Living the Stoic Life

Over at the New York Times, noted Italian philosopher Massimo Pigliucci shares his experiences with stoicism, an ancient philosophy and way of life that has deeply impacted him, as well as myself.

The foundational view of the stoic mindset and approach can best be summarized by a quote in the article:

What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.

Like many philosophies, stoicism is timeless in its wisdom and application, especially in a modern world rife with overstimulation, business, and subsequent stress and turmoil. No wonder it is getting renewed attention over 2,000 years after it was first propagated by the Greek Zeno of Citium.

Thousands of people, for instance, participated in the third annual Stoic Week, a worldwide philosophy event cum social science experiment organized by a team at the University of Exeter, in England. The goal of Stoic Week is twofold: on the one hand, to get people to learn about Stoicism and how it can be relevant to their lives; on the other hand, to collect systematic data to see whether practicing Stoicism actually does make a difference to people’s lives.

Stoicism was born in Hellenistic Greece, very much as a practical philosophy, one that became popular during the Roman Empire,and that vied over centuries for cultural dominance with the other Greek schools. Eventually, Christianity emerged, and actually incorporated a number of concepts and even practices of Stoicism. Even today, the famous Serenity Prayer recited at Alcoholic Anonymous meetings is an incarnation of a Stoic principle enunciated by Epictetus: “What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” (“Discourses”)

From there, Pigliucci cites his own inspiration for pursuing stoicism, which is not all different from own.

As a scientist and philosopher by profession, I always try to figure out more coherent ways to understand the world (science) and better choices for living my life (philosophy). I have for many years been attracted to virtue ethics — a core of Stoic philosophy — as a way to think about morality and a life worth living. I have also recently passed the half century mark, one of those arbitrary points in human life that nonetheless somehow prompt people to engage in broader reflections on who they are and what they are doing.

Lastly, Stoicism speaks directly to a lifelong preoccupation I’ve harbored that is present in nearly all forms of religion and philosophical practice — the inevitability of death and how to prepare for it. The original Stoics devoted a great deal of effort and writing to what Seneca famously referred to as the ultimate test of character and principle. “We are dying every day,” he wrote to his friend Marcia in consolation for the loss of her son. Because of this confluence of factors, I decided to take a serious look at Stoicism as a comprehensive philosophy, to devote at least a year to its study and its practice.

Although not a scientist myself, I came to stoicism following my drift from religion and the subsequent search for new ways to seek truth, purpose, and moral living. I turned to science and philosophy as my guides to the world and the foundations of my ethical framework, and stoicism was among the schools of thought that most stood out to me as both relevant and useful.

And like Pigliucci, for as long as I can remember, I have always had both a fascination and fear of death, which only worsened with time regardless of my religiosity. So stoicism (among other philosophies, like Epicureanism), helped me come to terms with this reality and how to cope with it. I found comfort and solidarity in the fact that humans the world over have historically struggled with and reflected upon these same issues, devising all sorts of solutions grounded in both secular and spiritual thought. (Buddhism, which shares many parallels with Stoicism, emerged in the East around the same time, while various other world religions have developed particular doctrines or lifestyles that take a similar approach to moral living.)

After reflecting on the empirical results of Stoic Week — namely that participants saw a significant increase in their positive mood and overall life satisfaction — Pigliucci weighs in with his own approach to living stoically. It is an informative model to consider.

Nonetheless, I think it is worth considering what it means to “be a Stoic” in the 21st century. It doesn’t involve handling a turbulent empire as Marcus Aurelius had to do, or having to deal with the dangerous madness of a Nero, with the fatal consequences that Seneca experienced. Rather, my modest but regular practice includes a number of standard Stoic “spiritual” exercises.

I begin the day by retreating in a quiet corner of my apartment to meditate. Stoic meditation consists in rehearsing the challenges of the day ahead, thinking about which of the four cardinal virtues (courage, equanimity, self-control and wisdom) one may be called on to employ and how.

I also engage in an exercise called Hierocles’ circle, imagining myself as part of a growing circle of concern that includes my family and friends, my neighbors, my fellow citizens, humanity as a whole, all the way up to Nature itself.

I then pass to the “premeditatio malorum,” a type of visualization in which one imagines some sort of catastrophe happening to oneself (such as losing one’s job), and learns to see it as a “dispreferred indifferent,” meaning that it would be better if it didn’t happen, but that it would nonetheless not affect one’s worth and moral value. This one is not for everybody: novices may find this last  exercise emotionally disturbing, especially if it involves visualizing one’s own death, as sometimes it does. Nonetheless, it is very similar to an analogous practice in C.B.T. meant to ally one’s fears of particular objects or events.

Finally, I pick a Stoic saying from my growing collection (saved on a spreadsheet on DropBox and available to share), read it to myself a few times and absorb it as best as I can. The whole routine takes about ten minutes or so.

Throughout the rest of the day, my Stoic practice is mostly about mindfulness, which means to remind myself that I not only I live “hic et nunc,” in the here and now, where I must pay attention to whatever it is I am doing, but, more importantly, that pretty much every decision I make has a moral dimension, and needs to be approached with proper care and thoughtfulness. For me this often includes how to properly and respectfully treat students and colleagues, or how to shop for food and other items in the most ethically minded way possible (there are apps for that, naturally).

Finally, my daily practice ends with an evening meditation, which consists in writing in a diary (definitely not meant for publication!) my thoughts about the day, the challenges I faced, and how I handled them. I ask myself, as Seneca put it in “On Anger”: “What bad habit have you put right today? Which fault did you take a stand against? In what respect are you better?”

As Pigliucci cautions (and I concur) Stoicism is not for everyone: it can be demanding to put into practice, and for some lifestyles and personalities, it may seem untenable or even undesirable. Plus, given its ancient origins, some Stoic concepts are dated or fail to take into account the findings of modern science or psychology.

Of course, no philosophy is intended to be a catch-all on all matters and concerns of human existence. Stoicism still offers a lot of salient quotes, perspectives, and ideas well worth taking into consideration, at the very least. It can be tweaked, added upon, or altered to suit our own individual goals and worldviews. As Pigliucci rightly observes:

In the end, of course, Stoicism is simply another path some people can try out in order to develop a more or less coherent view of the world, of who they are, and of how they fit in the broader scheme of things.

I think just about anyone who is concerned with living a just and purposeful life would share in that sentiment. This philosophy has greatly influenced my life, not only in giving me purpose and ethical grounding, but  in helping to minimize my anxiety and depression. Of course, applying it correctly and consistently is a continuous process, but one that is well worth pursuing.

If you are interested in learning more about Stoicism, read the works of Marcus Aurelius (namely Meditations, which I have written about here and here), founder Zeno of Citium (what little of it survives), Seneca the Younger, and Epictetus. Best of luck on your journey to a stoic life.

The Niceties of Life

Arguably, life is all about experience. When it comes down to it, we live to enjoy the act of living itself – albeit insofar as we don’t interfere with other’s right to do so too. If we’re going to have this fragile, finite, and – as far as we can know for certain – singular existence, we might as well make the most of it and work with what we got.

Our ability to derive pleasure from a wide-range of things is perhaps the greatest asset of our lives. Without our feelings, senses, and higher-brain function, we’d be no better than automatons: existing solely to consume, sleep, and breed; existing only to keep on existing.

Granted, that’s what our role as organisms boils down to. Strip away all of civilization – all the various ideas, belief systems, and inventions with which we embellish our time on this world – and all we’re left with are animals driven by nothing more than the natural instinct to survive long enough to make new life. And so on and so forth.

Therein lays the value of our cognitive abilities. We make our very own purpose in life. We create or embrace the stimuli that make us feel good in any number of ways. We find the conflicts, challenges, and unknowns that drive us to think, explore, and invent. The world is full of things to enjoy – music, dance, cuisine, art, games, friends, books, sleep, etc. We all have different tastes and drivers, but what matters is that we have something, anything, to keep us going, and to give our lives meaning.

In the end, we all just want to validate ourselves. Some do it through transcendental religion, others through secular causes, and still others through the indulgence of sensory pleasure – from casual materialism, to outright hedonism. I don’t think we should be opposed to material wealth or pleasure for its own sake, so long as such things are done in moderation. Otherwise, too much of it can be self-destructive, or cheapen the joy and excitement we encounter when we first feel its effects.

Speaking for myself, I take the middle path in all this. I’m not religious, so I make humanism – a concern for the well-being of other creatures – my transcendent belief system. I want to enrich my experiences, and take in as much of this world as I can. There are few moments as pleasurable as when we first make a new friend, encounter a new love, listen to a good song, explore an unknown place, and savor a new taste or aroma.

Few people in the world have the opportunity to enjoy all these things as I do. I must make the most of my good fortune, and use my time on this Earth to make sure as many other fellow human beings can do the same too.

What about you? What keeps you going in this world? What moments or memories do you have to comfort you? What meaning have you given to your own existence?

How We Die

This won’t be too surprising to long-term readers, but I have a morbid fascination with death (it’s a category in the menu for a reason). Like most human machinations, it’s hard to pin down why or how this developed, although it does sort of come with my line of work: studying international relations and humanitarian issues exposes you to a lot of death and human suffering, and that in turn gets you thinking about the value and fragility of life.

Also, once upon a time, I used to have an interest in being a psychiatrist, and to that end I worked with a lot of people through the internet to help them with various mental illnesses (namely suicidal tendencies and clinical depression, the latter of which I relate to). I still engage in this kind of amateur “citizen therapy” occasionally, though I don’t have as much time any energy to devote to it as I used to.

Anyway, a few scientists did some research into the different ways we die and what exactly happens to us when it happens. Obviously, it’s difficult to get a real understanding of these things given the end result, but accounts from survivors provide the closest ideas we could imagine. If you’re as macabre as me, you can read the summary of their conclusions here. I would share the original study, but the publisher, New Scientist, requires you to subscribe.

In any case, I’m fortunate to live in a part of the world where death is so rare, even discussing it is taboo. Most of my fellow humans who have ever lived haven’t been so lucky.

The Hardest Part About Dying…

…isn’t that the party is over, but that it will continue without you long after you’ve been abruptly kicked out.

The somewhat lighthearted party analogy aside, I think that that truly is one of the greatest tragedies of death: the world, and all the beauty and experience it has to offer, will leave you behind. It will grow and change in ways that will forever be inconceivable. Think of the millions of people who ever lived, and how different the world now is from when they were alive. Imagine what it’ll be like centuries after I expire (if it’s still around).

Who knows what I’ll miss out on once I die. It kind of pains me to imagine the possibilities that may eventually come to fruition, if only I’d lived to see them. Now that I think about it, I realize that, in a strange way, our own death means the end of the world as we know it. Without consciousness, the world effectively ceases to exist, just as it does when we sleep (minus dreaming of course).

I’m not quite sure what spurred on this train of thought, though it’s nothing new. This seems like an odd topic to reflect on right before heading to a party, so I’ll probably be revisiting it later. In any case, please, share your own thoughts on this matter, and my apologies to anyone who finds all this to be despressing.

A Lost Bug is Rediscovered

A science blog from NPR by Robert Krulwich reported on a very rare but wonderful occurrence: re-discovery of a species previous thought extinct, in this case the Lord Howe stick insect. With so many species threatened or going extinct, this is a nice change of pace.

It’s a great story, and if I had the time, I’d elaborate on it here. I recommend you guys give it a read. Below is a video of one of these little guys hatching. If you’re not as interested in bugs as I am, you might find it squeamish. Regardless, I think we can all agree it’s beautiful to see a previously “extinct” animal come back to life, so to speak.

A Strange But Familiar Fear

A disturbing thought sometimes seeps into my mind while I try to fall asleep: what if I never wake up? What if something happens to me while I’m unconscious and this moment before ends up being my last? It’s a bizarre thing to consider before bed, but my mind tends to wander the moment it’s given a pause from the daily concerns that occupy it.

Few people ever go to sleep or wake up wondering what day will be last. For obvious reasons, most human beings tend to avoid such thoughts, even though death is always omnipresent. Too many people die random and pointless deaths, never having fair warning or a chance to prepare. It scares me to no end to know that this could happen to me at any moment, even as I write this. There are so many ways for our fragile lives to end.

I wonder what the end would be like. As an atheist, I obviously don’t envision a world beyond this one, although I’m open to the possibility, however unlikely. So if we don’t enter another state of existence when we die, what happens? Does everything just go black? The only reason anything exists to me is because I am a conscious and cognitive being: if that awareness ends, then what? What would it feel like to be nothing? If there is no feeling, how does one imagine not feeling it or seeing it coming?

It’s ponderings like these that not only keep me up at night (literally) but that make understand why so many people believe in an afterlife. It’s difficult to wrap one’s head around non-existence.

In the meantime, I’ll keep making the most of this persistent neurosis by trying to live each moment like my last. It’s a morbid thing to consider, but it really helps me enjoy life to the fullest. As far as any of us knows for certain, we have but one life and one Earth, and it’s best not to take any chances as far as squandering them – including through nerve-wracking but aimless thoughts like these.

Post Script:
I apologize to any long-term readers who have already read similar musings on here before. As you can imagine, this is a recurring issue for me. But since this is partly an online journal, expect me to share what’s on my mind for it’s own sake, rather than for an intended audience.


John and Joe

This is another tear-jerker from StoryCorps, from where I previously posted an equally affecting video, Germans in the Woods. Like that one – and all the narratives the group collects – this story is brief but very emotive, as you’ll hopefully experience when you watch it below.

His closing statement had some of the truest and most beautiful words I’ve heard in a while. Ultimately, he and his sons got to exchange something many of us treat as perfunctory, if not bothersome, for the very last time. Yet as is always the case, these feelings come to have the greatest significance once the person is gone. It was a very raw deal, but I could think of no better silver lining.
Don’t hold back your expressions of love. You’ll never know if it’ll be the last time for either you or your loved ones. For that matter, don’t let petty grudges fester, as every second on this Earth is too precious and fragile to be wasted wallowing in negativity. It’s easier said than done, but its well worth the effort.
This may be a morbid thought to keep in mind, but that’s just the nature of the world we live in. All we can do is work around. All each of us have is one another and the tenuous moments we briefly share just once. Please make the most of them all. You just never know.

All Living Things

If you want to brush up on you phylogeny, check out this detailed and easily accessible tree of life, provided by Discover Life, an online encyclopedia of Earth’s organisms. This tree, like the rest of the site, seems very accessible and navigable for laymen, as this convenient introduction shows:

Phylogeny is the organizing principle of modern biological taxonomy. A guiding principle of modern phylogeny is monophyly. A monophyletic group is considered to be one that contains an ancestral lineage and all of its descendants. Any such group can be extracted from a phylogenetic tree with a single cut.

The tree shown here provides a guide to the relationships among the major groups of extant (living) organisms in the tree of life. The position of the branching “splits” indicates the relative branching order of the lineages of life, but the time scale is not meant to be uniform. In addition, the groups appearing at the branch tips do not necessarily carry equal phylogenetic “weight.” For example, the ginkgo is indeed at the apex of its lineage; this gymnosperm group consists of a single living species. In contrast, a phylogeny of the eudicots could continue on from this point to fill many more trees the size of this one.

The glossary entries that appear below the tree are informal descriptions of some major features of the organisms described. Each entry gives the group’s formal scientific name, followed by the common name of the group. Numbers in square brackets reference the location of the respective groups on the tree.

It’s great to see how every living thing that’s ever existed is interconnected in some way. To think that all the beauty and biodiversity we see around us represents only 1% of all life that has ever existed; that all of it began with a humble collection of protein constituting primitive, single-celled organisms. Nature, by its very existence, is a miracle.

Attachment to Life and Inspiration from Death

One of my most profound fears is losing someone I love. It’s something that has disturbed me since I was very young. When I first became aware of mortality – I can’t specify a time or incident – I very soon realized the implications, even at my young age: I would some day die, whether I want to or not. So would everyone and everything I’ve ever known and will know. It was a disturbing realization, and one that has since resurfaced regularly thanks to my tendency for neurosis. Were it not for the human capacity to disassociate from such concerns and focus attention elsewhere, I’d probably be driven to a consistent state of chronic depression and nihilism.

But it does keep me up some nights, and I do endure bouts of sadness as I reflect on the inescapability of death. Nothing I can do will stop my loved ones from perishing one by one. Nothing I can do will save me either. Everyone I see today will eventually disappear, the following generation replacing the previous one, only to be superseded itself some day, and so on and so forth for as long as our species continues. I dread the day when I have to worry about my parents or older relatives deteriorating. I’d rather not even write about it.
While some very few of us will live on through memory, the majority of us will forever cease to exist after a few generations. There will be only faded tombs or memorials, if even that. It’s a terrifying prospect to wrap my head around, and one that partly explains why so many people seek the comfort of faith and an afterlife (indeed, that’s arguably why such concepts were universally developed by humans in the first place).
The invincibility and permanence of death are not what terrify me the most, but the sheer randomness of it. There is nothing to stop or prevent death. You can reduce its probability but never eliminate it. I know of all kinds of stories of people dying arbitrary deaths in the most unlikely circumstances. Few people wake up in the morning knowing that they’ll die – heck, few people wake up really thinking about death at all. The fact that anyone I know, myself included, could die at any given moment is a disturbing realization, not helped by the fact that I have a graciously wide circle of people that I love. We go about our business with death looming over us at all times, never certain who, when, and where it’ll strike. Most people don’t think about it, but those of us that do find the concern nerve wracking, even if it’s fleeting.
I have an intense love of life. I imagine most humans do as well, of course. But I’m referring to something deeper than merely the act of living. I want to consciously enrich my life. I love and cherish every human experience: the expansion of knowledge, the meeting of new people, the exchange of good dialogue, the taste of good food, the sound of good music – all of it is what makes living precious. These aren’t just hedonistic indulgences, but the most vital element to being alive. Our times are brief, and our senses and perceptions are all we have to embrace the time we spend here. The more we stimulate them while we can, the better. When we grow old and reach the precipice of our demise, all we’ll have are these memories (or what is left of them).
To that end, love and compassion are equally valuable. As far as I’m concerned, a life lived well must encompass some degree of empathy for others. The time we spend with other humans (and animals) is the spice of life. As a social species, we are intrinsically reliant on one another to survive, not only in the most basic sense – for food, shelter, etc – but also for emotional and mental well-being. Without some degree of love, friendship, or empathetic interaction, we become troubled and even psychologically ill.
We’re all in this together: whatever our differences in this world, we all share the same fate. Death is the great equalizer. But most of us also share in common the gift of life as well. We share this Earth. We bear a responsibility to enhance and deepen one another’s experience, and in doing so, become surrounded by pleasant people who care about us and provide us with companionship. We seek better this world for our friends and children, and as we become more interconnected and intimate with one another, we expand this circle of responsibility to include entire regions, continents, or the human race.
In other words, all we have – to the best of our knowledge – is this one life, this one Earth, and this one generation of fellow humans who share it all with us, and who are in the exact same predicament. At any given moment, all of this can be taken away from us. There doesn’t have to be any warning, or pattern, or reason. This is frightening to me, but also empowering. It gives me a sense of purpose. I can either wallow in despair at the seemingly nihilistic nature of our existence, or I can make the most of my finite and fragile existence on this planet.
I want a life that is wealthy with happiness, experience, and friendship. I want a legacy that will endure for generations, if only for at least a handful of people. Simply put, I want a life lived well. Any minute, my life can take a turn for the worse. As morbid and disconcerting as this might be, it’s as good a reason as any to make sure I can squeeze the most out of every second.

Paedophryne Amauensis

That is the scientific name of the world’s smallest vertebrae, a frog that was formally described and classified only a few days ago. It was discovered in the summer of 2009 in Papua New Guinea, a region known for it’s almost unparalleled level of biological diversity – dozens of new and fascinating species have been discovered during the past couple of years.

That's a dime that it's sitting on.

It’s fascinating that despite how small and well-explored the world has become, it’s still yielding it’s beautiful bounty of life. The area where it was found isn’t even particularly large or well-known. Yet it’s one of the most biologically dense ecosystems in the world.

If you want to read a bit more about this amazing little creature, click here. Nature never ceases to astound me with its treasures. Even something as small as this can be greatly uplifting to behold.