Thursday, July 25, 2013

Stoic philosophy, yoga, and how not to blame the gods

Earlier today, I read some Stoic philosophy, both for my own edification and with the intention of teaching it as part of my fall Introduction to Ethics course. I had read some Stoic philosophers back in grad school, but it's been a while since then. Back then, I had not started practicing yoga. Now, after having started practicing yoga, I am seeing many striking parallels between Stoicism and yoga philosophy. The Stoics place great emphasis on living in accordance with nature. To them, the universe is a rational place that is governed by reason. This being the case, for a person to live in accordance with nature/the universe is for her to cultivate and fully develop her rational nature. In order to do this, we need to align our desires so that we desire only things that are up to us (having certain attitudes towards things around us, having certain likes and dislikes, holding certain judgments of good or bad about things and people, etc.), and not desire things that are not up to us (social status, material possessions, the well-being of our loved ones, what other people think of us, the state of our physical bodies, etc.).

The general idea is that if we desire only things that are up to us, we will always be rational and in accord with nature, and will always be happy. To illustrate, let's use a yoga example: Suppose you are doing your asana practice today. You want very much to be able to do a straight-legged jump-through (it doesn't have to be a straight-legged jump-through (SLJT); just substitute your most-desired asana here, and you will get the picture). You do everything you can possibly do to prepare your mind and body to put yourself in the best possible position to achieve this pose (you watch Kino's jump-through videos three million times, do a bunch of preparatory postures, engage your bandhas, breathe in accordance with the vinyasa count, etc., etc.), but alas, you are still unable to achieve the SLJT today. According to the Stoic, you ultimately have no control over whether or not your body achieves the SLJT today (although you can do your best). What you do have control over is your judgment or reaction towards this state of affairs. If you believe that that which is not up to you (achieving the SLJT today) is up to you, and you desire it so badly, then you will be very miserable and upset. But if you are able to desire only that which is up to you (having a more accommodating attitude towards achieving asanas while doing your best everyday), then you will be happy, and nothing can make you unhappy.
I use the example of asana because, well, this is a yoga blog. But according to the Stoics, this idea of desiring only the things that you have control over can be (and should be) applied to everything in life, including big things like losing your job, retirement savings, or loved ones. But, you may ask: It is one thing to not desire not losing one's job or savings, but to not desire not losing one's loved ones... how can one do that? Well, here's a little tip from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus:

'Never say about anything, "I have lost it," but instead, "I have given it back." Did your child die? It was given back. Did your wife die? She was given back. "My land was taken." So this too was given back. "But the person who took it was bad!" How does the way the giver asked for it back concern you? As long as he gives it, take care of it as something that is not your own, just as travelers treat an inn.'

Hmm.... Interesting. But I doubt that Epictetus's message here will be well-received by most Americans. After all, we are used to paying for stuff with what we see as our own money, and we strongly believe that what we are paying for, others have no right to take away. For instance, we believe that so long as we are making regular payments on the car/house/whatever, the bank has no right to take it away from us. If it did, it would be committing an injustice against us, and we can sue them! Similarly, I sometimes also wonder if people have the same kind of attitude towards losing loved ones: If I lose my wife/significant other/close relative unexpectedly even though I am a good man/woman who is doing everything right, wouldn't this mean that I have been unjustly treated? How can anybody or anything have the right to "repossess" my wife/significant other/loved one if I am doing everything right? Don't I have the right to sue whoever's up there? Epictetus has this to say in reply:

"The most important aspect of piety towards the gods is certainly both to have correct beliefs about them, as beings that arrange the universe well and justly, and to set yourself to obey them and acquiesce in everything that happens and to follow it willingly, as something brought to completion by the best judgment. For in this way you will never blame the gods or accuse them of neglecting you. And this piety is impossible unless you detach the good and the bad from what is not up to us and attach it exclusively to what is up to us, because if you think that any of what is not up to us is good or bad, then when you fail to get what you want and fall into what you do not want, you will be bound to blame and hate those who cause this."  

Well, this sounds like great advice. The only problem is that based on my personal experience, many Americans I know, if they believe in God (or the gods), tend to see God (or the gods) as somebody who takes a personal interest in their well-being and happiness. And if God (or the gods) is looking out for me, how can he rightly take away that person who is most dear to me? It just doesn't add up.

If you have been following everything closely so far, you will probably have figured out what Epictetus's reply to this would be. He would say that God (or the gods) is actually arranging the universe well and justly and is looking out for you; you just have to have the right attitude to see things in the correct light! If you are seeing things in the correct light, you will see that even if God were to take away all your loved ones, you will never be unhappy, because in order to be happy, all you need to do is to only desire the things which you can control. And since losing your loved ones is something that is beyond your control, you need to stop desiring not losing your loved ones. And then all will be well, and you will see that God is good, and that everything that happens in the universe happens in accordance with his best judgment. Problem solved.


I see that all this is rather heavy-going stuff. Let me see if I can end with something lighter. Well, take a look at this other passage from Epictetus: 

"It shows a lack of natural talent to spend time on what concerns the body, as in exercising a great deal, eating a great deal, drinking a great deal, moving one's bowels a great deal or copulating a great deal. Instead you must do these things in passing, but turn your whole attention toward your faculty of judgment." 

Well, the part about exercising a great deal concerns me a little, as I do asana six days a week. But then again, I never practice for more than two hours a day, and there are twenty-four hours in a day, so I think what I do doesn't count as "exercising a great deal." As for the rest, don't they remind you of the yamas? The general idea is: Eat, but don't eat too much, drink, but don't drink too much, shit, but don't shit too much, have sex, but don't have sex too much (and presumably, also don't have sex with too many people at the same time...).  

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