Focus on the Phoenix: Establishing a Discipline of the Spirit
So tell me, gentle reader, if you have ever had a thought similar to this one, or even said something not unlike this aloud: “I know, I know, I need to meditate. I’m just so tired. I need to exercise, too. Just a few of the exercises the physical therapist told me to do. No. Tomorrow. I brought all that work home to do tonight, and I got so into doing the dishes and the laundry that I couldn’t get to it. Forgot I brought it home. I have to get that done before tomorrow. Oh, and I have to unload the dishwasher too, and make lunch to take to work. So tired. When am I supposed to read all those articles on the Spiritual Naturalist website, and listen to that cool podcast that just came out? When can I get back to my book? That has to go back to the library in two days, and I’m not even halfway through it. Can’t renew it…someone else wants it. Oh god, and I was going to take a shower tonight. No time in the morning. Can’t there just be a few more hours in the day?”
Does this sound in any way familiar? We are Spiritual Naturalists, dedicated to seeking out the practices and traditions that lead us to living fulfilling and meaningful lives. At the same time, we are human beings with families, jobs, and other real life obligations that compete for our time and attention. We still have to engage in what my wife calls “chopping wood and carrying water,” the daily tasks that feed the kids, clean the clothes, repair the house, and keep life chugging along. Couple those tasks with the endless distractions that bombard us on a daily basis and is it surprising that we barely have any time or energy left to pursue the rituals and behaviors that form the foundation of our spiritual practice?
Many readers may have found an effective way to balance these demands, and if you are among them, then I salute you. Even so, you likely face days when even your supremely efficient balancing act is tested to its limits. My limits are tested almost daily as I work to navigate a life phase with two teenage kids, a job whose obligations frequently follow me home, and a litany of tasks like those mentioned previously that equate to just my share of the household duties. So how do we do it? How can we consistently discipline ourselves so that this balance between the demands of every day life and our spiritual life can be struck without either domain having to sacrifice itself for the other?
I have written here in the past of stoicism’s influence on my life, and the recent podcast here on this website that explored the “art of stoicism” was an enjoyable and informative reminder of how powerful, practical, and downright necessary the ancient art of stoicism is in helping me hold things together (I can’t recommend that podcast more highly). I cannot claim to be a stoic sage who has mastered the philosophy’s tenets and exist in perfect harmony with the ancients. I am just a citizen of modern civilization struggling to make it through each day. Recently, the sense that more and more of the people around me are experiencing heightened degrees of stress and anxiety, coupled with my own sense of at times feeling powerless and overwhelmed, have forced me to reevaluate the “hit and miss” status of my spiritual life and help it rise from its own ashes like a Phoenix. Fortunately, a life grounded in philosophy is always there, ready to be renewed and taken up again. We can recommit to it after faltering, and it forgives us. Don’t feel guilty if you have dropped the philosophical ball and lost focus on your practice, whatever it may be, because life just got in the way. It does that. Our task as seekers of spiritual fulfillment is to do the best we can to honor all of our needs and the needs of those who depend on us in a way that shows respect for all involved. No small task, that.
So, let’s wipe the slate clean together. Let’s forgive ourselves for our failures to follow through in the past, though we approached our path with the best of intentions until life threw us a curveball (or fastball, or many fastballs when we had no bat). I can illustrate how this has happened in my own life, and share with you what I have done and am currently doing to renew myself and my practice. No matter your path or preferred practice or tradition, I hope you find something here that is of use if you are finding or ever find yourself losing focus or questioning how to sustain a meaningful spiritual practice amid the fastballs.
I can begin with meditation. I am not someone who needs to be sold on its benefits. I have researched it for years, and I am sold. Why, then, has my practice of it been inconsistent? Oh, I have never stopped meditating since first investigating it several years ago, but consistent day to day practice at exactly the same time of the day every day has been a habit I have not been able to lock in as yet. Perhaps this was due to not having some epic transformation after the first few weeks of practice. I had not expected anything so major, but it could well be that I was not prepared for the subtlety of the effects and benefits meditation has to offer. I remain a firm believer in it, though I have not been able to maximize its potential in my life as yet. Anyone who has tried meditation will tell you that it is difficult to sustain, though it sounds deceptively simple when you hear its procedures first described to you. Its difficulty is no excuse. I recognize that I need to improve in this area, and have made good strides recently when I realized that I needed to focus on the Phoenix and help it rise. So what has helped? For me, music and guided meditations have been instrumental in helping me establish a more consistent practice. I have always loved instrumental music, and there are some albums/tracks designed specifically to assist in meditation that I have found helpful as they tap into an experience I have always found inherently relaxing and pleasurable. When meditation and music are combined, I have found myself more motivated to carve the time out of the craziness of the day. Not just any music will work. Some is actually detrimental to the mental state that is desired during meditation. Each practitioner needs to research and explore to discover what might be most effective for him or her. Guided meditations can be likewise hit or miss. There are some people’s voices that lead guided meditation sessions that grate on my nerves, and I find them impossible to listen to. Eventually, I stumble upon someone who has just the right tone to facilitate a successful session, and I take note of that person, assembling a list of those who I know resonate with me. There is no guarantee that the music and guided meditations I have discovered would prove likable or effective for others, but I would be happy to share what I have found with anyone who should care to comment on the article below.
Meditation’s link to stoicism lies in the ability to prevent your emotions from overruling your reason. That is a message central to stoic philosophy; stay level headed, avoid extremes of emotion in either positive or negative directions, and quickly be able to return to a stable, reason-focused equilibrium after an emotionally charged experience. Meditation is unquestionably beneficial in helping to develop the mental resiliency to keep things in perspective and prevent your emotions from taking charge in challenging situations.
How about when it comes to disciplining ourselves to exercising and eating well? With exercise, we complain of the lack of time, lack of access to the proper equipment or ability to purchase the appropriate clothing…the list goes on. The philosophy of eating well is likewise confronted with excuses such as the price of the healthy food, the lack of taste (for those not creative enough to find a way to enhance it), and the temptations that decadent but unhealthy options dangle before our appetites. Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus—the great stoic thinkers whose writings survive to us—all speak frequently of how the temptations of the physical body corrupt our reason and keep us from “sagehood” because the body’s needs are always getting in the way. On the surface, eating the hot fudge sundae sure looks like it will be a great deal more rewarding than standing there and watching someone else enjoy it. Yet the stoics teach us that there is an inverse satisfaction in doing just that, knowing that we were strong enough to resist that temptation when such an indulgence was the last thing our body needed. I see nothing wrong with such an indulgence if it is infrequent enough to be seen as a treat and earned through the expenditure of calories through physical activity. If the goal is to lose weight and eat in a more healthy manner, I would recommend a program such as Weight Watchers which offers a system to help you know what you should or shouldn’t do and holds you accountable. You also don’t do it alone; there is a support network. One thing stoicism definitely does not encourage is living in a cave separated from all of your fellow human beings, relying on your own strength of character alone to get you through the challenges and temptations of life. We are social creatures and are meant to work together, like upper and lower rows of teeth do. See if there is someone such as your spouse willing to alter his or her own diet in a similar way, and you will find things to be a lot easier. Knowing that my own wife is there and we can rely on each other for support and encouragement is very heartening when temptation threatens.
For me, motivation for exercise comes from having suffered a back injury; when the specific exercises I have learned are consistently done, my back is resilient to strain. If I grow complacent with them, it can weaken and I can be subject to agonizing back spasms. If you have ever known that pain, you know that avoiding it at any cost is motivation enough to engage in any exercise proven to help. At the same time, even when you know the exercises that work, once your muscles are honed and in shape there is the tendency to grow complacent, even for me. Since I know what to do if I have a flare up and such episodes are now rare, it is easy to say, “not tonight—too tired.” The stoic technique of negative visualization has helped me here when I feel okay and consider skipping my exercise routines. I can just call on the memories of the worst back episodes I have had and the accompanying fear and stress such a pain induces, living briefly in those moments. That is often enough to make me say to myself, “You don’t want to go through that again, do you?” The routines aren’t long or difficult. It just comes down to the discipline of following through. I can also summon memories of how athletic and healthy I looked when I was a high school athlete, and then think, “well, I may not ever have a young body again, but I can take the best care possible of the one I have and give it the joy of moving as it was designed to.” There is a pleasure in the pain and fatigue that comes after lifting weights or working your muscles well. Not all pain is to be feared.
How about reading? I am an English teacher; I love books. I have my own home library. I have a quote from Thomas Jefferson on my classroom wall: “I cannot live without books.” Neither can I. When I can’t read, I get irritable. Imagine my revulsion when I first read this passage from The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: “Throw away your books. Stop drifting. You’re not going to re-read your Brief Comments, your Deeds of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the commonplace books you saved for your old age. Sprint for the finish. Write off your hopes, and if your well-being matters to you, be your own savior while you can” (Meditations, Book Three, Passage 14). Throw away your books! Ye Gods! I resisted that particular passage and read on with a bad taste in my brain, until what the Emperor actually meant finally sank in. He was old and dying. He could no longer afford the luxury of putting things off until tomorrow. He needed to make the most of the limited time remaining to him to improve himself and live his life as his philosophy demanded. The practical element of this passage for us is that we can read books about how to live the best possible life or be the best possible person all we want, but only when we act on what those books actually suggest to us will any of it materialize. We can’t become good gardeners if all we do is read gardening books without ever sticking our hands in the soil.
Now, I whole-heartedly recommend reading books that inspire and motivate you to fulfill your potential. I have found many such books through this website. Never stop reading. Never. Look for new authors and revisit favorite ones. Just don’t expect the reading alone to be enough to bring about the changes you would like to see in your life. You have to apply the principles the books suggest, or they become nothing more than procrastination tools to help you put off the more difficult part, which is putting what they say into daily practice. Reading for pleasure and personal transformation is something I have managed to do every day, but usually only at day’s end, and I am often too tired to keep my eyes open to get more than a page or two further through the current book of choice. Fortunately, I find ways to squeeze a few pages in here and there at other times of the day, and can find ways to factor some of the philosophy I read into my teaching as well since I cover Greek and Latin classics in my classes. I choose what I read wisely, knowing that I just don’t have time for poorly written or superficial fluff. I seek that which will motivate and inspire me, or lead me to the greatest insights into human nature. Just as athletes choose specific exercises to strengthen and hone the abilities they need, avoiding those they feel are superfluous, we too must not succumb to the “well, at least I’m reading” philosophy. What we read very much matters, and when it does matter, we will find the time for it.
There are a couple of other strategies I have found to be beneficial in helping me to focus on the Phoenix and keep it rising. One of those is to surround myself with symbols. Some I wear, some I tape to walls or mirrors, some are objects placed in conspicuous places. I have a silver ring that is fashioned into the shape of a bald eagle’s head. The ring was once my father’s, but his fingers swell up when he wears rings and he has trouble removing them, so the ring was passed to me. The eagle’s name is Zeno, named after stoicism’s founder. The Romans held the silver eagle in great regard, and one look at Zeno during the day (he is rarely if ever off my hand) reminds me of the Romans and the practicality of their stoicism. Books and study weren’t enough for them; philosophy had to be livable, of what was the use of it? Zeno helps me focus and stay in the moment whenever I glance at him.
A previous article I wrote for the society entitled “Picard’s Precepts: Star Trek and Spiritual Naturalism” discussed Star Trek’s symbolic importance to me, and I have some symbols from Star Trek in photograph, pin, and figure form strategically placed in my home to remind me to always seek knowledge, have hope in the future, and celebrate our differences as a people. A symbol from Star Trek that stands out as particularly relevant today is the IDIC symbol, standing for “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations” (Google that to have a look at it). The concept of celebrating diversity in all its forms is one in dire need of advocacy today.
A final suggestion I would have to help you focus on your Phoenix is to find role models in your life to motivate and inspire you when you feel overwhelmed or that you just aren’t up to tackling another day. These could be people you actually know. My own father, a man who lives life his own way and confronts its challenges head on, is a daily inspiration to me. He is 84 now and I only have the opportunity to see him a couple of days a year as he lives eight hours away from where I do. Even so, hearing his voice on the other end of the phone is a comforting and inspiring experience. He is there whenever I need him. Though one day his time on this world will come to an end, I feel confident that when that day comes I will be able to carry his lessons forward into my life and honor his memory.
Not all of your role models need to be people you know. They can be historical figures, people who live their lives in inspiring ways, or even fictional characters. I draw daily inspiration from many such people. Ernest Shackleton, the great British explorer of the Antarctic, is a paragon of leadership, having led the crew of his vessel the Endurance to safety after losing the ship in the ice floes surrounding Antarctica in the early 1900’s. Read his story (a book called South, written by Shackleton himself) and you will never again complain of being cold or hungry and come to the realization that no matter how bad your current situation is, it could never match what he and his crew endured, and that you, as a human being, have a deeper well of fortitude that you could ever dream possible. I have a picture of Shackleton on my classroom wall, and I look to it on particularly challenging days; a mere glance at the man’s resolute jaw line helps me to dig back in and keep tackling whatever the day dishes out.
A living role model who also inspires me is Jocko Willink, a former Navy Seal who now co-owns a consulting company called “Echelon Front.” He travels the country with his colleague Leif Babin, also an ex-Seal, and they help companies and institutions by presenting on how the Navy Seal leadership methods can be applied to civilian organizations. Their book, Extreme Ownership, captures the essence of this philosophy and is well worth adding to your reading list, as the philosophies they espouse can be just applicable to your own personal effort to nurture self-discipline. Willink is the most disciplined man I have ever heard speak. He has a podcast (one I highly recommend) where he reviews books, interviews guests, and fields questions from those who follow him on the internet. He is intelligent, inspiring, funny, and very focused. Just one hour of listening to him makes you wonder how he fits everything into his day, but it also motivates you to quit making excuses. If something bad happens in Willink’s life, he just says “Good,” seeing every setback as an opportunity for improvement. If we all viewed life as he does, complaints and excuses would be a thing of the past.
Look to your favorite fiction stories, movies, or television programs for role models who share your ideals: Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek, Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth…the list could be endless; whoever speaks to your soul and motivates you to break through the shroud of complacency that threatens to weaken your resolve. Put pictures of these individuals and characters in places where you will see them every day; put inspiring quotes from them in these same places. These seem like small or even insignificant gestures, but I can speak from personal experience that they can tip the scale from saying “I’ll get around to that tomorrow” to “No, do it now.”
We are all very busy people who lead busy, modern lives. We are not (I’ll risk an assumption here) Spiritual Naturalist monastics who have the luxury of spending many hours of our day in meditation and deep contemplation of our place in the universe while devoting the rest of our time to helping others (though that vision is an appealing one, at least to me). One day, my own life circumstances will change; my teenage children will be off with homes and lives of their own, I will be retired, and I will have the time and resources to invest much more deeply in my spiritual development. That does not mean that just because I am swamped under busy that I do not pursue that development when and where I can. It is all a matter of creating and finding balance. Yes, I am tempted by distractions. Yes, I am often tired. I do what I can to push through these obstacles to my own betterment, and I hope that I may have given you one or two small techniques that might help you do so as well. Symbols, photographs, inspiring quotes, ancient philosophies, objects of personal significance—use them all in whatever manner suits you to push through the fatigue and complacency constantly working to undermine your resolve.
Now, get up and go do something that inspires you and brings you peace. You deserve it.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. Trans. Gregory Hays. New York: The Modern Library, 2002. Print.