The purpose of this blog is to pursue happiness together. My aim is to share my thoughts, thoughts which i have accumulated through the experience of highs and lows in my own life, and thoughts from famous philosophers, thinkers, and humanity at large. My hope is that we can begin a dialogue, and that through discussion of what happiness is, and how we find it, that we can learn to be happy together and to help make the world a better place.

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How Adversity Makes us Stronger

  Winston Churchill once said “the pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.” Suffe...

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Sunday, April 11, 2021

How Adversity Makes us Stronger


 


Winston Churchill once said “the pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.” Suffering is an inevitable part of life. On this, we know that Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims and probably every religion would agree. Heck, any human being who has lived long enough to realize the disillusionment of a utopian universe, children sometimes even, can tell you that suffering is part of life. Philosophers, thinkers, leaders, and religious figures the world over through the history of recorded human history would argue that the most crucial task in human life is to create and experience happiness. I see two different ways, generally speaking, to find happiness. One way is to avoid suffering. This can be done through deep and meaningful connections with others, in finding a meaning and purpose for ones being, or through experiencing the joy and beauty of the world through art, nature, music, friendship, joy and more. The second way is to create happiness and meaning of life not through the avoidance of suffering but through suffering. It is on the second way to happiness that I wish to write about today. 

Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning that “in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering.” I believe that most of us would prefer to experience happiness in the first manner of which I wrote earlier, that is to avoid suffering all together. But we all know at this point in our lives that sometimes, often times really, through no fault of our own that suffering is inevitable. We don’t get to choose if we come down with a crippling disease, if our dearly beloved spouse is taken from us too soon, or if, such as in the case of Dr. Frankl, that we are born an ethnic and religious minority that will go on to suffer the worst form of human hatred and aggression in the history of humanity. These situations all foster suffering, but we must persist nonetheless. I will quote JRR Tolkien’s fictional character, the Wizard Gandalf, who spoke to his friend Frodo, whom was at the time lamenting the burden of his quest. Frodo says he wishes this hadn’t happened in his time, Gandalf replied: “so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” None of us can avoid suffering outright, and many of us sadly will deal with a great deal more of it than others. But all we can do is persist and carry on as best we are able, and the best way to do that is through the mind. This post will examine the type of mindsets that can create happiness and meaning through even the worst of times. 


 The ability to exist in a joyous, happy state without any worry of suffering may sound like the optimal type of existence but in reality, it is merely a fantasy. We know through our experience that suffering is a part of life. What if we could make a happy and joyous existence not merely in spite of suffering but through your suffering. Viktor Frankl said that man’s main concern was not the avoidance of pain but the search for meaning in his life. This was one of the basic tenants of logotherapy, a branch of psychotherapy created by Frankl himself. Frankl believed that to find meaning one could do so through work or creation (e.g. a vocation, a calling) by experiencing something (e.g. love, art, beauty), and lastly by our attitude towards suffering. We can use this inevitable suffering of life and use it to help us define our purpose. The endurance of suffering gives us a reason to be and can help us not just build character but discover strength and virtue within ourselves which we never knew we had. 


“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task,” said Frankl. Thinking back to the Churchill quote with which I opened, we can begin to view inevitable suffering not as something to fear or avoid, for what good would such fears do towards something we can’t control, but something that we can meet head on with optimism and courage. Take the difficulty that life brings and use it to find meaning. Seneca the Stoic said: “the point is not to wish for these adversities, but for the virtue to make adversities bearable.” Fellow stoic, Marcus Aurelius said “the obstacle is the way.” Of course, we don’t wish for suffering but we train ourselves to build the character and the fortitude to meet them and to persevere regardless. Without such troubles, how will we really know just what kind of person we are. 

It is easy to preach kindness, compassion, and optimism when times are hard, but if we can roll with the tough punches that life throws at us and still find a way, then we come to realize just how meaningful our existence is. To quote Epictetus: “so, what should each of us say to every trial we face? This is what I’ve trained for, for this is my discipline.” Epictetus welcomed adversity in his life. Rather than haplessly fleeing or cowering, he met it head on. These are the moments that define us and let us find meaning. We do our best to live properly but until we are tested we never get to truly know the depths of our own determination and character. Frankl stated that: “if, on the other hand, one cannot change a situation that causes suffering, he can still choose his attitude.” Choose the attitude of an optimist or a stoic. If you look at life’s challenges not with fear but with eagerness, eagerness to develop character, or reveal your strength to yourself, you will make the most of your life and find meaning in so doing and finding meaning in one’s life may be the ultimate attainment of happiness. So whenever you find yourself stuck with what feels like an immense burden, or impossible suffering, don't wish for different times or lament your situation, this will get you nowhere. Recall the words of Gandalf, that all you have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given. Face your fears and your suffering head on, welcome them, and use them to create opportunity. The opportunity to strengthen yourself, and the opportunity to find meaning in this thing called life. 



Saturday, April 10, 2021

Epicureanism: a Review



 Today I want to talk about one of the most commonly misunderstood branches of philosophy, Epicureanism. Epicureanism takes its name from its founder, Epicurus, who lived in the 3rd Century BCE. Epicureanism is often, wrongly, considered as the antagonist to stoicism. Where stoicism teaches moderation and humility, epicureanism teaches hedonism and indulgence. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The only way one could possible, make such an error would be to do the briefest of superficial observations of epicureanism and no more. This post aims to explain the true meaning of Epicurus’s teachings and to discuss not only the similarities to stoicism, but also why the epicurean philosophy is a respectable way to consider the universe. Keep in mind of course that Epicurus’s own life came just after the lives of Greece’s most influential philosophers: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, whose moral influence clearly shaped the views of Epicurus. Ergo his philosophy is not a diametric opposition to stoicism but rather a relative sharing a common origin in the School of Athens. 

To Epicurus, happiness was the absence of pain, both mental and physical. This is where the common misconception arises. Some would believe that seeking of a relief from pain would lead one to drunken orgies, decadent banquets and such. While Epicurus was a great believer that one should enjoy the niceties that life offers, he constantly preached moderation and gratitude, rather than reckless hedonism. He even used the metaphor of a banquet to illustrate his point: “Treat life like a banquet: do not mourn what passes, do not take more than you need, and don’t yearn for what is to come, enjoy the present instead.” There is great wisdom in this approach. It echoes the ideas of stoicism, or rather precedes them, by acknowledging our helplessness to control external events. We have no control over the past, so why should we lament it. To keep with his metaphor of a banquet: the crab cakes have passed, instead enjoy the oysters that you now have. Don’t look forward to the chocolate cake that comes later, if you do that you’ll miss the opportunity to enjoy the oysters. And who can say that that cake will even come? What if the banquet hall catches on fire and the oysters are the last dish you get. Enjoy the present instead. 

With anything more than a cursory glance it becomes evident that Epicureanism really isn’t that far off from other religions or philosophies such as Stoicism which we have mentioned, but also Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam to name a few. There is an apparent lack in epicureanism to the acknowledgement of a deity, in the traditional sense anyway, though there is clear belief in a higher power. Epicurus was remarkably ahead of his time by theorizing that the world was comprised of invisible particles, which he called atoms, that formed the constitution of all matter both living and otherwise. He believed that the existence of the universe was simply a fortuitous confluence of science rather than the machination of a deity or deities, which made him many enemies from the traditional Greek theologians. 

What Epicureanism shares with Stoicism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam is an acknowledgement of a higher power to which we are all supplicant to. To rail against this higher power, whether it be god or simply fate, would be futile and would only introduce greater suffering. It is also about gratitude for whatever that higher power may provide. Epicureanism is about enjoying what you are given and thinking nothing of that which fate chooses not to give. “Nothing is enough for a man for whom enough is too little. Not what we have but what we enjoy constitutes our abundance.” Control what you want, and you will have everything that we want. 


It is easy to see how one could misinterpret Epicureanism: “choose what creates pleasure over pain, satisfaction over angst.” One might think that this suggests: have all the sex, drink all the wine, indulge, indulge, indulge. What it really means, particularly in the light of his broader work, is don’t want what you don’t have. Enjoy that which you do have. Put aside your cravings not just for food and indulgence, but also power, fame, recognition. If you have those, enjoy them. But how much energy is wasted craving for that and never enjoying of its fruit? Remember that in his philosophy, all life is just a random assortment of atoms beyond our power to understand the organization of which. To rave with anger and madness about what you don’t have would be foolish, who would listen? What good would it do? Enjoy what blessings life gives to you, but enjoy in moderation, and appreciate while it lasts. For nothing is guaranteed to last forever. “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”


Friday, April 9, 2021

Train Your Mind for Happiness


 


Anybody who has ever trained for sports, fitness, or general health knows that it is a lengthy process that requires discipline and consistency. Despite all wishful thinking, results do not come over night. We may run for miles and miles every day or lift weights until we can barely lift a glass of water to our mouths and sometimes it feels like we are stuck in place. But over time, those who have been able to see committed start to notice results. That 5k time is suddenly 5 minutes shorter and we find ourselves no longer heaving with exhaustion after running up the stairs. In the gym that weight which was once impossible to move has now become our warm up and when we look at ourselves in the mirror we start to see a different person. Our bodies are highly adaptable and over time the training begins to illicit the desired results. 

The same is true with our mind. The brain is not a muscle, but it is every bit as malleable in the psychological sense. We have the remarkable ability to mentally adjust to new scenarios and can train ourselves to new thought patterns over time. Just as the body will respond and adapt to continued stimulation, so too will the brain adapt. As we have discussed before, happiness is a choice, not a reaction. By training our mind to intentionally become happiness, not as a result of external situations of which we have no control, but rather synthesizing it ourselves through positive thinking patterns habitually over time. 

It is easy to see suffering throughout the world. Many billions of people live in states of abject misery such that one wonders if their entire existence must be consumed by suffering. Dr. Howard Cutler saw this and asked the Dalai Lama if he thought that happiness was a reasonable goal for most of us, or if it was just a fantasy. The Dalai Lama replied “Yes, I believe that happiness can be achieved through training the mind.” As we recall from the example of Viktor Frankl in yesterday’s post, it is possible to maintain some sense of inner strength and happiness even in the face of such unimaginable suffering as the holocaust. 

With such an examples as Frankl’s one recognizes that external circumstances are ultimately not what lead to happiness and salvation. Recalling the research of Dr. Dan Gilbert we remember that over time both lottery winners and paraplegics exhibit similar levels of happiness. The type of suffering one endures may differ based on circumstance but suffering is inevitable and we can only experience it through the perspective of our own being. What we all have is the ability to strengthen our mind and practice the cultivation of mental discipline and happiness. As the Dr. Cutler said following his discussion with the Dalai Lama : “no matter what level of happiness we are endowed with by nature, there are steps we can take to work with the “mind factor,” to enhance our feelings of happiness.  This is because our moment-to-moment happiness is largely determined by our outlook.  In fact, whether we are feeling happy or unhappy at any given moment often has very little to do with our absolute conditions but, rather it is a function of how we perceive our situation, how satisfied we are with what we have.”

Taking this into account we recognize that each of us has the capacity to attain happiness regardless of our situation in life. This doesn’t happen immediately but rather takes a great deal of time, practice, and mental training. Just as your muscles wont develop from a day or even a week of rigorous training, nor will your brain suddenly be conditioned to this way of thinking. Over time, little by little, the change starts to happen, imperceptibly at first until months or even years later we realize a change. Think of the book Atomic Habits, even 1% change every day will yield dramatic results over time. Marcus Aurelius said: your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thought, for the human spirit is colored by such impressions.” Several centuries before him, his predecessor Aristotle said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.” (there is some dispute as to whether or not Aristotle ever said this, either way, I like it) If the type of excellence you are searching for is happiness and a positive outlook on life, then the best way to attain that state is by constantly disciplining yourself and choosing to be happy each and every day. 

At this point we acknowledge that happiness is a choice, and a choice that must be turned into a habit over time by constantly making the right choice. But how exactly does one DO this? For the Dalai Lama and many, it begins with meditation. His Holiness begins every day with 3-4 hours of meditation, the primary purpose of which is to train his mind for compassion and kindness. He simply sits and thinks about being nice, about recognizing the wholeness of humanity, and about his connection to others. Through hours of these intentional thoughts he develops his mind into one of the most compassionate and welcoming forces in our world. I don’t expect any of us to be able to spend veritable hours at this practice, but some form of intentional meditation and thought, usually first thing in the morning, is a great way to train the mind for happiness. For the Dalai lama the whole way to cultivate happiness is to identify and cultivate positive mental states and to identify and eliminate negative mental states. Mental states would be selfishness, fear, cruelty, isolation, and anger. By meditating on kindness and happiness he cultivates positive states of love, togetherness, community, belonging, and comfort. “By bringing about a certain inner discipline, we can undergo a transformation of our attitude, our entire outlook and approach to living,” ~ His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. 

Our happiness has nothing to do with our surroundings. None of us chooses whether we are born into an urban slum, born with a disease, or born with a silver spoon in our mout so-to-speak. These things are beyond our control. And as the stoics always remind us, what is beyond our control is exactly that, and thus not worth worrying. What we do have control over are our mind and our choices. Happiness is a choice. And it is a choice that becomes a reality when we discipline our minds through intention to eliminate negative thoughts and cultivate positivity. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it happens. I cannot sit here and tell you that I am always happy, but I can tell you that I am much happier than I used to be. In my early 20s I realized that I was choosing to be unhappy due largely to external circumstances. I made the decision to strengthen my mind and choose happiness. It didn’t happen quickly, and it was difficult, it isn’t even finished, but progress is happening. If it can work for me, it can work for you. 

I will leave you a quote from the great Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu: “watch your thoughts they become words Watch your words they become actions Watch your actions they become habits Watch your habits they become character Watch your character it becomes your destiny.” Control your destiny, choose good thoughts. 






Thursday, April 8, 2021

Viktor Frankl and Man's Search for Meaning: In Honor of Yam Hashoah



 I feel ashamed for not knowing this earlier but today is Yam Hashoah, the day that the Israeli’s remember the memory of the 6 million Jewish people and the 5 million other victims (homosexuals, gypsies, the handicapped and more) who lost their lives during the holocaust. No detailed explanation is needed to recall the holocaust, nor will one be given. This was arguably the greatest atrocity ever committed in the history of humankind, and I truly hope that never again in our future do we ever even approximate the level of brutality and cruelty as we did during the holocaust. 

Coincidentally, I am currently reading Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl, a Jewish man from Vienna, was a neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the horrendous experience of the holocaust. Man’s Search for Meaning is his book wherein he recalls the horrors of camp life. More importantly perhaps, he applies a psychiatrists mind to the situation and discusses the mentality of the ordeal. He describes in great detail the physical and mental suffering, and how it broke so many, sadly causing many to lose their will to live. He also talks of triumph. How there were those who were able to fortify their minds in the face of suffering, and strengthen their resolve, willing themselves to endure and continue on. This post will discuss Frankl’s observations on how one can endure the worst forms of suffering imaginable. By looking at people like Dr. Frankl, who were able to endure such intense suffering, we can apply these lessons and learn how to fortify our own minds against any challenge life may throw our way, though I am both optimistic and hopeful that such an atrocity as the holocaust will never be seen, nor on such as grand a scale again. Before carrying on, I would like to add, that this in no way is meant to diminish or admonish those who succumbed in any way, shape, or form. What they faced was an unimaginable horror, and I praise the fortitude of those who survived not to say that they were better than those who didn’t, but only because the fact that anyone could endure at all is so incredibly remarkable. 

The first trait of those who were able to maintain their strength and will to live, according to Frankl, was their mental constitution. Physical suffering was the norm for everyone and age, constitution, athletic ability and more had little to nothing with who was able to survive. The perpetrators of the holocaust made physical suffering the norm, robbing their victims of their sense of personhood and physical security. Though they often tried, the one realm where the Nazis could not penetrate their victims was in their mind. Try as they might, those who could maintain their presence of mind could still cling to some sense of personhood and confidence. “Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” – Viktor Frankl. 

This was likely far more easily said than done, when one’s physical world was the concentration or death camps of the holocaust. How exactly would one make sense of all of this suffering. What reason was there for choosing a positive attitude when their was nothing but death, disease, and misery abound? According to Frankl, the best way to deal with the suffering was by recognizing that suffering is an inevitable aspect of life. That though this suffering was greater perhaps than any previously seen, it was an opportunity and a challenge to grow spiritually, getting in touch with his deepest self and bearing the suffering proudly as a burden. I find this impossible to even comprehend yet this is exactly what Frankl and many others did. To quote Frankl: “there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners…. When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.” 


There was nothing that the unfortunate prisoners of the concentration camps could do. Many of them endured for years on end, suffering immensely throughout. Such endless pain and fear would present an insurmountable challenge to anyone, and many sadly did succumb. Only those who were resilient in their mind and were able to embrace their suffering made it out, with the help of the blessing of luck in many cases. It recalls the quote of Marcus Aurelius, of whom Frankl was a great fan, saying: “You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this and you will find strength.” Nobody would choose to live through such a time, but sadly many did. Those who were able to embrace this ever so difficult lesson were stronger for it. 

There is one other theme that Frankl attributed as coming to the aid of those who ultimately survived. That is love. “The salvation of man is through love and in love,” writes Frankl. Frankl attributed much of his ability to endure to the loving thoughts and memories he carried of his beloved wife. Tragically, Frankl was unaware that his wife had lost her life not long, after their separation into separate, segregated camps. He would not find this out until after the end of the war and the liberation of his camp in 1945. Nevertheless, he said “Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying.” As Nietzsche said “he who has a why to live, can endure almost any how.” Frankl’s why was to carry on with the memory of his wife, Tilly Grosser, who’s love gave him the strength to carry on through the darkest tragedy in human history. 

The holocaust against the Jewish people and others perpetrated by the Nazis will go down as humanity’s darkest moment. Today is a day for remembrance of for those who lost their lives in that terrible instance of human hate, anger, and fear. We cannot allow bigotry, xenophobia, racism, and hate to continue to thrive in our midst lest we ever allow something that horrible to happen again. If there is any positive that can be taken from this it is from men and women like Viktor Frankl, whose experiences through this tragic time serve as a guidance to how we face our own suffering, though it will never approximate what was experienced by the Jews during the holocaust. Frankl’s example also reminds us to cherish our loved ones, whose presence in our lives give meaning and can act as a guiding light and uplifting thought through even the most terrible of times. 


I end with a Hebrew prayer for those who lost their lives

El Malei Rachamim (God full of compassion)

אלוהים מלא חמלה בגובה:

לששת מיליון האחים והאחיות שלנו

נרצחו בגלל שהם היו יהודים,

הענק מנוחה ברורה וודאית איתך

בגבהים הגבוהים של הקודש והטהור

שהבהירות שלהם מאירה כמו זוהר שמים.


מקור הרחמים:

לנצח לעטוף אותם בחיבוק כנפיך;

לאבטח את נשמתם בנצח.

אדונאי: הם שלך.

הם ינוחו בשלום.

אָמֵן.


Fully compassionate God on high:

To our six million brothers and sisters

murdered because they were Jews,

grant clear and certain rest with You

in the lofty heights of the sacred and pure

whose brightness shines like the very glow of heaven.

Source of mercy:

Forever enfold them in the embrace of Your wings;

secure their souls in eternity.

Adonai: they are Yours.

They will rest in peace.

Amen.