Friday, January 13, 2017

Three paths before me; I take the stillest one

I've had a cold the last three days. Yesterday was the worst, but my wife helped take care of me. She made sure that I had enough liquids, that I was warm, and that I was taking medicine. She even picked us up some food and made sure that I slept well. I am very happy to have her as my companion in this life. So here I am, on what seems to be the tail end of my sickness, with an itch to write what has been going on in my mind.

I have tossed and turned on issues of the spiritual so damned much lately. Any pride I once might have had in being a wise person has long vanished. I might know a few things. I've been a hardcore student of religion and spirituality since I was about ten years old, so I can definitely be convincing when I want to be. That unfortunately means that I can also be convincing to myself. Over the years I have managed to convince myself of many things in regards to religion. One of the ways I do that is by writing something pithy on the issue. Then I can point to the screen and say that there is some proof that I know what the hell I'm talking about. I can assure you, I don't.

But I have been watching myself lately, the kind of thoughts and actions I have. I can rightly say that since I lost my job in October I have been going through another bout of depression and anxiety. I'm one of those people who have long suffered with depression but have never sought out help or even been professionally diagnosed. I think it's pretty obvious to me, at least, that I might have chosen the more difficult path by not having asked for help. I've always been stubborn in that aspect. I don't like to ask for help. I become ashamed, easily embarrassed, more likely to lash out in frustration or anger.

It's been tough. Couple that with the religious existential dilemma I've been in and you have someone very miserable to be around. And it only got worse a few weeks ago when my wife and I started the process of moving into a new apartment. Moving is stressful enough, but doing so in December is even worse. It was so bad, especially the week it took to transport our belongings from the old place to the new one, that I have quite seriously begun to call it one of the worst weeks of my life.

I did not take the additional stress well, to put it mildly, and ended up being a monster neither my wife nor her friends wanted to be around. I don't blame them. I was the worst version of myself, the person that I thought I had done away with long ago. I came into the world with all sorts of self-destructive behaviors, but I had done so much personal work to become, what I had hoped, was a better person. But I realized just how much I have allowed myself to slide back into my very bad habits.

When I talked with my wife about all of this, she was compassionate but guarded. I had been particularly mean to her, blaming her for how terribly the move had gone. I hadn't been fair to her and I had been especially immature. She asked me that if what she had seen that week was a version of myself that I didn't want to be, then who did I want to be? It was a good question, but I didn't have an answer.

I had been fighting with myself for over a year, if not longer, over who I want to be. Around the time I had met my wife that struggle had essentially come down to two religious choices. I was a somewhat dissatisfied Hellenic polytheist wondering aloud if maybe I should have stuck to Druidry. And I kept going back and forth, back and forth, mostly in my head, sometimes to my wife, and occasionally online. It was tedious.

I did experiment with both, trying to weigh out each one. Still, I couldn't say for sure that I was making the right choice, whichever it might be on a given day. Neither path seemed to be doing much for my own growth, however. When I was feeling more "druid" I'd go outside and sit at a park, read some stories, make some offerings to the nature spirits. When I was feeling more "Hellenic" I'd make offering to the Gods, the spirits of my home, read the hymns... I could honestly add so many more examples of the activities for both paths. Those activities didn't seem to be adding anything to my life, though. I didn't feel enriched and I didn't feel happy. I felt in no way fulfilled by what I was doing. I asked for signs and they seemed to say that Druidry wasn't it. Given that I was only considering two choices at the time, if Choice A was out, that left Choice B. I even wrote about it on a blog I created for Hellenic stuff about sometimes the path isn't your choice, that it is the Gods who choose you.

And it was really well received for the most part. People echoed some of the things I had shared. They said that they also felt that the Gods had chosen them. But they seemed much happier about that than I felt. In fact, it was with a lot of trepidation that I even hit the "Publish" button on my blog. Again, I know so much about spirituality, religion, and philosophy that I can sound really convincing, especially to myself. I truly believed that the Gods had given me a sign and I was resigned to accept my fate as a Hellenic Polytheist.

Once I had made that choice, which felt like it had been made with some finality, I should have been happy. I should have at least felt relieved that the struggle was over! And yet, no, I seemed to be doing worse and I acted worse. Then the move came and I was the worst. Even though I could see what was happening, I felt powerless to stop it. I said mean things, I yelled, I was unpleasant... I'm honestly surprised that I'm still married!

So, that was me at my worst- at least worse than I've been in years-. What was I doing when I was at my best? Well, I was a practicing Theravada Buddhist! When I look back honestly, that was when I was the most happy with myself and when I was the most skillful in my thoughts, words, and actions. I had more patience and compassion and I had more peace of mind.

That time of my life and the insight I gained into myself made such an impression that when people ask me for advice I talk about that time and suggest mindfulness practice to them. I find it telling that even when I was in the midst of practicing other religions it was Buddhism that I thought held the answers for others. I had somehow forgotten how amazing my inner world had been as a Buddhist but not enough to forget that it held a lot of answers, even if I only provided them to others without applying them to my own life.

So, there it is, this little bit of insight into my mind. As I enter into 2017 and the 31st year of my life and as I continue into the first year of marriage with my wife, I want to be the best me, not the worst me. I had some tools that allowed that better me to shine through and I foolishly cast them aside. Mindfulness was a medicine I prescribed to others without taking that prescription myself.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Reflecting on Life's lessons

I know that I do not have many readers, so there isn't a big scene when I go long stretches without writing anything. Yet, I had hoped that I would have written at least something over the last few months. To any that pay attention to the goings-on in this blog, I apologize for my long absence. I have made it through one of the most nerve-wracking semesters I have had in some time. Rather than get into the ways I disappointed myself -an all too common topic on my blog- I would much rather write about the lessons I learned these last few months.

First, I am finally becoming cognizant of the power of words. Strange thing for a former druid to say, since that is one of the many lessons that path has to offer, I know. It is an important lesson for me, nonetheless. I have realized that there are many times in which it might serve me best to be silent, or to emphasize being polite over being right. Just because a thing is true, it does not mean that it need be said by me. Along with this, I must choose my battles wisely and save my energy for the battles that matter. And it behooves me to be more kind with my words and not share my opinions without much consideration.

Second, as naturally skilled as I might be, those skills have their limits, and there will always be those more skilled than myself. And my skills, just like anyone else's, must be nurtured and refined. This takes effort. I am reminded of a fortune I received awhile ago that says, "One extends one's limits only by exceeding them." As I reflect on this message, I see that there have been many times lately in which I could have pushed myself beyond my current limits, but opted instead to stay within them. I must exceed my limits whenever I find myself pressed against them. But this does not mean that it is done hastily or recklessly. Like forging a weapon, it must be done steadily and carefully, measured just so. In improving myself as a philosopher and a mystic, I must know when to work and when to rest and how to work and how to rest. I also cannot and should not do this while measuring myself against others. Just as I have no entitlement to look down upon those that are behind me on the trail, I have no entitlement to look with resentment upon those further along than me. I must only ever look to myself and my own progress. Even still, that must be done with self-compassion and full awareness. There is little point in basking in glory over success or wallowing in despair over failure. There is only ever the steady journey onward.

In light of the first and second, there is the third; that I must only engage in wholesome activities and wholesome habits. This is reminiscent of other entries of mine. In July, I shared Benjamin Franklin's 13 virtues, which have only become more interesting and more important to me as I continue my understanding of virtue ethics and as I better understand the kind of life I want to live. Overall, I think I see better which values I truly hold. I have written many times on how I value simplicity and older modes of being, so it may not be of much benefit to rehash them here. I will not attempt to do so. I do, though, think that it is important for me to stress that learning about the lives and thoughts of great people inspires me to do better and to be better.

My twenty-eighth year of life will soon be at an end, and the twenty-ninth is starting in four days. I'm almost thirty years old. My twenties are nearly over, and I think the acknowledgement of that has made me very reflective, yet also more hopeful and more determined. I am optimistic about the future, cautious of course, but generally positive about the things I want and how I mean to get them.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Fault of Passivity

The semester is starting for me today. I'm going to be very busy, so that will probably mean more writing from me than less. It is said that an object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion. This is very true for me. I've been busy this summer, to be sure, but it has been a different kind of activity. I've only had to focus on my job. While I did make time to do some philosophical reading, it wasn't nearly often enough, and I did not do much of the writing that I had expected to do, either here on this blog or on some of the papers of which I thought I would at least have completed first drafts. Alas, having time after work to kick back and drink some coffee or maybe go to the gym meant that I used that time for that rather than some of the obligations that felt much less time sensitive. This goes back to my general inclination toward procrastination that any consistent reader of my blog has heard me complain about before. It's a real problem.

I have noticed that part of my reasoning, an implicit acceptance of my procrastination, is a bit of fatalism. In the back of my head there is an assumption that things will turn out however they are meant to regardless of the level of commitment or effort on my part. This sometimes subconscious and other times conscious notion of mine is a kind of arrogance, I think, an overconfidence that tells me that I don't need to work hard for the things that I want. Sadly, this has been reinforced so many times over the years in which I have managed to be very successful in certain endeavors with relatively little effort that I am naturally blindsided the times that things don't work out the way I wanted. A case in point would be my lack of preparation for the GRE. I, of course, cannot go into the details of the test, since that is strictly prohibited... but I can say that I had intended to spend the whole summer studying for the exam. True to form, I did not study at all. Other than a cursory look at the kind of material that would be on the test, I did not prepare at all. As the day of the test approached, I could have easily rescheduled to allow some time to actually prepare... But for some reason that thought never occurred to me. I just strolled into that test center blissfully unprepared and puzzlingly optimistic. I mean, people in that waiting room were seriously tense. The tension was highly palpable. Me? I just stared out the window and enjoyed the view... Until four and a half hours of humiliation began.

See, I knew I would probably do well on all the verbal portions. Indeed, given my complete lack of preparation, I did insanely well, better than I had any right to do. No, the humiliation came while going through all the math. It is my weakest subject, and if there is any section I should have given any time to, it was that one. Essentially I jeopardized my score by not preparing at all, a risk I take too often in my life. The score I received for that portion of the test was the most humiliating part of all. I knew it would be my lowest score, but I wasn't expecting that. It was a humbling experience to struggle so thoroughly through something that isn't meant to be any harder than high school algebra and geometry...

I am still waiting to see what I will receive for the written portion. That had its own issues as well, for even though I am a decent writer, being forced to cram the whole process into 30 minutes left me scrambling and uncertain that I made the best choices. Anyway, lesson learned... again.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Benjamin Franklin's 13 virtues

I was hoping to have this written up yesterday, so that people could enjoy this bit of reading on Independence Day. Unfortunately, I've spent the whole week sick with a cold, so when I realized that I was to have a three day weekend this week, I couldn't pass up the chance to get some rest yesterday. Rather than work on this, I played a lot of Skyrim and drank a lot of Dr. Pepper, something I've been denying myself for months. It was a kind of epic cheat day on my healthy eating project too. I had nachos. But, I'm back to it now that I am starting to feel better. I'm drinking some water right now and don't plan on having any junk food again for a considerable time.

In remembrance of one of my favorite thinkers of the American Enlightenment, Ben Franklin, I wanted to share with everyone his 13 virtues as outlined in his autobiography. Many will already be familiar with these, and my memory is quite fuzzy on whether or not I've already written on them. If I have talked about his virtues before, then I am at least comforted by knowing that they are so good that they are worth sharing again. As I understand it, and as wikipedia reminds me, Franklin came up with these virtues when he was only 20, which I find incredibly impressive.

Anyway, the virtues are:

  1. "Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation."
  2. "Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation."
  3. "Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time."
  4. "Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve."
  5. "Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing."
  6. "Industry. Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions."
  7. "Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly."
  8. "Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty."
  9. "Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve."
  10. "Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation."
  11. "Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable."
  12. "Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation."
  13. "Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates." 
 When one compares these 13 to what many ancient Greek philosophers found to be virtuous, one can see how Franklin is in line with their thoughts. Of course, one can also see such ideas in more than just the Greeks. I'm also reminded of many Eastern philosophies as I read these.

What is more impressive to me than the list itself is that Franklin thought to do it in the first place. It speaks to his own desire to be the best version of himself that he could be. He openly admitted that he fell short many times, and never lived any of the virtues to perfection, but that having them in mind as he lived his life made him a better person overall. For someone like me, who wants to be so much better than I am, his endeavor is inspiring and worth emulating. But not emulation in the sense of adopting his virtues for myself. That would change them into something they were not meant to be, more like commandments or laws, to be obeyed blindly. Rather, I wish to emulate his sense of self improvement and his desire to define for himself what makes a virtuous life. So, in the spirit of Franklin's virtues, I plan to define for myself what it means to live virtuously and then do my best to live in that way.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Silence/Simplicity

This will be my 83rd post on this blog. I'm steadily reaching 100! Over the course of this blog's history, my philosophical, spiritual, and mystical beliefs have been tracked. Considering where I am now, it is very funny to me to think back to the creation of this blog when I was a bright eyed Buddhist that dedicated most of the entries here to the virtues of mindfulness meditation. And it is isn't funny to me because meditation is funny. It isn't. And I will still tell people today just how useful vipassana is and how it saved me during a very dark part of my life. But it was the only thing I could write about at the time because I had no room in my mind for anything else. It was a time of great doubt in myself and in everything else. Meditation was the only thing holding me together.

It was an important tool of mine that I began to need less and less, at least not in the desperate way I needed it in the beginning. So, as I started to realize who I wanted to be, and made efforts to be that man, I stopped making time for meditation. I was too busy being a philosopher! There were too many things to think about, lectures to attend, papers to write, and books to read. And I don't regret a moment of it! I love being an intellectual, an academic... But I've come to realize in my studies that being a philosopher is more than being an academic, at least for me, and at least for the Classical and Hellenistic philosophers I have been studying. I am more certain than ever that philosophy should not just be thought about, it should be lived. And that might seem so obvious to not even warrant being written down... but you'd be surprised by the philosophers that swim in abstract ideas and mind games, but do not look to philosophy as a way to enrich one's life.

I admire the old philosophers that encourage not just debate and argumentation (the focus of the modern Analytical school of philosophy), but solitary contemplation, simplicity in life, and a healthy body. In the old Greek schools I found similar ideas to the ones that attracted me to the Eastern schools in the first place. So, I find myself once again embracing silence and simplicity. I am not a Buddhist, and I no longer practice vipassana, but that doesn't mean that I no longer make time for stillness, for simply being and observing, for witnessing life and my own mind. But I see now how the need I have for stillness and for simplicity is a universal need and not one that belongs to any school or people or culture. In the end, no one group has a monopoly on wisdom and insight. We simply take the path that is ours. I know mine and I've embraced it completely.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Creating lasting and meaningful changes

I have taken an unplanned, but apparently much needed break from philosophy. I have spent the last few weeks not doing the research I had intended to be doing, but I would say that I have been making good use of my time by making changes in other aspects of my life. I shared with my friends on Facebook that I purchased a gym membership so that I can have a place to workout when and how I like working out. I like to think that I am the kind of guy that would spent all of his time outdoors working out, but the truth is that nature for me is much more of a spiritual thing, a place of tranquility, and using it to bust my ass working out detracts from that aspect. That isn't to say that I won't be making use of the outdoors, because I certainly will, but I think I will use the excursions outdoors as a treat to myself for my soul, and spend the rigorous workouts in the gym. And, so far, I am seeing progress in the gym. I can feel my energy increasing and my body changing. But it isn't quick enough for my liking, and I realize that I must make much more effort.

I recently saw some pictures of myself from an event I was at over the weekend, and while there are noticeable changes to my body- I'm wearing a size of shirt that I wouldn't have fit into a couple months ago, for example- I am still so very far from how I want to look and feel. Summer always brings out a certain restlessness in me, and I think that I will use that energy to push myself further than ever before. I can feel a determination, perhaps a frenzy, that I have not had before. As always, my friends are my inspiration. I've seen them excel in ways that I too want to excel. They have been capable of pushing their bodies in ways that I have only ever dreamed of pushing mine. My prompt to make the changes I am making now was how tired I became of simply being envious of them and not making more effort to be like them.

My strength has always been my mind, and that's great. I am very fortunate to be an intelligent person, but I know full well that has very little to do with anything I've done, and the source of my humility has been the insight that my intelligence counts for very little if I don't do anything with it. I think that is why I chose to become a philosopher. My love of wisdom, which is innate in me, finally has an outlet, a use, and a way to be honed to something useful and of benefit to myself and others. My body, however, has been misused and disused by me for most of my life. I am now in a process of making up for that and equalizing this disproportion I see between my mind and body. I take the wisdom of Plato to heart, and truly believe that a healthy body will make me a better philosopher. So, here I am, gritting my teeth and doing what I should have been doing all along.

It is all a part of my plan that I started setting into motion this year of living a more complete life, doing what needs to be done for a healthy mind, body, and soul. I hope that continuing to share my aspirations and motivations with the handful of people who read my blog will keep me accountable and focused on my goals.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Mind and Body

So, I'm here drinking coffee and decompressing after a couple weeks of finals. I say a couple weeks because not only did most of my classes have final exams, we also had final papers to write the week after. That means that I have had a rough two weeks. In fact, the tail end of the semester has seen me more burnt out that I can remember being in a long time. Even though it is over, it doesn't feel over yet. The reality that the classes are done hasn't quite sunk in fully, and I still feel myself waiting for the next assignment, the next project.

But, no, it is done, and I have the summer to rest. Except I don't really feel like resting. I have been joking among my friends that I'm calling this summer the "Summer of Fitness," but I'm not actually joking. I've been feeling restlessness in my soul, a kind of impatience for change. But I've been so single-minded in my schoolwork that I haven't really had the time or energy both mentally and physically to enact as many of the changes as I had hoped I would this year. Luckily there's a lot of the year left and I can still turn things around.

I've written before on Stoic discipline because I very much admire people that are highly disciplined. I've always wanted to be one of those people. I've been fortunate in the sense that I have a natural strength of mind, but I've never really pushed it to its limits. I've never seen what I could be capable of if I really put my all into my work. I've also always been naturally big and strong, but that is something I haven't tried to develop in a long time. I'm woefully out of shape, and I'm sick of it. Basically, I see in myself mental and physical lethargy. I know I can be better and I want to be. That means that the time for talking about how I want to change is over. It's time to act!

That isn't to say that I haven't been taking action at all since I last wrote about changing things. I've made small, manageable changes. I've been eating better and less, like I said I would. I've been taking more opportunities to be physically active and getting out into nature. For me, that is essential. I am a creature of the outdoors, a nature lover, and I intend to drink it all in this summer. While people have been complaining about the sun, I've been taking the opportunity to be outside and soak it up. And I want more. My need for the outdoors will never be satiated. When I'm inside for too long, I feel it like an ache in my bones. I would say that most of my restlessness is from being cooped up inside.

Alongside all of this is that I have not met my spiritual needs in the last couple months either. I've simply been too preoccupied to do more that light some incense every once in awhile. I have this new statue of Pan on my altar that has been thoroughly neglected since I purchased it. It's still the best purchase I've made all year, but I should really get around to having more of that energy in my life. All the more reason to be out in nature, of course. It seems that most of the things I want could be met by just being in the woods more.

In terms of strengthening my mind, I intend to do some of the reading that I have been neglecting. I want to buy a better translation of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius because the one I have is really bad. I also want to read more of the complete works of Plato since my reading of him up to now has been a little lopsided. The same can be said of Aristotle. Most importantly, I will finally get to tackle Ennead 1 by Plotinus. There are also some contemporary works discussing Forms that I'd like to get through as well.

To say more on what I intend to do physically, I've decided that gyms are just not for me. I've tried three different gyms and I can say that I don't like all the equipment, the smell, or all the people. I have been intrigued by older forms of working out that make more use of the body and resistance and the use of weights like the kettlebell, which I can thankfully do outside.

These aren't new subjects for me to talk about. I probably have two posts like this a year. I could maybe find even more than that if I really wanted to look through my blog's archives. But when I wrote about this stuff in the past, it was simply a want, but not something wanted strongly enough, more akin to daydreaming than aspiration. But the kind of burn out I felt at the end of this semester is not something I want to feel again. And the only way I can ensure that I don't is by becoming stronger both mentally and physically. That means pushing myself in ways I only ever idly said I would before, and actually sacrificing my comfort for real and necessary change. When I measure myself against my heroes, I find myself lacking. And that is simply not acceptable to me anymore.