Archive for Philosophy

Stoic Week may be bad for my health.

Posted in Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , on October 24, 2016 by Joe Callahan

L0011744 Doctor and patient, 1509

 

Stoic week seems to be bad for my health.

From the organizers’ website: “Stoic Week is an annual online event in which people from all over the world attempt to live like a Stoic for seven days”. Briefly, a group of academics and psychotherapy professionals based in the UK organized the event each year. The object is to see if people would find it useful to follow some of the daily practices of Greco-Roman Stoicism for a week.  In turn, the participants give feedback via questionnaires over the net.

I have participated in this event each year since its beginning.  I always find it interesting as I learn something new about my own personal philosophical practices.  My 2012 Stoic Week experience was marked by a trip to the emergency room due to a freak eye accident.  I chose to view it as an opportunity to walk the walk with regard to Stoicism.  Now, for 2016, I’ve come down with the worst cold I’ve had in years.

A cold may not sound like much of a challenge to the practice of Stoic Week (or one’s philosophical practice at any time).  Unfortunately, I have a long history of colds dropping straight into my chest and causing bronchial woes.  Basically, a bad cold can lead to many days (if not weeks) of violent coughing where I sound like Val Kilmer playing Doc Holiday in Tombstone.  Albuterol is my friend.

One full day of Stoic Week was a complete washout.  Too tired, feeling too ill, too preoccupied by the constant hacking.  The next day I was back in the saddle with the exercises but I was left wondering how significant a failure (if indeed it was a failure) that sick day constituted.  If I did keep in mind a Stoic acceptance of things beyond our control and awareness that illness is a dis-preferred indifferent with regard to a “good” life wasn’t that enough?  Or is the simple truth I just dropped the ball because I felt lousy?

I think it is more the latter.  Yes I felt unwell and the coughing fits were distracting. Still, it’s not as though I was James Stockdale lying in his cell in the Hanoi Hilton with broken bones reminding himself of Epictetus’ teachings.  All I had to do was a little reading and some mental exercises.  Mind you, I’m not engaging in too much self-flagellation over this.  To get over-wrought about a setback is not in keeping with Stoic practices either.  But it is worth engaging in self-analysis and using the experience as a reminder not to make the same error in the future.

No, I don’t really see causality between Stoic Week and my physical woes.  But next year I think I will remind myself of “Amor fati” when things start just in case I get hit by a bus or develop a rare disease.  If something does occur I will try again to embrace is as part of my personal training.

Heavy Rain and Hagakure

Posted in Agathos, Martial Arts, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , , on June 10, 2014 by Joe Callahan
A little rain didn't deter the Seven Samurai....though musket fire was problematic.

A little rain didn’t deter the Seven Samurai….though musket fire was problematic.

Today we had a sudden heavy downpour in the Boston area.  I was already in my car when it began so I escaped the worst of it.  I did have to make a stop at a local establishment.  One of the shop owners offered to escort me back to my car with an umbrella.  Great customer service!  Still, I declined.  It was a short dash and, really, it’s rain not lava falling from the skies.  When I was back behind the wheel I was suddenly reminded of a passage from Hagakure (Hidden Leaves) written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a Samurai of the early 18th century.

There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and
run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you
are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding
extends to everything.

It is true that the author tends to think the universal solution to all of life’s problems is drawing one’s sword and rushing forward to die well.  I prefer a more tactical approach myself.  I think here he is suggesting more that when faced with the inevitable, things beyond one’s control, that it is best to recognize them and accept that the soaking may be unavoidable but likely not fatal.  Discomfort does not equal death.  Better to simply get where you are going and let the rest take care of itself.  A drenched Samurai is still a Samurai.

New Year’s Resolutions?

Posted in Agathos, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , , on January 2, 2014 by Joe Callahan

I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions. I’ve learned the hard way that changes are incremental, habitual and not the result of sweeping grand proclamations (I’m going to get in FANTASTIC shape and save the planet and learn to speak fluent French!!). Still, if you want to make some resolutions to follow in the new year you could do far worse than these from the Greek and Roman ancients.

http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/stoicism/a/123007NYResolve.htm

 

Dante, Grief, Meaning, and Why Philosophy Belongs to Those Who Live It.

Posted in Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , on December 22, 2013 by Joe Callahan

Gustave_Doré_-_Dante_Alighieri_-_Inferno_-_Plate_1_(I_found_myself_within_a_forest_dark...)

I write frequently about the use of ancient philosophy as a practical guideline for living.  Because of my interest in this I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the current state of philosophy, and the humanities in general, these last few years.  It’s no great insight on my part to observe that most academic philosophy shows little interest in how the discipline may be used to live one’s life.  There are notable exceptions like Pierre Hadot and others but one encounters disappointingly little.  In fact,  there seems to be some animosity (or just simple sneering) at the suggestion that  “old dead men” can offer anything usable today for conducting a good, worthy life.  You can see it in pieces like this and this.  Arguments are made for the continued relevance (and therefore funding) of classics for intellectual development.  But the idea that classical philosophy might still be a living tradition is often dismissed.

Countering this, some amongst the scientism crowd insist that philosophy, literature, art and spirituality have nothing valid to tell us about life and humanity.  Only the scientific method can be the arbiter of truth.  If you spend any time reading debates in places like The Stone column of the NY Times there is heated disagreement over the value and future of the humanities.  Humanities don’t seem to be winning the argument given university cutbacks.  That may account for the defensiveness of some classics scholars when others make use of philosophy without seeking their seal of approval.

I am genuinely glad to see science give us new ways to consider these topics.  I am enthused and fascinated by developments in disciplines like physics and cognitive neuroscience.  Certainly these insights can and should shape how we view the human mind, cosmology, metaphysics, etc.  While I have been very influenced by Greco-Roman Stoicism it would be difficult to claim we should adhere to Stoic physics.  The problem comes with a blanket dismissal of what philosophy, art, spirituality can give us now that science will answer all mysteries.  It is throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater (not to mention it smacks of hubris).

These issues came to mind when I encountered this essay.  The author is a professor of Italian at Bard College who specializes in the study of Dante.  In the article he writes about the unexpected and early death of his pregnant wife.  It is a moving meditation on what a work like The Inferno can give to us in our darkest nights of the soul.  His grief led him to look afresh at material he’d studied and taught.  Now it gave him more than intellectual satisfaction.  It helped to guide him through his own struggles with loss, mortality and meaning.

“I still lived and worked and socialized in the same places and with the same people after my wife’s death as before. And yet I felt that her death exiled me from what had been my life. Dante’s words gave me the language to understand my own profound sense of displacement. More important, it transformed this anguished state into a beautiful image.

After Katherine died, I obsessed for the first time over whether we have a soul, a part of us that outlives our body. The miracle of “The Divine Comedy” is not that it answers this question, but that it inspires us to explore it, with lungo studio e grande amore, long study and great love.”

In the face of such a passage it would be difficult to argue that Dante, as an “old dead guy”, had nothing to offer.  It would be reductionist to brush off the author’s inspiration as a mere cognitive strategy for reducing his pain.  It would be just plain lame to quibble over the real meanings of Dante as expressed through the deconstructionist work of So-and-so.  Work by academic philosophy and scientists can broaden our understanding of our minds, our lives and our world (the old and the new).  For that they have my admiration and gratitude.  But they cannot determine where and how I will find meaning.  Nor can they know how the ideas and images of philosophy, literature and art will guide me to a flourishing life.  For each of us, the knowledge we gain and the understandings we reach are our own regardless of the mechanics by which we attain them.  The Telos, the end goal, is for us alone to determine.  Philosophy belongs to those that use it.  That requires no justification.  As Dante said, just long study and great love.

Stoic Week 2013

Posted in Agathos, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , on November 24, 2013 by Joe Callahan

The Stoa at Athens

Tomorrow marks the start of Stoic Week 2013.  Briefly, a group of academics and psychotherapy professionals based in the UK organized an event last year. The object was to see if people would find it useful to follow some of the daily practices of Greco-Roman Stoicism for a week.  In turn, the participants gave feedback via questionnaires over the net.  I participated in last year’s event and described it here while discussing my general relationship to Stoic philosophy.

“This blog is not specifically about the Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism but I have been influenced by Stoic philosophy and it has a significant place in my writings here about Agathos (what is “good” or worthy in life).  I discovered I’m certainly not alone in feeling that Stoicism has more to offer than is often considered.  Once very popular, for a long time Stoicism went into decline and eventually became misunderstood altogether.  It incorrectly became synonymous with a lack of emotion, just keeping a stiff upper lip.   In recent years there have been a growing number of books, articles, groups and online forums devoted to the Stoic school and how its lessons can be applied to our lives today.  There are some very good reasons for it to make a comeback.  Its teachings of a life in harmony with nature, a reasoned existence and its highly practical advice for ethics and the conduct of life can be a valuable guide for living.”

Participating in the exercises of the week was an interesting experience punctuated by a bit of adventure when I was carted off in an ambulance.  As I describe here I managed to give myself blunt trauma to the face (not my finest moment) and sustained some damage to one eye.  All things considered I came out of it pretty well.  As I noted at the time, remembering the Stoic viewpoint was helpful during that event and the specialist visits that followed.

I will be participating in this year’s Stoic Week.  The handbook lays out a schedule of suggested practices.  I already have some of these, or at least variations, in my daily routine.  But there is something compelling about following these exercises knowing it is in conjunction with a larger group seeking the same experience.  I am not by nature a big joiner but the collective energy (even if only shared via web) is motivating.

When I filled out the initial questionnaires (Satisfaction with Life, Flourishing Scale, etc.) I noticed that my psychological outlook seems to have improved since last year.  I don’t have the forms from last time but I’m certain I presented a more dissatisfied frame of mind.  Over the past year I have continued to follow a mix of practices that include Stoicism as well as Taoist/Buddhist influences from my martial/Chi Gung studies.  Has following a philosophical regimen improved my outlook on life?  It would be nice to give an unqualified yes.  However, part of mindfulness is working to see things as they really are.  I have to recognize that some external conditions in my life are much better than they were a year ago.  That probably accounts for some of the improved outlook on life.  Of course, Stoicism teaches us to maintain equilibrium where externals do not determine our internal state.  I suppose then that my improved mood may be the result of temporary judgments rather than a true maintainable state.  It will be something interesting to contemplate during the week ahead.

Stoic Week and a Trip to the ER

Posted in Agathos, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , , on December 2, 2012 by Joe Callahan

ambulance

About a week ago I wrote about a project called “Stoic Week”.  You can read more about it here.  The quick version is that a group of philosophers, classics scholars and psychologists at the University of Essex in the UK proposed a web based project where people would try to live with the daily practices that were part of the Stoic philosophical school and then share experiences.  The goal, as I understand it, is to consider the value of Stoicism as both a way of life and a therapeutic tool.

I decided to participate in this project and filled out the questionnaires like the Life Satisfaction Survey and began engaging in the daily practices.  I was finding it an interesting experience.  The daily meditations on what lies truly within our control and what doesn’t, what is truly ours and what is impermanent did help lend a kind of calm to my dealings.  Detaching emotions from judgments and observations gave a framework to dealing with work and other stresses.  It all seemed promising and I was enjoying the forum dialogues sharing thoughts and experiences.   Then things went in an unexpected direction.

I’m won’t spend a lot of time on the gory details of the accident that happened Wednesday evening.  Suffice to say, a piece of equipment had a major malfunction, I was hit in the face like a shot from a trebuchet, much bleeding ensued and I ended up in the emergency room.  I had a very long night of cat scans to see if facial bones were broken, multiple tests for eye trauma , stitches for the jagged gash that may give me a cool scar I can tell lies about (something about a bar fight in Amsterdam and a guy with a knife sounds plausible).  I was very fortunate as the eye trauma could have been much worse.  I dodged that bullet by about half an inch.  Now I’m dealing with recovery and some treatments to hopefully prevent any lingering aftereffects.  We’ll see.

What makes my tale of woe relevant is its timing.  When I made my trip to the ER I had committed myself to remain mindful of the practices of Stoicism for the week.  It seemed a good time to practice what I was preaching.  Not trying to draw on those practices in a moment of crisis would mean my interest was rather superficial.  I had lots of time to consider things from the Stoic perspective while lying around waiting for the next test.

If I suffered serious or permanent damage would it alter my ability to lead a good and worthy life?  No, not really.  Had there ever been any logical reason to believe that I would pass through my life as a mortal flesh and blood creature with no injury or illness?  No.  So then did I really have any cause for complaint?

I recognized that no likely result of this accident would prevent me from continuing my business, my practice of martial arts, my studies or anything else I wanted to do.  Some things might have to be adjusted and be inconvenient but that was all about external conditions and not the well-being of my mind or character.  All these thoughts did have a calming effect.

Yo Adrienne.  Externals can't effect my inner state.  No really.  I'm serious.

Yo Adrienne. Externals can’t effect my inner state. No really. I’m serious.

There’s no question that the mental practices of the Stoics were truly helpful in the midst of this pain and distress. However, I’d also be kidding if I said that my use of these practices completely eliminated negative emotions.  There was still anger that such a stupid accident had occurred.  There was still anxiety about the possible results.  There was plenty of stress when I thought about what all of this will cost me with my insurance deductibles.  Since the accident happened I find myself struggling with irritation and depression as I deal with recovery.   Stoic practice definitely has helped but I’m clearly not headed for serene Sagehood yet.

That’s fine.  Even the ancients weren’t sure that achieving pure Sage status was possible.  We are human animals after all and that comes with some hard wired instinctive emotional impulses.  I don’t believe Greek and Roman Stoics really expected to eliminate those completely and render us numb.  They wanted to understand how to minimize negative emotions, channel our impulses productively and lead worthy, preferably tranquil lives.

So, for me, I would say the week of living daily and deeply with Stoic practices and meditations was reasonably successful and useful.  I just would have preferred not to be put to the test quite so dramatically.  But then, as the Stoics taught, preferences are indifferent as they do not alter our ability to live the good and worthy life.

An Experiment in Stoicism and Psychology

Posted in Agathos, arete, Philosophy, stoic, Stoicism with tags , , , on November 23, 2012 by Joe Callahan

Zeno of Citium. Founder of Stoicism.

This blog is not specifically about the Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism but I have been influenced by Stoic philosophy and it has a significant place in my writings here about Agathos (what is “good” or worthy in life).  I discovered I’m certainly not alone in feeling that Stoicism has more to offer than is often considered.  Once very popular, for a long time Stoicism went into decline and eventually became misunderstood altogether.  It incorrectly became synonymous with a lack of emotion, just keeping a stiff upper lip.   In recent years there have been a growing number of books, articles, groups and online forums devoted to the Stoic school and how its lessons can be applied to our lives today.  There are some very good reasons for it to make a comeback.  Its teachings of a life in harmony with nature, a reasoned existence and its highly practical advice for ethics and the conduct of life can be a valuable guide for living.

So, I was interested to run across this upcoming experiment in Stoic living.  According to their blog, a group of academics and psychotherapy professionals recently conducted a group workshop at the University of Exeter on the modern uses of Stoicism.  I’m familiar with the work of some of the participants and have seen their contributions to forums on the topic.  This coming week they have proposed a week of Stoic living with participants invited to give feedback via the web.

There is a limited amount of material from Greek and Roman sources on the practices and exercises of the Stoics.  Some Stoic teachers never wrote anything while others did but their works failed to survive.  Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was simply keeping a journal and never intended for his thoughts to be passed on as instruction to future generations.  We also have to look at what other writers in the Greek and Roman world had to say about the practices and teachings of Stoic philosophers.  Even with those limitations there is enough to have a good idea what they were doing and saying.  So it is interesting to see this attempt to put together a kind of Stoic practice and then experiment with its effectiveness.  It has the potential to be helpful in one’s daily life and also in the practice of psychotherapy.

The group states on its blog that this will be a one week experiment of living daily with a series of practices taken from the Stoic sources.  Some of these are clearly stated in the sources while others seem a bit more like possible interpretations.  That doesn’t really matter as the goal is to see if Stoicism has useful modern applications and not to engage in historical recreation.  Happily, one gets to choose amongst a range of these exercises.  People are invited to submit some questionnaires at the beginning and end of the week (anonymously if you like) to help gather some data about the psychological impact of the experience.  These are not required but I plan on participating anyway just to support the effort.

Some of the week’s practices are things I more or less do anyway so I am not expecting this to be any great hardship.  It may provide a little more structure and focus and should be interesting.  I’ll report on the results and my impressions.