Contemplating Seneca #16: The Happy Life

From Seneca’s On the Happy Life, his 92nd letter to Lucilius:

What is the happy life? It is peace of mind, and lasting tranquility.

We all want a happy life, but do we know how to obtain it? Happiness does not come in the acquisition of more and more possessions. Often, we think those trifles will bring us happiness, and they may for a fleeting moment. But in the end, they will leave us wanting more.

This will be yours if you possess greatness of soul; it will be yours if you possess the steadfastness that resolutely clings to a good judgment just reached.

What does greatness of soul mean? Whenever I think of the word soul, I think of the word heart. It is the inner substance within you. It is the emotional part that often acts independently of the mind. Greatness of soul is courage and bravery. It is honor and fidelity. It is not thinking about laying down your life for a friend but doing it. It is doing the right thing without giving it a second thought, because you have developed the proclivity to doing such noble endeavors.

We have heard the ancient stories of men and women who possessed greatness of soul. If you look around you, you will see that it still exists. But it is not enough to witness it in the lives of others, we must also seek to possess a great soul.

How does a man reach this condition? By gaining a complete view of the truth,

The ways to getting it starts with a complete view of the truth. Truth is not always what we were told by our relatives or friends. It might not even be what we learned from our teachers and civic leaders. As George Berkeley said, “Truth is the cry of all, but the game of few.” But as correct as this statement is, it needs to be a game for all of us. We must dispose ourselves the embrace the truth, wherever it may be found (John Locke). It might bring us into an uncomfortable place, but we must go there anyway no matter how painful. We must challenge our assumptions, gain a complete view of the truth, and embrace it.

by maintaining, in all that he does, order, measure, fitness,

Or in other words, we must become disciplined in all aspects of our lives. It is a daily process that must be practiced daily.

and a will that is inoffensive and kindly,

This is a tough one today where we might be viewed as soft and weak by our peers. But the reality is that it has always been tough, which subsequently is the opposite of soft and weak. To deny yourself requires sacrifice. To do it for another, who may not be inoffensive and kindly, is an act of humility. There is strength in humility, and the incredibly strong ones are those who can remove biases, hurt feelings, and indifferences from their interactions with others and treat them in an inoffensive and kindly way.

and that is intent upon reason and never departs therefrom, that commands at the same time love and admiration.

The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne said, “He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak.” Even softly spoken, the most powerful words are the ones spoken in wisdom. You cannot force people to bend to your way of thinking, but you can persuade them if you are tactful and willing to listen to both sides of the issue. This will not only help in forming a resolution but will gain you respect from others.

In short, to give you the principle in brief compass, the wise man’s soul ought to be such as would be proper for a god.

The Roman emperor Caligula, like many other rulers before and after him, thought he was something super special. So much in fact, that he considered himself a god. He was a mad sadist and most likely insane, hardly the proper credentials for a god.

Imagine you are a pagan living back then. * Who would you want for a god? Hopefully, someone who would have you (or mankind) in his best interests. You would want one that is just, honorable, and wise. You would want one that is loving and merciful. And if that is the kind of god you would want to follow, then it would only make sense that you would try to emulate that god and have such a soul as that. In short, you would strive to live a virtuous life and set yourself to the highest standards possible.

The happy life is possible for all of us. If that is what you want, then Seneca has a solution you should consider trying. What do you have to lose?

*This is paragraph is not about religious beliefs, only an imaginary thought experiment.

Contemplating Seneca #23: Considering Vampires

In childhood, we hear of the monsters that come out at night. And for some reason, these monsters always prefer to come out at night, where they prefer the cover of darkness. And because of their predilection for the night, we must remain in the safety of our beds.

When we grow up, we forget about the monsters. We tell ourselves that the night is safe and that because we are adults, we can handle the things that go bump in the night. In doing so, we lose our fear and stay out later and later. In Seneca’s 122nd Letter to Lucilius, he talks about these people who sleep during the day and stay up throughout the night. Check out this description he gives of them:

Moreover, the bodies of those who have sworn allegiance to the hours of darkness have a loathsome appearance. Their complexions are more alarming that those of anaemic invalids; they are lackadaisical and flabby with dropsy; though still alive, they are already carrion. But this, to my thinking, would be among the least of the evils. How much more darkness there is in their souls! Such a man is internally dazed; his vision darkened; he envies the blind. And what man ever had eyes for the purpose of seeing in the dark?

From his words, you would think he is talking about vampires, the ones who drink the blood of their innocent victims. And these men who prey on the weak and the helpless, they are still men, though Seneca would describe their actions more closely to those of monsters.

When we read about vampires or watch them portrayed in movies, we learn some interesting facts about them.

  • They come out at night. If we are not out at night, we drastically improve our chances of never seeing them.
  • They cannot come into our homes unless we invite them in. This is a key step. We know vampires are evil, so why would we let them in? Yet somehow in the stories, they always get the invitation to come in. One would think this would be a good practice for any type of evil that exists in the world. We cannot invite it into our homes where it could work its destruction.
  • They do not like holy water, crosses, wooden stakes, or garlic. Reminders of our faith is offensive to them. This first line of protection makes it harder for them to work their evil. And why the garlic? I am not sure, but a little extra seasoning never hurt.

If you do those three things, you might have a chance. Unless the vampires try to change the rules.

  • A vampire that can come out during the day and tries to blend in is a very scary vampire indeed. I am reminded of the Blade movies where they experiment with sunscreen. A vampire that can come out during the day is a much greater challenge to overcome. We would really have to be on our guards against these wolves in sheep’s clothing.
  • Equally dangerous is the one who can get into our homes without an invitation. Doors and windows are no longer the only access points to our homes. Now we have different gateways (television, phones, personal assistants that may be watching us and have access to the door locks and alarm codes, etc.) that need to be protected from evil.
  • And let us not forget about the ones that can take away the reminders of our faith, that which keeps our minds on nobler things. We should think twice about the ones that say the Ten Commandments should not be taught, crosses and other religious items are offensive, and that traditional family values are archaic and no longer a necessity in our modern society. A strong family is one of the greatest protections against the spread of evil. To break it apart is to weaken it allowing the monsters a better opportunity to perform their nefarious deeds. Vampires do not go after the strong and prepared. No, they are like any other predator and would prefer to go after the weak and the frail. We would be wise to not give them that opportunity.

Vampires are supernatural beings found in the fairy tales. But all fairy tales have some form of truth about them. There are evil people in this world who are the real vampires and monsters. They may not have preternatural abilities, but they have evil within them. We must be vigilant and guard ourselves and our families against them. We must not allow the evil to come into our homes and into our minds perpetuating the cycle. We must prepare our children so they may have a chance against this evil.

Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. -C.S. Lewis

It all starts within us and within our choices. If we lead by example, we can show others what a good life is. The 12th century abbot St. Bernard said idleness is the root of all evil. It starts by getting up early to do the activities of the day, staying productive, and wearing ourselves mentally and physically out in order to get a good’s night sleep.

But indeed to one who is active no day is long. So let us lengthen our lives; for the duty and the proof of life consists in action. Cut short the night: use some of it for the day’s business. -Seneca

Contemplating Seneca #96: Subtract Desire

Here is a universal piece of advice that spans across cultures and times:

Desire Less

Starting with Solomon in the Judeo-Christian world: Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless. –Ecclesiastes 5:10

From the Buddhist and the Second Noble Truth: All suffering comes from desire.

And then from the Greeks and Romans:

The man who overcomes his desires is braver than his enemies. –Aristotle

Wealth consists in not having great possessions, but in having few wants. –Epictetus

You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire. –Seneca

I have to watch myself. There seems to always be a desire to possess more, but what’s the point. Do I really need these things? Will they make my life better?

In terms of possessions, I have to look at the value of the item. Not necessarily how much it costs financially today, but how much it will cost me in the future. Do the benefits outweigh the costs? Benefits would be an improvement to my life. Cost would be a subtraction such as time and money. A good example would be a free game on your phone. The cost today might be minimal, or in this case nothing, but what it would cost you in time and money (which you are not making while playing the game) could be enormous. Is that free game worth it? Is it really free?

When it comes to looking at the benefits versus the costs, there are some areas where I try to reduce budgetary limitations. If it benefits mind, body, and soul, should I be concerned about how much I desire in terms of possessions? For me, it is a tough question. Will the cost of a formal education be worth it in the end? Can I justify spending X amount of dollars on a book authored by someone who spent a lifetime working in that subject? [The answer has to be YES] Is that piece of exercise equipment really worth that much and do I really need it? [Only if I use it]

I need to desire less when it comes to possessions. It is a tough dichotomy. I need to become a minimalist in owning trivial things. But the things that truly add value to my life and may help me add values to the lives of others, I can’t be afraid to go after.

Philosophically throughout the ages “to desire less” is the right thing to do. How to balance it is still something that I need to figure out. In time, I will get there.

“If you wish,” said he, “to make Pythocles rich, do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires.” Attributed to Epicurus in Seneca’s 21st Letter to Lucilius: On the Renown Which My Writings Will Bring You

Contemplating Seneca #77

I went down another rabbit hole of reading Seneca’s Letters when I got to the seventh, On Crowds. It is a good one that speaks much of what is going on in the U.S. today. For example, this gem:

To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.

But unfortunately, this is not where I am going with today’s selection from the Stoic philosopher. Instead, my mind is on this piece that comes later in the letter:

Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.

Are you associating with those who will make you a better person? Are you giving back by making those around you better?

Today is a call for us to consider our “crowd.” They should elevate us to be better humans. We should return the favor and in doing so, one small drop in the world becomes a better place.

I especially love the last part of the above quote: for men learn while they teach. It might be one of the greatest ways to learn. It has helped me over the years. Ben Franklin said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” There is no better way of involvement than in being able to teach others.

Farewell.

Contemplating Seneca #50: Righteousness

One of my all-time favorite books that I love to refer to is Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. For some reason, the imagery of that story will never leave my mind. It is a book about walking the path. To make it to the end, Christian cannot deviate to the right or to the left. He has to keep going. Whether you are a believer in Christ or not, this book has a universal appeal that is still relevant 345 years after it was written.

The image I am calling to mind today is that of Christian at the beginning of his journey. He is carrying a large weight on his back, and there is no respite from this burden. It isn’t until Christian comes to the cross that he can unload the weight of sin from off of his back.

The most important contribution to peace of mind is never to do wrong. –Seneca, Letter #105: On Facing the World with Confidence

Far from perfection, I have felt the burden of my wrong-doings. Like a stone laid upon my conscience, the weight has been so great that even my posture has been affected. The only way to gain relief is to make amends. To put the skeletons in the closet is to increase the pressure on the mind. By confessing our sins and seeking forgiveness, we can release ourselves from the yoke of our transgressions.

Wouldn’t it be better to never have to carry this weight at all? How much taller could we stand if we were never held down by our own mistakes? It might be an impossibility to never do wrong, but it is something we can certainly strive towards.

How?

Let’s start with the minor mistakes, the accidents. Things happen. Life happens and accidents are a part of life. Give them the attention they deserve and then move on. Don’t let it bog you down.

But the conscious decisions to do wrong, they are the ones we need to look out for. The conscience is like a muscle. You can put a strain on it, and it will feel the burden. Continue to add a greater and greater weight, and soon you will become immune to the weight (the ominous hardening of your heart).

Guard your mind. Mind your actions. Refrain from wrong-doing and you can become righteous. Not only is this an honorable pursuit, but you will have the freedom and peace that can only be achieved by a mind free from the weight of guilt

Getting Acquainted with a Stranger

Last week I had the chance to catch the March 17, 2020 Ed Mylett Show: Revolutionize Your Life w/Steven Kotler. This podcast episode really got the gears in my head turning. It was a wide-ranging interview that went from achieving “flow state” to the future which is much closer than we think. The interview was so good that after listening to it, I bought Steven Kotler’s latest book.

Twenty pages into this unbelievable page-turner, I came across the following paragraphs:

It’s not easy for any of us. Studies done with fMRI show that when we project ourselves into the future something peculiar happens: The medial prefrontal cortex shuts down. This is a part of the brain that activates when we think about ourselves. When we think about other people, the inverse happens: It deactivates. And when we think about absolute strangers, it deactivates even more.

You’d expect that thinking about our future selves would excite the medial prefrontal cortex. Yet the opposite happens. It starts to shut down, meaning the brain treats the person we’re going to become as a stranger. And the farther you project into the future, the more of a stranger you become. If, a few paragraphs back, you took the time to think about how the transportation revolution would impact future you, the you that you were thinking of was literally not you. – The Future Is Faster Than You Think: How Converging Technologies Are Transforming Business, Industries, and Our Lives by Peter H. Diamandis, Steven Kotler

Visualize your future self and part of your brain shuts down. You’ve got to be kidding me! How much time have I spent with part of my brain turned off? But the more I think about it, the more it starts to make sense. Thinking about my future self is fuzzy. Of course I have an idea of the path I want to travel, but who will I be when I get there?

In Ed Mylett’s May 19th episode: Visualize Your Victory w/ Phil Mickelson, I had the opportunity to hear one of the all-time great golfers discuss his visualization techniques. Here is a man who knew what he wanted to do since the age of eight. Before his tournaments and individual rounds, he visualizes what he is going to do. Then he goes out, and more often than not, does it. How do you visualize victory and who is in the vision? Is it you or the stranger also known as the future you?

Once again, the wheels started turning, but this time I was thinking of a colleague I met in Munich. Sergei is on his way to becoming a big boss for a major luxury car company. When he was eighteen he signed a fifty year contract with the company. Fifty years! Growing up in the U.S., I never heard of such a thing. I’ve known people who worked for the same organization their whole lives, but never did I hear of them signing a contract to do it. Could you imagine professional athletes doing that today?

Sergei had the plan from a young age that he was going to go to the top. Much like Phil Mickelson, he had the plan and then he took the steps in the right direction. It is a stark contrast compared to many of the people I have worked with in the past.

For many, their current career is only a temporary point along their projected path. They work their day jobs hoping for something better to come along. There is nothing wrong with that, unless the temporary becomes permanent and the growth becomes stagnant. These workers never envisioned spending their whole lives working for the same company, because they’ve always dreamed of being somewhere else. But what could they have achieved if they put all their efforts into their current situation? What opportunities could have abounded if instead of looking to the unforeseeable future, they put their focus on the tasks needed to make today a success? How many organizations would benefit from wholly invested employees rather than the wayfarers only on a temporary stop?

I would not give a fig for the young man in business who does not already see himself a partner, or the head of a firm. –Andrew Carnegie

Oh the possibilities if we could only realize the vision! If only we didn’t have a prefrontal media cortex shut down every time we imagined our future selves! How do we become acquainted with this stranger we have yet to meet?

I’m still trying to work that one out. I think I see my future. At least, I think I have a vision of the direction I want to go. Who will I be when I get there? No idea. That part comes down to hope. I hope that through personal growth and a constant effort towards living a virtuous life, my future self is a juggernaut of wisdom. Here’s to hope!

I might not know who I will be when I get there, but I have an idea of how I am going to get there. I am going to allow my mind’s eye to see both near and far. Like Phil Mickelson, I am going to visualize the short-term victories. I already do this to some extent picturing my workouts before they happen. Twenty minutes before I come into the factory, I sit in the parking lot setting my intention for the day. And like Sergei, I am going to look far into the future and set my sights towards that path. That means creating the milestones and then doing everything in my power to hit them. It means adapting, overcoming, and being relentless in the pursuit.

To pay the rent on this post, I leave you once again with the words of Seneca from his 39th Letter to Lucilius:

No man of exalted gifts is pleased with that which is low and mean; the vision of great achievement summons him and uplifts him. –On Noble Aspirations

Alexander, my prayer and hope is that you will achieve what you see within your mind’s eye. Create the vision, heed its calling, and let your dreams become a reality leading you to the heights of your own personal greatness.

Contemplating Seneca #11

Bad Things Happen -Good.

What is the worst that could have happened? I could have been in the garage when the tree fell? But even that would not have been so bad if my heart was strong enough to bear the fright? No, things could have been much worse. I could be unable to work, paralyzed, lost a loved one, or even dead. None of those things happened. I am in good health. I have breath. I am alive.

A tree fell on my garage and my basement flooded, again. What a week! For a moment, a very brief moment, I felt a little disheartened. Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?

At this moment fate is preparing some device against me? –Seneca

This is life and well, things happen. I cannot bemoan the fact that bad things happen. There is no “woe is me.” The worst did not come about. I can rebuild and prepare the best I can for what fate will bring next. From these experiences, I will grow stronger. I will learn new skills. In fact, these events are really opportunities for growth.

There is no chance, no destiny, no fate, that can circumvent or hinder or control the firm resolve of a determined soul. –Ella Wheeler Wilcox

The philosophy I have studied now has to become a practice. I must follow the example of the Stoics, whose words have become a daily part of my reading. “Control what I can control.” I can’t control nature. I can control my emotions and my perception of the things happening around me. I will find no solace in being frustrated. I will find solace in work, in rebuilding.

 “Let us, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and wait.”

-Orison Swett Marden, Pushing to the Front

I’m reminded of GOOD:

Contemplating Seneca #85

This week I started listening to the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast #1470 with Elon Musk. One of the first topics discussed is why Elon Musk is selling all his houses. What was his answer? Target vector. Huh? Apparently his houses increase his chances of being targeted by the outside. All his wealth, and he is looking at it as a burden. His plan for the future is to rent his lodgings.

As I listened to this I was reminded of Thomas J. Stanley’s The Millionaire Next Door. According to the book, the average millionaire is not the guy with all the flashy possessions. Instead, it is the guy who lives modestly and doesn’t spend his money on everything that catches his fancy. I read this book in my thirties, and it was a slap in the face of my twenties. Back then, I wasted all kinds of money on the wrong things. I was all show with no real financial substance to back it up.

There was another thing I was reminded of as I listened to Elon Musk’s interview. Check out these words from Seneca:

Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?”…If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes. – Letter #18: On Festivals and Fasting

Practice poverty. Practice living below your means. Do this and if Fortune deals the dreadful blow, you will not face anything that you have not previously endured.  As Seneca says later in the same letter, “Let us practice our strokes on the “dummy”; let us become intimate with poverty, so that Fortune may not catch us off our guard.” Many of us have dealt with the hard times before. Hopefully, all of us have recovered from those times or are actively in the recovery process. The process has made us more resilient. But let us not forget that the hard times can come again. Wouldn’t it be better to prepare now?

Contemplating Seneca #20

It was weakness on my part for letting it bother me, but in truth I have been guilty of doing the same thing.

Have you ever held information with the intention of increasing your value? Have you ever kept your cards close to the vest rather than share it with the team? I used to work with someone who did. He would keep vital information from the team so that he could deploy it later for his own perceived gains. It made him look foolish, not only to the leadership but to the rest of the team. He had high aspirations of advancement, and in his mind holding that information made him an indispensable member of the team.

It is easy to judge when you are the in the group that is left out. Such an act is truly selfish and keeps the rest of the team from performing at a high level. Have I ever done it? I can’t say I haven’t. I haven’t always been the best teammate. I have sometimes considered personal gain to be more important than the success of the team. He was foolish for doing it, and I have certainly been foolish in the past.

What is the purpose of knowledge? Is it to keep it to one’s self? If it is something that is not used, isn’t it useless? As Aristotle said, “The purpose of knowledge is action, not knowledge.” It is good to have knowledge, even better is to share it. I am not talking about breaking any ethical laws or corporate espionage. Instead, I am saying to share the knowledge you have for the good of the team, for the good of those who would derive benefit from it.

The sage on the mountaintop is no benefit if nobody goes up the mountain, or if he never comes down it. Any knowledge or understanding I have is ready to be shared with any who would hear it. If I have any wisdom, I will gladly pass it on. In fact, that is its purpose. Not only that I can live a good life, but that others may benefit from it as well.

Consider these words from Seneca’s On Sharing Knowledge:

And when you say: “Give me also a share in these gifts which you have found so helpful,” I reply that I am anxious to heap all these privileges upon you, and that I am glad to learn in order that I may teach. Nothing will ever please me, no matter how excellent or beneficial, if I must retain the knowledge of it to myself. And if wisdom were given me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it. …Therefore I summon you, not merely that you may derive benefit, but that you may confer benefit; for we can assist each other greatly.

Contemplating Seneca #61: Mental Digestion

In his 84th letter to Lucilius titled On Gathering Ideas, Seneca makes a  few great analogies to prove a point that is pure wisdom.

Look at the bees. They gather what they need to make honey and then take it to their homes. In the hive it is transformed into honey, no longer retaining the form it had before coming in.

Likewise, the foods we eat transform within us. No good comes from food if it retains its same form when leaving the body. Food is only beneficial when it is converted and its nutrients are delivered to the cells.

The same can be said for reading. I grew up primarily reading fiction. This was an enjoyable way to build my vocabulary and reading comprehension. But after a while the reading became excessive, and I wasn’t growing. And if what you are reading is not beneficial, then what is the point? It is undigested mental food. Knowledge not put into practice is useless.

In this letter, Seneca also briefly compares undigested reading to a father and son relationship. Imagine reading a self-help book and following it verbatim. Regardless of what the author writes, you follow it without qualifying the information. This too is harmful. Rather than becoming an improved version of yourself, you are becoming a clone of the author.

When I think about clones, I immediately think of my son. Alec will often follow me and do the same things I do. I love that he does this, but the world certainly does not need another version of me. My hope is that he holds on to the good, discards the bad, and finds his own improved methods. He can be a good student while at the same time being his own person.

Proper nourishment of the mind, body, and soul requires the necessary transformation in order to succeed.