Enlightenment. What does it mean and how do we get there? And if we find it, what happens next?
If we attain that which we desire, it will do us no good to sit back on our laurels and retire from the world. Enlightenment, like any other quest, should go beyond ourselves. If it does not help others, what is the purpose?
Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.
Zen Kōan (A Zen Story)
Chop wood and carry water. The only difficulty is in the labor. But as time passes and the labor is performed, the body and mind adapt. The process develops muscular endurance and strength. Muscle memory recognizes the actions needed and the nervous system improves. The body becomes efficient in the task. Reaching enlightenment does not change the scope of the work. The wood still needs to be chopped. The water must be carried.
The metal is heated to the highest temperature required for it to become malleable. If it is cooled, then the metal cannot be shaped. The solution is to keep the metal hot.
When one is heated to the highest degree, one must have continued heat to maintain the highest temperature.
-Seneca, Letter #109: On the Fellowship of Wise Men
The ideal scenario is that we came out of the previous year better than we started it. We developed habits (think of muscle memory) that served us. We adapted and adjusted to the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) that our external environment threw at us. Ideally, we are in prime form. Maybe, we have even found enlightenment along the way.
What do we do now?
We maintain the heat. It is our only choice. If we become comfortable and remove the heat, then we will become stiff and not be able to mold into our true shapes. Therefore, we must continue the work. We must perform the labor no matter how far we think we have come. Chop wood, carry water. Just like we did in previous days, so must we continue to do so today and into the future.
It is the time of year when friends and family gather around to celebrate the holidays. It is a time for joy. For some, it is also a time of stress. Last minute shopping, decorating, and cooking can take its toll. And then, there is that one family member (or maybe more) who is the proverbial thorn in the side. Or there is the co-worker at the Christmas party that draws the ire of all.
What can we do about the ones that get underneath our skins and are content to stay there throughout the holiday season? We can look to these words from Marcus Aurelius and use them to our advantage:
Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.
Peace on earth or at least in the family gathering starts with us. We have our own standards to maintain. We have the discipline that has guided us through the years and up to this point. Moments like these is what we have been preparing for. The only ball we should be dropping is the red one to ring in the New Year. We do this by being strict with ourselves. We don’t get goaded into the opposing ideologies that separates loved ones and adds tension to the holiday meal. We hold the line as the sovereign rulers of our minds and bodies.
What do we not do? We don’t hold others to the incredibly high standards we have set for ourselves. No, for them we must be tolerant. When it comes to a “good” life, we can lead by example rather than try to force others into compliance. This is the high road we must seek and stay on.
And yet, these words are easier to write than to do. Too many times, I have cast judgment on others. Too many times when my heart should have been full of peace, love, and happiness, it had been resentful, bitter, and arrogant. It has been those times when the foundations of all my progress had crumbled. I didn’t hold the line. Instead, I only expected others to hold it.
The standards I have set for myself are my standards and mine alone. We all have our own paths to follow. Why should I expect others to follow mine?
I am convinced that my way is the right way. It is only out of love that I would hope others adopt my way of thinking. Yet, if I preach love but don’t show love, then love is truly not in my heart. If my words do not harmonize with my actions, then I am nothing more than a hypocrite. Therefore, I must hold to the words I preach. Love, compassion, and understanding. Tolerance with others; strict with myself.
Convince them if you can. And if not, remember: the capacity for patience was given to us for a reason.
Patience. If differences arise during these festive gatherings, a healthy debate should be acceptable. But if it gets heated, we should remember our training and the purpose of the occasion in which we are gathered. Convince them if you can. Otherwise, be patient. Patience is a form of love we should express freely and abundantly.
May you have peace this holiday season. May it be merry and bright.
What was I designed to do? I study, learn, experience, and try to help others. I take of myself, my family, and the land I live on. When I work toward these pursuits, I am doing what I was designed to do.
What was I not designed to do? Everything that was not mentioned above. Everything else falls into one of two categories: laziness and procrastination. I was not designed to be lazy. And if I get busy doing something I was not designed to do, then I am just procrastinating on the things I was designed to do. I was built for action, not inaction.
*What is it in ourselves that we should prize?
What is it in ourselves that we should prize?
I think it’s this: to do (and not to do) what we were designed for. That’s the goal of all trades, all arts, and what each of them aims at: that the thing they create should do what it was designed to do.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditation 6:16
Going after the things I wasn’t designed to do will leave me in a bad state. My soul will desire what it is not getting. I will be always wanting and never satisfying the hunger within. And the worst part is that I will be gaining that which I do not want. For example, my body was designed to be in motion and to eat real food. If instead, I choose to sit around all day and eat junk, I will not be doing what I was designed to do. Instead of getting the body I want, I will get a body that is weak and fat.
And if you can’t stop prizing a lot of other things? Then you’ll never be free—free, independent, imperturbable. Because you’ll always be envious and jealous, afraid that people might come and take it all away from you.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditation 6:16
Free, independent, imperturbable. That is the prize of doing what we were designed for. That is a prize we should all pursue.
Become a person of value offering something the world wants
There are many ways to avoid poverty. Does that guarantee people from ever experiencing it? No, but considering the ways to avoid it and putting those ways into action can reduce one’s chances of poverty.
How about death? What can we do to protect ourselves from it?
This is an interesting question. We know the man with the sickle is going to reap his harvest. No one escapes death, but how many of us will die long before we ever take our last breath?
Here are one’s best protection against dying before one’s soul truly departs from the body:
Reduction of bad stress
Consumption of real food
Growing the heart. Not the ticker that is a part of the strong, healthy body one is creating, but the one known as the soul. This can be achieved by practicing bravery and kindness.
Outside of poverty and death, there are other misfortunes that can cross our lives. Some in and some out of our control. How do we deal with relationships gone wrong, bad luck, bad draws, and injustice? We must find the things in our control and work on them. And for the ones outside of our control? We must learn to navigate those waters as well and work around them the best we can.
There is so much we must do to fortify ourselves against the hardships of life. We don’t have to solve them all today. But for true peace of mind, we must figure out what they are.
Today, I am going to take a moment and think about this. When I have gathered my list, I am going to pick one and work on it. Just one at a time is enough. Done daily, I may be able build a nearly impregnable fortress.
Let us pretend for a moment. Let us pretend we are enemies.
If I was your enemy, what would you do? Would you openly attack? Attempt to publicly shame me? Would you go out of your way to do me harm?
And as for me, if I was your enemy, what would I do? Well, after careful consideration, I would employ the tactics of the devil. I would smile and let you believe that I am your friend. I would try to direct you in the direction I would want you to go using subtle persuasion and humility. Shoot! I might even try to tell you the devil’s greatest lie: That I don’t exist. It is hard to fight an enemy if you don’t know he is even there.
Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.
If I were your enemy, my goal would be to break you without ever fighting. But thank the Light, we are not enemies.
Manipulation by those in power
Et cetera, et cetera
Oftentimes, we don’t know we have enemies. We don’t know we are in a battle. We are not even aware of our adversaries’ existence. Yet, they are there. They are trying to direct us where they want us to go. They are trying to break our resistance without fighting.
What can we do?
We must seek out what is really there, not what is easily seen on the surface, not what our enemies want us to see.
How can we do this?
We must become our own fact-checkers. We must listen to our hearts. And when our hearts tell us something is amiss, we must do the research and solve the riddles dressed in plain sight.
In other words, I have noticed many who deal fairly with their fellow-men, but none who deals fairly with the gods. We rail every day at Fate, saying “Why has A. been carried off in the very middle of his career? Why is not B. carried off instead? Why should he prolong his old age, which is a burden to himself as well as to others?”
Have you ever thought this? I have a grandfather that died when my father was just a small boy. Boys need their fathers to teach them how to be a good man, a good husband, and a good father. The reverberations of my grandfather’s death have been felt across three generations.
Beyond my grandfather, I think about all the others that I felt died way too early, ones that I loved and the ones that had so much more to teach me.
And with a bit of shame, I think of those that have lived beyond their usefulness. I think about the ones that no longer, or in some cases have never, given back to society. Why do they get to go on living when the good ones have died?
And what difference does it make how soon you depart from a place which you must depart from sooner or later? We should strive, not to live long, but to live rightly; for to achieve long life you have need of Fate only, but for right living you need the soul. A life is really long if it is a fulllife; but fullness is not attained until the soul has rendered to itself its proper Good, that is, until it has assumed control over itself.
They, whose death hit me the hardest, were the ones who lived a good life. They fulfilled their purpose and moved on. Of course, I wish they were still around, but that is only my selfish desire. Whether I live another day or forty more years is irrelevant. What matters is what I do with the remaining time I have on this earth. If I can live rightly, if my soul is in the right place, then my purpose is fulfilled. I can peacefully go at any time knowing that I did the best I could with the time I had.
What benefit does this older man derive from the eighty years he has spent in idleness? A person like him has not lived; he has merely tarried awhile in life. Nor has he died late in life; he has simply been a long time dying. He has lived eighty years, has he? That depends upon the date from which you reckon his death! … Nay, he has existed eighty years, unless perchance you mean by “he has lived” what we mean when we say that a tree “lives.”
Am I living, or do I merely exist? There are two questions I must consider daily:
What am I grateful for?
What good have I done this day?
Answering these questions keeps my perspective where it needs to be.
Let us measure them by their performance, not by their duration. Would you know wherein lies the difference between this hardy man who, despising Fortune, has served through every campaign of life and has attained to life’s Supreme Good, and that other person over whose head many years have passed? The former exists even after his death; the latter has died even before he was dead.
Merely existing is dying well before your last breath. Is this what our Creator had in mind when He brought us into this world? A person who dies in this manner will surely be forgotten as soon as they are dead and rotten.*
Why do you ask: “How long did he live?” He still lives! At one bound he has passed over into posterity and has consigned himself to the guardianship of memory.
The ones I loved, the ones I miss, are they really dead? Their bodies may not be here, but their memories still are. Even more importantly, their lessons live through my actions. They are a part of me. As I pass their teachings onto the next generation, they will continue to live.
Age ranks among the external things. How long I am to exist is not mine to decide, but how long I shall go on existing in my present way is in my own control.
Control what we can control. There are people who lived thousands of years ago that we still remember. Their deeds have not been forgotten. There are others whose memory ended as soon as they passed. We cannot control the length of our lives, but we can impact the length of our legacies. What will I do in my life to affect the generations after me?
And what, you ask, is the fullest span of life? It is living until you possess wisdom. He who has attained wisdom has reached, not the furthermost, but the most important, goal.
Wisdom is the ultimate goal. How true this is! Wisdom calls all of us. She does not discriminate who hears the calling. It is our responsibility to heed the call. If any has ears to hear, let them hear.
It is by no longer an interval than this that we precede one another. Death visits each and all; the slayer soon follows the slain. It is an insignificant trifle after all, that people discuss with so much concern. And anyhow, what does it matter for how long a time you avoid that which you cannot escape? Farewell.
Death comes for all of us. Let us make peace with this fact and do everything in our power to truly live and not merely exist. Remember the great ones that made a lasting impression in our lives and preserve those memories for future generations. Seek the ultimate goal of wisdom and do the wise one’s work so that someday you too may join the ranks of those who went before you.
In memory of those whose deaths we felt were untimely. For more see:
“If everybody else jumped off a bridge, would you?”
I heard this question often as a child from well-meaning adults. I hated being asked this. The problem was that I liked jumping off bridges. There was a hint of danger wondering if a train would come down the tracks before I got to the jumping-off point. There was a question of whether the water was deep enough. And of course, there was the question of if I could swim back to shore. In truth, I would jump off the bridge, I just doubted everybody else would.
And if everybody was doing something, would I do it? Well, the majority is not always bad or wrong. And if what they were doing made sense, then why not? I might do it as well. But I haven’t always sided with the majority. In fact, I have found myself usually going against the grain. I don’t eat like everybody else. I don’t find enjoyment in wasting away on the sofa watching television. I may occasionally post to social media, but I abhor the endless scrolling that many prefer to while away the time. And though it often draws the ire of some, I think differently. Rarely do I find myself aligned with the majority. My goal isn’t necessarily to be different, yet here I am.
The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane. -Aurelius
Some, even family and friends, have considered me insane. And though their perception of my way of life might suggest so, I believe our definitions of insanity are rather different. To me, insanity is:
Eating cheap and overly processed food with little nutritional value based on the merit of it being tasty and loaded with sugar.
Drawing breath and not actually living.
Constantly watching the lives of others and being triggered by their opinions.
If I can escape that type of insanity, I feel I made the right choice.
The fictional character Rand al’Thor was a hero in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. In the books, he wielded tremendous power, but he also had a problem. He couldn’t always control it. To tap into the source of power, he had to enter a mental void. To practice control and to refine his ability to utilize this power, he practiced staring into a flame. This practice would allow him to empty his mind of all distractions. Simply put, he meditated.
When I am angry, I lose control. My defenses are weakened, and I open myself to attack. All the ground I have covered is lost. Confucius said, “When anger rises, think of the consequences.” In the moment, it is difficult to think of the consequences. Wise words indeed, yet not so easy to apply.
Little effort is required to get angry. And once angry, control is lost. Power becomes unwieldy. In truth, anger is weakness.
The key is meditation. Even if it is a moment to gather yourself and your emotions before acting. When the conflict arises, take a step back. Don’t allow your ego to gain control. Instead, calm yourself and determine what you should do and the possible outcomes. Nobody wants to be weak. So, if you want to be strong, find a way to calm your mind.
If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will avoid one hundred days of sorrow.
The music begins. Dancers line up with their partners and begin going through the rehearsed movements. They have heard this song countless times. They have practiced their steps until it became second nature. When the music concludes, everything went according to the script. Everything was perfect.
The wrestler steps onto the mat. Hours of preparation leads up to this moment. Everything that could have been done has been done. The only thing left to do is take on the challenger. The challenger has also prepared for this moment. Here, there is no script. The wrestler has an idea of his opponent’s capabilities, but who really knows what is going to happen when the match begins. All he can do is hope that he can meet the demands of the task at hand. It won’t be perfect. It could be messy. Hopefully, the preparation was sufficient.
We want life to be the dance. We want it to go smooth and unfold exactly as we imagined it. But this is not the case. And if you think about it, this will make for a boring life.
Instead, life is more like wrestling. You train, you prepare, and you hope your efforts were enough to meet the demands thrown at you. You know things rarely go according to the script. In fact, you count on them going off the rails at any moment. A dancer slipping on a wet spot would consider it unlucky. The wrestler expects the wet spot to be there. He expects the obstacle.
The only way to really win in this life is to overcome the obstacles. Train, prepare, and put yourself in the best position possible. The obstacles are coming. This is life. How effectively and quickly you overcome them will determine your success.
The art of living. The true artists in life are like the wrestlers.
Rarely will you ever see their preparations. What looks like grace and style on the stage was developed in the darkness when nobody was looking. They don’t know what obstacles will be thrown at them, but it does not matter. They will meet them head on and do what it takes to get to the next challenge.
Examining Epictetus #30: A Formula for the Impossible
In The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performer’s Primer, Steven Kotler suggests there is a formula for achieving the impossible. And as preposterous as achieving the impossible sounds, consider how many impossibilities were overcome just in the last few years. Apparently, impossible is really “not possible yet.”
Start with the end in mind.
To achieve the impossible, we must start with the end in mind. The end is what you want to accomplish in your lifetime. This is your massively, transformative purpose (MTP). MTPs include curing cancer, solving world hunger, and other types of world-changing goals. In other words, the things that seem impossible now but can be conquered in the future.
To find your MTP, start by creating a list of 20-25 items you are interested in. These are items that you might be interested in learning about over a free weekend. Review your list and find out how they intersect with another. Spend time in those intersections and see how they relate. Learn the history and jargon on the subjects you are interested. As you work through your list, a purpose might come to you. Maybe this purpose is massive and transformative.
Segment your MTP
Next, you must create milestones. These are the high, hard goals (HHG). An example would be writing a book in your newly found niche. Your HHGs may take years to complete. That is okay. The HHGs are the milestones along the road to your purpose in life.
Work daily on your HHG
You have your MTP. You have your first HHG. What’s next? Now is the time to break down your HHG into clear goals. These are the small daily tasks that need to be completed each day. If you are writing a book, this would be to complete a certain number of words daily.
Clear goals need to be in line with your HHG. If you honestly believe in your MPT, then the clear goals are the most important tasks you can do in a day. Therefore, it is best to go after them first and get them done.
What about tasks that are not a part of your clear goals? They must be eliminated or pushed back as much as possible. If they are not a part of your MTP, how important are they? And if it can’t be avoided, then you will need to schedule your clear goals around it. The objective is to complete the clear goals.
Epictetus said, “Practice yourself, for heaven’s sake, in little things; and then proceed to greater.” I doubt Epictetus was speaking about your goals and massively transformative purpose, but the principle still holds true. Every day practice the little things (your clear goals) and create a series of daily wins. Stack up enough clear goals, and you will find yourself moving closer to your major milestones (HHGs). Keep stacking and in time, you might find yourself achieving the impossible.