OppositesComments

Patrick wrote about the concept of nondualism in his newsletter and it reminded me of a piece I wrote a few years ago 1 about opposites.

What is nondualism? To quote:

”you are both living and dying... every moment more you live you also move closer to death”

You are not one or the other, you are both.

Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, proposed the unity of opposites an explanation of which often uses the following quote attributed to him:

"the road up and down are one and the same"

Our perspective or direction of travel may determine our perception but it is still the same road, it merely exists in opposite states simultaneously.

Two sides of the same coin.

He believed everything was in a state of continual flux using the law of opposites to define the progression of changes in state.

Difference and sameness - the more it changes, the more it stays the same.

But we have a reliance on opposites - we need each side: there cannot be good if there is not bad, up cannot exist without down. We need that contrast to define things relative to other things, other states.

Much of our experience is relative: hotter or colder, better or worse - an infinite sliding analogue scale. It demonstrates that our understanding of everything around us is dependent on context.

Without context and comparison things start to lose their meaning. If there is no down, if up is the only state then it is just normal - it just is. If there is no concept of hot we cannot define cold as we have no frame of reference.

We could say cold, more cold, coldest but in relation to what?

The importance of contrary language is perfectly illustrated by the creation of "newspeak" in Orwells' 1984.

Newspeak, a radically altered version of English, is designed to remove ambiguity and extraneous meaning so as to control the thoughts of the populace. It has no need for synonyms or antonyms, something either is or it isn't: good or ungood - simplified language.

Without antonyms or opposites concepts become vague and definition disappears, as does the ability to adequately provide a contrary standpoint.

We must embrace opposites, and all states in between, as they provide a richness of life that we would not otherwise be able to appreciate due to the lack of capacity to describe.

  1. during Write365 so no longer available
Opposites

Discovering a heroine’s journeyComments

While thinking about Pitch Perfect I thought it might be fun to examine it in the context of "The Hero's Journey" popularised by Joseph Campbell.

The idea is that stories can be linked back to stages in a "monomyth" - a single arc that describes events in just about all tales. Campbell identified 17 distinct stages but it is generally accepted that not all stories will feature all 17 whilst still following the general outline.

I just thought it would be interesting to examine what many would consider a low brow, throwaway movie in this way and see how it matches up. I used a typical template found online to compare it to.

There are obviously going to be some spoilers if you've never watched it.

The ordinary world: Beca, our lead, joins college.

The call to adventure: this comes first in Beca being asked to audition for the Barden Bellas a cappella group, then in her Dad telling her she can have wonderful experiences and make great memories at college. There are also echoes in the repeated attempts by Jesse, the love interest, to get Beca to expand her horizons.

Refusal of the call: Beca first declines to audition, tells her dad she's not interested in college and wants to move to L.A. and also repeatedly rebuffs Jesse.

Meeting with the mentor: this is the shower scene with Chloe where they sing together for the first time.

Crossing the threshold: Beca's reluctant agreement with her father to give college a try for a year, combined with the above shower scene, leading to her audition for the Barden Bellas.

Tests, allies and enemies: allies is obviously the rest of the Bellas, tests is the struggle to find her place in the group when she feels restricted by its leader, Aubrey, and enemies is clearly defined as the rival group The Treblemakers.

The ordeal: improvisation during a performance leads to an argument and Beca leaving the Bellas. There is also a big bust up with Jesse leading her to reassess how she is living.

The road back: Beca's return to the Bellas fuelled by her realisation that she's been pushing people away and needs to do something about it.

The reward: there are a couple of things here - getting to play her music on the college radio station (but this is a bit hollow in the context of the above) and the return to the Bellas in a position of authority. We might also consider her awakening to her mental state as a reward.

The resurrection: when the Bellas turn to Beca and say "what do we do?" thus putting her in charge.

Return with the elixir: Beca and the Barden Bellas winning the a cappella contest.

This may all seem a bit overkill for such a film, and we certainly don't think about this when we sit down to enjoy it, but being able to relate back to such core tenets helps to explain why we do enjoy it and why it works so well as a story.

Discovering a heroine’s journey

Levels

Aristotle may have been describing connected drainage systems when he said "water seeks its own level" but it is a perfect metaphor for the social web.

Given time and freedom from interference everything finds its level, especially our communication methods.

Things settle.

You will see an extended version of the above quote adding "and water rises collectively" attributed to Julia Cameron, the American author. Like the traditional aphorism "a rising tide lifts all boats."

But here the metaphor ends; not all boats are seaworthy, just as some forms of communication seem destined to cause more problems than they solve.

Now, more than ever, we need our communication tools to bring us together but some are doing exactly the opposite.

In a recent conversation I suddenly realised why.

Ownership

One thing I've come to appreciate over the past months is that a lot of this comes down to having ownership of our words which most don't have when they throw them away on places like Twitter. I'm not talking about physical ownership but moral and philosophical.

Even when our names are attached, what is said on social networks is not always part of "our message" - despite all the talk about branding. By this I mean our personal message not a business one; it's almost like it doesn't count and the level drops.

But words connect us.

We can only define our lives and experiences in accordance with the vocabulary we own, yet all too often that vocabulary is not sufficient to completely grasp the meaning of who or where we are and what we are doing.

That's why we need the words of others and their phrasing to grant us those eureka moments; only by having what we almost know described to us in a different way do we truly understand.

It's powerful!

The right level

Email lists and newsletters have had a massive resurgence in recent years, it's almost a romantic nostalgia for the way things used to be.

Perhaps, instead of throwing away their words, it's just people finding the right level, controlling and truly owning their personal message.

We'll never recapture the web's heyday, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle, but I feel positive as long as there are people willing to try "better."

Levels

A story is only as long as its telling.

Stories are told and then they are done. Some are longer, some are shorter but they are all stories: self contained, self sufficient. Complete.

I like that idea.

It's ironic as I often feel that my thoughts are left unfinished, that they have an unsatisfactory conclusion but, in their own way, this is how those stories were supposed to be told at that time - that was all there was.

Not a word more, not a word less.

A story is only as long as its telling.

Forgetting

Over time I forget a lot of what I've already written. Although each post will be tempered and coloured by new experiences I don't like to repeat myself without adding extra value or insight.

It frustrates me that I have had thoughts and ideas which haven't sunk in, haven't become part of my conscious reasoning.

Perhaps this is the result of writing when tired, when the subconscious comes to the fore and spews out whatever is held within.

That in itself is no bad thing, the unconscious act of creation is perhaps the most honest, the most insightful, but a lasting conscious memory of it would make it more real.

It's almost like trying to adopt the product of my subconscious as though it was an external influence.

It seems strange to think that I am seeking to internalise something that has already come from inside me.

It is the transition from subconscious to conscious that makes it more valid, to take those crazy thoughts and rationalise them under the scrutiny of my externally projected psyche.

It feels weird when these minipiphanies arise from nowhere, thoughts emerging fully formed as though created by another then handed to you.

They don't feel part of you but are actually part of you in the realest sense; a translation from thought to word to truth.

Aligning the internal mechanisms with the external message.

Based on Write365 - 16th June 2014

Forgetting

The problem with Stoicism

Some call Stoicism overly negative as its adherents go with the flow and accept whatever happens to them as the natural order of things.

The modern bastardisation of the very word stoic to mean unfeeling, emotionless is a perfect illustration of how it is perceived from the outside.

The Stoic way is to acknowledge "life" as the true path, no matter what, realise that it is our role to ensure that the correct result occurs and live a good life along the way. A good life in this context meaning in accordance with the natural order (see Choices, always choices.)

Stoicism teaches that we must see everything for what it is, recognise its true form and only acknowledge this.

The usual response is that this actually releases us; the removal of attachment to things beyond ourselves is supposedly the greatest freedom. The Stoic wants to see things as they truly are - deliberate, blunt - rather than be naive and ignorant.

But Stoicism is quite reductionist, not in the extreme sense of monism, but in its quest for clarity.

More than thought

Stoicism has been described as the philosophy, even the religion, for slaves and for the military - it is easy to see why. There is an element of separation, of removing yourself from the influence of external forces which would be extremely beneficial in such stressful circumstances.

Indeed Epictetus, one of the preeminent stoic voices, was himself a slave during his early life so this path would have appealed greatly, just as it would to those seeking solace from the horrors of war.

Rather than just a school of philosophy Stoicism is considered a way of life: how to behave in, and respond to, the world - a nontheistic religion of sorts.

This may work in extreme environments but can it really apply to (and can it be lived in) modern society?

Uncertainty

But I think the actual problem with Stoicism is that it seeks to remove the mystery. Yes, clarity has a beauty all of its own but there is a joy, excitement and anticipation in not knowing.

The freedom to dream, to interpret, to question all lie with exploration, discovery and ambiguity.

This is not to say that we can't learn valuable lessons and gain precious insight from Stoicism. Just as with other philosophical schools, certain aspects make a good deal of sense and anything which prompts consideration of our attitudes and behaviour can only be a good thing.

Perhaps not being a true adherent, and not living it day to day, I am blinded to its true nature.

The problem with Stoicism

It’ll be different this time

The clichéd (but incorrect) definition of insanity is to repeatedly display the same behaviour believing it will elicit different results, despite all evidence to the contrary.

It's wrong but it illustrates a point.

I was reminded of this when in a queue to get on the underground. Person after person trying to swipe their card at the barrier only for it not to register. Having failed they were forced to move to another gate.

The next in line sees this happen but thinks, hopes, assumes the problem lay with the previous person's card. Multiple failed swipes later this person, too, has to move on.

And so it continues.

Each individual in the queue with the misguided belief that it will work for them even though they have witnessed what happened to those in front.

How much evidence do we need before we accept it, before we are willing to acknowledge that what should happen just isn't going to?

We are so caught up in the Pavlovian cycle of perform action A, expect result B that we are caught by surprise when result B does not occur. We are temporarily thrown by it, frozen in our disbelief.

How deeply entrenched is our behaviour that we must experience things four, five times, maybe more, before it occurs to us that we must try something else?

Without change this time will not be different.

It’ll be different this time

Looking back and moving forward

I will keep constant watch over myself and - most usefully - will put each day up for review - Seneca

It is a good idea to keep a check on our behaviour, to acknowledge what we have done, both good and bad, so that we can moderate and improve.

Seneca asserts that it makes us evil to only look at what we are going to do and ignore what we have done - only forwards, never back.

An exaggeration? Perhaps.

Evil is too strong a word - a touch melodramatic - which might suffer from being lost in translation. Still, we can see what he is getting at.

Of course, we need to assess what goes well and what goes badly. If we do not examine what has already happened then we cannot recognise and repeat good behaviour or learn from our mistakes so as to rectify them.

Keeping check

Stoic advice is writing a journal at the end of the day to evaluate what happened, how you lived. Writers, however, often recommend a daily brain dump first thing in the morning to clear your head before starting anew.

Which path to follow?

Should we favour the raw, immediate, and potentially emotion laden dissection or should we sleep on it and make our assessment with the benefit of hindsight?

Do we need that rawness or is it a hindrance? Are we able to effectively interpret our actions once we have become detached from their immediacy?

There is no single way.

Sometimes we need to shock ourselves into action as we may not see the severity of our behaviour. On other occasions we need to step back, remove ourselves from the situation as an emotionally charged reaction can do more harm than good.

Looking forward

Just as we need to reflect we also need to plan, to look ahead. At the end of each day Seneca may asked himself "What bad habit did I curb today?" or "How am I better?" but this is only half the story.

We need to examine what the new day holds and how we are going to live it. What actions can we take and what lessons can we bring forward to help us negotiate the next round of challenges?

We can assess the past but must not dwell on it; for, being consumed by what has already gone prevents us from dealing with what is yet to come.

Looking back and moving forward

Choices, always choicesComments

A podium and a prison is each a place, one high and the other low, but in either place your freedom of choice can be maintained if you so wish - Epictetus

Today's meditation really harkens back to the main principle of Stoicism: you can't change things beyond your control but you can change how you react to them.

The trick is in recognising what you can and can't control.

Just like someone confined to a prison cell, we may think our freedom of choice has been removed but we always have an element of control, no matter how small.

We live to schedules for so many things - transport, school, work; we turn up when we should, do our allotted time and go home when we're finished.

Beyond our control.

The Stoic philosophers believed that our existence was a preset pattern and that living a good life meant doing so in harmony with nature - not nature as we normally understand it but the true order of things.

As Seneca wrote: "Fate leads the willing and drags along the reluctant."

Whether you believe in fate or not, life has a way of dragging us along; we can resent it or we can embrace it.

We have a choice in how we act, what we do, and how we carry ourselves during the easy times and the difficult.

We can be humble or obnoxious, we can be steadfast or crumble. We can be depressed whilst surrounded by riches or ecstatic despite having nothing. It is how we respond to the situation that defines us, not the situation itself.

It is our choice to be willing or reluctant.

Choices, always choices

On being creative

What is missing? ... The work is quite feasible, and is the only thing in our power. ... Let go of the past. We must only begin. - Epictetus (taken from The Daily Stoic)

How many times have we heard the same sentiment expressed in different ways:

"You don't have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great" - Zig Ziglar

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" - Lao Tzu

"The beginning is the most important part of the work" - Plato

We may have the grandest of ideas but they are all but worthless if we never put them into action.

Pressure

We get hung up on the idea of being creative. We convince ourselves that being creative means that we must produce amazing art or poetry or literature. We put ourselves under undue pressure by only focusing on the result and cannot see how we can achieve it.

Creative is simply defined as:

relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas to create something

Imagination - check, ideas - of course, create - obviously. But look at that last word: something.

It doesn't say that being creative means we have to produce a masterpiece, it just says we have to create.

Something. Anything.

The artist starts with a rough sketch. The poet begins with a thought, feeling or emotion. The author first conceives a character, event or outcome.

Even masterpieces have very humble beginnings, but they must all start somewhere.

It is the very act of creation that is important, the willingness to start even if there is no end in sight. Nine times out of ten this may be a false start - second bang, the gun goes off again and we are pulled back to the beginning.

Fortunately for us we will not be disqualified and can have as many false starts as we need, as many as it takes to get it right and get over the finish line.

We just have to start.

Write365 - 6th August 2014 (updated)

On being creative

Because always

So, in the majority of other things, we address circumstances not in accordance with the right assumptions, but mostly by following wretched habit - Musonius Rufus.

Today's Daily Stoic meditation began as above, and the added commentary reminded me of this Write365 post:

Because always

There is an amazing hypocrisy in the actions of some. They complain when things don't change, when suggestions are made but passed over, when they feel they are being ignored.

They complain that things are stuck in a rut, that things are done because that's the way it has always been.

However, when reorganisations are made and new management is introduced an overwhelming cynicism prevents them from accepting that change can occur. So, when that new management says that processes will be re-examined and re-evaluated, that things won't be done just because that's the way it always has been, the very same people get defensive.

Better the devil you know?

No one likes change for the sake of it but when genuine change is introduced to improve process a fear kicks in - a fear of that change.

Those previously criticising existing process suddenly defend it, argue against the new ideas, claim that introducing them will be a mistake.

Their argument for doing so? Because this is the way we've always done it!

They can't have it both ways.

Some people get stuck in the same old rut but mistake it for a fond familiarity; they bury themselves so deeply within their comfort zone that they have forgotten how it feels to be outside, to be tested, to have to think for themselves.

No amount of justification can persuade them that change is good, change is an improvement, change is vital.

They just don't listen.

They feel threatened, under attack as if their integrity and work ethic are being questioned. They feel that they are not trusted to do their jobs - how could they be if someone wants to change things?

So, the question becomes: how do you break down that wall? How do you shine a new light into the darkness?

Because it's always been that way is neither a justification nor a defence.

Write365 - 7th October 2014

Further thoughts

"How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one, but it's really got to want to change"

It may be a silly old joke but many a true word is said in jest. People must want to change and, if they are unsure, that change must be sold effectively.

We demand good reason to change our habits but should always be open to doing so. If we never try a different way we miss out on new experiences and the possibility of finding a better path.

Perhaps a proposed change, even fully embraced, does not provide the expected benefits but we won't know unless we try. We lose little but gain affirmation, surety, the knowledge that we are doing things the best way we can.

And that is all we can hope for.

Because always

Resolutions, meditations and stoicism

I'm not really one for New Year's resolutions; if you're going to do something why wait until 1st January and add the stigma associated with possible failure.

This year, however, I decided that I would read more, especially philosophy which is a long standing but under explored interest.

I have been interested in the Stoics for a number of years having quoted and expanded on the likes of Seneca in the past. When I questioned the validity of my daily posts as a body of work they were compared loosely, and favourably, to Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. Good company to keep.

So it was to my surprise and delight that I came across "The Daily Stoic" by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman (366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living) in a local branch of a chain of book shops. Curiously, it was the only philosophy book in the store and happened to be tucked away in the religion section.

A lucky find.

The book is written as to be consumed in bite sized chunks - one meditation (stoic quote) per day accompanied by a thought or explanation for added context, although there is nothing to stop you from reading it all in one go.

I think that defeats the purpose.

Having one thing to focus on per day, a kind of philosophical devotional, is a great way to step back from the bustle of life and may serve as inspiration for a post - although that won't be every day.

Spirituality

I'm not a religious person but am increasingly spiritual in a non-religious sense. Spirituality may have originated with religion but its meaning and concept has expanded over time.

According to Wikipedia, spirituality:

"aims to recover the original shape of man," oriented at "the image of God"

What is philosophy if it is not trying to establish the original shape of man? With or without the divine.

Resolutions, meditations and stoicism