Practices

I think I will probably start regular practices again. These are:

1. Morning and evening prayer based on the meditation set up reflections in Bhante Gunaratana’s book, “Mindfulness in Plain English”. It starts, “May I be well, happy, and peaceful. May no harm come to me.” It then expands, paragraph by paragraph, to one’s parents, teachers, relatives, friends, people with whom your relationship is neither friendly nor unfriendly, then to people with whom your relationship is unfriendly, and then, finally, to all living beings. 

2. Reading the Heart Sutra once a day, for a reminder of impermanence and emptiness.

3. Reading the Five Things to Remember, once a day, for a reminder of the true nature of life.

4. Reading the Five Precepts once a day.

5. Reading the Fire Sermon once a day.

6. Review the four kinds of love, once a day–(1) loving-kindness; (2) compassion; (3) joy; and (4) equanimity.

If it gets too annoying, or, if I can’t keep the schedule, I’ll just stop. The point isn’t to afflict myself by setting up a new burdensome schedule to feel guilty about not following. 

If I have time, I will try to post summaries of sutras, for my own education. 

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Applied Stoicism

At this link is a twenty-page description of Admiral James Stockdale’s application of Stoic ideas in a harsh environment. It is called, “Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in the Laboratory of Human Behavior”: 

http://media.hoover.org/sites/default/files/documents/StockdaleCourage.pdf

Some highlights:

“[A] Stoic always kept separate files in his mind for (A) those things that are “up to him” and (B) those things that are “not up to him.” Another way of saying it is (A) those things that are “within his power” and (B) those things that are “beyond his power.” Still another way of saying it is (A) those things that are within the grasp of “his Will, his Free Will” and (B) those things that are beyond it. All in category B are ‘external,’ beyond my control, ultimately dooming me to fear and anxiety if I covet them. All in category A are up to me, within my power, within my will, and properly subjects for my total concern and involvement.”

“To live under the false pretense that you will forever have control of your station in life is to ride for a fall; you’re asking for disappointment. So make sure in your heart of hearts, in your inner self, that you treat your station in life with indifference, not with contempt, only with indifference.”

“Consider ‘reputation,’ for example. Do what you will, reputation is as least as fickle as your station in life. Others decide what your reputation is. Try to make it as good as possible, but don’t get hooked on it. Don’t be ravenous for it and start chasing it in tighter and tighter circles.”

“For Epictetus, emotions were acts of will. Fear was not something that came out of the shadows of the night and enveloped you; he charged you with the total responsibility of starting it, stopping it, controlling it. This was one of Stoicism’s biggest demands on a person. Stoics can be made to sound like lazy brutes when they are described merely as people indifferent to most everything but good and evil, people who make stingy use of emotions like pity and sympathy. But add this requirement of total responsibility for each and every one of your emotions, and you’re talking about a person with his hands full.”

These ideas are completely fascinating, but I would part ways with them on some points.  I don’t think emotions are acts of will, and I’m not sure what specific mental acts are implied by taking responsibility for your emotions. For myself, I don’t feel ashamed of my emotions. I feel irresponsible if I act on or speak from negative emotions, but I don’t feel irresponsible merely for having them. They come; they go. They arise; they dissipate. In my own experience, mentally acknowledging negative emotions seems the best method for weakening their power. Holding in your mind an overly strict duty to control your emotions could add pressure to your inner mental life, or could set you up for inevitable failure, which could then become an additional source of stress.

This is a boiled-down list of the Stoic techniques for controlling one’s emotions or thoughts, that I know about so far. They’re quite good:

1. We have the power as thinking human beings mentally to reframe how we think about our lives and things that happen to us.

2. We can mentally reframe stressful events as opportunities for something different, or as opportunities to practice good qualities.

3. We can mentally reframe stressful events in terms of their temporary nature and insignificance in comparison to the grand sweep of history.

4. We can reframe how we think about negative events in terms of their compositional elements. For example, an insult can be thought of as a vibration in the air. 

5. We can be diligent about remembering what’s in our control and what’s not, and not getting stress if it’s something outside our control.

6. We can rehearse what could go wrong in advance. It’s unexpected events that cause some of the most unhelpful emotions, but it’s possible to prepare for these events beforehand because we know that most misfortune isn’t actually unexpected, but entirely likely, and eventually, for some things, like death, certain. There is a passage in Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, saying that when you wake up in the morning, remind yourself of all the negative people you might encounter during the day. The idea, as I understand it, is that should you actually encounter any of them, you won’t feel taken by surprise and overreact.  

7. We can remember the implications of the temporary nature of life–I found a version of this idea in both Marcus Aurelius and Victor Frankl–which are that the only thing really worth living for  is compassion and kindness to other people. 

Prayer and Religion

Something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but haven’t, has been, when praying for others, to adopt their style of prayer. Somehow it seems more humble, loving, and universal. When praying for Muslims, to pray as Muslims pray. When praying for Christians, to pray as Christians pray. When praying for Hindus, to pray as Hindus pray. When praying for Jewish people, to pray as Jewish people pray. When praying for atheists, to do whatever nontheistic acts atheists might do in place of prayer. I have been wanting to look on the Internet for simple instructions on how people in other belief systems pray, and then post them on this blog as a reference.

There’s the danger, in trying to be universal when it comes to religion, of overemphasizing the religious color of other people’s identity and experiences. Religion may simply be background for most people, or something personal and private, and calling attention to it out of an overeager desire to be universal could cause discomfort or promote division. Playing up people’s religious identity has the potential to be very awkward and unhelpful.

Nonetheless, to the extent that people do practice and identify with their religious beliefs, praying for them as they would pray could be something egoless, encouraging, heartwarming, and beautiful.

I’d like to try it.

A Useful Parable

“Some children were playing beside a river. They made castles of sand, and each child defended his castle and said, ‘This one is mine.’ They kept their castles separate and would not allow any mistakes about which was whose. When the castles were all finished, one child kicked over someone else’s castle and completely destroyed it. The owner of the castle flew into a rage, pulled the other child’s hair, struck him with his fist and bawled out, ‘He has spoiled my castle! Come along all of you and help me to punish him as he deserves.’ The others all came to his help. They beat the child with a stick and stamped on him with their feet. Then they went on playing with their sand castles, each saying, ‘This is mine; no one else may have it. Keep away! Don’t touch my castle!’

“But evening came, it was getting dark and they all thought they ought to be going home. No one now cared what became of his castle. One child stamped on his, another pushed his over with both hands. Then they turned away and went back, each to his home.”

Source: Yogacara Bhumi Sutra 4.

This parable appears in Jack Kornfield’s book, Teachings of the Buddha.

It also appears in this online collection of Buddhist parables:

http://www.dharmaweb.org/index.php/Thus_Have_I_Heard:_Buddhist_Parables_and_Stories