Archive for Training

Stoic Week 2015 – An Experiment in Living Philosophy

Posted in Agathos, arete, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , , on October 7, 2015 by Joe Callahan

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is the focus for this year’s Stoic Week.

While this blog is not all about Stoic philosophy there is a clear Stoic influence in my thoughts and writing. One could do much worse than taking up Stoicism as a practice to cultivate Agathos, the good and worthy, in oneself.
To that end I have participated in an online based event called Stoic Week each year since its beginning. The event starts in early November. Details can be found here. Also you can find info on the Stoicism Group on Facebook. I’ll let the description speak for itself.

Stoic Week is an online and international event taking place this year from Monday 2nd to Sunday 8th November. 2015 will be the fourth year in a row that Stoic Week has run. Anyone can participate by following the daily instructions in the Stoic Week 2015 Handbook, which will be published online. You will be following the practice of Stoic philosophers for seven days. You will also be discussing the experience of adapting Stoic ideas for modern living with other participants in our online forums. The aims of the course are to introduce the philosophy so that you can see how it might be useful in your own life and to measure its psychological benefits. This year’s theme is The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the most widely-read of all Stoic authors.

The event is put on by the good people at Stoicism Today and the University of Exeter in the UK. The event was first conceived by an interesting mix of Classical scholars, Philosophers and Psychologists. The object was to see how well Stoicism could be used as a method of living in the present day.

The exercises that make up daily practice for the week-long event are familiar to me. Some are part of my daily regimen already. But I appreciate the event as a nudge to focus my practice (if not get it jump started again after I’ve lost steam). I also enjoy the collaborative effort. I have some friends to discuss these matters with but not that many and not acting in coordinated fashion.

Previous Stoic Weeks have been marked by Stoic learning opportunities like smashing myself in the eye and going to the ER. This year I plan on something more subdued, using the focused exercises of Stoic Week to help me with some personal projects. More on that later.

For someone looking to cultivate the virtues as laid out in Greek and Roman philosophy this is a pretty decent experiment and hey, its only for a week.  It builds character. The Stoics show us a certain detachment that comes from understanding what is truly within our control and what is not. Since this blog is about Eudemonia (a fully flourishing human life) and cultivating that through Arete (the acquisition of excellence in what we do) then practicing to be mindful of what is truly within our human grasp (or not) is a worthy topic.

Some thoughts from a pianist about practice, art and an authentic life.

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on May 1, 2013 by Joe Callahan

I haven’t posted anything for a few weeks.  Life has just been a little hectic.  But I read this essay today and thought it was worth posting here.

James Rhodes is a concert pianist who wrote the piece below for The Guardian.  It is an interesting reflection on doing what you are most called to do regardless of societal pressures that would dictate otherwise.  It is also a compelling argument for an ongoing commitment to one’s practice.  He is speaking about art but the ideas could be equally applied to business, martial arts or playing Go.  Considering the theme of this blog it seemed apt.

In the next few days I’ll get back in gear and report on the progress of One Hundred Days Of Practice.

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

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.

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.

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.