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
“Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy.” So begins the Lord’s Prayer as translated in the World English Bible. Referring to God as male is, of course, patriarchal and jarring to many people today. After all, God is neither male nor female. But, in the Judaea of Jesus’ time, in the context of that ancient culture, it was natural to do so.
“Householder” might be the best word to substitute for “father.” In certain circumstances, women might be the head of a Jewish family, and the gender neutrality of “householder” is less offensive to modern sensibilities. So, what, exactly did the ancient householder do? What was his or her responsibility vis-à-vis the family?
The answer? To see that everyone had enough—that spouse, children, and servants had enough food and clothing as well as adequate shelter. The animals owned by the family would be well-fed, the house itself would be in good repair, and the children would have love and affection. The whole familial enterprise had to be planned, and the plan had to be carried out under the benevolent direction of the householder.
So, instead of thinking of God as father, think of God as householder. Of course, God’s household is the entire world! Then ask, “Does everyone in the world have adequate food, clothing, and shelter? Are the world’s animal and plant species flourishing?
The answer? No. Many people do not have the necessities of life, animal and plant life is threatened, and even the world’s climate is deteriorating as we pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. God would appear to be a poor provider for his earthly family.
However, God must complete his work with the help of human hands. Human beings must feed and clothe themselves. Human beings must be the stewards of God’s creation, protecting animal and plant life alike. When we pray to “Our Father,” we are committing ourselves to see that everyone in this world has “enough.” We are committing ourselves to social action, be it sharing the produce of our backyard garden or blocking access to a coal-fired electrical plant. In this way we keep God’s name holy.
And what is God’s name, anyway? It’s the symbol of his identity, one might say the identity itself—neither male, female, nor neuter. God is a supernatural “person” with no gender and near-infinite power. He has created us as instruments, as tools of his creative purpose. May his will be done.
(I’m aware that I’ve used the masculine possessive pronoun in referring to God. I also want to acknowledge that this post is based on John Dominic Crossan’s book, The Greatest Prayer.)
~ Richard Russell
Some forty-five years ago I accidentally pulled Jessamyn West’s Quaker Reader off a library shelf. The following quote from Isaac Penington started me on my journey toward Old Chatham Meeting:
What is God?
The fountain of beings and natures, the inward substance of all
that appears; who createth, upholdeth, consumeth, and bringeth
to nothing as he pleaseth.
How may I know that there is a God?
By sinking down into the principle of his own life, wherein he
revealeth himself to the creature. There the soul receiveth such
tastes and knowledge of him, as cannot be questioned by him
that abideth there….
How may a man come to believe in this principle?
In feeling its nature, in waiting to feel somewhat begotten by it,
in this its light springs, its life springs, its love springs, its hidden
power appears, and its preserving wisdom and goodness is made
manifest to the soul that clings to it in the living sense, which its
presence and appearance begets in the soul.
West is right when she calls Penington “the Quaker’s Quaker.”
“Pray without ceasing,” says St. Paul; and Quakers are often advised to engage in some personal, daily spiritual practice. But keeping to a daily devotion or meditation is a problem for many of us. As is the case with New Year’s resolutions, we start out strong but soon find ourselves frequently forgetting our spiritual routine, perhaps even falling away from it altogether. It’s hard to establish a new habit, be it physical or spiritual exercise.
B. J. Fogg, in his Tiny Habits book, suggests a way to overcome our inertia. Fogg suggests “hooking” our new spiritual practice to an established habit or routine. For example, I feed my dogs every morning. I’m trying to use the dogs’ breakfast as a cue to perform a spiritual habit. However, following Fogg, I’m also trying to keep my new habit short and “easy.”
I’ve chosen the Lord’s Prayer as my devotional habit. While full of spiritual riches, the Lord’s Prayer is also concise. It can be said, either out loud or mentally, in little more than thirty seconds. The ease of repeating it means that I’m not likely to postpone the recitation. Then—and only then—I may choose to extend the practice by going through the phrases of the prayer in a more leisurely, reflective way. If I feel like it (and I often do), I can listen to a twenty- or thirty-minute meditative audio of the prayer on my phone’s Jesus Words app, but it’s important to keep the basic habit “tiny” in order not to postpone saying the prayer. I don’t want to feel guilty because I don’t pray in the press of daily life.
Hook the new habit/practice to an established habit or routine. Keep the new habit “tiny” and easy, prolonging it only if so inclined at the time. Fogg, for example, hooked his exercise routine to peeing at home. After peeing, he would perform the tiny habit of doing two push-ups. Often, he’d decide to go ahead and do five, ten, even twenty push-ups. But he’d always do at least two to keep his exercise habit going. So, my established habit/routine is feeding the dogs. My tiny habit is the Lord’s Prayer. I may, or may not, extend the Prayer with reflection, meditation, or devotional reading. But the Lord’s Prayer once through is a minimum, designed to keep the habit going.
Of course, the content of the tiny spiritual habit is infinitely variable. Instead of the Lord’s Prayer, you could say something as simple as “Jesus is Lord.” Or, if you’re a Buddhist, you could say, “May all beings be safe, happy, healthy, and live joyously.” The optional extension of the tiny spiritual habit is also variable. For a Christian, it might be a breathing meditation or a reading from the New Testament. For a Buddhist, an extension might be meditation or perhaps reading the Buddha’s own words. The possibilities are endless. And now you’re ready for your New Year’s resolution of doing a spiritual practice every day!
~ Richard Russell
To find out, you could use the Jeste-Thomas Wisdom Index. Consisting of twenty-eight multiple choice questions predicated on seven subscales, you’d receive a global rating between one and five, five being the high in wisdom.
I took the test twice and received four plus a fraction each time. Let’s just say a “solid four.” Assuming that Jesus and the Buddha would have scored a five, I can say that I have 80% of the wisdom possessed by these great spiritual teachers. (Actually, Jesus and the Buddha are probably “off the scale” in wisdom.) Regarding the subscales, my low scores were “emotional regulation” and “social advising.” My high scores were “self-reflection” and “spirituality.”
Well, Quakers should certainly be wise. Want to find out how wise and Quakerly you are? Click HERE for the online Jeste-Thomas Index.
~ Richard Russell
I’m addicted to food, coffee, and nicotine. Food is the most serious problem of the three. My obesity puts a strain on the circulatory system and affects my freedom of movement as well as being a risk factor for diabetes. Coffee can be protective against Alzheimer’s and cancer; but I suffer headaches (a withdrawal symptom) on the second consecutive day of not drinking it. Nicotine gum seems to relieve the stress and boredom of working at Walmart. Moreover, research indicates that nicotine may improve cognitive performance. With both food and nicotine, however, I experience the cravings that are symptoms of addiction.
Dopamine is the chemical culprit of substance abuse. This neurotransmitter has long been known as the “pleasure molecule.” More accurately, dopamine is the “motivation molecule” that causes us to seek out sources of pleasure. Thus, a dopamine-deficient rat experiences pleasure when eating food placed in its mouth but is not motivated enough to move toward and eat food placed a short distance away.
Drugs of abuse—heroin, methamphetamine, alcohol (to name a few)—increase the activity of dopaminergic brain cells. Under the influence of such drugs, the brain makes more dopamine and pleasurable sensations—even intense euphoria—are the result. However, as the brain makes more dopamine because of artificial drug stimulation, natural brain processes try to decrease the excess dopamine to a normal base level. If then, a dopaminergic drug is suddenly stopped, there’s no dopamine from the drug and—with a lower-than-normal base level of dopamine—the total amount of dopamine in the brain plummets. Craving and painful withdrawal symptoms are the result. The process is a physiological see-saw. Sometimes dopamine is “up” because of the drug, sometimes it's “down” as the body tries to maintain homeostasis or balance.
Dopamine is not just implicated in substance abuse. It plays a role in addictive behaviors as well. The compulsive gambler, the gamer who plays video games hour after hour, the Netflix devotee who binge-watches all night, the person who constantly engages in casual sex, the social media fan who can’t stop clicking on links—all are examples of behaviors that raise the level of dopamine in the brain. When the behavior temporarily stops, dopamine reduction processes win out; and the result is withdrawal pain—symptoms such as insomnia, restlessness, anxiety, and depression.
Unfortunately, our competitive American culture encourages dopamine generating activities like ruthless money-making, compulsive sex, and frenetic shopping. If we rely too much on such activities, we can bounce back and forth between artificial highs and lows, between hypomania and mild depression.
For example, maybe we are compulsive and obsessive about our job. If we manage to work or think about work continuously, we use it much as an addict uses methamphetamine. If our job or career suddenly loses its meaning for us, we may sink into a mild (or severe) depression.
There is an alternative. There is the Quaker vision of a life in which, not pleasure, but satisfaction is the goal. We may not be deliriously happy, but neither are we pathologically depressed. We are fulfilled by what we do; and our brain enjoys the steady, normal dopamine levels of homeostasis. Our Inner Light doesn’t suddenly blaze up nor dim toward extinction. We are stable, resting in the security of a relationship with God or at least bolstered by a belief in some humanistic philosophy. We live in quiet joy.
(This article is partly based on Anna Lembke’s book Dopamine Nation together with a podcast interview of her. Listen to How Dopamine Drives Our Addictions by clicking HERE.)
~ Richard Russell
For many, the phrase “Jesus Christ” conjures up the image of a God-man, of God Almighty temporarily in human flesh. However, “Christ” is just our English transliteration of the Ancient Greek “Christos,” which literally means “anointed”; and which was the New Testament’s equivalent of the Hebrew “Messiah.”
So, really, asking whether Jesus was the Christ means to ask whether he was anointed by God to announce the good news (gospel) of God’s Kingdom on Earth. Jesus, if anointed or chosen by God, is a prophet—but not just any prophet. He is THE prophet who brings about a decisive change in human history. Paul speaks of the Christian epoch as a New Creation. “The old has gone, the new is here!”
“But,” you say, “the world was not changed by Jesus. He himself was crucified, and the world continues in its evil ways with violence and injustice everywhere.” Better to say, I think, that Jesus revealed the presence of God’s Kingdom amidst evil.
Whenever love and justice triumph over prejudice, hate, and violence, the power of God bursts through evil. Call it Grace, Salvation, or whatever. It is real. It is here and now, surprising us with its Eternal Presence or—as Friends say—its Inward Light. Quakers, of course, generally acknowledge that the Inward Light moves outward, into action in the world. Friends often call that outward movement “social justice,” but it may be manifested by simple, individual acts of love and kindness. And those Friends who are bolder believe in a supernatural Kingdom of God that exists “outside” and “above” the circumstances of time and place.
Will we somehow enter a mysterious Realm of Peace and Love beyond our existence, beyond this vale of suffering and death? Will we experience a Hereafter that is a state of complete and utter Blessedness? Will we—I wonder—attain Eternal Life? Here, the idea of Resurrection comes into play. Was Jesus somehow resurrected and His Presence returned to life?
I don’t believe in the literal Resurrection of a ghostly Jesus who passes through walls and visibly ascends into Heaven as his disciples watch. I do believe that the disciples had a mystical experience of Jesus’ Presence after his crucifixion, and I believe that their supernatural experience corresponds to an objective reality. Thus, if Jesus is somehow saved from sin and death (“sin” means separation from God), all humanity is potentially saved.
Paul says that anyone who calls Jesus “Lord” and believes in the Resurrection can look for a life after death in which their “body,” i.e., their personality, continues to exist. How this could be I do not know, and my anxiety about the possibility of dying into oblivion sometimes overwhelms my faith and trust in God. That anxiety, however, only shows my human weakness and the secular rationalism that co-exists with my faith.
The faith of the early Christians was stronger. They spoke of following Jesus as “The Way.” Does that mean that non-Christians are not on the path of salvation? I believe otherwise. The Christian Way is really “A Way.” Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems, Atheists, and Agnostics have their own way into Heaven. Sometimes people do not even know that they are on a spiritual journey, but God’s power mysteriously directs their earthly progress toward a Heavenly Home.
I know that by using symbols like “Kingdom” and “Heaven” I’m mixing mythology, reason, and logic; but the transcendent nature of God—ultimately unknowable—can only be expressed with similes and parables like Jesus used as he preached and lived among us. And I believe that Jesus is the Christ, anointed by God to preach the Gospel.
Luke even has Jesus s
ay as much in a synagogue where he quotes a passage from Isaiah. Luke has Jesus make this claim:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to
proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim
freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (NIV)
After Jesus rolled up the scroll from which he had read, he says, very directly, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
I am reminded of a more modern quote from Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer ends his book by writing,
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old,
by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He
speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to
the tasks which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And
to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will
reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which
they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable
mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.
~ Richard Russell
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