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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Some Thoughts on Stillness

All of men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone

Blaise Pascal

Many of us will do just about anything to avoid a state of boredom. Alone in an empty room staring into the ceiling and doing nothing but examining our thoughts seems dreadful. Faced with this situation we quickly turn to our mobile phones scrolling aimlessly, browse the internet or watch television.

Any distraction will suffice to avoid boredom.

We pride ourselves on outward achievement, on constantly having something to do. Consequently, being busy has become a status symbol in our culture. It demonstrates to others that you are important and have achieved some level of success.

However, not all cultures think of this matter with the same perspective. Eastern philosophies emphasize the importance of introspection and stillness. The practice of meditation asks us to sit alone with the contents of our mind and thoroughly examine them. In doing so, we can watch what emerges.

Are we acting on our impulses?

Are we processing our emotions?

Are we thinking through our actions and goals?

The answer is not retreating from society in a Buddhist monastery, but rather incorporating the practice of stillness in our day to day lives. To be frank, not everything is as urgent as we think. We don’t have to respond to many of our text messages or social media notifications immediately. Things can wait.

Modern day society constantly fills our minds with information 24/7, and it is unsustainable to think we can consume it all.

So today, spend some time with nothing but you and your mind – in stillness.

A reading of my post Some Thoughts on Stillness

The Power of Art: How Beauty Can Save the World

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Beauty will save the world

Fydor Dostoevsky

It seems awfully naïve, and perhaps a bit idealistic to ponder such a question – but in this article I want to explore if art and beauty save the world.  What did the existentialist writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky mean by such an ambiguous statement, and how can art make a difference in a world divided by conflict, strife and division?

It was when I was travelling in Europe, and sitting in one of the many breathtaking cathedrals, that I was filled with inner calm – a sense of peace and solitude swept over me. External events and the frivolous pursuits of the everyday world felt insignificant, so trivial. Existential worry and anxiety became drowned out by the beauty and wonder that was revealed to me in that moment. Nothing else mattered.

Great art, that which has been able to stand the test of time, points to the transcendent, the infinite, and the absolute.

 Art inflames even a frozen, darkened soul to a high spiritual experience. Through art we are sometimes visited – dimly, briefly – by revelations such as cannot be produced by rational thinking.

Like that little looking-glass from the fairy-tales: look into it and you will see – not yourself – but for one second, the Inaccessible, whither no man can ride, no man fly. And only the soul gives a groan

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Lecture

Throughout history, religions understood that the communal experience of the arts in practices of worship provided us with a glimpse of the sacred. Rituals of worship including art, music, and dance lured people to cherish the spiritual side of human existence. It drew us towards altered states of consciousness and higher truths, unveiling the illusive nature of material things and earthly pursuits. Connecting to something greater than ourselves, awe and beauty signal to us that there was something beyond the limited constructs of the human mind – a reality which words and language cannot fully describe.  

Beauty presents us with an ideal to strive towards. Further, it provides us with meaning, our ‘why’ and purpose to help us conquer the many uncertainties in life.  Coming to us through flashes of insight or intuition, beauty acts as a signpost which reveals the path towards the good life.

In the final analysis, it is the gift of aspiration as well as of hope.  

Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

It is said that Dostoyevsky’s idea of beauty is characterized by the love of God. Jesus’ death and resurrection is one of the many reminders for humanity that redemption, joy and bliss can be found on the other side of suffering. The cross presents us with a symbol of hope, representing the idea that good will always transcend over evil. Our suffering is not in vain, but is a guide towards a higher purpose.  

This experience of awe, reverence and beauty in art and in life is of course is not exclusively limited to the domain of religion. Nietzsche, an atheist, was particularly fond of the idea that life itself can be treated as a work of art. Nietzsche thought of humans as inherently creative beings, who wish to assert their individuality by bringing something original and authentic into existence.

Art presents us with the opportunity us to rise above hardship by using difficult experiences as inspiration and raw materials in working towards a more wholesome meaningful life. We turn chaos into order and the apparent randomness of our existence into wonderful harmony. Think of the many great songs that reflect on the common experiences of sorrow, heartbreak or grief.  

Through this catharsis we realize we are connected through a common bond with the rest of humanity as we share those same feelings and emotions with others. We hear the same story over and over again just with different words. 

Through the pursuit of beauty we shape the world as a home, and in doing so we both amplify our joys and find consolation for our sorrows.

Roger Scruton

Within this enduring beauty and truth that is illuminated in great art, we can arrive at a better understanding of citizens from different cultures and traditions. Art offers us portals into the worlds of those who are seemingly different from us. Rather than acting in hesitancy or suspicion, we can come towards greater empathy and compassion.

For we all have the same drives to experience beauty, moments of awe and wonder in which our consciousness transforms from ‘me’ to ‘we’ or from ‘I’ to ‘us’. For a brief period, selfish egotism all but vanishes, and new possibilities arrive. A new door opens for us all.

In beauty, and through beauty we are united as one.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever; its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness

John Keats, Endymion
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