Would you Like More Tranquility?

Would you like more peace and tranquility in your life? Would you like to gain contentment and step away from the endless cycle of desire? Would you like to get a  handle on your negative emotions? I for one want all of these things and I am willing to make a bet that you would also. The word “tranquil,” is an oxymoron in our crazy world of nonstop meetings, errands, social media updates, and version 2.0 technology purchases. How can we obtain the “good” life? Philosophers and religious leaders have been searching for this answer for millennia. I picked up a book that focused on this question through the ancient practice of Stoicism – A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine. This is an excellent book that introduces the main principles of a frequently misunderstood way of life. Before reading this book, I always viewed a “stoical” person as someone who had no emotion – like a robotic-British-guard who can’t respond to pestering tourists. This view was completely off track…

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Stoicism began in Greece and was an amalgamation of several philosophical schools. The three main principles of Stoicism are as follows:

  1. A Stoic’s highest values are virtue and tranquility.
  2. A Stoic desires contentment with what they have – not what they would like to have
  3. A Stoic accepts what is outside of their control and accepts whatever their external environment throws at them.

Virtue in a Stoic sense means living a life that’s aligned with the ultimate purpose of a human – that is to be rational. This rationality leads ultimately to the pillars of virtue: temperance, courage, wisdom, goodness, honesty, righteousness, dignity, integrity, trustworthiness, decency and merit. To be entirely rational, one must be in a tranquil state. A tranquil state is one in which no negative emotions exist. To be completely tranquil, one must not let their external environment control their feelings. For example, a Stoic person in an argument would not become angry from insults and would maintain their tranquility – leading to preservation of their rational base of virtues.

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A significant enemy of tranquility is desire. This is especially true when the desire leads to discontentment. Stoics aim to rid themselves of this “desire loop” by appreciating what they already have. This goal is obtained by the practice of “negative visualization.”  To practice negative visualization, just imagine the people and things you love as suddenly vanishing. For example, imagine if you woke up today and there was no roof over your head; rain was pouring on your head, and you were shivering with cold from the dampness of the room. Thinking this makes you immediately appreciate your warm blanket and strong roof – two things that you normally take for granted. Another example is imagining that your wife or husband has died. This thought is deliberate but temporary – it doesn’t make you depressed – but instead makes you joyous with your current possessions. This practice is commonly performed among religious individuals who regularly pray – thanking God for His blessings because those blessings are very transitory.

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Finally, to achieve complete tranquility, we must understand what things are outside of our control. This is a challenging concept to practice, but it is a life-changing concept when implemented. We cannot control what other people say or do. We cannot control what is going on in the news. We cannot control the millions of variables which bombard us on a daily basis. When things upset us that are outside our control, we must push it out of our mind immediately. This doesn’t mean that we give up helping people but rather it requires us to make better goals. We can only go about our day doing our “best” to help make the world a better place. That is much different than the goal of “making the world a better place.” Trying your best is in your control. Changing the world for the better, unfortunately, is not in your control. This subtle change in mindset leads to considerable changes in anxiety, depression, and discontentment. Stoicism complements well with Christianity, and I feel that these two philosophies combined make for the best possible life. I know a lot of religious people who are very anxious and discontented with their day-to-day existence. Ancient philosophy doesn’t have to be relegated to the dusty shelves of a library – there is wisdom all around us.

Stoicism is so important that I am going to make it the next installment in The Tackle the Library Series. Release date June 2019.

When Death Surprises Us

It is always remembered as that definitive moment in time. That very instance in which bad news was learned. Before the news, life seemed normal. After the news life seemed forever tinged. Very few things in life bother us more than an unexpected death; the death of a person whose time should not have come. When death surprises us it is one of the most shocking and disorienting moments of our existence. We see our lives as journeys that have some sort of predictive storyline: go to school, get married, have kids, move up the ladder, travel, retire, die of old age. When this plot suddenly falls off the tracks, we tend to pause in befuddlement – questioning our destiny. Usually, we try to rationalize an unexpected death. We convince ourselves that there was a “cause.” We try to put order to a thing that just seems random. Death caused by something is better than death caused by nothing. Randomness is scary and we quickly rush for explanations to help us rationalize our control on life. It’s like watching a scary movie and saying that we don’t live in that haunted house so we couldn’t possibly be killed.

Of course, there are sensical things to be done to avoid death. We know not to stand in the middle of the road, play with venomous snakes, smoke 10 packs of cigarettes a day. Along with the obvious, there are daily health habits which can help a person reach old age: eat fruits and vegetables, exercise, limit stress, etc. In general, people tend to live longer and healthier lives than past generations. It is for these reasons that we tend to forget about the inevitable – death. We think that if we follow a formula that the outcome will be fireside chats with grandkids and a peaceful death at the ripe age of 95. More than ever we believe that our “own” choices can dictate our future. Unfortunately, we have absolutely no control of the future. Sure, we can do our best to live healthy lives in the “hope” of old age, but there are no guarantees. This may sound fatalistic, but it is the truth – we have zero control over the future. Our lust for control is why unexpected death always sends us into an internal panic. We reassess our goals and look at our loved ones in a new light. It is this mindfulness that is always so fleeting but yet so vital to our existence.

A very special co-worker of mine died this weekend, and I feel almost frozen with questions of why. Why did she have to die so young? Why did God take someone so smart and amazing? Why did it seem so random? Grief is a complicated beast, and I had to write this post to tweeze through a lot of my thoughts. I miss my friend, and I do believe she is in heaven. Life teaches us to never take for granted the present. What we have today is not guaranteed tomorrow. It is ok to make plans for the future but never rush through your days trying to get there. We can’t escape death, and we can’t control our futures. Love deeply whenever you can because you may never get a second chance.

 

War and Peace

Growing up the biggest book in the house was always the Holy Bible. The Bible stood above all other books in its shear mass – the thinness of the pages, the small font, and the endless footnotes made it formidable. Of course the Bible is in a class of its own but my third classic, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, gives it some competition in the size department: 1,400 pages of 19th-century Russian Literature. I always viewed War and Peace as the ultimate ego-trip – imagine some hipster guy walking down the street holding a copy while curling his mustache and listening to a Walkman. In all honesty, this book almost destroyed my sight; halfway through I bought a magnifying glass from Amazon that had in the description, “GREAT FOR GRANDMA AND GRANDPA.” It took me over three weeks to finish and I felt like a man waiting for his wife to give birth when the doctor says it will take all night – initial excitement, tears at the vending machine at 3:00 AM, and finally exhausted delirium at sunrise. Instead of a crying baby I was rewarded with a new found perspective of what art in the form of writing truly represents. War and Peace is not a novel but rather a philosophical treatise that has the added benefit of a great story. The general plot takes place in Russia from 1805 to 1820 and follows the family life of  a few Russians during the Napoleonic Wars. So what makes this book so great? The complexity of the characters mix with the backdrop of war to form a multilayered cake of delicious metaphor, behavior, and historical understanding.

As the title suggests, War and Peace, is all about contrast. The characters juggle life’s myriad curve balls: young love transforms into mature friendship, an engagement fails after an unexpected affair, happy families suffer with untimely deaths, once bountiful fortunes turn to meager incomes. The backdrop to these life events is a war that sweeps up the individual characters and the nation as whole. War that once seemed so glorious becomes surreal as the years progress. The war symbolizes both destruction and birth: taking the lives of some while bringing together people who may have never met. The philosophical theme throughout the book aims to better understand the meaning of life and man’s ability to express free will. The purpose of life, which is best expressed by the characters who suffered the most, is simply to “live” – every expression is a manifestation and glorification of God. This conclusion is simple on the surface but hard to practice: people seek money, respect, power, and control as their purpose, while “just” living seems inadequate. This purpose is mirrored by man’s desire to express free will while simultaneously being drawn by others into actions that are counter to life – war. Tolstoy makes the point that free will is not an absolute, just as inevitability (no choice at all) is also not an absolute. Thus, Napoleon – with his genius – did not impact his soldiers and the battle’s outcomes as much as he or everyone else thought. The same is true of the individual soldier’s free will – time, space, history, and infinite circumstances swinging the pendulum of choice. History, is not decided by the powerful few but is decided by a irreducible power which is wielded by innumerable individuals – always susceptible to the curve ball of life.

“If everyone fought for their own convictions there would be no war.”
-Leo Tolstoy War and Peace

The Game of Life

Have you ever had a really nasty encounter with a person? One of those encounters where you get so upset that you become a nasty person yourself. Where both people seem to be climbing a mountain of frustration with no way of turning back to calmer ground. The type of frustrating interaction that leaves you emotionally and physically drained afterwards. Our difficulty with these charged events is that they don’t happen very often. Their irregularity leaves us vulnerable to repeating the same mistakes over and over-never really learning the correct coping mechanisms. Some of us blow up while others of us shut down-both are not helpful. I do not write this as a saint or someone who is always in a zen state immune to the winds of confrontation. I do however know from experience that we are the masters of how we react to all incoming stimulus. Dr. Stephen Covey said “Our ultimate freedom is the right and power to decide how anybody or anything outside ourselves will affect us.” This means that the only thing we can control is our reaction to whatever stimulus comes our way. We can’t control what other people say or do-we can only control how we react to those things.

My wife and I like to play tennis. Do you know the best skill a tennis player can have? Power? Control? Finesse? Determination? These are all helpful but the very best skill is one most people don’t think of-patience. Patience in waiting until the very last millisecond to hit the ball. Serena Williams is so good because she takes in every last detail of the balls trajectory, speed, spin, and behavior before administering her swing. Because of her patience and extra time to compute the stimulus she can return the best possible volley. This skill directly translates to the tennis match of conversation. The ball is the stimulus that is being rocketed your way and you need to decide how to react. Are you a pro like Serena with the patience to analyze the ball?

-Honey I had an awful day at work and the patients were so mean to me?
-…I’m so sorry about that, tell me about what happened?

Or are you like a flabby amateur who hits the ball without the slightest delay and care for detail?

Honey I had an awful day at work and the patients were so mean to me?
-You should be use to those types of patients and have a tougher skin.

We volley a hundred conversations a day without batting an eye. These are the matches that allow us to function and bring us together in a healthy manner. Those interactions are not the problem, the ones we need to prepare for are the irregular matches against the indomitable opponents. The opponents that want to hit the tennis ball right in our face. The opponents that would love to see us defeated on the other side of the net. These rare matches require pro skills and that is why you must practice how you react to stimulus on a daily basis. Think about the other person’s feelings, motives, perspectives,  background, and intentions. Let all those words and actions float in front of you-dissect their meaning-and then volley back a reply. This skill is extremely difficult because we are quick to react and many times want to hit the other person in the nuts with our rackets. We need to remember that scoring one good hit may score a point but it doesn’t mean we won the match. Play the long game in life and hone the skill of reaction to become a professional in every day interactions. Be the person that always seems to know the right thing to say at the right time. Be the person who is a role model for the amateur players. Be the person who can dominate the game of life.

 

The Preposition of God

Question, should you live your life from God, over God, for God, or under God? Confused? Well, it was a trick question, you should live your life with God. Still confused? Don’t worry, I was to when I first started reading With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God by Skye Jethani which uses the above mentioned prepositions to explain how most of us relate to God. This book is an excellent read and I highly recommend it to religious and non-religious people alike. Alright, let’s define Mr. Jethani’s prepositions…

-Life from God: “People in this category want God’s blessings and gifts, but they are not particularly interested in God himself.” Think of the person who only seeks God out when they need something.

-Life over God: “The mystery and wonder of the world is lost as God is abandoned in favor of proven formulas and controllable outcomes.” Think of the person who uses the Bible as a complete resource manual for life and believes they have control as long as divine procedures are followed.

-Life for God: “This most celebrated of religious postures…The most significant life…is the one expended accomplishing great things in God’s service.” Think the uber-religous type who devote their lives to the service of God because they want to have a greater purpose and please God through their accomplishments.

-Life under God: “[this] posture sees God in simple cause-and-effect terms–we obey his commands and he blesses our lives, our families, our nation. Our primary role is to determine what he approves (or disapproves) and work vigilantly to remain within those boundaries.” Think of people who always focus of sins and think that blessings or calamities are a result of behavior.

In the real world, most people fit into all four of these categories depending on the circumstance. The correct way of relating to God is just being with Him. What the frick does “being with Him” mean? Well it means having an actual relationship with God and realizing that a relationship is the only thing He wants from us. God just wants us to hang out with Him because we are his creation and He loves us. It’s like any relationship you have with friends, family, or a loved one; you want interaction with each other because both individuals enjoy each other’s company. Sin is not something that God is tallying against us but is rather a barrier to us having a relationship with God. Sin is a punishment in of itself because it prevents us from spending time with our Creator. God doesn’t care what we accomplish in this life-all He cares about is spending time with us. God’s love for us has no strings attached and that is why all the previous prepositions fall short of a healthy relationship. We cannot control God and once we realize God cares for us then we can let go of that control and enjoy His love more completely. Of course, the idea of releasing fear is easier said then done, but it should be our ultimate goal if we desire a closer connection with God. How do we have a relationship with God? The best way is to just talk to God and try to listen. Prayer does not have to be a formal thing that happens at church or before dinner. Prayer is just the communion between you and God. Sit down and just say “What’s up God?” Personally, I combine prayer, yoga, and meditation together to help deepen my communication with God. It isn’t formal, boring, or strained. I just listen and speak to God as if He were a friend sitting next to me. This stuff isn’t easy but it can transform you into a more relaxed, loving, and peaceful person because you know that nothing is in your control but its okay because your BFF will help you through everything.