PhilosophyCenter PhilosophyCenter | Musings
PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Stillness

Less is more.
| Robert Browning

Stillness

Teens today may chuckle at boomers wistfully recalling better days when we were not all walking around staring into screens, reduced to thumbs and eyeballs, so immersed in texting or streaming or gaming that we are isolated from each other even on a busy street. Those were simpler times when one could watch television without being watched, when privacy had not yet been stolen and trafficked in exchange for petty conveniences, when we were not inundated by thousands of programming choices courtesy of Amazon and Netflix and the rest in a digital whirlwind of distraction designed to induce a feeling of being in control of a life angling out of control. Things more human and less digital had value. The truth was not just something to tie in knots to manipulate public opinion, the word “friend” meant more than a “thumbs up” icon on Facebook, and sharing feelings with loved ones called for more care, time, and attention than it takes to send a smiley face.

What made the “better days” better is that there was so much less of everything we have since allowed to define and overwhelm us: less media, less intrusion of corporate interests into private life, less of the mood of urgency inflicted by the sheer pace of digital technology and the mounting evidence of damage to the planetary ecosystem that has left us at least subliminally aware that we are on a collision course with fate and running out of time. Faster and faster we go, wantonly depleting resources we have made no provision to replace, producing more and more goods while advertising sells consumers on the need for them, learning and practicing impatience and intolerance daily. Viewed in the larger context, the cost of free two-day delivery, it turns out, has been far greater than the price of shipping.

Many of the same young people who would laugh at the nostalgia of their grandparents suffer from unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, sleep deprivation, pessimism, even cynicism—and not without reason. They can feel that something fundamental has gone missing whether or not they can name it—something that was asphalted over in the reckless acceleration of life and the proliferation of increasingly immersive and therefore increasingly distracting technologies. What is missing is stillness. In stillness, we turn from the man-made world and come home to ourselves and our source. The practice of stillness, whether in formal meditation or a walk in the woods, confers many benefits essential to our well-being: breathing room, the time and focus needed for philosophical self-examination and the cultivation of a balanced and sanguine character, intuitive guidance, ample opportunities to recognize the need for and make course corrections, humility before life as something greater than our will, empathy and fairness in dealing with others, and much more.

There is a wisdom in stillness that transcends human understanding. One discovers it through making stillness a regular and frequent practice, giving it the attention it deserves, being with and exploring it. In stillness, we’re simply aware—breathing, noticing thoughts and feelings and physical impressions but doing nothing about them. After a while, stillness releases us from incessant identification with the world of perception and thought, revealing the expansive identity of awareness itself, the wellspring of all intelligence, creativity, and agency. Hanging out in stillness frees us from being reactive. The spaciousness of awareness spontaneously extends itself to others, and they feel it, and are disarmed and enlivened by it. Stillness returns us to our natural pace, restores and rejuvenates us, clears our vision, and inspires a sense of belonging, direction, and purpose.

For these reasons, I encourage my clients to begin making the practice of stillness part of their daily routine, and watch how life improves. This doesn’t require sitting with eyes closed. In fact, as stillness deepens within the horizon of our experience, it becomes central to who we are—the “I AM” or Oversoul referenced in the world’s ancient spiritual texts that goes with us wherever we go. We may be driving, checking out at the market, talking to a friend, or taking part in a meeting—yet we remain mindful of the medium of still awareness within which the entire universe emerges into actuality and falls away again, like the momentary shapes in the cascading water of a fountain. I have not seen any situation that is not made better simply by remembering to be still. Its agency is unfailing and “past finding out.” By contrast, all human effort and ingenuity are workarounds.

The proposition that stillness can heal and resolve effortlessly what all effort only seems to make worse may strike us as counterintuitive, but perhaps we can agree that, all things considered, it is worth making the experiment. Human will has led us to the brink of catastrophic conditions—monstrous hurricanes, runaway wildfires and floods, the extinction of whole species, the unleashing of deadly microorganisms, the development of apocalyptic weapons of mass destruction, politically imposed famine, and that is the short list—yet we persist in placing our faith in a way of being that has no future. As we’re still here, we may presume that, at least for now, life has not given up on us. Let us make the most of the opportunity and put down our smartphones long enough to reclaim the only thing that can sustain and guide us—the mysterious stillness that abides within us and all things, that brought us forth out of itself and is ever with us, watching and waiting for us to shake off our sleepwalk and come home to our true nature.

29 February, 2020

Radical Responsibility

Radical Responsibility
Inset: The Broken Pitcher, William-Adolphe Bouguereau

When I was writing the Field Project Course on consciousness-as-cause with the aim of fixing numerous errors in the widely commercialized New Age model, I introduced the concept of “radical responsibility.” According to this idea, we’re responsible for our experience even when it seems to proceed from the choices and actions of others and even when our own choices are “unwitting” (another concept of the Course). Such a claim may seem solipsistic—a term used to describe the philosophical position that “I alone am real,” and that the world, including other people, is my personal dream. Indeed, the Course states that “reality is in the I of the beholder” and that “the world is the self writ large’ in the sense that the only reality we can know is the reality informed by the constructs of our consciousness, most notably, what the Course calls “intentions,” technically defined as those structures of the psyche comprising that with which we identify and that which we take to be real.

Solipsism is a nasty bit of business, the mindset of madness and egomania. One of the first projects I took on as an undergraduate student in philosophy was to work out a disproof of solipsism’s core tenet that “I alone am real,” solely because I found the view to be not only ugly and unsettling but also dangerous in its denial of the reality of others. And while the Course makes many statements that clearly repudiate solipsism and acknowledge the reality of others in their otherness, any student lacking advanced formal training in philosophy could be forgiven for concluding that the Course, like other models of consciousness-as-cause, is ultimately solipsistic.

In cleaning up the New Age mess and developing a curriculum that I knew was more truthful, more mature, deeper, more thorough, and actually capable of delivering on the promise of conscious creating, I didn’t realize that I had grabbed a philosophical tiger by the tail. The question of how the world can be at the same time subjective and objective—that is, an outpicturing of certain structures deep within our consciousness and also objectively “out there,” existing in its own right, independent of us, would require a great deal more than the Course was meant to sort out. It is a project I’ve been working on for the past year in the writing of two books, one now completed, the sequel in the works, that deconstruct the misconceptions and fallacies in the prevailing interpretations of quantum mechanics. The failure of the new physics to explain entanglement, it turns out, is not a scientific problem but a philosophical one—that is, the underlying assumptions about the nature of reality have been off from the beginning leading to flawed reasoning and untrue or contradictory conclusions. Finding a publisher for this two-book project, which as I see it completes the circle that I started drawing when I walked up to the blackboard and presented my disproof of solipsism at university, has been about as challenging, and I think I understand why. The treatment of the material defies categorization. Agents and editors don’t know what to make of it, because while it isn’t science, it deals with scientific matters in a philosophically demanding examination of the correspondence (entanglement) between the self and the world it observes, an issue that lives at the very heart of the new physics but also of philosophy. This is a far cry from the sort of pop nonsense warmed over and served up in “the Secret” and other so-called “law of attraction” come-ons that fail to recognize let alone address the solipsism problem inherent in the idea of consciousness-as-cause, but which, properly packaged, tend to make it onto talk shows and bestseller lists.

While I’m querying agents and publishers, I thought we might start the new year with some food for thought taken from my immersion in this material that suggests a revolutionary approach to solving problems, one that flies in the face of the common (and commonly unexamined) assumptions we make whenever we set about trying to extricate ourselves from some difficulty through the force of our will, only to find that despite our most sincere and diligent efforts, the situation persists.

Have you noticed that certain problems follow you wherever you go? Change cities, jobs, relationships—as though the problem knew where you were going and got there ahead of you, ready to stir up the same trouble all over again. These patterns of experience often run deeper than we know. While the most aware and given to self-work may have concluded that they originate in childhood dramas and traumas, they actually may be intergenerational, perhaps even ancestral patterns encoded in our DNA and passed down from time immemorial. Seeking expression, these ancient themes project themselves onto the screen of spacetime where they recreate the same suffering again and again, like captive ghosts rattling the same chains, for that is all they can do until they are released. Thus, while we think we’re making choices, we are like puppets manipulated by unconscious forces over which we have no control, except in those rare moments when we wake up as though from a dream, and glimpse the truth—that we’re battling some intractable foe that attacks us not from “out there” but from within, a foe that has grabbed us and will not let us go.

Our reality, then, is a house of mirrors, a mysterious and subtle system of reflections arranged to show us the deeper currents of ourselves. Engaging these reflections directly is futile, yet this is what we do when we attempt to impose our will upon the world or upon others. Neither the world nor others have any choice about how they show up for us because they are under the orders of the contradictions and false assumptions we inherited and carry and therefore must express. Our predicament is like that of a dreamer who dreams he’s fighting a monster that he can neither defeat nor escape. He may try a hundred tactics, but as it is his dream, he is only fighting himself. The way out is discovered when the dreamer awakens and realizes that his problem was a fiction, a construct of his sleeping consciousness, and that he was never in any real danger.

When we’re dreaming of monsters in our sleep, we are as a rule not aware that we could choose simply to wake up and “solve” the problem by relocating to the more inclusive, transcendent awareness of the waking state. In the same way, it can seem nearly impossible to “wake up” within the waking dream and break the cycle that perpetuates our “reincarnation” into the same problematic situation again and again. What would “waking up” even be when the dream is the waking dream?

The ancients knew the way. We begin to wake up when we stop allowing ourselves to be drawn into trying to force solutions through our will, and instead, simply practice witnessing—noticing what’s going on, watching, listening, but without reaction, judgment, or other involvement of the critical mind. This is the essence of Stoic wisdom, a practice also found in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism as well as various shamanic traditions east and west. Practicing detached awareness is the key to transcendence and disentanglement from the world’s relentless reflections, which as we have noted originate in the depths of the self. Interrupting the compulsive engagements of the entangled mind by stepping out of the world-drama onto the high ground of the witness interrupts the outpictured problem at its source.

This idea that we have within us the freedom to expand rather than constrict, to suspend the impetus of our ancestral inheritance even for a moment, makes sense of the idea that we are “radically responsible,” and to this extent, reveals the validity of qualified solipsism. In this choice to practice awareness rather than give ourselves once again to the turbulence of past patterns, we possess a key that can solve any problem we may find our world reflecting. It is simply not the key we were looking for, not the key we were expecting as we struggled to impose our will upon a world that has no power to save us or even respond to us at that level. The monster in the dream is not defeated by an act of courage or ingenuity or perseverance. It is defeated by our waking up. A dialectical shift in consciousness is required, and that is all that is required.

We are suggesting here that we can solve problems by doing nothing at all about them, provided that by “doing nothing” we mean practicing awareness. This is by no means a passive thing. Awareness is inherently alert, mindful, attentive, curious, responsive, and steady—like the ancient Stoics who cultivated their character regardless of the machinations of fate. There is no doubt that even relentless problems can shift spontaneously when we do, and it is helpful to remember that the most intimidating reflections are just that and nothing more. Practicing awareness clears the backlog of pain, contradiction, and fear-based belief that we all carry to some extent and keep dreaming into reality. In this new year, let us resolve to awaken in the waking dream and begin to explore the amazing correspondence between our inner and outer life, and the transformative power of accepting radical responsibility and getting our will out of the way.

24 January, 2020

Initiations

So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.
| Rainer Maria Rilke

Initiations

One of the most remarkable shifts we see in philosophical counseling sessions is the surfacing of seemingly independent forces in the psyche that call for a redefinition of self and reality. These forces do not ask our permission, but erupt with determination, purpose, and formidable if not unstoppable power when their hour comes ’round. They may arise from what Jung calls the “shadow,” from parts of us long denied or never acknowledged, from experiences of early trauma locked away in neural memory, or perhaps from even deeper regions of consciousness that extend beyond the local self we take ourselves to be. Outwardly, these intense internal transitions show up as external crisis situations that overwhelm us, demanding that we abandon beliefs and assumptions about reality and our relation to it that no longer work. Usually, clients struggling in the throes of this sort of foundering an old identity come to counseling in flight from it, but soon learn there is no escaping whatever is happening to them, that as the Borg of Star Trek Next Generation put it, “resistance is futile.” Whatever has their life by the throat is done waiting. Something bigger than their will has taken over. Like it or not, they are being initiated.

Sadly, Western civilization makes no provision for rites of passage from one stage of life to another. From studying tribal societies, however, we know that such initiations typically involve a wounding—perhaps a knife cut to the thigh or the knocking out of a tooth. The wounding acknowledges that the transition between identities is difficult and painful—the skin of self is not shed easily. But the containment of all this in ritual makes it far more accessible than it is for those of us in the West who sooner or later and without warning are likely to find ourselves abducted by inner forces that we cannot understand, violent forces that hold out no guarantee of a new identity as they systematically tear down the old one. The Sufis say that from conception to birth, the new human passes through 7,000 veils—3,500 losing the divine attributes and 3,500 taking on the earthly ones, and that the parent should always hold the infant when it cries, because it is remembering. Every subsequent birth in the course of a life has its contractions, its loss of a familiar and reassuring reality, its death of self and resurrection in a greater self.

As Jung pointed out, these reincarnations are not something we do; rather, they do us. At such times, there is only one wise direction to take: nonresistance. As a friend of mine once told me, “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” What can be almost impossible to see heading into the turbulence of initiation is that there is a new and unimagined integration waiting on the other side to receive us. Death is always only half the story.

This is all well and good, until the flames are at the door. Then what—especially if we don’t have even the consolation of ritual to sustain us? A little reframing here can go a long way. The wisdom of Hawaiian shamanism, known in the West as Huna, tells us that there are four levels of reality: physical/rational, energetic/connection, symbolic/meaning, and mystical/oneness. At each level, respectively, awareness expands, taking in aspects of reality that the less expanded levels consider either incredible or crazy if they consider them at all. Each more expanded level conserves the less expanded ones, so that no aspect of self or reality is lost as we evolve. That said, the transitions can be bumpy to say the least, and more so as awareness expands.

At the physical/rational level, reality is engaged and understood in terms consistent with Newtonian physics and Aristotelian logic. As separateness rules here, we experience ourselves as separate from the world and from each other. The mind at this level operates rationally, analyzing (literally “dissecting”) things in order to conceptualize and categorize them. At the energetic/connection level, consciousness expands beyond the strictly physical/rational realm to take into account the quality of its interactions and transactions with others. At this level, for example, we might recognize that someone who is presenting an angry affect actually is deeply sad, or that someone offering a favor is not to be trusted. Energetic/connection awareness requires an empathic receptivity that goes beyond sensory data and reason, one that takes context and intention into account. Philosophical counselors, psychotherapists, and others in the helping profession typically operate at this reality level and may go beyond it to incorporate symbolic/meaning awareness, as well. Logotherapy, dream analysis, shamanism and phenomenology are some examples of reality models and methods that recognize and work with symbols and meaning as microcosms of reality. A shaman, for example, may work directly with a symbol in order to treat the condition it represents. Philosophical counseling also may work at the level of meaning to help clients reframe their experience, step clear of contradiction, and dialectically transcend suffering. Finally, at the most expanded level of reality, mystical/oneness, awareness expands to include the whole of existence. This is the experience of nirvana, satori, the true Self, the universal wave function—it goes by many names, all of them necessarily inadequate, since language is limited to duality and logic. Mystics, yogis, and shamans embody this awareness, which in spiritual texts is likened to reunion with the divine and associated with liberation from suffering.

The hidden currents of the psyche that flow along the continuum of these levels of reality carry us with them. In the transition from one to the other, we may feel as though it is reality itself that we are losing—which is why just knowing that there are other levels than the one we’ve always assumed can be more than a little reassuring and even can provide us with a place to stand for the time being. Every life has its initiations, its deaths and rebirths. Like physical birth, death itself may be an initiation into greater life. When it seems that all is lost, when nothing makes sense, and everything we thought we knew no longer works, we can still trust that life knows what it’s doing, and that the hands that fashioned us and our world will see us through.

30 November, 2019

Sophrosyne

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexatious to the spirit.
| Desiderata, Max Ehrmann

Sophyrosyne

The Greeks regarded sophrosyne (soh-fruh-SOO-nay), generally translated somewhat unsuccessfully as “moderation” or “temperance,” to be among the highest virtues that a person could achieve. Plato explores it at length in his dialogue, Charmides, where it appears to be related to grace, self-awareness, humility, respect for human limitations, the pursuit of excellence, self-possession, rationality, love for truth, social conscience, and conformity with the principles of harmony and proportion—all aspects of a character in which the various elements of wisdom (sophia) are brought together (syne).

In the political arena, Plato goes as far as asserting in the Republic that the city-state would never be free of evil until philosophers became kings or kings embodied the spirit of philosophy. Since philosophy is “the love of wisdom,” and sophrosyne is the coming together of the various qualities associated with the practice of wisdom, this amounts to saying that the city-state would be in harmony only if those in positions of power were self-possessed, mature, humble individuals guided by reason and an overriding concern for the common good. Wisdom, then, would be the North Star and compass heading to guide the ship of state across the often tumultuous sea of political life. By that reckoning, those who are pugnacious by nature, who prize winning above all else would be unfit to lead the people, as would those for whom profit is the highest priority. Put another way, a CEO may pilot a company to market dominance and enormous profitability without a shred of wisdom. Apart from having to answer to a board of directors and perhaps indirectly to shareholders, CEOs operate much like kings, often despots, with no checks on the power they wield save those imposed by conscience. In far too many companies, the CEO rules as though without conscience, and much harm is done as a result, proving that profitability is no more a measure of the condition of a company’s soul than it is of an individual’s. Amazon, for example, is by far one of the wealthiest, most recognized companies in the world, yet on Jeff Bezos’s watch, it has been guilty of imposing sweatshop conditions in its warehouses so severe that some workers have lost their lives, hate groups have been allowed to market products that promote racism and incite to violence, and like many multinational corporations, Amazon has managed to monopolize whole industries, routinely violate the privacy of its users, and evade paying its fair share of taxes. So much for concern for the common good.

One could say fairly that companies such as Amazon are the inevitable result of organizational leadership absent philosophical vision and values. The problem becomes even more serious when the same failings of character infiltrate government, where power is concentrated, and reckless decisions may cost people their health, their families, their civil liberties, even their lives. Such is the evil that those without wisdom can do without so much as turning their head.

Deficiencies of this sort abound in varying degrees. In 1968, Stephen Karpman, a student of transactional analysis founder Eric Berne, devised what subsequently became known as the Drama Triangle, a social model comprising three destructive roles that many adopt in dealing with conflict: the victim, the persecutor, and the rescuer. Thousands of philosophical counseling sessions have shown that these three are the favorite personae of the disordered soul, and that the simple awareness and rejection of these roles can go a long way in restoring sophrosyne. The Drama Triangle is something of a Bermuda Triangle of the psyche. Good things get lost there. Without sophrosyne, without self-possession and the humility that recognizes and accepts and works with human limitations, even our victories soon turn against us. This may be the basis of the ancient spiritual idea that the gods favor the humble person, and that pride—hubris, in the Greek view—goeth before a fall, leading inevitably to suffering and tragedy. All three drama-roles depend on a reactive stance that is barely conscious, highly opinionated, and resistant to instruction until years of misery have sufficiently pounded and softened the clay. When we are immersed in the role of the victim, the persecutor, or the rescuer, we are not present. The images of our past woundings project onto the screen of experience like Plato’s shadows on the fire-lit wall of the cave, so that we cannot see things as they are. Victims, for example, do not see their complicity in their incessant trials; persecutors are blind to the innocence of those they are convinced mean them harm; rescuers rush in to “help” with no awareness that they are running roughshod over essential boundaries and robbing those they would help of life lessons needed for the cultivation of responsibility, agency, and self-respect. As long as we continue to engage from within the Drama Triangle, now victim, now persecutor, now rescuer, life remains unsympathetic, unfair, a relentless repetition of missteps and misfortune.

There is a way out. In matters of the disordered soul that is not yet beyond rehabilitating, a little mindfulness goes a long way. Nothing more is required than the willingness to begin practicing self-awareness, so that we can come out of immersion in destructive roles and hold up a hand to them. No, we must begin to say to the constricted self we have been, I have given you too much of my life. I will accept responsibility for my suffering and quit playing the victim. I will persecute no one, for each carries a burden, and each is caught up in a story that may well be more painful than my own. I will abandon the futile vocation of rescuing others, since when I am truthful with myself and with them, I know that I am in no position to determine or dictate what they need, and even with the best of intentions, I am more likely to interfere and earn resentment than I am to save them. I choose, then, to save the one person I can—myself. And soon, practicing this humility, this acknowledgment and honoring of limitations, this truthfulness, we shake off the strangulating coils of drama, come back to our better nature and the living present, and discover firsthand why the ancients valued sophrosyne above all else.

12 October, 2019

Terminal Greatness

Terminal Greatness

The populist mandate of “me first,” adopted largely as the politics of xenophobia, has been touted as great, as in “make America great again,” but when one sees through the thin rhetoric, it comes down to selfishness pure and simple—the glorification of the individual at the expense of the common good, and worse, of particular individuals shameless enough to game the system unconstrained by conscience, for whom “the deal” is all that matters, who lie and cheat and steal by rote, and most despicably, who regard themselves as supremely entitled and above the law. Such “greatness” is the stance of swindlers, of those who recognize no cause beyond immediate gratification and perpetual self-aggrandizement. The world has always known such people—the Greeks called them “idiotes”—those who lived for themselves alone with no concern for the welfare of others, but the problem is far more serious now than it was in ancient Athens, for we have reached a critical juncture in human history when the price of this brand of so-called greatness is swiftly carrying us to the point of no return, a point when the survival of our planet and life itself hangs in the balance, and we are running out of time.

Let us be clear. Whatever constitutes human or national greatness, there is nothing of it to be found in pettiness. There is nothing great about name-calling, bullying, pushing to the head of the line, the cruel sundering of families, brutal indifference to the suffering of the poor, the sowing of the seeds of hatred, winning at all costs, or turning a blind eye while the planetary weather system, inflamed and teetering out of balance, continues to swallow up lives and property in runaway storms and floods, rising sea levels, and the extinction of entire species. Greatness has nothing to do with racism, misogyny, intolerance for those from different cultures or ethnic backgrounds than one’s own or those whose gender or sexual identity sets them apart from the mainstream. Seizing on these differences to incite those who have been exploited by late capitalism to scapegoating and violence is the sign of what Plato called a “disordered soul,” and there is nothing great about it other than its capacity for doing harm. In extreme cases, the disordered soul becomes deformed and, as Aristotle states, can no longer be rehabilitated. Drowning in hubris, which the Greeks considered the most heinous failing of character, such tragic figures become the architects of their own destruction.

Greta Thunberg would be regarded by the Greek philosophers as heroic. Even at the young age of 16, in her recent address to world leaders at the United Nations, she demonstrated the character traits of courage, a deep concern for the common good, and a passionate and unwavering commitment to voicing a difficult truth. Particularly in her reference to “fairy tales of unlimited economic growth,” she leveled an indictment against those whose narrow self-interest has led them to plunder the world’s resources with no regard even for their own children and grandchildren. What better, more beautiful, more truthful, or more appropriate response could there be to such reckless irresponsibility than Greta’s rhetorical, “How dare you?”

It is a question that we all had better start asking our leaders. The evidence of the catastrophic effects of climate change are all around us and closing in. It is a fact no rational person can deny. If we elect the worst among us, we become complicit in the consequences of their unchecked and politically empowered selfishness. Never before in our history has it been more important to bring the governance of nations into collaboration for the common good. The “greatness” promoted by populism is lethal, for as the saying has it, we’re all in this together. Native American wisdom warned us centuries ago that what we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves. Let us resolve not to test the resilience of the ecosystem we share any further. Considerable damage already has been done; it is a matter now of doing all we can to minimize that damage in the hope that the environment can recover, and that life, which emerged on this planet through some inscrutable ingenuity eons before there were deal-makers, can be preserved for the generations to come.

24 September, 2019

Divine Indifference

Practice, then, from the very beginning to say to every disagreeable impression, “You’re an impression and not at all what you appear to be.” Then examine it and test it by these rules that you possess, and first and foremost by this one—whether the impression relates to those things that are within your power, or those that aren’t within your power; and if it relates to anything not within your power, be ready to reply, “That is nothing to me.”
| Epictetus, Enchiridion

Divine Indifference

Philosophy is all about wisdom, and not wisdom in some esoteric sense removed from everyday life but practical wisdom—common sense, good judgment, discernment, self-possession, reasonableness, and other such qualities worth admiring and emulating. The Greeks called such wisdom “phronesis,” a term that summarized living so skillfully that one’s life becomes like a work of art. About a century after Socrates, the Stoics added courage, justice, and temperance to wisdom, but as Marcus Aurelius noted, wisdom in the sense of phronesis really implies the other three, for if we are wise in this practical sense, then it follows that we will demonstrate the courage to be truthful even when doing so may cost us personally, the justice that responds to situations and others in appropriate measure, and the temperance that allows us to remain steady even in times of adversity—especially and centrally in Stoic thought, in the face of forces and conditions beyond our control.

Simply remembering to ask ourselves whether or not a situation involves forces that lie within our power or not can be saving, provided that we’re willing, as Epictetus advises, to make the only sane choice in those cases where effort on our part will be futile or worse, counterproductive—that is, to disengage and divest ourselves of all further concern over it. The Stoic declaration of “nothing to me” doesn’t mean that we don’t care, only that our caring is tempered by the wisdom to recognize when there is nothing more for us to do, and to refrain from blind reaction. Put another way, continuing to exert our will in situations that are, as the Stoics put it, “indifferent” to us is a kind of insanity, a denial of reality, and a failure method that can only leave us frustrated and spent. If we wish to be sane, to be wise, we will do what we can, then stop doing. In this release of the will, we leave room for unexpected solutions to make an appearance, and in any event, spare ourselves the punishing consequences of excessive, self-defeating effort. The “impression” presenting itself may convey a sense of urgency—but it makes no sense to undertake urgently what it lies beyond our power to undertake at all. In such cases, choosing to remain indifferent is inspired by wisdom and in this sense, divine. This is why Epictetus counsels us to repudiate such impressions, to deny any claim that believing in them would place upon us, and to respond to them with appropriate indifference.

Many clients come to philosophical counseling sessions suffering for no other reason than that they have unwittingly strayed across this boundary and become caught up in vain attempts to control what they cannot control—another person’s choices, circumstances that need more time to resolve, or conditions otherwise indifferent to their will. The more they try to force solutions, the more the situation resists them. It hardly occurs to them that they can step back, disengage, and ask the fundamental Stoic question, the truthful answer to which not only can restore us to sanity but also to the wisdom that recognizes when effort is misplaced. Even if we care greatly about a particular outcome, there is something liberating about shaking off the sleepwalk of willfulness and coming home to the simple truth that we have reached a limit, and now must leave the matter in the hands of life to work out.

If you find yourself facing a “disagreeable impression,” you may benefit greatly by asking yourself before taking action whether or not the thing lies within your power to control or influence. If it does not, the wise course is to turn away from it. It is not a matter of letting go, for if a situation lies beyond the reach of your will, it is not in your hands even to release. Circumstances as a rule unfold, and are rarely what they seem to be in the heat of the moment. By refraining from acting that is forced, precipitous, premature, or inappropriate, you not only will spare yourself and others considerable suffering, but also, by getting out of they way, will make room for a greater agency than human will to operate, and in a moment innocent of will and effort, when you have forgotten all about the matter, you may discover that an ingeniously favorable outcome has arrived unbidden.

27 August, 2019