Often people say they are ‘spiritual.’ When they do, what thoughts spring to mind? Is this an expression of belief, of faith or something else? If a person is spiritual, does that mean they reject rationality? As an atheist it is easy for people to assume that I have no connection with the universe. Apart, that is, from trying to understand how it works on a scientific level. But spirituality doesn’t just belong to the religious. A feeling of connection with the universe and with nature isn’t reserved for only the faithful; only the true believers. In this post I explore from a non-theistic Stoic perspective what I believe being spiritual means.
I’m not sure that I like the term, spirituality. It’s loaded with religious overtones and connotations, when all it’s simply an adjective. As such we can apply it to Stoicism. Practising Stoicism requires the use of “spiritual exercises” to help with personal transformation. These emphasise that philosophy should be a way of life, of being and of living. Philosophy should not be an academic exercise. If we agree Stoicism is useful and the ideas it presents are worth using then we have to be able to explain and defend these. We shouldn’t just believe them to be true, without question. If they are not useful, or serve no purpose then we should consider why and then reject them. We have to investigate what works for us, and what doesn’t. If as a result of exploring stoicism we decide an approach is of value then we may want to use it. We should never feel forced to adopt it based on faith alone.
A good place to start is to use spiritual exercises. These are explored in the videos below and help to frame how to learn to live an examined life.
Reflect and Learn
They ask that we reflect and then apply lessons learnt not only daily but throughout our whole life. This perspective on a spiritual way of existence is more about personal improvement and growth. It’s not about the supernatural. This, for me, is the focus and essence of what Stoicism is about. The exercises demand we step back from our thoughts and how we are caring for ourselves and others. By having a dialogue with ourselves we form a strong relationship with who we are. We can then transcend what has past and what might be. We begin to focus on the present moment and the potential that inhabits each of us.
Making a connection
Spiritual is also a word used to encapsulate a person’s quest for their own particular place in life. People want to feel that they have a connection with the world and its inhabitants. There are ways to feel involved with the world that do not involve heavenly means. Stoics understood this and were proponents of cosmopolitanism. This is the ideology that all human beings belong to a single community, based on a shared morality.
Asked where he came from, he answered: ‘I am a citizen of the world (kosmopolitês).
The Stoics, who later took Diogenes’ idea and developed it into a full blown concept. This stressed that each human being:
dwells […] in two communities – the local community of our birth, and the community of human argument and aspiration. )
A common way to understand Stoic cosmopolitanism is through Hierocles‘ circle model of identity. This states that we should regard ourselves as concentric circles. The first circle around the self. The next is our immediate family, extended family, local group, citizens, countrymen, humanity. Within these circles human beings feel a sense of “affinity” or “endearment” towards others. The the Stoics termed this Oikeiôsis. The task of world citizens becomes then to:
draw the circles somehow towards the centre, making all human beings more like our fellow city dwellers, and so forth.
Seneca wrote that:
There are two communities – the one, which is great and truly common embracing gods and human beings, in which we look neither to this corner nor to that, but measure the boundaries of our state by the sun; the other, the one to which we have been assigned by the accident of our birth. (On Leisure 4.1)
Marcus Aurelius (d. 180 AD) stated that:
If intellect is common to us all, then so is the reason (logos) which makes us rational (logikoi) beings; and if that be so, then also common is the reason (logos) which prescribes what we should do or not do. If that be so, there is a common law also; if that be so, we are fellow citizens; and if that be so, the world is a kind of state. For in what other common political community can we claim that the whole human race participates? (Meditations 4.4)
While reaching out and being part of a wider community is critical, Stoic spiritual practices and exercises also include the contemplation of death. Something which I’ll consider below.
Death as freedom
For the majority of people their entire lives are about denying death. About avoiding their inevitable fate. After death your physical body decomposes back to its component elements. Your elements return back to nature ultimately becoming scattered across the universe. Once you accept this idea then death, in a way, becomes a form of freedom and liberation. To progress as a Stoic we must train ourselves to remove the fear of death. Epictetus suggested:
Why don’t you reflect, then, that for man the source of all evils, and of his meanness of spirit and cowardice, is not death itself, but rather the fear of death? It is to confront this that you must train yourself, and it is towards that end that all your reasoning, all your studies, and all your readings should be directed, and then you’ll recognize that it is in this way alone that human beings can attain freedom. (Discourses 3:26, 38-39)
In Letters, 26 Epicurus said:
Practice death in advance,’ or if it is easier to convey his meaning, something like this: ‘It is a great thing to learn how to die.
And from Seneca:
We must make ready for death before we make ready for life. Life is well enough furnished, but we are too greedy with regard to its furnishings; something always seems to us lacking, and will always seem lacking. To have lived long enough depends neither upon our years nor upon our days, but upon our minds. I have lived, my dear friend Lucilius, long enough. I have had my fill; I await death.
In On the Tranquillity of the Mind, Seneca points out that:
- excessive dwelling on death may even hasten death,
- if you fear your own death will not do anything worthy of life, and
- if you learn to be unafraid of death then you have unlearned how to be a slave.
By acknowledging that at some point your time will be up then this helps you to decide how to live. To live life as you want, not as others want you to. Perhaps spirituality then is more about spending your life embracing challenges and difficulties? Contrast this with time spent praying for supernatural intervention? Use the freedom and small amount of time you have to live your own way, a way that cannot be denied to you. You have a choice and what you decide to do should be yours and yours alone.
Choice and a feeling of control
With choice comes a realisation that you have little or no control over events. In other words, spirituality acknowledges that the universe is random and infinitely variable. This uncertainty permeates our lives and spirituality means not futilely trying to change this. Despite the fact it’s impossible we can’t help ourselves. Change is a constant and of course, the feeling of powerlessness is uncomfortable. Embedded deep in our subconscious mind is an evolutionary trait that forces us to try to predict what will happen. We hope that people (including ourselves) and things are consistent and unchanging. But it’s better to embrace this change and uncertainty as part of the fabric of the universe. Don’t try to struggle against this as it’s a frustrating battle that you’ll never, ever win.
After all we have just borrowed life and when we die we give it back to the Universe.
In this post I’ve tried to describe a stoic perspective on how non-theistic spirituality is not a contradiction in terms. By using Stoic spiritual exercises you can move beyond a reductionist view that our experience is only physical. I’ve tried to explain that having a connection with the world and its inhabitants is important. This along with facing up to your inevitable fate rather than promoting fear, actually generates freedom and acceptance.
All this needs constant practice. Practice that helps us to not repeatedly dwell on past choices, but instead find some joy in what we’ve done. And also to shift focus to the present moment, to what we’re doing now and realise that we have little control over what’s to come. By embracing reality, letting go of things we can’t affect we can, over time, learn to become satisfied with our choices. And in turn become satisfied with our lives.
How do you approach spirituality? Please leave a comment below.
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