This is the second installment in my series on the wisdom of the Stoics. This time we turn to Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor and philosopher whose philosophical acumen is largely overlooked. Here, Aurelius can be said to take Epictetus' counsel even further. Remember, Epictetus suggested we should be able to discern the difference between external events and internal reactions and in so doing, manage not to react to external events as they are beyond one's control (see previous post: The Wisdom of the Stoics Part One). Furthering this idea, Aurelius says that not only should one be able to manage not to react to external events, one ought also to be able not even to form opinions about them. Says Aurelius:
We have the power to hold no opinion about a thing and not to let it upset our state of mind – for things have no natural power to shape our judgements.
Well, it's one thing (and not an easy thing at that!) to be able not to react to external events. But, not even to hold an opinion about them?! Well, contemplate this a bit... What constructive role does an opinion about external events play? They cannot change external events and hence are no more effective than reactions. This reminds me of a Zen parable:
Once there was a Chinese farmer who managed his farm along with his son and their horse. One day the horse ran off and the neighbors said, "How unfortunate!" The farmer replied, "Maybe yes. Maybe no."
One day the horse returned, followed by a herd of wild horses. The neighbors gathered round and said, "What good luck!" The farmer replied, "Maybe yes. Maybe no."
While trying to tame one of wild horses the farmer’s son broke his leg. He was unable to work and couldn’t help with the farm. "How sad for you," the neighbors said. "Maybe yes. Maybe no." said the farmer.
Shortly thereafter, a neighboring army threatened the village. All the young men in the village were drafted to fight the invaders and many died, save the farmer's son, who hadn't been drafted because of his broken leg. People said to the farmer, "What a good thing your son couldn’t fight!" "Maybe yes. Maybe no." was all the farmer said.
There is great wisdom in the farmer's lack of opinion about events because he realizes that regardless of his opinion on matters, the universe is going to unfold as it will. (This says nothing, however, about the Stoic view of taking action in the world. Would they counsel against that as well or is there room for taking action in Stoic philosophy? That question requires another post for another time!) What was it Jesus said? "Not my will but Thy will be done." This is actually very close to Aurelius' counsel. Who would have thunk it, Marcus Aurelius and Jesus philosophical bedfellows?!
In sum, if we consider the counsel of Epictetus and Aurelius taken together, one might wonder whether Stoic wisdom simply amounts to a life of negation (DON'T have reactions. DON'T form opinions.). Certainly this is not all there is to Stoic wisdom, is it? In my next blog post I will answer this question, turning to one of the greatest Presocratic philosophers, Heraclitus, famous for the saying, "You can't step into the same river twice."
In a recent sermon I did on Stoic philosophy I shared various pieces of Stoic wisdom. The sermon was very well received and upon reflection, I’ve decided to give that sermon some “legs” by expanding on Stoic wisdom in my blog posts. This, then, is the first installation of several honoring the Stoics who, millennia ago, bequeathed to us the most practical philosophy of all. The first piece of Stoic wisdom about which I will reflect expresses the most fundamental principle of Stoic philosophy. It was Epictetus who said:
The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually do control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals but within myself to the choices that are my own…
There are two basic themes in this citation. First, the Stoics divided the world into two realms, that which is outside of oneself and that which is inside of oneself, in other words, the external/objective world and the internal/subjective world. On the surface this may seem obvious but the reality is that most people do not truly recognize this distinction, which is evidenced by the emotional reactivity people display in reaction to external events. Take a moment and demonstrate this to yourself by means of a thought experiment, such as the following.
Imagine that a friend or coworker somehow offends you, perhaps insulting you by calling you lazy or insinuating that you are overly critical. Of course you will have a reaction to your coworker, typically defensive in nature, as ego preservation is the first order of business for us all. But if you think about it you have very little, if any control over how your friend/coworker behaves toward you (unless you choose to make the interpersonal dynamics of that relationship your personal project, something against which the Stoics would advise). That person is reacting to you from their own subjective experience, which you cannot control. Nevertheless, you react. And there is the Stoic rub! It is pointless, counsel the Stoics, to react to matters over which you have no control, be it an interpersonal dynamic or a world event (perhaps a tragic event you see on the news but which is so far removed from you in space and time that you could not have affected the outcome). In fact, not only is it pointless to react to matters over which you have no control, it is psychologically debilitating and often leads to personal misery. This leads to the second theme in this citation…
Epictetus says that we should look for good and evil within ourselves. What he means by this is that good and evil are our very reactions to events – “choices that are my own.” Unlike the first theme, which on the surface seems obvious, this theme is not so much. It equates our reactions with choices that are our own. Really? Yes! Though our reactions occur with lightning speed and as such seem to be something over which we have no control (“The devil made me do it!” Flip Wilson would say), we actually have choice over them, once we come to understand the truth of the first theme discussed. We can choose not to react to external events. It takes wisdom and practice, but the truth is that we can become self-aware enough to distill a reaction before it overtakes us. Indeed, this ability is what lead people to think of the Stoics as radically detached. They weren’t. They were simply very good at nonattachment, a whole different animal than detachment.
Much more could be said about this piece of Stoic wisdom but I will leave the subject here, with the following quick summary of this fundamental principle of Stoic philosophy. Recognizing that we cannot control external events we are to focus on our own subjective experience, managing our reactivity by means of which we avoid personal misery and discover the contentment that psychological freedom brings.
My Dear Young Friend,
I, too, am terribly disheartened by the recent turn of political events in our country (My naiveté got the better of me, too.). Like almost all main stream media news pundits I did not see this one coming and spent the greater part of my evening in increasing denial and shock. This morning I am walking through our collective political fog and returning to the spaciousness of my inner Being; the neutral ground from whence I can clearly think and feel and from whence I can take meaningful action in the world. And that, my young friend, is my substantive response to our shared dilemma; a recipe for living in a world that now, more than ever, needs people able to live thusly in the world. What follows is merely footnote…
It is a psychological truth that energy follows attention. This means that on whatever object we place our attention our personal energy gathers and where our personal energy gathers defines our reality. Right now your reality is defined by the disturbing facts that explain the recent turn of political events. Over 50 million people consciously chose to select as our president a man who embodies the spirit of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and violence. This man will lead our nation for at least four years. He will select Supreme Court justices that will determine our legislative future for decades to come, conduct foreign policy that will have global effects for decades to come, and enact economic strategies that will affect the world for decades to come. Despondency is an appropriate response to a reality so defined…
So shift your attention… While all the above, and more, is true, these facts are not the only ones on which we may choose to write a narrative for ourselves. It is also true that over 50 million people did not vote to select as our president a man who embodies a spirit of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and violence. Over 50 million people made other choices. We have many kindred spirits. Place your attention on them. Let your energy build there. Let that be your reality. Further, choose to see these people as coming from a place of love and moral high ground and know that we are such as these also. This is our community.
Indeed, we owe it to such as these to find the wherewithal within ourselves to return to the spaciousness of our inner Being; the neutral ground from whence we can clearly think and feel and from whence we can take meaningful action in the world. Rejecting destructive reactivity, we must act with constructive faithfulness. Above all, let despair and lethargy be anathema that love may have jurisdiction and that our good works may abound. The world does remain ours to make as we will, though we be reminded of the hardened and sometimes exhausting truth that this work is difficult, demanding, and endless. Still, we must begin... again… and again… and again…
I leave you with the following thought that I once penned and to which I myself need sometimes return:
Our vision restored,
Our moral compass attuned,
We recommit to the work that is ours to do in this world.
So, let us think with love,
…let us speak with love,
…let us act with love.
…so that through us, love may create the world anew.
Namaste, My Young Friend,
What a heart wrenching 24 hours it has been! It had been my hope that we had seen the dust settle for a while (permanently, actually, but I know how naive that hope would be) in regard to police brutality against innocent black men. But in the last 24 hours not only one, but TWO black men have been killed by police. Both were conducting innocent business as best we know and both had their murders recorded, with witnesses who could testify to their innocence. In light of this I am publishing my recent sermon on the Black Lives Matter movement. The download is available below. Comments, ideas, and suggestions for action are all welcome...
This sermon touches upon the question, do black lives matter more… more than white lives, brown lives, red lives… more than gay lives, lesbian lives, and transgender lives… do black lives matter more than all other lives? I have avoided preaching on the Black Lives Matter movement because it has been clear to me from the start, and I would have thought to most people, that the notion that black lives matter does not entail that black lives matter more than all other lives. In fact, such reasoning is patently bad logic, Tweedledum. It simply does not follow that if one group claims that their lives matter, that their lives matter more than all other lives... [to continue reading, please download the file immediately below...]
"Where was God?!" It seems we hear this question every time tragedy strikes. We’ve heard it over and over again regarding the atrocious events that occurred during the Holocaust. We heard it not too long ago in regard to the mass murder of little children at Sandy Hook. Just last week we heard it again, as another plane vanished into the waters of our great oceans. Indeed, the apparent lack of God’s presence during horrific human moments seems to permeate human history. “Where was God?!” is the never ending refrain, from the foxholes filled with mustard gas during World War I to the 2004 tsunami that killed over a quarter million people in a matter of moments.
Intuitively it seems fair to ask, if God is benevolent and just, “Where was God when tragedy struck?!” This is a deeply religious question that resists simple answers. It is difficult to answer for God’s apparent lack of presence when natural disaster strikes. Can God's hand stay a tsunami? If so, why didn’t God prevent the 2004 tsunami? Why evil shows up unopposed in natural disasters will always remain an open question. The best we can do in such instances is fall back on faith. We must have faith that there is a greater purpose at work that extends beyond the finite interests of our individual lives. This, however, is another blog post for another time…
But what shall we say of those other disastrous occurrences, like Sandy Hook, or the more recent atrocities humans are enacting upon other humans in the Middle East? Here the answer hardly remains open… Here we can turn to the great wisdom of our contemplatives. In Hasidic Judaism, for instance, it is said that God created the world through a cosmic act of humility whereby he hid himself within his creation. In another instance, in the Upanishads, it is said that God hides himself in his creatures “like a spider in its web.” In short, God is omnipresent but unseen.
It is the principle work of contemplatives, and ought to be the work of all religious people, to make the unseen seen; to bring forth the divine element in each of us so that God can be made manifest in the world. In other words, if God remains unseen in the world it is because we have not sought God in his creation. More specifically, if God remains unseen in the world it is because we have failed to find God within ourselves.
Where is God when the horrific events of Sandy Hook occurred? Where is God when humans enact atrocities upon one another in the Middle East? God remains hidden in the perpetrator, whose personal challenges and lack of familial and social support prevented his finding the God within… God remains hidden in the perpetrator’s mother, whose fear, inattention, or denial prevented her finding the God within… God remains hidden in little children who are wrought with fear in circumstances beyond their innocent, wildest imaginings… God remains hidden in the politicians who, in the name of reelection, turn their heads when the pressure of lobbyists confront them… God remains hidden in the manufacturers of semi automatic weapons who turn profit under the guise of constitutional rights, grossly abused… God remains hidden in every citizen of this land who has tolerated a culture of violence, from video games and movies that portray horrific acts of aggression to unjust wars in faraway lands… God remains hidden…
God is not obligated to step in where humanity fails. God creates life and sets the conditions for life to flourish: love, social bonds, and the human capacity for reason and self-reflection, among other capacities humanity shares. Rather, humanity must learn to create the conditions for God to be present in the world. This begins with honest observation and the capacity to see where we prevent the Divine element in us from working through us. It ends with us as a society, creating the conditions that make such honest observation and subsequent action in the world not only possible, but rewarding. We should not take God’s presence in the world for granted, holding God accountable for his absence in our times of need. Quite the contrary… making God present in the world is our task, both an individual and collective task, each requiring the other in turn.
“Where was God?!”
…the ‘unconditional’ part or the ‘love’ part?” This is a silent mental quip I sometimes find myself making when I encounter people who profess Jesus yet behave for all the world like the world. Some of Jesus’ most fierce zealots, whom, logic would dictate, ought to understand his message best, that of agape (unconditional love), are the very ones we find most conditional in their love of others. It is stunning to me when I encounter the Savior’s most fierce advocates denouncing people for their sexual orientation or wanting to deny the poor universal healthcare because “they are lazy” or beat the war drum in the name of a “Christian” nation… Is their Jesus the same as mine? Is their Jesus the same one who forgave the harlot that the “righteous” intended to stone, saying to her, “I do not accuse you.” Is their Jesus the same one who hung with the poor and downtrodden in the ghettos of Jerusalem? Is their Jesus the same one who said “Love one another even as I have loved you.” Supposedly so… Thus my silent mental quip, “What part of agape do you not understand, the “unconditional” part or the “love” part?
However, I am at least savvy enough to realize the hypocrisy of my mind and hence have never articulated this silent accusation. Indeed, in my better moments I even turn it around upon myself, gazing into the mirror of self-reflection, whereby I challenge myself with the same question. Certainly, just like Jesus’ most fierce zealots I, too, sometimes fail to live the life that exemplifies the revolution agape demands. In my own way I, too, love far too conditionally and like others, I use those conditions to justify my own perspective and actions in the world. It is in this way that we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”
When Jesus came into the world he entered a world in which morality was determined by acquiescence to rules given by an external authority, i.e., the 10 Commandments. He turned this type of morality on its head (and died for this sin) by teaching us that the way to God was through love and love alone and that God’s singular command for us was to live from this place of love - unconditional love - agape. In other words, he surpassed traditional ethical standards and called us not only to realize a higher consciousness within us but to act from it as well. If Jesus’ life meant anything, even more than being a signpost to the next life, it was as an example of how to live life in this world, letting the hereafter take care of itself.
A life of agape, a life lived as a condition of the heart, a new way of being in the world is what Jesus sought to bequeath to the world; not a set of beliefs. Let us recall this lesson when we find ourselves loving conditionally. Let the heart guide us. Let the mind be its servant. Let us realize the higher consciousness deep within us all…
“Out beyond ideas of right doing and wrongdoing is a field.
I will meet you there.”
This past Easter Sunday I did a presentation on the Aramaic version of The Lord's Prayer. When one studies The Lord's Prayer in what scholars consider to be Jesus' original language, namely, Aramaic, one gets a very different sense of the meaning of the prayer than when one interprets it through modern English (which itself is an interpretation from the common (koina) Greek of the time, which in its turn is an interpretation of Jesus' original Aramaic). It is important to realize that since Jesus' time we are two languages and 2,000 years removed from the original...
The primary reason for the difference in our modern understanding of The Lord's Prayer and that of the original Aramaic is that the Greek language, in which the Gospels (and New Testament) have come to us and upon which our English versions are based, is infused with words and concepts that were not indicative of the words and concepts that comprised the mindset and perceptual lens of the Aramaic speaking Jewish people of the time. To make that very long story short, it is with this Hellenization of the original Aramaic that the corruption of Jesus' message began, albeit unwittingly... More on this, perhaps, at another time...
To return to the more immediate subject matter, my attempt at understanding The Lord's Prayer in the original Aramaic (see my attempt at the end of this post) takes off from the important work of Niel Douglass-Klotz (You may access his same material from which I worked, here. You may also visit his own web site here.) As Niel points out, and as you will see for yourself if you delve into his work, the Aramaic language is pregnant with words and concepts that are multifaceted, meaning that it can give rise to a great variety of interpretation. This is the primary challenge that faces anyone who makes an attempt to interpret from the original Aramaic. To support my effort, I drew upon Niel's own suggestions of the possible meanings of the original Aramaic phrases, my fading knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, my study of the mystics from across the world's many religious traditions, and my own spiritual practice and experience (Inner experience is an important litmus test of spiritual claims/truth.).
The result of my attempt follows. I believe, based on the aforementioned approach I took, that this interpretation is a reasonable interpretation of the original. Even if not, I believe most people will find it a meaningful approximation and aid in their prayer life.
(As a final note, contemplate the ethic of relationship that comes across so strongly in this interpretation. The Lord's Prayer was not merely a petition to the Divine. It was another attempt by Jesus to give us ethical marching orders.)
During a recent Introduction to Meditation class I talked about the fact that by learning actively to direct one’s attention (which is really what beginning meditation is all about (see the book, “The Attention Revolution,” by Alan Wallace)) one can literally define one’s reality.
Most people do not realize that they do not actively direct their attention. Rather, environmental stimuli pull one’s attention to various objects without one’s assent. That is, attention is normally passive. Hence, one’s “reality” is passively determined, meaning that whatever the environment offers to one becomes one’s experience.
For instance, look at the image above. At first glance it seems to be spinning clockwise. This is because one’s attention is passively absorbed by the entire image. But the truth of the matter is that this apparent clockwise spin is an illusion! That this is the case can be seen by actively directing one’s attention to a single orange spot on the image, and keeping one’s attention on that spot alone. When one does this, the illusion of the clockwise spin ceases and one sees the image as it truly is. This simple example demonstrates that by actively directing one’s attention one determines one’s reality.
This lesson in directing attention can change one’s life. For instance, consider a difficult situation or individual with which/whom you struggle. Under normal circumstances your attention is passively pulled to those aspects of the situation/individual that you find difficult. But by actively directing your attention to a different part of the situation or aspect of the individual, your experience of that situation or individual will change. You will, without exaggeration, create a new reality for yourself. A situation will become less negative (or even positive) or the individual will be viewed less negatively (or even positively).
Take a moment and conduct this thought experiment. Think of a situation/individual that you experience negatively and then think about (actively direct your attention toward) something positive about that situation/individual (No situation or individual is all negative.). Then, after conducting this thought experiment, actually engage that situation/individual and put the lesson into practice. You will discover that the reality of that situation/individual is significantly different than how you have been perceiving it. In fact, you will likely experience that situation/individual positively. What a gift that would be, both for others and yourself!
“When a pickpocket meets the Pope, all he sees are the Pope’s pockets.”
In Japan there is a craft known as "kintsugi." Kintsugi is the practice of restoring valuable china with a golden lacquer. In this manner china, such as a vase, increases in value over time. This increase in value is not due to the fact that its original state has been maintained over time but contrariwise. It's value increases precisely because it has been broken and beautifully restored. It other words, it is in the golden seams that "healed the brokenness" of the vase that its increased value is to be found.
As I reflect on kintsugi vases I think back over the many years of my ministry and my own life, recalling how much time has been spent healing that which was broken. Certainly life is full of abundant blessings but so, too, brokenness. The experience of brokenness in life is unavoidable, especially when it comes to relationships. Sometimes we simply fail to hold one another with enough care and consideration. When relationships break, too often we recoil in our woundedness, or shame, or self-righteous indignation, sweeping up the pieces of our shattered selves only to walk away. At the same time, I have seen times when this doesn't happen, times when rather than walking away people decide to do the hard work of piecing the relationship back together. I have seen people sit together in their woundedness and find a greater strength than the wound itself. I have seen people admit their shame and allow love to overcome it. I have seen people dissolve their righteous indignation with acts of contrition and humility. I have seen people, numerous times over, heal the brokenness.
When relationships are thus restored, it is a beautiful thing. That which was broken is now held together more beautifully than before, with strength, with love... with contrition and humility. In fact, living through life together - not only life's abundant blessings but life's brokenness as well - is the source of much of the beauty we find in relationships. Even further, healing the brokenness, together, can be the route to sacred depths... With this in mind, consider the relationships in your life? Do they lie shattered in pieces on the floor or do they resemble a kintsugi vase? If the former is the case, perhaps it is time to take up a new craft...
I am Dr. Riegel, minister at Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church. Enjoy my occasional blog posts here, which may cover subjects ranging from spirituality to psychology to ethics to social justice to church life and beyond...