'Of Sound Mind – Seneca On Noise' by Jen Farren

Of Sound Mind – Seneca On Noise

Jen Farren

Rembrandt's Philosopher in Meditation
Rembrandt’s Philosopher in Meditation

In our world of non-stop noise, how can Stoic thinking help? 2,000 years ago Seneca wrote a very witty letter (Letter 56) about living above a noisy Roman bath house. It vividly paints his struggle to keep tranquil amid life’s din.

Here I am with a babel of noise going on all about me, I have lodgings right over a public bathhouse. Now imagine to yourself every kind of sound that can make one weary of one’s years.”

He wasn’t exaggerating, the Roman city was astonishingly noisy:

Show me the apartment that lets you sleep! In this city sleep costs millions: carts clattering through the winding streets, curses hurled at some herd stuck in a traffic-jam would rouse a dozing seal or an Emperor.” (Juvenal Satire 3)

Seneca lists the noises he has to put up with: wagons, fountains, tools, pipes and flutes, a grunting, hissing weight-lifter, a slapping, pummeling masseuse, and the piercing yell of the barber’s clients as he plucks their armpits. His gripes continue:

“If on top of this some ball player comes along and starts shouting out the score, that’s the end! Then add someone starting up a brawl, and someone else caught thieving, and the man who likes the sound of his voice in the bath, and the people who leap into the pool with a tremendous splash.”

Then there is the lure of drink and sausage sellers and the sound of a man reciting poetry to distract him from his work. The Romans believed that intellectuals needed quiet to concentrate. Laws were created to ban noisy workshops from setting up near to professors.

[Indeed many later thinkers have written of their hatred of noise – most notably Schopenhauer who became so enraged at the cracking of horse-whips in the street that he devoted a whole philosophical essay to it (On Noise) ranting: “it paralyzes the brain, rends the thread of reflection, and murders thought.” Among many other Kafka, Proust and Wagner all demanded silence to create. A 2015 study has indicated that creative thinkers have a ‘leaky sensory gate’ – which lets them connect ideas in original ways, but can turn a ticking clock into a form of torture.]

But Seneca was not among them, and brags about his Stoic ability live with such a racket:

You must be made of iron, you may say, or else hard of hearing if your mind is unaffected by all this babel of discordant noises around you, when continual ‘good morning’ greetings were enough to finish off the Stoic Chrysippus! But I swear I no more notice all this roar of noise than I do the sound of waves or falling water.”

He visualizes the noisy bath-house as an analogy for life:

The program of life is the same as that of a bathing establishment, a crowd, or a journey: sometimes things will be thrown at you, sometimes they will strike you by accident.”

He thinks people disturbed by noise (or life) simply lack self-control. Epictetus uses the bath-house to practice the rehearsal of difficulty – imagining the pushing, splashing and swearing that he is likely to find there to help him cope:

In life some things are unpleasant and difficult…Do you not bear uproar, and noise, and other disagreeable circumstances? But, comparing these with the merit of the spectacle, you endure them. Have you not received faculties to support every event?”

Seneca goes on to outline his view of the ‘sound mind’ – one free of noise!

“The only true serenity is the one which represents the free development of a sound mind….There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within.

But life always involves noise of some sort– the only total silence is final. Silence can be a punishment from isolation. Conversely, as George Orwell pointed out we often use noise as a form of self-hypnosis in order to avoid uncomfortable thoughts. So even if we can shut off the external noise our inner noise can be as destructive. As Seneca put it:

What is the good of having silence throughout the neighbourhood if one’s emotions are in turmoil? There is no such thing as “peaceful stillness” except where reason has lulled it to rest.”

But then, just as we are buying in to his argument, he ends with an abrupt about-face:

This is all very well but isn’t it sometimes a lot simpler just to keep away from the din?” I concede that, and in fact it is the reason why I shall shortly be moving elsewhere. What I wanted was to give myself a test and some practice. Why should I need to suffer the torture any longer than I want to when Ulysses found so easy a remedy for his companions even against the Sirens?” [1]

So did Seneca fail his test?  Not at all, Stoics are not Masochists – why struggle if an ordeal can be avoided? In the 1760s the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote was also tormented by the noise of river boats and street carriages. Like Seneca he moved, but sadly his new home had a noisy cockerel next door. His neighbour refused to sell it, so Kant hit the road again.

Seneca’s advice is practical and realistic; be aware and keep a check on the unmeaning din (both inner and outer). His ideal ‘sound mind’ is when:

“Noise never reaches you and when voices never shake you out of yourself, whether they be menacing or inviting or just a meaningless hubbub of empty sound all round you.”

So, to put it another way – the wise are of sound mind, but sometimes the wise move house!


[1]The beeswax earplugs in The Odyssey protected the sailors from the tempting Siren-songs. Proust is known to have been a devotee of Quies earplugs.

Jen is a freelance writer and blogs from here: https://obscurantor.wordpress.com/

'On Happiness' by Tanner Campbell

On Happiness

By Tanner Campbell

Mr Happy

As I sit to write this it occurs to me how much I’ve evolved, philosophically and as a person, since I wrote “Happiness Through Fiction” a mere five months ago (a piece I still consider to be true but now view as impractical for use). Tonight someone in my life asked me a question that I was altogether unprepared to be asked, mostly because the assumption made in the question was both incredibly flattering and – to me – extremely far from reality. What follows won’t be a treatise on happiness, I’m in no position at this point in my development to write such a thing, instead it will be an explanation of how I find happiness… and how I don’t.

The Question

You seem to be a fairly level-headed and happy guy, [in spite of certain negatives in your life]. How do you pull that off?

The person who asked this question was really the perfect person to do so. I know this person well enough to feel moved by the fact that they would ask me for personal guidance on their own happiness, but we’re unfamiliar enough for me – at the same time – to be completely shocked that they would ask me something this important and be genuinely interested in my response.

Happiness vs. Contentment

First, my friend’s question is about contentment, not happiness. Happiness is temporary, happiness is always fleeting, happiness comes in fits and spurts, in singular moments. We’re happy when we buy something we’ve been saving for a long time to get, or when we get a gift or a surprise birthday party. We’re happy when we’re asked whether or not we’re happy, but only if we’re asked at the right moment. We’re happy during points of great ecstasy such as sexual climax, drunken bliss, or drug-induced euphoria. We’re happy when we’re recognized for our accomplishments and sometimes we’re even happy during moments of silent self-reflection, like watching the sun set, but no one is happy all the time.

The question “how are you such a happy person?” is malformed, it can’t possibly elicit a useful or truthful answer. When someone asks this question (at least in the sense of how it was asked to me) what they’re really doing is comparing their internal struggle to find contentment to your external appearance of happiness and then making the assumption that you’ve got contentment they haven’t got. For practical purposes contentment and happiness are used interchangeably (frequently) in the English lexicon but, in order to answer the question posed to me tonight, I feel it’s necessary to point out that happiness is a temporary emotion and isn’t what the questions “how are you such a happy person” or “are you a happy person” aim to learn more about. The question being asked of me is actually, “how do you find contentment within an imperfect life?”

How am I so content?

The truth is that I am not. I’m a long way from content and the frequency with which I experience happy moments is currently quite infrequent. That said, I experience unbroken streaks of contentment much more frequently than I did before I started the Epictetus is my Therapist project and – so long as we’re using the terms interchangeably and disarming language of its specificity – I’m a much happier person now as well. Stoicism has a great deal to do with that, but let me say more:

Needs and Wants

I believe contentment starts in understanding the difference between what you need and what you want. A person who wants a lot will find more frequent occasion to be dissatisfied with what they currently have as what they currently have is a reminder of what they do not yet possess. This isn’t to suggest that you shouldn’t want things or that you should be content in living in a cardboard box and eating out of dumpsters in an alley behind an old Italian restaurant (though contentment can certainly be found there as well). This is to suggest that contentment can be created fastest and most strongly when you strike a realistic balance between needs and wants which works for you. I’m relatively decent at this, it has come with a lifetime of practice, but I still sometimes find dissatisfaction with what I have because I want something more. When that happens I have to assess “the more” and figure out whether or not going after it will upset the balance I’ve created. If it will, I remind myself of the differences between need and want and move on… well-balanced. Full disclosure: sometimes I screw this up.

Emotional Reaction to Circumstance

Our reactions to the things that happen to us can have the strongest impact on our contentment. We lose a job, someone says something mean to us, a big truck cuts us off in traffic, we get a flat tire on the way to work, our significant other breaks up with us, our laptop crashes and we lose all our family photos… any of these things have the potential to easily disrupt our contentment. I’m occasionally guilty in this department as well.

Recently an employer called me incompetent and he said it loud enough for the whole office to hear. I was mad enough to toss him out a window and I stayed mad for about an hour. For the entire hour I was incredibly dissatisfied with my life. I hated my job, I hated my boss, I hated myself – I was miserable. I was the most unhappy guy you could ever meet during those sixty minutes. You know how I got out of it? How I regained my balance? I assessed the criticism. I assessed the criticism and found it to be accurate; I was indeed incompetent at the position I had at that time. Then I asked myself why the criticism upset me so badly if it was accurate and of course the answer was because I didn’t want to be incompetent at my job – and there I was at the crossroads of needs and wants. What would I need to do to get what I wanted? To not be incompetent at this position. Was it possible? Was it worth it? Was it something I wanted to put myself through for the sake of pride? No, it wasn’t. I stepped down from that position and into a position I currently enjoy much more and am really good at; balance regained.

That story was a really specific example but you can apply it to anything. X happens and you’re in control of how you react to it and what you do in response. Stoicism has helped me to train my mind to have less severe and less prolonged reactions to adverse (and even positive) events in my life.

Eudaimonia, human flourishing through virtue

I’ll permit Sharon Lebell to take this one, from her translation of Epictetus’s “The Art of Living”:

The flourishing life is not achieved by techniques. You can’t trick yourself into a life well-lived. Neither is it achieved by following five easy steps or some charismatic figure’s dogma. A flourishing life depends on our responding, as best we can, to those things uniquely incumbent upon us.

To live an extraordinary life means we must elevate our moral stature by culturing our character. The untrained brood about the constituent elements of their lives. They waste precious time in regret or wishing their particulars were different (“If only I lived in a  better house or town, had a different spouse, a more glamorous job, more time to myself…”). The morally trained, rather than resenting or dodging their current life situations and duties, give thanks for them and fully immerse themselves in their duties to their family, friends, neighbors, and job. When we succumb to whining, we diminish our possibilities.

The overvaluation of money, status, and competition poisons our personal relations. The flourishing life cannot be achieved until we moderate our desires and see how superficial and fleeting they are.

Virtue, that is to say a life lived in accordance with a high moral standard (and constantly using philosophy to determine what that standard ought to be), is at the very heart of a contented and happy life.

So to answer the question

Life is constantly disruptive, happiness is temporary, and maintaining prolonged contentment is only possible by disciplining your mind to constantly (and realistically) assess needs vs. wants, control its response to the aforementioned disruptions of life, and reason itself towards the most virtuous living possible. I’m a “happy” person because I’m constantly practicing this discipline.

Friends: It’s never to late to start.

The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature. – Marcus Aurelius.

Tanner Campbell is an author, podcaster, small-business owner, and Stoic. He was host of the Epictetus is my Therapist podcast from 2014 to 2015 and now writes stoically-informed prose and poetry on his personal blog, “Write Mind”, located at TannerCampbell.net. Tanner is 32-years-old and lives in Boynton Beach, Florida with his dog Jupiter and his girlfriend Brittany.

'How to Become More Virtuous – and Less Like Basil Fawlty' by Tim LeBon

How to Become More Virtuous – and Less Like Basil Fawlty

by Tim LeBon

Illustrated by Matt Aldridge
Illustrated by Matt Aldridge

“I’ve heard a lot about virtue and its benefits today”,  commented an audience member at the Stoicism Today event at Queen Mary’s College, London last year. “So please can you tell me more about how in practice I can become more virtuous?  Great question. In this article I aim to answer it.

For many ancient Greeks and Romans, including the Stoics, becoming more virtuous is synonymous with developing the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, courageself-control and justice. Wisdom includes theoretical wisdom – knowledge of ethics, nature and all that matters- and practical wisdom, knowing how to bring about what matters most in a given situation. For the Stoics, a key part of wisdom is knowing the difference between what you can and cannot change and focussing your energies on the former – an idea memorably expressed in the Serenity Prayer. Courage and self-control are the dispositions to overcome fear and desire respectively to do what is right,  whilst justice means being fair regardless of whose welfare is at stake.

These definitions help us know the nature of virtue, but how do we become more virtuous in practice? How do we get to focus our energies only on what we can control,  become fairer and overcome fear and desire when it may lead us astray? My suggestion in this article combines three helpful ideas. The first is to listen to guided meditations.Guided meditations are increasingly a key component  of evidence-based 3rd-wave CBT therapies.  For example, many readers will probably be familiar with the recordings of Andy Puddicombe, founder of Headspace, which help you to develop mindfulness.

The Stoicism Today project has placed guided meditations at the heart of its “Live like a Stoic” experiments.  Donald Robertson has written and narrated some excellent meditations such as the early morning and evening meditations. Listening to Robertson’s early morning meditation, which invites you to imagine your day ahead and how you might  behave Stoically, is arguably more powerful than merely reading about Stoicism You  rehearse practicising Stoic ideas rather than reading about them passively. The second idea to help you become more virtuous is to bring to mind an ideally virtuous person (in Stoicism commonly called “the Stoic sage) and think about what they would do in this challenging situation. This suggestion is at least as old as Seneca who advised us to “cherish someone of good character and keep them always in your mind. Then live as if they were watching you, and order all your actions as if they saw them”.

We can combine these two ideas by thinking of a challenging situation, reflecting on how an ideal Stoic Adviser would respond and  then rehearsing in our mind’s eye behaving as the ideal Stoic Advisor would. This type of meditation  owes a considerable  debt to the work of  third-wave CBT psychologist Paul Gilbert, whose Compassion-Focussed Therapy (CFT)  includes guided meditations contemplating an ideal compassionate other.

The third helpful idea, which I believe has considerable motivational power, is to reflect on the problems we create if we don’t behave virtuosly. I can think of no better example of this than  Basil Fawlty thrashing his car

No-one wants to look as silly as Basil Fawlty, but if we lack self-control, wisdom, courage and justice that could happen.

You can download the Stoic Ideal Adviser Guided Meditation  recording  and script.

The Stoic Ideal Adviser Workshop presentation from the Stoicism Today event at Queen Mary’s College London, 2014 is also available if pdf format.

I hope that these resources prove useful.  Do remember though, that  the only person you can really control is yourself ….

Tim LeBon is a BABCP accredited CBT therapist and UKCP registered existential therapist, an APPA and SPP registered philosophical counsellor and is also trained as a life coach  and integrative counsellor.He is a past Chair of the Society for Philosophy in Practice (SPP) and the founding editor of Practical Philosophy. He is  the author of Wise Therapy (Sage, 2001) and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology (Hodder, 2014) . You can read more about Tim’s work on his blogSocrates Satisfiedand his website.

Understanding the Stoic Response to Anger: A Talk by Greg Sadler

Understanding the Stoic Response to Anger

by Greg Sadler

Anger affects us all. Sourced here.
Anger affects us all. Sourced here.

In one manner or another, struggling with anger – my own and that of others — has been a component of my life nearly as far back as I can remember.  I first became interested in philosophical accounts about  – and resources for dealing with – anger two decades ago, in graduate school, for several reasons.   The analyses and advice provided by several classic philosophical schools seemed far more plausible, interesting, and effective for me than what therapy had provided.  There was a possibility, even a promise of valuable insight.  I was also struck by how acrimonious and bitter so many discussions among professors and fellow graduate students could quickly turn, and wanted to make sense of that as well.

The perspectives afforded by two ancient schools have been particularly illuminating for me on topics involved with understanding and managing the emotional response of anger – Aristotle’s Peripatetic school and the school of the Stoics.  On this issue, they were in fact great rivals, setting forth two powerfully and systematically articulated positions on many counts incompatible with each other.  Even a philosopher who was an eclectic in the best sense of the term, considering the contributions made by multiple schools, working them at times into a productive synthesis – Marcus Tullius Cicero – found himself having to come down definitively on one side.  He picked that of the Stoics, who consistently argued that there was no right amount or response of anger, that anything that anger might accomplish or facilitate could be done better and with less problems by rational choice.

This year, I’ve been providing monthly lectures – to be honest, more discussions than simply lectures – in a year-long series hosted by the historic Kingston Library.  Last year, the series was called Glimpses into Existence (if you’re interested, you can see the playlist of lectures here), and this year, we settled on Understanding Anger, in which we’re looking at perspectives on that emotion coming from ancient and medieval sources ranging from philosophy to epic poetry, from drama to religious texts.  We just had a session specifically on the Stoics a little over a week ago.  Here’s the video from the session:

While we did end up in quite a few interesting and on the whole worthwhile digressions, we made it through much of what I’d wanted to present:  the origin and historical development of the Stoic school; their views on emotion, rationality, and the good life; their general views on anger; and then specific teachings about the emotion from Seneca’s On Anger, Epictetus’ Discourses, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (less on this, unfortunately due to time-constraints).

As a side-note, for those who are interested in these three texts and their discussions of anger, I created several videos last year’s Stoic Week:

The Understanding Anger series continues in the coming months, where the views of Epicureans, Plutarch, and early Christian thinkers are next on the docket – and we’ll actually finish the year with Chaucer and Dante.  Doubtless there will be some additional discussion referencing the Stoics, partly because some of the other perspectives take the Stoics as their opponents, and partly because certain perspectives actually end up developing disciplines quite similar to the Stoics.  If you’re in the Hudson Valley in New York, or even in the City and inclined to take a drive, you’re quite welcome to attend and participate!

Gregory Sadler is a philosophy professor, author, speaker, and philosophical counselor.  He also directs the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences for the Global Center for Advanced Studies, and is the president and cofounder of ReasonIO, a company devoted to putting philosophy into practice.  He produces popular YouTube videos on philosophy, and his main academic channel recently passed 20,000 subscribers and 1.8 million views.

'Equanimity and Tech Overload' by Greg Milner

Equanimity and Tech Overload

by Greg Milner

Sourced here
OMG #twitterismylife. Sourced here.

Men have become the tools of their tools.

— Henry David Thoreau

Do external things which fall upon you distract you? Give yourself some time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around. But then, you should also avoid going over to the other extreme. For they are triflers who have wearied themselves in life by their activity, and yet have no object toward which to direct every thought.

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.7

monkey mind, from Chinese xinyuan and Sino-Japanese shin’en 心猿 [lit. “heart-/mind-monkey”], is a Buddhist term meaning “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable”.  

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind_monkey

The Importance of Focus

Most Hellenistic philosophies believe it’s good to have control not only over your mind, but also the mental processes that get you through the day. You also need to have control over your thoughts and emotions in a pinch, when the chips are down, in order properly and efficiently to suspend judgement so you don’t let spurious impressions wreck your day, or make you behave in ways you’ll regret later. Too much internet, and the mental overload common in modern technological society (“tech overload”) can work against this.

Why the Internet is Bad for Your Concentration

The Freedictionary.com defines “presence of mind” as “The ability to think and act calmly and efficiently, especially in an emergency. The ability to think clearly and act appropriately, as during a crisis.” Merriam-Webster says that it’s “Self-control so maintained in an emergency or in an embarrassing situation that one can say or do the right thing.”  Ernest Hemmingway called courage  “grace under pressure.” I have no doubt such definitions and explications go back to the Romans and even earlier. Most Hellenistic philosophies and Buddhism aspire to this type if equanimity. To be able to have enough control over your mind to be present and remain level-headed, even in times of crisis requires practice, and quality practice requires concentration and focus. Concentration should be what I call “effortless effort.” To routinely to be able to focus on, say a piece of long-form journalism like an investigative story in Rolling Stone, you have to be in the habit of doing so. It can’t seem like work. It almost has to be de rigueur, second nature — something you can just fall into.

Monkey Mind, a colorful term common to Buddhism, has been defined as  “the unruly mind, jumping from one object to another.” This is the opposite of concentration. It is what we who value concentration continually struggle against. The world, as it is organized for us in the modern technological West today, does everything it can to encourage a distracted mindset, to feed your mind monkey. I’m not necessarily saying  this is intentional. There are not rooms full of people at work, consciously saying, “Hey, how can we make people more addled?” But I do believe that, in a consumption-driven economy, the best consumers are the most impulsive ones.

The internet is driven by advertising, and advertising promotes distraction. But that’s not the only reason the internet promotes distraction, according to Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows, it’s in the very nature of hyperlinked media to “rewire” our brains to become more adept at sifting and filtering information, and hence less able to concentrate in-depth and for long periods of time. There’s a reason it’s called a browser.

I believe the type of mindset, the mental abilities, needed to understand philosophy, to be introspective, to concentrate, and to monitor ones thinking on an ongoing basis are hindered by repeated, ubiquitous overexposure to the constantly changing stimuli provided to us in our present-day, always-on interconnected, culture. And this isn’t just my opinion. Many studies cited in The Shallows and other texts and articles bear this out; the more time you spend hopping from screen to screen, the more your attention span comes to suffer. You are what you do, after all. If everyday mind is Monkey Mind, then adding social networking makes it Monkey-with-a-Whistle Mind.

We all know the symptoms of tech overload: focus problems; the inability to follow almost any long thread; difficulty reading more than a couple of minutes of text (if that); compulsive checking of devices, email, twitter feed, etc.; generalized anxiety. Whether you’re working toward Buddhist detachment, Epicurean ataraxia, or Stoic equanimity, the problems associated with tech overload will stand in your way. In today’s society, the first duty of the contemplative person is to gain control over the technology that threatens to run roughshod over our psyches.

Synchronous Versus Asynchronous Communication

First of all, it’s important to recognize the differences between synchronous and asynchronous communication. Conversation is synchronous, as is the telephone; both parties expect an immediate response. I am old enough to remember how disconcerting answering machines were when they first came out. We expected synchronous communication and that meant that by god, Bill ought to answer his damn phone! Instant messaging (IM) is on the cusp but is lately trending toward the synchronous, if your status shows as “available” people expect you to respond in under a minute. That’s why it’s called “chat.” Everything else (telegraphy doesn’t count), from the old “snail mail”  letter onward, is asynchronous. This includes email, Facebook messages and posts, blog post comments — all of it. Asynchronous means you can respond after a reasonable, socially acceptable time, but not necessarily immediately.

It seems to me that at least some of our problems with modern technology come from our inability  recognize this difference at a deep level. We tend toward making our communications synchronous if at all possible. Hence we feel the need to respond to a text we get while driving to work, or an IM we get when we are in the middle of writing some complex computer program. We feel the need to check our email more than 3 times a day — which is all you really need to check it, if you think about it.

The most important thing to realize about everything but a phone call, then, is “it can wait.” If it’s really important, they will call you. This holds true, even in the 21st century.


But it’s not just the drive toward synchronicity. Many researchers point to the idea that there may be something in our evolution that makes us go for the instant reward of quick response to an ever-changing environment — a little “dopamine squirt,” as I’ve heard it described — we get every time we check our mail or get an IM. Even so, being rational animals, this would not be the first time we have had to decide how to best deal with mindless responses to urges that might prove unhealthy in the long run. Nature is not fate, after all. So if you want to be a thoughtful person, less shallow, and more philosophical, take steps to do so — steps that involve gaining more control over the technology in your life.

What You Can Do

Over the last couple of years, after reading books such as Hamlet’s Blackberry, The Shallows, and In Praise of Slowness, I have developed some techniques I use to help me redevelop and maintain my powers of concentration. I have practiced most of these at one time or another and many I still do. Some have been shown by research to actually increase your attention span. I know they have  helped me.

If you are into social networks, pick one social network and subscribe to that. Only one. Not Twitter.

Cyber Sabbath. Pick one day a week (for me, it’s Saturday) and decide that it’s going to be tech-restricted in some important ways. Perhaps you have a Roku Box on your TV so you can’t say it’s really an internet-free day, but you can say it’s a browser/IM/email free day. Stick to it. Tell your friends you won’t respond on that day unless they call. Don’t have your daughter Google something for you. That’s cheating!

Meditate, or have some sort of contemplative practice that lasts at least 20 minutes per day, every day.

Read a BOOK at least 30 minute per day. Not articles. Not even long form journalism. A book — preferably a physical book. This has had a great effect on my attention span in the past year.

If you have a choice between digital and analog, choose analog. If you have a choice between a Kindle book, for example, or a paper one, go with the dead-tree version. Buy a magazine or newspapers at last once a month and read it.

Don’t use earbuds in the car. Listen to the radio. Get back in touch with your community.

Don’t look at your cell phone when standing in line. Look at the people. Notice your surroundings. This does wonders for your sense of patience.

Never look at a screen while eating.

Never look at your phone while someone is talking to you.

Turn off alerts on your phone, or at least turn them to every half hour.

Remember that email is asynchronous communication, and IMs can be made to be.

If you get IM’ed (Instant Messaged) more than once per hour, consider not using IM. Turn it off. Make people call you or email. Make them consciously decide between synchronous and asynchronous communication.

Any activity you do more-or-less every day, regularly, 20 to 30 minutes per day or more, will help combat Monkey Mind. Get a hobby. Take up woodworking or metal-sculpting.

Learn a musical instrument, if you haven’t already. Devote at least four 40-minute sessions a week to practice.

Take long walks, either without headphones or while listening to an audio book.

Learn a language — take a class. You cannot learn a language from any audio-only instruction, despite what they say at Rosetta Stone.

Develop your own methods for increasing your concentration. Maybe you want to get really old school and memorize some Shakespeare sonnets or poems of Neruda. Go for it. Do yoga. Whatever. Just pick something that is non-tech related and takes more than 20 minutes and do several such things consistently every day. Soon you’ll realize how much better it feels than Facebook or Snapchat or whatever the flavor-of-the-month brain-atrophying timewaster happens to be.  You’ll be a better thinker and a deeper person for it.

Greg Milner is a Database Administrator living in Austin, Texas. Fortune has blessed him with a wonderful wife, a stepson and three foundling cats. He is one of the hosts of the Painted Porch podcast, along with Mark Johnston (founder) and Matt Van Natta.

'The Stoic Formula for a Happy, Meaningful Life' by William Irvine

The Stoic Formula for a Happy, Meaningful Life

by William Irvine

Luckily you won't need real maths, like here!
Luckily you won’t need real maths, like here! Image found here.

Call Your Mother!

This is the Stoic formula for a happy, meaningful life.

     X = the number of days you have left to live

I explained that for most people, most of the time, the value of X is unknown. The important thing to keep in mind is that whatever its value may be, it is finite.

Living with this formula in mind might sound depressing, but the Stoics knew that doing so could prevent them from wasting the time they have left to them. Should you spend today having a stupid argument with a co-worker or relative? If you keep in mind that your days are numbered, you will realize that doing so would be a waste of a precious resource.

In this post, I would like to introduce another, related formula:

     X = the number of times you will do something in the remainder of your life

The activity in question might be something trivial, like playing hopscotch. I suspect that my X-value for this activity is 0. The activity might also be something poetical, like catching a snowflake on your tongue; something unpleasant, like paying your taxes; or something delightful, like having dinner with close friends.

No matter what the activity, the value of X will be finite. This is because we have finite time remaining to us, and the things we do all take time.

One logical consequence of the above formula is that for every activity we do, there will be a last time we do it. This fact recently came to mind when my lawn mower, which had been in a long state of decline, finally died. As I drove to a hardware store to get its replacement, it dawned on me that this would likely be the last time in my life that I bought a lawn mower.

My previous mower lasted twenty years. If the mower I was buying lasted that long, I would be in my eighties when it died. Would I still be living in a house with a lawn then? If I were, would I still be mowing it myself, or would I be paying someone else to do it? And indeed, would I even “outlive” the mower I was buying? Would it watch my decline, and on some summer day in the future wonder whatever became of “the mowing man”?

When I shared these thoughts with friends, some of them spontaneously emitted the “Awwww” sound of sympathy. It was, they believed, a dark thought for me to be having and a sign that I needed cheering up. But no cheering up was necessary. For a Stoic, the realization that you might be doing something for the last time is a profoundly life affirming thought to have.

The Stoics do not advise us to dwell on the fact that we might be doing something for the last time. What they recommend is that while we are doing an activity, we allow ourselves to have a flickering thought that this could conceivably be the last time we do it—that for this activity, our X=0. By having this thought, we increase our chances of becoming fully engaged in the activity instead of merely sleepwalking through it, as is so often the case.

Along these lines, it is one thing to kiss someone you love when you think that the kiss can be repeated at will. It is quite another to kiss that person when you do so in the knowledge that it will be—or even might be—the last time you kiss them.

And there is another important thing to realize about the above formula: you probably have it in your power to turn X into X+1! You need only go out of your way to do something one extra time. At this very moment, there are X more times you will kiss the person you love. But if, as the result of reading this, you go give him or her a kiss that you otherwise wouldn’t have given, you will increase this number to X+1. And chances are you will have fun doing it!

Is your mother still alive? Then realize that you will talk to her only X more times in the course of your life. The exact value of X is unknown, but realize that it is necessarily a finite number: either your death or hers will end the possibility of conversations. But you have it in your power to increase the value of X to X+1: all you need to do is pick up a phone and give her a call! And while you have her, ask her to put your father on the line.

William’s book is available on Amazon.

William B. Irvine is professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. For more on his life and writings, visit his author website.

'Stoic Comedy is not an Oxymoron' by Michael Connell

‘Stoic Comedy is not an Oxymoron’
How you can help create a Stoic comedy show

‘Laughter, and a lot of it, is the right response to the things which drive us to tears’ – Seneca

I’m currently trying to write a stand up comedy show about Stoic philosophy, and I’m hoping you can help.

Why do I need your help?

Is it because Stoics are emotionless robots? Is creating comedy around such cold, austere philosophy too difficult?

No, that’s not it at all.

I think some of the ancient Stoics were quite funny (perhaps without meaning to be).

When reading the discourses I sometimes smile at how tough Epictetus was on his students, and there’s a sort of black humour to some of Marcus’ Meditations.

While I can’t prove it, I’m sure many of the ancient Stoics had good senses of humour. For a start, Chrysippus died from laughing too hard.

And looking at more modern thinkers, Albert Ellis could be hilarious.

Listen to some of his lectures on Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (which is pretty much just a stripped down version of Stoicism) and you’ll hear points where he gets huge laughs from his audience. People attending his Friday night therapy sessions would sometimes describe him as a Stand Up Philosopher.

No, Stoics can definitely be funny.

Just as with a bit of study you’ll find that Stoicism isn’t about becoming emotionless, you’ll also find it’s not about becoming humourless.

Still, writing a Stoic comedy show hasn’t been easy.

I’ve only been getting into Stoicism for the last couple of years, whereas I’ve been doing stand up for over a decade.

Writing this show I’d often find myself facing what I thought was a conflict between what was Stoic and what was funny.

For example, comedy is often about getting worked up over external events – the exact opposite of what Stoicism teaches.

Think about all those comedians with routines about annoying telemarketers or how frustrating it is to open a packet of peanuts. That’s not very Stoic.

We don’t tend to laugh at what’s logical and rational, and being logical and rational is what Stoicism is all about.

In the show I want to explain the basics of Stoicism, but how could I do that if these idea were too logical to be funny? I want people to laugh at what I’m saying, not just sit there nodding in agreement.

Even worse, for a while I worried that if, thanks to practicing Stoicism, I stopped getting upset about things I’d also lose my ability to find inspiration for comedy routines.

A lot of people argue that comedy comes from comedians turning feelings of anger, sadness or frustration into comedy. Think about all those cliched “tears of a clown” stories you hear about comedians with depression.

If practicing Stoicism meant I wouldn’t experience those feelings as much, where would I get inspiration for my comedy?

After a bit of thought, I figured it out…

Stoicism says the solution to your problems lies within you, and I’ve found a lot of comedy is in there too.

Instead of criticising the outside world (e.g. ‘Airline peanuts are stupid. Opening them makes me frustrated…’), in the Stoic comedy bits I’ve written I’m criticising irrational reactions to the outside world (e.g. ‘I’m stupid. I make myself frustrated opening Airline peanuts…’).

Examining my own irrational beliefs like this has helped me write some routines that I’m really pleased with.

I think it’s also helping me become more Stoic. Looking at my irrational beliefs and making fun of them is kind of like the disputing technique used in CBT.

And the best part of mining my irrational thoughts for comedy inspiration?

I’ll never run out of material.

I don’t know if a Sage wouldn’t make a good comedian, but I’ve certainly got a lot of crazy to draw from.

The other challenge of writing Stoic comedy is that audiences aren’t very familiar with Stoic ideas.

Sometimes I’ve written a routine about how I reacted irrationally to something, and when I perform it for the first time the crowd will just stare at me because they see my reaction as normal.

For example, if I’ll say I was being crazy for getting upset about a delayed flight. The crowd will stare at me like ‘Well, of course you’d be upset when things don’t go your way…’

Usually I can fix the routine and get a laugh by just taking more time to explain why my reactions were irrational. “Would getting angry make the plane leave on time?” etc.

Sometimes though, I just can’t seem to get people to understand why some way of thinking is irrational.

For the last couple of months I’ve been trying to write a bit about how weird it is to think other people can control your emotions.

In the bit I point out that if you say telemarketers make you mad people nod and agree, but say extraterrestrials make you paranoid and SUDDENLY YOU’RE CRAZY.

To me, that’s a great concept that I should be able to get a lot of laughs out of, but so far every time I perform that routine people just stare at me.

I keep rewriting it and trying to set it up so the audience gets why thinking other people can control your emotions is crazy, but so far I’ve had no luck.

The key to unlocking the comedy in these bits is to more clearly explain the Stoic idea in the setup (external events don’t make you feel anything, etc.), so I’m constantly searching for simpler, more concise ways to express key concepts.

If you’re a member of a Stoicism Facebook group or Subreddit might have seen me posting questions like “What’s a simple way to explain the concept of Eudaimonia?”.

I’m slowly making progress.

Despite the odd failed joke, I’ve been working on this Stoic show for about six months now and have come up with some short routines around Stoic ideas.

I’ve been developing them at comedy clubs and even performed a few on a community television show I was on (you can watch them by clicking on this link, or watch below).

While I’m generally quite pleased with how most of these routines turned out, the show was produced under very tight deadlines and I think all of them could be improved.

You can think of the clips on youtube as an early draft of the show I’m working on now.

Some of those bits I’ve scrapped entirely, some I’ve developed and made longer, and then I’ve written new pieces. Currently I’m putting these pieces together and trying to mold them into a show.

At the moment the show mainly focuses on the dichotomy of control.

I talk about how everyone strives for a life of flourishing, that there are things beyond your control,

That your beliefs are in your control, that changing your beliefs will change your emotions (this is the same video as the first one at the top of the post).

And that with practice you can come to joyously embrace life no matter what it throws at you.

My hope is to eventually film the show and make it freely available on YouTube.

From there I’d love to bring the show to comedy clubs and festivals, and maybe even combine it with a workshop on Stoic basics and deliver it in schools.

I’ve been talking to a producer (same guy who directed the community TV show I did the Stoic spots on) and we’ve got a tentative plan to film the special mid year.

At this stage I don’t know if the filming will actually take place – working in the media is a great lesson in what you don’t control – but I’m fairly confident I can get it shot at a decent community TV quality level.

Once the show is filmed though, there will be no way I’ll be able to make changes.

Even shooting at a community TV studio takes a lot of time and money, and I’m only really going to get one shot at filming this thing. So before that happens…

I want your input.

I want this Stoic comedy show I’m writing to be an amusing introduction for people unfamiliar with Stoicism.

There’s no way I’ll be able to give a complete overview of Stoicism in a single comedy show, but hopefully with enough input I can make sure I hit some of the major points and avoid making any major mistakes.

I want to make this show accurate as well as funny, so let me know your thoughts.

What are some mistakes other introductions to Stoicism make that I should avoid?

Too much focus on happiness (people say this about William Irvine’s book)?

Too much history (do I really need to say the Stoics hung out on a porch)?

What are the major goofs I should watch out for?

What point(s) should definitely be included in an introduction to Stoicism?

The dichotomy of control?

The Logos?

Epictetus’ fondness for beards?

What topics, concepts and ideas can I simply not leave out?

How would you clearly and concisely explain that point?

Brevity is the soul of wit. Try to explain the concept you’re suggesting as simply, and with as few words, as possible. Give it to me “explain like I’m five” style.

Concrete, real world examples are a real help. Like in this routine (as above) where I use late trains to explain the idea that it’s our thoughts that make us upset not events.

If you have a humorous way to explain a key Stoic concept I’d love to hear it, but don’t worry about being funny (that’s my job).

Just let me know what I should avoid, what I should include and a simple explanation of what you’re suggesting I put in the show.

If you have any thoughts I’d love to hear them. You can contact me via Twitter, Facebook, comment under my youtube clips, or just shoot me an email at Michael@michaelconnell.com.au.

Michael Cornell began getting laughs at the age of three in his back yard with the Hills Hoist acting as stage and curtain, and he hasn’t stopped performing since.

At the age of thirteen Michael added juggling to his already extensive talents and spent several years busking and touring with various small circuses. Then, in January 2000, Michael entered the Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s Class Clowns Competition and launched his comedy career.

Winning competitions such as the Class Clowns Competition (a search to find Australia’s funniest high school student), and the TREV Campus Comedy Competition (a similar search for the funniest university student), helped Michael become an established performer on Melbourne’s comedy scene.

Over the years Michael has performed everywhere from the set of Rove [live] and Her Majesty’s Theatre, to the main stage of the Melbourne Town Hall and the Telstra Dome during half time. Michael has produced hit shows at festivals such as the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the New Zealand International Comedy Festival, The Melbourne Fringe Festival, and more. He is regularly in demand as a corporate entertainer, a speaker at high schools and universities, and as a performer at comedy venues across Australia.

Michael’s sensitive, intelligent and hilarious routines are beautifully developed to make everyone laugh, and are clean enough not to offend anyone.

'Loser!' by Erik Wiegardt

“Loser!”

Erik Wiegardt

What are you supposed to do when Nature made you one way and the world wants you to be another? The guy who said, “Follow your bliss,” Joseph Campbell, had a cushy career as a professor at a private university, lots of fame and fortune from his lectures and books, and a beautiful and accomplished wife. But what do you do when you follow your  bliss and get nothing?

So, what are you supposed to do when the world begs for accountants, computer whiz-kids, engineers, nurses and doctors, and you have no talent for any of these jobs? What are you supposed to do when your natural abilities lead you to exactly those things the world doesn’t want and you’re revolted by those occupations that it does?

Are you supposed to keep trying time and time again to fit your round peg into the world’s square hole—like some certifiably insane person? Are you supposed to accept your fate, bitter though it may be, and live a life of mediocrity with “Loser” tattooed across your forehead?

Epictetus said that if I tried to do any work for which I had no talent, then I would do a lousy job of it and not have any time left over to do what I could do well. Oh goody—another follow-your-bliss endorsement. That’s great if fate showers you with good fortune, but what if it doesn’t?

Maybe it would  be better to be a mediocre accountant, living a life of quiet desperation, as Thoreau said, than to be an excellent Tiddly-winks player always unemployed and a burden to society and your family, because you can’t make a living, so you turn to alcohol or even stronger drugs just to feel good about yourself for a few minutes before returning to a life of poverty and shame? What are you supposed to do?

What can you do when you’re caught between a rock and a hard place? Really, there’s only one good solution: be a Stoic. The world always needs Stoics. Why? Because anyone who is able to shoulder his or her responsibilities and maintain a noble character regardless of their station in life is a joy and a credit to the human race.

Be a Stoic. Ignis aurum probat. The refining fire of adversity will only make the gold of your character shine all the brighter. Ignis aurum probat. If you are doing the best that you can to take care of your corner of the world, no matter how large or small, you will acquire another kind of greatness.

Marcus Aurelius, Caesar, Roman Emperor of the world, didn’t like his job either. It wearied and depressed him. He didn’t like treacherous back-stabbers and sycophants, and he didn’t like the cruelty of warfare, and yet he lived in the midst of palace intrigue and on foreign battlefields for years on end, most of his life. He wanted to be a Stoic philosopher, not an emperor, but he could only fit in the consolations of philosophy for a moment here and a moment there. He used these moments used to write his Meditations.

Marcus didn’t like being emperor, and there were no doubt times when he didn’t think he was very good at it, but in fact he was. His Stoicism guided his actions and his naturally kind heart made him one of the five great Roman emperors of history. To us Stoics, he was the greatest of them all.

Be a Stoic. A noble character will make it possible for you to excel in life regardless of the position fate has for you. Even if your talents are mediocre, even if you never know fame or fortune, even if some days it takes everything you’ve got just to put one foot in front of the other, when you’re a Stoic you are the best that you can be, and there is no higher calling. More than anything else in the world today we need Stoics. The day you become a Stoic you stop being a loser. I guarantee it.

This extract is an excerpt, reproduced by kind permission of the author, from Battle of Mount Whitney and Other Essays: Stoic Philosophy in Practice.

About the author: Erik Wiegardt was born in Walla Walla, Washington, USA, and lived most of his life on the Pacific Rim. Education in his formative years was in Protestant parochial schools in rural towns in Oregon and California. He is a graduate of Portland State University where he received a Bachelor’s Degree with two majors in General Studies emphasizing Psychology and Literature; the Oregon Military Academy, where he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, Army Infantry; and the University of Oregon, where he received a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Sculpture with a thesis in Sound Sculpture.

Erik has worked in a number of occupations, including laboratory analyst at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and at North American Aviation in Los Angeles where he performed quality control studies on the escape rocket module of the Apollo Moon Rockets. He is a Vietnam Era War veteran and received a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition for participation in Operation White Coat, a biological warfare unit.

Other employment includes mortician’s assistant, insurance executive, baker, restaurant waiter, Graduate Teaching Fellow at the University of Oregon, English teacher in Japan, display designer for Macy’s and Nordstrom, advertising copy writer, and Senior Probation Officer for the County of San Diego, California.

Erik has been a Stoic for more than 50 years, and works full time for the Stoic community. He is the founder of the cybercity New Stoa, the eMagazine “Registry Report,” the College of Stoic Philosophers, the eJournal “The Stoic Philosopher,” and the Marcus Aurelius School. He lives in San Diego, California, with his wife, a practitioner of oriental medicine.

'Vampires & Werewolves' by Erik Wiegardt

 Vampires & Werewolves

Erik Wiegardt

See Video No. 16 in the above playlist for a ‘video essay’ of this piece…

I don’t often watch horror movies, but my wife was out of town visiting her sister, and I was at the public library when I saw this vampire movie starring Ethan Hawke sitting there on the shelf . . . . Isn’t Ethan Hawke a great name? I’ve always liked that name. So anyway, I checked it out and brought it home.

It was pretty good, actually, for a horror movie. This one was set in the future, all glass and chrome, and almost everybody was a vampire then. I don’t know how that happened. There were a few regular humans left. Most of them were hooked up to blood-sucking machines to feed the vampires. Some of the normal humans had escaped and were in hiding. I jumped and yelled at all the scary parts. Lots of blood, of course.

I once saw an Abbott and Costello comedy about vampires and werewolves. Now there’s an original idea: combining comedy and horror. Who would have thought horror could be funny? The movie was in black and white. I think Bela Lugosi was the vampire. I didn’t recognize the werewolf.

The vampire seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, but the werewolf was such a tortured soul. I guess that’s because being a vampire is full-time job and being a werewolf only happens when there’s a full moon. The rest of the time they feel bad about all the evil they’ve done. Most of the time werewolves have the conscience of a human being, but vampires only have the conscience of a bat.

I think scary stories are written mostly for children. Some people get a laugh out of scaring children. I’m not sure why. Some people think it’s important to scare children into being good. This has been going on for a long time in just about every culture, I guess. If you don’t behave and do what you’re told the wicked witch is going to throw you in her pot and eat you for supper. That sort of thing.

Some religious people like to scare their children with stories of Satan and his vast army of devils who have nothing better to do than to tempt nice people like you and me into being as bad as they are. If you like being bad, then you can join them in hell when you die. I guess that’s where all the really bad stuff happens. I can’t tell you about what they do in hell, because I don’t know. I’ve never been there.

There are really bad people, but they didn’t get that way because they were bitten by vampires or werewolves or talked into being bad by servants of Satan. I don’t believe there is any evil in nature; only in the choices human beings make as they go through life. People do bad things because they believe that what they are doing is in their best interest. They lie to avoid being found out—and they become a liar. They steal to get something they don’t want to work for—and they become a thief. They kill because someone really makes them mad—and they become a murderer.

That’s all that evil is. People making choices they think are in their best interest, but end up showing their ignorance and destroying their good name and noble character. They ignore the voice inside of them that encourages them to live a life of greatness because they would rather have a new car.

There is no evil in Nature, because the other animals don’t have the same choices we do. Bats that bite only do so because it’s what they do to eat and survive. Same with wolves. Same with every other carnivore on the planet, but it doesn’t make them evil. Everything on this planet takes nourishment from everything else on the planet. That’s the way things are here in a material plane of existence. It’s a little scary living here, sometimes, but life is not a horror story—unless you make it so.

This extract is an excerpt, reproduced by kind permission of the author, from Battle of Mount Whitney and Other Essays: Stoic Philosophy in Practice

About the author: Erik Wiegardt was born in Walla Walla, Washington, USA, and lived most of his life on the Pacific Rim. Education in his formative years was in Protestant parochial schools in rural towns in Oregon and California. He is a graduate of Portland State University where he received a Bachelor’s Degree with two majors in General Studies emphasizing Psychology and Literature; the Oregon Military Academy, where he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, Army Infantry; and the University of Oregon, where he received a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Sculpture with a thesis in Sound Sculpture.

Erik has worked in a number of occupations, including laboratory analyst at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and at North American Aviation in Los Angeles where he performed quality control studies on the escape rocket module of the Apollo Moon Rockets. He is a Vietnam Era War veteran and received a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition for participation in Operation White Coat, a biological warfare unit.

Other employment includes mortician’s assistant, insurance executive, baker, restaurant waiter, Graduate Teaching Fellow at the University of Oregon, English teacher in Japan, display designer for Macy’s and Nordstrom, advertising copy writer, and Senior Probation Officer for the County of San Diego, California.

Erik has been a Stoic for more than 50 years, and works full time for the Stoic community. He is the founder of the cybercity New Stoa, the eMagazine “Registry Report,” the College of Stoic Philosophers, the eJournal “The Stoic Philosopher,” and the Marcus Aurelius School. He lives in San Diego, California, with his wife, a practitioner of oriental medicine.

The Three-Petalled Rose: The Synthesis of Judaism, Buddhism and Stoicism

The Three-Petalled Rose, by Ronald W. Pies examines the common threads that unite three, great spiritual traditions–Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism, and in doing so aims to provide a framework for achieving a fulfilled and ethically responsible life. The book aims to help the reader take the spiritual “nutrients” from these three ancient traditions and transform them into a life of beauty, order, and purpose. No scholarly expertise or special knowledge of religion is required to understand this book, nor need the reader believe in a “supreme being” or owe allegiance to a particular religion. All that’s needed is an open mind and a sincere desire to create an awakened and flourishing life.

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Izzy’s Ingratitude

 Excerpted from The Three-Petalled Rose, by Ronald W. Pies

To his friends and acquaintances, Izzy was a man who “had it all.” Raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, Izzy, age 52, had long ago abandoned Judaism and become, as he put it, “A full-fledged hedonist.” Married, with two college-age children, and in good health, Izzy was a very successful hospital administrator. He had managed not only to run several area hospitals very efficiently, but also to accumulate a sizeable “nest egg.” He and his family lived in a beautiful, 8-room, lakeside house, in a comfortable suburb of New York City. Izzy’s wife, Rebecca, was a well-respected college professor, and both children were enrolled in prestigious, Ivy-league schools. Izzy managed to radiate a confident optimism that led nearly everyone to assume he was a very happy man—but the truth was entirely different.

As Izzy confided to his old college roommate, Hal, “I feel like I’ve gotten the short end of the stick, for all the work I’ve done. I mean, sure, I have a nice house, a good wife, great kids. But so what? Where is it getting me? I had the brains to go to medical school, but I wound up doing this damn administration crap! People at work are nice enough, but do they ever invite Rebecca and me to dinner, or out to a movie? No—it’s all just business to them! And as for vacation, Hal, forget about it! The last one we took was two years ago, for exactly one week in Bermuda. I have people working under me who spend their whole summer in the Hamptons, or on the Cape! And Rebecca, she’s a good wife, but she’s not exactly what you’d call passionate, you know? I mean, I’m lucky to talk her into sex maybe once a week, at most.” Although Izzy and Rebecca got along reasonably well, their marriage was marked by frequent arguments. Rebecca was not strictly observant in the Jewish faith, but she did like to keep active in her local synagogue, which offered a variety of social and educational activities. Izzy, however, refused to accompany her, arguing that, “Those people just want your time and money. All they care about is showing off.”

Izzy and Rebecca had inherited several hundred thousand dollars from Izzy’s parents, both of whom had died within the past five years, but Izzy had nothing good to say about his mother or father. “Sure!” he commented to Rebecca, “They left us a lot of money, but while they were alive, what did they do for us? All I ever got from my parents was criticism!”

As Rebecca confided to a close female friend, “Nothing is ever good enough with Izzy.   We go out to a nice restaurant for a good time, and what does he do? He complains to the waiter! The roast beef is too stringy, the potatoes aren’t hot enough, the service is too slow! We go to a movie, and he’s ready to leave half-way through, because he thinks the movie is “stupid.” He says he’s proud of my accomplishments as a professor, but then he complains I’m spending too much time with my research. And does he ever have a good word to say about the kids? Here they are, both at Ivy League colleges, and Izzy says they’re “wasting his hard earned money.” Why? Because Joel is majoring in English Literature, and Laura is studying music theory. No matter how good things are, with Izzy, it’s like there’s always something wrong with it. Thank God, the doctor says Izzy is in good health, but he’s always kvetching about how he can’t play racquetball the way he used to when he was 30!”

The Buddhist Perspective

In the discourse known as the Mangala Sutta, the Buddha declares gratitude (in Pali, katannuta) to be one of the highest blessings—one that plays a key role in Buddhist ethics. Thus, in Verse 8, we read, “Reverence, humility, contentment, bearing gratitude and opportune hearing of the Dhamma; this is Blessing Supreme.” [Nalanda Institute; http://nalanda.org.my/e-library/mangalasutta/verse8.php]

Phillip Moffit—a former publishing executive who became an ordained vipassana (insight) meditation teacher—has many wise things to say about gratitude, and he merits a lengthy quotation:

            “The Buddha taught that every human birth is precious and worthy of gratitude. In one of his well-known analogies, he said that receiving a human birth is [rarer] than the chance that a blind turtle floating in the ocean would stick its head through a small hoop. He would often instruct a monk to take his ground cloth into the forest, sit at the base of a tree, and begin “gladdening the heart” by reflecting on the series of fortunate circumstances that had given the monk the motivation and ability to seek freedom through understanding the dharma.

            Practicing mindfulness of gratitude consistently leads to a direct experience of being connected to life and the realization that there is a larger context in which your personal story is unfolding. Being relieved of the endless wants and worries of your life’s drama, even temporarily, is liberating. Cultivating thankfulness for being part of life blossoms into a feeling of being blessed, not in the sense of winning the lottery, but in a more refined appreciation for the interdependent nature of life. It also elicits feelings of generosity, which create further joyHaving access to the joy and wonderment of life is the antidote to feelings of scarcity and loss. It allows you to meet life’s difficulties with an open heart. The understanding you gain from practicing gratitude frees you from being lost or identified with either the negative or the positive aspects of life, letting you simply meet life in each moment as it rises. (Phillip Moffitt http://www.lifebalanceinstitute.com/dharmawisdom/articles/selfless-gratitude-0)

            Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the abbot of San Diego County’s Metta Forest Monastery, makes an important distinction in discussing gratitude. There is, on the one hand, “appreciation of a general sort”—for example, the way we might appreciate our warm, cozy house in the winter. On the other hand, there is “gratitude in particular”, which the Buddha always linked with our response to kindness. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu puts it,

            “You feel indebted to the people who helped you because you sense how easily they might have denied that help, and how difficult your life might have been if that’s what they had chosen to do. Your parents, for instance, didn’t have to raise you, or arrange for someone else to raise you; they could have aborted you or left you to die. So the fact that you’re alive to read this means that somebody chose, again and again, to help you when you were helpless. Sensing that element of choice is what creates your sense of debt.” http://shambhalasun.com/sunspace/?p=19864

            In Pali, the word for “grateful”—kataññu—literally means “to have a sense of what was done”—as in, acts of kindness that were done in our behalf (Davids & Steeds, 1993). Thanissaro Bhikkhu teaches that those who have shown us kindness are owed not merely appreciation, but a debt of gratitude. For example, “…the way to repay a teacher’s compassion and sympathy in teaching you is to apply yourself to learning your lessons well.” Similarly, it is not enough merely to “appreciate” that your parents taught you to be a kind person—you must repay the debt of gratitude to your parents by being kind to others. (http://shambhalasun.com/sunspace/?p=19856).

            Now, in contrast to katannuta (gratitude), we have akatannuta or ingratitude. The Buddhist monk, the Venerable Nyanadassana, defines akatannuta as “…not knowing or recognizing what has been done…for one’s benefit.” So why do some develop this negative attitude? Nyanadassana opines that,

            “There are many reasons but the four most important ones why ingratitude arises are: 1. failure to recognize a benefit as a benefit; 2.taking benefits for granted; 3. egotism; [and] 4. forgetfulness. There are some people who do not regard life itself as a benefit. Hence, they don’t feel grateful to their parents for bringing them into the world…similarly, there are people who don’t regard knowledge or education or culture as benefits. So they do not feel grateful towards their teachers…They may even feel resentful…This attitude is, of course, very widespread in society today. People tend to think that everything is due to them.” http://www.buddhistelibrary.org/library/view.php?adpath=360)

            We see these forms of ingratitude in nearly everything Izzy complains about, including his total lack of appreciation for his parents (and the largesse they left him); his resentment toward those he sees as “better off” than he; and his strong sense of entitlement. In many ways, Izzy fits the description of the proverbial person “…who was born on third base and believes he must have hit a triple!” And because Izzy seems incapable of appreciating all that he has, and all that has been given to him, he has also denied himself “access to the joy and wonderment of life.”

The Stoic Perspective  

One of our opening epigrams is from Epicurus: “Any man who does not think that what he has is more than ample is an unhappy man, even if he is master of the whole world.” This teaching has obvious application to our unfortunate friend, Izzy, whose nearly total lack of gratitude has indeed left him a very “unhappy man” indeed.

            Epicurus was actually not a Stoic in the strict sense; rather, he was the founder of a competing school of philosophy, contemporaneous with the Stoics. Epicureanism and Stoicism had many beliefs in common, but held different attitudes toward our participation in the larger community. Whitney J. Oates, in contrasting Stoicism with Epicureanism, tells us that, “The two systems are alike in that they attempt to give men peace and inner calm.” But whereas Epicureanism recommended “…a retirement into the garden, in order to gain that peace,” the Stoics maintained “…that the peace must be found in the midst of the world’s confusions for, after all, all men are brothers.” (The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers, Modern Library edition, p. xxiv.) In this sense, the Stoics have something in common with Judaism’s Hasidim, who believe that one can worship God in everyday life, even amidst the hurly-burly of the market place.

            Notwithstanding these differences, the quote from Epicurus–“Any man who does not think that what he has is more than ample is an unhappy man…”—is quintessentially Stoic in spirit. Indeed, gratitude is one of the most important values in Stoic philosophy, though it is often given short shrift in discussions of Stoicism.

            We see the importance of gratitude when Marcus Aurelius begins his Meditations with a litany of “thank you” notes. Marcus thanks everybody from his paternal grandfather to the gods! For example:

Courtesy and serenity of temper I first learnt to know from my grandfather Verus…Manliness without ostentation I learnt from what I have heard and remember of my father…My mother set me an example of piety and generosity…”

            As Farquharson puts it, these notes of thanks comprise “…a personal acknowledgment of lessons learned and good gifts received from the men and women who seemed…to have had the most influence on his life…” (op cit. p. 95).

            In this respect, Marcus Aurelius is a kind of “anti-Izzy!”

            Similarly, Seneca tells us, “It is in no man’s power to have whatever he wants; but he has it in his power not to wish for what he hasn’t got, and cheerfully make the most of the things that do come his way.” He writes these words in a letter (CXXIII) to his younger friend, Lucilius, having returned home after a long and tiring journey. Seneca notes that, “…I’m in bed, recovering from my fatigue, and making the best of [the] slowness on the part of the cook…” adding, “…whatever kind of meal is on the way is going to beat an inaugural banquet for enjoyment.” Seneca here demonstrates that our sense of fulfillment and satisfaction is largely a matter of our perspective; and that we can indeed be grateful even when life is not providing us with banquets. (Of course, few of us are fortunate enough to have our own cook!). In another letter, Seneca quotes a fragment attributed to the moralist, Publilius Syrus (1st century BCE): “The poor lack much, the greedy everything.” This maxim may serve as a synopsis of the Stoic view of gratitude, as well as a sad commentary on people like Izzy.

            We have already discussed some of Cicero’s writings on “old age”, and our epigram (“No deprivation is any trouble if you do not miss what you have lost”) is drawn from Cicero’s essay titled, “The Pleasures of Old Age.” There, Cicero sets out to discredit the notion that the elderly are less capable of enjoyment than the young. (Here we think of Izzy’s petulant complaint that he can no longer play racquetball the way he did when he was 20 years younger!). Cicero concedes that when it comes to sexual pleasure, old age is at a disadvantage; e.g., “…let us admit that youth exceeds age in its enjoyment of this particular kind of pleasure.” But then Cicero quickly shifts perspective to see a deeper kind of pleasure in old age. He writes,

            “When its campaigns of sex, ambition, rivalry, quarrelling, and all the other passions are ended, the human spirit returns to live within itself—and is well off. There is supreme satisfaction to be derived from an old age which has knowledge and learning to feed upon….surely the satisfactions of the mind are greater than all the rest!” (“On Old Age” in Selected Works)

            Indeed, for the Stoics, we might summarize the “flourishing life” in this way: We live best when we strive to gather knowledge; live in harmony with Nature; act in an ethical manner; and experience gratitude for whatever blessings life has given us.

Synthesis and Commentary

Mark Twain once quipped that, “A self-made man is about as likely as a self-laid egg.” Indeed, as Rabbi Byron L. Sherwin and Rabbi Seymour J. Cohen have noted, “Gratitude to God is an acknowledgment that no one is self-made.” (p. 15, italics added).

The French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville, in his excellent book, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, has this to say about gratitude:

“What gratitude teaches us…is that there is also such a thing as joyful humility, or humble joy, humble because it knows it is not its own cause…and, knowing this, rejoices all the more…” (op cit, p. 135).

Gratitude, indeed, may be the deepest wisdom. As Epicurus puts it, “The fool’s life is empty of gratitude and full of fears…” While we won’t condemn Izzy as a “fool”—after all, as Albert Ellis would remind us, labeling someone in that way does injustice to the person’s humanity and potential for change— many of Izzy’s ideas and attitudes are certainly foolish. For example, Izzy’s grumbling that he hasn’t had a vacation in two years would strike many hard-working, or unemployed, Americans as laughable self-pity! The Buddhist sages would call Izzy’s gripe a form of upadana—a “grasping onto things” (Ajahn Chah, Living Dhamma, p. 36). The Stoics would regard it as weak-kneed, self-indulgence. The Rabbis of the Talmud would simply be mystified (as in, “What is this vacation thing?”), while our modern rabbis would call it “kvetching”, plain and simple!

Perhaps, as Epicurus’ saying suggests, there is an underlying fear in Izzy’s litany of complaints. In our previous chapter, we discussed the fear of death, and how it may be repressed, denied, or acted out through various defensive maneuvers—as we saw with Daniel’s mid-life affair (Chapter 7). Constant complaining about what one lacks may also serve a defensive function—it fends off anxiety about one’s own mortality, and focuses one’s ire and energy on “those other people”, who have “everything.” In Izzy’s case, complaining also fends off the question, “Why is it that I can’t seem to find real happiness?” by laying the blame on “those other people” such as Izzy’s parents. Ironically, the cause of Izzy’s inability to find happiness is…Izzy! The medieval philosopher, Solomon ibn Gabirol, sums up Izzy’s predicament very succinctly: “[He] who seeks more than he needs, hinders himself from enjoying what he has.” And there are few more effective ways of avoiding constructive action than complaining about our many woes…

About the authorRonald W. Pies MD is Professor of Psychiatry and Lecturer on Bioethics & Humanities, SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY. He also teaches psychiatry at Tufts University in Boston. Dr. Pies is the author, most recently, of The Three-Petalled Rose (iUniverse); Psychiatry on the Edge (Nova Publishing), and the novel, The Director of Minor Tragedies (iUniverse). Dr. Pies lives outside Boston with his wife, Nancy.