When Lord Krishna says, ‘ Whatever happens, happens for the good’, was he being stoic? Would Marcus Aurelius have agreed with him?, I cannot say but the truth of the fact is that the concepts of ‘nishkama karma’ or to act without hope for benefit of the self sounds close to the greek principles of stoicism to me.
My interest in philosophy was triggered with a casual reading of The story of philosophy by Will Durrant which was available in the department library at Govt. Victoria College, Palakkad. In those days when the purpose of life seemed simply to exist, to eat, read and brood and study very occasionally I did manage to browse through quite a few books made available to us at the college libraries. My connection with books and thoughts in general came to a halt as I engaged myself with the chores of being a teacher and mother, ironic isn’t it, that as a teacher I rarely read!
Until of course, ‘time’s chariot hurrying near’ (that’s from To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell, love that poem!) set me into slowed motion and reduced by virtue of conditions around and within me the need to be in a state of permanent hurry, which in turn has given me time for contemplation in solitude.
Coming back to stoicism, and considering that we are in the month of Ramadan, it is worthy to note that one of the advises of the School of Stoicism is to subject oneself to times of penury, shortage of food and extreme weather conditions to strengthen your soul. All religions do chastise man to give up food for certain amounts of time for benefits like compassion, strength of the mind, purification of the soul etc, stoics are they?
Another principle that seems to have influenced Stephen R Covey to come up with the theory of the Circle of Influence and the Circle of Concern is the stoic belief that man should never let go of his control over his mind,especially over things that are beyond his control. For example, in his immensely well-delivered lecture on Stoicism, Massimo Pigliuicci opines that ‘ while it is in his control to prepare and deliver the lecture to the best of his abilities, it is beyond his control to expect that his audience will accept and practice stoicism in their lives. ‘ There fore, it does not make sense for him to lose his mind over what is not in his hands anyways!
Understand your emotions, says the school of Stoicism. I came across this thought when I attended the ISABS BHLP here in Bangalore. The facilitator asked every other time, ‘see what is happening to you’ and perhaps this is the most important take away of the programme too, i.e. to think about ‘what is happening to you at a given moment’ because the moment you realize what is happening to you, you have actually slowed down your reaction and it allows you to understand why and how your response is going to be. While crossing the Hebbal fly over, when I am honked and chased down from the behind, I really have no option of jumping out of the fly over, all I can do is to ask myself, ‘so what is happening to you’ and it immediately clears quite a lot of clouds, and gets me to re-focus on driving!Ok, so I have seen some turbulent times but it is easy now for me to understand that it is my emotional investment in the situation that must have caused me to blow my top.
Stoicism also encourages brotherhood and asks you to treat every other individual with respect and compassion. One tip that is given by Massimo Pigliuicci is to address every ‘one around you as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ and slowly help your ability to be compassionate to grow. I must say that addressing the auto wallah as ‘bhaiyya’ always helps me to connect better with those you deal with. ‘Vasudaiva kudumbakam’, is a familiar concept isn’t it?
Yet another advice from the School of Stoicism is to contemplate on death itself. The understanding that life itself is transitory helps us to see things in the right perspective. Again to take some help from Massimo Pigluicci, he advises us to spend some time every day, preferably in the morning in meditation, to see things in the larger picture to sort of pan out to your neighborhood, city, country, continent, space etc. and to remind yourself of the ‘absolute insignificance of you’ in the larger scheme of things. This apparently helps to shed the weight of ego.
There is definitely a lot more to stoicism and I am only beginning to understand what it is all about. I do wish though that we had more opportunities to discuss and deliberate on ways of living than the heated and often stupid debates on political affiliations and we would all be better off.
So, how stoic are you?