Contemplating Seneca #24: Wisdom for Happiness

It is clear to you, I am sure, Lucilius, that no man can live a happy life, or even a supportable life, without the study of wisdom; you know also that a happy life is reached when our wisdom is brought to completion, but that life is at least endurable even when our wisdom is only begun.

A happy life. Seneca said it is only possible for the person who studies wisdom. Why is that? Wisdom may not make a person perfect, but it is the pinnacle at the top of the mountain. To study wisdom is to climb the mountain. And as it increases over time, the student learns to avoid foolish mistakes in both words and deeds.

Solomon also said the one who finds wisdom is happy, that her profits are greater than monetary wealth (Proverbs 3:13-15). Money comes and goes, but wisdom, once attained, doesn’t flee. It doesn’t fluctuate based on speculation, inflation, or corruption.

The acquisition of wisdom is a journey that improves and makes life endurable.

This idea, however, clear though it is, must be strengthened and implanted more deeply by daily reflection; it is more important for you to keep the resolutions you have already made than to go on and make noble ones. You must persevere, must develop new strength by continuous study, until that which is only a good inclination becomes a good settled purpose.

Daily reflection. One must take the time to measure progress. The most effective way is to do it daily. Is there a better way to do this self-examination than by journaling?

One of my favorite podcasts is Ben Greenfield Fitness, one of the best shows to learn about human optimization, ancestral living, and biohacking. Check out step #3 from Ben’s evening journaling practice.

As you breathe, for anywhere from 3 to 6 minutes, begin to visualize your day. During this time, I recommend you replay your entire day in your mind like a movie, watching yourself in the third person and identifying what you have done well, what you could have done better, and where you felt most self-actualized and connected to your purpose statement. Watching the character of yourself in your mind, in the third person, ask yourself what you aren’t rooting for the character to do, or wishing they’d done differently, or where they failed and learned. Ask yourself what you are proud of that character doing and how you really see them acting their best. Finally, ask yourself where that person seemed most “in the flow” and doing exactly what seems to be the very reason they are in the movie in the first place. As you play the movie in your mind, stop when necessary and write down in the journal what you have done well, what you could have done better, and when or where you lived your life’s purpose.

Sabbath Ramblings: What My Morning Journaling Practice Looks Like (& How I Combine Breathwork, Visualization, Tapping, Prayer, Gratitude, Service, Self-Examination & Purpose). -Ben Greenfield

Examine yourself; scrutinize and observe yourself in divers ways; but mark, before all else, whether it is in philosophy or merely in life itself that you have made progress.

When I first began journaling, I would write down the events of the day. It was a non-value-added list of bullet points. After a while, I became bored with it as I was not reflecting on a deeper level. Now I try to look at the day from multiple angles. How did I perceive myself in those actions? How did others possibly perceive my actions? What actions brought my life closer to my goals in life? What did I do to not only improve my life but the lives of those around me? What were my good deeds and how can I improve on my bad ones?

Philosophy is no trick to catch the public; it is not devised for show. It is a matter, not of words, but of facts. It is not pursued in order that the day may yield some amusement before it is spent, or that our leisure may be relieved of a tedium that irks us. It moulds and constructs the soul; it orders our life, guides our conduct, shows us what we should do and what we should leave undone; it sits at the helm and directs our course as we waver amid uncertainties. Without it, no one can live fearlessly or in peace of mind.

The purpose of philosophy. It is the user’s manual on how we should live. Nobody cares whether I memorized the lawn mower’s user manual. But if it is their grass that I am cutting, they do care whether I can operate the mower. The same with philosophy. To quote others and study for the sake of knowledge only does no good. Henry David Thoreau said, “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” I must do more than just study philosophy, I must practice it. I must be a philosopher.

Countless things that happen every hour call for advice; and such advice is to be sought in philosophy.

Wisdom leads to making good choices. It leads to a happy life. Through daily reflection we can refine our choices in the hopes of preventing the bad ones. Those bad choices are available to us constantly. How do prevent them? We turn to our user’s manual. We turn to philosophy.

Words in italics from Seneca’s 16th Letter to Lucilius: On Philosophy, the Guide of Life.


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Striving for Perfection, Catching Excellence

Around the perimeter, my wife and I walked laps around the track. We talked, we laughed, and we burned off a few extra calories. It was a low-stress activity that will hopefully strengthen our muscles and improve our bone density.

On the field, our son was practicing with his soccer team. He loves playing and having some of his best friends from school makes it more enjoyable. With each practice he gets better. At this level, one talented player can dominate the rest of the team. That might work in the short-term, but eventually the team’s success will depend on the abilities of the rest of the team. The better they can defend, pass, and communicate amongst each other, the better their chances of consistently winning.

Alec might not say it, but he wants to be perfect. He doesn’t like missing shots, giving up the ball to the other team, or losing. That is understandable. Who wants to lose?

Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence.

Vince Lombardi

When I first started writing, I was still trying to find my voice. The quality of my writing was not good, a far cry from excellence. Thankfully, I have readers who let me know when I miss the mark, and they are usually quick to point out my mistakes. It upsets me when I overlook something, but I take it for what it is. Their critique and my willingness to improve makes me better. I will never be a perfect writer, but I am going to chase it with everything I got. I am going to be relentless and maybe one day, I too will catch excellence.

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Poor Trade-Offs

The man was tired. All day long, he had been working in his father’s fields. It was no easy chore, but as the oldest son, one day those fields would be his. The labor he performed on that day was well worth the reward he would have in the future.

When he got home, his brother, who had not been working in the fields, was in the kitchen making dinner. It was a stew prepared with lentils and fresh meat. The aroma from the stew and the fresh-baked bread was enough to drive the older son crazy. He asked his brother for some. The brother said yes on one condition: trade your birthright for the dinner. The older brother pleaded with him. He said if he didn’t eat soon, he was going to die. The younger sibling didn’t budge. Finally, the deal was made. For Jacob’s stew, Esau filled his belly and gave away his inheritance (Genesis 25:29-34).

For one morsel of food, he sold his birthright. -Hebrews 12:16

How many remember this story? Who could be so desperate to do such a thing? Esau’s father, Isaac, was probably one of the wealthiest in the area. Esau could have gone somewhere else to get food. He could have waited a little longer and made his own supper. But instead of holding out for the greater reward of his inheritance, he traded it away for the immediate gratification of filling his belly.

What a fool! And yet, how many times in my life have I done the same thing? How many times have I traded a better future for something insignificant? I call Esau a fool. I read the story as a kid. I knew what it was about. I did the same thing. Not once, but too many times to count. Who is the fool now?

True happiness…is not attained through self-gratification, but fidelity to a worthy purpose.

Helen Keller

Loyalty to a purpose. It is rather simple. The journey is not all interstate and smooth sailing. There are dirt roads and treacherous paths. The stops along the way are not designed to help us reach our destination. Instead, they are strategically placed to get us to stop, to stay. As enticing as they seem, would it not be better to keep on going?

Feature art: Esau Sold Jacob his Birthright and the Mess of Pottage by Matthias Stom

Hated for Who You Are

You could pretend to be something you are not. It might work for a while in fooling others, but in time your façade will be exposed. All would look well on the surface. And on the inside, all would be at odds.

However, some might suggest you should fake it until you make it. In some instances, this could work if you were actively trying to make it. But without any internal change, faking it would only be another form of pretend.

I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.

Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain was at the forefront of a new and polarizing music genre. What was this grunge music? It wasn’t like the Rock ‘n Roll people were used to. Some people loved it; others hated it. Cobain was a talented artist. He could have played any genre of music he chose. But that wasn’t him. And so, he stayed true to himself. He played his own music.

Maybe, you are not happy with where you are at in life. Maybe, you aspire to greater things. This is not pretending. This is becoming who you were meant to be.

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Be Yourself

Popeye was one of my favorite cartoons as a child. He was a somewhat normal guy trying to do the right thing. When times got rough, he would crack open a can of performance enhancing spinach and solve the problem.

That is what I wanted to be like—a normal guy able to overcome the obstacles of life. Of course, I didn’t want to be in a position where I was always getting bullied, where I was forced to drink a cup of courage in my direst need, just able to survive to see the next day.

I yam what I yam and dats all what I yam. -Popeye the Sailor Man

I quoted the quote and sang the song, but back then I never considered taking it to heart. I am what I am. I am not Popeye, not like Mike (Jordan), or any other childhood hero. Nope. I am what I am. I can emulate the actions of my heroes and mentors, but in the end, I must remember:

Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.

Oscar Wilde

Training the Will

What are the things that require willpower?

  • Not sleeping too much
  • Not eating junk food
  • Abstaining from drugs/alcohol
  • Exercising
  • Putting down your phone

For many, these things are difficult. Each one on this list is a battle I struggle with today. I saw the damage these behaviors can cause if left unchecked. I am constantly training to overcome these obstacles. I am far from perfect (obviously). Often my guard slips and so does my feet from the path I know I should be on.

If I can’t do what I know is right, I will not be able to improve. Therefore, the training of the will is indeed important. Important not just for me but for all of us.

Training of the will must be an element of moral education. A weak willpower can result in the inability to do what you know is right, or the inability to prevent what you know is wrong.

Jigaro Kano

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Emperor’s Log #16: Love Your Nature

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work -as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for -the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?

The alarm goes off at 4 a.m. If I am lucky, I got over six hours of sleep. The quality of the sleep is directly related to how well I spent the previous day. This morning, as is with every morning, is begun with a choice: I could get up, or I could sleep another hour. Granted, that hour would be fitful, and at best, would result in only a few minutes of light sleep. Even with the realization of these minimal benefits, I must consider how soft the bed is, how warm it is under the covers, and how good it feels to remain horizontal. To lie in bed for another hour does have its consequences. I set my alarm for a reason. Not getting out of bed would mean I miss my morning workout, skip my meditation and reading, and negatively impact the quality of my writing. Is it worth it?

-But it’s nicer here….

So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?

What is my nature? I love how Aurelius tells us to look at the other creatures on this planet and observe how they go about their natural business.

The ant starts the day early. She has a mission to find food and bring it back to the colony. This happens in the warmer months so that the colony can survive during the winter. The ant is always busy. Being busy for the sake of being busy is nothing to brag about. But the ant, she is busy with a purpose. She is doing what is in her nature. I’m reminded of these words from Solomon: “Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise, which having no captain, overseer or ruler, provides her supplies in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest.” -Proverbs 6:6-8

I used to be that sluggard. Oh, I wanted to be more active, but it was “nice” being lazy. I didn’t have a mission, and I didn’t even know where to go to find one. There was no purpose to my life. How much did I miss out on due to this lifestyle? Who knows! I thought I had an infinite amount of time, and I could always be more productive the next day.

Agreed. But nature set a limit on that -as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota.

Nature set a limit on how long to stay in bed, on how long to wait around before getting to work as a human being. We produce melatonin at night to help us sleep. Our cortisol levels are elevated in the morning signaling us to get moving. We are governed by our biology which has been optimized through the ages thanks to our ancestors. We are highly evolved, functioning machines. The only thing that can override these natural processes is our minds.

The alarm that tells me to get up in the morning was created by intelligent beings. And though they had the best intentions, the alarm has a built-in flaw. There is a little button on it called the snooze, which can be pressed as many times as the one in bed wants to press it.

When I went to bed the night before, I gave myself a limit on how long to sleep. I set my wake-up time based on that limit. Going over the limit puts my plans for the day in jeopardy. These plans are important to me. It is my work, what I was called to do as a human.

You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for the dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts.

This is about love! Once you have found your calling in life, then you have no choice but to follow it. Pablo Picasso created over 140,000 works of art in his lifetime. Mozart composed over 600 pieces. Isaac Asimov, not even the most prolific writer, wrote over 500 novels. They loved what they did. They were fueled by their passion. They lived according to their nature.

I know I squandered much of my early years. The past cannot be changed, yet the future still holds untold possibilities. If I don’t want to repeat the errors of my youth, then I must see to the business of the day. No snooze, only purpose. It is time to get up and practice my art.


Italicized words by Marcus Aurelius, Mediations 5:1

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Today Is What Matters Most

What if there was a 70% chance you were going to die sometime at the end of the day? How would you go about your day? Would you approach it any differently?

Obviously, with a 70% chance, you couldn’t just throw it all in the wind, burn all your bridges, and go out with a bang. After all, there is still a 30% chance you would get to see the next day. But if you were given those odds, would you:

  • Spend a little more time the things that matter,
  • Hold your loved ones a little closer, or
  • Reflect a little more on the beautiful?

Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.

Buddha

This morning I am born again. I may still hear the echo of yesterday, but I can no longer change the sound. It is buried in the past. Tomorrow has not yet arrived. As a matter of fact, tomorrow may never come at all. With yesterday gone and tomorrow not guaranteed, all I have is today. All I have is this moment right now. I can affect this. I can do all the things I should have done yesterday. I can do all the things I hoped to leave for tomorrow. I can do this now as if my next breath were to be my last.


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Unsolicited Advice

It is the advice unasked for that bothers me the most. And when I get it, which seems to be daily, I try not to be rude and do my best to listen to the speaker. But while listening, my mind tends to wander. Who is this person telling me what is in my best interest? What have they done to be a credible speaker? The worst is when it is from an absolute stranger. Who are you to be telling me how to live my life?

Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.

Paulo Coelho

We live in a world full of people who know what is best for us. This is the way it has always been and most likely will always be. We can’t prevent it, but we don’t have to be a part of the problem. We don’t have to be the ones giving unsolicited advice. Rather, we can spend more time figuring out how to best lead our own lives.


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Examining Epictetus #40: This Body Does Not Belong to You

The first inspection on the house I was going to rent went well. There were only a few minor issues with the property, and those were all well-documented. Over the course of the next year, I took care of it like I owned it. After all, this was my home. When the rental agreement expired, we conducted a final inspection. I turned in the keys and moved on with my life.

When I was conceived by my parents, I moved into my new body. Since then, I have tried my best to take care of it, but in truth, I will one day return it to the ground from whence it came. As long as I am in my body, it is the home of my soul and spirit. I do not own this body. Instead, I am just borrowing it on a long-term lease.

Well, what did Zeus say? ‘Epictetus, if it were possible, I would have made your little body and possessions both free and unrestricted. As it is, though, make no mistake: this body does not belong to you, it is only cunningly constructed.’

Discourses 1:1.10-11

How profound are these words! We are only clay in a body that doesn’t belong to us. If Nature or the Earth is truly our Mother, then we must give back to her the bodies we have borrowed. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.

What should we do then? Make the best use of what is in our power, and treat the rest in accordance with its nature. And what is its nature? However God decides.

Discourses 1:1.17

This body that I am renting, what should I do with it? It may not belong to me, but it is my home. Would I let it fall into disrepair because it is only a rental? Of course not! For if my mind and soul are trapped in a toxic environment and are unable to operate in its optimal state, what kind of condition will they be in when they move on and go to their next existence? Can a dull me expect to shine in my next incarnation if it did not have its proper training?

What should we have ready at hand in a situation like this? The knowledge of what is mine and what is not mine, what I can and cannot do.

Discourses 1:1.21

This is our situation. This is our knowledge. We are only here temporarily. In time, we must all die. None shall escape. Unable to change this situation, how will I expire? Will I mourn and bewail the inevitable, or will I face it bravely? Will I fight to stay trapped in a corporeal state, which is destined to break down and decay in its attempt to be reunited with the earth? Doing so will only delay the elevation of this spirit to a higher plane.

I must do what is in my power and let go of the things that are not.

That’s the kind of attitude you need to cultivate if you would be a philosopher, the sort of sentiments you should write down every day and put in practice.

Discourses 1:1.25

A philosopher’s goal is to find the truth, to study it, and then learn how to operate within its parameters. This is my goal. I never dreamed I would be a philosopher. And yet, here I am, a mere student longing to understand.


Quotes from Epictetus’ Discourses Book 1, Chapter 1.

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