24 May 2012


Your sanity and your ability to watch large amounts of news don't get along too well with each other.

You'd have to be overwhelmed by the enormity of humanity's suffering and your inability to do anything about it if you did nothing but watch and read news.  Either that or you'd have to desensitize yourself to the point that nothing really affected you.  Both are equally problematic.

Are we really strong enough to deal with a world where we have this much information about how people are capable of acting?

Yet we hear the exhortations over and over again.  Engage!  Engage!

Engagement is fine, but that engagement has to be attached to an actual ability to influence events.  Engagement in an issue that you have no ability to act on is at its root an exercise in abnegation.  It denies the place of the self, and the location of the self, and the ability of the self, all for an illusory feeling of connectedness.

Be compassionate for those whose lives are worse than yours. Give money to charities that help them, but don't let sorrow for their situation overwhelm you.  There's an untold amount of suffering that doesn't get our attention, and there's an untold amount of happiness which we are left ignorant of.  Neither are as important to our ability to live a good life as the forming of real, compassionate relationships with those around us.  If we cannot develop within ourselves compassion for those sitting across a table for us, do we really believe that our compassion for people half a world away is heartfelt.

I spent a good deal of my early 20's addicted to the news.  I knew that it was time to stop when I finally noticed that the life I was living and the emotions that I was feeling weren't my own.  I was vicariously living other people's lives and feeling other people's reported feelings.  The route to happiness and a good life can come through compassion and understanding, but it builds upon a genuine relationship with others and our own selves, not mediated experiences.

As my good friend, albeit 2000 years removed, Epictetus put it, everything has two handles, the one by which we can carry it and the one which we can't. I put in one of the first bits on this blog because it guides my thinking.

Disengage from those things which you have artificial connections with and engage fully with those things that are all around you, those things which you can truly engage with.

I don't advocate this as a simple selfishness; self-centredness doesn't bring happiness along with it.  I advocate it as reality, as a building up of honesty and strength and decency in ourselves so that we can have the reserves necessary to deeply engage with what is important to us.

Engaging is not the first step of the dance, it comes long after the music has started.  Being good at it requires  training our reason, developing our perspective, and coming to an understanding of ourselves.  The best dancers make it look easy, but you only see the dance, not the hours and hours of mind numbingly routine practice.  Disengage for a bit, get that practice, and come back all the better for it.

05 May 2012

An egalitarian cosmopolitanism

One of the tragedies of humanity is that we very rarely have the ability to wholeheartedly and completely embrace our experiences.  This seems to be even more true when you think of travelling.  Experiencing new places and cultures should serve to broaden our views of ourselves and others, but they're all too often just used as a marketing tool.  They allow people to pare down their social interactions instead of expanding them.  They serve as a key to conversation for the children of the middle and upper middle class.  

No stories about your trip to Italy?  Please go sit at the poor kids' table.

The search for a good and simple life can't exist alongside those types of divides.  A simple exercise in logic by Epictetus in the Enchiridion highlights this:

"44. These reasonings are unconnected: "I am richer than you, therefore I am better"; "I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better." The connection is rather this: "I am richer than you, therefore my property is greater than yours;" "I am more eloquent than you, therefore my style is better than yours." But you, after all, are neither property nor style. 

45. Does anyone bathe in a mighty little time? Don't say that he does it ill, but in a mighty little time. Does anyone drink a great quantity of wine? Don't say that he does ill, but that he drinks a great quantity. For, unless you perfectly understand the principle from which anyone acts, how should you know if he acts ill? Thus you will not run the hazard of assenting to any appearances but such as you fully comprehend."

The variety of human life and experience in one neighborhood can be as great as that experienced by an overly excited and highly guided tourist taking in the polished facsimiles of a street that locals do their best to avoid.  We reduce the value of that which is near to us, regardless of its values.  At the same time we inflate the value of that which is far away from us.  The human being, whether they be a Stoic, or Buddhist, or Christian or Muslim for that matter, who can't enjoy a walk in a neighborhood park is put into that situation because they have long ago closed their eyes to the world around them.

Cosmopolitanism in the Stoic sense is based upon that basic premise, that each place has its own nearly infinite series of attractions.  When we tune out to what is around us, we're left seeking novelty.  When we tune out to those around us, we're left judging them on superficial matters such as where they've been to.  As we come to appreciate ourselves and others for who they are, we find ourselves at home with all sorts of people, in all sorts of places.  Hundreds of thousands of frequent flier miles aren't cosmopolitan, being at home wherever you might find yourself is.


23 April 2012

Do you claim all of your home?

One of the central problems with associating the idea of home too much with a place is that you're making a claim to be a part of something that you probably do not even begin to understand.

Our ignorance is unlimited.

When you say that you are proud to be from a place, you should do so knowing what that place really is and what it has been.  Pride in nationality or group often stumbles when it is presented with all of the requisite negativity that comes from the way that groups and nations work.  There is very little that is moral or compassionate in the way that a state functions, and the ways in which groups define themselves and confine themselves leave little room for the questioning and personal growth that is a standard part of the good life.

Be a human being, not a Brazilian.  There is an overwhelming history of compassion and love that comes with that humanity, and it sits right alongside an overwhelming history of brutality and hate.  That is not to say that there aren't things about your community or your people that you shouldn't stake a valid claim to, that you shouldn't be proud of.  There's little of you in that claim though, besides that which you choose to take for yourself.  And if it is a taking on of your own choice, why limit it to one place or one people?  Search far and afield for the positive.

Take all that is good, strive to be all that is good, and always keep in the back of your head the fact that goodness and decency are something to be fought for.  All too many throughout history, around the world, in your town,of your people, under your flag forgot that. That is part of being human, but it is also something that you claim when you put yourself under their banner.

14 April 2012

Where do you live?

Understanding home is pretty difficult.  We normally assign a pretty generic place name to the idea of home.  The further away we get from the place the more and more generic it gets.

Right now I live in the city of Mississauga.  If someone from around here asks me where my home is I would tell them "Mississauga".  I own a little bit of land here, have a house, just built a raised garden bed in the backyard this morning before it started raining.

If Mississauga is my home, and Mississauga is in Canada, wouldn't that mean that Canada would have to be my home as well?  Yet it's a whole different story to refer to a country as your home.  I grew up on the east side of Indianapolis, Indiana.  It was hard for me to ever even say that Indianapolis was my home.  I definitely didn't feel at home downtown, or out west, and definitely not up north.

The United States, even as it grows seemingly more and more dysfunctional by the day, still registers as home for me in the big picture.  My brain puts out alarms whenever the conversation of home and country even come up, it's a topic riven with competing psychological interests.

But when you break away from the psychological attachments and look at what I've just said, it makes no sense.  A city that is Canada is where I would call home in any normal ol' conversation, but the same doesn't stand true for Canada itself.  That word, home, like most words, has so much meaning bound up in such a small space that it's hard to treat it with any sense of greater understanding.

If the US is home, then wouldn't the deep heart of Mississippi be home?  It's the US?  If Mississauga is home then wouldn't the mansions up and down Mississauga Road be home?  They're in Mississauga.

When any of us are asked about the idea of home, we have answers at the ready.  When we start to break those answers down though, we're left without a good understanding of whether the thing that we call home is specific enough to have any real meaning.

Understanding that contradiction is one of the important parts of understanding the idea of cosmopolitanism.

12 April 2012

The Stoic is cosmopolitan

Nope, wrong one.

Interesting, but nope again.

Cosmopolitan in it's old, little understood, sadly too often reserved for just those who travel around staying in luxury hotels kind of.

Two weeks ago I'd planned on doing a short series about fatherhood, but hey, the baby is here, and being thrust into fatherhood kind of removes the immediate will to write about it.

I'm working on the idea of home this week with my students, and it got me to thinking about the way that Epictetus develops the idea of a cosmopolitan person, the person who regards the world as their home.

More on that as time and baby allows this week.

More like this

27 March 2012

Making it up as you go along

I begin this writing project by talking about names.  I was anticipating the birth of my first child at that time, and here I am now, still anticipating that same event.  Now, of course, that anticipation is building and building as it gets closer and closer to her arrival.  Soon I'll add another title to the list that I've been building up over the years.

This week I plan on writing a bit about being a father.  It's something that I don't really know anything about.  I met my own father three or four times in my life, and I never spent a good deal of time around other people's fathers either.  I think that everyone that becomes a parent ends up making it up as they go along, but I'd like to take the week to try to get my head around some ideas.

Hopefully it'll help me to sort out some of my ideas, and maybe you can give me a little help along the way.

19 March 2012

My cup overfloweth, buddhism as daily practice

Imagine your mind as a cup.

This cup fills itself.

Thoughts and reactions and ideas slowly bubble up from the bottom.

Whether you are optimistic or pessimistic; you are full.

There's no need for anyone to come by with a pitcher and top you up.

You are overflowing.

What drops out of you dirties up your table, splashes onto others, requires towel after towel after towel to clean up.

You try to stop the cup from filling itself, but that's impossible.

It's nature is to fill itself, whether you want it to be full or not.

What you have to learn to do is to safely pour a bit from your cup out into other vessels when they are a little empty themselves.

14 March 2012

Finally, the Fourth!

There's a spare minute in my day, and so I can finally put up the final part of the Basics of Buddhism.  There are Four Noble Truths.  #1, #2, and #3 are done.


There's a way to set things right.

03 March 2012

Suffering isn't a broken leg

Some people like things simple, some people like explanations.  The problem with simple things is that they don't always represent the underlying complexity of what's going on.  The problem with complex things is that they can hide the real simplicity that underlies much of our life.

Here's the simple stream of consciousness reply:

27 February 2012

My problem with the third truth of Buddhism

Just in case you forgot the first two, they are, in my words:

1.  Life is Awry
2. Grasping and craving create suffering

Number 3 seems almost anti-climactic:  You can get rid of suffering.

Sounds great huh?  Everyone would love to have a life with no problems, no suffering.


21 February 2012

Hairless Monkeys Grasping at the Air

Those crazy monkeys keep trying to grab the moon, never realizing that all they're seeing is a reflection of it in the water.

A couple hundreds of thousands of years have left us far less hairy than them, but it hasn't made us any less confused about what is around us.

10 February 2012

Monkeys reaching for the moon

The condition that we find ourself in doesn't really make much sense.

Life, ultimately, is awry.

The way that this condition has been described in a lot of English translations of Buddhist texts is suffering.

07 February 2012

Rule #1 Life is Awry

There was a week of studying nonstop getting ready for class, then half a week of being sick and slowly getting better, and now I can get back to what I had planned on putting up here a couple of weeks ago- a basic explanation of some of the central ideas of Buddhism.  Here we go:

#1  Life is Awry

20 January 2012

We're strangers in our own brains

There's surprisingly little going on in our heads, even when they seem full of every thought, worry, and stray wisp of consciousness that we can muster.  Our stream of consciousness never really dries up, and even when we want it to be still so that we can stop and focus and think, it largely just does what it will.  

That stream of consciousness is a lot like a summer blockbuster, a lot of explosions and interactions and ramblings, but little substance.  

One of my siblings asked me about this when I was visiting for the holidays, and it inspired me to go back and see if I could conjure something up. I'm going to start a list of posts this week on some of the basics of mindfulness.  The Stoics have a great deal to say about mindfulness, and, really, all great religious and spiritual traditions focus on mindfulness, but the basic practices of Buddhism probably tell us the most.   

Seeing what's around us is a lot more difficult than it seems, with our egos and expectations and prejudices constantly jumping in the way of what's in front of our eyes.  Reading posts on the internet don't really do anything to help us with this, as Socrates observed long long long ago, reading something often just convinces us that we know something, when we have really just read it.  To get started on knowing, rather than just having read, we need to do.

Here's a nice video to get to just that, it takes about an hour, and you'll want to watch it somewhere quiet and where you're not being pestered.  Enjoy:

17 January 2012

Decide what to be and go be it

That's a really fun smile.  That's Sharon Lebell.

I've never met her, but sometimes there are people out there who you can just imagine really getting along with.

She is apparently a master player of the hammered dulcimer.  I couldn't really say what a hammered dulcimer is, but Google of course can, so here it is:  

Not that I've ever heard her play the dulcimer.  If I'd never looked at her website I'd never have known that she played it.  I "know" her from her translations of Epictetus.  I feel a sort of kindredness to her.  Here is someone who took the time to become a master of the hammered dulcimer, who first wrote a book about naming children, and then who wandered into the realm of Epictetus, Stoic philosophy, and contemplating the good life.

Some of us take roundabout ways to reach what eventually feels natural to us.  Others find a way to get there young, and, sadly, most of us never really move out onto that path.  I don't know whether Sharon was the first or the second, but I find myself definitely moving through the first.  Sometimes I feel like David Byrne, waking up, looking around, and asking myself, "How did I get here?"

Somewhere along the way I asked myself the question, paralleled in the title with a song by the Avett Brothers, and here translated from Epictetus by Sharon Lebell:

"Who exactly do you want to be? What kind of person do you want to be?  What are your personal ideals?  Whom do you admire?  What are their special traits that you would make your own?"

And once you ask yourself, you have to face up to it.  You are not, no matter what your momma told you, perfect, and you will never have the chance to be perfect, but you do have the chance to be better, to be more at peace, to be more happy and open and forgiving and honest.

 "It's time to stop being vague.  If you wish to be an extraordinary person, if you wish to be wise, then you should explicitly identify the kind of person you aspire to become.  If you have a daybook, write down who you're trying to be, so that you can refer to this self-definition.  Precisely describe the demeanor you want to adopt so that you may preserve it..."

11 January 2012

Reading is hard

I spend a bit of time each day reading The Meditations, not reading in depth or for any great reason, but just finding a random bit and reading it.  When I do that I use an old translation by George Long, replete with thee's and thy's and didst's.  There's nothing about past speech which makes it in any way "better" than modern speech, and there are arguments to be made that putting classical texts into modern English, or even vernacular, open them up to far greater audiences, but there's something about the movement and the flow of older English that really draws me in.  Seeing text in different formats definitely leads us to think differently about it, even when it is based around giving the exact same set of information.  What would some of those differences look like?

09 January 2012

Living in truth, looking at the little bits

We're all worlds unto ourselves, but we live in a pretty crowded solar system

When I'm not mindful of what I'm doing I find myself focusing my attention far away from myself, reading lots of random news articles and generally obsessing over how the world is failing at doing a million things.  That's not too hard to do, there are millions of articles out there to read, millions of failures both small and large to write said articles about, and a probably too small and not well paid enough group of people who are getting paid to write about things for good reasons- they're pretty good writers and they have something to say. 

But there I am, taking in information, taking in information, taking in information, without any real reason for doing so.  It's just habitual.  The problem there is, of course, the lack of mindfulness, but if I could solve that one...

So I've tried to branch out this year, especially with this being my last four months on Earth where I'm not fully and completely responsible for another human being.  I've picked up a couple of things to do and started to look around at the people around me much more than the world around me. 

I've baked bread for the first time in my life.That's really the product of my hands, right there <-------. It seems like a small thing, and that's why it was important to me. Why had I gone my whole life without having done such a simple thing for myself?  Flour, yeast, salt, butter, badda bam badda boom, bread.  It's an interesting process, with the living yeast doing its own thing, a bit of ancient bio-engineering thrust into the modern world.  There's a rhythm to it which doesn't fit in with modern times, mixing, kneading, waiting, punching, manipulating, waiting, baking, waiting, and finally the payoff.  Well, maybe the punching and manipulating fit in, but not the waiting. That sort of delayed gratification breaks us out of our normal modes of being, and forces us to deal with some of the same realities as gardening- that nature doesn't follow our timetable.

I've also started coloring.  Funny huh?  I've taken a lot of guff from various people for it, but I've really liked it.    I bought some great Prismacolor colored pencils on sale from Amazon, some even greater coloring books, and I've just been chilling out and coloring.    Sometimes, when there's a simpler picture I just break out the old school Crayola crayons and go from there.  If you're looking for awesome coloring books for adults, not adult coloring books though, check out Dover.  First up on the block will be Life in Ancient Japan for me, then maybe Beowulf, and then, when I'm much better, Ancient Mexican Designs.It's pretty calming, and maybe it's a first step towards learning to do something artistic.

As for the people around me, I've been taking the time to try to notice things in people that I've probably always overlooked.  I have a sister who's attempting to go vegan, a friend who has been writing beautiful short pieces of meditations on the internet, a wife dealing with all the joys and not-so-joys of pregnancy, and a group of coworkers and students who each bring something different to the table each day. 

So, a 2012 where I try to focus my attention on the people around me more so than on the toings and froings of the world at large.  Let's see how it works!

05 January 2012

Opening up your worldview

One of the things that first attracted me to Stoicism was its call to be a citizen of the world, to be a member of an interconnected humanity rather than a citizen or resident of a specific location.  We do, however, live in a very geographically bound world, and regardless of what people may say, the world is far from flat for most of us.  We don't often get the chance to truly interact with people from different backgrounds in a sustained and constructive way. Luckily I get to work out all of the practicalities and difficulties of this in my day job, teaching English to newcomers to Canada.  I know that you're supposed to complain about your work, and there are always a million things in each workplace to complain about, but I just wanted to take a minute to be grateful for the chance to interact and connect with my students, who bring experiences from all over the world into my classroom every day.  Working through all of those different sets of cultural expectations and practices isn't always easy, but when you get the chance to be in an environment like that it really highlights the humanity, with all of its blessings and curses, that we all take part in.