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.

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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**