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The Art of Living: Stoicism

By Billy | June 30, 2008

I’d like to take just a small moment to thank my brother in this post—I will do so by sending him on a sentimental trip down memory lane.  Jim got married two weekends ago to my now-sister-in-law, Elizabeth (about which I couldn’t be more thrilled).  He’s been a role model to me, a source of inspiration, an enlightening conversationalist, and one of those go-to guys who seemingly knows everything worth knowing.  For causes and conditions beyond our control (for, like Michael Phillips explains in Chapter 1 of The Utopographer, our lives are simply following the paths created by our pasts) Jim and I missed a lot of great conversations and experiences we might have shared, had that butterfly in Africa flapped his wings in another direction ten thousand years ago.   

I often yearn for the old sort of fun we used to have; building the worlds greatest fort in the back yard, taking our evil dog for 5 mile runs together, playing Starcraft on the computer, or just holding a ridiculous conversation as we fall asleep in the room we shared.  Nowadays, what with working or going to school full time, him seeing the world as a Navy guy, both of us trying to manage a more or less long distance relationship, all the while trying to understand ourselves and our place in the world… our conversations are brief, deep, intense, exciting, and, above all, utterly random. 

                One such conversation occurred whilst waiting for a bus to Georgetown on a sunny afternoon this spring.  As my brother explains a genre of philosophy in which he expressed great interest, I realized I may have been researching and practicing the same school as he, my approach though the medium we call Buddhism.  Jim threw some general ideals of Stoicism out at me and I gobbled them up, but couldn’t dare separate the similarities between what he was saying and what I already knew as a student of Zen.  I find it no surprise that Jim’s path up the mountain and mine are different, and yet very, very similar. 

Allow me to give an example:

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will” –Epictetus (Prolific Stoic Philosopher)

As opposed to:

“If you have fear of some pain or suffering, you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then there is also no need to worry.”  –The 14th Dalai Lama (Definitely not a “Buddhist Pope” as believed by many, but a wise and notable dude, nonetheless)   

Jim, sensing my interest, went out and bought me what he called, “The Stoic Handbook.”  It took me 22 days of sitting on my dresser before I decided to ‘pick up and read’ (anyone get the St. Augustine reference??? Okay, no.)  but I am very glad I did.  I only spent an hour reading, and am 25% of the way through, which tells you how quick and easy of a read the thing is.  I will just say it now, for ANYONE interested in becoming even a little bit happier in their life, I’d go and drop the 12 bucks it takes to buy “The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness” as interpreted by Sharon Lebell. 

                To give you a better idea of what sort of book this is, in both content and style, I will write an entire chapter here for you to read. 

Nothing can truly be taken from us.  There is nothing to lose.  Inner peace begins when we stop saying of things, “I have lost it” and instead say, “It has been returned to where it came from.”  Have your children died?  They are returned to where they came from.  Has your mate died? Your mate is returned to where he or she came from.  Have your possessions and property been taken from you?  They too have been returned to where they came from. 

                Perhaps you are vexed because a bad person took your belongings.  But why should it be any concern of yours who gives your things back to the world that gave them to you?

                The important this is to take great care with what you have while the world lets you have it, just as a traveler takes core of a room at an inn.


That’s it.  Too deep for you?  I doubt it.  It’s fairly simple, I think.  What about it being too metaphysical?  All the references to returning to “that which it came from:”  Who is that talking about???  That’s where a lot of people need help when reading anything religious or philosophical.  If you keep your mind open, you can see the similarities the most diametrically opposed philosophies and religions.

 “That which it came from” can refer to whatever you’d like to let it mean.  Some, I know, will believe that everything comes from God, and to God it shall return.

 A Buddhist could read this text and allow their resolve in the impermanence of all things to be reaffirmed.  Thus, they would say, “all things that come to me do so through a myriad of causes and conditions.  The world is ever changing, and more causes and conditions will lead these things; my children, my mate, my belongings, out of my possession, even if I try to cling to them.” 

 If nothing else, you can’t really argue that the earth, in combination with the sun, and possibly other parts of the uni/multi-verse have provided you with any thing you have.  The earth delivers us with the atoms and conditions that bring about all things you have.  The sun in conjunction with the earth’s bounty (notably chlorophyll) provides a reliable source of energy for much of what we think we need.  If you have some possession that leaves your grasp, it has, at least, returned back to the universe.  Atheists, non-theists, and theists can agree here: we are but travelers in this body, and our possessions are not more ours than the furniture in the hotel. 

Stoicism really tries to separate everything into two categories:

1) Things I can change: my attitude, my decisions at the present and my planned decisions, etc.. and

2) Things I can not change: The way other people act, external forces like nature (both human and nature like in the sense of forests), how my body is constructed, etc.. 

As Both Epictetus and The Dalai Lama advise; don’t worry about what you can’t change, and just change what you can.

 This book my brother gave me points out how similar Epictetus’s ancient advice is to the contemporary serenity prayer, “Grant me the strength to change what I can, the patience to accept what I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  In my opinion, Patience is what’s really important here.  As you practice, you will fail from time to time.  The space in between will grow as you practice, provided you don’t get disheartened.  That’s why patience is so darn important.  You will, without a doubt, catch yourself being attached to ephemeral pleasures and get frustrated when these slip from your grasp.  You’ll probably blame yourself (which Epictetus explains is worthless), and get frustrated at your inability to uphold these principles which are so obvious as you read them, and so difficult when you apply them to your life.  That’s just how it works.  You need patience to stay encouraged.  If you’re worried about how frequently you fail at this, don’t be.  If you can do something about it, do it.  Sound familiar?  Thought so.  

In time and with practice, you will learn to not only distinguish what is in and out of your control, but to actually internalize the concept.  You’ll be late for work and just miss the bus because someone’s car stalled at the light; you are already running late because the power outage reset your alarm clock.  You’ll look at this situation and realize that you finally get to sit down and relax for a few minutes, while waiting for the next bus.  Worrying about the bus that’s already pulled away is only going to make you more stressed.  It’s foolish, but even the long time stoic might find themselves reciting some mantra to remind themselves, it’s out of my control. It’s out of my control.  Someday, you will get it, though. 

Just to throw in a little Buddhist side note:  This is the purpose of meditation in many schools of Buddhism; both Theravada and Mahanyana, for sure.  When focusing on breathing, for example, we learn to understand cause and effect relationship of a simple experience.  When I contract my diaphragm, my lungs expand to fill the vacuum, which causes the air to flow into my nostrils, which gives me the sensation in feel in my nose, then on my palette, and down into my throat, and into my lungs.      Eventually you will go through similar steps when in walking meditation, regarding the way you keep balance, propel your body forward, fail to fall through the floor, etc..  This practice is internalized and doesn’t even need to be thought consciously eventually.  This helps make the process of remaining calm as your bus pulls away a little easier.  In fact, it is said that meditation will train your body to focus its energy (Chi or Qi, if you know anything about Chinese medicine) in the right places to utilize it for more productive thoughts, as opposed to getting placed into worry.     

I have been relating stoicism to Buddhism exclusively in this post, but should mention that stoic thought is found in many eastern philosophies.  This might be a good precursor to reading the Tao Te Ching if you’re at all interested in Taoism.  It will also help make any of Buddha’s teachings a little easier to understand since it more clearly distinguishes the fact that “the world is full of suffering unless I master my mind” found in stoicism, with “the world is ugly and pointless,” which is nihilistic.

I have made this an extremely long (but hopefully not too boring) post and should probably stop at about this point.  I am officially placing this book on the Recommended Reading List, and bringing this post to a close.  Here’s hoping that you walk away feeling a like you didn’t just waste your time.  If you did, I hope you practice realizing that certain causes and conditions lead you to doing so, and that grumbling about that is useless.  On the other hand, a quick comment as feedback will help me know how to do better next time, so: Don’t grumble to yourself, but please do so to me, so I can fix the problem. 

Topics: Philosophy | 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “The Art of Living: Stoicism”

  1. Sarah Yvonne Says:
    July 9th, 2008 at 9:52 am

    Not too long at all. I’m buying that book. I think I could use a little stoicism in my life.
    Oh, and, excellent comparisons. You’re a talented writer.

  2. Billy Says:
    July 9th, 2008 at 10:01 am

    Thanks for the feedback. I think it’s a wise investment. One important thing to note; and this holds true for other stoic writers like Chuang-Tzu, use them as examples, but realize they are usually on another level than us. Master Chuang was said to have been singing the day after his mother died, because he realized death’s inevitability and came to accept it. While his internalization of concept is admirable, it seems to rob him of some humanity. We have to avoid falling victim to blind, emotionless idealism. Thanks again for your support.