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
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

[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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Book Review: Yes to Life by Victor E. Frankl

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One of the most fundamental truths in life is that we all will face our respective share of hardship, difficulty and suffering. We are fragile mortal beings subject to illness, loss, heartbreak and disappointment.

Given this shared fate, how can we best endure and embrace our adversities?

Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything is a compilation of lectures given by Victor Frankl in 1946, after he survived the horrors and dehumanizing conditions of the Holocaust. Speaking from direct experience from his time in the concentration camps, as well as from his insights working as a psychologist, Frankl reflects on the importance of finding meaning and purpose in life.

This short yet profound book reminds us of the power of perspective, demonstrating how we can always find the resilience we need within to keep on moving forward in any circumstance.

In this post I want to look at three key themes from the book.  

Meaning Is More Important Than Pleasure

Pleasure itself cannot give our existence meaning

Victor Frankl, Yes to Life

Our modern consumerist societies try to sell us on the idea that happiness can be bought. Savvy advertisements persuade us consumers that contentment and fulfillment in life can be realized only when we purchase that luxury car or piece of clothing.

After all, just look at how happy that family is driving the latest Mercedes SUV in that commercial?

Although these consumer goods may give us short-term satisfaction, the excitement quickly dissipates as we are left craving for more.

Frankl argues that while pleasure comes and goes, it is meaning in life that allows us to endure and overcome the challenges we succumb to. By having an overarching purpose or meaning in one’s life, we can find long lasting fulfillment. This is what truly nourishes and sustains us.

Frankl notes that although meaning can be found in a wide range of circumstances, it generally falls into three broad categories:

  1. Active: Creating, acting upon or bringing something into existence. This can include devoting oneself to their work, or pursuing one’s hobbies and passion projects.  
  2. Passive:  Appreciating the world around us, namely through art, nature or by loving others.
  3. Acceptance: Finding meaning and growth through accepting one’s difficulties and putting them into perspective. Frankl echoes the Stoic maxim that while many of the circumstances in our life are outside of our control, we always have the freedom to decide how we react to and interpret these events.  

Authenticity

In his specific life circle, every single human being is irreplaceable and inimitable, and that is true for everyone. The task that his life imposes are only for him, and only he is required to fulfill them.

Victor Frankl, Yes to Life

For Frankl, meaning in life is not an inquiry that can be answered broadly or generally. Given the difference in life situations and demands for every individual, there is no ‘one’ answer that is adequate or applicable to everyone.

Rather, each of our lives poses a distinct set of questions that require answers. Every new beginning, adversity or challenge presents an opportunity to find meaning. It is through our unique answers to life’s questions that we find purpose and become authentic human beings – separating ourselves from the crowd.

We must therefore always be aware of how we can use each occasion we are presented to in life as a potential learning experience or lesson. Each of these moments, offers us chance to use it as fuel in working towards a greater goal.

As Frankl writes,

We are the ones who must answer, must give answers to the constant, hourly question of life, to the essential “life questions.” Living itself means nothing other than being questioned; our whole act of being is nothing more than responding to — of being responsible toward — life. 

Through becoming authentic individuals, we can come to a greater appreciation of what we can distinctly offer the world.  

Being irreplaceable, it is only ‘you’ who can offer humanity your unique gifts.

Taking Responsibility for Life  

At every moment I bear responsibility for the next; that every decision from the smallest to the largest is a decision for all eternity

Victor Frankl, Yes to Life

We all desire freedom, but very few of us want to take on the responsibility for our actions.  

It is true that each of us are dealt different cards in life. We all have experiences where things don’t go our way, when we are treated unfairly or succumb to an illness out of mere chance.  

However, in each of these circumstances what can be more powerful than embracing, overcoming and saying ‘yes to life’. Of course, you didn’t choose this, maybe the predicament you are in wasn’t even your fault, but nonetheless you have two options – you can either change it or accept it.

By accepting the responsibility and burdens of life’s duties, we gradually become more resilient. We grow in courage and in character – one small step at a time.

Conclusion

Yes to Life is a powerful reminder of the strength of the human spirit. Amidst even the most dire of situations, we can always find a reason to keep pushing through.

In an increasingly complex and fast-paced world, the future remains riddled with uncertainty. Rather than placing our hopes on external things which we don’t control, Frankl reminds us that we are always free to cultivate one’s inner life. Finding meaning, purpose and perspective in every situation is something that cannot be taken away from us.

To say ‘yes to life’ is to nurture an attitude of acceptance, and continue to hold your ground in the eye of the storm.

This of course is not for the faint of heart, but we can all look to Victor Frankl for inspiration.

 

Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

A wonderful review on Yes to Life which inspired me to read this book can be found on brainpickings.org here.

A Stoic Approach to Fear

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Seneca: A Stoic Life

One of the things I admire about the Stoic philosophers is that they embodied the wisdom that they preached. Seneca, one of the three notable Stoics (along with Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus), used the philosophy of Stoicism to navigate the turmoil and uncertainties during his life.

Although he maintained a high status in ancient Rome as a politician and financial clerk, Seneca was forced into exile by Claudius, and ordered to commit suicide by his former student – the tyrannical emperor Nero. 

In a typical Stoic fashion, on his death bed, Seneca urges his friends, family and followers not to fear death. Dying with dignity and courage, he argues that it is only through death and the ephemeral nature of our existence which gives life meaning. It is not the duration of one’s life that is of significance Seneca claims, but rather the endeavours and meaningful pursuits that one engages which makes life worthwhile.   

 In his consolation to his friend Marcia over the death of her son, Seneca writes that we should always be prepared from the unknown, directly confront our fears and cherish our existence. Nothing should be taken for granted.

That person has lost their children: you too, can lose yours; that person received sentence of death: your innocence too, stands under the hammer. This is the fallacy that takes us in and makes us weak while we suffer misfortunes that we never foresaw that we could suffer. The person who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.

Seneca, On Consolation to Marcia

Letters from a Stoic

One of the more notable works left behind by Seneca is the Letters from a Stoic. Near the end of his life, Seneca wrote 124 letters to his friend Lucilius offering philosophical insight and consolation, highlighting many of the key themes in Stoic philosophy.

My favourite in this collection is Letter 13 – On Groundless Fears.  In this letter, Seneca encourages Lucilius to practice resilience providing  questions to consider when assessing the validity of his fears.

Many of our fears Seneca notes are unfounded. We can not control the external world, but we can control our interpretation of it. Much of what we fear are fabrications produced by our mind which, if properly evaluated and critiqued, have no basis in reality.

 Even if unfavourable events do come to fruition, we do not know what the future holds. It may perhaps be a blessing in disguise.

To expand and identify these key ideas these I created a graphic which summarizes the questions and maxims Seneca urges us to consider when we are faced with anxiety or fear. In the thought bubbles are direct quotes from Seneca’s letter which speak to these concepts.

If you want to listen to an audio version of these letters I highly recommend Tim Ferris’ Tao of Seneca.  

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