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The other morning the sun was shining. The Autumn colours were vivid. Natural beauty was only too obvious. I sat most of the morning in hospital waiting for further chemo treatment. The nurse came up to look at the wrist band they gave me to confirm who I was. I'm pleased to say it was still me. After treatment I returned home and although I remained me the weather had changed. The sky turned a purple orange, ominous. The wind was blowing and the bright autumn leaves were shaking on the branches, the ones that were still clinging on that is. I opened the french doors of my study and the leaves blew in. Nature is in a state of constant change that’s for sure, but is there a constant in all this constant change?
Stoicism makes the same claim made by all the classical schools of philosophy and that is by pursuing stoic principles happiness is the natural outcome. I do think that one of the great ways to find happiness is to appreciate the changing face of nature, not chase after them, but simply appreciate what’s available in the here and now, the one moment of stillness in a world of change. All of us would like to live 'the good life' and the good life is what these schools of philosophy promise. The only difference between them being in what exactly they mean by 'the good life'. For some it was much as we understand that term today; it was all about the pursuit of pleasure, surrounding ourselves with the good things of life. This means that in so doing we are placing our trust in exterior circumstances, circumstances that are bound to come to pass. The stoics in recognising this recommended another course of action.
The word for happiness for these classical philosophers is eudaimonia.
Plato defined eudaimonia as the ultimate good, the ability to live well, perfect virtue. All this means that if we are to find happiness we have to stop chasing after externals but rather expend our energy by working on our inner nature. Eudaimonia actually means having a good daimon, the spirit within. We still have an understanding of this when we talk about being in good spirits. We also speak about being out of spirits. For the stoics whether we were in or out wasn’t anything to do with our passing moods but everything to do with whether we were in tune or out of tune with our true nature.
The stoics believed that in having a good spirit you are by necessity in harmony with both our essential nature and the universal spirit, not carving out a separate existence but at one with life. The question that must follow is how we might go about achieving this harmony.
One of the great thinkers of modern India, Sri Shantananda Sarswati, said this:
The moving mind looks for happiness in getting and experiencing things. These do not suffice, for when the mind has one thing it immediately rushes after another.
Does this mean that we shouldn’t appreciate the ever changing nature of the phenomenal world? Yes and no. It all depends on the state of our minds.
He goes on to tell what our state of mind should be.
The still mind finds happiness in everything. The kingdom within is the reservoir of peace and bliss. No violence can reach there. Devotion is the gentle art of unity.
To explore the meaning of these beautiful sentences we are by necessity exploring some of the key techniques recommended by the stoics. Here for instance is what Marcus Aurelius says: Nowhere does a man find greater quiet or greater freedom than when he retires into his own soul. He has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he immediately finds perfect tranquility.
Perfect tranquility is not found by chasing after a plethora of desires in competition with all those who are doing the same. To find happiness in everything requires the mind to be brought back to the present and by making a profound connection with the here and now discover what 'the gentle art of unity' means in practice.
With my best regards, William
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Caretake this moment. Immerse yourself in its particulars. Respond to this person, this challenge, this deed. Quit the evasions. Stop giving yourself needless trouble. It is time to really live; to fully inhabit the situation you happen to be in now. You are not some disinterested bystander. Participate. Exert yourself. Epictetus
Every moment is special because it has it's own particular beauty. To appreciate this beauty we have to be observant. This is the message that has already been stated in these emails.
Men who are foolish and ignorant are careless and never watchful; the man who lives in watchfulness considers it his greatest joy.
This is what the Buddha had to say about the matter. For watchfulness to take place we must work towards a continual return to the point of attention, and, at this point, to have in mind not only the object of observation but also the silent witness who throws light onto every situation. When the Buddha talks about watchfulness he is talking about a continual act of self remembering.
The conscious core that illuminates all we experience is the essential thing. Everything else is passing and peripheral. For higher states of consciousness to be achieved, recourse to consciousness must be our continual practice. Without this we will be sucked into the experiences that rise before the mind, and constantly seek self identification with those experiences, not only identity but also satisfaction. Our habitual modes of thinking will inevitably take this present experience and relate it back to the time those habits of mind first arose, the past. This is all automatic unless a conscious impulse is put in, followed by consistent practice. The practice is to continuously refer things not to some sense of personal identity derived from the past but to the conscious witness which is ever watchful and utterly of the present. Things can never become mundane when this takes place, never routine, because they are consciously lit in the conscious present. Out of this arises an entirely different and revitalised experience of life. This is why Epictetus states that the present: is time to really live; to fully inhabit the situation you happen to be in now.
There is something more to be said about the word mundane. It has come to mean dull and routine, but originally it meant of this world, worldly, earth bound. A mundane experience of life has no spiritual dimension. It cannot break through into the brilliance of the present, into the timeless moment that is the present. By treating our experience as mundane that's what it must remain.
Yet still there is grace, and whatever the modes of thinking and feeling we have adopted, the present and all the eternal powers cannot help but on occasion make their presence felt however our habits of thought might confine them. We would die of despair otherwise. Our task is to connect with these powers in order to open up new possibilities, live life afresh revitalised by the source of all vitality.
There are those who are satisfied with life. They justify to themselves habits of mind which allow them to dream their life away. There are those who are miserable with what life offers. For them, strangely enough, it can be easier, for the simple reason that their dissatisfaction gives them a greater desire to break the mould.
I've long had this habit of daydreaming. I've justified it on the grounds that it is creative thinking, but over the last year there has been an ever growing sense of growing dissatisfaction. Now I am more observant about how my mind works. What I have come to realise is that when I indulge myself in this way, my mind doesn't become more creative but quite the opposite. Now I am certain that any connection with brightness and perception can only take place by abandoning what I previously encouraged. Now, not only am I more awake, I am more content.
Bring a sense of connection to all you do.
Stand back and be watchful
Not only of the things that are outside yourself,
But also be observant of patterns of thought and emotion.