101 Great Zen Sayings and Proverbs

You do not have to subscribe to Zen Buddhism, or indeed be religious, to appreciate the wisdom of these sayings (many of which are not, in any case, explicitly spiritual or Buddhist in origin or application). I know quotes can seem trite and vacuous, but a lot of these are worth reflecting on.

My personal favorite is the following by B. D. Schiers (whom I oddly cannot find much information on).

If you want to change the world, start with the next person who comes to you in need.

This goes back to one of the first lessons I ever learned on the path to better moral living: that no good deed is too small, and that change on any level, even just the way we treat a stranger on the street, can be the start of a better world in the aggregate.

While the bigger picture is of course important and should not be overlooked, but you have to start somewhere, so why not during the routine interactions and moral decisions we encounter every day?

Feel free to share your favorite quotes from this list and what you take away from them — or offer your own if not mentioned.

Hat tip to Buddaimonia.com for the list.

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.

An Illuminating Interview About Philosophy and Science

Marx was not entirely wrong in arguing, in the Communist Manifesto, that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”, but I am not convinced he identified the most profound struggle, which is actually between different ways of making sense of our life and giving meaning to it. We can bear almost anything, but not meaninglessness. Philosophy has withdrawn from the task of providing meaningful narratives, and this has left plenty of space to fundamentalists of all kind. We need philosophy to be intellectually engaged again, to shape the human project.

– Lucian Floridi, in an interview with Sincere Kirabo at OldPiano.org.

I recommend you click the hyperlink and check out the rest of the discussion. It is a very informative look at the intersection between philosophy and science, and what lies ahead for both fields as they an increasingly vital role in our fast-changing and troubled world.

From Hygge to Wabi-Sabi

Among the many advantages of learning a language — aside from being able to tap into a whole other world of literature, media, and human knowledge — is the often underappreciated ability to pick up on ideas and philosophies that would otherwise be unknowable outside said language.

While many people see various languages as simply different ways of saying the same thing, almost every cultural and linguistic group has concepts that are so unique to them, they are untranslatable (except roughly, if even that).

It might be difficult to wrap one’s head around this fact, but there are all sorts of ideas, observations, and even emotions that are limited only to certain languages (never mind particular proverbs, idioms, and other sayings that exist only within certain linguistic and cultural contexts).

Nevertheless, it is very important to try to understand these conceptions, because their appeal and usefulness are universal regardless of their inedibility. Consider the following Danish concept of hygge, courtesy of Mother Nature Network (MNN), which lists several other unique concepts from around the world (including Germany, India, and Japan).

“Hygge is a deep sense of cosy that can originate from many different sources. Here is a good example from my life: a cloudy winter Sunday morning at the country house, fire in the stove and 20 candles lit to dispel the gloom. My husband, puppy and I curled up on our sheepskins wearing felt slippers, warm snuggly clothes and hands clasped around hot mugs of tea. A full day ahead with long walks on the cold beach, back for pancake lunch, reading, more snuggling, etc. This is a very hyggligt day.” Now that sounds do-able, doesn’t it?

Indeed, I am sure just about anyone from around the world could see the appeal to this approach.

Many of these concepts also reveal the unique geographic and historical contexts in which they were developed, such that while they can be appreciated elsewhere, they are clearly formed by specific circumstances and influences. For example, the (fun to pronounce) Norwegian idea of friluftsliv:

Friluftsliv translates directly from Norwegian as “free air life,” which doesn’t quite do it justice. Coined relatively recently, in 1859, it is the concept that being outside is good for human beings’ mind and spirit. “It is a term in Norway that is used often to describe a way of life that is spent exploring and appreciating nature,” Anna Stoltenberg, culture coordinator for Sons of Norway, a U.S.-based Norwegian heritage group, told MNN. Other than that, it’s not a strict definition: it can include sleeping outside, hiking, taking photographs or meditating, playing or dancing outside, for adults or kids. It doesn’t require any special equipment, includes all four seasons, and needn’t cost much money. Practicing friluftsliv could be as simple as making a commitment to walking in a natural area five days a week, or doing a day-long hike once a month.

Given Norway’s famously pristine natural environment, characterized by abundant forests, mountains, rivers, and fjords, it makes sense that over the centuries, they would develop such a conception; Japan, a similarly forested and mountainous country with a culturally-ingrained love of nature, developed a similar concept called shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”, which denotes the idea “that spending time in the forest and natural areas is good preventative medicine” (which indeed modern science is starting to validate).

I encourage you to read the rest of the article to learn about other great ways to see the world and live life. While you are at it, check out this list of 11 other untranslatable words (also from MMN). There are single words to describe everything from “being alone in the woods” (waldeinsamkeit, German) to “the road-like reflection of the moon on the water (mangaia, Swedish).

Hat tip to social media buddy Brian Wolf for sharing this aricle.

The Philosophy of Lao Tzu

Many of the world’s ancient philosophies are timeless in their wisdom and utility. One can read the writings and teachings of Aristotle, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Siddhartha, and other centuries-old thinkers and find a lot of familiar and still-relevant observations.

This is especially the case with Lao Tzu (also spelled Laozi or Lao-Tze), best known as the author of the Tao Te Ching and the founder of philosophical Taoism. Though well over 2,000 years old, his thoughts, reflections, and prescriptions remain as vital today — if not more so — than they did then.

The School of Lifeone of my favorite YouTube channels, offers a quick but informative guide to the sage, who is revered as a prophet and deity among religious strains of Taoism and Chinese folk tradition.

If you really like broadening your horizons on a wide range of topics, I highly recommend you subscribe to the channel, which offers a wealth of knowledge on everything from philosophy and literature to psychology and self-improvement.

A Worthy Lesson to Start Each Day With

While cleaning up my room, I stumbled upon this beautiful scroll; I think I had purchased it years ago from some Tibetan Buddhists that had visited my university. It seems like a great way to prime every day, regardless of one’s religious beliefs or lack thereof, since it is an easy lesson to forget. I should hang it somewhere more visible.

On Good Weather and the Good Life

I am taking a brief break from my usual (as of late) posts on economics, politics, and global affairs, to share a fairly unexpected life-affirming experience.

The other morning, I awoke gorgeously temperate weather, that rare perfect combination of cool breezes, clear skies, and bright sun. It was the perfect way to start a workday, especially as I had slept poorly the night before, and had to look forward to a grinding commute on the way to my increasingly busy job.

It reminded me of how important it is to be mindful of even the smallest pleasantries in our daily lives. Of all the things that help mitigate my anxiety and depression, I find that it is often the most seemingly mundane that help –comforts that I take for granted but am extremely fortunate to enjoy — companionship (on and offline), a warm bed, relaxing music, hot tea, good books, well enough mental and physical health.

This is hardly a new revelation, for either myself or most of those reading (heck, the Ancient Greeks, among others, made similar observations). But it is nonetheless easy to lose sight of without conscious effort, especially during the over-stimulating hustle and bustle of modern life. I need to make a habit of pausing whatever is bringing me down at the moment, whenever possible, and just think of the bigger picture.

I hope everyone reading this is having a fantastic day.

The Importance of Making Civility a Habit

Civility really is a more broad term compared to being considerate. Civility is simply just being nice, and it’s not only an attitude of benevolence, thoughtfulness and relating to other individuals. It also entails a real, active interest in the well-being of communities and even concern for the health of the planet. You have to really do an effort in order to be civil. And being considerate is a part of being civil.

– Abdulla M. Abdulhalim, in Seven Habits Of Considerate People by Alena Hall of HuffPo

As someone who was steeped in the values of good manners and conscientiousness from early childhood — thank you mom and dad — I am fortunate to know firsthand how personally and existentially fulfilling it is to do good in the world; whether it is going out of your way to help a loved one or strange, offering a kind word, or simply smiling, we must not underestimate the value of any kind deed, however seemingly mundane in the grand scheme of things.

Of course, none of us are consistent in this regard; I have had many regrettable lapses in patience, courtesy, and altruism. We all do. But that’s what makes being considerate and civil so valuable: it takes effort and mindfulness, and therefore shows a strong commitment to be as continuously thoughtful as possible. That sort of active interest and concern, as highlighted by Abdulhalim, is precisely why we must all strive to make such behavior a collective habit. It inspires others to do good and in the aggregate leads to a better world.

I am fortunate to have had a broadly positive experience with humanity; to have encountered and continued to encounter good, decent, and well-meaning people who display the better (but woefully underrated) aspect of human nature. Were it not for my fortunate and loving upbringing, and the example set by all those who were kind to me and kind in general, perhaps I would not hold onto the optimistic view I have of human nature (one that has nonetheless been tested time and again).

But ultimately, being civil and considerate should be a given in almost every circumstance or interaction. While the article highlights the importance of balance — of learning when to say no, for example — it is also clear that we have to dare to be kind to our fellow humans even if it seems counterproductive and hopeless in the first place. After all, change has to start somewhere, and how will we ever bring out the best in ourselves and others — and in doing so, help elevate the human condition — if we do not take that first step in showing just how we are capable of?

Great Philosophy Podcasts to Consider

Whether you have a deep passion for philosophy, or have just started exploring it, I think the following podcasts are well worth your time (especially if, like me, you deal with long commutes during the week and could use some mental stimulation to make the most of it).

History of Philosophy 
An extensive but digestible overview of the different developments, major thinkers, and schools of thoughts regarding philosophy across the world.

Ethics Bites
A series of interviews and discussions covering a broad range of moral and ethical topics, including climate change, animal rights, euthanasia, corporate responsibility, plagiarism, in-vitro fertilization and art, pornography, censorship and free speech.

Philosophy Bites
Concise but detailed reviews of different philosophers and their ideas, from ancient times to the present.

Oxford Center for Neuroethics
This newer field of research concerns the ethical, legal, and social impact of developments in neuroscience and technology, such as the implications of altering human behavior or implementing cybernetics. Also deals with contemporary ethical issues.

Very Bad Wizards
A philosopher and psychologist come together to discuss matters related to morality, ethics, social psychology, experimental philosophy, and more. It has a very lighthearted and at times irreverent tone.

The Partially Examined Life
Episodes entail informal round-table discussions between philosophy buffs concerning a major philosophical question, concern, or idea. This is one of my personal favorites, and a great choice for those new to philosophy.

I am certain these are just a small sample of the many great resources out there, so please feel free to provide your own. If you are familiar with any of these, then also feel free to provide your thoughts and feedback, especially as I have not heard all of them too deeply. 

Hat tip to my friends Josh, Lance, and Anthony for informing me about some of these.

Reason, Empathy, and Human Progress: A Dialogue

TED Talk has a great 15-minute animation of a conversation between psychologist Steven Pinker and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein regarding the role of reason and empathy in bettering our species overall (the ending of slavery, alleviation of poverty, etc). Done in the spirit of an illuminating and investigative Socratic method, it’s a very stimulating conversation.

Do you agree with their conclusion? What are your thoughts on the matter?