Archive for March, 2013

Arete Vs. The Common Cold (Day 27 of 100)

Posted in Agathos, arete, Homeric, Stoicism with tags , , , , , on March 30, 2013 by Joe Callahan
Nicolas_Poussin_-_The_Plague_at_Ashdod_-_WGA18274

Nicolas Poussin -The Plague at Ashdod

Recently I took a short trip and brought back some form of viral or bacterial life as a souvenir.  I was down with an ugly cold for over a week.  Since I am in the thick of my “100 days of practice” effort it was not the best timing.  I adjusted my activities to my condition.  Some days my martial practice was limited to light internal work.  Brain fog limited my Go studies to reading commentaries of games.  Business didn’t suffer too much as I work from a home office anyway.  I could keep up a minimal appearance of productivity.  None of my practices during this week of plague really advanced my skill and knowledge all that much.  That’s alright as the main point of this hundred day exercise is to build habits.  The object is to further set these practices as natural daily occurrences.  So, at least I kept going.

But (there had to be a “but”) some things did suffer.  I found it very difficult to stay with some of the mental practices (psychological, philosophical, spiritual, whatever term you prefer).  It wasn’t that I didn’t continue with things like meditation or self-evaluative practices from Stoicism.  I simply had more difficulty believing they mattered.  In fact, I had difficulty maintaining the belief that the whole 100 days of practice exercise mattered.  I think only anticipation of a healthy dose of shame served as deterrent to tossing it all.

Being ill depresses me.  Of course, nobody enjoys being sick but something as minor as the flu doesn’t usually evoke waves of existential disgust and despair.  So what’s the problem?

The reaction is an irrational one.  It is a learned and not always conscious response.  Beginning in my mid to late twenties I went through an extended period where my health was not great.  It seemed like a perfect storm of injuries, developed allergies, fatigue, stresses and a general dark night of the soul.  A severe case of pneumonia (stupidly acquired by wandering about in freezing weather after a bit of drunken revelry) helped get the avalanche rolling downhill.  Frequent colds and bouts of bronchitis, chronic pain issues, odd neurological events and a generally depressed state were the norm for a period of more years than I care to think about.  I underwent a lot of inconclusive testing for all kinds of nasty things.

How I eventually pulled out of that mess is a whole other post (s).  The quick version is a combination of major lifestyle changes, a long reevaluation of my psychological/philosophical outlook, and lots and lots of kung fu/chi gung.  But that long stretch of feeling ill and demoralized still remains in memory.  When I get sick it begins to feel like nothing has really changed.  That in turn feels like a failure.

I know that is a perception and not reality.  But that intellectual understanding doesn’t always reach the emotional core.  It remains a struggle.

Agathos, the “good” or worthy in life, is the core concept of what I write about here.  For the ancient Greeks what was good, worthy, beautiful was demonstrable.  It was shown through arête, observable skill or excellence.  Arête can be physical (athletic feats, artistry) or intellectual (great strategist, a reputation for wisdom or fairness) but regardless it was shown directly through one’s actions.  Aristotle spoke of arête as acquired by developing habits until a given behavior, skill, virtue becomes a permanent character trait.  That is my desired outcome in committing to one hundred days of practice.  So what happens if personal baggage can so easily interfere with the demonstration of arête?  What is the antidote when our own deeply formed emotional patterns sap even the desire to be agathos?

The Stoics taught that many things in life, including health, are often outside of our control.  Our characters are the result of choices we make about what is within our control.  So, the ability to lead a worthy life was not dependent on unpredictable externals like wealth, fame, health and so on.  In the Stoic school of thought these externals were “preferred indifferents” meaning we may like them but they don’t really determine our ability to lead the “good” life.  Eudaimonia (happiness, thriving) doesn’t require externals.

I’ve reminded myself of all that over the past several days.  It’s helpful to a degree.  Sometimes a rational understanding that we can choose how we perceive events isn’t enough to push past emotions especially very old, deep set ones.   What then?  I was reminded of an interview I heard years ago with film writer/director John Milius.  He was speaking of the difficulties in filming his desert epic “The Wind and The Lion” with Sean Connery.  They had bad weather, illness and injury on the set, lots of equipment failures, generally lousy conditions.  He said that he reminded himself and others that when they looked back years later they wouldn’t remember how they felt.  They’d only remember what they did, what they accomplished.  There is a lot of truth in that I believe.  I can think of examples in my own life.

So, where philosophy fails to rally me maybe there is only the primal human need for arête.  When I look back at life really all I will think about it is what I did or didn’t do.  It’s probably the only thing that will matter much.  The fact I felt ill or depressed on a given day won’t mean a thing.  The original agathoi, the figures that appear in the Homeric epics, often come across as obstinate and even irrational in pursuit of their own ends.  Maybe though they knew a truth I have to keep in mind.  When in doubt try to demonstrate arête.  When feeling pain or fatigue or sadness try to demonstrate arête.  Our presence in the world is defined by our actions in it.  Our effort to live as agathos is what sends out ripples in the pond.  Phantasms we experience are not what will remain.

The Hazards Of Morning (Day 6 of 100)

Posted in Agathos, arete, Stoicism with tags , , , on March 9, 2013 by Joe Callahan

11954238771564788701johnny_automatic_sun_woodcut.svg.med

I’m not a morning person and never have been.  My preference would be to stay up until 1-2 am and then get up around 9-10 am.  That probably isn’t a healthy pattern.  Also, activities like school and work have always been inconsiderately scheduled at ungodly morning times.  A long-ago acquaintance who served in the Marine Corps spoke of being awoken every morning in the early hours.  I observed that he must have grown used to it.  He said no, but he learned to accept it.  There is a nice distinction there that I have always remembered.  I accept that there is value (or necessity) in not being a night owl but I’ve never embraced it.  These days I work from a home office in a consulting/contracting capacity.  As much as I like the setup it hasn’t necessarily been good for me.  There isn’t much motivation to rise with the sun. I only have to make sure I am awake and functional to answer emails and calls during business hours.  It appeals to my baser impulses.

When I DO get myself to sleep earlier and get an earlier start to the day I feel quite good.  I find my day is usually more productive. There is a classic case of cognitive dissonance going on here.  I’m aware that if I push myself to be morning guy I’ll be all the better for it.  But in the moment when I decide what to do next it doesn’t sound like such a grand idea after all.  Aristotle would likely have called it Akrasia.  I don’t think I’m the only one who has ever had difficulty with this conflict.  Even so venerable a Stoic figure as Marcus Aurelius had to steel himself to face the morning (Meditations 2:1 and 5:1 for instance).

I’m especially aware of this now because of the goals I set for 100 days of practice.  If my day begins with the rest of the world already in motion I don’t have the time to focus myself with the mental practices I am trying to make a habit.  The kind of mental exercise that prepares one for the day, like Marcus’ review of attitude and what the day will bring, go out the window if I wake up to find I already need to respond to a message.  Also, exercise and my commitment to some daily practice in my martial art suffer with this pattern.  If I am going to the school then evening practice works well enough because I am with others.  Evening practice on my own is often a little lame.  Fatigue sets in, there’s dinner to be had or some other distraction beckons and the practice lacks focus and energy.  I know if I leave time and work out in the morning it’s a much higher quality practice.  But…well…cognitive dissonance tends to strike again.

This is part of the value of doing something like this 100 day program of building habitual practices.  It brings to light (or reminds me) of weaknesses in my outlook or approach to my affairs.  Obviously the goal is to build arête through the habits and skills that make up the program.  But sticking to a committed structure for daily life leaves less room for excuses and illusions.  You know when you aren’t walking the walk because it can be easily assessed at the end of the day.

The Homeric epics give us the earliest examples of individuals in pursuit of the arête ideal.  The heroes of the Iliad and the Odyssey weren’t always too big on deep self-analysis.  The ideal of a more detached, logical view of one’s life didn’t come until later in the Greek world.  But the Homeric world certainly did understand the necessity of walking the walk.  Its hard to fake it when you’re on the plains before the walls of Troy.  Arete in its most basic form has always been about concrete action and the measurable results we create.  Without that there is no foundation.  If getting there means changing some sleep patterns then that’s a small price to pay.

One Hundred Days Of Practice

Posted in Agathos, arete with tags , , , on March 2, 2013 by Joe Callahan

Golden Flower Meditation Aristotle said that excellence is not an act but a habit.   It is the result of ongoing practice, a pattern of behavior rather than a single effort of will.  Just how much practice is required for something to become habitual?  How long for some excellence (arête) to become a natural part of ourselves?

Malcolm Gladwell wrote that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to truly master a complex activity.  In order to reach that rather daunting figure one would have to build some disciplined habits along the way.   There are lots of numbers offered through history and in more recent psychology.   These seek to tell us how much time and effort is required to make something a true habit.

There is a pop psychology meme that floats around offering 20-something days as sufficient to establish a habit.  I’m not sure where that originated but I find it unconvincing.  Three weeks isn’t much time to change patterns and overcome resistances.  According to the Bible, the prophets of old spent 40 days and nights out in the desert.  Similarly, the Buddha was said to have meditated beneath the bhodi tree for 49 days until he attained enlightenment.  Then again, devoted wilderness ascetics may not represent a norm in human behavior.  A UK study published in The European Journal of Social Psychology cited 66 days.  That might seem helpful until you read that the average was taken from a range of 18 to 254 days.

Some years ago in my study of Chinese martial arts and Taoist concepts I came across another number.  100 days of training comes from Taoist Chi Gung practice.  Specifically, I found it in reading Thomas Cleary’s translation of The Secret of the Golden Flower.  This text of Taoist meditation introduced me to one hundred days as a number for building a foundation of continued meditation, health and martial study.   It was a number mentioned by my Sifu as well.  Over time I have returned to one hundred day periods of practice and training when I have felt the need to give myself a swift kick in the right direction.  Some of these practice periods have met with great success.  Some……well….not so much.

I’m feeling like it is time to go once more unto the breach and commit myself to a one hundred day period.  I want to establish (or reestablish) habits that are part of my personal efforts towards arête and agathos.  I am perhaps mixing cultural metaphors in using a Chinese Taoist method to attain a Greco-Roman ideal.  I’m comfortable with being shameless that way.

I’m trying to keep it simple.  Too many goals and too many daily items in the program just add opportunity for things to break down and lose focus.

  • Daily martial/Chi Gung practice.  This doesn’t mean a killer workout every day.   Some days are hard conditioning and training while some days focus on study of technique and application.  Some days are external and some are internal.  It’s a balance but the desired habit is practice as part of daily life.
  • The game of Go.  My study of the game is erratic.  Consequently, so is my progress.  Some period of time will be found each day to play and/or study games, patterns, etc.
  • Mental exercises from Stoicism.  I’ve talked about being influenced by the Hellenistic philosophical school of Stoicism in this blog.  I want to continue with the daily practices such as those in the Stoic Week experiment I described here and here.
  • Business.  Isn’t a business a daily practice by necessity?  It is in the sense you have to show up and do the work.  That can be just a routine and not a habit that promotes arête.  The habit here is to take some time each day to refine and build through conscious knowledge building, networking, exploring new revenue opportunities, etc.

It may seem like these things don’t all really connect as a coherent program.  But there is a way that they are all unified in what I hope the practice period to accomplish.  All of these contribute to the study of strategy (and or tactics) as part of the conduct of myself in my environment.  They collectively contribute to physical and mental expressions of arete and the agathos ideal.  At least they do for me as I choose to live it.

I’ll talk about the progress (or lack thereof) as the days progress.  If nothing else, it gives me something to write about.