“The Raft is Not the Shore” – A Reflection (Part 3)

This is the third part of a short series where I reflect on one of the most impactful books I’ve ever read, “The Raft is Not the Shore: Conversations Toward A Buddhist-Christian Awareness” by Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan.

Part 1 is available here.
Part 2 is available here.

Chapter 4: Priests and Prisoners

“One of the great tactics of prison authorities is to awaken and make more violent the racism of the prisoners so that they will go at one another’s throats.” – Berrigan

It is interesting to read quotes from a Catholic priest that could be attributed to a prison reform advocate or “social justice warrior”. My experience with Christianity rejected any sort of institutional issues, it was very much an American conservative Christianity which rejected social pressure, norms, or institutional racism or bigotry as having any blame or effects on individuals. It was very much an individualistic spirituality and seemed to have more in common with the Old Testament than Christ.

Chapter 5: Self-Immolation

I didn’t actually highlight any particular parts of this chapter, but I did find it to be an interesting discussion on an act that we would generally call suicide. It makes me think about what part intention plays in an act. If I jump on a hand grenade to try and save other soldiers then that is a noble act and wouldn’t be judged as suicide (even if it is an act that I voluntarily take that will result in my death), but if I take my life in order to bring attention to atrocities or end a war then that would likely be viewed as suicide. I think, in addition to intent, people judge intentional self-death by what other options are available. Jumping on a grenade may be the only option to save a life but self-immolation may be one of many options to end an injustice, and people view the preservation of life as sacred, only to be ended as the last resort. I’m not sure I agree, but that seems to be the cultural (and often religious) perspective.

It also raises questions about how we know other options exist and what the bar is for noble self-death versus a wrongful self-death. If I donate my heart to save a child, knowing I will die, is that noble? What about ending my life to prevent my family from going into debt and suffering? I think life is incredibly valuable and should be cherished, but I don’t think life is necessarily the most important thing above everything else.

Chapter 6: Government and Religion

“It is part of the wisdom, I think, of the religious tradition to always be skeptical of what the governments are doing.” – Berrigan

Wow, what a great first line to a chapter filled with them. I think that if I grew up in a spiritual tradition that was actually skeptical of worldly power then I may still be with that tradition. Too often religious leaders see the state as a potential ally, but they don’t realize that the state is always in competition with religion (and the state has guns). Religion can’t fight the state with violence or else it becomes the state itself.

“But, the idea that being informed leads to more humane decisions or more enlightened politics on the part of those in power, I think, is very questionable. Because the people can very easily, as in the United States, be lulled into a belief in ‘free press’ and ‘free television.’ After all, for twelve years we saw on our screens what we were doing to the Vietnamese people. It’s very questionable that that changed anything. – Berrigan

“Well it’s a problem which goes much deeper than the business of being what they call literate or informed. In fact, the impact of the media can quite possibly be in another direction. People can become so bewildered with the mass of information and news brought down on them that they’re unable to move, they’re paralyzed. So, the question of selecting, meditating, having some interior life of one’s own in the midst of this becomes quite important.” – Berrigan

It is rare that you hear anyone actually question whether having a free press is a good thing. I agree that in theory, a free press is a good thing, but like all rights there comes a certain responsibility and not everyone can (or will) exercise those rights responsibly. It is possible that many, or even most, people are so overwhelmed by the media that it actually causes a form of paralysis. Violence and rights violations on the part of our government become the norm and we are numb to them. We start to think that it is the natural state of things unless, as Berrigan recommends, we are able to select what we view and meditate. This is a synthesis of both Buddhism and Stoicism. The American people have known that we have been bombing, killing, and invading countries for over 16 years now and they really don’t seem to care. Both of the major political parties are pro-war and all the major candidates were hawks.

“Fear and anger are often used for political purposes. Anti-Communism has been very much used and fed, encouraging the fear that Communism will destroy freedom or worship. They stress that fear so that people will not see other aspects of the problem. Because when you consider Communism as the worst of evils, you forget the other evils that are closer to you, that are on the anti-Communist side.” – Nhat Hanh

Holy shit. Things really don’t change. Substitute “communism” with radical Islam, LGBT, immigrants, or even liberalism and you have the modern conservative playbook. If only The Who were right…

“Christians, wo are supposed to be able to cope with persecution, trials, jail, or any kind of human suffering, and still not despair. But it seems the spectre of Communism awakens the utmost despair, a kind of carte blanche to do anything in the name of anti-Communism.” – Berrigan

Yep. That hasn’t changed either.

“if you’re going to recommend speedy death for other people you ought to go and taste it yourself, maybe it wouldn’t appear so attractive.” – Berrigan

The world would be different if the politicians (and those who elected them) were required to serve on the front lines of combat. It is easy to command death from a couch, but to feel, taste, and smell violence first hand and to risk your own life is a very different thing.

“‘Whenever the prophet sits at the king’s table, both are corrupted.’… The priest doesn’t belong there. If he belongs anywhere in the palace precincts, he belongs in the king’s dungeons. He doesn’t belong at his table.” – Berrigan

I wonder if any religious leaders have been arrested for opposing the current wars. I know a lot of them have dined with Presidents.

“Well, it seems to me, it’s a sign of the decline of the whole religious community that priests take on the role of politicians. It’s a loss of a clear-cut sense of their priesthood… Every time priests played politics, there’s been a deleterious effect upon the priesthood, the community, and civil life as well.” – Berrigan

“Once drawn into politics you are caught.” – Nhat Hanh

Yep.


Wanna stay in touch? Got a question for me? Want to tell me why I’m wrong and are curious how I got everything so backward? Have an idea for a blog post? Drunk and wanna send me a snapchat? Wanna become penpals and send each other letters in the mail?

Feel free to reach out at any of the ways below while I take a Facebook break!

Email address: pjneiger@gmail.com
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Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”

Invincibility – Revisited

Today’s “Daily Stoic” reading and associated journal prompt involve one of Epictetus’ most popular pieces of writing, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important or a bit profound:

Who then is invincible? The one who cannot be upset by anything outside their reasoned choice. – “Discourses”, 1.18.21

Two short sentences.

A question and an answer.

So much to digest and ponder over. (In fact, I did a blog post about this subject a year ago…)

First off, is invincibility even truly attainable? Or is it some sort of religious/spiritual/philosophical ideal that should be pursued with full knowledge that it will never be attained? Is it an end goal, or a horizon like Buddhahood or Christlike perfection?

I see it as the latter. Something to desire, to strive for, to put into our daily practice but realizing that we will never be invincible and that we will be upset by things outside of our reasoned choice.

I have two reasons for seeing it this way. First, Epictetus seems to treat invincibility as part of a binary. Either you are invincible or you are vincible not invincible. But that doesn’t seem to be the case in the real world. Control over your emotions exists on a spectrum, it isn’t “yes, I’m in control” or “no, I’m not in control”, it is “I am more (or less) in control now than in the past”. Controlling our emotions involves practice and building the mental muscles necessary to handle the challenges, and the challenges are infinite.

Second, to see invincibility as attainable is to see the possibility of becoming THE PERFECT STOIC. But perfection in this sense can’t exist. Our minds are a combination of genetics, free will (maybe), and reactions to our environment. We can’t control two of those and free will may not really be a thing. I think this is one of the weaknesses of Stoicism (at least as an attainable ideal), it doesn’t recognize that there is more to our mental processes than just being strong and using our rational mind. Mental health issues are real and they distort these processes, some people can’t just use their rationality to overcome their emotions. Trauma, chemical differences, and a plethora of known and unknown processes shape how we respond to the world around us. We are more than just reason.

But, I still think it is something to shoot for. There is great joy in pursuing something that you’ll never attain, struggling just to struggle, pushing to see how far you can get before this moist meat-suit that we call a body decides to return to the dust from which it came. At least it is to me.


Day 3 Update of “Operation: Shut Off Facebook and Become Who You Want to Become”

Yesterday was my first real weekend and it went really well. I went to the gym, got my 10,000 steps in, read, meditated, did some coding, practiced yoga, and kept my calorie consumption where it should be. I even went out for a friend’s birthday party and stuck to my diet… and I didn’t even drink alcohol! I actually had a really good time, I’m not sure why but I felt more open, personable, and interested than I normally do in social situations where I don’t really know anyone. It certainly helped that Anna was there, that I sat next to our friend, and that two of the people next to us were SUPER talkative and friendly. Sometimes extroverts can be overwhelming to me, but these people were good conversationalists and asked us real questions. We chatted about world travel, the military (he was a vet), and drug use very openly. I think it helped that I didn’t have booze or Facebook to retreat into.

So, it was a good day. I didn’t lose any weight (but that’s not surprising given the 7 lb drop on Friday) but the weekend was productive and off to a good start. I have reasonable goals for today (several of which I’ve already accomplished) and my partner and I are heading down to the Dirty Myrtle tonight to make the most out of a quick work trip I have down there on Monday.

Wanna stay in touch? Got a question for me? Want to tell me why I’m wrong and are curious how I got everything so backward? Have an idea for a blog post? Drunk and wanna send me a snapchat? Feel free to reach out at any of the ways below while I take a Facebook break!

Email address: pjneiger@gmail.com
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Questions:  pneiger.sarahah.com or www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH
Snapchat: @pneiger
Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”

Memento Mori

I’m probably going to die someday. It is possible that medical technology will advance to the point of immortality before my consciousness disintegrates (or transfers to some other existence), but I’m increasingly doubtful. It is also possible that I have some sort of genetic mutation ala “The Man From Earth” and I’m immortal, but that seems even less likely.

So, I’m probably going to die. But I’m okay with that. I don’t fear death, even if I’m not particularly interested in it happening anytime soon. I used to be terrified of death back when I was a Christian, which is kind of ironic. I’m not sure how close the connection is between my spiritual evolution and my comfort with non-existence, but I can’t help but think they are at least somewhat connected.

Religion didn’t give me much peace because there was always this fear that I wasn’t “truly saved”, that I had fucked up something between baptism and death and would be spending eternity being tortured by red-horned demons. Now that I think about it, that is pretty psychologically scaring, particularly for children.

Death is often on my mind, not as a fear but as motivation. If this is all ephemeral, if can truly “leave life right now” then life is put in perspective. It motivates me to make the most out of my time here, but also not to take things too seriously. It is a source of inspiration to write a book, record a podcast, skydive over Antarctica, and try anal sex…. because if I don’t do it today then I may never get a chance to do it.

But, it is also a way to provide a little modesty. I’m simply not that important. I’m going to die like everyone else. My name will be forgotten. I will return to stardust, just like everyone else. And that is a huge relief. I can enjoy life and the moment for exactly what it is. As Hairy Soul Man says in his Stoic Hedonist sonnet, “Fuck Everything”:

Now I know most of you don’t agree
with my bleak outlook on life
But I say, it’s the thing that sets me free.

Cause I don’t give a shit what you think of me
No, I don’t give any shits
That’s right, I don’t got any shits to give

Now I’m not saying you can’t go out
and live a fantastic life
You totally can!

You just need to remember
You’re not the center of the fucking universe

So I want to celebrate the absolute insignificance of our existence by coming together, coming together to say…

Fuck everything

So, today I will go out and live my life because I might leave tomorrow. That means enjoying the good things that are within my control. I will enjoy time with my partner, go outside for a run, test my body and mind, and enjoy that strawberry even if there is a tiger trying to eat me. Also, I will try and ignore the garbage in the world like the news and most of Facebook and trash TV (unless those things provide some mental health benefits). I may die tomorrow, but that’s okay because my life is been lived. Besides, my death won’t matter to me or anyone else in the long run and it shouldn’t be taken seriously.

If you have a question or comment feel free to use the links below. There is literally nothing that is off-limits. You can also email me if you want a personal response and I won’t post anything publicly if you want privacy.

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Email: pjneiger@gmail.com

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All the, small things….

“Well-being is realized by small steps, but it is truly no small thing.”
– Zeno, quoted in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers

It is incredible how our minds are able to see patterns and themes among the incredible amount of sensory information we take in each day. I’m sure we have all had the experience where you learn a new word and suddenly you hear it everywhere, or you notice specific numbers that become “my numbers” because they seem to show up more often than not (I notice 541 and 387 a lot). And I’m sure we’ve all noticed the same with certain insights or subject matters.

Recently, my partner and I were discussing certain behaviors that lead to long-term growth and improvement, but have an almost imperceptible short-term gain. When I lift weights (okay, I don’t really lift weights often but bear with me) the tears in my muscle tissue are microscopic, but if I lift weights for months or years the microscopic tears build up. Diet is similar, if someone cuts out 100 calories a day (or about two Oreos) they won’t notice the change on the scale but after a year that is over 10 lbs lost (or at least 10 lbs not gained). This pattern is everywhere: compound interest, doing the dishes as you make them dirty, weeding the garden daily, practicing a foreign language, meditation… these are all small things that add up to monumental changes in the long term.

Anyway, so that discussion was on my mind when I started my Daily Stoic morning routine (buy that book!) and the above quote from Diogenes book that maybe Zeno said but maybe Zeno was quoting Socrates (sidenote: hmm, it is almost like books that are 2,000+ years old might not be the most reliable sources for objective facts). The quote and the subsequent discussion in the Daily Stoic fit nicely with my mindset and how small, incremental, daily changes are what great big results. Unfortunately, that is difficult for us humans to deal with, we want to minimize work and maximize pleasure. We want things now and get frustrated when we don’t see instantaneous results. We are natural hedonists who find a way to simultaneously make decisions that only benefit us now but mentally are always trapped in the future and past. That, I think, is why we need philosophy and meditation, in order to make the right decisions for us and society based on reality instead of dreams and carnal desires.

“Buddhism: Plain & Simple” – A Review

Title: Buddhism: Plain & Simple
Author: Steve Hagen
Pages: 159 (including Appendix)
Rating: 5/5 Highly Recommended

It is hard to me to pinpoint exactly when I started to have an interest in Buddhism. I remember learning about it in a high school religion class, but that introduction was little more than “it isn’t really a religion but it kind of is”. I was a hardcore Christian at that time and I have no doubt that I saw Buddhism as simply another Satanic ruse to steal souls from Heaven.

In the decade and a half since high school, my interest in Buddhism has bubbled in my subconscious. I’ve purchased several books about it but rarely finish them. As much as I am interested in Buddhism the works I’ve read seemed unnecessarily vague and complex, I felt like the authors were playing tricks with words instead of just coming out and saying what Buddhism is.

Buddhism: Plain & Simple by Steve Hagen is the opposite of that.

Hagen does a fantastic job of stripping away the ceremony and tradition and supernatural side of Buddhism and gets to the core. He does a great job explaining what the foundation of Buddhism, to simply see the world as it is and to live in the moment. After finishing this book I couldn’t help but see incredible similarities between Buddhism and the Stoic philosophy that I know and love. I can’t help but wonder if followers of Buddha somehow interacted with the Ancient Greeks and helped influence Stoic thought. It seems plausible that in the 200ish years between the life of Buddha and Zeno’s teaching at the Stoa Poikile someone would have made it from India to Greece.

Buddhism and Stoicism are both tools that work to find the truth about the world and encourage rational action in response to the truth. They are about helping individuals live better, happier, more satisfying and authentic lives. This is unlike the faith that I grew up in that demanded obedience to rules and discouraged intellectual inquiry. Buddhism explicitly rejects any hard rules and recognizes that the world is fluid and nuanced and diverse circumstances can easily turn rules into tools of injustice.

Mostly, I enjoy that Buddhism does not need to conflict with scientific discovery. As the Dalai Lama said in the foreword to Destructive Emotions:

I have often said that if science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understading, Buddhism must change accordingly. We should always adopt a view that accords with the facts. If upon investigation we find that there is reason and proof for a point, then we should accept it.

Here was a system of spirituality that didn’t conflict with the natural world, and I believe that is why Buddhism will end up outlasting many of the religions of today. I am still far from an expert on Buddhism, but Buddhism: Plain & Simple laid the groundwork for me to continue my pursuit of knowledge in that direction. It is an easy, quick read that is made up of relatively short and succinct chapters. I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in understanding this life philosophy.

The Banquet of Life

“Remember to conduct yourself in life as if at a banquet. As something being passed around comes to you, reach out your hand and take a moderate helping. Does it pass you by? Don’t stop it. It hasn’t come yet? Don’t burn in desire for it, but wait until it arrives in front of you. Act this way with children, a spouse, toward position, with wealth – one day it will make you worthy of a banquet with the gods.”

Epictetus, Enchiridion, 15

This passage seems to really have two key messages in it. The first, which doesn’t seem to be the main point, is about moderation. At a banquet (or, I assume any event with free food and/or drink) we should consume in moderation for both individual and social reasons. It is healthy for us, both mentally and physically, not to lust after things or allow ourselves to act on our carnal desires. It is bad to give up logical control and eat and drink to the point of gluttony or foolish intoxication. Also, it is healthy for others. If we consume in moderation then there is enough to share with other people at the party (or in life). All things are finite and if we hoard things then that leaves less for other people, and what remains is more difficult to attain.

The second point of the passage seems to be focused on patience, that all the good things in life will come to us at some point if we wait until the right time. I kind of agree with this, but I also kind of disagree. I agree that we shouldn’t rush things or try to attain things when we aren’t ready. The most painful example of this is pursuing love or a relationship with someone because you want to be married (or social pressure), not because you are compatible with our partner. This is akin to scarfing down the food at a party you don’t like simply because it is close to you (or because the crowd is cheering for you to eat). So yeah, in this way I agree with Epictetus and I think we should have patience.

But, I also think you should be proactive and pursue the things you desire. If you want to meet someone and get married, then you need to go out and do things that you like to do. Sitting around and just waiting for the tray to be passed around doesn’t work if you are curled up in the corner refusing to make eye contact with the server. Patience isn’t enough, action is also required. Things in life don’t “just work out”, you need to say yes to opportunities and take risks to live the life you want. The timing will never be completely perfect and nobody is coming to sweep any of us off our feet and rescue us from the situation we are in.

**I am currently using “The Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman as a daily practice. I think I am going to share my thoughts as I go. It will be interesting to explore the works of the Stoics and see where I agree with them. I highly recommend the book if you are interested in an introduction to the ancient Stoic life philosophy**