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Completing Stoic Week

Please remember to complete these questionnaires following Stoic Week!

It’s really important that we collect data from participants in Stoic Week.  Please help by filling out these online forms again after you read the Handbook.  It will only take a few minutes.  Previous participants have told us they find it very interesting and useful to fill out the questionnaires and monitor their own progress.

Click on each link below in turn to open the form in a new browser window.  Please remember to use exactly the same name and email address for all questionnaires and to click “submit” when you’ve entered your responses.  You should receive an email confirming your responses for each form, within the next week.  This will also include some interesting notes on your scores and comparisons with previous student averages for the SABS.

  1. Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS)
    This scale was developed by our research team and has gone through various revisions.  The items have been checked with academics for their relevance to Stoicism and revised based on feedback from hundreds of previous participants.
  2. The Flourishing Scale (FS)
    This brief scale provides a measure of general psychological wellbeing, such as your sense of having a meaningful life.
  3. Scale of Positive and Negative Experiences (SPANE)
    This brief scale measure a range of different emotions, like joy, contentment, anger, sadness, etc.
  4. Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS)
    This is another brief scale, designed to measure your overall level of contentment with life.

If possible, please also complete the brief course evaluation form as well to give us your feedback on the course.

Thanks very much for taking the time to do this!

Christmas Break & A Stoic Santa

I hope you’ve enjoyed the articles that have been featured on the blog over the last year. Posts will resume again in the New Year. Remember that if you would like to write for the blog, get in touch with your ideas.

For this time of year, thoroughly recommended are Paul Bryson’s reflections on what a Stoic Christmas would be like from last year: A Stoic Christmas Story.

And, on the off chance that anyone would like to scare their children about Santa Claus coming, they could do worse than use this picture of a Stoic Santa…

A Stoic Santa

 

 

 

 

 

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.

On the Road with Seneca

On the Road with Seneca -

Personal Reflections on the Value of Stoicism

Jurgens Pieterse

TheRoad

In the past year Seneca has become my beloved uncle living far away, writing letters to me in a very personal manner. Every day I find time to sit down in the midst of a busy work schedule to have my daily dose of reading Seneca’s letters. I could easily step into the shoes of a student, because Seneca’s writing is not just filled with a universal appeal, his advice is timeless. The main themes that Seneca addresses in his letters are as apt today as they were 2000 years ago. Seneca writes about life and highlights the extraordinary potential of a life lived fully up until the very last breath.

I am leading a happy life, moderately successful and with a list of achievements in my career. To me Stoicism is not a coping mechanism or a way to avert depression and melancholy nor an intellectual means to numb my feelings against the onslaught of Fortune. Through Seneca I discovered a Stoicism that aims to uplift man to embrace a higher order of Supreme Good. Virtue is the eternal wings that carry wise men above the sorrows and woes of normal life. This type of Stoicism requires a healthy dose of self-criticism to diagnose the vice that we have accepted as habit in our lives. Ascending on the path of Stoicism requires dedication that puts virtue above anything else and also a relentless commitment to cut away vice from our lives. Seneca provides balance urging us to accept with humility where we are but also to strive towards greatness.

Being confronted with a compounded and multi-layered corpus of writing can be daunting even for my engineer’s brain, which is used to processing volumes of information. In order to get a better grip of Seneca’s writing I started a document which I called my “Index to Seneca’s writing”. In this index I re-ordered the themes that Seneca addresses in alphabetical order with the aim of finding the core of his teachings while creating an easy reference for further reflection or application.

So far, this method seems to be most useful and I doubt if I would have made the same progress if I had just read the letters. It is an easy pitfall to attach the first meaning that comes to mind to what is written, rather than searching a bit deeper for the real intent behind the writing. Initially, taking what was written at face value became my constraint, preventing me from progress; where progress is defined as a marked change in my perception of the world I inhabit with my senses. The wheels of progress started to turn only when the quest for wisdom became primary.

Although Stoicism stands in its own right as an independent philosophy, in a modern day context I found complementary associations with other disciplines I have adopted into my life. Tai Chi, as a martial art, for example also places the focus on the practitioner rather than the environment. You must find your own balance and centre yourself irrespective of who your adversary is. The same applies to Stocism; the focus is inward irrespective of life circumstances, difficulties or concerns. The inner self is the stillness of the axle around which the wheel turns. I found affinity between the Rosicrucian teaching of the duality of existence and the importance of virtue. I was intrigued to find traces of a belief in reincarnation in the writings of Seneca writing: “Death, which we fear and shrink from, merely interrupts life, but does not steal it away; the time will return when we shall be restored to the light of day; and many men would object to this, were they not brought back in forgetfulness of the past. But I mean to show you later, with more care, that everything which seems to perish merely changes. Since you are destined to return, you ought to depart with a tranquil mind.” Stocism can indeed augment many existing beliefs, philosophies and understandings if those in turn are built upon universal values.

I am by far not at the zenith of practical Stoicism but I have gained several benefits that seem to provide sustainable value. A focus on virtue has brought a clarity to mind that is far different from the cluttered or defuse cogitation that previously characterised my thinking. Emotional upheavals seem to have become fruitless energy wasters and once dissipated sobriety steps in which gives me a quiet confidence in any conference room debate or crises.

I no longer get stuck in fears and angst associated with expectations, instead my focus on what is within my control becomes like a sword that can be wielded with precision to cut to the bare bones of a situation. Potential conflict situations with staff who report to me gave way to constructive discussions by remaining mindful of what is within our collective sphere of influence making sure my words and deeds are in accord. I look at the wellbeing of each team member aligning each person’s specific purpose with the greater purpose we hope to achieve. I can continue to list the many advantages that Stoicism has brought to my leadership style and personal life, however, these are but shadows of the real gains that I received. Business can easily become the aim in itself and an enemy to philosophy.

The Stoicism of Seneca goes beyond career and healthy living. Stoicism provides me with a means to address the universal concerns that so easily torture one’s mind. Gaining perspective on old age and death brings more presence and alacrity to the present moment. Stoicism helps me to find harmony between body and soul. In my personal life I have become immune to the prompting of modern marketing campaigns that appeal to the desires of the flesh to act on impulse rather than from reason. I learned the value of true friendship, when to withdraw from society and when to engage with society. Finding that inner harmony requires mindfulness of a deeper awareness of Supreme Good and subtle realignment of the eternal soul with the eternal nature of virtue.

This is the true value of Stoicism, to understand the nature of the soul: “When a soul rises superior to other souls, when it is under control, when it passes through every experience as if it were of small account, when it smiles at our fears and at our prayers, it is stirred by a force from heaven. A thing like this cannot stand upright unless it be propped by the divine. Therefore, a greater part of it abides in that place from whence it came down to earth.”

The true value of Stoicism is to attempt to clothe all acts with virtue by establishing the soul’s role in its rightful place and experiencing joy that springs forth from the elation of spirit. This does not exempt anybody from pain or hurt but it gives the desire for progress. As Seneca puts it, progress is not constant by default and we are not raised overnight to lofty heights. We must expect times when we slip backwards but ultimate progress is made if “we do not slacken in the zeal and faithful application” of Stoic principles. I have seen glimpses of the promises of Stoicism; this insight urges me to hasten with great zeal towards infinite beauty and connection with the divine. Under Seneca’s tutelage I am advancing my true human nature steadily towards becoming more and more industrious, creative, honourable and free.

About the author: Jurgens Pieterse has a Masters degree in Industrial Engineering and is an Information manager at the Parliament of South Africa. He lives in Cape Town and is married with three children. He is a distinguished Toastmaster since 2009 and has delivered several public presentations. He devoted himself to studying the 4th Way teachings of GI Gurdjieff and Rosicrucian philosophy. To maintain a healthy life style Jurgens practice Tai Chi as sport. Finding a strong correspondence between his existing philosophical views and Stocism, Jurgens studies and applies Stoicism in his personal life