Expanding Circles: Spiritual Exercises as a Bridge Towards Cosmopolitanism

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In previous posts in this series, I looked at how interconnected we all are in a single global ecosystem. As noted by the philosopher Aristotle, humans are ‘social animals’ who exist and thrive in communities. We have the ability to devise sophisticated institutions enabling us to co-operate with others across cultures and borders.

We can see how interwoven our lives all are through the complex interdependencies in our economies, societies and in the natural environment. As humans, we exist in broader networks and are involved in systems and feedback loops at the local, national and global level. Further, we are immersed in interdependent and reciprocal relationships with the outside world as we both shape and are shaped by our external environment.

In this article I will look at philosophies and spiritual exercises which can expand one’s perspective helping us go beyond our narrow self-interest and embody a cosmopolitan worldview.

Stoic Ethics: Oikeiōsis

The Stoics developed a system of ethics based on two key premises deduced from human behavior:

  1. Humans have the capacity for reason through our ability for critical thinking and self-reflection. We can plan for the future and can think abstractly, devising systems of thought which stretch beyond our immediate sensory experience.
  2. In comparison to other species, we are highly social creatures who depend on mutual co-operation and assistance from others to survive. This is especially true as newborns – think of how dependent we are on our mothers\caregivers for our growth and survival. Some unique features of humans separating us from other animals include the development of language, culture and the division of labor, all pointing towards our inclination towards social living.  

The concept of oikeiōsis, which roughly translates to ‘appropriation’ or ‘familiarization’, is the idea of gradually treating the concerns of others as our own. The Stoics notion of ethical development, was based upon using our capacity of reason to continually expand our care towards more and more people.

The Circles of Hierocles

The second century Stoic Hierocles put forth a model which links human development and our capacity for reason with ethical development and expanding circles of care.

Starting as infants, we are highly instinctual and therefore our self-interest is limited towards our own self-preservation. However, as we grow and develop as children, our oikeiōsis expands towards our family and caregivers with the realization that our wellbeing is tied to theirs.

Hierocles develops this logic to gradually empathizing and sympathizing with more distant individuals including our community, fellow citizens and eventually humanity as a whole.  

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Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci further explains how reason enables us to expand our circles of concern in his blog Figs in Winter,

 When we reach the age of reason, around 7 to 8 years old, and continuously thereafter, we begin to apply our reflective thinking to further extend the process, realizing that other people, who are not related or otherwise close to us, are essentially like us, with similar wants, needs, worries, and so forth. The wise person, extrapolating the process of oikeiôsis to its logical outer limit, would then feel “at home” not just with relatives, friends, and fellow townspeople, but with humanity at large.

Oikeiôsis: how to feel at home in the world,  Massimo Pigliucci

In breaking down the barriers of identity and finding commonality with others, the Stoics align themselves with the famous sentiment expressed by Socrates who claimed to be a ‘a citizen of the world’.   

Buddhism:  Mettā Meditation

One may object to the idea of cosmopolitanism stating that humans are also inherently tribal and favor the well-being of our tribe or culture at the expense of those who are different from us. As Jonathan Haidt notes, our moral systems both ‘bind and blind.’

Although I don’t disagree with Haidt, I do think nonetheless we can overcome our tribalistic tendencies and move towards greater altruism through continual spiritual practice.

The Buddhist exercise of mettā meditation (loving kindness), which aligns closely with the Stoic concept of oikeiosis, is something that can be put into practice to increase our capacity for altruism. The practice begins with the meditator visualizing someone close to them and repeating a mantra to wish the person in their mind’s eye safety, security and happiness. The meditator then repeats this process as they continue repeating the mantra extending their sympathies to someone they think of as ‘neutral’ and then eventually someone who they have a hostile relationship with.

The goal of mettā meditation is for one to see the common humanity in everyone, regardless of our relationship to another. This has similarities with the golden rule found in so many religious/spiritual traditions of ‘treating others how we would like to be treated.’ This of course is difficult, especially with those who we think of as our enemies. However, like anything worthwhile, it requires repetition as we will gradually see positive results.[1]

The Pale Blue Dot

In the final analysis, all of us humans occupy one planet – a tiny blue marble orbiting the sun in a vast cosmos. We are finite mortal beings who one day will all meet our end. The petty concerns that ruminate in our minds throughout the day are likely trivial.

So in the short time that we do have here, is it really productive to cling onto self-righteousness, anger or resentment?

It may be difficult to let go and see others as ourselves, but in our highly interconnected global community, it is definitely worth a try.

I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world. I may not complete this last one but I give myself to it.

Widening Circles, Rainer Maria Rilke
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[1] Empirical studies showing the benefits of mettā /loving kindness meditation can be seen here: 18 Science-Backed Reasons to Try Loving-Kindness Meditation | Psychology Today Canada

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The Power of Systems Thinking: Beyond the Reductionist Mindset

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It is unfortunate that it often takes a crisis for us to become acutely aware of how interconnected the world really is. We see how everything is immersed in a web of interlinked systems ranging from the economy, natural environment, health systems to our own personal wellbeing. Each input is a unique part of the puzzle, and is connected to the system at large through a series of information flows and interdependent feedback loops.  

Systems are everywhere. We see them in the complexities in our own bodies to the harmony that exists in natural ecosystems. Every unique organism has its role to play in the sustainability and continuation of our vast and diverse natural habitats. The success of a well-functioning system is dependent on how well its parts are organized to achieve a common goal.     

In nature we never see anything isolated , but everything in connection with something else, which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.

Johan Wolfgang von Goethe
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Despite this, as a culture we have a tendency to be fixated on reductionist and mechanistic systems of thought. Take for instance how we structure our education systems. Knowledge is sliced into specific disciplines which an individual gain expertise in through their specialization.

However, the world is often messy, dynamic and in constant flux. Information can not fit into neat discrete boxes like we would like to imagine. Rather than focusing on the linkages and dependencies between the disciplines, educational institutions create specialists who don’t have the incentives to look beyond their narrow subject matter expertise.

The boundaries that we implement are of course important to organize society. They help us ensure that our institutions can work effectively and efficiently. Nonetheless, nothing exists in a vacuum and the borders we impose on reality aren’t as clear cut as they may seem on the surface. 

As systems thinker Donella H. Meadows mentions in her book Thinking in Systems: A Primer

There is no determinable boundary between the sea and the land, between sociology and anthropology, between an automobile’s exhaust and your nose. There are only boundaries of word, thought, perception and social agreement – artificial, mental-model boundaries.  

While these artificial containers provide us with stability and flexibility, a fixation on these mental constructs can blind us, making us naïve to the broader context and interdependencies of the situation. As the world continues to increase in complexity, our social systems and institutions need to be both adaptable and flexible to rapid change.

Thinking in systems forces us to examine things more methodically, and encourages us to avoid polarized ‘us against them ‘or ‘winner take all’ types of reasoning. We can see that problems don’t exist in isolation, and that quick fixes only lead to system instability or collapse in the future.  Moreover, this incentivizes us to think more deeply about issues to address root causes instead of symptoms.

Systems thinking compels us to ask the questions, why is it that the same type of economic, social or political crises happen again and again throughout history? What underlying behaviors and thinking is responsible for this type of ignorance?

 Our wellbeing is intrinsically linked not only to others but to the sustainability of the natural environment. Under this logic, we can see that relationships are the fundamental aspect of all life on earth. Everything which exists in this world is deeply integrated into a set of systems.

As social beings, we humans derive our identity through our interactions with families, friends, social groups, society at large and the natural environment. If we really appreciate and understand this concept, the narcissism and rampant individualism that drives our culture starts to fade. Egotism begins to seem illogical and contradictory as the ‘self’ is influenced and shaped by the quality of our connections with others.

Addressing the ideology of ‘short-termism’, greed and instant gratification which pervade our society and institutions is no easy feat. It all begins however with a shift in our thinking, an evolution of our values to understand how our lifestyles and choices are shaping the welfare others, as well as our future ancestors.

In a way we are the bridge between the past and the future. Our success is not entirely ours to boast. Each generation ‘stands on the shoulders of giants.’ As David Mitchell beautifully writes in his book Cloud Atlas,

Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

To paraphrase Alan Watts, we are all just one wave in the midst of a boundless ocean.

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A Mindful Approach to Uncertainty: An Interview with Mindfulness Teacher Paula Vital

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So much of our lives in spent trying to plan for the future and control the outcomes of events. We meticulously schedule our time expecting everything to unfold just as how we imagined.

Then 2020 came – the year of uncertainty. We realized that the world is indifferent to our preferences and desires. So how can we remain grounded and put things into perspective in this chaotic time?


I met Paula through the mindfulness program at my work, and reached out to her thoughts and insights on how mindfulness can help us deal with many of the challenges we face today.   

Paula Vital is an award-winning coach, speaker and writer dedicated to helping you move from striving to thriving by accessing the power of the present moment.  A lawyer by training and senior advisor in the Ontario Public Service, Paula is very familiar with the challenges of balancing a stressful work-life with time for family and self-care. 

Paula has been involved in health and wellness for over 20 years, and is a certified yoga teacher, Body Flow instructor, National Fitness instructor, and avid mindfulness practitioner and coach.

Paula has completed Levels I and II of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction training, has two yoga certifications (Classical Hatha and Vinyasa), attended numerous silent meditation retreats, and studied with world-renowned yoga and meditation teachers such as Sharon Salzberg, Phillip Moffitt, Stephen Cope and Michael Stone.  She is in the process of becoming an Internationally Certified Yoga Therapist (IAYT 2021).

Paula is committed to finding joy and balance in her own life and helping others to do the same.

You can learn more about her work through her free course of 3 Minute Meditations: 3 Minutes to Your Greatest Self on her website, www.livethepresent.ca.

  1. How did you first learn about and begin practicing meditation and other contemplative practices?

I was a lawyer on Bay Street and after having worked so hard to achieve that, I felt disappointed and let down by the experience. 

My whole life I had spent chasing after the next achievement, and eventually began to realize that no matter what I gained in the outside world – job success, travel, material goods, even relationships – there was nothing that was bringing me a true sense of contentment and satisfaction.

Luckily my sister meditated – and I thought that was so weird!  Why sit and do nothing when there is so much to DO!!!

But I ran out of options and got curious.  Together we did a course called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, based on the Jon Kabat-Zinn model.  During that course, I realized that there is value in just Being, and that I am more than my thoughts. 

This insight was revolutionary!  If I am more than my thoughts, and my thoughts are not always true or helpful, then who or what am I?

This was in 2006, and I have spent my life since that point exploring, and eventually teaching, that very question.  Once we can observe our thoughts without judgment, we realize our unlimited and interconnected nature, tapping into and endless wellspring of love, compassion and joy.

2. What changes have you noticed since you began practicing meditation?

My whole perspective on life is completely different!

I used to spend my days planning for the future and tackling my To-Do list, never feeling completely satisfied and always feeling rushed, and that I had not done enough.

Now, my only job is to reconnect with the present moment and the one that is observing the whole thing.  I then take one small action at a time and do it with complete love and surrender, to the best of my ability. 

Turns out that when we worry less about outcomes and relax our expectations about the future, a beautiful future unfolds effortlessly.

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3. The concept of ‘Acceptance’ or ‘Surrender’ is commonly discussed amongst spiritual practitioners such as Eckart Tolle. What does this idea mean to you?

We have no control over the outcomes of our actions.  We have full control over our intention and the actions that we take in the present moment.  Surrender is to let go of the fruits of your action, but completely devote yourself to bringing your full energy and heart to each and every moment.

Surrender also involves checking in at a deep level to see which is the correct action to take in each moment.  This requires practice and an increasingly deepening connection to the stillness or witness within. Your very own wisdom.

4. We are living in times of uncertainty amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us know family, friends and loved ones who have been impacted. Further, we don’t quite know when we will get ‘back to normal.’ What advice do you have to stay grounded during this time?

  • Have compassion for yourself.  This is a very difficult time!  Just getting up, getting dressed and getting through the day is an accomplishment.  Congratulate yourself for this.
  • Develop a very simple but nourishing self-care practice.  It could be a walk in nature, 5 minutes of deep breathing, a mindful cup of tea, or some gentle stretches… whatever makes you feel cared for.  Take care of yourself, and everything else will unfold.
  • Connect with another being in some way.  If you live alone, consider adopting a pet.  Human beings thrive on connection.  If you can’t see other people in person, find ways to connect online that are meaningful to you.  Write a letter.  Start a blog.  Whatever will get you in touch with the reality that we are never alone. Turn loneliness into solitude by recognizing your inherent interconnectedness with all beings.

5. Some have looked at this time as an opportunity critically look at how we were living prior to the pandemic and make broader societal changes. How can we create a more beautiful world after the pandemic? What changes do you hope to see?

There is always something to learn from difficult situations.  Here is what I have learned so far from Covid-19.

  • Working with uncertainty is a very helpful skill.  We can practice this in heaps right now.  We don’t know what tomorrow (or the next hour) will bring… how can we let go of the need to know and just enjoy what is already here?  My mother is dying, and each day that I am able to be with her I feel so blessed.  If we are breathing, there is more right with us than wrong with us.  Covid provides an opportunity to recognize this.
  • We go too fast.  In the pre-Covid days, we were all rushing here and there.  Rush rush rush. Never enough time.  For some of us, the cancellation of everything (and the realization that anything can be cancelled!) gave us a much needed breather and an opportunity to sloooooow down… slow is good.
  • Flexibility is the key to continuing to make a contribution.  I have needed to learn much more technology than I am comfortable with, and had to homeschool my kids while working during a large chunk of the pandemic.  I tend to enjoy plans, routines and structures, and while I still had these they often went out the window with crying and fighting children or zoom calls that dropped.  I learned to have a sense of humour and trust that things don’t need to be perfect.  I can adapt, we can work together, and somehow we will get through it all.  Working from home has been a huge gift to me as well!
  • Connections, connections, connections.  It is so easy to feel lonely and overwhelmed in this scary and unpredictable world.  But we are not alone!  We are all in this together, literally the whole world!!!  I have found ways to connect with teachers that I could only have dreamed of learning with as they now have offerings online, found a new yoga studio I never would have gone to as it is far away (but now virtual!), and cherished my friends and family and our loving connections, whether distanced or online.  Nothing is more important than our relationships, and Covid has taught us that.

Hopefully our post-Covid world will not forget these lessons of relaxing with uncertainty, slowing down, staying flexible, and connecting with others. And of course the environmental benefits!!!  May those continue!!!

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6.  Lastly, any final thoughts, books, articles etc. you would like to share?

Self-Compassion – Kristin Neff

When Things Fall Apart – Pema Chodron

Full Catastrophe Living – Jon Kabat-Zinn

We have no control over the outcomes of our actions.  We have full control over our intention and the actions that we take in the present moment.  Surrender is to let go of the fruits of your action, but completely devote yourself to bringing your full energy and heart to each and every moment.

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