys, experiences, friends, and lovers. Want happiness? Seek simplicity. Learn to discard and learn to stop yourself before you reach for that next shiny object. That next Amazon box will not make you happy.
  9. Fear and anger are toxic. And, they are levers of manipulation—your manipulation. I know no person on the planet that understands this better than Donald Trump. It is how he became president and could be again. Fear and anger act to diminish our power in two ways. The good news is that both are in our control. First, clutching fear and anger cause us to act in ways that violate our fundamental values. Among other things, this creates internal conflict—cognitive dissonance—that is the foundation of mental illness, from simple depression to more disabling mental disorders. Second, if we are provoked by fear and anger our reaction only accomplishes one thing: the transfer of power from ourselves to the provocateur. Action? Good. Reaction? Bad. I am forever amazed at how people take offense and display anger—even hatred—over name calling. Being triggered (to invoke a fashionable term of victimhood) is the moment when the triggered transfers power to the offender. In a state of fear and anger, we can be made to do almost anything; seldom in our own best interest. Why would anyone do that? Keep your power for yourself.
  10. Leave things better than you found them. One of three key American cultural dispositions that truly made America great, which I wrote about more extensively in Saving America in the Age of Deceit, is the disposition of perfectibility. It is based in the simple belief that we can improve the world we live in and have an obligation—even patriotic duty—to do so. At the very minimum, we must not make things worse (as seems to be the current popular political modality for far too many of our leaders). Buddhism in particular sees this through the belief in connectedness of all living beings (sentient or not). Rejecting separatism (which is an unfortunate western tradition) means we have an obligation to fulfill ourselves and improve the welfare of other beings, each and every day. As the predominant actor on earth, we should accept the responsibility of taking on the greatest challenges for all living beings consistent with the proportional nature of equity. If we did, among other things, addressing climate change would be a no-brainer.
  11. Practice gratitude—focus your passion on the good. It starts with being aware enough in your life to occasionally pause and let the good land. Then, savor it. I have twelve sources of gratitude that I read back to myself every day; more than once a day if necessary to keep dark clouds away. It is amazing what an elixir gratitude can be. We live on one of the most amazing planets in the entire universe and on one of the most diverse and dynamic continents on that planet in a country that tries (at least historically) to respect our right of self-determination. Vitality and freedom. We are truly blessed. Things could be way worse. Besides being uplifting, gratitude is also empowering. Acting from a position of gratefulness conveys humility and garners instant credibility. The difference between manipulation and persuasion is whose interest is being served. Serving yourself is manipulation; serving others affects persuasion. The sincerely grateful one is the persuasive one.
  12. Love-and-respect, love-and-respect, repeat, repeat, repeat. Why live otherwise? It is what you want for yourself, so why not treat others in the same manner? This is the most fundamental tenet of all world religions. Pastors, priests, imams, monks, and rabbis may not practice it, but that does not excuse you. Many of our political and business leaders don’t practice it, which is why they must go. Love-and-respect is a grassroots revolution. It starts with each and every one of us. I don’t care if you are a woke Democrat, or a MAGA Republican—quit hating each other. You are only hurting yourself (see #9, above). Every being on the planet wants to be seen, heard, and appreciated. We all have good days and bad. We all have both anxieties and aspirations. Lighten someone’s load and yours will lighten too. If we are to have any chance of saving humanity, we must get this through our thick skulls, and soon. Mother Nature is losing her patience.

I know there is a lot here. Sweet peace does not happen overnight. If you pursue a personal reset, do so with quiet determination. Persevere. You will not achieve perfection—nobody does. Treat your reset as a journey rather than a destination. Your new world awaits. And, it needs you now more than ever.

By |2023-12-01T15:44:20+00:00September 4th, 2022|General, Recent, Spiritual|0 Comments

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

A Stoic’s Guide to Surviving Trump

Regardless of your political affiliation, it is difficult to observe the chaos in the White House without grave concern for the presidency and the country. Our smartphones flash and vibrate with each new ejaculated Trump tweet that emanates from the alternate reality he has created, which defies both logic and basis in objective fact.  Like all presidencies, the modus operandi of the administration reflects the president’s persona, which in Trump’s case is utterly valueless and prefers deceit and diversion to maximize distraction as a veil for incompetence and avarice.  A mayhem maniac who could explode at any moment has succeeded no-drama Obama; Trump’s wick seems always lit.  However, like the presidents who preceded him, Trump too shall pass. America and the world will survive as long as those of us with a conscience and reasoned intellectual vigor stand and resist this deviant.  And, to survive Trump, ancient philosophers—particularly the Stoics—offer valuable practices founded in the following eight disciplines.

1.     See things as they are and question the givens, starting with the realization that—fundamentally—the United States and the world are in the best shape ever.  All presidents occasionally lie and all, at one time or another, promote fear to consolidate their power.  Trump has, however, excelled among his predecessors in combining deceit with fear, making it the dominant modality of his presidency.  The truth, however, is that the world and the country have never been wealthier, healthier, or more safe.  As historian Yuval Noah Harari argues in his latest book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, for the first time in the history of humankind famine, plague, and war are no longer meta-threats in the global system.

More people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined.  In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola, or an al-Qaeda attack.[1]

Furthermore, to debunk one of Trump’s favorite claims, non-immigrant American citizens are incarcerated at twice the rate of documented immigrants, and three times the rate of undocumented immigrants.  In science and engineering, immigrants far excel non-immigrants in educational achievement.  If piety is your metric, immigrants claim religion at a rate 18% higher than non-immigrants and start businesses at twice the rate on non-immigrants.[2]  Hardly the drug-dealers, rapists, and terrorists Trump continues to warn us about.  Do we have problems?,  absolutely, but upon close examination we find that we do not have capacity or capability problems today, as we have throughout history, we have distribution problems that can be affected through mustering political will to deploy policies of sustainable redistribution.  A stoic always pauses to check and crosscheck claims (especially of politicians) to assure truth is the basis of every interpretation and every decision.

2.     Be fatalistic about the past and optimistic about the future.  A stoic maintains a vigilant focus on the future, while accepting the past as it is.  Stewing about the past, as Trump continues to do over losing the popular vote, the pitiful turnout at his inauguration, and his continuing penchant for blaming all things on Obama, debilitates him and his capacity to succeed in the future. Trump is also addicted to fame and fortune, which stoics view with contempt as they threaten the attainment of tranquility.  Stoics do not fall into these traps.  Furthermore, stoics maintain that if one pursues a virtuous life, consistent with the constraints of nature, 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 the masters of 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 self-aggrandizement than in improving the welfare of their fellow citizens.

3.     Visualize the worst outcomes to allow healthy management of expectations and to understand the circumstances and pathways that enable unwanted outcomes in order to prevent or minimize their realization.  Stoics refer to this discipline as negative visualization. Ask the question, what is the worst that can happen?  Experience, albeit prospectively, all the consequences—physical, financial, emotional, etc.—of a loss.  This discipline allows one to reconsider and recalibrate expectations in a manner that may be more aligned with reality since, as humans, we tend to over-expect our successes and under-estimate weaknesses and threats, not to mention the impact of unknown variables.  Proper negative visualization also paints a picture of those pathways that lead to failure or loss, which allows the stoic to identify early warning indicators and disrupt any advance toward undesirable outcomes.

4.     Attack your own thinking with an opposable mind to understand your vulnerabilities and to anticipate your opponents’ responses.  I am fairly certain this is a discipline that is impossible for Trump to grasp; there is no evidence that he considers his vulnerabilities or looks beyond his first glandular reflex.  Further, his bullying nature virtually assures he has no one near him with the confidence to assist him with an opposable mind, let alone question his thinking.  This is his (unwitting) recipe for disaster as president.  The stoic, on the other hand, can argue all points of view to not only assure her own clear and comprehensive thinking, but to understand the arguments, strategies and tactics that might be waged against her.  This is what I also refer to as whole-minded thinking: employing all parts of the brain in all directions and from all perspectives.

5.     Expend energy and resources on the few things (less than 20%) that matter—the key result areas—that assure success and contribute to a state of invincibility.  Identifying the 20% is accomplished by first identifying those things which qualify as key result areas.  Key result areas are those objectives that, once accomplished, also mitigate other concerns or achieve other objectives; the proverbial “two birds with one stone” actions.  Once you know the key result areas, you must also ask if those involved (a person, organization, company, etc.) respond to intelligence; that is to say, will it or they behave in a responsible manner?  If it/they don’t, you are wasting your time; don’t beat your head against a wall—pursue your objectives through other avenues or organizations.  Although empathy is essential to our humanity, one must also have the courage to discard and isolate those with nefarious or misguided aims.  In my life, I often credit this stoic discipline as a key element in my own success and well-being.  In the Trump era, this means targeting those objectives that are more local and provide measureable impacts on your community (however you define that realm).

6.     Practice solitude and meditate to create a sense of tranquility and solemn determination.  Quiet time is essential to our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.  As the French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote, “We must reserve a little back-shop, all our own, entirely free, wherein to establish our true liberty and principal retreat and solitude.”[3]  Solitude allows, among other things, the capacity to process the world in the whole minded fashion (suggested in discipline #4, above), providing the conscience and sub-conscience to reconcile the world (and one’s place in it).  The stoic, Seneca (4 BC to 65 AD), viewed meditation and solitude as a daily exercise where one sits quietly and alone to, in effect, de-brief one’s self about one’s day.  What was accomplished? What was lost?  And, most importantly, what was learned?  Whether you meditate in a ritualistic fashion consistent with Eastern religions, or simply take a long walk while thinking deeply about yourself in your world, you must dedicate yourself to some alone-time in order to not only make the best decisions, but to know yourself completely and honestly.

7.     Commit to a duty of service based in humility.  The ultimate aim of stoics—virtue and 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. 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 fanciful myth, but the reality today is an America (and world) that is much more interdependent than the American frontier romanticized by Frederic Jackson Turner in his The Significance of 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.  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 betterment of our communities.

8.     Avoid anger at all costs to drain the power of your adversaries.  Stoic philosophy’s most closely held commitment is to rationality, which further requires that we remain mindful of “what is and what is not in our power.”[4]  What is always in our power—regardless of the causes or effects of any events—is how we react to any particular occurrence or outcome.  Angry reactions almost always have the same effect: to empower the offender at the expense of the offended.  Trump is experiencing this lesson in the hardest way possible.  (I suggest “experiencing” because there is no evidence thus far of learning.)  Lashing out, whether via tweet or verbal bullying is draining his credibility and legitimacy as president.  Watch as bureaucrats, members of Congress, the media, and foreign leaders increasingly dismiss his angry outbursts.  More so than at the beginning of his presidency, he now is ignored and dismissed by his targets both near and far.  His anger has made him 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 degrade us.  Dismissing offensive behavior with indifference retains power in the hands of the offended; it takes the weapon out of the offender’s hands reducing them to be strangled by their own insolence.  And, it maintains our processing of such events within the realm of the rational and away from disabling discountenance.

Notwithstanding Trump’s very temporary role as an American president, and his behaviors and decisions that defy his duty to serve our great country, the United States and the world are doing very well if one simply observes the facts.  Employing stoic disciplines can defeat Trump’s behaviors and practices.  We must be diligent, patient, cool-headed, and most of all engaged in our communities, country, and world to assure our triumph over this roguish fool.

[1] Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), p.2.
[2] See Bret Stephens, “Only Mass Deportation Can Save America,” The New York Times, June 16, 2017,
[3] Montaigne in Anthony Storr, Solitude: a Return to the Self (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), p.16.
[4]Massimo Pigliucci, How to be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (New York: Basic Books, 2017), p.174.
By |2017-07-22T13:01:48+00:00June 30th, 2017|Leadership|0 Comments
Go to Top