Last week I wrote a short, over-simplified article about Stoicism and the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus. Stoicism is a worthy philosophy, but does it advise any spiritual practices to help its disciples attain their goal of Virtue?
The answer is, “Yes”; and the modern Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci, lists several of his spiritual practices in a Great Courses video. These practices would also serve Christians, Buddhists, and other spiritual seekers. I have classified them into “morning,” “evening,” and “anytime” categories.
Pigliucci lists only one evening practice. Before bedtime he writes in a diary and reflects on his actions during the day. Which ones were virtuous, and which were not so virtuous? In the latter case, what could he do in future to improve himself? I have long resisted (don’t know why) journaling, which is almost a go-to exercise for Quakers and other Seekers; but I recently resolved the negative feelings around a personal setback by putting the incident down on paper (well, on Microsoft Word). So, I am thinking of taking up reflective journaling and making it a habit by tying it to some other evening habit or routine. Perhaps I can journal immediately after my nightly habit of watching an episode from Netflix.
Pigliucci engages in several morning or beginning-of-the day exercises, not all simultaneously, of course. Occasionally he and his wife get up early enough to see the sunrise, an experience which connects them to nature. Psychologists have confirmed that communing with nature—perhaps walking in the woods or looking at birds soar in the sky—have a calming and spiritually uplifting effect. I can’t conveniently see the sun rise from my house, but I do find it soothing to gaze at the patterns of sunlight that form on the walls of my living room after the sun rises above the houses around us.
Pigliucci also finds it helpful—at the start of his day—to ask himself which parts of the day will be under his control and which will depend upon other people or outside forces. Following Epictetus, he then resolves not to get excited or anxious about what he can’t control. Before leaving his apartment, he resolves to do what he plans to do but—more importantly—to live in harmony with his fellow human beings. Sometimes he meditates on the probability that he will encounter someone who in the past has been unpleasant or difficult to deal with.
I don’t know exactly how Pigliucci performs this meditation, but I can imagine a breathing exercise in which one visualizes a peaceful scene and then transitions to visualizing the problematic person, all the while maintaining the calm that comes from rhythmic breathing and meditation. A related practice is simply to recall that when someone insults you, everyone—in fact—has many faults, and we shouldn’t be overly-concerned if one of them is mentioned.
In the “anytime” category, Pigliucci occasionally plans a week in which he buys nothing except the bare necessities of life, thereby reminding himself not to fall prey to the unhealthy consumerism that afflicts people in this country. Or he decides to talk less. After all, if we speak too much, we’re often not listening deeply to what the other person says. Sometimes he chooses an activity in which to practice moderation. It’s common, for example, to eat too much, eat too fast, or eat too many high-calorie foods. Moderate, mindful eating would, of course, benefit all of us—not just Stoics.
One of his more interesting practices is that of self-imposed hardship. Pigliucci might fast, do without alcohol, or go walking in winter cold while wearing light clothing. The idea is to remember that we can endure hardship, that discomfort is something we will experience and that we must learn to live with. He surmises that tolerating physical pain will translate to coping with psychological and spiritual distress. (For me personally, occasional internet outages produce a restlessness and anxiety that is both physical and psychological.)
I’ll conclude by asking Friends which of these Stoic exercises might be useful for them to adopt? Probably many Quakers are already engaged in “Stoic” spiritual practices. Theologies and philosophies may vary from person to person, but virtuous behavior is much the same for anyone seeking to live a good life.
~ Richard Russell
That’s the title of a print article in the January 12th hard copy of The Christian Century (different title online). The author is Chris Palmer, a Presbyterian minister in Waco, Texas. Palmer admits that digital tools like Zoom are useful for churches in this Age of the Pandemic. However, he emphasizes the limits of such technology. In particular, he argues that the silence built into religious services loses its effect on virtual media.
He writes (and many Quakers would agree) that
Silence is about presence, not just absence…. It is a
pregnant stillness that raises heart rates and releases
endorphins within the pathways of our bodies. It
is about the quiet friction between individuals gathered
in space. It is that eerie awkwardness, when there is an
excess of silence in a church service, that makes us notice
the feeling of a neighbor’s presence. All this leads to my
somewhat counterintuitive conclusion that without other
people—without other bodies in space—silence is
I agree with Palmer that being physically present in a church or meetinghouse is the ideal, but I also believe that Palmer over-generalizes. For myself and other Friends, a virtual meeting is very conducive to silent worship and vocal ministry.
For example, in a N.Y.Times article Friend Joan Malin speaks of a new intimacy as she looks at faces and expressions on Zoom. “I really see that they (other Quakers) are deep in worship. There’s a vulnerability when someone is doing that, and here they are putting it onscreen for us to witness. It helps me get there, too.”
Well, I’ve laid out the controversy around online worship. I think I’ll relax now by listening to Weird Al Yankovic’s song about a 2,000-inch TV. Of course, for our meeting—in my opinion—a 32-inch TV would do just fine.
~ Richard Russell
Everyone knows who Jesus was, but many people have never heard of Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher who lived about 50-135 CE. Christianity took over a lot of Stoic ideas; but, in their totality, the two systems of thought are quite different. The Stoics believed that God was immanent in the universe as a corporeal Logos, Divine Reason materially co-existing with ordinary matter. Alexander Pope (approximately) expresses the idea in this couplet:
All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.
Christianity, of course, sees God as transcendent, existing apart from the creation. Also, Christians want to achieve union with God, mediated by the action of Love. For Stoics, on the other hand, Virtue is the supreme goal and is to be achieved by the exercise of that Reason implanted in us by God. Nevertheless, it is here, in the domain of ethics, that Jesus and Epictetus hold similar concepts.
For example, Epictetus told his students, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” Jesus expressed a similar sentiment when he said, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life…. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” For Epictetus, Virtue and happiness are attained by concentrating on what we can—in fact—do something about. For Jesus, human beings should “seek first” God’s Kingdom and his righteousness, putting aside useless worries about the future.
Epictetus also joked to someone who had insulted him, “You do not know my other faults, or you would not have mentioned only these.” In other words, Epictetus responded to criticism with gentle irony. Jesus did the same thing when the Pharisees criticized him for eating with tax collectors and sinners. He remarked, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
The pharisees no doubt assumed that Jesus was sincere about calling them righteous. We know he wasn’t. By his table companionship with sinners, Jesus was modeling the wise man’s version of righteousness. Or, as Epictetus said, “Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”
So, Jesus and Epictetus were kindred spirits. He who follows Epictetus’ advice will not have much trouble following Jesus. Yes, these two men are on different paths—but perhaps those paths lead to the same goal. Perhaps Virtue is The Kingdom of God.
~ Richard Russell
Decluttering could be the process that leads to the simpler life that Friends are often advised to lead. There is, of course, the decluttering of your physical living space. Here, the secret to success is probably starting small. Clean out just one drawer today. Tomorrow do one more drawer or maybe—if you’re feeling ambitious—half of a closet. In a fairly short time, you’ll start to notice a difference in the whole house.
Be especially attentive to the bedroom. According to The University of Tennessee Medical Center, a tidy, well-organized bedroom relaxes the mind and prepares you for sleep. So, pick up any clothes on the bedroom floor, clean off the top of the dresser, and choose just one or two favorite pictures for the wall.
Decluttering your calendar is also important. Friends tend to take on too many time-consuming activities. If you’re on three monthly meeting committees, maybe you should just serve on two. Among all your social action projects, which ones do you truly enjoy and want to keep doing? Discard the rest.
Don’t try to save time by multitasking. It’s impossible to do more than one higher-level cognitive task at a time. What the brain really does is switch rapidly from one task to the other, losing time in the process. Focusing on the job at hand is the true path to productivity and efficiency.
Do you have too many friends? If a friendship truly refreshes, invigorates, and supports you, it’s a keeper. If your friend repeatedly spends an hour on the phone complaining and drains you of energy, you’d be well-advised not to answer so many of his or her calls. (Of course, sometimes God calls us to maintain a problematic relationship.)
Then there is the decluttering of the mind. Mindfulness or a breathing meditation may help clear your head and reduce stress. Online games may be mentally relaxing, but they can also be addictive. Set a timer so that you shut off your phone or computer before overdoing the games. Make sure that your social media choices genuinely lift your spirits and don’t lead to depression or anxiety. You’re not obligated to have a hundred friends on Facebook. Unfriend casual acquaintances who consistently make you feel bad.
If there is a clutter of negative thoughts in your mind, try filling your mental space with thoughts and feelings of gratitude. There’s so much in life to be grateful for, including life itself. If gratitude almost never enters your head, if the Inner Light doesn’t sometimes lead you toward joy, perhaps professional help is needed to cultivate a more positive attitude.
(This post was based on an article in United Healthcare’s magazine: Heidi Pearson, “The Joy of Living Simply.” Renew, Fall 2021, pp. 20—23.)
~ Richard Russell
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