Seeking Compassion in Stoicism

When I finally started reading some of the key Stoic writers in my journey to better understand the philsophy, I was quickly struck by a recurring pronouncement of empathy and compassion for one’s fellow man.

I had come to the philosophy with a partial and flawed understanding that the philosophy was primarily focused on distancing oneself from emotions and the influence of other people. The impression that many people have is that to be stoic is to be untouched by the good and the bad that happens to you, and to those around you.

My early encounters with the text, however, brought up many quotes that I found surprising given this preconception that I had come in with. Stoicism as espoused by Marcus Auralius is not only a way of living that encourages one to take the perspective of others regularly, but it also calls on Stoics to minister to their suffering brethren. A sentiment that rings more closely to what I am used to hearing as a trait of Christianity.

One of my favorite passages from Marcus, as with all his writings, was something he wrote to put a check on himself, to make sure that he was keeping his mind on service to his duties and humanity.

How have you behaved up to now towards gods, parents, brother, wife, children, teachers, tutors, friends, relations, servants? Has your principle up to now with all of these been to ‘say no evil, do no evil’? Remind yourself what you have been through and had the strength to endure; that the story of your life is fully told and your service completed; how often you have seen beauty, disregarded pleasure and pain, forgone glory, and been kind to the unkind?

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 5, 31

In the same breath as he talks about how he has treated those around him he also mentions being unmoved by pleasure or pain. These two concepts, of being both immune to the influence of emotion, and compassionate to our fellow man, are not mutually exclusive.

Below all aspects of Stoicism runs a current of thought in which we understand that our emotional reactions to things are based on our own judgement about those things. If we understand that we have the power to adjust our responses to the world, then all manner of things that happen to or around us lose their power to make us unhappy.

I am able to form the judgement that I should about this event. If able, why troubled? All that lies outside my own mind is nothing to it.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 7, 2

Marcus was an Roman emperor and writes a lot about dealing with difficult people, both friends and enemies. His version of compassion if often tilted quite strongly towards tolerance of individuals whom he might otherwise find difficult to deal with. Though some people might feel that this perspective is a bit weak, far from the sort of warmth we often associate with compassion, I would argue that true tolerance of any other person is an incredibly difficult and generous stance to strive towards.

Men are born for the sake of each other. So either teach or tolerate.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 8, 59

One of the striking ways in which Marcus helps us gain perspective on the wrongs done by others, is to point out that everyone has only the choices to act in accordance with their own knowledge and circumstances. He also finds it prudent to point out that perhaps the wrong that we think they have done may not in fact be what we imagine. Who are we to presume that our perspective on the situation is correct in the first place?

Presented with the impression that someone has done wrong, how do I know that this was a wrong? And if it was indeed a wrong, how do I know that he was not already condemning himself, which is the equivalent of tearing his own face? Wanting the bad man not to do wrong is like wanting the fig tree not to produce figs, babies not to cry, horses not to neigh, or any other inevitable fact of nature. What else can he do with a state of mind like his? So if you are really keen, cure his state.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 12, 16

Being a Stoic isn’t about building a wall around yourself so that the actions of others will not be able to affect you. It isn’t social distancing and filtering in such a way as that the words of others come to us from arm’s length. It is actually the opposite. It is being so secure in our own judgement and virtue that we can open ourselves up fully to be present in the mind and position of the other person. It is an act of actually trying to step into their shoes and see where they are coming from. It is by getting ourselves away from our own prejudices that we are able to see more clearly, and when we can see from the other person’s perspective it seems simple that we will have some sympathy for them as a fellow human being struggling to do the right thing the best way that they know how.

I have come to greatly admire this aspect of Stoicism that is difficult to convey and seems often to be lost in the description. We can only ever truly affect change within ourselves, and the focus of our attention should be on living in accordance with our own inner nature in order to lead a virtuous life. As social creatures and part of a larger connection of living beings, our virtues need also be turned to how we deal with others. True tolerance isn’t a shutting people out, it is an attempt to understand them. Our ability to not take their actions personally has nothing to do with fortitude and strength, rather it has to do with wisdom and empathy.

Compassion, it seems to me, is not only an aspect of the Stoic tradition, but a cornerstone. If we truly do the work of understanding who we are, and the challenges that each person much endure in their own ways, then compassion is a natural outcome. Blame is not a factor in the equation. We are all in the same struggle together, and we can never truly harm one another, and to share our experiences and sympathies with one another will help ease the burden for all.

Fit yourself for the matters which have fallen to your lot, and love these people among whom destiny has cast you – but your love must be genuine.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 6, 39

Persistence in the Pocket

My eye has always been drawn towards edges and transitions, the cracks, the spaces where one thing ends and another begins. This has a lot to do with my insecurity as a child, growing up constantly looking at others to figure out the “right” way to do things so that I could avoid making mistakes or exposing myself to shows of ignorance.

I always wanted to know the “why”, the reason that things held together just the way that they did. Learning about one piece of the puzzle was never enough if I didn’t see how it fit in with the things around it.

Focusing on human created systems can be very frustrating for me. We tend to build things out only so far as profit calls for. All too often our systems have sharp edges, cutting off abruptly as soon as it become inconvenient. Even the most well-intentioned and thoughtful systems cannot cover every contingency for lack of imagination or resources.

For man-made systems the edges and gaps are a liability. The spaces between these systems are where the dust collects and unintended consequences arise, which often require more systems of their own to patch over and bridge the gap. This, often, only creates more edges.

Nature, however, runs different kinds of systems. No single element is neglected, and nothing is wasted. I like to think of natural systems as persistent, rather than pocket.

If anyone wants to know whether they are interacting with something holistic, comprehensive and natural, look for the edges, look for the gaps.

This was my experience a couple of days ago on a frustrating photo walk. In this time of seasonal transition and social insecurity it seemed as if everything were presented only in washed out yellows and browns. Even the blue sky in contrast seemed dull.

The only color I could find in this stark landscape were the subdued glow of moss on tree branches and the warmth of rotting wood inside of long-felled logs.

Despite the fact that everything seems to be in a holding pattern, just waiting for the next sign of spring to unleash growth, life has never truly stopped. At the borders, on tree trunks, in the crevices where water and warmth slowly decay tree stumps, life continues. Raw materials are being broken down and turned into something new all the time, even if we don’t see it. In fact, it is in these crevices, cracks and divisions that the real magic of life happens. The transition between twig and bud, the transition between the end of one life and the beginning of another, that is the where the greatest magic of growth occurs.

Trail Running At Night: Moving Without Seeing

Trail running is possibly when I am at my happiest. It combines a natural physical exercise with being strongly connected to nature, and it engages my mind strategically in a way that road running does not. Navigating the technical difficulties of the trail clicks into something deep inside that feels instinctual, gives my brain a low-level workout and creates a meditative space to decompress. There are many great metaphors tying trail running to life, especially when thinking about how one always has to look ahead, assess the near term obstacles and formulate a plan on how to manage them. That may seem great on paper, but even that much ability to plan ahead is generous in comparison to what life is really like.

Life is much more like trail running at night.

Most of the forward motion I have had in my life seems to have been unplanned. I ended up taking classes in areas other than my chosen major, I followed my wife to another city for her graduate education and found my employment out of necessity. It became an actual career path through the encouragement of others pushing me along and supporting me. When my wife graduated I followed her again for her career and was incredibly lucky to find a place for myself in our new city with my old employer.

Looking forward to predict what might happen next has always been a bit dubious in my case given this history, but 2020 is shaping up to offer even more challenges. I have just learned that many more changes are coming for both my wife and myself. Her job was upended a few months ago and mine just informed me that I would be transferring roles and duties, losing my beloved colleagues and probably travelling more.

All of that is of course layered in and around the changes happening due to the COVID-19 pandemic. My wife is a university professor and chair of her department, which has decided to close campus and finish off the semester online only, creating a whole slew of questions without answers. My current travel for work has been suspended and the pressure on our day to day operations has caused many of our usual systems to be placed at the wayside while we figure out what the new normal looks like.

Of course, way beyond myself, it feels like this is a time of unprecedented upheaval around the world, and most of the people I talk with are feeling quite a bit of uncertainty about more than one area of their lives.

For me it feels very much like I am standing in a dense fog, trying to look down the path, and finding myself completely unable to see more than a few feet ahead. I was lucky enough to have a day like this recently and the time to get out with a camera to capture it for a few fleeting moments before the sun burned it off.

Trail running at night (or in dense fog) is an exercise in moving through obstacles without the luxury of foresight, and as such, has some great lessons that I am trying to internalize for other parts of my life right now in a moment where I just can’t see what the way forward looks like.

There is a river of creation, and time is a violent stream. As soon as one thing comes into sight, it is swept past and another is carried down: it too will be taken on its way.

Marcus Auralius, Meditation Book 4, 43

Core strength and flexibility are the things one can and must rely on.

In the daylight it is possible to run at the extremities, to plan your steps carefully and to use the obstacles to your advantage. One might intentionally step on roots or rocks in the path to gain more traction or to maintain momentum. Strong ankles and knee control can help take the force of these moves but only if the steps go according to plan.

When running at night it is better to run at the core. Since it is not possible to assess an obstacle ahead of time it is necessary to control the stride starting at the hip. Leave the knee and ankle as flexible as possible, so that when the foot comes down it can roll with the terrain. Keep the feet below the body and the center of gravity low. Focus on planting one foot, gaining balance and then pulling the next up. Get the knee ahead of you and bring down the ankle loose and flexible.

In this way one finds oneself focused inward, maintaining balance and regularity of stride, thinking much more about what the hip is doing than what the ankle is up to. Trying to hold a foot too rigid when you don’t know how it is going to land is a great way to sprain an ankle or worse.

Human beings are soft and supple when alive, stiff and straight when dead. The myriad creatures, the grasses and trees are soft and fragile when alive, dry and withered when dead. Therefore, it is said: the rigid person is a disciple of death; the soft, supple, and delicate are lovers of life. An army that is inflexible will not conquer; a tree that is inflexible will snap. The unyielding and mighty shall be brought low; the soft, supple, and delicate will be set above.

Tao Te Ching, Verse 76, Victor Mair translation

The core strength we rely on in our broader lives can serve the same function as we move into uncertainty. Having strong values and social networks will allow us to handle obstacles, not by lining ourselves up ahead of time, but by giving us a framework of support that will catch us, and a blueprint to know where we should made adjustments rather than stand fast against an obstacle.

A core strength of our family is the way we prioritize one on one time, time spent in nature and time for each parent to spend recharging individually. If any of those aspects start to slip or happen less frequently we know that an adjustment needs to be made. Trying to maintain the external specifics for plans we have made, appointments on the calendar, isn’t going to matter as much as being able to spend quality time together and maintain the balance.

Core values don’t just give us guardrails to know when things are out of balance, they also point us in the right direction to correct those imbalances. Knowing what matters means that you have a beacon to help keep orientation. Sensing when one partner in the couple is spending too much time taking point and might be getting burned out, the solution is easy: get them some time on their own, even if that means adjusting plans that have already been made.

When running at night, pace must also be adjusted. It would simply be foolish, even if one has run the course before, to try and run in the dark at the same speed one might run during the day. There is no harm in slowing down a bit when things are less clear, and only speeding up again when there is some open ground.

When circumstances force you into some sort of distress, quickly return to yourself. Do not stay out of rhythm for longer than you must: you will master the harmony the more by constantly going back to it.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 6, 11

As a family travel is also very important to us. We have a rough draft schedule of travel and family milestones planned out for the next five years, but now seems like a good time to slow down and not worry much about what is going to be happening next year, much less next month. There will be time when we can revisit those plans and probably keep most of them in some form, but now is simply not it, and that is okay.

Running in the dark means focusing on yourself and having faith in the work you have put in building up your strength. In reality, running in the day shouldn’t be any different. Just because we think we can see down the path doesn’t mean we really know what is going to happen. The part of the path that looks dry may turn out to be slippery, and the branch we want to step on may not hold our weight at the critical moment. Even if we plan the moves correctly it doesn’t mean that we will be able to pull it off. Sometimes one just takes a bad step even with all the right training and strategy.

Both Taoism and Stoicism have been very helpful in preparing me for uncertainty in my life. These philosophies encourage self reflection, which is the only way we can come to know where our core values lay. Only once we begin to observe and prioritize the things that truly matter to us can we properly exercise those values, clarify their contours, and use them to guide our decisions.

Running at night isn’t a practice of sadistic self-punishment. It isn’t something that one should do just because it seems like a crazy idea. our of bravery. Running at night, because it cultivates this necessity of trusting one’s own body, is an exercise in faith. Letting go, trusting in one’s training and capabilities, not worrying about the path ahead, only the stars above and the surreal experience of gliding through the dark, is magical. My experience of this was an experience of faith, and I don’t mean to strip that word of any spiritual meaning. Knowing that I did have faith in myself, that I know some unshakable truths from my core, gave me a sense of contentment and freedom from worry that I haven’t had since.

I write this to remind myself of the feeling, and to try and give myself the perspective that I can be like this all the time. The things we think are stable in life may not be, and even on a clear day we will not be able to predict our future paths. Is it not best to run on faith in our core values, suspending judgement of the path ahead and reacting in the moment as much as possible? I hope that everyone is able to use these difficult times as an opportunity to reflect and redefine, and find some solid footing on the path ahead.

Unlike my trail running experience alone in the dark, we are not running this race of life alone. Now is a time to rely on ourselves, but also a time to rely on one another. Even as we make adjustments to our own lives it is helpful to know that we are all in this together. I hope that all of you and yours are safe, healthy and adapting in this challenging time.

Artist Inspiration: Brett Weston

I have just discovered a kindred spirit in the photography world and wanted to share some of my inspiration. I’m not going to dive much into his biography since that is something quickly found online. Suffice it to say that he was born second son to an already famous photographer but quickly defined his own talents and style.

I came across his work through The Brett Weston Archive, a wonderful site focused on the photography that offers several curated collections that can be viewed online. All images in this post are taken from one of these portfolios titled simply “Oregon”.

What immediately struck me about Brett’s work was his focus on texture and the abstracted patterns of positive and negative space that appear on surfaces or are created through repetition or overlapping of textures within a scene. His work doesn’t seem interested in depth so much as the more two-dimensional patters created by the elements whether they be on the same plane or not.

He seemed to see the confluence of light and dark and wanted to flatten it through high contrast black and white so that the resulting image would show how these elements combined with one another to create something more interesting, rather than showing them in relation to one another within a larger scene.

I’m not sure whether to consider him as a “nature” photographer or an abstract photographer, but a combination of the two certainly seems appropriate, given that he was using the natural elements to highlight an emergent pattern, rather than highlighting a specific subject in its own right.

I very much appreciate the aesthetic and have long been interested in creating similar visuals through various media that I have explored. Seeing a photographer who is able to capture such things so beautifully on film in the way that I can currently only imagine is absolutely inspiring to me and shows me that there is a way forward and a benchmark to measure myself against.

Hope there was a bit of inspiration in there for someone else who reads this! As I continue my own journey into the history of photography I will certainly call out those who speak to me, and I would appreciate having other photographers pointed out to me if there are suggestions from any readers.

Links:

Brett Weston – Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brett_Weston

The Brett Weston Archive online – Portfolios page https://www.brettwestonarchive.com/portfolios/

The Source and the Ten Thousand Things

The constant being enables one to see the outward manifestations.
These two come paired from the same origin.
But when the essence is manifested,
It has a different name.

Excerpt from the Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1

A fundamental principle shared by Taoism and Stoicism is that all beings, all matter, everything that exists, are connected. I am connected to all other humans, all other animals, all other objects that I can observe. Marcus Auralius thought of this as a “community” of existence, all things sharing together in one and the same “soup”. To take it a step further, it isn’t even quite right to say that we are separate things at all. We share a common Source, and if we are able to peel back our layers of perception that guide us to see “things” and “people” and “animals” as distinct, we will come to realize that all of existence is really One, undivided except in perception, sharing all qualities, a universal energy flowing in cycles.

This is not to say that the things we encounter and must deal with in our physical reality do not exist, or are not really there. Things exist, people exist, animals exist, various forms of energy and frequencies exist. More distinct parts of our existence are discovered every day, from the quantum level to new species, to new planets, to new forms of matter.

The duality of nature is not a mistake, not a fallacy of the system. It all depends on where perception is focused. Am I having a profound moment, at one with my desires and the world around me, feeling the common flow of energy, or am I feeling isolated, confronted with things I have not yet encountered that I must learn to deal with?

Taoism describes us, and the objects around us, as manifestations of the universal energy expressing itself. Yin and Yang flow back and forth in cycles, creating new combinations of matter and energy that take on new forms and begin to follow their own unique nature. The variety of manifestations is described often as “the Ten Thousand things”, a placeholder for some very large number which might translate better as the “infinite arrangement”.

There are two lines of thought that I would like to follow while talking about the Ten Thousand Things. First, each individual manifestation is unique, and each has its own nature. Each individual manifestation of our reality could be thought of as the Source searching for new ways to explore its own existence. I think that the work we are doing here in our lives has everything to do with discovering our own unique nature, and how it fits into the larger pattern. No two paths will be alike, no two expressions of reality will have the exact same qualities. We already know that snowflakes do not repeat, and if we believe that, how hard can it be to believe that every other object is likewise unrepeatable in the history of existence?

Figuring out who we are, what makes each of us tick, is a wonderful challenge, but it can be difficult to look inside without a frame of reference. Luckily, there are at least nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine other things sharing existence with us that we can use for comparison.

Taking pictures and travel have both been invaluable to me in allowing me to expand my horizons. Seeing through a camera lens helps me to look at the world differently, and being in the state of observation allows me to see things that I wouldn’t normally have noticed, or see common things with fresh eyes. Travelling has exposed me to some of the variety of human expression and has challenged me to continue changing my ideas about what it means to be a person.

We cannot find ourselves in a vacuum, because without the dark there can be no light, without the cold there can be no heat and without another person how can I truly know where I begin and where I end? How can I know if I value the same thing unless my values are tested? How can I understand what fires my imagination unless I am constantly exposing myself to things I have not yet seen or heard?

If that is the case for me, it must also be the case for the whole of reality. We are all one, the same energy cycling in new formations, but if that energy weren’t manifesting, if it weren’t exploring its own nature, it could never learn what it is.

Our existence as one of the Ten Thousand Things might be thought of a reality’s project of coming to understand itself. Just as our path is to figure out who we are, that echoes the universal project.

The second line of thought about the nature of the Ten Thousand Things that I must not pass over, is this: our value as individuals is inherent to us as a manifestation of the Source. Our existence is our value and our contribution to the project. We can never be separate from reality, and we can never fail in our mission to help explore our collective nature.

There will be many times when I am frustrated, challenged, and exhausted in this life. There have been many times that I did not feel like I was moving in the right direction, or fast enough, or contributing enough, or earning my place in society. Learning who we are is a process, and like all things it will go through cycles. It is the work of our entire lives and will never be completed.

Within that search for ourselves we must remember, that we are already there. Our presence in this world is unique, and vibrant, and necessary! What we bring to the world no one else can express. Being who we are is enough, and more than that, is the best gift that we can give.