Archive for January, 2011

My Bug-Out Bag And Why I Have One

Posted in Agathos, Self-Reliance with tags , on January 21, 2011 by Joe Callahan

After a recent post on the idea of Askesis I did a review of the contents in my bug-out bag. The plan is to do a little winter practice bug-out with said bag. This led to a discussion with a friend about just why I decided to put together a kit like this. Before explaining why I have a BOB, I’ll explain what it is.

A bug-out bag is simply a pack that has been pre-stocked with what you need to survive for 72 hours while trying to walk out of a disaster area. There are many variations on the bug-out theme and a huge amount of information available on the topic. The bag concept assumes you either don’t have a vehicle or you are forced to abandon it. If you have a vehicle then the range of items you can carry with you goes up significantly. The core idea though is to have what you need, ready to carry on your back. There are also time line variations.  People prepare kits for shorter term like the 24 hour get-home bag and longer term, larger kits if you don’t think you will be coming back or have a very long trek to some safe destination.

Rather than ramble on at length about the items that might go in a BOB I’ll direct you here. There are many sources for info but I think this gentleman has created some of the most thorough and articulate presentations I have found (he even taste tests survival rations!). Needless to say, BOB supplies need to help you stay warm and dry, get fluids, eat and not get lost…. pretty much in that order.  The bag, along with some other gear and supplies, is now a permanent fixture in my car trunk.

I didn’t organize a BOB because I am expecting to face the Zombie Apocalypse or survive the end of the world ala The Road. Sure, I’d try to rise to the occasion if such events occurred but given that I live in a suburb of Boston I’d probably be toast. My game plan for nuclear war is to pour a scotch and wait for the pretty colors. So why bother with preparedness?

No, I’m not preparing for this….I hope.

Originally I was motivated by self-sufficiency. As I’ve discussed in a previous post, I believe finding ways to maintain and increase self-reliance are central to the achievement of άγαθός (agathos) as a personal philosophy. I’m not sure what can foster more self-reliance than the ability to survive and thrive under adverse conditions when societal structures are not in place to make it easy.

As I delved deeper into the topic and began assembling things I needed for the BOB (as well as Bug-IN supplies for home) it all just made sense. While Armageddon may not be at hand there are other considerations. Being stranded in a blizzard, evacuating from other natural disasters, civil unrest, deciding to get out of Dodge if some pandemic is beginning are just some of life’s cheery possibilities. Yes, the likelihood of such things happening is relatively slim but I’m sure the folks in New Orleans and, more recently, Brisbane weren’t thinking disaster was on the menu either. If something were to go awry and you had to get moving in a hurry, do you like the idea of being a refugee with just the clothes on your back and dependent on FEMA for your future? Doesn’t appeal much to me either.

Considering that it just isn’t that expensive and doesn’t require Herculean effort to put together a bag for each family member, I can’t really see a downside. Besides, next time you go camping you’re already packed.

Some of the stuff that goes in the BOB kit

The Electronic Jesuit Behavioral Test

Posted in arete, Philosophy, Stoicism on January 14, 2011 by Joe Callahan

Way back when I was a teen boy in a Catholic prep school I first encountered a meditation technique (prayer if you prefer) that was credited to Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Order. The Examen, as it is called, was a review of conscience where at set times during the day you would reflect on whether or not you were doing a decent job of being true to your beliefs and convictions. While I could never have been described as a good Catholic and chose not to be a Christian I was nevertheless deeply impressed by this kind of devotion.

(There is a clear, thoughtful article on the exercise by a Jesuit here)

Time went by and my own interests and beliefs grew decidedly more philosophical than religious. In student days it became clear from readings in ancient and medieval thought that the Jesuits were not the first to come up with such an exercise. A discipline where the individual examined their behaviors and emotions was in keeping with the Socratic ideal and the exercises of the Stoics. Eastern traditions have their own versions as well.

It really doesn’t matter who came up with the idea. Its a good one. For myself, I often get to the end of the day and look back with dissatisfaction at the points where being άγαθός (agathos) has gone all to hell. The gaffs and missed opportunities can take lots of forms. Maybe it is laziness around martial practice. Maybe it is letting impressions erode my reason and dignitas. Maybe it is some lapse of τιμε (time). It can be any number of things. It seems a little lame after all this time, but I’ve had to conclude that I won’t make it through an entire day without a reminder of being agathos. I need to take stock to make sure I’m not botching it. That’s where the electronic part comes in.

I’ve started setting the alarm on my cell phone to give me a little nudge during the day. When it goes off it reminds me to pause a moment and reflect. What am I doing? How am I striving (or not) for άρετε (arete)?  Am I aware of my thoughts and impressions or are they driving me to unconscious behaviors?  It can also be a reminder of physical practices; breathing, posture, awareness of my surroundings.

Little known fact: Achilles used this same practice at Troy

Sounds a little OCD?  It might seem like a pain or even a little masochistic.  It really isn’t.  Actually I find it gives me a lift.  It awakens and refocuses me.  When that cheesy electronic beep goes off it isn’t like a criticism.  If I am resting then I am resting.  If I am simply enjoying myself with some leisure activity then so be it.  The difference is that I am engaged in those acts consciously and by choice.  I’d prefer to think that someday before I shuffle off this mortal coil I won’t need such a practice aid.  For now, I recommend it.

Askesis – We Live As We Train

Posted in arete, stoic, Stoicism, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on January 8, 2011 by Joe Callahan

If you search the internet for the Greek word Askesis you’ll find many references to religious asceticism.  Given the role of Greek language in early Christianity this isn’t surprising.  Defining Askesis as just a rigorous form of self-denial for spiritual purposes is limiting and doesn’t totally match how earlier Greeks would have understood it. If we take a look at the Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary we find Askesis defined as “practice, training, trade, profession”. More than just denying the self, it refers to training oneself. The Asketes (one who engages in Askesis) is defined as “athlete, hermit, monk”. That is an interesting combination.

Asceticism evokes images of renunciants chanting under freezing waterfalls or wandering the desert in loincloths. While those disciplines have have a real purpose, for the Agathos (the good and worthy individual) the goal is training to live in the world not apart from it.   For the Greek and Roman Stoics Askesis was an exercise that showed “this life event isn’t as bad as I feared it might be”. Stoics would consciously choose to undergo forms of deprivation or meditate on losses, not as a form of masochism or atonement but to discover what was best in themselves.  Their reason and dignity and character was not dependent on externals. If you slept on the bare ground and went hungry for a day or two your internal virtues remained. The exercise taught that what we fear and think we cannot live without is often a phantasm, an impression that really holds no power. That isn’t to say Askesis is a pleasant experience. It may be pretty miserable at the time. But it will not truly harm you. To use the Stoic term, the pain or discomfort is a rejected (non-preferable) indifferent.

In the martial arts world one often hears the old saying “You fight the way you train”. Under stress you will only rise to the absolute bare bones level of skill and conditioning you have reached in your training. The more realistic the training, the more it teaches you to perform under stress and fatigue and pain.  So, the better you will fight when the proverbial feces hits the fan. I believe this principle can be expanded to include everything in life. It is really what Askesis is about. If you have never experienced adversity you have no frame of reference to refer to in future adversity. If you have not tried living your philosophy, walking the walk, how much use will it be to you when confronted with genuine struggle, loss, change? This is what Askesis teaches us. It wakes us up. It shows us what is inside of us (or not) when the veneer of our comfortable daily lives and identities is somehow stripped away. If Aristotle was correct and Arete (excellence) is a product of habits then Askesis is a tool for getting us there.

Again, Askesis doesn’t mean you have to live in a cave and eat only nuts and berries for years. It is the gradual exposure of mind, body and/or spirit to progressive challenges and hardships. This is both to train and also to build the confidence and belief that, yes, I am a person who can deal with these events in my life.

This all was on my mind today as I went for a short hike. There was a light snowfall and daylight was fading. It occurred to me,  what if I had no home I could return to or I was stranded in some fashion? This all assumed I was someplace far more remote and the cellphone wasn’t an option. What if I had to stay there in the forest for the night? Given that I have a bug out bag and other gear in the trunk of my car I knew I would not only live but be pretty comfortable. What if the car was gone? It would be an uncomfortable night but it would be simple enough to build a shelter with dead limbs against one of the rock outcrops and out of the prevailing winds. With the knife I had with me I could cut evergreen boughs. Pile some dead leaves on top of me and I’d be fine. I’d be a little hungry but one night of hunger never killed anyone.

This was, of course, only a mental exercise and a fairly mellow one at that.  It was still important to remind myself that I didn’t need a roof and a warm bed and a plate of food to be who I am. None of those things were required to be Agathos.